Fortunes and Futures

11 03 2013

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Could this be one of those times in human history when the future looks more bleak than the past? I look out ahead of me and don’t like what I see: explanations of our existence bereft of any soul; theories of our origins that could be explained with a pencil and a slide rule; ideas about love that are the provenance of chemists and not poets; and poetry itself, reduced to nothing but syntax arranged by a computer.

Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “I miss culture and I want it back” (from her “The Death of Adam and Other Essays” collection, I think). I join in her lament. Scientists, those high priests of truth, are the self-appointed experts on everything, a position we all happily oblige them. After all, says we, if they can invent a light bulb, surely they can explain the mysteries of life. And so, slowly but surely, eternity morphs into infinity, poetry into word-play, erotic love into the chemical consummation of oxytocin and dopamine. You see this kind of reductionist metamorphosis all around you if you know where — and more importantly, how —  to look. Ads on TV, the perfume fragrance strips of magazines, pop music. It’s all about appearances, about glitz and glamor, pomp and ceremony, OMG! and Highlight reels. Even talk of content these days is so stylized, so self-conscious. Our souls collectively waste away as we settle for the Quick Fix.

Yes, I believe in souls, and that we embody them, and that because of this, our existence is greater than the sum of our parts, more complicated than our chemical alchemy, more mysterious than multiverses. Even philosophers, long since relegated to the back of the cultural and intellectual bus (I mean, who’s the last living philosopher you’ve read?), think they can cash in on the cheapest bit of intellectual property left for intellectual speculators: religion. It won’t be long before religion becomes an artifact of history, and supernatural belief a diagnosis in the DSM. Flannery O’Connor was right when she said that nihilism is in the very air we breathe.

Count me among the relics if and when that time comes, because explaining life by nothing more than a series of fantastical collisions of atoms does nothing for me. It doesn’t even make me sigh. It’s like being hit over the head by a fortune cookie. I mean, what’s the point?

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Catch as Catch Can

11 02 2013

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There was a lake. I was 17. There were friends, and a summer night, and stale popcorn on the cabin floor. We went outside, shed our clothes and went for a cold swim. We sang Van Morrison at the top of our lungs, fell asleep under the stars, dreamed about what our lives would be like 30 years from then. Catch as catch can, we said.

And here I am, 30 years later looking back at what’s been caught. It all seemed so haphazard while I was going through it, so unknowable from my vantage point at 17, dripping wet under the stars. But now, in looking back, a pattern, barely perceptible, emerges. All those years, so much living, so many people, so many choices, so many roads (taken and not taken), and yet under and over it all… in people’s faces, in prayers offered on my behalf, in the countless friendships that came and went, in my own failures. How could I know that my future was reaching back to me every bit as much as my past was reaching ahead?

Had I known then what the stars knew, their light a thousand years from home and finding me lying on the sand, my eyes staring up at them with nothing but questions.

Catch as catch can it all seems in the making; there is no road, we’re told. We make the way by walking. And yet, we don’t travel our journeys alone. The stars keep watch, maybe even have a story to tell. Silent, not altogether indifferent, lighting our way. Guided by the stuff we are all made of. Guided by the hand that made it all.

It all was so new at 17, I so fresh and young still, so much of life ahead of me and around a bend I could not see. But the stars could see, from their vantage point a billion miles from me. They’d traveled far, across continents of other stars, fields of dark matter, oceans of nothingness, to meet me on that lake shore that summer night in ’81.

I look up at those stars now and wonder, What do they know about my life 30 years from now? Where will I be? And with whom? This time, I know. With my aging wife, God-willing, and my two children, and maybe their children, too. And I’ll have come full circle and will be lying on that shore, dripping wet, under the stars, Van Morrison ringing in my ears, this life ebbing to a close, surrounded by love.

You catch what you can.