Another Note, Another Table

22 01 2014

a-diner

I was so taken by the note I’d run across the other day in Nebraska (see recent blog “Note on a Table”), I figured I’d return to see if lightning struck twice. It did. Same coffee shop, different table, another note. Does this guy see me coming? Does he regularly leave his missives at the table for any random person to read? Is this his way of “getting the word out”? Whatever his reasons, here is another letter I discovered from Mr. (or is it Mrs. ?) D.B. Wyatt.

Nothing but Now
by D. B. Wyatt

“Probably Not”

I see what I see. All I’ve got is what I have. A couple of grown kids, a pleasant spouse, a few kicks and bruises doled out by life. Some irreparable friendships, a few lies for safe-keeping, a good dog, a comfortable house with a fenced back yard for the grandchildren some day (knock on wood). And some stories. Quite a few of them, actually. Life lived at the micro level, where paying attention is required. You see things others don’t — and probably don’t want to. Sometimes you have to shake your head and look again. A memory of something very small, happened on a Tuesday afternoon about 3,000 Tuesday afternoons ago. You remember. But you’re not sure why. Sometimes you are.

I’ve seen a lot. All I’ve got is what I’ve had. Some poems published in reputable magazines. Long conversations with friends long since gone. A run-in once with William Faulkner. He and his wife were visiting Omaha for some writers’ conference at the college where I taught, and he had been asked to speak. My better half and I were selected to take “Bill and Estelle” out for drinks and dinner afterwards. They both drank more than they ate and got into a big row about money. I made the fatal mistake of siding with Estelle to minimize the embarrassment it was causing all of us. Didn’t end that well. Then there was my friendship with Gus, my mechanic for 30+ years. Smartest guy I ever knew. Would quote Wittgenstein while fixing my carburetor. I asked him once if he believed in God. He told me, “Wittgenstein said, ‘Since the mystical is inexpressible, there is nothing more to be said.’” That was his reply. That’s all he ever said about the subject. Every once in awhile I’d catch him walking to the local Baptist church on a Sunday morning, all dressed up, smart shoes, bow tie. Alone. Never quite figured Gus out.

If you focus on the frame, that’s all you see. If life is supposed to add up, you’ll only see the additions. But if it isn’t ~ if it’s supposed to not add up, which is presumably where faith comes in, then we’re stuck doing additions while the truth is not a sum but some product, a quotient. I’m reminded of my early math lessons when I thought I’d go that route instead of writing poetry: “The derivative of a product is not the product of the derivatives.” You’re not even asking the right questions if you think life is supposed to add up. Is God supposed to add up? If God were God, he wouldn’t.

So probably not. I’ll keep my manifesto for another day, just in case. But God? This is about all you can say:

(f g)≠ f t g t

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The Lake Isle of Innisfree

12 07 2012

I was thinking of Heaven as I was reading the Lake Isle of Innisfree a couple of days ago, and I thought about how terrible it would be if Heaven were just a place we came up with in our minds, a Lake Isle of our own making, in order to counter the reality that we are in fact alone in this life. I then extended this idea further and considered how truly awful it would be if, as we are told in that nursery rhyme, this life itself is “but a dream.”

It then occurred to me that that’s what hell is, and the severest forms of mental illness (which are, in some sense, merely mirror images of each other): being alone in one’s own existence with nothing but voices and phantoms of one’s own making, an echo chamber of chaos where one is profoundly misunderstood even by oneself — and ultimately unknown to oneself. This is also the height of narcissism, which, I am convinced, is the DNA of all mental illness.

And so, if Heaven is real and, by extension, this life is not a dream, then Heaven must be an even deeper reality than this life, where we understand more and are, in turn, more fully known; we’ll see ourselves as parts of a larger whole, as separate (but not separated) parts of who we all are and who God is. And yet we will, in some sense, remain a mystery.

Which would make eternity, in our as-yet presently unredeemed state of individualism, hell. The boundaries between us must dissolve before the boundary of time can disappear. In heaven, we won’t be the same self-conscious, individuated people we are now. We will know ourselves for being known in communion with others. We will still be ourselves, no doubt, replete with bodies, but they will be imperishable bodies, unhindered by the atoms that now form locked rooms and solid walls and subjugated consciousnesses. Jesus taught us this. His body could contain a meal but could not be contained by the walls of an inner room. And so we, too, will be parts of a larger whole; the core of our beings like strings on a single violin.

In the meantime, we need to learn to see with our peripheral vision. Not “see” in the conventional sense, with our eyes, but in a spiritual sense (as “seers”) with our souls, where we acknowledge that not all of reality is necessarily subject to our scrutiny, and that there is no compelling reason to insist it be otherwise. Why must reality, in principle, be accessible to our senses, or to those instruments that are nothing but mechanical extensions of our senses? Why indeed.

God is beauty because, like beauty in the form of any good poem or piece of music or painting, God is marked by restraint. His beauty respects boundaries, understands the necessity of frames. But God, who is the object of the eyes and ears of our faith, cannot be seen directly, but can only be seen by our spiritual peripheral vision, which gives what we see an invisible context. Similar to what Paul meant when he said that we cannot see directly or clearly now but only through a dim mirror — but then we will see face to face. Right now, we are in the shadow of God, while God’s direct revelation to us in the Son is infinitely brighter than the sun on a clear summer day (and the darkness will not put it out), and like the sun, we cannot look at Him directly, but everything is seen more clearly by His light (GKC).

Mature self-awareness admits a certain restraint — the very concept of identity requires a willing suspension of knowledge; so to be able to define oneself fully is to render the self meaningless. “The essence of every picture is its frame” Chesterton reminds us, and so every text needs a context from within which to be understood. So to know a thing completely is to cease to know it at all, since what we don’t know about anything provides the context for our knowing it to begin with. All knowledge is contingent — in this life and the next. In other words, if anything made complete sense, it couldn’t be true. (I had a conversation with a student last semester about this. Abby asked, “But if everything’s a mystery, how do we know what’s true?” I told her that if anything ceases to be a mystery, you can be sure it isn’t true.)

J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis, in the midst of Lewis’ profound doubt about the veracity of the Christian story, that Christianity was a myth like all the other myths he so deeply loved, the only difference being that the Christian story was a myth that was true. And so, too, Heaven, is a Lake Isle of Innisfree, the only difference being that it isn’t merely a place created by my imagination. One is free, of course, to believe that Heaven is simply that: a projection of our own collective wish-fulfillment — of our imaginations. But I don’t think so. I feel it in my deep heart’s core, that some day, we all will find ourselves at a crossroads, or maybe simply at the foot of a cross, and will be given leave to say:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The only difference, of course, is that we won’t be alone, as, in fact, the speaker of Yeats’ poem is not alone. Notice the chorus of life he is surrounded by: the loud honeybees, the songs of crickets, the fullness of the linnets’ wings…