Life Is An Apology

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I received a letter from a high school friend of mine the other day. It was in response to one I’d recently sent myself, an apology actually. See, it’d happened that I’d been going through an old email account, reading various correspondences with an objective mix of amusement and interest. And I stumbled upon one that rather made my stomach turn.

The two of us had a dispute, evidently. There’s no greater testimony to the maturity of the matter than the fact that we’d attempted to resolve it with internet usernames like “gr8futballplyr11” as our carrier pigeons. What’s worse was the fact- and please excuse my French in playing judge and jury for a moment- that I had been somewhat of an ass.

But as I scrolled through pages of what could easily have been the sadistic musings of a Nicholas Spark character, I had to admit that I had no memory of the altercation. If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have told you that my greatest flaws as an adolescent would have been an awkward, diminished confidence that any male with braces, pimples and a breaking voice is bound to acquire. I evolved, of course. Necessity demanded that I learn to chat, joke, flirt and interact in a variety of fashions. For the alternative was exile to the land of lonely lunches where the only possibility for a prom date was our elderly librarian, Miss Potts (lovely lady, really, but I had no aspirations).

But I want to believe that I’d survived among the fittest because of Dickensian protagonism. Not because I took out others at the knees.

So, ten years later, I wrote an apology.

In October of 1820, the men from the whaling ship Essex stopped on Charles Island, an eastern outlier of the Galapagos. They gathered fresh water, unloaded waste, and stockpiled provisions, mostly in the form of the giant tortoises for which the island was known.

As they were preparing to depart for the vast whaling grounds of the western Pacific, a certain Englishman named Thomas Chappel decided to prank his shipmates. It was early morning. And they were out searching the undergrowth for a final tortoise when Chappel (described in the diary of a fellow sailor as “fond of fun at whatever cost”) lit a small fire in the underbrush. It was the height of dry season, and the fire quickly spread out of control. Eventually it covered most of the tiny island. And, though none of his fellow sailors were harmed in the fire, it decimated the ecosystem, killing thousands of lizards, birds and, tortoises. The damage was permanent; Charles was the first of the Galapagos tortoise species to go extinct.

Which makes this one of those historical anecdotes that prompt English folks today to mutter: “Why couldn’t the bastard’ve been Scottish?”

Sometimes I think my life is littered with Charles Islands. Perhaps this is why we’re told: “don’t look back.” For if we do, we are apt to see are smoldering land masts amidst our ocean of existence.

I don’t mean to say that I’m an awful person, or ever was. On the whole, I believe I am a generally amicable chap. But it’s startling to realize what you’re capable of. Humility beckons us to recall that many Nazi executioners were recruited from the ordinary, working-class of society: salesman, business owners, waiters and at least one pharmacist.

Thus, I am often shocked by the telling of my own history. “Life is not our life,” Julian Barnes wrote, “It is merely the story we have told about our life. To others. And to ourselves.”

So life- lived truly– ought to be an apology: for what else can we really say? The sins of childhood are enough to buoy a lifetime of blubbering confession. I recall Flannery O’Connor’s teaching that anyone who survived childhood had plenty about which to write. It makes sense. I mean Jesus wasn’t that old when he was crucified. Limitless as it may be, God’s grace still incarnated human capacities.

And O’Connor, being a good Catholic, believed in the sacrament of ordinary.

Which means I’m never really far from grace. I’ve lit fires I cannot put out. But perhaps there are rain clouds where smoke should be. Perhaps the cross really does transcend everything. And perhaps the wood is strong and it’s nails firm enough to hold the weight of Christ as perpetrator and victim.

That’s the only hope we’ve got.

My friend wrote back and was charitable, or at least trying to be. They said could hardly recall the incident themselves. And they hoped I was well.

So, I guess, that’s that.

Except I wish the bastard had been Scottish.

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Forgiving God, Forgiving Me

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The sophomore poetry notebook was a thing of legend in my high school. It required that students collect and analyze a plethora of works from various different traditions. I’d I entirely forgotten about the affair. Until I found my notebook a couple weeks ago.

In addition to studying canonical works, we were also required to write several pieces of poetry ourselves. Dear God, was that a painful read. I can’t remember writing most of mine, but they all must have been crafted sometime in the twilight of hormonal despair, perhaps after my parents had grounded me or unjustly revoked driving privileges (damn mailbox was too close to the road anyway). Turning the page from Frost to a sheet of my pimpled angst was like being taking a bite of sensuous cheesecake right before being jolted with a cattle prod.

Thus, and understandably, I went to tear out the pages with the mind to burn them. But then I paused and reconsidered. I think I understood, somewhat at least, how a parent might enshrine childhood photos of their kid looking- by all standards- ridiculous.

“Mom, not the fat, pre-braces picture. Really?”

“Oh, but don’t you look so cute?”

The act of begetting- it seems- is coupled with forgiveness for pudgy doofuscity.

Andrew Elphinstone was an obscure individual, even for a theologian. He was born Armistice Day of 1918 into the margins of royalty. He was educated in theology at New College, Oxford and ordained to serve as a curate. He wrote one book, which went through one printing after he died relatively young of from an ailing heart condition. I found a copy of his work in my school’s library. It’s not been checked out in several years.

Said Elphinstone: “Perhaps God stands…not only as the bestower of forgiveness, but as the Father who even stoops to invite the forgiveness he cannot deserve in order to make it one degree easier for man to be drawn into (his) love.”

I’ve been doing a lot of running lately. Luther once remarked that baptism was the drowning of the old self during which one quickly discovers that the bastard can swim. In my case, the bastard is a dual athlete. Which is to say that when I’m out running, as of late, I feel as though I’m trying to outrun my demons. That sounds (overly) dramatic. But sometimes I feel as though I spend all day in the libraries of my mind, and by the end the stacks of comprehension are closing in on me. And so I run. Which is nice, because I enjoy it. But I do wish my brain wasn’t claustrophobic.

Because when I look at my notebook – at the scraps of near unintelligible chicken scratch that I once submitted as ‘poetry’- I see nothing wonderful. I see angst, and self-righteousness; emotionally vague terms bathed in gruesome attempts at iambic pentameter.

And yet, I can’t throw it away.

I want to say the world is beautiful and I want to say that all poetry- even my own- is good. But sometimes I wonder if the world is the demon God is attempting to outrun, and the race leads to the cross. Elphinstone’s words haunt me, almost as much as my crappy poetry.

But maybe God is in the poetry, together gasping for breath over the miles of good earth we run to escape the bad demons we cannot leave behind. Maybe God is not the author of injustice, as we’ve struggled to presume, but is in fact the perpetrator. In every discrepancy He is the judge and the judged. And the demons I’m trying to outrun are God himself in my heart, begging me forgiveness so that he might then save me. It’s startlingly humble of him; a paradoxical of humility only God could attain. Such lunacy might even be called ‘grace.’

And even still I struggle to believe it.

I want to say that the world is beautiful. But sometimes all that can escape my lips is “I forgive you.” I forgive with the fear that I will also be struck down, for I know I am asking first to be forgiven. But the love that brings me in is the love that allows me to be judge, allows me to be angry, allows me to run and yell and scream and write poetry that makes Billie Joe Armstrong sound like goddamned Shakespeare.

If I can forgive myself for such poetry, if I can withhold my hand from its destruction, then maybe, just maybe, I might also forgive God for forgiving me. Forgiveness is eternity dripping from mortal lips; just come down from the cross- you’ve made your point! I want to believe it’s possible. I hope it’s possible.

But if not, then I’ll burn the damn thing. Trust me, its good riddance anyway.

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Teresa and the Loo

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Teresa of Avila once had the devil appear to her while she was sitting on the loo. Her pants were around her ankles, her face a mixture of piety and carnal instinct. For at that particular moment Teresa happened to have a prayer book in one hand and a cinnamon roll in the other. The devil- as Eugene Peterson tells the story -began berating her sanctimoniously. To which Teresa responded: “The sweet roll is for me, the prayers are for God, and the rest is for you.”

I’m in the process of teaching my little sister to drive. She is apt and appropriately confident. She grips the wheel with both hands while I sit on mine and give pointers (“turn signal, please”; “you can go a little faster”; “No, not right ‘right’- ‘right’ as in go left!”; “dear heavens!”; “well it’s a good thing poor Mr. McGregor is still spry on his toes, now isn’t it?” ). My backseat input is always the kind a student tolerates but a wife- I learned recently- doesn’t exactly appreciate.

On these drives, I have to look twice at my sister to remind myself that the child I knew is now a young, beautifully capable woman. She’s nearing the point of taking the wheel in a new car, stealing a forlorn glance at that faithful clunker called “childhood” which we all trade in, then leave behind.

Mine was a youth of sunsets and tree forts; a stuffed whale named Humphrey, backyard hamster graves, worn paperbacks, a Jeep with it’s windows down, that awkward first kiss, precociously highlighted Bibles, a thrice broken heart and the ominous feeling associated with too much cheap vodka. It easy- tempting even- to divide my memories into the “goods” and “bads.” The latter category is blessedly sparse (though that may account for my shortcomings as a writer). But there’s something inevitable about the transition from ‘child’ to ‘grown-up,’ something that’s burdened with more nostalgia than having to now clean up your own mess. It’s a bit like I’m driving for the first time; but the devil is in the passenger seat berating me because I don’t have both hands on the wheel. And I haven’t a clue where I’m going.

Annie Dillard once shared a story from heaven’s throne. It was a day of great rejoicing. For God had just parted the Red Sea then closed it on the Egyptian army; Israel was free and the angels celebrated. They danced, they sang, they praised the Lord for his victory. But God was nowhere to be found. Eventually they asked the archangel where he’d gone.

He’s off crying, Michael replied.

Why?

Because hundreds of his children just drowned in the Red Sea.

Life is an awful lot like St. Teresa and the loo. It’s a prayer book and a donut, which both feel like indigestion. We want to draw lines down the middle, to separate the taboo from the glorious, lost from the found. But every ant that drowns is a thorn in the crown. And- try though we may- it’s not possible to separate the good memories from the bad. Because they intersect at the meeting of heaven and earth where they together form a cross; you can’t have one without the other. And if the cross was anything, it was Jesus showing us how to take our hands off the wheel and give Satan the finger before driving off a cliff. I don’t mean to be crass. But the pursuit of sainthood can be poignantly reckless.

Driving lessons have become a way- for me- of telling the devil to take all my memories and then watch as he refuses. It’s a way for standing up in the loo, wiping my butt and leaving with my love for God in one hand and love for all things good in the other. Watching my baby sister drive has become a way, not of reckoning with the past, but indulging in it. Realizing that ours is a God who turns shit into daisies. And it’s so fun to see the devil perturbed.

You look like a fool, he tells me.

Indeed I must and perhaps I do. But grace is a fool’s game; even Paul said so.

And so is childhood, so is driving, so are so many things. But it’s a game I’m willing to play and a road I’m willing to drive, sitting on my hands, watching another’s childhood begin fading in the mirror. For God said it was good, and it is good, and it will be good. We can take our hands off the wheel. And, sitting upon the loo, we’ll watch the devil lose his own game.

Nonetheless, all things considered, it is a good thing that Mr. McGregor is so spry.