Lights On Your Napkin


Here’s the thing: I don’t get poetry. There’s stacks of The New Yorker sitting next to me- all dog-eared on pages with shaped columns of words. I quote T.S. Eliot almost as much as the Bible. I even write poetry, the kind I wish to be published in one of those crummy literary magazines which- at best- makes for suitable toilet paper. Despite all this, I just don’t get it.

Even as I type this, I watch my fingers with some sort of wonder, like an infant who just discovered her toes. I believe this is because poetry- good poetry- is something transcendent. It touches a part of us that we, otherwise, might not know exists.

I went for a walk tonight. It’s cold and everything is covered in crisp, sharp darkness. But from where I stand my eyes follow the road as it clings to a hillside, pulling itself to the top, like seals onto land. And the road is lined with street lights. And the night is so dark but the lights so bright that I see them as floating, floating in the void.

As he was walking among the crowds, one voice rose above the others and captured Jesus’ attention. My son, the man said. Please, my son!

And Jesus told him that anything is possible for those who believe.

And in response, the father said five words:

I believe. Help my unbelief.

There’s a slope in the foothills of Indiana where I learned to ski. To those in the area it was a ski resort. But anyone who lived in a locale where you can’t get a view by standing atop the recycling bin would regard it as an oversized mogul. That said, it was steep enough to allow me the opportunity cut some turns before flying due south with all the eloquence of a bowling ball down stadium steps. It was one of the highlights of my childhood, really.

We used to ski a few days each year- my family that is. And at day’s end we’d leave just as the sun had finished setting. By then the lights would be turned on; night skiing began. And as the hill receded in the rearview mirror, the car was warm, my legs were tired, and I could see the lights floating like globes above the trees. If I looked close enough, I could see the chairlifts themselves inching up the slope, pulling souls heavenward.

Ernest Hemingway, while eating at a hotel in Manhattan, wagered his companions ten dollars apiece that he could write a novel in just six words. They agreed. So he took the napkin from his lap scrawled:

For Sale: baby shoes, never worn

Then he collected his money. It’s impressive, really. But I prefer the one with five.

Then there’s Marcus Meibomius. He was a Hebrew scholar in the seventeenth century. At the height of his career he boasted that his efforts had uncovered the true science of Hebrew meter, all the secrets and wonders to unlocking the Psalms. Meibomius promised to release his secret as soon as 60,000 subscribers promised him five pounds of sterling a piece for a copy of his work. 

Thus, he carried his secret to the grave.

Five pounds of sterling, it might as well be thirty silver coins.

I may not understand words- really, who can? But I can see them everywhere, floating above my life as lights on a hill. And their beauty lifts me like skiers onto the lift. From up here I hear the cry of a father, begging to be carried up the hill, towards the floating globes. And I hear a mother, weeping at the bottom, hands clenched around a clean pair of child’s shoes. And the lights. What a terrible, beautiful thing they are, bearing us up in the darkness.

It’s like a dream, this life is. Like distant memories of cold and darkness and aching knees, stupid bets, heaving sobs-Dear God, those shoes- and lights pulling, pulling us upward, forward, onward.

And I want to speak of something wonderful. Can I try? It’s a poem and a novel; Hemingway- the buffoon- drew me into his game. He challenged me to gamble around the dinner table of my heart, to wage against the dark voices of apathy and indifference.

For I can tell you of a hill, a boy, tired eyes, a warm car, dark void and lights. I can tell you of beauty that was not sold, of words that became flesh, and light that dwelt among us. It lifts us and carries us-sometimes without us even knowing- out of the depths of despair, ignorance, and indifference. I can tell you of it all. With just five words. They’re not mine, mind you. But they’re good.

Here, give me your napkin.

Why I Can’t Shut Up

According to Gyle Brandreth’s The Joy of Lex, by the time of their death the average American will have uttered around 860,341,500 words. As of 2011, Twitter reported that its users were posting 200 million tweets every single day. The year previously, 750,000 new music albums were released in the US alone. reports that it’s site hosts an average of 41.7 million new blog posts each month.

No matter what our vocation, all humans are in the business of talking; we’re all dots somewhere along the pendulum of self-expression. Although this may not always be articulated by literal verbal expression, vibrating vocal chords and a moving tongue, the world of homo sapiens is not a silent one; it never has been. For whether it is through stirring speeches, transcendent poetry, athletic feats or sexual acts, our existence is consumed with the compulsion to express ourselves.

And I’m no different.

I step out my door and plug in my headphones. I take out my phone to send a text , post a photo, update my status. I hit a few ‘like’ buttons. I comment on a post about abortion, an athlete who was traded to another team, a celebrity suicide. I answer a call from my wife. I reply to her question, recall a minuet detail I’d forgotten to mention before leaving the house, say: “I love you” and hang up. I jot a quick note in my calendar to pick up some salad and milk on the way home. All this happens while I am waiting for the bus.

The act of expressing oneself, in whatever form that may be, is a compulsion to break forth into the silence that surrounds us. Otherwise the silence overwhelms us. And anyone who has ever been alone for long periods of time against his or her will can tell you: silence is terrifying.

Stormy Weather- painting by Arena Shawn
Stormy Weather by Arena Shawn

The compulsion to speak, to create, to express, to write, to sing, to dance, to jump, to dive, to make love, to paint and rap, the compulsion to launch words into the heavy surrounding silence us is a compulsion to hold our lights out into the void that would otherwise engulf us. We are terrified of that void, we cannot contain it. It creeps in on us the moment we close our mouths, the moment we turn off our TVs, unplug the phones and turn down our speakers.

It’s there.

Always there.


And the terrifying reality is that the void is not just there, it is within us as well. And the void is something so terrifying, so remarkable, so unknown, so beautiful, that we must speak, we must express ourselves, to keep it at bay. We must plug in our phones, scream our lungs out, play the guitar, paint the sunset, absorb a whole season of ‘Friends’ while texting our own friends. To be silent would be to entertain the void, to stop talking would be to let it overcome us and work it’s way in us, through us and over us. And that could be wonderful. But it would be also be terrifying. More terrifying than we can imagine.

And so I cannot keep quiet.

I cannot shut up.

Job Answers God by William Blake
Job Answers God by William Blake

For in the beginning was:








But was-ness nonetheless.

was-ness amidst the silence

something unnamable

something we cannot label

something we cannot articulate, or describe


It was. He was. A Word was.

A single Word amidst the Silence.

With God. Was God. Logos. The wind, spirit, moving over the water. Hovering.

  1. Single. Word.

A Single Word with the Silence.

And then God spoke and it happened. He spoke, it happened. He spoke, it happened. Six times. God rested; it remained. He did not speak.


Job implored God and yet, for thirty-four chapters, no answer is recorded.


God revealed himself to Elijah in a gentle whisper following quake and fire.


“What is truth?” Pilate asked.


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His Son cried out.


The Scriptures are not silent on the topic of silence. The absence of speech haunts the pages and seep between the lines we read. Jesus is silent on numerous crucial topics. For every example in the Bible of someone crying out to God and actually receiving a reply, there exists more pertinent example of a silence in response.

“…lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction,” the prophet Malachi pens in the closing words of his book. And for 400 years God struck the land with a decree of silence.

The Ebola virus threatens to decimate populations.

God, where are you? 

An uncle rapes his 5 year-old-niece over and over again, threatening her into secrecy and shame. She cries out to the God of felt boards and Sunday school volunteers.

Why? Are you there? Is anyone?

A twenty-year-old soldier holds the muzzle of his rifle to the head of prisoner, a terrorist. No one is looking and three days ago he had to drag half of his friend from a burning Humvee because of these bastards.

God, only you can judge me.

And yet.


Is it just a void?

Or does the answer come in a couple making love on their honeymoon, a Twitter feed gone viral, a six-year-old dancing before her proud parents, the winning touchdown at a football game?

Does the answer come in my inability to shut up?

Elijah in the Wilderness by Frederic Leighton
Elijah in the Wilderness by Frederic Leighton

Is God silent or is He speaking? Is the Word that spoke still speaking through the Creation it spoke into being, the creature it made in it’s own image? Is the Silence the surrounds it the God that holds it all together?

For if silence speaks to the non-existence of God then there is no justification for our fear of silence, and no proper understanding for our compulsion towards self-expression. Pragmatic evolution cannot explain the compulsion of humanity to produce billions of megapixels of information every second, to make love and call it ‘love’, to write novels and plays and symphonies and ballads, for the same desperate mind to pen a comedy, a tragedy and, finally, a suicide note.

If the Silence is nothing beyond a void, then there should be no reason why I can just shut up.

But if Silence is something more than a void, then expression, human expression, is the fulfillment of Silence working itself out, in and through the instruments of it’s being. This simple truth finds it’s home in lighters held high during a summer concert, tears at the end of a moving film, an orgasm coupled with a whisper of “je t’aime” and the feeling of treasured novel gripped in one’s hands. We are compelled by the power of words, moved by the ability to express ourselves, but when words fail us we yield to Silence.  And the Silence terrifies but also captivates us.  Because Silence is something more, something overpowering, something mysterious, something terrible, wonderful, fearful and unknown. Something we cannot contain, something to be worshipped.

Our words are not a shout into the void but a shout into the Silence that was, the Silence that is, the Silence that permeates the everything we are, were and always will be. The Silence which created us, created everything and, in the end, will renew everything. Our words do not drift endlessly but are absorbed by the Silence.

For if not into the arms of Silence, then where do our words go? A mere void cannot contain them; they have too much weight.

All words are prayers, the question is whether or not we know if we are making them. God’s spam box is never full.

Which is why an encounter with this Silence is terrifying. Because in the Silence we are suddenly aware of the violence, the might, the power, the eternality, the was, the is, the am, the great, the humble, the desolate, the horrific, the loving, the simple, the complex. In the Silence we encounter the Everything, the Final Word To End All Words. And we are not ready.

In the silence, I can shut up.

But we are not ready for the final word, the end for the necessity of expression, for venturing into the void. There is an alpha and there is an omega. The Christian creation narrative insists on a Final Word being spoken and the ability to embrace the Silence flows from the power of that word. After God spoke the word, he rested. All was well. With a word on the cross, Christ proclaimed: “it is finished”. And he breathed his last. The final word to end all words. All will be well again.

The final word to points to the silence for which we all long, the silence of all of our Twitter feeds, political commentaries, eviction notices, parodies, aching hearts and flowing tears. In that day there will be no need for these, expression will be a moot point because we see the silence as we see the sun, as though we’re seeing our words, our paintings, our blogs, our dances and our lovers for the first time. The final word will have been spoken, and the first word begun.

But until that day, we talk. We tweet, we blog, we preach, we cheer, we laugh, run we cry, we fight, we punch, we dance, we hobble, we write, we try.

And I am no different.

Because for now, I can’t shut up.