In Which a Troll Moves On

Winter’s end is a carcass lying in the ditch, a yellowed sagging thing. The blackened bones of the earth jut through its sloughing skin. Dead grass litters the roadside like tangled hair. She was an ugly one.

And I am ugly too, today, rife with headache and a lesser bridge-troll’s interpersonal sensibilities. I have had simply enough. The world is disorderly, in constant need of wrangling and permanently on the edge of fatal error. I don’t feel that I have a kindred soul alongside for this. “Oh, well, we’ll get it when it matters, it’ll all be fine” doesn’t keep things running smoothly.

It’s the troll under the bridge does that. Looks for the cracks before they’re visible on the surface. Watches the floodwater levels. Fights off the dark haunts of the night in order to do it all again tomorrow.

Winter’s end is her own kind of haint. Her carcass self brings the burning of bridges.

In winter’s end, I go away from all I once loved and wanted. Though it’s been darkness to me the last few years, it’s been my darkness. I’ve gotten comfortable under its lid, lying unnoticed and watching for the roof to crack. Patching it all back together over and over again, not sure why. Dreaming of anyplace else.

Dreams are dangerous. Anyplace else has come to find me, and it has taken me prisoner.

My strength is gone after ten years of patching things back together. My back’s weak and untrustworthy. My knees give out when I climb the ladder for the harrumphteenth time. My hands are crippled twins, shot with pain from wielding trowels of various kinds. I have built my home at great cost.

But this world is a crumbling thing. The wind wears away at the lonely shores, and the stars fall down through the northern night. The home I have made goes too, out to sea.

My ocean is prairie, cold and tossed with frozen swells. It is both beachhead and rolling wave, poised in icy sculpted form over roadsides and fence lines. Winter is leaving late and reluctant this year, dragging spring down under the ice in hopes of killing her by hypothermia.

My bridge is falling down.

What’s an aging woman to do? I’ll be forty in a few years, and the toll I’ve paid in health may not be recoverable by then. I must let anyplace else come for me, and perhaps I’ll have the chance to live again. Perhaps I’ll find health and peace in the sunlight I’ve forgotten.

Free of cracks and patches and holding my roof together in this place I built with my hands.

It’s sturdy enough, now, and it’ll do fine for whatever takes up residence next. There’s good cement, fine tilework, even wood and walls and washed glass windows.

May it do well for the next one. My chains are on me. Paper chains like a child’s festive garland, made with her own hands’ work. Decorated with numbers, signatures and contract terms.

I am already sold to anyplace else. When the frozen waves melt into larksong, I am gone.

Every Natural Love

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all… How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

-Penn Jillette, proselytizing atheist

The Great Divorce

“But could one dare — could one have the face — to go to a bereaved mother in her misery — when one’s not bereaved oneself?…”

“No, no, Son, that’s no office of yours. You’re not a good enough man for that. When your own heart’s been broken it’ll be time for you to think of talking. But someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

There comes a moment in a Christian’s life when one doesn’t want to be a Christian anymore. Very rarely is it for the sake of our own cherished, secret sins. No, those we justify, as Lewis has rightly noted elsewhere. We tell ourselves tales of how our own unrighteous thoughts and inclinations can’t be so very bad, for after all, we’re Christians.

No, the moment when one has a sudden urge to quit Christianity is in the moment of loss. Loss of face, loss of self-respect, loss of valuables or dreams.

Loss of loved ones.

Hypotheses and Realities

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

-Philip K. Dick

A short time ago, a friend listened to me rail against the empty hypotheticals that arrive with profound loss. In general: Oh, she is at rest now. Oh, she is at peace. Or on the Christianish side, oh — perhaps there was some last-hour miracle in which her heart changed, or perhaps all go to heaven due to some overbearingly rude indifference of God toward the will of those who have no wish for a God at all.

My grandmother was one who had no wish for God. From my childhood on, my grandparents were avowed atheists. It was she who taught me the art of thoughtful skepticism: to examine religion and large (or large-seeming) ideas and compare them to how the world actually works. She introduced me to Shirley MacLaine’s New Age notions and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. She mentored each of us in many a late-night conversation, preparing us for the deceits and absurdities of the adult world.

She did for us what was never done for her, and it changed my life.

It was my grandmother’s materialist atheism that taught me to look for and thoroughly question the connection between religious abstraction and concrete reality. In a very real way, her sense of intellectual principle has kept me a Christian all these years. I’m no intellectual lightweight, yet I can’t falsify it.

But I railed because, in the overture of a late and cold high summer, she died.

The Heart Has its Reasons

In the shoals of grief, the Christian quickly runs up against a sudden, fierce anger against God. If God can save whomever He chooses, and it’s nothing of man’s doing, then why doesn’t He save those for whom we pray most fervently? If God can intervene in whatever He chooses, then why doesn’t He save the failing marriage, rescue the broken engagement, spare the innocent child, relieve the suffering of poverty and war?

On the threshold of death, it would be reprehensible to posit some high-minded abstract answer. All I can or should say is that I know this angry struggle. I know it and I’m cut by it to the core of my heart, because she’s gone.

But I cannot, even now, accept convolutions of our love for loved ones. High-minded fancy is blasphemy in the space where reason knows nothing. As Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

The afterlife (or lack thereof) is an abstract without connection to our real experience. We don’t know, so we make up fables and judge facts by them. This reversal can tear the heart to shreds in times of grief, precisely because it gives nothing to hang onto. Stop believing in it, and it goes away. That’s only another burden for the heart to bear.

“I Don’t Respect That At All”

Empty platitudes are no solution; neither is trembling at the natural differences of view between us who remain on this earth.

So, then: the anger of loss.

“…someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand it, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this (heavenly) country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.”

“That saying is almost too hard for us.”

“Ah, but it’s cruel not to say it.”

(Lewis)

My love is not enough to invoke eternity. Not my love of work, not my love of principle, not my love of others. Only Christ’s love for my soul; Christ who died for me. And for you.

God, then, will have to be enough for me, because I can’t be enough for you. Why should I be? To say otherwise would be a tremendous conceit and a denial of my faith.

You can stop believing in me, and I can go away. In some sense, we ourselves are not a full reality. So, instead, I will entrust you to God’s goodness, and be good to you insofar as I can stumble through, because He is good.

Our Cultural Hells

“You cannot torment yourself,” my friend said, “with images from medieval paintings. Whatever comes after, we know that God is good.”

And he was right. Those images of hell are representatives of a relatively recent and bloody European culture, rife with the brutal treatment of rivals — burnings at stakes and other monstrous tortures. To acquiesce wholesale to them makes grief a vicious weapon that spears us through the heart.

Those are images of this world, not of the blank spaces in our knowledge of hereafter. Neither the outer darkness nor the light of heaven are within our sight while we walk this plane. Only their shadows fall here.

But if as non-Christians we torment ourselves instead with the idea of annihilation — that there is no heaven or hell but what we make for ourselves on earth — then we must believe that every natural love is ultimately destroyed.

That too is a culturally-driven speculation, a thing we can’t know.

I watched it shatter my grandmother when my grandfather died; I sat with her as she broke down and wept and berated herself for the illogic of grieving what, to her, simply didn’t exist anymore. Not him; not their love.

Yet we can’t know this as a fact, not in the way we know the sun rises in the east. Not in the way I know the knife-edge of anger at God in the face of death and loss and evil.

We arrive at eternity’s front path by an indirect route.

To Cross The Salt Sea

She always told me what she believed, because she loved me. Because she knew that to hold convictions on the greater good of humanity, and not speak, is disreputable and cowardly.

She’s gone; whatever comes after, I know that God is good. This, at least, is no abstraction; I can connect it to the concrete reality of life in all its pains, for I’ve experienced His goodness. And when I stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.

There I begin, over and over again.

She taught me to look for the set of ideas that corresponds most robustly to the world’s visible facts. From there, we may triangulate the way forward, indirect though it be.

That gift takes me through her loss, beyond empirical reason, and charts me a course across the salty seas where reason knows nothing; where the heart’s reasoning rules.

And I arrive, over and over again, at this:

Every natural love is not destroyed. Some rise again, and live forever.

If I Have Ever Had a Memory

I can’t even remember my name most of the time. I find myself waking up even though I’m already awake, and wondering who I am and what I’m doing. So if you’ve ever had a memory, I envy you.
Jill Domschot

If I have ever had a memory, it’s a flash of leaves and light. I can’t remember what I’m doing; who I am has always been up for grabs. I have a poor sense of my own person. I never know how to answer when asked my name.

The countryside rolls with the winds like a sea. It’s the grain, it makes waves, and the hills are swells rising higher than houses. The trees in the valleys are seaweed forms, mottled by the shifting light that filters down through clouds that sail on forever and aye.

This is my ocean. 

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of this place where houses tumble down after the last century’s boom and crash, quickly built by railway speculation in the grain trade, and slowly crumbled by the dustbowl’s lingering effects on once-prosperous estates. These farms were the manor houses of the New World, fiefdoms unto themselves. Now both the politics and the liberties available have changed irrevocably.

There used to be a homestead every half-mile. They say the housewives found it terribly isolating. Now the silence of birdsong and the sun’s turning is overridden by gargantuan tractor engines echoing off the hills and jet planes shushing by at altitude. Everything echoes in this ocean’s spaces. It echoes in the space left by family farms that had no choice but to fold in the face of corporate-sized endeavours. It echoes in the spaces left by the children who dwindled away. Eighty in the school when I was a child. Then fifty, then thirty, then a dozen. Then a handful and a fight over the inevitable closure.

This is my ocean, but I don’t belong to it anymore. The farming is done; my father was the last of four generations. Where we go after this, I don’t know.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of award-winning pies and breads at the local fair. Horse teams stomping their feet and circling the ring. Artwork and photography on display. Handmade quilts and sparkling Gem jars.

We did these things because it’s what the land required, not out of high-minded idealism or magazine promotions. Not by lifestyle choice, but by choosing to live here.

And I do.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of calling my mother-in-law for Grandma’s sweet pickle recipe.

Steam rising from the canning pot and dampening the strands of hair that escaped from the scarf on my head and the braid falling down my neck.

The scent of dried-out wheat and barley stalks falling in tidy swaths, their chaff carried on the wind. The sunset that reaches across half the sky when harvest dust hangs in the air, and a huge golden moon on the rise.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of the neighbour phoning to say he found my son a blacksmith’s tools at an auction. Of brickwork on the tumbledown abandoned houses, lath-and-plaster walls of finer quality than drywall, stained glass windows in parlors and front doors.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of leaves and light. Leaves green and young, poplars rattling in the summer breeze and reeds swishing in answer. Leaves golden-brittle, tumbling down on overgrown field trails that were once official roads. Now they’re mere tracks, but still we know them all, and who once lived there.

I can’t remember what I was doing in that flash of leaves and light because I wasn’t doing anything, just being.

It’s called the backwater for a reason. Out in the back places, silent ponds stand under leaning trunks, sheltered from the sun’s touch. Beaver and muskrat dive and build. Secrets hum in the night and flicker like sparks: when things are still, the fireflies dance outside my bedroom window. Always, I stop in wonder. These are my lights that burn all night, the only ones I want. For my next dance, I’ll take the wind upon the winter’s first snow.

I don’t know how to answer when my name is asked because there’s history attached to it, history that you can’t know if you haven’t been here.  Some of it is painful; some is still a mystery even to me. Do you expect to call me what my family and neighbours call me? I don’t hand out that name. It lives where I live.

I came from outside this culture, and it took me nearly forty years to start to understand its hidden ways and now, in this place, it’s dwindling to a ghost. It’s still vital and alive elsewhere, and this is not its last rodeo. But like any self-respecting old cowboy, it’s not what you want it to be. It is what it is.

Who I am is no longer up for grabs at this late turning of the season. This is my ocean; I haven’t ceased to belong here yet. Lord willing, my burial will be upon this sea.

The Seventh Fairy Tale of the Modern Woman

Yesterday, my sister pointed out Six Fairy Tales for the Modern Woman. I said that mine is the sixth, because although we’re landlocked, I never wanted to learn to surf.

However, she noted that there’s not much mention of children, although child-raising is a perfectly valid life choice too. So, for my sister, here is the seventh fairy tale.


VII. Once upon a time, a girl reluctantly married her high school not-exactly-sweetheart because she didn’t want to raise their unexpected baby alone. This necessitated laying aside her plans for an eventual PhD, not to mention the part about becoming a permanently-single cat lady with a nicely-appointed heritage home in the university district and a grand piano in the living room. “Well,” she said to herself, “This certainly negates any possibility of Fairytale #1 coming true. Just look at the baby spit on everything. And I have no money to decorate the way I’d like.”

But over time, she realized she’d intuitively made this choice because the young man really was Prince Charming. It just took a few more kisses than the Fairytale Manual mentions. (Those old books are notorious for their missing pages.)

The girl and her sweetheart grew up together in their twenties, and they had four extremely quirky but well-loved children. They travelled the continent with their young family in their thirties. And when she had spent half her life with him (she was only 36 at the time, and he was 38), she looked at the grey in his hair and thought, “We’re not even old yet. How rich I am to have known him all this time, in all these ways.”

Then she walked into the kitchen and saw a young man, nearly grown, looking quietly at her with the intentness of a child memorizing all his mother’s expressions. She hadn’t raised her baby alone, and suddenly she was nearly done. Two young ladies were giggling and sharing secret thoughts. And a younger man hugged her round the waist as she went by.

The house she was in, they had built together. The gardens were tended by six pairs of hands. The shop was littered by the tools of all the children following after that man, whose life dream had always been to be a father and husband. And in the evenings, the children’s songs rose and drifted out the windows and into that faraway northern realm called The Land Where Rainbows Live.

Time turned on, as it tends to. She did not learn to surf at the age of 65, because she didn’t want to. The man had no interest in decorating, so she decorated the house however she wished, now that times were better. And she kept a promise she’d made to herself back in her twenties, which was to cultivate smile lines.

She suspected the wrinkles and wear-marks were caused by those children, who were always coming back to reread her face like a familiar old book from childhood. Honestly, it would make anyone a little dogeared, but it was also why her lines were happy ones. Her skin became thinner and delicate, but it reminded her of really beautiful tissue paper — or perhaps the onionskin of some sacred text, for this unexpected life had taught her that not all mystery has yet left the world.

And in her old age, her two sons smiled at her with their father’s blue eyes, and her two daughters laughed with the laughter of their father’s heart. The paper was certainly crinkled; but she was quite certain no pages were missing at all.

Interstitial

The parking lot is a blackened patch of sun in a white and frozen ocean, and for the moments it takes to cross it, I am eighteen again, or fifteen. I am small in a large world, making my way through its unnoticed spaces, and they are full of a warmth I’ve only just come to know.

On the far side, the gargantuan machinery of my husband’s workplace churns on forever, making men its servants. Behind me is the guardhouse, where an aging fellow in blue uniform stands sentinel for the truck drivers who come and go.

Right here, the air is fresh and spring is rising. My southern friends would ask how that can be, when the snow is still piled in drifts the height of men’s heads. Winter covers my northland in a tsunami four feet thick and poised motionless in place. Or so it appears.

But on the asphalt, meltwater is trickling. The sun’s heat is coming. Winter will ambush its way back in the door another time or two before the metamorphosis is complete, but in my books, this is the first day of spring. It’s out of step with the summer of my life, a blooming heady thing full of roses and thunderstorms. The spring is quieter, purer, cooler, and it takes me back.

I remember sharing youth and potentiality with my cousin, wandering the back alleys of the city around our grandparents’ house. I remember the day I got my university acceptance and went dancing through my college town’s historic district with the boy who would become my husband.

Youth is unmitigated and yet invisible, an empty space stretched painfully between the substances of childhood and adulthood. It runs shallow and fleeting across the hard surfaces of life. Then it’s down the drain.

It’s not really difficult to let it go. It’s a place that’s better to visit from a distance. I wouldn’t want to live there.

This young, fresh thing so idolized in our culture is a chimera, and we futilely reconstruct and worship what we never really saw. It can’t be seen. It fleets past in the single hour when the air is fresh with promises unmade — promises that can’t be made, for no one knows the future — and its tentative warmth is something that can’t be bottled in a snake-oil elixir.

I woke this morning to a crystalline world. Raised my head from the pillow, looked out the window, and saw the trees across the road were laced with frost and shimmering in the sun. By noon it melted away. Nothing but the usual grey sticks remained, stuck at odd angles in the four-foot blanket of snow.

The surface sheen we mistakenly call beauty can’t be kept. But that’s because of the warmth of life — a greater kind of beauty.

That underlying essence, the thing we can’t capture in a bottle, remains. It grows beneath the chill, deep-rooted in spite of the muck and awkward wallowing of our transitional pains. It grows like a mustard seed. And it is a time traveller, carrying us through the interstices of the world.

So I walk across a black patch of sun and cool, fresh air, and for those moments I’m lost within the interstitial. It’s not youth I remember; it’s not youth I need to remember. It’s the first moments when I felt that metamorphic warmth — that warmth which has become a blaze, and will dwindle to a comforting bed of long-lived embers in my autumn. In the final season, it will become a spark which struggles to remember the fire from which it has drifted loose.

God willing, I’ll find my reflection in the unnoticed trickle of the meltwaters, even then.

The Frost Wind

This one is the wind who brings the frost. I’ve lived here long enough to know it by its voice.

This is the time of year when the sun falls asleep earlier and earlier, like an aging woman, and the clouds turn to gold that lives and dies – and die it does, like a match going out in the night.

I wear a jacket to the garden, and we pick the last of everything. Perhaps it will warm again before the final death. Some years, like some souls, find a last burst of vitality. Though brittle on the surface, shivering through each day, they radiate quiet completion.

Or perhaps the year will simply fail. Sometimes the heart gives out, and that’s the end.

Yet the fruit remains to nourish us, after the year has passed away. We retreat to warmth and the comfort of the family table, of house windows like candles in the dark. Our vigil is a passing night.

Rain falls in a tempest and freezes down. Outside, the wind wails and sighs in its annual ritual. This is the one who brings the frost, a silver blanket to lay all the north to rest.

Into the Songtime

The spring was a shining season, full of light and vibrance. There is no explaining a northern spring; you have to be there to know it.

The days increased, and the air resonated with birdsong. The sky became a rich, crystalline blue, the kind of colour one might find in tropical waters, but calmer, deeper, clearer.

And I awoke. The change in the light caught me and pulled me from my winter hibernation. The wind warmed, and I lost the layers of graveclothes. Found myself bare-limbed amid the earth’s breath, wandering through grasses. Tilling soil, fighting with too little time as everything came alive and busy in a rush like meltwaters in the creeks. Planting seeds and dreams and hopes.

The stars took up residence in a halfway space where blue ink stole time from midnight’s velvet black. The moon rode adrift on a sky free of cold and grey and cloud. It is an endless entity, this sky.

In the evenings, out behind the barn, it blazes pale gold and shades of rose and coral. There may be a sea somewhere far away with all these colours hidden among its secrets, but this is my ocean. Hills of green grain like great swells, places I’ve always been. Crumbling buildings once lived in by people I knew and who are gone. Someday I will be too.

Rains come. They trample the earth and ride on, and leaves open out. It is the greening. Every day, so much change. The children come running with the latest news of what grows, what blooms, what phases and stages are occurring as the hours pass by. In only a few hours, one day to the next, morning to evening, it happens.

High summer.

All insanity ceases. Oh, we are still insanely busy, but the north is balanced on its pivot point and stops to take a breath. The days stretch like a cat in the sun, and begin to lazily retract. All growing things seem to pause. They, too, stretch tall. They reach for the roof of the world, and draw in the heated air that rises off the soil.

Lightning flickers. Storm clouds pass over. The inkshades of night return with their silent wealth.

Soon comes the songtime.

The year hangs poised upon the apex of the seasons. Cricket sounds fill the evening air. Earlier, the hint of rose tinted the clouds, though all other roses have gone their way and vanished. Now, darkness begins to creep in and brings with it my Perseids. I was born in this time, the time when my world sings.

There is no explaining the change of time and season, here in my north. So, come with me to see it.

The Perseids fall. They streak through the sky and never quite make it to ground. Thrown stones that cause no wounds and break no glass houses. The moon flies at half-mast, and where the sky was full of all the gentlest hues before, now the dusky silhouettes of clouds lace the horizon, inkblots rimmed in silver.

I am aging wood, less sap and more brittleness each year. I stand inert while time whirls too fast for me to catch hold. A month used to be as a year is now. A week has become a day. I grieve the shortness of life, and I’m not half done it.

From the high summer’s gentle fermata, the slide will begin, an unseen finger running over my heartstrings. In the songtime, fruit ripens, birds sing, winds take on a different nature. All comes to its intended fullness. Yet still things change and move–instead of a rush, a restlessness that is both wandering and settling in.

Silently, my north will put a ballad in my heart. Leaves will turn colour, birds begin to wing away. The wild winds will sweep through, an unrelenting bluster that signals the jet stream’s shift southward.

In that season, I will feel the greatest resonance. I always have. The autumn’s ingress brings me lyrics and tunes, and sets my soul to restiveness along with the wind. I think perhaps I was made for summer’s end.

In the summer’s end, I am a gatherer. I turn soil, pluck fruit, make freezing and canning. My labours return to me, and they are good.

I hope this forebodes the course of my life. I hope not to be fossilized by excessive care and pragmatism by then. How would a stone hear the song of the year? Yet I miss so much that I sometimes wonder if it will slip past before I can truly grab hold, days turned into seconds.

I don’t know. I only know there is no explaining the northern summer’s end; I have to go and see it. You, then, my friend, come with me. Slow my steps. Take me there, where grasses play crescendoes and leaves rattle a percussive ostinato, and all comes to harvest, for good or ill.

I am not old yet, but I am no longer young.

Walk with me into the songtime.

Smoke

To most people, smoke means destruction and danger ahead. House gone, forest ablaze, fields licked by an orange-and-black tiger. To some, it means deception. Mirrors and a haze of uncertainty.

To me, smoke is memory.

I am sitting on her couch, for she has moved to a final stopover and her furniture is no longer needed. She bought it after he was moved to the care home. It decorated the front room, but it was a placeholder. It does not have the scent of other, older things of theirs.

In older times, smoke hangs on the air. It has the warmth of a golden summer afternoon, intertwined with the light that enters the sunroom. Windows are open, and the scent of fresh grass wafts in. Across the elm-lined city street, the neighbour’s lawnmower hums like an oversized insect. We sit while supper cooks. He in the chair that’s his, my parents in the other two. It’s a tiny room, and if children wish to join in, they must sit quietly on the floor and not wiggle too much. I sit next to the radiator, aside from his feet. He puffs grey-blue like a gentle dragon, a civilized one with an English accent. The windows are crowded with begonias in flower, which he loves to tend.

The conversation goes over my head. Books, news, society and mundane matters like how to trim a straight hedge all mingle on the air. I pat the golden retriever, who is hiding behind the armchair.

Smoke, supper cooking, fresh-cut grass, and the aroma of a late-afternoon beer to mark the day’s winding down.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. It is not the thing itself, only my mind’s representation of it. He is gone, and she is nearly. Time is meaningless to her; like a child, she wears her emotions on her nightgown sleeve, and paces the hall of the nursing home at odd hours. She could have visitors every day for a week, and on the eighth day she would insist she’s been forgotten.

Time is a tiger. It is mirrors and a haze of uncertainty. I sit here on the couch she never needed, and try to remember for her.

They lived through World War II, through the bombing of Liverpool, and in their world there are no fantasized afterlives. Only inevitable endings. Reality is a glass tumbling downward through the air, released by the hand of chance. The glass hits the floor, shatters, and it’s done.

Only the representation remains. A shape traced on a watcher’s retina, fading as the light shifts. A ghost made of shards and scraps. Until that, too, drifts away like smoke.

Dark Solstice

The greatest fear is the same for all of us: it’s the fear of not getting back up again. It’s a death-fear, even though the body lives on in all the comfort that the greatest wealth in the world can provide. Even inside our ivory palaces we’re not safe from it. Death has a more terrifying form than physical ending, and that is to leave us as shells of walking flesh.

Winter may not end. One of these days, all hint of warmth will prove false. The sun may not rise. One of these days, our eyes will lose the ability to see it. All it takes is one cold finger down the spine from that old ghoul and we are half-drowned rats squealing in terror.

Burrow a little deeper, then. Add a few more comforts and try to clutter the landscape around us with all manner of riches, privileges, and manufactured self-martyrdoms in the pursuit of not embracing hopelessness. At least then we are dying for something of our choosing, however inane, instead of just dying. At least then the walking shell can put on a mock-up of spirit and soul.

I am one such shell, a half-drowned rat. I am floating near the bottom of a very long vertical tunnel, and I wish to heaven it were a well, because then it wouldn’t be so deep. It’s about a year long, comprising an agonized spring, a missing summer, a frozen autumn. And now, a snowless wasteland of a winter.

Every time I try to climb out of this tunnel, I fall back harder, it seems. I’m on a missing persons list, pinned to the wall and can’t escape. Flattened, monochrome, unable to push forward into full being and retake the shape of life.

People can see me there, tacked to the wall. A digital replica with a smile in place like it always was. Appearances are one thing. Breathing is another. The real me is at the bottom of the miles-long plunge.

It’s when I think of how I got here that I want to cry. By trying. Not trying to get here, trying to do what I know I should. Trying to live. A year of illness and broken bones has left me face to face with the Great Fear: maybe I won’t get back up.

I’m not done yet. I want it back. The sunshine. If my days can be shortened in a dark solstice, they can grow longer and warmer again.

I’m not convinced it’s sound, but the theory will do until disproven. It will have to do, because seasons are spinning past. And I barely notice from where I am.

I just wish I knew the mechanics of climbing out of a long, dark tunnel without a rope.

Seasons spin past. If my days can grow longer and warmer again, the rains can come again and fill even this pit, lift me up or drown me. There is no force on earth like the waters that wash all things into cleanliness or oblivion.

And if I can be lifted up, whether dead or alive in my soul, then I can see the sun again. The climb is not the task at hand. Death is here. Death is now, no matter how much we pay to decorate over it.

Living is dying. In the darkness, I am eyeball-to-eyeball with the specter that haunts us all: then why bother in the first place?

My last candle goes out.

In the waning of all self-made light, at the dark solstice, I am not sure I can answer that ghoul’s question in any inspiring way. I’m not sure I should; would it only be another blinker to shield the eyes within the ivory palace?

I have thought of lying down and not getting up again – the great fear that besets us all. I think often of surrender.

This is what makes a half-drowned rat squeal in terror. No one is listening. There is only the ghoul.

All I know with any concrete knowing is that we have it backwards, here at the height of history, where our palace walls are carefully padded with all manner of synthetic comfort, where we have made provision for the insanity deep down: buried it, caged it, pressed it flat, made it black-and-white and pinned it to the wall.

At the far end of the tunnel, looking up, there’s a window. I barely notice the seasons spinning by, but I’m not insensate yet. We have it backwards. The ancients felt and lived and breathe what we forget: Night is the beginning, not the end.

Even if I go blind, the rains will come.

The World as Narrative

The world is a narrative, not a science project.

I’m aware there exist those who think science is the only path to knowledge. I don’t believe them even as they are saying it: there are too many things they do and believe that tell off on them. They love. They hate. They laugh. They cry. They thrill to a piece of music. They consider some things beautiful. They consider other things ugly. And they use logic to explain to me why science is the only path to knowledge.

The world comes to us as narrative. We watch the seventy years or so allotted to us unfold as part of the grand tale. People do not watch the news for nothing; there’s enough conflict in this worldly tale to keep the audience glued to their seats.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Hegel understood this—the Spirit of history creating the ages through the dialectic. Marx understood it—class warfare as the engine of the narrative. Nietzsche understood it in the struggle between Apollo and Dionysius. Nearly all, or arguably all, philosophy, theology, religion, science, conventional wisdom, common sense, and in general abstract thought is in some sense at least a partial attempt to describe or interpret the narrative. That’s just the way it is.

In the West, there are two old foes still at each other’s throats after two millennia, both vying for supremacy in the interpretation of the narrative. The first is a sweeping tragedy, older than its competitor, that conceives of the narrative as a tale of two nothings. Between the nothings, the narrative recounts life’s temporary rebellion against purposelessness, meaninglessness, and, of course, nothingness; a rebellion woefully outgunned, undersupplied, and pitted against a natural army of unrelenting and ultimate devastation.

This view was historically a minority report, at least by those who dared disclose it. Since the 19th century, however, it has surged in popularity with the advent of evolution and the successes of the sciences. Its ascendancy, though by no means settled, is now a viable possibility, and no competing philosophy succeeds in the mind of man without incorporating some of its elements. In this tale, life begins by chance through natural causes, rises from the mire, and ascends to sentience, only to one day in the far future (yes, I split infinitives, happily) witness its own death alongside the universe itself in a cosmic heat death. Nothingness to nothingness. Darkness to darkness. Meaningless to meaningless. Vanity of vanities…the narrative is authorless.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Its primary western competitor, Christianity, interprets the narrative quite differently. There was never a nothing, because God is. There never shall be a nothing, because God is. Under Christianity, the narrative is not a tragedy; it is a plotline told by an author, the author of life himself.

Does not this alter our view, not only of the narrative, but of our own roles as characters within the narrative? Do we not now have purpose in even the most mundane tasks? Does our pain, even enduring pain, not now have an eternal significance? Does not the right and wrong that we do really have meaning for time and eternity?

It does. The contrast between the two could not be clearer, and never the twain shall meet. And, as we see the narrative unfold, do we not really know deep down that all stories have authors?

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.

~Heb. 2:10


Contributed by MS Quixote, neighborhood cowboy philosopher and general charognard