The Sun and the Sky: Finding Magic (part 4)

Skydiving
Photo by Skydive Switzerland

When I first watched my skydiving video, I couldn’t help but cringe a little. Even now, I find myself wishing for the removal of some frames and the addition of others.

The angles aren’t great, I stick my tongue out at one point, and I’m gaping and gesturing like a child. I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed, because isn’t it enough that I went skydiving and it was magical?

I want to control the way I look when I’m feeling a lot of emotion, or at least control how I look in the images meant to capture that emotion and carry it out into the world. I want to look open but not too open, happy yet composed, and please no awkward facial expressions or ugly crying or anything else untamed, unkempt, unhinged.

But the most moving photography of humans captures the real, raw moments. I have rarely seen such unbridled joy on my face as I did during the freefall, but I find it hard to see the beauty, to be moved by my own childlike, unmitigated wonder. I worry what others will think, that they will laugh or be uncomfortable, that I will laugh or be uncomfortable and miss out on every re-experience of Magic.

I wasn’t worrying about it at the time, but I was worrying in Alliance, Nebraska, a few weeks earlier. This was the day of the total solar eclipse. I wasn’t worrying about how I looked, but I may as well have been.

It’s hard to capture a moment and still remain fully present to that moment. That’s why I didn’t even try to photograph the eclipse. But I did want everything to be just so. I was aghast that the people around me proceeded to talk through all of totality, that cameras were clicking and distractions abounded. I wished I were on a hilltop, alone. I wished everyone was reverent and solemn in the ways I thought they should be reverent and solemn. I wished to fall into a sun-trance, but I seemed thwarted by externals.

Sometimes everything comes together splendidly, and yet it’s not enough. We feel too much or too little, or we look like we feel too much or too little, or our attention is diverted just enough that we feel, somehow, that our experience didn’t count.

I can never, it seems, experience something just once and be satisfied. The high demands I place on Magic are hard to fulfill.

And yet, Magic, Magic is everywhere. I have always loved the true stories of breaking through what we thought were barriers of the natural world, of going beyond where we thought we could. Apollo 13 was the first movie I saw in theaters, at age 6, and in college I jumped at the chance to take a niche course on the Space Race of the 1960s.

I am thrilled to the bones, moved to tears, by stories of these explorers and risk-takers. In these stories, there is a First around every corner, one moment and then another of breathless anticipation and water in the eyes. I watch my own skydiving video and I attach it to the more dramatic music in the company’s promo video, I attach it to Launch music and Leaving Port music and every other song I can think of that bespeaks adventure, so that the moment when the song reaches its crescendo is my Moment of leaving the plane.

 

No video or picture I’ve ever seen has done justice to the magic of skydiving, the magic of a total solar eclipse. They say a picture is a worth a thousand words. Dare I believe that collections of a thousand words could be worth pictures?

 

This is part four of a four-part series.

Part 1: Beginnings

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 3: Skydiving

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Advent of Restlessness

mountains
Photo by james j8246 on Flickr’s creative commons.

I have a bit of a crush on Advent.

I buy things for Advent and I daydream about Advent and I want to spend as much time with Advent as possible.

And every year, I am disappointed. This isn’t because Advent stands me up, however, but because I make Advent stand in the snow, and put a Santa hat on her head, and fill her arms with enough books and music and art and calendars to make anyone topple.*

When will I learn that Advent is more about letting go and listening than strapping as many things to my body as I can?

Maybe this will be the year I fall all the way in love with Advent.

After all, I can relate more to Advent longing than Christmas joy. Give me poetry that makes me ache, give me songs that make me cry. Give me silence and take away the color and let us sweat and climb together. Maybe the sun will come out from behind the clouds for a moment, maybe we will glimpse the shore across the channel, maybe we will catch an earful of birdsong before we have to pull our hoods up and turn our bodies away from the wind.

I am restless. I am always restless. Even on my happiest days, I am restless.

I look for people who will take away my restlessness. I try to make something of myself. I cannot stop moving, but I know I must stop moving.

I think of St. Augustine’s words and I know, deep down, that I’m looking for God, somehow:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

I’m looking, but I have not found. At times, I think I glimpse something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn, nothing is there.

The sky is overcast and I am so cold.

But I can breathe.

Maybe the real God is not who I expect. Maybe the real God doesn’t want to take me off my lonely mountain and stick me in a room where the windows are shut tight and all the furnishings are from a certain decade, a certain century, a certain school of thought. Maybe the real God is breathing the same air I am and likes the mountain as much as I do.

I pull hope into my lungs, hope fills my ears and streams from my eyes, hope dances with me in the darkness, hope sits with me in the pain. And this is what I love about Advent.

 

*Not that Advent books and music and art and calendars are unhelpful. Quite the contrary. I just tend to imbibe too many at once. This year, I will be sitting with my friend Cara Strickland‘s devotional calendars, a bit of music, and perhaps a book of poetry (any suggestions?).

Of Souls and Long-Term Memory (a Mumford & Sons reflection)

Mumford and Sons in concert
Mumford & Sons in concert at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in Salida, Colorado, on August 22, 2015.

I’m not much of a concert person, even less a music festival person.

The soundtracks and stages of my youth were limited, and it was a long time before I fell head-over-heels in love with music. But fall I did, and for no one more deeply than Mumford & Sons.

Start a conversation about their craft and technique, and I wouldn’t be able to do much more than agree with every good word. But bring up their lyrics and ponder what their music means to people? I would be so full of thoughts. It comes down to their incredible ability to express the deep longings of the human soul, I would say, and for that reason they have sunk into my whole being and I have carried their music with me for years.

Their new album came out a few months ago, and I made it my (somewhat belated) mission over the first few weeks of August to learn and fall in love with it. Even with the banjo gone, it wasn’t difficult to make room for these new offerings.

But when I saw the band in concert two weeks ago, it was what was in long-term memory that made the deepest impression.

I had been standing in the same place for four hours, in a mass that only grew denser as the sun sank behind the stage. I was excited, even though my back ached and I was tired.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said the only one in my group who had seen them in concert before. I knew it to be true.

The space between indie-rocker Jenny Lewis and the much-anticipated final act was a collective inhale. Darkness settled on this mountain town. We all leaned forward as another background song faded out, hoping that this new silence would give way to what we had been longing for.

Finally, it did.

The thousands of us, we cheered. And then we began to sing.

Maybe other concerts are like this too, I don’t know, but to be packed among so many, all singing soul-deep songs, felt more like a religious experience than simply being in the presence of a talented band. A private concert wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect – not just because we could all sing along, but because of why we had learned those songs in the first place.

As much as I like their new album, I haven’t spent enough time with it for it to become part of my story. I haven’t learned the chords on the ukulele. They haven’t accompanied me on nearly as many car rides or late nights. They haven’t inspired me to take melodies and write my own lyrics. And this is even without counting the Christian undertones especially present in those first two albums.

The realization that I was actually there, actually in the same space as these singers of truth with other lovers of truth, was pure joy. Every song was worth the drive and the price and the wait, but only the ones woven deeply into my soul – only the ones in my long-term memory – led to the truest of out-of-body experiences: ones that made me forget my aching back and cast off my self-consciousness. To not only know who you are in a moment, but to actually and fully be that person – it is a gift.

When Mumford & Sons comes back to Colorado, or somewhere else in reaching distance, I will be there.

These songs and others like them access the deepest parts of my soul in ways that music slapped with the label Christian can’t. Hope and redemption stories can be guiding lights, but only when they are truthful … and the truth is often a mess of doubts and pain, anger and fear. When these stories come in that raw package, they don’t look anything like those happily-ever-after tales we heard as children, and still hear now.

We are all a mass of loose ends and contradictions and lingering questions. The unfinished stories are the ones I pull closest to my heart, because I too am an unfinished story.

When Love Cries

My baby birds died yesterday.

They weren’t actually my birds, but it felt like they were.

Last month, a pair of blue jays built their nest right up against my house on top of two floodlights. Another pair of jays had done the same thing five years earlier, but we hadn’t known it until we’d heard the chirp-chirp right outside our kitchen window.

2008 baby bird
A baby bird from the first nesting in 2008 (not one of the ones that died).

This time, we realized what was going on much sooner. I was overjoyed to see the parent birds fly by the window carrying twigs and grass. When I didn’t see them at work for a few days, I was afraid they had changed their minds. When they set to work again, I cheered.

I love spring. The greens, the freshness, the new life unfolding and awakening all around me.

I loved adopting these wild birds and getting a front row seat to their little lives for this time. I had such joy watching them. I named them Lipton and Twining (after the brands of tea), I pondered names for their future children, I pressed my face against the glass and peered at the nest with increasingly greater anticipation, straining to see new movement, new life.

birds' nest
The blue jays building their nest last month.

On Sunday, I saw the first sign of life: a little beak protruding upward, barely visible from where I stood outside on my green plastic chair. I didn’t know how many babies there were, or if all of them had hatched yet, but I had most of the names prepared (they were to be named after types of tea).

On Monday afternoon, I arrived home from work and glanced up as I usually do when I’m coming or going.

The nest wasn’t there.

Confusion. My heart and my eyes dropped. Shock. There was the nest, lying on the ground, mostly intact … and there were two mangled baby jays. Disbelief. Anguish.

I don’t consider myself to be an overly emotional person, but this day was different. This day I was sobbing loudly; sobbing with raw, erratic emotion; sobbing for these fragile little ones who had fallen and broken their necks only days after hatching.

I found out later that two other baby birds had fallen from the nest earlier that day.

Four tiny blue jays died that day. I wrote their names on a plain box and buried them behind our house.

I named them Green, Black, Earl, and Oolong.

Before this happened, I was looking forward to writing a blog about these birds. A blog about life. Now, it’s a blog about death.

Or maybe it’s about more than that.

Maybe it’s about the fragility of life, or the importance of having a soft heart that loves deeply even when that means weeping freely. Maybe it’s about the God who holds us in our fragility and cries with us.

I wept for my birds because I knew them and saw them and named them. And yet, their deaths and my sorrow are only a miniscule example of the sadness and suffering in this world.

I don’t cry for those I don’t know, not unless someone tells me their story in a compelling, poignant way. Seeing my birds die, or saying a hard goodbye, or hearing about a friend’s pain breaks my heart, but the suffering and injustice among unfamiliars doesn’t affect me as deeply.

But it should, shouldn’t it?

Life is precious, beautiful, sacred. All life.

I want to weep for the lives I know personally and for the lives I do not know. I want my heart to remain soft, delicate, and yet full of hope. For we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” We can’t fix everything and cure everyone, but we can breathe hope into one life at a time — one moment, one conversation, one helping hand, one word at a time.

I don’t know why the nest fell, and I don’t know why there is so much pain and sorrow in this world. But I know that God cares about it all, and that he doesn’t generalize suffering. He sees each individual life and hears each individual cry.

Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Living the Joy

_DSC0150Today is a day of joy.

But it’s not Christmas yet.

No, it isn’t. Neither is it any sort of long-awaited day circled on my calendar. There are days I’m looking forward to in the weeks and months and years to come, some of which are attached to definite dates, while others are still fluttering in dreamland.

But I’m not there yet, and I don’t want to live my life in a constant state of assuming that the greatest joys in life are in some future, far-off place. As I get to know people more, as I get to know God more, our relationships won’t be the same. They will get better. In that sense, the best is yet to come. But I don’t want to just bide my time until the conditions are perfect, because the conditions will never be perfect. Not in this life.

I don’t want to lose sight of this journey, this beauty, in a rush to get to a destination. Because the only destination that bears the resounding finality of crossing the finish line in a race is death, and even that is debatable. All the other “destinations,” all the events, the milestones, the turning points, expand the original journey, they don’t complete it.

And yet there is beauty in expectation. There is beauty in waiting. There is beauty in Advent.

In this waiting time, this “now and not yet,” I can find real joy in that just-as-real “now” even as I wait for what is “not yet.”

I don’t think I will ever stop reminding myself how important it is to seek God not as a means to an end, but as an end in Himself. Not as a means to having a more fulfilling Christmas, or being a better person, or finding out my purpose. The noblest of ulterior motives is still an ulterior motive, and it doesn’t compare with the pure joy of knowing and loving just to know and love.

It’s not just about five days from now, or 55 days from now, or five years from now. It’s today.