A Mild Revolution

There’s a small bird that’s taken up residence beneath our apartment’s open window. I became aware of its existence slowly, the way one becomes aware of the sun setting. I was sitting at my desk and heard it chirping, not even a few feet away from me. The sound didn’t register at first though. But then something like annoyance started to creep into my head, as the noise distracted me from my thoughts. I finally looked up and went to close the window, almost angrily. But then I saw it’s tiny body, a red head flowing into brown wings. It looked back for a moment, but then turned and with a chirp was gone. So I kept the window open, waiting to hear it again.

I had been thinking about death, a random and grotesque admission but I’d cooked dinner that night so it warranted contemplation. Of all the worlds’ wonders, Annie Dillard writes, quoting the Mahabharata, the most wonderful is how no mane believes that he himself will die. But I try to believe it, to embrace the wonder of my own mortality. But then I am angry to be distracted by life, even as it greets me with cheer.

Sometimes it is hard for me, as I imagine it is with most people, to feel like anything more than a traveler in this world, a lone figure with a briefcase waiting for a train to arrive and carry me to the next life. Others will come and stand by me for periods of time, my friends, family, and wife. But one by one, at separate moments, they too will depart. And if the scene flashes forward 30, 40 maybe even 70 years it will show me, standing alone, patiently awaiting my departure. And that is when I ask myself: What do I now bring? What do I have to show for my efforts?

For some time in my youth, I wanted to be a soldier. I read of wars afar, tales of heroes conquering villains and believed that the pull of a trigger would bring finality to some sort of accomplishment I might call my own. Today I sit down by my window and I put my fingers to another task of self-deception; I will never change anything. Not, at least, anything that wouldn’t have been changed without me.

An artist steps back from his painting and declares, “I have created something beautiful.” But a tree was destroyed to make his canvas, and in the springtime the forest is denied the beauty of its blossoms.

Unless the Lord builds the house, the Jewish poet stated, the builders build in vain. My finger strikes the key and I cannot listen above the clicking of my own efforts.

The highlight of my recent days has been in the early hours. I awaken before my wife and go sit on the couch in our family room, the overstuffed one we found cheap online. I posture myself against the armrest, in a position of just enough discomfort so as not to fall back asleep. Then I read my Bible for a little while but mostly I just sit. I don’t even pray. I just sit.

This is the most productive part of my day, when I rest in the presence of eternal beauty.

“I want a revolution now,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal. Then she qualified: “a mild revolution.”

I want a revolution, too, sincerely and desperately with every ounce of my being. I want something for my briefcase as I pace about the train station, something beyond a pass to the next stop. I want to hear the simplicity of a bird chirping on my windowsill and know that this too shall pass into something marvelous something worthy of seeing. I want to know that wonder.

“Wherever you turn your eyes,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “the world can shine like transfiguration.”

And so I try, I turn my head from the task at hand and I announce it to the world: can you not see that I’m trying? But the answer comes in the stillness of an early morning that the revolution has happened; it took place while I was asleep. It is finished. I need not try but accept; accept the wonder with stillness and a grateful heart.

For only when wonder has worked its way on the human heart is it capable of surviving the diseases of apathy and narcissism to which it is prone.

To good news, of course, is that the train is running on schedule. And when it arrives, at just the right time, I will pick up my briefcase and board. Once there I will sit with my briefcase on my lap quietly; I hope to find a window.

For then, of all times, I am certain: there will be much to see.



Migraines & Obscure Shades of Magenta

I was in bed trying to sleep off a migraine the other day. My eyes were closed and the room was silent. But I couldn’t sleep because of a steady clicking noise coming from somewhere in the building. Click, click, click, it went like the sound of someone softly tapping a screwdriver against a metal pipe. Click, click, click. It continued.

I wondered if it might be the wind pushing against a tree branch, causing it to tap against a window, somewhere, maybe in another room. Perhaps it was someone like me, typing away at their computer, and the echo of the fingers on the keys was rippling through the air vents. I would never have noticed it normally, this world around me. This world that was click, click, click-ing away and, likely-I would venture to say, has been for most of my existence.

I closed my eyes and let my forehead throb, moving outside myself to the click, click, click-ing of everything I am not.

As I type this, I’m sitting by a window looking out towards a tree that is fading from sight with the oncoming dusk. Earlier, while nursing the same headache, I found myself incapable of focusing on reading and instead watched as two woodpeckers danced up and down bare trunk of an ancient tree. They chased each other back and forth across its bark, prancing about the tree like lovers bickering on a dance floor.

Was it possible that I was witnessing the opening scene of a new world? I can’t be sure. But what’s entirely possible is that everything taking place out there is just as important as the world at my fingertips.

But who could take the time to consider it? I know I wouldn’t, if not for these damn migraines.

The writer’s role, as with all artists, is to be a migraine in the mind of culture. It may be painful, it must be painful, but with the pain comes the gift of awareness. Awareness to words, meanings, thoughts, the click click click– ing of heartbeats all around us that would otherwise be lost to in the conundrum of our own personal normalities.

I cannot say I live up to this role, just like I cannot say I am thankful for the pain behind my own skull. But as the ache rises up, pounding in it’s fluctuations of insistence, so I also understand the compulsion to take up the pen, so to speak.

Of course, this is just my way of rubbing the pain from my own head. I am often overcome with apathy on the part of writing. At the same time, self-aggrandizing is a persistent temptation. I try to rest under no delusions about the importance of my words. But I cannot stop the aching.

For it takes many colors to paint the picture of culture and I am but one of them, an obscure shade of magenta perhaps- lurking among shadows of someone else’s primary color in a scene from the sunset of time.

And it is necessary to understand my role as such, both as a writer but more importantly as a human being. I am not a primary color; the world would just as soon be fine without me. And I welcome the day when migraines no longer invade my schedule. But I am still a color. To deny this would be to deny the aching behind my eyes. And I simply cannot do this. If you’ve ever had one, you must know.

Still, when it comes down to it, what could I accomplish from behind a desk? Likewise, there is not much to be said for the migraine behind my skull. Not much, save for the fact that it prompts me to ask “why?”

Why the clicking?

Why the birds?

Why the pain, the numbing, aching, thrashing pain?

And this is a question laced with dangerous beauty. For within its syllables rest the power to drive a human from the household of their own experience into the journey of desire. It rescues us from the shelter of our subjective solitude, the defenses we build then paint with our own color. This glorious recues comes at the hand of words, stories, and pictures prompted by the migraines of our culture.

For how could you not feel the pain without asking the question yourself?

And so, for now, I live with the migraines. And I type away, my own click, click, click-ing in a world of many colors. I type away and sleep off the migraine when I can. When I can’t, I try to be thankful. Thankful for the oh-so-many colors surrounding me and the place I find among them. It may be within a shadow, but with this I am content.

Because, truly, I have no other choice. And, besides, it helps with the migraine.







A Thousand Objections, A Thousand Brilliant Heartbeats

When my wife and I moved to a new apartment on our school’s campus, we found ourselves about a half-mile down a large hill from where we both work and attend classes. From the get-go, we made a point of refusing to drive our car but instead walking to and from class. Because we’re on different schedules this means that most mornings I find myself walking up the hill alone.

The Tuka Dika Native American tribe of Northern Idaho had no word in their language for “wilderness”. For them there was no outside and inside; the world was all connected. It was only when “sophistication” arrived on the scene that lines were drawn between the two spheres. Because everyone knows Eden was climate controlled and the Sermon on the Mount was delivered in a covered arena.

Not long afterwards my parents were forced to walk to school, uphill both ways and through the snow. Thankfully humankind has progressed since then, now we drive. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we as a race will ever walk uphill again. We’ve reached the mountaintop of progress and the sun is setting. We’re not breathing hard because we didn’t exert any effort to get here; we drove the family minivan. We’re not feeling the weight of another day bearing down and settling into rest because we’ve injected five cups of coffee into our system. And we’re not looking at the sunset. We’re on our phone telling someone else somewhere else about the beautiful view, right there from atop the mountain. And it’s all downhill from here. We’ve doomed ourselves to convenience, separation.

I never used to wear gloves for my morning commute. Because even when temperatures were well below zero they weren’t necessary for the short trip form my apartment to my car where the heat would be cranking at full steam. But on my first morning strolling to class without them I noticed that exposed skin can become something of a painful experience. A ridiculously common-sensical thing to notice, but before there’d been no need.

There are some who believe the world is doomed for destruction, that in the end of all things God will purge the entire globe, throw it away like a used Kleenex. The chosen are redeemed, what further purpose could it serve?

But when I walk to class and consider this prospect I look around me at a thousand objections. The snowflakes rest peacefully on the dormant ground below them, a breeze pushes itself through the branches, tickling the dry winter air. Frost bites the tips of the pine tree above my head and beckons it to sleep, wait. He will come like a thief in the nighttime of spring and the new earth descending out of the clouds will sound the trumpet of renewal, transformation and redemption. I look around me and I see desperation joining hope floating as unsaid prayers like my breath in the crisp morning. I look around me and I see, as C.S. Lewis so memorably and famously penned, shadows of the magnificence to come.

But God, how can you begin the task of taking our pollution, our nuclear fallouts, our dumps, our hate, our prejudice, our pain… how can you even begin to contemplate taking all that and transforming all of it into the purity and peace of a single snowflake drifting to rest in front of my eyes? Why not just draw a line between the holy unreachable and the world. Why not throw it away when you’re done here? You can sew up the temple curtain; I’m sure it’s not too late. There are needles of divine convenience I’m sure you could use.

Sometimes I can’t help but look around me and think about what a beautiful, screwed up world we live in. It’s the complication that makes me believe it to be ordained by an Intricate and Loving Deity.

And I want to feel it. I want to feel the pulse of the seasons, like a thousand brilliant heartbeats dancing to the tune of a homesick romance all around me. Like an actor after preparing for his show, I live on a stage. The stage is my home and home is a complicated thing. It’s not perfect; the director isn’t done. But it’s so much more than the stage for my redemption. The story is much more complicated, constant. It’s unlike any I’ve ever heard. There’s too much beauty and truth around me to disregard that fact.

And so that’s why, lately, I’ve taken to walking to class. I wear gloves and a coat and most often a hat because the world is telling me to bundle up. It’s cold outside. It’s cruel, brilliant and cold. And I see it every day as I walk to class. Uphill, both ways.