Sunday, September 12, 2010

In the Way of the Gift

Dancing on a Very Small Island - Brian Kershisnik

So, first of all, I'm not an indifferent slug of a movie watcher. I'm all about emotional involvement within bounds. In "Raising Arizona" when Holly Hunter and Nicholas Cage are driving off into the dark night with young Nathan Junior, I laugh (I just love him so much!). In "Children of Men" when Clive Owen's getaway car continually stalls as he and those precious women are running from the Fishes, I sit on my heels and groan. And in "My Life", after Michael Keaton's character ruminates on a life of experience, regret, imperfection, and beauty, he is at last wheeled into his backyard for his final birthday party, and I curl up into a fetal position in the corner and weep. Honest truth (except the fetal position part).

Christy doesn't like "My Life" for the exact same reason I love it - the emotional ride. For me, it's catharsis. For her it's forebodings. I respect that entirely. We can't help but think of our own children. How will they turn out? Are we performing our roles well? Do they know how infinite they are? How fulfilling and meaningful they have been to us?

Which brings me to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite novels. It speaks to these questions. The narrator is an old minister who, after spending a life of bachelorhood, marries and becomes a father in old age. He is haunted by the thought that he will die without ever coming to know his boy in earnest as he grows to manhood. So the book is, essentially, one long epistle to that boy. "My Life" on steroids.

These two sons of ours are a grace I don't think I'll ever fully wrap myself around. I don't even know if such a thing is possible. The minister writes, "There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all." Lord, I suspect that is true. How will I know if I'm telling the right stories? Will they ever really know me? And me them?

The minister says, "In every important way we are such secrets from each other and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable."

"For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man, which is in him?" 1 Corinthians 2:11

If this is true, then perhaps I'm speaking Latin, and they English, and their unborn children some future cryptic dialect. This goes beyond mere generation gap. Perhaps we really are, to one degree or another, lost in translation. I hope to minimize that. And I hope to communicate a few things to them. Love is the given, obviously the foremost. I don't doubt that they feel it. But there is more.

One thing that has been on my mind, of late, is expressed so artfully in Gilead. The minister writes, "These days there are so many people who think loyalty to religion is benighted, if it is not worse than benighted. I am aware of that, and I know the charges that can be brought against the churches are powerful. And I know, too, that my own experience of the church has been, in many senses sheltered and parochial. In every sense, unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, and it is a time with the Lord in Gethsemane that comes for everyone, as I deeply believe...It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for. If I could only give you what my father gave me. No, what the Lord has given me and must also give you. But I hope you will put yourself in the way of the gift."

I suppose it must be the universalist part of me bubbling to the surface. I want my boys to close their eyes on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in a sacrament meeting (a meeting I loathe to miss) and experience sincere communion, as I feel I have done so often, with God (who is Love) and the Son (who was the ultimate expression of it). And I want them to extend the circle of that experience and see in their mind's eye other people in other houses the world over, some with steeples, some with crosses, some with drums. Some with wafers and wine. Some with menorahs and yarmulkes. Some with prayer rugs. And push that circle onward to our dear friends, who, instead of sitting next to us, are hiking in the mountains in search of their own transcendence. I don't want them to hoard validation. I want to weld with them, together in love, and tolerance, and understanding.

If we can consider this life a gift, we might imagine it hidden, or up there on a shelf just out of reach, or maybe right here in our hands unopenable, without seams. Or we might see it as relationships between ourselves and those around us, our language all of a color, absurd in its beauty, epiphanous in it's proximity. It may be that, or something else entirely, but "you must not judge what I know by what I find words for."