Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tastes Like Glory

My friends are famous rock stars. I am not. I am a father of four with a part in his hair who loves to sit on the front porch of an almost-autumn afternoon watching the bees hover and buzz around the flowers of green onions which sprang up of their own accord and which remind me that so much that is gifted to us in this life is unmerited. I am a father whose heart breaks into a thousand pieces—shatters with joy and love and longing—every single day. Rilke says that we live “forever taking our leave.” In the eighth Duino elegy, he writes:

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
facing all this, never the beyond.
It overfills us. We arrange it. It falls apart.
We arrange it again, and fall apart ourselves.

Who has turned us around like this, so that
whatever we do, we find ourselves in the attitude
of someone going away? Just as that person
on the last hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, turns, stops, lingers—,
so we live, forever taking our leave.

What is it to live forever taking leave? I think Rilke is lamenting that we don’t walk recklessly, unencumbered into the eternal light—we are always and forever returned to this mortal world, we cannot get past it. But sometimes I think that I take my leave and take my leave because life is flowing always away from me. Because I perceive the light of each mortal moment. Facing the beyond of all this, I grant that no moment will linger. Everything flees and flies. And yet it is miracle. It is eternal, somehow. Marilynne Robinson writes, “So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.” Of course, she is quite familiar with the sage of Concord, who said that Jesus “spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines.” 

These daily miracles shine: Oliver crouching—squatting, really—like a small animal, tail end one inch away from the ground as he colors with many markers. He is slender and has a sly grin. Today he bent over the bushes as a cricket chirped: “I hear a small bird singing,” he said, “Where is it, daddy?” He will grow and will no longer squat. At what age do children lose the capacity to squat so without tiring? Hopefully he will still smile and love, but I mourn the passing as it happens. Each heartbreakingly beautiful moment is heartbreaking both in its beauty and in its transience. Today I found Emerson eating a mini peaches and cream pie made by my solicitous, gracious mother. He sat on a blanket in the middle of the kitchen floor and ate with such delight I felt like crying. Ellie has dark, piercing, intelligent eyes, and she smiles at me and stares sternly at me and opens her mouth to eat my face, and I melt. I melt. Several times since Eleanor was born, Emerson has come close up to her face and said, “Hi, Eleanor. I'm not a giant. I was just born before you.” The other day we were on a walk in our triple stroller and suddenly Emerson said, “I want to walk now, dad. Can I get out?” I stopped the stroller and he hopped out and climbed up onto the low brick wall structure at the entrance to the little complex where we live. He followed the curve of the wall and climbed up to the top--higher than my head. The he clambered down the other side, hopped off, and climbed back into the stroller. The image of him crawling up and then down the wall is strangely delightful to me. It seems to encompass something, something I want to record and bear witness of. I saw this. And it made my day. 

 From the time Lydia was born and I knew that kind of love that comes pouring into this world with a child’s birth—not romantic love, not friendship, not even just family love, but paternal, fatherly love—from the first time I wept while singing and holding her, I always knew she would flow away from me and leave a hole the size and shape of a very small and lovely girl in my soul. She will one day marry. She will date and I will worry. Yesterday, as we snuggled in her bed, she told me how she was made to zip up her lunchbox before she was done eating and run out of the school cafeteria because Keaton was chanting to Dylan, “Kiss Lydia! Kiss Lydia! On the lips!” She flees now and tells me these things to hear me laugh, but one day she will hate me and yell at me. But now she tells me she loves me—every single night. She gives me two hugs and two kisses before I leave her room. It is our ritual. She told me the other day, after taking the book I was reading her out of my hands and looking at it with an intent intensity that I have seen in pictures of myself reading, “I love reading. I can’t wait until Emerson and Oliver and Eleanor can read.” I love to see language come alive in her, words sparking and crackling with luminescence in her bright child mind.

There’s a song I love by Mason Jennings. “Where would I be right now if all my dreams had come true? Deep down I know somehow I’d have never seen your face. This world would be a different place. Darling, there’s no way to know which way your heart will go.” You should hear him sing it:

When I was young, I hoped I would grow up to be a rock star. My friend Jared and I made music videos long before we could play. I bought a beat-up old electric bass from a kid leaving on his mission for $100. He got a guitar for Christmas, I think. I didn’t have an amp or even a cord. We would plug his cord into his guitar and then not into an amplifier but into my bass, and we would jump on the trampoline with our guitars, pretending to play. We videotaped this.  

I loved the music scene: the broken, holy people who had hearts the size of small elephants and who looked like very prickly souls. I once watched a kid get thrown through a wall while we were playing. The hole was large. That was almost exactly twelve years ago, the Friday before the Wednesday that changed my life. Twelve years ago today, I left my little country of music and walked into the vast ocean of my ministry as a young missionary. While I learned Spanish and cried myself to sleep; while I sat on the bed in a one-room house of a small, beautiful Mexican family; while I rode my bicycle through rivers of street, my friends signed a record contract with a major label. One day, while I ate rice and beans and chicken, a smiling Mexican husband turned to his wife and said, “Sabe a gloria.” “It tastes like glory.” That felt right. Goodness, quietness, peace tasted like glory. And I liked the flavor. By the time I got back from Mexico, I knew what T.S. Eliot was getting at in his poem about the Magi: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death.” 

Once my feet again touched the ground and the sound of the choir faded, I called my old friend on the phone to see how life as a rock star felt. He told me that they had just played sold out shows throughout Japan. That the kids knew every word to their songs. I ran into the band, by this time part firmly in place in my hair. We hugged and talked. My friend said that he never imagined touring would be like this, and he pointed to his tour bus the size of Rhode Island. I might have felt a twinge of sadness then, of regret, perhaps, but there appeared in my mind a simple, dear picture. It was of me pointing upward. That was all. “What doth it profit a man . . .” rang in my thoughts.

Harold B. Lee, a gentle Idaho farmboy who grew up to be a prophet of God, wrote, “You may know you are living a full, rich life when you have the real joy of living, for ‘men are, that they might have joy’ (2 Nephi 2:25). What is it, then, that gives you that high emotional ecstasy called joy? Does it come from the unusual or does it come from common things? He who is moved thus only by the unusual is as one who must flag a failing appetite with strong spices and flavorings that destroy the true sense of taste. You are making a serious error if you mistake an emotional thrill that passes with the moment for the upsurge of deep feelings that is the joy of living. If one feels strong surges of happiness and desire from the quiet of a happy home, from the unfolding of a beautiful life, from the revelation of divine wisdom, or from a love for the beautiful, the true and good, he is having a taste of the fulness of the joy that the living of a rich, full life only can bring.” That’s a nice thought.

Jesus once said something that I did not understand until very recently. Perhaps I still don’t. He was always saying enigmatic, mystical, wonderful things. He is my favorite teacher. I love Him. He said, “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” For those familiar with the revelations to Joseph Smith, the idea of a singleness of eye reminds us of that marvelous phrase “an eye single to the glory of God,” an eye focused on the essential, the true, the godly. When my mother-in-law was a young mother, and my wife was a young girl, they were going through the nighttime ritual, preparing for sleep. My mother-in-law was impatient to finish the routine so she could watch a television show that she loved. Then a thought arose, or fell, perhaps, upon her. It was essentially that in eternity, she would not regret not having seen that show, but she might lament not taking time with this holy, bright child. She wept and determined not to sacrifice essential things for things that hold no value. She would lay up her treasures in heaven. After the girls were asleep, she went to tell her husband that she did not want to have television in her house. At all. She wanted her eye single. I love that story, because I see what it did. Not only did it fill her whole being with a radiant, infectious light, but that light has been the fruit that my wife was raised on. And now she is filled with light. And it tastes like glory.

So now I sit on my front porch and contemplate the grace that descended on my life, and I notice the watermelon vine snaking among the green onions. This, too, was not planted by my hand. We imagine that someone spit a watermelon seed into the front flower patch sometime during the summer. Now, the leafy plant winds around the entire garden, putting forth buds. There are at least five small watermelons on that vine. That seems like a metaphor to me. He who once spit in dirt to heal a blind man can take spit and folly and brokenness and carelessness and make beauty and grace and bright, red, juicy fruit. And I love Him for it. And I praise His grace. And it tastes like glory. 

1 comment:

  1. You're right, something happens to kids, to everyone. Maybe something like being booted from a garden. You know? Or we're in a garden, but that shining flashing neon thing looks like a whole lot more interesting than watermelons and things to name. I once heard a Chinese proverb: Money isn't happiness, but who can tell the difference? Glory. Rock star or father of four? Like being raised to the top of a mountain to be tempted if you ask me. I learned the hard way. Is that the only way? These little bundles of sweetness crawling around my feet, can't I just add a few feet to the garden wall? "One day she will hate me."