Breathe. Be filled. Strain. Take in. Breathe.
Inhale the world, and feel it pour through you. Feel your place in it, and know what you’re made of. You’re made of pieces, all stitched together. You’re made of scenes. Of sentences and glimpses and memories and fantasies. You’re a collage. We all are. We’re scrapbooks (at best). Note-pads (full of scribbles). Cameras with film to point and click and develop and cling to, even when they fade.
(Take a gander)
In N.D. Wilson’s book Death By Living (my favorite work by him, if not one of my favorite works in [modern] existence), he addresses the movement of time, the shaping of memories, the monuments that we build along our way in this never-ending river of time. In a quote, he says:
“…Humans are not intended for data storage (though we have that capacity). We are intended for living, for moving through a story….We fight to remember. We lose. It’s worth it.”
His words sink in and strike home, even in a life as brief as mine may have been thus far. But in the interest of binding together the ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for too long, I have collected and stitched words around three of the monuments in this river of a moving life. My Ebenezers. Stones and markers, moments of history that I hope never to forget. Moments of privilege. Moments of inspiration. Moments of soul-pioneering and exploring. Moments that, a mite on the mountainside of the universe that I may be, I partook in, and that partook in me.
(My place in the world was becoming clearer.)
To begin, it’s actually hard to say exactly how true these are. Time changes all things, and no doubt my memory of them is altered in some way. But I know that they have struck with me thus far, and they show no signs of dimming.
The first of three was also the longest ago, and also one of the clearest. The height of flood season was upon us; that time when the sun and the snow are battling for dominion, and the rest of nature holds its breath in anticipation of a victor. That year, the sun had won out (eventually). Snow had turned to water, and creeks into rivers. Dips were ponds. But no one cared; the sun was out, and the world was good and bright again. And the dandelions were alive.
I don’t know exactly how I found it. Barefoot at the park, with a frisbee or a football, I don’t know which. Too old to play on the playground, too young to keep my shoes on in the grass (may the second always be the case, and may I grow out of the first). And there, abandoning the paved path, plastered with last year’s leaves, I stepped into the grass. The playground was in the middle of a lake; standing water had enveloped the pillars and the slide. The swing was in its own personal moat. Mothers were attempting to keep children out of the water, and children were happily trying to evade them. The thought of a partially underwater playground was (is) simply too much for any boy’s will.
I didn’t approach it, no matter how tempting it appeared. I may have, given enough time. But it was there, with my feet submerged in fresh thawed brain-freeze, I saw one of the strangest and most miraculous things.
Beneath the water, I saw fire burning. A dandelion, rearing its head, alone. It had sprang up before the water, but still stood tall beneath it. The sun, slanting and glorious and not quite warm enough, hit the water and turned the golden head into something alive. Something with meaning. Fire. Burning under the water. Resolute against the flood.
If it was an analogy, I don’t understand it. I only know that it was a sight that opened my eyes. Perhaps it was then that I started to see things differently. Maybe it was because I saw things differently that I noticed it at all. Either way, it was a moment unforgettable. A moment that took a curious little boy with bare feet and set a burning dandelion in the middle of his head and said “See this? There are other things like it. Find them.” It was like a quest.
A shaping moment. A knife taken to a clay vessel. Carve here. Scrape there. Add dandelions to the image. Stitch it into the quilted soul, and soak it in 33-degree snow-water. This is a moment to remember.
Cling to it.
It’s not every day that fire burns underwater.
I don’t know how many years passed before the next of those moments came. They may have been back-to-back or years apart, and I wouldn’t have known the difference. (As N.D. Wilson says, “Some people have razor-sharp chronology distinctions to their memories.” I am not included.)
I remember the setting only roughly. The smell of pavement (July), and heat refracting off the metal curvature of an aircraft hangar. An unconventional wedding reception. Typically the most enjoyable, but either way I don’t remember whose wedding we were celebrating. I wasn’t there for them. Or really for anything. I was there because the family car was, and because my father is a pastor. There was food, but it was unexciting. And a singer, but I don’t remember her, or her songs.
What I do remember was the pair of planes, shining on the blacktop, smelling like fuel and sunlight and adventure.
They were soul-honey. A biplane, glowing, just sitting there, and a pilot, heavily mustached ready to give those of us with the widest eyes a trip through the air. (I cannot definitely prove that he had a mustache. If I saw him today, I doubt I would recognize him. Nevertheless…)
I remember clearly getting to sit in the front seat, beside the pilot. The too-big headset was clamped over my ears, the microphone dabbing at my chin. And in my brain, voices were chiming out numbers and words that meant nothing, but that got my blood flowing. Excitement.
These words meant leather coats and propellers. They meant sky-sailing. They meant Errol Flynn mustaches and goggles and enemy lines. Exploration. Adventure. There it was again. That sensation.
Cross-strapped into the cockpit of that biplane, we soared. Not too high, of course; with my little brothers in the back, we weren’t going far. We were out for a joyride. A cruise. And the windows, to my astonishment were left open. So I did what anyone with half a soul should have done; I stuck my hand out between the glass and petted the blue.
The wind pinned it to the side of the wing, but it wasn’t so hard that I couldn’t resist, that I couldn’t splay my fingers and comb the breezes, as we swung wide over the glinting lakes, eying the sunsets from a perspective that is the envy of lowland birds.
Glory. Splendor. The static, popping to accompany the voice of my whiskered pilot in the headset; the wind, playing with my fingers and pinning them to the cold metal verticals between the wings. This was inspiration in its truest form.
Thank you, brothers Wright.
Last, but not least, only two summers ago (if time does not lie to me), on a day that I still remember with ease. Tally lake. 2012. Camping in the grand glow of the outdoor summer, soaking in the last strokes of august before it resigned from office.
Two kayaks and an air-mattress did not the noblest of vessels. Certainly, it was no envy of the old Vikings.
Even after the park ranger told us there was supposed to be a storm incoming, we decided to venture out, in search of cliffs from which to leap, because we are men, and men like to jump off of things. Onward we paddled, and it would have been hard to imagine a slower way to travel. But we made it to the cliffs, and after a few short-lived flights, the idea struck us. Fifteen feet was not much vertical. There were other cliffs.
Adventure. Find them.
In our kingly craft, we heaved out across the deepest lake this side of the Mississippi, in hunt of height. The clouds rolled in, but we ignored them as they came, and found ourselves scuttling up the sides of sparsely treed cliff-sides, from thirty-to-sixty feet above us, at the most accessible. Black water slapped against gray stone, and the rocks looked much more like teeth, from that height. Jumping didn’t seem so smart.
And now, the storm was upon us, probably to keep us from killing ourselves. But then the glorious task was before us. The thunder came, and we, the brave adventurers, had a shore to reach that seemed forever away.
How close the lightning came, I’ll never know. I only know how close I felt like it came, which was right overhead. Lying on your belly, clinging to a slowly leaking air-mattress, half buried in the deepest lake in the nearest states is only so exciting. But once you add the pounding of cold rain (I’m still not convinced there wasn’t hail involved), the slice of the numbing wind and the deafening, sky-rattling eruptions of thunder accompanying the stabbing tridents of lightning, you have yourself a camping trip not easily forgotten.
And there, on that air mattress, crammed next to two other people and pulled by two more in glowing orange kayaks, I witnessed the chorus of heaven. Wrath and power, the hurling of battle between atmospheric heavyweights. Blows fell and were received, and all the while, the clouds poured down on us.
Glory. Majesty. Here it was again. While I might not have noticed it at the moment, I was stranded in the middle of a moment the size of a lake, and I was one of only five people who saw it, and perhaps the only one who felt it beyond the fear and curiosity of what it would be like to be struck by lightning (and what happens if it strikes the lake you’re swimming in?).
The fear may have swallowed it, but the sensation remained. My quest went on. And there, in that moment, in that hail of crooked bolts, there was wonder. And after the fear subsided, when we stood freezing with bare feet on beds of pine-needles, and felt the rain pelt the forest, I understood it.
Fire, beneath the water. Fire above it. Sky-Sailing, with a hand out the window. Deep water and tridents from heaven.
These are not the only moments that come to mind, when I think of shaping experiences. There are, of course, dozens more. But these, perhaps, are the ones that have stuck with me the best, and the ones that stand out the clearest.
Life is a story to be told, and when you skip all the boring (haha) bits, you get a patchwork. You get action scenes. You get scenes dipped in bronze or hung on mantles, seared into images of ink and of words, stitched into hearts and woven into hearts.
Burn them or rub them in. Keep them and wear them around your neck or in your skin. Scars on your memory. Glad scars. Tear-stained smiles. Build them into yourself.
We are all patchwork souls.
And these are three of my favorite patches.