Sunday, January 6, 2008

Loving the Sunset

Bryan resembled an old-fashioned telephone switching board. Tubes and wires protruded all over his body, connecting him to the machines that had long been more responsible for keeping his body alive than anything inside him.

Caroline, his wife, sat beside him with her hands in her lap. During his first months in the hospital, she touched him as often and as much as she could. She even persuaded the nurse to let her give him his sponge baths. Rubbing his antiseptic sagging skin was the nearest she could come to intimacy with him without endangering what remained of his life. He told her it felt good for a while, but his frustration at not being able to respond to her and the steady deadening of his senses twisted even that pleasure out of his control.

Most recently, the parts of his brain that allowed him to formulate speech started behaving erratically. In the middle of telling Caroline or one of the nurses a joke, he would either forget his thoughts and be unable to finish it, or he would spasm and spout nonsense. When he recovered, he said he preferred the spasms, because those sometimes still elicited a laugh. That he had made his living as a stand-up comedian and often brought his wife along to the more romantic locations was a cruelty everyone knew but never mentioned.

He still had some good moments, bursts of something short of convalescence but better than simple suffering. Those were the times he followed one of Caroline’s conversational monologues, or smiled voluntarily, or loved the sunset. He had requested a room with a west-facing window. He was too lethargic now for anyone other than himself to notice a difference, but he felt better. Before he died, though, he believed he would still make someone happy.


On the day Bryan died, Caroline came into his room wearing a yellow dress. It was a couple of shades darker than her hair, and the two combined equaled the color of the sun in his eyes. He preferred her natural color, but he did not tell her because he knew how much she liked being a blonde. Her green eyes, magnified and sparkling from tears that appeared after she dried her face in the hall, shone as brightly as they did every day. She kissed him quickly and sat down, her head in line with his rib cage. She was too far away to hear him.

Instead of looking at his face, which puckered in a tiny crater wherever she happened to kiss it that day, Caroline had lately taken to staring at his hands. Because he had never used them much when he was healthy, their deterioration was less noticeable. She had difficulty focusing her eyes when she looked at him.

She was alert enough, however, to see his index finger move. He raised it less than an inch, and it was only because they had been married for fifteen years that she knew it meant he wanted her to raise her head.

"Closer," he mouthed.

She leaned in, her arms on the side of the bed, but she was still too far away. Whatever he added
in volume he would lose in endurance, and he knew it would take everything he had to say what he needed to tell her.

"Closer," he repeated.

Caroline perched on the edge of the bed and leaned over his chest. She could hear him wheeze out every breath, and to get away from the sound she moved closer to him, so that her chin almost touched his.

She smiled, which surprised both of them. "Close enough?" she asked.

Bryan held his blink for a second longer than normal, and then he spoke. All he could manage was a whisper that came from the front of his throat and did not even sound like his voice, but it was enough.

"I was doing some shows at a resort in the Caribbean. One night after my set, I couldn’t sleep, so I walked on the beach. I saw a woman in the water, splashing and playing like a little girl. Her bathing suit was black. It looked like her arms and legs were spinning and flying on their own, like they weren’t connected. Her hair was blonde, so bright it looked like the sun rising. I stopped and watched, but I didn’t want to disturb her. She was so beautiful, so pure and innocent in the water."

Caroline knew this story. It was how they first met. He got some of the details wrong–she wore a bikini and her hair was red then–but she was thrilled to hear how much he still remembered.

"The next morning, I saw her in the exercise room. I was too distracted to work out, and I almost followed her into the ladies’ shower room. Right before I went on that night, I found an envelope in my dressing room. A picture of her was inside, and she’d written her room number on the back. That night was the worst set I ever did. I couldn’t remember any of my material."

Caroline could not hold back any longer. Trying to be as gentle as she could, she said, "No, that’s not how it happened, honey. I was laying out by the pool, remember? You could see me there from your room. You called room service and had them bring a drink out to me. You made them write your name and room number on the little umbrella. I’d watched all your sets and I thought you were funny, so I went up. You almost passed out when I showed up at your door in my bikini. Don’t you remember that?"

Bryan blinked. "Of course, Care. But this story is about Jackie. She came first. I went to her room after my set, but she wasn’t there, so I changed and went to the beach. She wasn’t there either. I tried to play in the water like her, but I couldn’t. I felt silly. Just when I was getting out of the water, I saw her coming. She was wearing a beautiful white dress, but she took it off and left it on the sand. She introduced herself in her underwear. We went back out, and she showed me how to play in the water."

"Bryan, why are you telling me about this now? You’ve never said anything about it, about her, before. Why wait until now?"

"Care, I want you to understand. That’s all I want now. She was like a sunrise to me. But my sunset was better."

She dug her chin into his collarbone and pressed his sides with her hands; she could not then have said whether it was from anger or affection. Had he been able to feel pain, to scream, or to cry, he would have. But as Caroline knew from the silence in his chest, he was already beyond agony’s reach.


All the legal issues and funeral arrangements had to be taken care of, she knew, but they could wait. She rushed out of the room and past the nurses station without saying anything or even looking at them. She barely breathed as she drove home, and she had not even thought about crying.

It was upstairs in their bedroom, tucked unceremoniously away in one of the bottom dresser drawers; she had forgotten which one and so had to search through three full drawers, throwing aside articles of clothing like a burrowing animal, before she found it.

It was wrinkled and dusty, but in good condition overall, considering how long it had been since she last wore it. Her life had been so consumed with taking care of him for so long. She could not even remember the last time she thought about swimming.

She needed to know if it still fit. Caroline had become conditioned to take care of herself and change her clothes in between Bryan’s medications and emergencies, and she undressed and put on the black bathing suit–one-piece, with a low-cut back–in only a few seconds.

She was already crying softly before she looked at herself in the mirror. She collapsed on the floor when she saw her reflection, sobbing and grateful to Bryan for his final gift to her.
I watched Terrence Malick's "The New World" last night. This was my second viewing. The first time, I thought it was supposed to be some kind of historical epic action story, and while there were some cool moments, I mostly thought it was slow and kind of boring. But after reading the chapter on it in Jeffrey Overstreet's "Through a Screen Darkly," I decided I must have missed something the first time and needed to give it another chance. This time I watched it as a love story. (Keep that contrast in mind. It's important.)

The movie basically tells the story of the English colonists' first arrival in the new world, and especially of Pocahontas's relationship with the men she meets. I don't know how accurate the movie is historically, and I honestly don't care. So now that that's out of the way...

The first man Pocahontas meets is John Smith (played by Colin Farrell). He has been locked up in the ship's brig for insubordination, but instead of executing him once they reach land, the captain spares his life. He is freed to wander through the pure wilderness and experience all the wild joy he finds there. Chief among the delights he discovers is Pocahontas (the amazing, gorgeous Q'orianka Kilcher, in her first acting role).

Their first meetings are natural and electric. Though they can't talk to one another yet, they communicate on much deeper levels, seemingly without having to try.

To recap: Smith is the uncontrollable good-looking bad boy, whose shirt is never more than halfway buttoned and who is more at home in nature than in society. He is what John Eldredge thinks every man should be, and Pocahontas falls in love with him instantly. She thinks they will be together forever.

But Smith is an explorer. Seeking out and discovering new things is what drives him. And though he is extremely happy with Pocahontas and does love her, when he is offered a chance to leave her and search for a new path to the Indies, he takes it. The call of an adventure is too strong on him: He has to go.

He is not the man Pocahontas thought he was. She is devastated. She has been told the man she loves, the man she left her family to be with, has died at sea. She wanders through the village like a dazed ghost.

Enter John Rolfe (Christian Bale). He too knows the pain of broken relationships: His wife and child have died. He is a quiet, contemplative, kind man. He does not stand out, doesn't do anything wild and dangerous, and his shirt is always buttoned to the top. He is called a tree: steady, dependable, and providing shelter and shade.

He sees something beautiful in Pocahontas, something worth resurrecting and saving, but she is not interested. She does not want to be hurt again, and anyway, Rolfe's demeanor does not enthrall her the way Smith did. But he persists, gently following her and loving her, even though the love is not intially requited.

Eventually they marry, but Rolfe knows there are parts of her heart his wife will never share with him; they are still with Smith, whom Pocahontas has learned is still alive.

John Smith is nothing like me. I'm not bold or exciting or wild, I don't make first impressions, and I keep myself buttoned up. I have much more in common with John Rolfe, Pocahontas's quietly curious, tentative second lover, and the one who waits months and years for her to decide if she really loves him.

Pocahontas and John Smith meet again near the end of the movie. The temptation (and opportunity) is there for her to go off with the daring explorer, her first love, and leave the shelter and nurture of the tree.

But she doesn't.

She returns to Rolfe and tells him, "You are the man I thought you were, and more."

In Malick's movie, the staid tree gets the beautiful princess. And I get to believe.
I cannot remember a time when I didn't know that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. There must have been some point when I learned that fictional fact, but one of my earliest memories is of watching Star Wars on television (we were taping it, and I pressed the pause button at the wrong time, thus deleting about half of a climactic lightsaber battle); I simply can't remember when the plot of George Lucas's epic was not part of my life.

I was reminded of this today, because in the book I'm currently reading (Through a Screen Darkly), the author, Jeffrey Overstreet, mentions how awestruck he was when he first heard James Earl Jones's voice say, "Luke, I am your father." It was a kind of defining moment for Overstreet, in which he learned that heroes and villains are not always exactly as they first appear, and that even the most terrifying villain can have a final moment of redemption.

Sometimes, I'm sad I've missed out on revelatory experiences like those. I knew what was really going on with Norman Bates long before I actually watched Psycho, it feels like I've always known that the Wizard of Oz is really just a little man in a green suit, that Dorothy and Toto will make it back to Kansas safe and sound, and that Bambi's mother doesn't escape the hunter.

Much more significantly, knowing that Jesus died to save me from my sins feels like something that's been in my head from the time I was conceived.

I'm fascinated by missionary documentaries where the natives are so outraged and shocked that Jesus gets crucified, and then so jubilant when they hear about the resurrection. I really can't imagine what it would feel like to hear that story for the first time.

I think that's part of what drives me to seek out obscure and (especially) foreign movies. I want to see directors I've never seen before fleshing out scripts by writers I've never heard of, so that actors I don't recognize can tell a story I haven't already heard. I want to be surprised and amazed, to have to consider something from a new perspective, to wrestle with ideas I haven't comprehended, to root for a character without knowing her fate beforehand. New and unknown stories let me enter into them and experience them in a way that familiar stories just can't.

So that's why (at least in part) I watch movies about an abused French donkey (Au Hasard Belthazar), an oriental boy with a camera (Yi Yi), two German angels in trenchcoats (Wings of Desire), and a man who guides a scientist and a writer into the Zone (Stalker).

But It Did Happen

I've been thinking quite a bit about stories--not any story in particular, but more about them as a concept and what they mean and how they work. (This is something writers do.) One aspect that has occupied more of my attention recently is what makes a story worthwhile. When I was younger, I thought that a story was valuable only insofar as it reflected some higher (e.g. Christian) reality or principle. Basically, I looked at everything as an allegory and evaluated its merit based on how it functioned on that level, or I distilled it into a set of consistent, easy-to-understand divine rules.

For example, the band Five Iron Frenzy has a song titled "The Day We Killed", which is about the Indian massacre at the battle of Wounded Knee. I now think it is one of the band's strongest songs, but when I first listened to it, I thought it was missing something. I kept struggling to find the song's allegorical significance--did Crazy Horse represent God? Was it really a metaphor for human disobedience and destruction?--because I didn't think the tragedy of one group of people slaughtered by another could really be that important.

This mindset affected the way I read the Bible, too. While that might not initially seem like a bad approach (the Bible does have lots of parables and allegories, after all), it led me to discount the individual human struggle that drives so many of the Bible's stories; sure it must have been rough for Job while everything he knew and loved was destroyed, but it turns out okay for him in the end, so all his pain and suffering isn't that big a deal, right?

When I encountered someone who was struggling or suffering, I wasn't quite sure what to do with them, because I assumed that everything would work out in the end, and the waiting between now and whenever the solution or repayment came was really pretty insignificant.

What I had not learned then, though, is that most (or all, depending on how you look at it) of life is lived in the waiting time, and that by minimizing the importance the waiting (so I could skip ahead to what I thought of as the good parts), I was ignoring what really makes life what it is.

So now then: How does all of that tie in with the nature of stories?

All the things of life--pain, sadness, isolation, heartbreak, and tragedy, as well as joy, love, and fulfillment--are completely significant, not because you can glean a lesson or principle from them, but simply because they do (or could) happen. Stories give us the opportunity to celebrate and grieve over how vitally important everything is.

And every story works differently: The movement, rules, and internal logic of one story might be irrelevant, or even contradict, how another story unfolds. This does not, however, mean that one is necessarily better or more important than any other, or that the specific truth of one need harmonize with another; stories remind us that the world is somehow big enough to accomodate all of them, all at once.


A short song
out of tune but sincere
sung in parts that won’t harmonize.

Flowers arranged in neat rows
all of them primary colors:
blue, yellow, red.

Black dresses and suits
for contrast
hands folded, resting in laps.

Bowed heads rise
file slowly past
and then leave for home.

The silence
is just what I was expecting.

God's Good Going Away

I have grown up believing that being close to God, knowing him directly and immediately, was one of the highest, most honorable, and most mature goals I could have. It’s hard for me to remember a time when this idea was not part of my spiritual thinking.

It threw me for a loop, then, when I read Jesus saying things like this: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)

If I’m supposed to grow close to God, then how can his going away possibly be a good thing? Even when there’s no physical contact involved, you still feel closer to someone when you can see them and hear their voice. The second half of the verse tries to offer an explanation, but the logic behind how the visible incarnation of the Son of God being replaced by the Counselor (i.e. the Holy Spirit)–an invisible, inaudible, misty Thing that most people don’t like to even talk about, let alone try to explain–could be a good thing was a proposition that seemed fuzzy to me, at best.

The conclusion seems inescapable: No matter the fringe benefits it brings, Jesus going “there” means that he is not “here” anymore, and how could that possibly be a good thing? It takes a body to hug you, to calm your nerves with its touch, to soothe your fears and lull you to sleep with the sound of its voice, to wipe away your tears and to take on the lurking bullies; can a ghost, even the Holy one, do any of that?

A few chapters earlier–but still part of the same Upper Room speech to the Disciples–John records a statement that feels even more audacious:

“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

If we have faith in him, not only will we do what he was doing, but we will do even greater things. If anyone other than Jesus himself had said that, I would laugh it off and dismiss it without another thought. It sounds too ridiculous to even consider. But Jesus did say it, and so I find myself forced to wrestle with it.

The explanation for why we will do even greater things, “because I am going to the Father,” seems to link this verse with John 16:7; somehow, God exiting the scene is an immeasurably good development. But how can it be?

According to John, the answer has something to do with the Spirit coming. But like I wrote earlier, I have trouble understanding what’s supposed to happen when the Spirit comes, so I needed to find another way to look at it.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes that being in Christ doesn’t just upgrade us from what we used to be, but actually makes us into a whole new creation. A few verses later, he explains what our job is because of our new creation-ness:

“We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)

An ambassador acts as a stand-in, living in a foreign country and serving as the visible representative of the real ruler. Albeit in a delegated capacity, he has the same power and responsibilities as the ruler; to put it another way, he speaks with the king’s voice. And that is the position God has entrusted to us: To be his face and voice, as though we were making his appeal through us. All because Jesus left and sent the Counselor (the only reason we can function in our new position at all) to us.

The pieces start to fall into place. Jesus leaving and the Spirit coming is good because instead of the presence of God being localized in a single person (or a single place, in the Old Testament), God’s presence is dispersed into billions of breathing, walking, talking people. I get to see God because of them. Even more daunting, they’re supposed to see God because of me.

There are any number of ways to apply this idea, but the first that comes to mind for me has to do with how I talk to people. Why would I want to hide anything from you, when your response could be the words of God to me? And when I ignore you or blow you off, what does that communicate about God to you?

I’m still trying to imagine how prayer might fit into this.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------While I don't want to say unequivocally that God doesn't communicate with people directly anymore, it's never happened to me. My attempts to rationalize that formed the beginnings of this note.