Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Afternoons

Afternoons make me sad, for they are the beginning of the end. They are old men, with enough strength to fight but not enough to win, decaying slowly until they melt into evening.

Somehow the sunbeams feel weighted with memory and emptiness, the dancing dust motes singing of the mist that had come in the morning but burned away with the coming of midday. Expectation is in some ways better than the thing that you are expecting. Morning is expectation; and the afternoon is the fulfillment.

Perhaps the most weighty afternoon I have experienced was in the heat of summer. The grass in the hills was yellow and brown and dry green, and the flat fields were full of yellowing corn and wheat stubble and overgrown soybeans that were beginning to shrivel and dry up. It was hot, the kind of heat that burned at your skin in the sun and hung on your clothes in the shade.

I was at the farm, and I can't remember what I was doing there. The farm pickup was sitting in the driveway, and the driveway was dirty white and grey and green with old gravel all grown up in mowed-over weeds. The house rose up behind me, newly painted, with the flaking paint still showing through in some places as an irregularity, nearly imperceptible bumps and chips in the overlapping boards. The farmhouse was a hundred and one years old, and generations of my family had called it home.

Eventually we found that we had to fix the mower, and so we loaded it up into the trailer and piled into the pickup to head west, the sun in our eyes. We coasted over the pastures for three miles till we reached Roxbury. It was one of those towns that could pass by in the blink of an eye; we blinked, and continued on into the hills.

That's when we reached a part of the country I had never ventured in before. The afternoon sun grew heavier in my eyes, and I leaned forward from the backseat to gaze out the windshield.

On either side of the two-lane county road, fields and old broken trees went on as far as the eye could see. Every once in a long while, a farm would appear behind a cluster of Chinese elms and pines, but they grew less as we went on. The road sloped up; each hill we rode grew higher and higher, like a tide rising with each wave.

Then we reached the highest hill, and the country spread out beneath us, hot and dry and lonely in the golden afternoon sunlight; fields like patches on a blanket, bereft of humanity. As we went down the hill, I saw from the corner of my eye a single silo, standing in the middle of a wheat field, brown and decaying but rising like a sentinel over the yellow stubble.

And as we went along, my grandpa narrated the story of the land, each chapter unfolding along the side of the road, soaked in the thistles of abandoned fields and growing with the wild sunflower buds that covered the shoulder of the road. His words painted black and white pictures in my mind, of a dusty and nearly forgotten age that hid behind the brown eyes of the Mennonite farmers. It stirred in me a deep feeling of loss that only I and the afternoon sun remembered, as the rest of the world whirled by in air-conditioned cars. They could not feel the sorrow of the sun or the memory of the dust motes in the orange and yellow beams; they looked forward, not back.

That's when I felt that intangible connection between the fading glory of my home, the farm I held dear, and the fading glory of the afternoon. Both were heavy with memory; both were inexpressibly beautiful and sobering. The emptiness of the afternoon fields felt like the empty rooms of the farmhouse, covered in old wallpaper and old sunbeams.

And into my heart there came an aching realization: like the afternoon, my home could not last forever; the stories could not always be remembered; eventually it must die in a flaming sunset, in beauty and hurt. As I gazed over the forgotten fields of Kansas, I asked myself, what is the worth in doing anything that will not last? What is the worth in fixing things that will always break? What is the worth in remembering things that will inevitably be forgotten?

Then I heard my grandpa's deep voice again, and I saw that silo once more in my mind's eye, the last evidence of a farm that once stood in that very spot; and I saw my grandpa as that silo, standing resolute over a new generation. Perhaps he would not stay forever, but while he did he would remind the growing generations of what once was.

Just because beautiful endings are endings makes them no less beautiful. Just because wonderful afternoons are afternoons makes them no less wonderful. Just because my home must decay makes it no less my home.

What is the worth of wonderful memories? It is that they are wonderful, not that they are memories.

So I will remember, and I will ponder, and I will sit in the introspective afternoon sun. The beginning of the end is not only an end, but a beginning. It may make me sad, but sadness is no evil if it reminds me to remember.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Best Thing Ever

Humanity has a penchant for exaggeration.

For proof of this statement, look no farther than our everyday conversation. “Did you see so and so? It was the best thing ever.” This is particularly true of internet conversation, and I'd have enough money to pay off the debt of the United States if I had a dollar every time it was said in connection to a fandom.

Is it a good habit? Is it a bad one? Or is it neutral?

Most people would shrug their shoulders and say it doesn't really matter. A few might say that it cheapens really good things and makes the person sound melodramatic and insipid. After all, if a good catch in a game of football is the best thing ever, what about the things that really are the best things ever? How do you describe them?

Both positions have merit. However, I'm going to take a position opposite to both of them. I believe in “the best thing ever”, and the reason is simple.

If a small thing is treated like a big thing, then the big things are not cheapened; in contrast, the big things become so much bigger. As Chesterton put it so well, “...the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfire illuminating the lands around...These are the visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small.”

To say “that was the best thing ever” is not to make smaller the big things, but to make bigger the big things. To marvel over the chilly sea, as I did this morning, is not to make the Arctic seem warmer, but colder. To admire the soaring height of the weeds across the road is not to make the mountains smaller, but bigger. This why crawling under Christmas trees is a seasonal occupation for children; for a moment, we like to believe that the branches of the tree aren't branches at all, but cosmic steps for some tiny creature, swinging from light to light like Tarzan and shaking the heavy needles from the tree, soaring up this marvelous staircase of branches to touch the stars.

“The best thing ever” does not degrade the ordinary things. It celebrates them. “This flatbread is the best thing ever” puts wonder in the marvelous creation of the bakery. To reserve such praise for high and mighty things takes the fun out of ordinary things; after all, why be happy with a little if you can get a lot? But to say that something is the best thing ever puts enjoyment and contentment and gratefulness into life.

And gratefulness makes life the best thing ever.