Autumn’s death and the whisper of resurrection

It’d be a damnable shame to dwell on morality, as in my previous post here, without a subsequent meditation on the prospect of immortality. Namely, the hope of resurrection.

Autumn is like dying. There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood, the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life, the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment) and finally the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.

Here we are in the heart of autumn. October is over, but November and December feel full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest – most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. And so winter seems to me to offer a gateway to restoration, through time to retreat and reflect, to spend long hours in reflection and conversation under blankets and around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places so as to correct the awry trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my zeal for another year of adventure in a world of stories.

What I’m getting at here is that whispers of restoration and resurrection run everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther. From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among these divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs to the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation, changing from liquid to gas… you can describe the scientific process, sure. We might as well call it a miracle.

Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on this question in her book “Housekeeping.” At one point the narrator, a young girl named Ruthie living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in her grandmother’s orchard have died:

“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” (emphasis mine)

shutterstock_343082936Things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back in new incarnations, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.

Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again (emphasis once again mine):

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The darker life gets, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferates, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.

I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built in to the universe – often as a necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. Scholars study books without end in order to master a subject. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires till fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.

Back to the question. Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? That’s the rub. Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept and end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time indeed – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season – harvest festivals and joviality, pumpkins and spices, flannel and friendship, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the nights – would become impossible. It would be the season of deepest despair and futility.

For those with a limited view of reality, it is a season of despair. Death is the last enemy, the one fate that we cannot defeat. We all fall to winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust, and we cannot see past it, at least not with our physical faculties.

“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?” Foreman finds a grounded answer first by looking back to the Maker, the one from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new green leaves, and who has himself passed through the great death of winter. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”

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Spiting Winter: The Cold Is A Stage

Deep Creek Lake, MD – I’ve been here two days now. The weather app says it is zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. You can see the wind gusting as it picks up the fine powdery snow. That probably brings it down to a wind chill of negative ten or fifteen. I’ve hardly left the house, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking out the big glass door windows at Deep Creek Lake, a snowy plain for the sport of snowmobilers, with other cabins and hibernating trees surrounding it.

I decided last Thanksgiving that Winter has a beauty to its barrenness. I spent the weekend in a cabin in Virginia, much like the one I’m in now. In the morning I would go out to the big living room windows and look out over the gently hilled farmlands that precede Shenandoah. The unkempt grass still had traces of golden green. I could see bright red barns and silos and cows through the rising mist. A few small streams crisscrossed with aged barbed wire fencing to make little dividers in the hills. It was delightful, Psalmic even – streams and pastures and sheep and sublime divinity and all that. Seasons change as surely as God’s faithfulness. The days may grow colder and darker, but there’s a fire in the hearth, and I have a full belly and a heart of good cheer. Life outside may retreat, but it is replaced by a stunning stillness and peace that is wondrous to behold.

Being from California, the reality of Winter, as in Winter as a distinct season, is a new phenomenon to me. I can probably still count on two hands the number of good snows I’ve experienced. Now that I’m in a climate where temperatures regularly dip below freezing, I’ve determined that there are two different kinds of cold when temperatures reach such nether regions. There’s a gentle, welcoming cold that is pleasant to be out in; it wraps around you like a soft blanket without penetrating and sapping the vitality out of your body (I suspect humidity may affect this). Oftentimes this is the cold that accompanies a snowfall. But then there’s the hard, soul-sucking cold; it starts at your extremities – hands, feet, nose and ears – then travels right to your heart. Whenever you’re so unfortunate as to spend any length of time in it, it keeps you walking as quickly as possible for your warmer destination, and makes you stiff as a cold piece of plastic that would snap in half from a strong thwap.

This is undoubtedly the cruel sort of cold.

It occurred to me, as I was staring out at the pure, empty meat locker of a world stirring just a few inches away from me, that I was spiting Winter. Here I stood, oh so close to a world that could kill me in hours, if not minutes, calmly enjoying a cookie in my sweatpants and slippers. Someone had just flipped the switch to turn on the fireplace. Thank you, modern comforts. I’d been at leisure all day, and yet the elements raged and flew. The cold and ice used to constrain man as it pressed in, making us still and slow and impotent. Now it just makes us irritable.

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With this thought subconsciously in mind, I went outside on the lake for a few minutes this afternoon (pictured). The sun illuminated the world in white – beautiful clean light. Winter may command us to be still, may narrow our lives to this sharp focus of a single time and place, but she herself does not sit still. Not today, at least. The wind commands my attention and my senses, whisking up the powder as with a paintbrush, a ghostly, ethereal artist. We often use the wind as a metaphor for the spiritual, to show how it is unseen yet still real and felt. But I can see it right now as it catches up the snow, at least a little, like a current or perhaps a song around me. Yes, maybe that starts to get at the essence of it. What is the wind, or the Spirit, if not a melody?

Before the cold has seeped in to my extremities and nips crisply at my nose and lips with dry teeth, I feel a sense of grandeur on the lake, as if I am suddenly a great character in a great story bent upon a great mission. James Bond in some arctic locale, or maybe the dogged remnant of Shackleton’s crew. I follow the packed path of a snowmobile toward a bridge a few hundred yards away. It spans the lake, allowing automobiles to traverse the snowy hills. The wind whips at my back. I raise my hood to defect it. As I walk underneath the bridge the wind narrows between the pillars. Currents of frost dash around and between my feet. I can see through the ice more clearly under the bridge where the snows hasn’t fallen. It looks thick – at least six inches or so. I start to feel cold, like actually chilled, and I suddenly understand why that epic feeling swept over me.

This world of snowdrifts and flat white ice is beautiful; it has a sense of uncharted purity, and I must explore it, must chart the icy wonder. But more than that it is alien to me, and invites action. I must make it across the lake before my arch nemesis escapes, or find a way to stay alive among the ice floes until help can arrive. It fills me with awe and wonder, so why wouldn’t it be a stage on which I play out the adventure?

It also compels me for its hostility. The very act of existing in these conditions, putting one foot in front of another, slipping along the ice when the wind persists in its bitter course, is a feat. No sane person should be living out here, and yet here we are, conquerors against the elements. Life below freezing showcases man’s resolute will to survive, adapt, and take dominion, despite and against the hostility. But his boots, gloves, hood, and sunglasses give away his weakness – my weakness. I concede that this ten-minute adventure has been nice, but soon I am sprinting into the wind, letting the ice cut my eyes and face, so that I can get back indoors to the warm. I run as if a blizzard is behind me, to feel the cold in my lungs, to be chased by Winter, to admit that without the cabin and the road so close there is mortal danger. I can’t stay out here much longer. And so I flee, exhilarated, leaving a trail of heavy footprints behind me, and taste the first drops of exhaustion.

I recently heard a story through a friend of a friend about two snowboarders in Colorado who tried to make it down a run in a whiteout, much like one that came through and smothered the lake yesterday evening. I could barely see the trees 30 feet away. These two guys couldn’t see the run and mistakenly strayed onto a closed trail. By the time they realized their mistake, they couldn’t make it back. One of them huddled against a tree to wait it out. The other struck off for help, but only made it 500 yards in the wrong direction. The blizzard lasted two days. They were found six months later.

And so my looking out the window in serenity at the white plain and the gray trees and windy rivulets singing their song really is spiting Winter. My sense of adventure is not misplaced. The snow doesn’t exist solely for our enjoyment, but to stiffen the business of life, slow our routines, and make us wonder. That’s why I’m growing to love Winter, learning to give thanks for it, because when the whiteout storms through I don’t have the last word. My existence is subject to forces far beyond my control, and sometimes they demand humility. At best I can mitigate it, but my freedom doesn’t extend much beyond the glass doors through which I gaze. Instead, I must contemplate, blow the knee, and be still.

In the back country: A meditation on man’s relationship to nature

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The seething earth, it opens up and spits us out.

This vicious child, nature never wanted us

This vicious child, a cancer burning black into its heart.

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia (pictured above and below), near Quantico, where the Marine base is. Two mornings in a row, I walked into the “back country.” At least that’s what the park rangers called it. It’s an area that, if not miles, is at least many hundreds of yards away from the nearest road or any people. I realized this is not remarkable isolated, but for an urban DC-dweller, it was enough to feel profoundly alone.

There’s something remarkably cathartic about nature, especially experienced in contrast to the city or suburbia. It evokes a sort of primeval Edenic memory. I saw beauty at all levels and from all viewpoints, from the small grey moths sent aflutter from disturbed grass underfoot and the carpet-y moss and tiny flowers, all the way to the vast expanse of the reservoir separating us from Marine territory, lined with hills of deciduous trees and brush, sky, clouds, and green glittering in the water in a landscape I’d like to paint. A crane flew by, no higher than the treetops, adding the perfect touch of disruption to the ambiance of twittering and chirping and water lapping and wind dimpling the lake.

It feels welcoming, like a big collective embrace of life, warm and calming, soul-stilling. Ah yes, “be still and know,” it says. Come weary one, and find solace, be at home. The colors are bright and lively at the beginning of summer. The cleansed air speaks to how life was meant to be. It whispers that the world should be better than the urban jungle or cookie-cutter suburbia or the dilapidated cabin I’m staying in. It echoes of a home that I have yet to find. Not where I grew up, and not where I live now, but Somewhere Else. . . ideal.

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I’ve always felt it, right in front of me but always just behind the next river bend in the river or beach peninsula or mountainside boulder. Camping at Hume Lake in California’s Sequoias every summer, day trips to the beach in Santa Barbara, even driving through the Mojave Desert at dusk – it tapped into some deep-set sense of beauty and belonging. I never put my finger on what it was about hiking in the Sequoias or walking along Ventura beach in the surf that made me want to adventure like the explorers of old and drink more deeply of its beauty. I still can’t, but against the backdrop of city life and my digital workplace I sense it with more volume and clarity now.

Here on the east coast, in Prince William Forest Park, the world teems with life. It slinks between the plants as insects and fungi, every square inch of the forest, it seems, is a picture of vitality. Every puddle and fallen trunk is an active ecosystem in its own right, in balance, dancing the symbiotic steps of life together. Bugs creep and buzz; occasionally I see hints of larger, warm-blooded creatures like squirrels and deer; and beneath the lakes fish glide like shadows and sometimes burst into the world in a flash of droplets to seize some hovering insect that lingered too near the water.

Yes, nature is more vibrant than even the most densely packed, active city ever could be. It is beautiful and delicate.

But it’s also vicious and vile, and I recoil from the wood’s summer awakening. For all my embrace of beauty I feel unease and alienation. “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth,” goes the fabled curse – and also needles and fangs and stingers. A mosquito comes near my ear, and I slap at the whine. I keep a lookout for snakes – the ranger warned they had been active this year. Flip flops were a bad choice. Near stale pools of warmed rain water, mud puddles on the trail, the whining grows. I forgot bug repellent; also a bad choice. At the reservoir I lay down a towel, clearing sticks that poke into my back and scattering tiny spiders and ants in the untouched grass.

I try to read – philosophy, longform journalism, the Old Testament – but every itch and twitch and buggy sound jerks me away. Sometimes a tick really has jumped on me, the bastards. Sometimes it’s nothing. But the point is that I’m not at ease, not all the way. The spiders don’t want me. The mosquitos only want my blood. This isn’t my home.

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Our relationship has issues. Nature draws me, or perhaps a better way to put it is that I am drawn to nature – the freedom of the woods calls. But nature doesn’t want me. It flees from me. It does violence against me. So many of these creatures are designed to bite, paralyze, kill. The bugs are tormentors. I curse them here just like I curse them when they are in my house. And they’re just the beginning. I need not digress into lake water, leeches, copperheads, poison ivy.

And so here in Prince William Forest Park I find a tension in my desire for beauty. In the woods I hear whispers of home yet feel profoundly misfit – on edge, discomforted. I even fear sleep in my dilapidated cabin because there’s a mouse running around and moths bumping against the shoddy screen windows. There are urban myths about spiders crawling in your mouth as you sleep. Here they seems plausible.

Those lyrics at the beginning are from a song called “Above and Below” by The Bravery. I like what it has to say about man’s relationship to nature. The seething earth opens up and spits us out. Disease saps our lives away. If nature is our Mother, she has cast us out of the cradle. But we keep venturing in to the forest, looking for new life.

Why?

Nature doesn’t want us, but that doesn’t mean she never did. The Edenic memory is in us all. It testifies that we did belong – once upon a time. There used to be harmony. The world used to be good.

I hope to God it will be good once again.

Ten Resolutions for Mental Health and for Staying Alive to God in Nature

I’m not one for making big new year’s resolutions. However, as I’ve grown and matured, especially through college, I’ve found that there is much value in resolve–in committing to things and living them out. There is a joy that comes with discipline, and a pleasure that comes with enjoying life–even the little things–just because it is.

What follows is a list of 10 resolutions for mental health and for staying alive to God in nature. I stole them from pastor John Piper, who learned them from Clyde Kilby, an English professor at Wheaton College. They’re worth keeping in mind and putting into practice.

1. At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.

2. Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death, when he said: “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”

3. I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood.

4. I shall not turn my life into a thin straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.

5. I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.

6. I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.

7. I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”

8. I shall follow Darwin’s advice and turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably, as Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.

9. I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggested, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.

10. Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.

Highlights from Orthodoxy, Part One

I just finished G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

It’s a delightful read. They don’t make great writers, journalists, and public intellectuals like they used to. Chesterton’s prose is simple, clear, and concrete. He has just enough British snobbery to make him interesting and humorous at times, but not so much that he comes across as an arrogant jerk. He is opinionated and strongly convinced of his own beliefs, but he still humbly embraces the paradoxes and mysteries of life. One thing that I most appreciate about him is how he tends to find errors in a way of thinking only after he has first studied and believed it.

Most fans of Chesterton will agree that perhaps the greatest testimony to his genius is the timelessness of his work. He clearly anticipated the flow of society toward the coming modernist age. Although he deals with some outdated ideas and criticisms of Christianity, much of what he has to say remains relevant today.

But enough of what I think. I’ll let the man speak for himself. Here are some of the top quotes (in my opinion) from each chapter:

From Chapter I, Introduction (to help put the rest of the quotes in context):

When the word “orthodoxy” is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. I have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography.

From Chapter II, The Maniac:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. . . The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. Continue reading →

Music Review: All Things Bright and Beautiful

Owl City is my happy music. I can’t describe it any other way. Ever since my roommate began playing “Hello Seattle” on his little boombox almost two years ago, I’ve been hooked. It started with songs like “Dental Care”, “The Bird and the Worm”, and “Saltwater Room” off the “Ocean Eyes” album, and continued with “Super Honeymoon” and “Technicolor Phase” on “Maybe I’m Dreaming” and singles like “Sunburn” and “Peppermint Winter”.

Now, with the release of his latest album, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” I’m more convinced than ever that the man behind Owl City, Adam Young, is his own unique type of genius-artist.

Here’s why. Young stands alone among music artists (that I’m aware of) in both lyrics and style, thus filling a very special niche in my music world. Owl City does not challenge or make you think deeply. It’s not “breakup” material, meditations on dark human struggles, or anything like that. It’s joy, hope, beauty, purity, warmth, and emotion–all in one big wonderful work of art–yet without the expected cliches.

Compared to Young’s past work, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” does not bring all that much to the table. As many reviewers have already noted, it bears the same signature marks of his earlier work, and many of the tracks in “All Things” mirror previous songs. “The Honey and the Bee” is the new “Saltwater Room”, “Hospital Flowers” is the new “Vanilla Twilight”, etc. If you didn’t like “Ocean Eyes”, odds are you won’t care much for “All Things”. Continue reading →