Archive for category Reflections on Self
[I wrote this in response to a question in an online group generally about meaning and God. It is quite meandering, but I thought I would post it here anyway.]
I’ve been reading Pride & Prejudice and some Wittgenstein recently, and that’s about the best way I can imagine beginning a response to A____’s prompt. It’s probably all downhill from here. That I should start in this way might also indicate that everything following is provisional, and that’s true. A____said something about this conversation being one inevitably made up of day-by-day vision and revision, so I’ll take that as permission and justification. For whatever intentions are worth, I think these comments will incline toward some issues that I’ve been mulling over for the last couple of years and think fairly important. I mention Austen and Wittgenstein only partly because I’m unduly proud of having finally gotten around to reading both of them; primarily, I mention them for a certain overlapping concern they share regarding a mode of thinking/living that strikes me as quite right. I will call this the Augenstein Factor.
The Augenstein Factor, in Pride & Prejudice, is the way the characters live, court, and think by means of descriptions of one another which they bandy about in rumor, attack with in slander, and constantly revise in very specific ways in order to fall in love. The embarrassingly obvious example is the way Lizzy’s prejudiced descriptions (to herself and to others) of Mr. Darcy prevent her from seeing him, knowing him, and loving him properly. It’s notably a moral failing on her part, here, and that will come up again later on. The more entertaining example comes from an absolutely delightful passage near the end of the novel in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh (VIP, and also Darcy’s aunt) tries to convince Lizzy that she cannot marry Darcy, and she makes that argument by giving various skewed descriptions of Darcy, of Darcy’s availability, and of Lizzy herself. The scene is brilliant for what Elizabeth has to do to counter or reject Lady Catherine’s descriptions and find different descriptions, and she comes out in the end seeing herself as quite able to marry Darcy after all.
Now then: Wittgenstein. What follows is probably a bit of a stretch—I am no scholar of Wittgenstein—but in the hope that most of you don’t know Wittgenstein much better than I do, I’m going to risk some probably ill-advised appropriation of his ideas. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations takes up a very similar notion of description and he sees it as even more central to human activity than does Austen. The mode of Wittgenstein’s investigations is partly justified by his concern not primarily with giving the right or correct description of whatever is his subject (language and how we use it to do all sorts of things, mostly) but with rightly seeing the object of description and understanding the description relative to the whole object. The problem is that human beings often give adequate descriptions while being mistaken or lazy about what they actually describe. By way of an example, this comes out in Austen when Catherine claims that Elizabeth would be shamed if she married Darcy, and Elizabeth’s response isn’t that, no, she wouldn’t be; instead, she responds that that description might very well be true, but it’s only a description of her relative to other snobby high-society folks, not a description of her relative to Darcy, thank you very much. If her relationship with Darcy is good—if he love and respect her—it doesn’t matter what society thinks and so Catherine’s description doesn’t matter. Wittgenstein sums up part of the Augenstein Factor: “And one has to say this in many cases where the question arises ‘Is this an appropriate description or not?’ The answer is: ‘Yes, it is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to describe.’” My working thesis is that the great stumbling block on the narrow path to meaningfulness is my tendency to take the narrowly circumscribed region that I see for the whole, and to content myself with inadequate descriptions of that thing.
(It occurs to me here that I’ve given pretty much no justification for this tiresome discussion, and none of you really ought to have read even this far. Should that stop me? Probably. Will it? Alas! probably not.)
To clarify why I’ve put you through this and what it has to do with meaning, I’m going to invoke a third author. Despite this addition, I will not modify the name Augenstein Factor, because Augensteindoch just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Iris Murdoch has a fascinating little book on moral philosophy in which she sets up the idea that fundamental moral good is bound up with the idea of attention, attending to things properly. Human moral activity looks like devoted, diligent, painstaking attention to individuals (among other things) to see them properly: i.e. describe them properly, if I’m not playing my cards too early. Think of the stereotypical husband who, ten years into the marriage, describes as annoying, pestersome, grating, etc. all the things that most endeared his spouse to him on their honeymoon. These aren’t trivial descriptions. He has become the kind of person who sees these things in this way, and he sees his wife as the kind of person who has these bad traits or habits. Failure to attend properly, to describe properly, and to limit those descriptions to their actual subject is really, really important. The last part is important, I think, because you can imagine saying “X is an angry person” as a negative judgment which purports to be a claim about the whole person; but if X were not always an angry person, or were maybe only sometimes an angry person (when, for example, thinking about the current political state and the totally outrageous but apparently unstoppable moral self-destruction of our culture) and otherwise X is a gentle, self-less, etc. etc. kind of person, then while the simpler description may not be entirely wrong, it’s only a partial and dangerously incomplete one. We have to delimit our descriptions to the proper object and found them in faithful, diligent, actually surprisingly difficult attention to anything, whether it be X, or my wife, or my children, or my students, or whatever.
Here it will come out that all this has been a tedious setup to say basically what others already said [in the discussion group] much more nicely about finding meaning in relationships and some of the difficulties which there inhere. I often experienced an effect in poems and novels and songs where they name or manifest something that I recognize but never knew that I knew, something that I never had a name or a concept for. The Augenstein Factor is like that for me. Whenever I get this right—whenever I stave off the hasty, uncharitable, incomplete, misdirected descriptions of the things that matter (e.g. God, my family, myself, good books, art, the world around me, etc.), whenever I manage to attend to those things faithfully and struggle to find the right descriptions of them (a thing very, very hard to do)—I get the closest I can to something like a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of rightness. Austen implies and Wittgenstein and Murdoch make explicit that pretty much everything about ourselves, other people, and this universe generally interferes with us getting those descriptions right and getting them right about the right things. I am selfish and impatient; I can barely see myself with any clarity (and what I see scares and confuses me), much the less can I rightly see anything or anyone else. This is perhaps the moral equivalent of that funny thing our brains often do with our vision when we think we’re seeing our surroundings but it turns out most of it is interpolated, filled in by our brain so that it doesn’t have to work as hard actually to see. And, gosh, it is grueling work attending to a four year old, seeing her mind for the shocking, awe-inspiring, clever, and cruelly snarky thing it is when I’m tired, I’ve been at work all day, every single item in the cupboard has been strewn across the floor, I just stepped on a lego, and all I want to do is drink whisky and doze off. This is such a stereotypical problem because it seems to me to be a pretty universal problem. I can at least aver that it’s my own problem.
So, it’s hard: but when I get it right, it is everything. The Augenstein Factor manifested looks like human relationships, really knowing someone; it looks like understanding art and literature (or at least beginning to; it’s a lot like a relationship, actually); it looks like true religion, neither platitudes about God nor shallow systematics to box him in (again, this is also a lot like a relationship, if that word in this context could ever be redeemed from its use by evangelicals).
“In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.”
From Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet.
This image has pestered me for many a month: that glimpse at a life lived out, used up. Helen Vendler, in her careful and thoughtful work The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, characterizes this quatrain as capturing the notion that “one dies simply of having lived” as burns out the fire on itself. It is a valuable truth to recall that our finitude and our mortality are bound up with one another: we are always using ourselves up. This third image seems truer than the first two that the speaker has tried: first, of the autumn swept away by the cold (and lifeless) winter; second, of the gloaming eaten up by night, the “second self” of death. I feel foolishly young and vital to try even to speak on the specter of death; regardless, this final image seems a far more satisfying one. The speaker of the poem certainly seems to rest more contentedly on this particular image as a resolution to his pursuit of a satisfactory image for himself and his own life. Life must expire and be all consumed, but this is caused by no more fearful a thing than simply having lived, having glowed brightly for its time, given off its warmth and light—a defense against and rebuttal to the wintry night of the first eight lines—and finished itself.
I recently revisited Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” while still ruminating on this sonnet, and I found in Keats an interesting complement to it in the fanciful tale of a knight’s romance with a fey lover and the grief that follows. Here is the poem in its entirety:
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The poem opens with a speaker addressing a knight “on a cold hill’s side”; this knight is “haggard”, “woebegone”, and pointedly marked with a sickness—”a fading rose” on his cheek perhaps not entirely different from the symptoms of consumption Keats experienced. We begin somewhere very near the wintry night of Shakespeare. Both poems at least share the implication of smothered life, and the rest of Keats’s poem bears out this tone. To relieve us from this bitter cold, though, the atmosphere is punctuated by the knight’s tale of his brief interaction with a “Lady in the Meads”, who is “beautiful” and “a faery’s child”. Unlike the frame narrative, the knight’s tale is full of life, beginning with the portrait of this lady; to it he adds “Garlands”, “fragrant Zone”, “roots of relish sweet”, “honey wild” and “manna dew”. The language is quick and vital, overflowing with a sort of eldritch wildness, abounding in life and growth. Of course we do not remain there: lulled to sleep, the knight dreams of a “death pale” crowd who warns of this elfin woman, the beautiful lady without pity or mercy, and the knight wakes from his sleep on the cold hill’s side where our frame narrative began. Framed by lifelessness on either end, this brief interruption proves tantalizing but deceptive and even deadly. In many ways, this whole poem seems, on first glance, to strike a note much like the opening of Shakespeare’s sonnet: life is closed bitterly and violently by an outside force.
But, as I’ve stated, I find Shakespeare’s rejection of that image and his substitution in the last quatrain far more fitting. Perhaps these poets simply differed; or perhaps Shakespeare recognized something that the younger Keats could not. I thought so, for a long while, but I come to see more in Keats’s poem that undermines my original assessment. I begin to see something that strikes me as quite profound, and a few critical works have helped justify my interpretation. Some of the foundation for this analysis is a view expressed by Keats that imagined beauty, which can sublimely raise one up out of the cares of this world, invariably leaves one despondent in its wake when that beauty has passed. This is coupled with a view of beauty as inextricable from truth—even equivalent to it as in the conclusion to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—and both as essential to life. That movement of elevation and depression has a prominent parallel in the movement of the poem in question, so much so that I think it warrants evaluation in light of this paradigm.
Though I realize this is predominantly speculation, I find one can helpfully view the movement and tenor of the poem as an exemplification or illustration of that idea, manifested in a beautiful fairy tale of sorts. In this paradigm, this faery child becomes a picture for the sublime of the world, the beautiful; she is the transporting kind of beauty that strains at you, that absorbs your attention and energy and life in its pursuit; she is the kind of joy that, in Keats’s view, a poet ought to lose himself in to capture and show. But, of course, such things are fey and perilous by their very nature, and they cannot be held on to. Though the knight and elfin woman journey to this “elfin grot” where they whisper words of love and shut “wild wild eyes” with kisses, it does not and cannot last. The sublime cannot be sustained; life lives itself out. So, the knight is lulled to sleep, he dreams of those who have come before him only to be equally disappointed in the end, and he wakes on the cold hill’s side where our original speaker finds him palely loitering. I take, then, the dream revelation that “La belle dame sans merci / Hath thee in thrall” not as the unmasking of a villain or of a femme fatale but instead as the recognition of the nature of such perilous things to pass away; the knight, like the pale kings and princes before him, has drunk life to the lees and is left with an empty glass: he is finished. (Even if you do not quite take the description of the knight in the third stanza to intimate a mortal wound, he is at the very least sorely suffering because of this deprivation.)
I recognize a few issues with this interpretive framework: it relies on a number of external ideas without which my thoughts would be only tendentiously supported by the poem. I think it also fair to say that this kind of pseudo-allegory robs the characters of some of their nature: the knight becomes almost an Everyman, while the elfin woman become something far more abstract: the fantastic and sublime. That loss of concrete identity is a problem for my interpretation, and it is one I have not resolved satisfactorily yet. That said, those same external ideas reassuringly parallel what the poem reveals upon a closer reading, and I think the resulting interpretation demonstrates fewer problems than most others; the characters, too, are presented in such sparse detail that they almost necessitate abstraction in any analysis. In fact, I think this kind of interpretation (which would harm many poems) saves “La Belle Dame sans Merci” from some of its features which else would be failures. The story is not only sparse but obscure at points; the characters are in many ways weak on their own merits. If, however, they are not intended nor need to rest on their isolated features, if they ought to be read as more than they are, there is no failure or flaw in that presentation. My interpretation also makes sense of, and takes as heartfelt and serious, the lady’s inconsolable weeping and her sure words of love. If she knows that she, by her very nature, will leave this knight despondent, of course she weeps. Regardless, I think there may be a worthwhile nugget in all of this analysis. If it is not of Keats or his poem, I think it is worth pondering nonetheless.
These rabbit trails all comes back around to Shakespeare’s sonnet. We die of living, but that does not rob life of its worth; in fact it makes the life lived a matter of the most pressing importance. I would, as it were, like to glow rather than putter out in a heap of ash. I would like to chase after those moments of truth and beauty, even though they can be difficult to bear, even though they can be utterly exhausting. The most valuable of things—the true and the beautiful and the joyous—demand and warrant a price, but it need not be one handed over reluctantly or begrudgingly as a miser who fears to run out of gold (as if hoarding our time and energy, as if protecting ourselves from the best things that make us human, could ever save our lives; it is, after all, by losing our lives that we save them). It is not of spending until we’re paupers that will kill us; no, it is of starvation: hunger for the honey wild and manna dew of life. It is the refusal to pay the price for those moments of beauty and bliss, those moments of the marvelous and the strange. We must be willing to buy those things, to chase after the things that make us most human. With no fuel to feed us, we will glow but dimly.
[Note: WordPress rather mutilated the formatting of the poem. There should have been breaks between each stanza.]
“It was not just to unburden myself that I told him those stories. Robustly he moved within my past, unknown to the figures there even as he upheld them.”
Refinements, Kirsten Callahan
The past lives only in memory and memorial; it is not static—as though well-water drawn—but is warped by the remembering and the present: changed, refined, salvaged, and (perhaps) redeemed. I have struggled with past, with history, and met it in many faces, treated it with many words and ways. It has become one of the most common themes in my thought and writing; if there be solutions to its problems, I have not found them. Still, I wrestle.
In December of 1990, I was born to Mary and Dave Bonner. In 2005, Dave Bonner died: cancer. My memories are not him, but they are of him; I wonder whether I love him or them. He was a good father and a poor dad, human in too many ways. I remember once being thrown against a wall by his strong hands (my body was frail, pale, and bony; I flailed, but my strength was naught). He was angry, but he was angry at the wrong child. My little brother had shoved me off of a bunk bed, and we had been shouting: I do not know if the crime or the crying had aroused my father’s wrath, but I received the blame. In my memory, it does not hurt, but it frightens always; I was wounded most by the wrongness of it all, for I was innocent. I remember all this vividly, and yet I have no anger toward my father, maugre his misdeeds. This moment in memory (to my grief the most vivid remembrance I have of him) has entwined itself to so many others and to myself as I now am, and that moment (in fact or in memory only, I am unsure) has been salvaged by the cohesion of my dad as I know him. And I know him better and better as I age, and the memories for good or ill become inextricably complected with the whole of him. His wrongs are not so great, methinks, but he does not stand judgment before me; in my memory, at least, he is redeemed.
So I am forced to wonder: is salvaging and salvation by the present enough for the past? Does now redeem then, or is it merely lost, left to be mulled over and meticulously mined for what bits of it we can cling to? In Kirsten Callahan’s novella, Refinements, the narrator broaches a parallel question: can a character be saved by symbols of which they are unconscious? The narrator’s belief seems to be that the symbolism alone is separate from the salvation. But if the remembering of one’s past can bestow upon it redemption, is that a redemption of the past itself or only the memory of that past? At a specific moment in history, Christ bore the sins of his children and wrecked them (by being wracked by them) upon a tree; the salvation thereby wrought pierces through every moment in time: my now, my then, and my not-yet. And, in that deed, His blood also backwards stretched and lifted the doom on those before Christ; it had to precisely because the symbolism in the sacrificial offerings of animals did not satisfy. (A tangent: redeem and doom seem meet etymological siblings, but it is sadly not so.) Does the analogy hold true, though? Can merely mortal remembrance pierce the past in a significant and objective way?1
I have wrestled with this theme in some of my recent writings (but even more in my inchoate or abandoned stories). In my original plan for a series of short stories, an old man dies blandly, not with a bang but a whimper, and several characters struggle with the apparent futility of it all: was the life he lived worth itself despite (or in light of) the feeble death that took him? In the very best of stories, it is a commonplace that the happy ending redeems the suffering that comes before. There is a fairy-tale in which a girl’s father severs her hands at the devil’s bidding, and she is left to wander through the wilderland alone; soon she marries a king but is then cast out and forced into hiding. Of course, years later all is made right and she lives in love and bliss with her husband: the eucatastrophe strikes and all manner of things are made well. The conclusions does not (and never should) erase or ignore the sorrow that leads to it, but it does alter it in ways I do not fully grasp. Because of the conclusion, the sorrow is given a purpose and significance that it would otherwise lack (I think of Ethan Frome and the nihilistic futility to which the entire story is abandoned by the exhausting cyclicism of the novel’s close). Though I fear to conclude another paragraph with echoing queries unanswerable, I, unsure, wonder if this trust is more than a hope, a belief; if events stretch beyond themselves and give meaning to the remembrance or the suffering.
A similar (perhaps identical) question arises in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (and for the same reasons in much Anglo-Saxon and Northern literature). In Middle-Earth, the ages of the world are long and much is lost to the dooms of time. Much passes beyond memory. The scraps of history and legend (mostly identical in Tolkien) occasionally persist in the various presents, and they often carry surprising power to manifest themselves (sometimes figuratively—stories recalled, brought to life; sometimes literally—what we would call magic). In one of the most fantastic works of criticism I have ever read, Tom Shippey spends much time discussing Tolkien’s philological predilections and his inferred belief that philology does (or, sadly, did) what no other science or course of study could: it resurrected history, otherwise forgotten. Literature—Art—is able to capture something essential and sustain it, making it effective and potent throughout time. In The Lord of the Rings, one of the more obvious examples of this attitude comes from The Two Towers (I believe) in which Frodo and Sam wonder whether there will be told stories of them and their quest (a parallel passage comes just after the ring is destroyed when Sam imagines folk telling the story of Nine-fingered Frodo). It would be misguided and whimsical to glean the idea that the artistic recollection of their quest (even if real, not merely imagined) somehow lessened the burden Frodo bore or slaked their thirst and suaged their wounds. And yet, it is not so far-fetched to see the artistic remembering (perhaps even re-creation) as a memorial that not only recalls but makes well as the Providence of God working to redeem all that is fallen. (Perhaps it can do this because the art and remembrance are Myth? Perhaps because they are true?) A more literal example of the intertwining of these several parts is in the Barrow-downs of the first volume where the memorials manifest themselves with evil and power in the present directly because of the past. [Alas, I fear my thoughts in this paragraph have come out muddled and shallow: I shall re-attempt this one day.]
In these things—my father, the fairy-tales, the stories—the remembrance reaches back to history and pulls it forward, at least offering some small redemption that can be found in the present. I do not know if it is the fact of the remembrance or something else dependent on the present. Even so, there is something there—a valuable thread worth hanging on to—but I have not yet kenned it, and I am not through trying.
1. It seems that the retroactive nature of salvation exists due to an arbitrary (in a technical sense; not caprice) act of God’s will by which the sins of the past are deemed paid for: indeed, this is perhaps simpler to grasp than the projection of Christ’s blood beyond that moment to its future. Is the salvaging of one’s own past the same sort of arbitrary act of will and thought? Or (since our and others’ sins in our pasts do not wait on us for their doom) is the guilt mitigated by time and we left free of the misguided attempts to punish those sins ourselves? Perhaps, as in stories, the whole (when considered as an artifactual whole) reveals itself as a work of Providence, and the momentary, visceral reactions fade before the cohesion of one’s history into something synergistic and transcendent.
Life After College; or How to Avoid Further the Responsibilities of ‘Real Life’
On a chilly (relative to a seventy-five degree winter day) December morning—the sixteenth of December, in the two thousand and eleventh¹ year of our Lord—I awoke a twenty-one year old young man. About twenty-four hours later, I walked across a stage, shook hands with an overly cheerful college president, and received a piece of paper telling me that I had graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English. Twenty-four hours beyond that, I awoke and felt as if very little had really changed. I was on the cusp of a new era in my life—or so some seemed to think—but it really felt no different from the many months that had led up to it. I was still the normal self that I had been for a long time. I was no longer enrolled in school, I could buy alcohol if I felt the need to debauch this crisis away, and I could rent cars (with a $90 additional fee for being under 25) if alcoholism prove an inadequate coping method. It was not the dawn of a new age. My years of education had not climaxed in any synergistic epiphany: in fact, I was left more baffled than when it had begun. Admittedly, I was more humble about my stupidity and less depressed by it than when I had begun my collegiate education three and a half years before. Since this depression has been replaced by a perpetual paranoia that Sally Mae will call in all of my debt, I cannot help but feel that this was a much too expensive anti-depressant.
Anyway, there I was, no longer a college student. This state brought quite a few ramifications, the most aggravating of these being the societal disapproval if I were to continue to act as I had when a student. Sure, it was perfectly acceptable to spend thousands of dollars to read books and poems and write stories, but heaven forbid we do that for free! Am I to be blamed that I find writing, reading, blacksmithing, Wayland, Thor, and Frodo far more fascinating that developing a resume or purchasing life insurance? Alas! You’re an adult now, Bonner, and this is real life; it isn’t supposed to be fun. In truth, I know: this dichotomy was never really an option. I was and am engaged to be married, and I take quite seriously my responsibility to provide for my wife-to-be (I have yet to figure out how; but the Grace of God is at work). And so the ‘real life’ began, and I began to search for employment.
Fortunately, this purgatory between college and death is not all grim. Of course, much of the good are those things salvaged from my college career: the books, the poems, the thoughts (even some of the classes). There is a wonderful freedom to sleep until 9 am, wake, and study flash cards of Old English pronouns. Or (much more to my liking), one can simply never go to bed and correct Wikipedian solecisms giddily through the gloaming-hours.
Even so, these joys are not quite enough to mask the aporetic nervousness that the after-life brings. The present seems far less substantial and significant than it did whilst in school. Then, my every moment was defined by me being either studying or not studying; I was either working or procrastinating. Each moment stretched out and bore the significant relative to greater and grander things. Now, not so. There is not teleological heaviness in the present of these after-days. I have no immediate goals that shape my fleeting moments. If I do not write that essay on the etymology of lord, no-one will deduct points, and no-one will even miss it. If I spend hours shallowly skimming a half-dozen books, I have no more pressing thing to feel guilty about putting off.
And instead of all that, I type away at badly constructed blogs. Perhaps I ought to read a good book.
1. The original version of this post had “two thousandth and twelfth year of our Lord”. While some might think this to have been an error, that impression is mistaken. While I am not free to divulge all details of my time-traveling antics, they are responsible for the perceived discrepancy. Because Belhaven University does not approve of time-traveling in any of their programs, I have altered the date to reflect a more innocent, plausible date.
This summer has been filled with strange insights in unexpected places. I have been worked to exhaustion time and time again, my skin and bones painfully repining against my abuse. As the summer solstice came and passed, my muddy and bloody pursuits brought me face to face with a number of serious and difficult questions about the world in which I live. One might wonder how building playgrounds—be as it may in the merciless Texas sun—would elicit existential quandaries; I would never have thought it possible until it happened to me.
As far as problematic philosophical questions go, one of the most perennially pestiferous—that is, the problem of evil in the world—has caused me little trouble. Evil itself has handed me a few blows, but the concept of it and its existence has not pestered me unduly; however, of late, a tangential cousin of the problem of evil has appeared to stir up mistrust, spreading even so far as God. But first I must clarify my position.
This summer has incited the creation of a theory. As a result of numerous experiences throughout my two months of strenuous physical labor (much involved with sharp and heavy objects) I posit the following as a Natural Law of the Universe:
Firstly, injuries are inevitable. Secondly, after suffering any injury, the likelihood of repeatedly injuring yourself in the same spot is exponentially proportional to the inconvenience, aggravation, and pain it would cause. Thirdly, with annoying injuries on vital parts of one’s body (primarily meant to include the face, the hands, and the feet), the probability of repeatedly hurting the same spot (until the frustration and pain drive you nearly to tears) approaches absolute certainty.
Personal experience, rigorous double-blind studies, and confabulation with my brother (who is the same line of work) have confirmed this. I laughed when the theory formed in my head. Recognition of this truth caused me some grim humor for a while; soon, though, it began to cause me questions. How, I asked myself while driving steel screws into steel pipes and repeatedly slipping so as to drive the knuckle on my middle finger painfully into a pipe, can this be? I go hours without injuring myself; then, just after finally scraping my knuckle on some wire mesh, I suddenly injure the same spot over and over again within twenty minutes in a half dozen different ways. It is as if one small injury suddenly gets in and then immediately invites all his friends over for a party. To my chagrin (though I have been known as something of a wild party animal in my own day), their parties involve a great deal of smashing things into my already wounded body. My behavior does not change, and yet the injuries come in quick succession. It is as if some malevolent force took pleasure in my pained frustration.
Ah, that was it. In the end, I was faced with the fact that there is no natural reason this should prove true. And, yet, it does, as my scarred fingers will cry evidence for years to come. If this be true, then the source of this happening is a grave problem. The atheist must shrug their shoulders in defeat for they have no explanation. The orthodox Christian must grant it to God’s sovereignty and ineffable wisdom. The Eastern religions must chalk it up to karma. For myself, I cannot grant that God actively pursues the annoying harm of His people, and so there must be another option. I have decided it must be fairies. There can be little doubt.
P.S. Dear readers, I shall leave you about two thirds through what I originally intended because it is late now and I must go to bed so that I may work in the morning. Goodnight.
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. So sayeth Proverbs. I propose an additional maxim (though one far more fallible and less poetical). There is a way which seemeth right unto a bird, but the end thereof is a window.
I was sitting with my family yesterday. We don’t plan to sit about in the same room together but such happens quite often and it makes me terribly glad. It is good to be with them again. As we sat there chewing our respective cuds and enjoying one another, some precious little green blur decided to alight inside of our living room by way of the large window a-facing our backyard. My mom cried “Oh no! The cat will get it! Stop the cat!” and displayed the greatest vitality her face has seen in the last couple of months. My sister said that it was a hummingbird, and I ran out to the back porch to see if it had been dashed free of its life.
I found the tiny bird lying stunned just beneath the window. It occurred to me that perhaps one wasn’t supposed to pick up a bird like you weren’t supposed to touch baby mice because their parents would then smell human on their pups and devour them. I didn’t think this was the case, though, and I went ahead and gently slid the bird onto my finger. Gently as I could I cupped it into my palm. She was a tiny thing, no bigger than my thumb. Her wings and back shone as bright emerald in the Texas sun. When I turned it just right, the throat lit up in a gold-orange like the setting sun. A blanket of soft white feathers cushioned its belly against my fingers. I am perfectly ignorant as to hummingbird sex, but I thought it was a she and I shall stick to that. She was far too pretty but without anything I could call handsomeness as I would expect in a male. The poor girl was obviously stunned, breathing slowly and barely moving. Its left eye blinked slowly as if dazed, but the right stared straight at me. I suspect she was terrified. Perhaps being held in the hand of God feels much like that bird felt.
It sat in my palm for nearly ten minutes. As time wore on, she slowly perked up, eventually standing straight on my finger. Her heart rate had slowed; she seemed perfectly at peace for all I could tell. I would have been happy to stand there with her for hours, but my brother decided to blow on her a little, and she immediately took off from my hand. Her tiny wings beat against my skin more softly than I would have ever imagined. She rose a few feet into the air but much more slowly than a healthy hummingbird. Two other hummingbirds quickly swooped down to meet it, and they harried the weak one mercilessly. My friend lost a bit of her altitude and slipped towards the grass. The other birds flew off and left her be as she landed softly on the grass.
I suspected she was not all well just yet. Partly for fear of the cat but mostly because I wanted to hold her again, I slowly walked out to the bird and placed by hand on the grass next to her. To my inexpressible joy, she fluttered her wings a bit and hopped onto my finger. Her tiny talons gripped my finger tightly, and she stared straight into my eyes as I lifted her up to the sunlight. She glowed magnificently; I was perfectly giddy. I turned her this way and that in the sunlight, admiring as her colors shimmered differently from different angles like a hologram. Bethany came and stood there with me; her hair is blue, and I thought that the two of them ought to have been friends. We stood there for ten minutes or so, and it was beautiful. The hummingbird looked more and more alert with each passing moment. Soon, she leapt from my finger, soaring off away from the setting sun and alighting on the upper reaches of a birch.
I am rarely embarrassed. There is only one time in the last few years about which I still feel a tinge of shame. Last summer I worked at a yacht club, alternatively bussing tables and cooking food. There was a large, sliding glass wall that separated the main clubroom from the large dock over the lake, and this was normally left wide open. After a long night of insomnia, I was at work bussing tables. Whether simply exhaustion or stupidity, I walked straight into one of those glass panels that was not pushed aside as they normally were. There were a few moments of shock while I stared dumbly at little flecks of blood on the glass that had leapt from my now split lip. Too horrified to look for who might have seen me, I quickly scurried to the bathroom to wash my face. The sympathetic comments from the bartender and the mocking remarks from a few patrons were equally unbearable; I was utterly ashamed of myself.
There is a way which seemeth right unto a bird, but the end thereof is a window.
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof is a glass panel.
There are some obvious metaphorical extensions of this that might be worthwhile, but it is raining now so I ought to be enjoying it.
Addendum: I have looked it up and it seems that this bird was, in fact, a male. The orange throat is only found in the males.