The Tiger’s Wife: A Review (Part II)

For Part I, click here.

And then, there is the returning to a child again.  For me, part of this returning has happened in my travels, in seeing how others view the world.  Part of it has been my daughter, and her effervescence for life, lived only as a child could do it.  For the grandfather, becoming a child again comes through meeting the deathless man.

Continue reading “The Tiger’s Wife: A Review (Part II)”

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Camus, Gangs of New York, and Hope

Last night, I picked up The Stranger, by Camus, and started re-reading it.  I haven’t read it in six or seven years, and although I remember the plot and main ideas, I remembered little else.  I’ve only moved through five chapters, but let me recommend The Stranger to anyone dissatisfied with much of popular literature.  In fact, if you like Hemingway, you owe it to yourself to pick up Matthew Ward’s translation of this book — I didn’t remember the brilliance of it from a few years back.

The great books of the first half of the 20th century have such social commentary and philosophy to them, and The Stranger is no different.  Reading it again, I find the indifference and detached-ness all the stronger, perhaps because I have lived longer; I have jettisoned some past hopes and traded them in for present realities.  Meursault, the title character, feels the same: “When I was a student, I lot lots of ambitions…But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered.”

We’ve all experienced this: the shattering of certain hopes.  Sometimes, those hopes are born from naivete.  Sometimes, they are broken simply because our world is broken: friends cannot get pregnant or people lose their jobs or loved ones die or the simple and awful stresses of life wear us away.  We know what it is to think like Meursault, whether we allow ourselves his level of apathy, or whether we fight against it with our American optimism.

Meursault relates another event, one embodying even more meaninglessness of life, and our indifference toward it:

That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her.  I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.  Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her…She just wanted to know if I would have accepted the same proposal from another woman, with whom I was involved in the same way.  I said, “Sure.”

In a paragraph, Camus identifies the tragic indifference of modern man.  Meursault is carried by the currents of life, following the whims of others, barely able to think and act for himself.  This causes, or is caused, or both, a profound indifference to life: events move beyond his control, and he sees no reason to change the (lack of) order in things.  Life happens.

I thought of this as I watched a scene from Gangs of New York today.  It’s a compelling movie, but there is a scene when Amersterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio’s character) is making out with Jenny (Cameron Diaz’s character).  It is after a dance, and Amsterdam sees a scar on Jenny’s stomach.  She asks him if he has scars, and he shows her his chest, littered with scars.  Her reaction is to kiss his chest.

Amsterdam eventually leaves Jenny later in the scene, after learning that she sleeps with Bill the Butcher.  Still, this is not before some kissing, and PG-13 skin.  I could not help but think as I watched: how devoid of meaning this scene was.  Jenny kissing Amsterdam’s scars meant nothing other than titillation — it was not symbolic, and she was not offering healing — it was a vapid and empty scene.  I was not surprised to see it, but sorry to see it in otherwise such a strong movie.

This, however, is the embodiment of Camus’ Meursault.  We take in simply to wake ourselves up momentarily.  Meursault finds enjoyment in sex, and judges others’ words only on whether they are interesting or boring.  Sadly, this is an indictment on 21st century America.

I think of shows I watch that don’t encourage or challenge me, but I watch them because they are interesting.  I think of my desire to find the next thing to capture my attention, especially while surfing the web — there must be some bigger story, funnier photo, more amusing video.  Our attention spans grow shorter.  We judge others on whether they have something interesting to say — not if what they are saying is right or true, but only if it interests us.  Even more, we are told what interests us, because online or on TV we find the same stories, told again and again.  Ours is the century of the interesting, presaged by Camus.

We are all here much more often than we would like to admit.  I am.  You are.

I think of what Meursault said about losing ambition.  He had goals in school.  We all have mighty goals in school.  And, because life does not remain a blank slate, our goals must change.  Some will not be met.  I think of how I wanted to travel after college.  I did.  I moved to Colorado.  I led trips in Costa Rica.  But, I never thought my regular traveling would end so abruptly, that I could not fly to Africa or China or Hungary whenever I wanted, and get by on what I could carry on my back.

I would not trade it, though.  I would not trade all my naive ambitions for one moment with my daughter and wife, for an evening talking with Brooke over glasses of wine, for the moment — which happened yesterday — when I rolled with Ellis on the floor and she stopped to say, “I love playing with you, Daddy.”

This is the tenuous hope.  We realize, like Meursault, that the world is beyond our control.  It is crueler than we imagined it.  Yet, this does not mean that none of our actions have meaning.  Rather, against this cruel and broken world our actions gain meaning: they gain significance and brightness, the faith of them shining against the dark.  Our actions have meaning beyond what is interesting, and we must love things beyond how they make us feel at a given moment.  For then, when we refuse to acquiesce to the world’s assertion of what is good, we assert that at least we can refuse.  At least we won’t play the game.  At least we will find goodness even when dreams are lost, for new and better dreams may fill their place.  I am not foolish enough to say they surely will.  But they have before, and they will again, and sometimes the most faith-filled utterance we can muster is that our actions matter — for today and always — and we dream and even dare to believe in a time when the world will be made right again.

Suffering and Kingdoms

Friday night, Ellis woke up coughing.  Brooke had to work Saturday, so it fell to me to go into Ellis’ room in the night, to hold her.  Her room was dark and humid; I held her upright, but it did little to help.  I gave her water and then honey, but neither did anything to slow her incessant cough.  I lay there, holding Ellis in the guest bed, praying for her cough to subside.  I prayed for Ellis, but mostly in my sleeplessness I prayed for her cough, for it to stop.

It did, I suppose, for a time.  Then it came back at four with virulence, and I was up again.  I prayed again, but the cough persisted until daylight.  The next day, Saturday, Brooke went to work early and I wondered what my prayers meant.  I still wonder, amid the miraculous promises of the gospel.  I wonder if I lack faith when my prayers are not answered.  I wonder how, or what, to pray.

That Saturday, reeling from sleeplessness, Ellis’ cough was that proverbial straw.  I could scarcely pray, not simply from her cough, but from a month’s worth of frustration, from a lifetime of an evangelical faith that only expresses praise and hope, never doubt and anger and despair.

I chose, that day, to only pray the Lord’s prayer.  I do not know how many times I prayed it.  Many.

That phrase, May your Kingdom come.  I love that phrase.  I love that God’s kingdom cannot be spoken of in propositional statements, but can only be told obliquely, in stories and lumps in the throat.  I wonder, however, if God’s kingdom comes the way I am told it does.  I am told, at least from pulpits and pop songs, that God’s kingdom comes from happy thoughts and Sunday morning gatherings and morning times alone with God.  And, I suppose it does come in this way.

But I want the Kingdom that I would really trade in all I have to get.  The kingdom like the treasure in the field.  This Kingdom, this dynamic and unseen and audacious kingdom, comes only from sacrifice and suffering.  It comes during morning gatherings, but only when people are raw and honest about their hurts, about their disappointments.  It comes with songs of elation, but only after desperation.

We see this necessity of suffering from the beginning.  Women are saved through childbearing (whatever this means), and men must toil in the ground to produce food.  Noah survives a flood.  Later, much later, after Israel has been enslaved 400 years, Moses is rejected by his own people before he suffers in front of Pharoah; and after the exodus he and the whole nation suffer in the desert.  Waiting.  Suffering.  Paul suffers for the churches in the New Testament, or Peter, or any of the saints.  And that is to say nothing of Jesus, who suffered more than all, so that a new Kingdom might come.

We avoid suffering at all costs, which is fine — smart, even.  Yet, for the inevitability of suffering we talk scarcely about it.  We will suffer, you and I, today or tomorrow.  And what we do with that suffering, with that tension of hope and doubt that makes faith rich and deep, that will define our character, even this Kingdom of which we are a part.

I want a Kingdom tempered by suffering, grown larger by it.  A Kingdom filled with people who know how to weep, because only those who weep truly know, accordingly, how to rejoice.

Saturday night Ellis was still coughing.  Brooke had read that cool air sometimes helps with coughs, when other avenues have been tried.  So, at ten or eleven — I don’t remember — we pulled Ellis out of her crib.  She was awake, and coughing.  Brooke and I put on sweatshirts and wrapped Ellis in a blanket.  And then, we walked out back and sat on the patio, the night still and cool around us.  “Isn’t this wild?” Ellis said.  She snuggled into me and her eyes grew heavy; her cough slowed.  I thought of the prayers I had prayed that day: unable to exert or even mention my will that her cough might be stopped, I had simply prayed for God’s kingdom.

The three of us sat on the patio while Ellis fell asleep.  The wind blew in the maple by the fence, and we could see the light off the reservoir.  I do not know what to do with prayer, especially unanswered prayer.  I do not know how to articulate God’s kingdom, at least not in any sort of succinct way.  I know only that I prayed for God’s kingdom amid suffering and anger, and my family sat on the patio that very night, drawn there because of the suffering, and there while the wind blew and Brooke and I talked softly, there was the unending and infinite Kingdom, the stuff of mustard seeds and yeast and treasures in a field.

The River

The man sat beside the river.  The morning sun made the river orange and alive.  His wife would not live.  He had asked the doctor who looked down and said, “We’ll try everything.”  His wife sent him away this morning.  Ducks swam haphazardly with the current.  Small buds clung tightly to tree branches.  He would go to the hospital today even though his wife would not live.  It was all he could do; he had to go or he would forget who he was.  He would kneel beside her bed and smile and pray.  She would grasp his hand.

Rest

I came home from work a little early yesterday; Ellis was at the door waiting for me.  She giggled when I pulled up.  I could see her smiling and talking even when I was still in my car, like she was part of a silent movie.  I got out and she said, “Hi,” and “Come in,” — words that we have taught her.  There is a certain grace that rests on a person when he can come home to a young daughter.  She smiles so that it shakes her whole little body.

We drove out, all three of us, to pick up some furniture.  Brooke wanted to make a play kitchen for Ellis, and she found an old entertainment center that someone was selling.  It was only five minutes away.  I unpacked the back of our car to make room for it.  When we got there, however, we realized it would not fit into our small SUV, so I prepared our car rack: we thought maybe we could hoist the entire contraption onto the top, and drive home slowly.  The man selling us the entertainment center ran over to his neighbor’s house to ask for help hoisting it up, especially since Brooke was holding Ellis.  The neighbor came out, took one look, and said, “Don’t you think we should move that in my pickup?”

He drove the entertainment center over to our house in his pickup — the neighbor did — with no benefit for him.  He asked how old Ellis was and said he was going to a play tonight for his senior in high school, a daughter.

After this, I drove over to a friend’s house to load our SUV with books.  My brother inherited sixty boxes of books, but he lives a thousand miles away and my friend, Charlie, has been storing the books for my brother.  I went over to get the books, knowing that my parents will take them away tonight to their basement, where my brother can go through them over Thanksgiving.  Charlie and I loaded books and caught up on life: he said their son has a cold; he asked me about future children of our own.  I haven’t seen Charlie in weeks and the conversation was easy and light; it was good to see an old friend and move books.  Charlie helped move them all, which alone could have taken me an hour or so.

This all happened in a span of a couple hours.  It was as if I moved with light on my back, my head, preceded by an unmerited grace.

And then: last night I poured myself a glass of wine and sat for almost an hour, reading and writing.  Ellis was asleep and Brooke had bought me a few magazines this past week and I read and thought with no regard for time.  I love those moments when time disappears and I know only enjoyment.  I listened to music and had no responsibility at the edge of the day; I rested; I stopped.

This all happened.

And then this morning: I came downstairs and had coffee and cereal.  Brooke wanted to paint so I watched Ellis with football on in the background.  Again, time fell into the background, then disappeared.  Ellis carried around three stuffed animals: a lion, a duck, and a Dr. Seuss character we call, “Alfredo,” and I pretended to attack her with her stuffed animals.  She laughed and laughed, and I attacked her with kisses.  She is all energy and laughter in the morning.  Brooke painted and I played with Ellis.

Now, I am writing again, thrilled at this day.  My parents will come tonight and I will watch football with my dad; Brooke will paint some more; I will have more time to read and write and think, to “think long thoughts and pray long prayers,” in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

This all happened, and it is happening.  It is unmerited and beautiful and the sun is shining outside on the long, tawny grass around the reservoir, and I can hear Ellis laughing downstairs.