Monday morning, my breath steamed for the first time this fall season and, for some reason, it excited me. The low-lying fog of the earth and the high-flying smog of the hearth—fraternal twins born of the four elements of life (SMOG: fire and air, FOG: water and earth)—met and mingled at the edge of a forest, their smoky fingers interlaced at a dark and hollow entrance.
Invisible friends waited there, desiring to accompany me along a pleasant and winding trail. There was Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fanshaw; J.R.R. Tolkien and Bilbo Baggins; Thomas Hardy, weathered hat in hand; Robert Frost, puffing on a pipe for the first time, reminding me “the woods are lovely, dark and deep.” I politely declined and left them all behind. Mr. Frost, however, did try one more time but finally gave up; he placed his heavy weathered hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, “My Sorrow, when she’s here with me, thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be; she loves the bare, the withered tree…” Like a poetic father, he understood the pen’s need for heart-bruised solitude, always the road less taken, and encouraged me to go on alone.
But God came with me. He’s always with me. I agree with Maltbie DavenPort Babcock: “This is My Father’s World.” I wonder how many people of the twenty-first century, young or old, know the sweet tune and lyrics of this elderly song, written over a hundred years ago, but eternally vibrant and true. This hymn has been one of my favorites since I was a boy, joyous as a Christmas carol to my ears; but, as an adult, the music always comes to me in female voices: two little sisters singing on a swing, pumping their summer legs high into the sky; or a mother’s lullaby; or a grandmother’s melodious statement of faith on a Sunday morning—but, mostly, it’s the little girls I hear, haunting the listening ears of my mind.
Thing is, I’m far from God: relationally, I mean, not positionally. I believe, yes, probably more than most and more than ever, but you’d never know it. I’ll admit: I like a painful, animal fight with my fists, win or lose; and a good, long, sensual kiss; and an unmapped journey steered solely by impulse; and a drink that burns and spins and trips; and a cigar that chokes the stars with the exhaust of my rising thoughts which are hardly ever holy. But—BUT—guilt longs for innocence, something I’ve never truly felt or even desired way back when I pretended to be righteous. And the farther I run from my Creator, the closer I come to the truth. I’d rather be the truest black than the fakest white.
I think of Jack Kerouac. On the Road. “I think of Dean M-O-R-I-A-R-T-Y.” Originals and counterfeits. I get it. The need to be crazy passionate about something. “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
I walked only a few miles thinking these kinds of things. Moses lived to be 120 years old; he wandered many wilderness miles in his adventurous lifetime and God spoke to him as a friend. Jack Kerouac traveled back and forth across America, in search of God, wrote a novel about it on a single spool of paper in a mere three-week timespan; his journey, beautifully told and carefully unrolled, came to 120 feet.
Later that day, Monday, somewhere beyond the woods a game was being played. The people in the stands, their voices rising, rising, rising in unison like a wave coming ashore or like the rush of blood in my ears. People stood, whistled, and applauded the fast-melting, cotton candy success of youth; a first down, a touchdown, followed by the thumping pulse of a band, the crashing of symbols, and Ra Ra Ra. A trick, sort of. Disappointment in embryo. After graduation, time will take its toll at high speeds, and, like Adam and Eve, the next generation of children will try to sneak back into paradise only to be blocked by a flaming sword and reminded of their sentence to a life in a fallen world of thorns and thistles. But there’s also an inexplicable sweetness, a growing knowledge of a transcendent need and a necessary journey that will lead every wandering son or daughter closer to home even as they stray farther and farther away. Sin never leads to righteousness, no, but makes it something worth having. The barren land of personal moral rot makes one remember the songs of the faithful and hopeful parents cheering in the stand.
Now, every time I hear a crowd cheering in the unseen distance, I think, “That’s the sound of time.” Time given a voice, a thousand voices, Legion unchained and amplified in a colosseum. Time watching us play and keeping score. So, I tell myself, “Run with it, old sport. Lift your glass to the four corners of the earth. A toast! To the most scenic route to heaven.”