Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


A Movie and a Memorial

Sometimes, the disparate bits of the everyday gather themselves into a picture. It's as if God pulls a few more strings than usual, putting this conversation, or that face into my life in order to sharpen my eyes, open my heart to some truth I needed to see. This was a week of such pictures for me. Two of them came to me in vastly different ways, but both spoke something I needed to remember. Something I think all the world needs to know: the human heart is haunted by yearning. Picture One. On a hot, Saturday morning I drove up the foothills to a mountain trail near my childhood home. My feet knew the upward climb of the red dirt, the rutted, winding path through the summer meadow and spruces. The morning air was ashimmer with heat and the pearl tinge of high, white clouds. An unfamiliar dampness filled the air and clung to my skin as I climbed, the result of the tunnel-like way through the close, soft spruces and the cold air from the mountain stones above. Flowers grew profusely at my feet, butterflies startled at every step until I reached the widening of air that marked a mini chapel amidst the forest.

This has always been a sacred space, this dappled glade circled by gentle spruces and steeped in the quiet of their breath. Death too, has consecrated this space. A teenage boy took his own life here, years ago, with only the pines for comfort. Now, in the center spot where the sun breaks through, this glade is marked by a memorial, built by the boy's brother, a jagged red pile of gleaming mountain stones with a G.I. Joe toy fixed to a concrete plaque. I saw that single, forlorn little figure standing guard over the memorial when I first hiked this trail a decade ago. The loneliness of it is still a grief in my throat. But the reputation of this place has grown in the intervening years and the G.I. Joe has been joined by a motley multitude of toys. This place is a sort of shrine to the local high school population. They come here on summer nights, pile up campfires and talk, and leave tiny tributes to the boy who died. The G.I. Joe now bumps shoulders with plastic angels and animals, tin crosses, and old toys.

I sit on a log in the morning air and ponder this gradually mounded pile of tribute. Tribute to what? To life, I think. To the hope that the soul of a grieved, broken-hearted boy can be healed, or kept alive by memory, or somehow made right. Looking at the memorial, I feel that I see a picture of yearning, the aching, inchoate need to know that life is precious, even when it has been lost. That lonely brother, these curious, wistful teenagers need to affirm that death is a violation, but that it is also a poser. They yearned to know that memory can be kept alive, that a soul can live still, echo and sing in the world of memory if nothing else. We yearn to know that death cannot end the story of being, we yearn for life to be the sacred thing we feel in our bones that it must, must be. Perhaps those teenagers barely knew what they were doing in piling up those bits. Perhaps their hunger for a sense of life as holy was unspoken, even unrecognizable to themselves. But every toy and trinket on the pile was one teenager's plea for life to be precious.

Picture Two. It is never fun to save a row of seats for absent family members in a crowded movie theater. The incoming movie patrons eye those blank chairs as if they were prey to be pounced upon and the defensive saver of them committing an indecency by denying them to the public. But two Tuesday nights ago, I crushed my usual reserve and defended my saved seats with the gleam of a jealous tigress in my eyes. My family were raiding the popcorn and candy counters and we had arrived ridiculously early to assure ourselves an excellent perch in the theater stands. For tonight was a return to one of the best-beloved stories of our family, tonight we were watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the extended edition on the big screen no less.

My siblings and I decided recently that Tolkien's story shaped our teenage minds in so indelible a way that it forms the landscape of our inner imagination for life. When we think of bravery, we think of Aragorn, or of loyalty, Samwise Gamgee. When we hear the word "quest," or "fellowship," we inevitably think of hobbits and elves and golden rings. For each of us, this fairy tale entered a time of spiritual doubt and desperate questioning with the offer of hope and a renewed vision for life. We yearned for meaning, bravery, adventure, and this story assured us it was possible. This tale helped us to believe that we could rise to the same heights of friendship and battle as the characters in our book. It's a rare story that can galvanize the souls of an entire family, but Tolkien told the sort of tale that shapes the very life of its reader. So. Glaring patrons be darned. This was our story and I wasn't giving an inch.

But when the lights finally dimmed, I realized that everyone around me felt the same. Never have I been in so noisy a theater. The first note of the opening scene sparked a wild applause that continued unabated until the first character finally spoke. The people around me lived the story we watched. I could hear the whispered echoes of a dozen voices saying the lines with the characters. The slightest swordplay was met with raucous cheers, each enemy with a chorus of boos. My elbows were jostled constantly by my seatmates as they whispered back and forth. The woman next to me kept a whispered commentary up the whole time, and grunted in satisfaction at the downfall of each orc. When Samwise stooped down on the slopes of Mount Doom, and said those dear, mighty words to Frodo (to the chorus of half the theater): I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you! , he was cheered and whistled and cried right up the mountain. And when Aragorn was finally crowned and Arwen came to him and the hobbits were honored by a whole kingdom and the battle was done, you would have thought a real war had ended by the wild, abandoned cheers and applause that filled that echoing, dark room.

I could cry just thinking about it. Never in my life have I known so keenly how we yearn, every human of us alive, to live a great story. We long for meaning. We crave bravery, friendship, battle. We want to be part of a story that demands the fullness of our love, our sacrifice, our work and our courage. Every person in that theater was there because Tolkien's story satisfied some hungry question in their heart. Is life worth living? Does it mean anything? Am I valuable? Can I be heroic? That epic assured us all that somehow we could be just as brave and beautiful as that story. Oh, we may not have felt it when real life returned, we may have thought that the lives of houses cleaned and jobs worked and children trained were less than the epic we saw on the screen. But the story was an affirmation nonetheless. None of us story-lovers that night will escape the hope that came to us as our souls leapt in response to the call of the story. Maybe life is one grand great story after all. We yearn for it to be.

Two pictures. Two glimpses of the yearning native to human existence. And in them, my sudden healing from blindness. Without pictures life those, life can seem a flat-surface of existence, with no depth or meaning beyond the actions of the present. Life, the sense of its wonder, of the mystery brooding behind it, is desacralized by hurry, by the need to keep our heads above the currents of hunger and need, loneliness and duty that drive our daily living. Before my time away, I went through the motions of my life, doing what I needed to earn, relate, survive. But hope was fading from my heart. Joy was seeping out of me like water from a cracked cup. I had forgotten that I was meant to live, and even hunger, for a fullness of living beyond the surface details of survival.

But pictures like the ones I saw above halted the current of my slow despair.  When I see evidence of the yearning of all hearts, not just mine, for beauty, for life to be honored, for life to be a story, I remember that I was made for a beauty and greatness that only God can imagine for me. The yearning teaches me to remember it. To reach. To hunger. To hope again for its fulfillment. To reach into the blinding light of mystery, let my soul reach out for a reality beyond the confines of the seen. The very wakening of hunger is also the start of its fulfillment. God is the goal of every desire and when we wake up enough to want him, he is already drawing us to himself. I wish I could tell that to every person in the theater, whisper it to all the teenagers who leave their little tokens at a young boy's grave.

I guess I will trust that he is leading them through hunger as he has so often led me. It's good to yearn.