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Monday, September 30, 2013

'...for the world is filled with wonders.'

I often wonder why so much of children's literature contains messages encouraging the reader to maintain faith in the impossible. I'm thinking of Alice in Wonderland (believing in five impossible things before breakfast), The Chronicles of Narnia (believing in the magic from before the dawn of time), Peter Pan (believing in fairies), just to name a few. Perhaps the adults that write these books are trying to remind adults of the things they used to believe in, and how easy it used to be, before the veil the separates the child in all of us from our adult selves came down.

In L. Frank Baum's Rinkitink in Oz there is a wonderful exchange between King Kitticut, the ruler of the Island of Pingaree, and his son Prince Inga. King Kitticut has decided to confide in his son and reveal to his heir the great secret of his rule:
THIS BAG HE proceeded to open, showing Inga that it contained three great pearls, each one as big around as a marble. One had a blue tint and one was of a delicate rose color, but the third was pure white. 
"These three pearls," said the King, speaking in a solemn, impressive voice, "are the most wonderful the world has ever known. They were gifts to one of my ancestors from the Mermaid Queen, a powerful fairy whom he once had the good fortune to rescue from her enemies. In gratitude for this favor she presented him with these pearls. Each of the three possesses an astonishing power, and whoever is their owner may count himself a fortunate man. This one having the blue tint will give to the person who carries it a strength so great that no power can resist him. The one with the pink glow will protect its owner from all dangers that may threaten him, no matter from what source they may come. The third pearl -- this one of pure white -- can speak, and its words are always wise and helpful." 
"What is this, my father!" exclaimed the Prince, amazed; "do you tell me that a pearl can speak? It sounds impossible." 
"Your doubt is due to your ignorance of fairy powers," returned the King, gravely. "Listen, my son, and you will know that I speak the truth." 
He held the white pearl to Inga's ear and the Prince heard a small voice say distinctly: 
"Your father is right. Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders."
It is good wisdom. 

I recently watched the below sermon by Frederick Buechner, delivered some thirteen years ago now, when Buechner was 74. I encourage you to take twenty minutes out of your lives to watch it. And if you do decide to watch it, maybe you could write down your reflections on it. 

I’ve included some of mine below. I am loathe to pigeon hole them as ‘Christian reflections’ because I feel like what Buechner says in this video is so much bigger than just the Christian story. It’s so much more universal than that. It's as if to speak of it through a Christian lens is to marginalise the message somehow, to make it too easy to shoot down. And for that reason, I wish I could take Jesus out of the book, so to speak. To free the story from the connotations of religion so that it can rightly be what it is, a story about us, rather than 'the story' out of 'The Bible’.  But I also understand that to the objective observer, these thoughts below must seem very biblical. 

So how do I separate them from the heaviness of the church?  Or from the heaviness of religion? Not mention them at all here or anywhere?  Trust me, I've thought about doing that. But then I thought, this blog is meant to be about sharing in a fragile hope of connection - that the same bird might echo through both of us. And then I thought, maybe I don't need to understand why I'm writing this here for now. Maybe I should simply accept the wisdom of King Kitticut's pure white pearl. 'Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders.' And maybe understanding that is enough for now. 

So here is what I thought about after watching Buechner's sermon. 

'Truth as seen by the heart' 

That is the phrase that has stuck with me. It seems to me the very centre of faith.  The faith I have (maybe not a churchly faith perhaps but I believe a faith nonetheless) is one that believes in the 'holiness' of the world that I see with my heart and the hidden 'holiness' at the centre of every person in it as they go about their daily business of seraching for someone to be, someone to love and work to do. 

The holiness of Jerry the disabled program-seller at Eastwood Rugby Club, who turns up with such excitement each Saturday, immaculately dressed in his gifted blue and white pin stripe suit – his prize possession. I wonder what he does with his weeks: the in-between times. There’s holiness in his story.  

Or the holiness of my Mum and her steady struggle to create moments of value around her, despite her parents never having really seen the true value in her and as a result her becoming deaf and blind to her own value. There’s holiness in that struggle.  

And even the holiness at the centre of the struggle of the people that call up to agree with Alan Jones or Andrew Bolt, and in doing so, perpetuate such inhuman ugliness. What makes a person that way? There's something to understand there. Something about their fear maybe?

The thing is, this faith that I have is almost always in spite of the shadows and doubts and unholiness that I see with my eyes.  It’s in spite of what I see. It is a faith in things unseen. It is I believe, as Shakespeare writes, the dream that we wake from, only to cry to dream again. 

In his book, The Sacred Journey, Buechner reminisces about a phone call he received just as he was sitting down to a dinner one night with his mother. It was a from a friend in distress. His friend's family had been involved in a serious car accident and he asks Buechner to come and sit with him at the airport until his plane leaves to go see them. 
Buechner writes:
THERE ARE MANY people in this world — I suspect they may even be in the majority — who in face of such a cry for help as that would have seen right away that, humanly speaking, there was no alternative but to say that they would be at the airport as soon as a taxi would take them
there. I have known many such people in my day and can explain them only on the grounds that they are strong, compassionate, and at least in that sense, Christian by instinct. My instinct, on the other hand, was to be nothing so much as afraid. I was afraid of my friend's fear and of his tears. I was afraid of his faith that I could somehow be a comfort and help to him and afraid that I was not friend enough to be able to be. Dating perhaps from that November morning of my childhood when I opened the door of Jamie's and my bedroom on a tragic and terrifying world that I had no resources for dealing with, I was afraid of opening the door into his pain or anybody's pain. So although I knew as well as anybody that I had no choice but to say that I would come, what I said instead, Heaven help me, was that I would come if I possibly could but there were things I had to take care of first and would he phone me back in about ten minutes.
Buechner's mother's reaction was also to shut out this cry for help, although for different reasons:
THE WHOLE THING was absurd, she said. My friend was a grown man. He had no business carrying on like a hysterical child. What earthly good could I do anyway? It was outrageous to think of spoiling an evening together that we had both been looking forward to for days.
Buechner recalls that everything his mother said was precisely what at some level of his being he had already been saying to himself, and that was of course what made it so appalling. It was only when he heard it on someone else's lips that he heard it for what it was, and as much out of revulsion at himself as out of pity for his friend, he resolved that as soon as he called again, he would tell him that he would come immediately.
This decision turns out to be one of the watershed moments in Buechner's life:
MY MOTHER'S APARTMENT by candlelight was haven and home and shelter from everything in the world that seemed dangerous and a threat to my peace. And my friend's broken voice on the phone was a voice calling me out into that dangerous world not simply for his sake, as I suddenly saw it, but also for my sake. The shattering revelation of that moment was that true peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world's sake—even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death—that little by little we start to come alive. It was not a conclusion that I came to in time. It was a conclusion from beyond time that came to me. God knows I have never been any good at following the road it pointed me to, but at least, by grace, I glimpsed the road and saw that it is the only one worth traveling. 

I think 'The Battle' that Buechner calls us to necessarily takes place in the shadows of our faith. It takes place in the moments of doubts. In those waking, crying moments. The time we are let down by a friend. Or by our work. Or by the world! Or, and this is by far the most common for me, the time we let ourselves down. That is where the battle takes place. Because it's in these moments that our faith in things unseen is challenged. And it's in these moments that we have to choose either to fight for the truth of that faith, even when every worldly thing points to our being wrong, or accept that wrongness as the actual reality of our existence.

For me, the ultimate answer to our doubt in those moments - those moments where we might start to believe in the wrongness of things - lies in the other phrase that stood out for me in Buechner’s sermon: 'To see with the heart, is to know that, in the long run, his kind of life is the only kind of life worth living. It's a simple as that.'

I love this phrase, 'in the long run'.  It implies a span of time over which mistakes can be made. It implies a span of time throughout which we have, at different points and for different lengths of time, doubted whether his kind of life really is the only kind of life worth living! And finally it implies an inevitability to the truth of the conclusion that yes, while we will doubt, we will all eventually end up at the same point, at the same conclusion: because ultimately, it’s the only conclusion we can any of us come to.

It’s an endless longing… for home.

‘Blessed are those that have not seen, and yet believe.’

Louis CK - Jizanthepus

This is amazing.

I don't know how you are this offensive and then come out somehow having made some really pertinent universal human observation.

For all its chaos, it's perfectly measured, with the punchline sneaking right up on you just as you've about had enough. You can see in his eyes as he takes a drink of water that he knows he's right on the brink. Then he saves it with this:

'You gotta protect your kids. A lot of people talk the talk, "I would throw myself under a bus." Oh yeah?! Would you fuck another kid's dad and confuse him sexually and yourself sexually in the process, and use homophobia that you hate against another person just because some kid shoved your kid for a second?'

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Saturday morning in South Turramurra

I'm writing from my parent's house in South Turramurra. It's a long weekend in Canberra, so I thought I'd come up and take advantage of the house being empty.

I went to the shops to buy breakfast this morning. The walk is about 4 minutes in total, through bushland and across a field where growing up I spent hours kicking a football, imagining myself into any number of scenarios which involved me winning whatever game it was I was playing in my head with the final kick of the game. 

There was an old lady on her daily walk to get a coffee this morning. She moved slowly along the path in front of me, stopping at the foot of the steps of the asian bakery where I was getting breakfast, unable to go any further with her stick. She just stood there at the base of the steps, the very outer limit of the world her body now let her travel to, and thus, I suspect, the very outer limit of her world, and waited.  Dutifully, the shop assistant came out from behind the counter and walked down the steps to her.  Without saying anything, the old lady held open her purse. The shop assistant reached in and took out $3.60 and showed it to the woman as if to verify it was the correct amount. But the woman didn't look and the shop assistant disappeared back up the steps and behind the coffee machine. 

I watched the old lady as kids and dogs and parents bound in and out of the shop about her. They bought bread, and cheese and bacon rolls and milk and coffee scrolls and sweet smelling custard tea cakes with cinnamon icing. And the coffee machine whirred as the kids squealed with stories of netball and swimming lessons and the parents squealed with stories of driving to netball and watching swimming lessons. A small girl, about 5 years old, was scared of a dog and had to be coaxed by her grandmother to walk past it and into the shop, only for the dog to cower in the corner at all the attention and the owner to explain that in fact it was the dog that was scared of people. 

An old man dressed smartly in tailored shorts with his tshirt tucked in at the belt, his hair proudly combed the way old men's hair is and his face still glistening with water from the morning's fresh shave, stepped backwards from the counter, bumping into a small boy who was standing behind him. 'Sorry mate!' beamed the man, his face all kindness, as the boy cowered away into the safety of his mother's skirt. And as he moved to the back of the shop to wait for his order to be ready, I thought I saw a flicker of something alive in the old man's face. As if, at the very least, something in that honest interaction with the boy had made this morning's shave worthwhile. 

And in the midst of all this, or out of it, the old lady stood there, like a rock weathering the storm taking place around her. She was a rock, and yet at the same time, standing there, her right arm quivering as she balanced it on her stick, and dependent on the shop assistant even for so menial a task as counting out the money from her purse, she was also the most fragile thing there.

What does any of it mean? 

Buechner says that if God speaks, it is into and out of the thick of our lives. And when he speaks, he speaks incarnate words. Words made flesh through the lives of people. 

I'm not yet sure how I feel about the word God, but words made flesh is something I identify with. Not least because it seems possible to see those words in flesh if you listen for them. Sometimes I wish I could stop listening. But it is all so palpable. 

As I write this, I'm sitting in the backyard enjoying the sunshine. It's 29 degrees. The wind is rustling the leaves of the trees above me. Jacqueline Du Pres just started playing Elgar's cello concerto. The sounds of that cello. Gosh! What Elgar must have felt when he wrote that down!  I've been swooped by a magpie. Again. That makes twice. Time to retreat inside. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ani Difranco - School Night

Woah - do not know how I have never heard this song before. The lyrics are... well.... amazing (and below).  Get your ears around it.  This is approaching late night red wine looking out over the roofs of paris territory.

she went over to his apartment
clutching her decision
and he said, did you come here to tell me goodbye?
so she built a skyscraper of procrastination
and then she leaned out the twenty-fifth floor window
of her reply
and she felt like an actress
just reading her lines
when she finally said
yes. it's really goodbye this time
and far below was the blacktop
and the tiny toy cars
and it all fell so fast
and it all fell so far

and she said:
you are a miracle but that is not all
you are also a stiff drink and i am on call
you are a party and i am a school night
and i'm lookin' for my door key
but you are my porch light

and you'll never know, dear
just how much i loved you
you'll probably think this was
just my big excuse
but i stand committed
to a love that came before you
and the fact that i adore you
is but one of my truths

what of the mother
whose house is in flames
and both of her children
are in their beds crying
and she loves them both
with the whole of her heart
but she knows she can only
carry one at a time?
she's choking on the smoke
of unthinkable choices
she is haunted by the voices
of so many desires
she's bent over from the business
of begging forgiveness
while frantically running around
putting out fires

but then what kind of scale
compares the weight of two beauties
the gravity of duties
or the ground speed of joy?
tell me what kind of gauge
can quantify elation?
what kind of equation
could i possibly employ?
and you'll never know, dear
just how much i loved you
you probably think this was
just my big excuse
but i stand committed
to a love that came before you
and the fact that i adore you
is just one of my truths

so i
i'm goin' home
to please the one i so love pleasing
and i don't expect
he'll have much sympathy for my grieving
but i guess that this is the price
that we pay for the privilege
of living for even a day
in a world with so many things
worth believing

Jon Hopkins - Breathe This Air

The Trouble with Templeton - You Are New

Saw these guys the other night in Canberra. They nailed a set in front a crowd of small but vocal fans. Having read a couple of reviews of their album Rookie, it's clear that this sort of sweet-voiced-guitar-ballad-music is seen as the past, with synth-infused jingly-jangly-shouty-chorused-bop-pop the present.

As one of my friends once said about singersongwriters, 'get a fucking drum kit'.

That said, this song is sweet and anthemic.

And it has a drum kit.

So fuck you.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The sweet birds' return

I recently read another of Frederick Buechner’s books, called The Yellow Leaves. This is the forward that the  82 year old Buechner launches the book with. I thought it was rather beautiful. Full of longing and acceptance. Side by side.

"The time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those bough which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang
-          William Shakespeare

I can still write sentences and paragraphs, but for some five or six years now I haven’t been able to write books. Maybe after more than thirty of them the well has at last run dry. Maybe, age eighty, I no longer have the right kind of energy. Maybe the time has simply come to stop. Whatever the reason, at least for the moment the sweet birds no longer sing.

On the other hand, during this unproductive time I started a number of things which for one reason or another I decided to leave unfinished but which, on rereading, I decided maybe had enough life in them to warrant inclusion in a volume like this. A story, some reminiscences, a handful of poems about my family, a scene form a novel – they are the yell leaves that hang upon these boughs that are not so bare and ruined but that they still dream from time to time of the sweet birds’ return."