Friday, August 26, 2011

In the Beginning

I awake early this morning with the sensation of fresh eyes, even before they open. Deep breath. And these words weave through my waking. I walk in the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. Yes. I steal out quietly to meet the day in its glory hour.

It is cooler now, and so the mist lingers patiently over the summer-warm pond, framed by spiky cattails and the silhouettes of mallards gliding, graceful. It is easy to breathe. Is this how the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters, in the beginning? In a world not yet illumined by Let there be!..He was. Before the world, the Word.

I find a tree that seems bent to perfectly hold my body, and lean there, content. I feel comfort from material things, the solidness of this oak along my back, smell of wet stone, the sharp roughness of marsh grasses along my hand. I cannot imagine before the genesis of matter. But He was there, in the beginning.

When was the last time I took a moment like this? To remember who I am, and whose I am? It's been too long. And what brings me back but the God-breathed, created world. Gift upon daily gift, He makes Himself known to me. Will I have eyes wide open? A striking line from Terence Malik's Tree of Life rings deadly familiar about the human penchant for missing the gifts: "trees, birds. I dishonored it all and didn't notice the glory." Re-align my retina, reset the lens to rightly discern these symbols of His love. Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies. Creation as parable within parable within parable.

And even more than the world that surrounds, the worn book under my arm. God-breathed, written words. Where I learn of the Word that was with God in the beginning, made flesh, then dwelling among us. Watch how He walked. This takes more than the natural eye. Though You do not see Him, you love Him. It is more like hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching rolled into one, then magnified a hundred times. No wonder we are to eat the scroll, taste and see, hear and obey, sensory experiences all mixed. Maybe we need a sort of synesthesia to discern things spiritually. Is this what Paul means by combining spirituals with spirituals? (1 Cor. 2:13) And lest we begin to think that this is a kaleidoscope of images unconnected to reality, like the poet who pleads:

take me on a trip upon your magic, swirlin' ship
oh, my senses have been stripped
my hands can't feel to grip...

though you might hear laughin, spinnin', swingin' madly 'cross the sun
it's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the the run...

No. My senses are not looking to escape, but return. To repent and be revived and rejoined to the material and everyday. Only He who came and felt all in the flesh, loved deep, died in loneliness and utter pain, and rose triumphant forevermore can breathe into the dust and remake me like this.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Happening

Artistic efforts in the avant-garde vein often sound much cooler than they end up being in reality. I think of Minneapolis' foray into a nuit blanche (all-nighter) at the beginning of the summer, which vividly described in advance a number of installations that a potential festival-goer could experience. Who wouldn't be intrigued by a "Sewer Pipe Organ" or "Panelectric Dream Streams"? Armed with a picnic, schedule, and short nap, Karl and I set out for a night of exploration.

We realized afterward that the most artistic highlight of our evening was probably the dinner we brought. The sun set in bold orange and splayed across an interactive spread of bread, cheese, and rosé. Total audience participation. Oh, and we caught the last set of the delightful Romantica, in that space sandwiched between Tugg's and the bar next door. But the well-touted "happenings" of the evening were comparatively boring. "Egg and Sperm Hide-and-Seek?" Yawn. Rather uncharacteristically, we went to bed early.

So, when I heard on the radio that this week's Movie in the Park was going to be Fritz Lang's 1928 silent film Spies, accompanied by an original score performed by live band and sound effects orchestra, I was a bit reticent at first. Was this going to be another strained attempt at semi-scripted movement, too bound to unrhythm for those of us mere mortals fool enough to try to follow? Still, I couldn't stay away. This would either end up being extraordinary or painfully awkward, but I had to find out for myself.

The audience stretched out in the hundreds up the hill behind the Walker Art Center, and a friend and I scouted out a minuscule patch of green between swaths of endless picnic blankets. When dusk had sufficiently descended, the reel-to reel whirred into action, and a bouncy hand eventually settled black-and-white images on a square of white floating in the foreground of the Minneapolis skyline. Cello and violins sprang a tense, fitful waltz, intoning suspense. When the first dialogue flashed across the screen, an eerie voice repeated some of the words, hummed them, and disappeared into the darkness. For the next hour and a half or so, I was spellbound.

In fact, I think my mouth hung wide open most of the time, as if my ears and eyes were too full and I needed some other way to take it all in. Paper crackled, toy gunshots snapped, feet scuffled and stomped. Woven lovely throughout, the music of Dark Dark Dark kept pace with the spastic, fantastic plot lines drawn from Fritz Lang's imagination. In particular, the climactic train scene near the end was such a coordinated feat of music, sound, and thrill that the audience broke out into spontaneous applause when came to its dramatic end. We were moved and felt the need to participate, to respond in some way. It was a happening that - well, actually happened.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Place for the First Time

If you take a moment and glance at the top of this page, you will see that there are banner-words that are etched in digital precision across every lifelongfling that is posted here. It has been that way for a number of years.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The lines are from T.S. Eliot's poem cycle The Four Quartets, a text whose twists and turns of phrase have been food and drink for my soul for many years. Have you ever listened to a song and felt that the chorus and perhaps a verse of two suddenly clicked into line with your own experience, your own heart? Portions of these four poems have been like this for me - as if the shape of my inward being had been carved out to house the particular images found there.

One recent Monday, in morning-glory hours, I gulp down droughts of fresh coffee and pack my bags for a brand-new journey. Official forms scrawled with signatures, a plastic container of food, map of the building, an unfamiliar textbook or two, bottle of water. I also fill my mind, subconsciously gathering the flotilla of disembodied names gleaned from email lists and more distant impressions from now-long-ago interviews. Knots in the stomach made it difficult to disentangle worry from excitement. I grabbed the keys and burst into the sunlit present, ready to explore.

I will drive this road thousands of times. This is the first time.

I arrive at the school fifteen minutes too early, wondering if I should wait in the car for politeness, but others are quietly making their way inside. Oh yes, I don't park in the visitor's lot anymore. I belong here. My eyes run again across the native prairie-beauty that encroaches onto school grounds; deep magenta grasses sprouting out of cracks in the sidewalk. I wonder if they encourage that kind of growth here...I have ideas, vague shapes and forms of what I think this place will be like. It remains to fill them in with solid day-to-day reality.

I walk through unfamiliar passageways and remember how it all seems so big at first and grows smaller the more you know it. Tentative first steps into the faculty room and shy hellos. Feeling around for my place in this expansive, common room with many desks touching together, and then I see my name scribbled on a post-in note. There I am. Other things have been left behind. A box of Kleenex, a copy of Plato's The Republic, paperclip, and what's this sheet of paper? Handwritten across the top, I see the words:

"To the one who comes after." Under these words, a repetition: "Who comes after..." I have inherited a piece of paper with coffee stains and history, a kind of chain letter. I glance at the printed text below the mysterious hand-scrawls:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well...

I have been holding my breath and exhale. The final stretch of the poem, my poem, the lines engraved on my inner self. I look around for someone to tell. All unknown faces, and yet I must share this deepest of secrets with another flesh-and-blood being, and so I venture to explain to my brand-new colleagues. You're not going to believe this, but... Yes, I manage to convey some of the gravitas of this moment, and their faces register matching delight, startled into pleasant surprise, lifted eyebrows. Indeed.

I know this place, but I will not cease from exploration. I will continue to tramp through untouched stretches of waving Big Bluestem, thrust my face into the inky night sky pinned by points of ice, be wrapped up in the covers of well-worn books, and let the fireworks in my brain explode into ah-ha's and what if's and imagine what might happen's. I am stunned to have found a workplace that holds up a sense of wonder as a primary part of our vocation. Annie Dillard articulates it well:

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn't the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he'll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood,view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why (14, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).

This is going to be a good year.