When I enter Vegas, I enter the casino. I am hyper-stimulated by the flashing lights and the vibrant sounds of the slot machines, my nostrils suffused with a thick cigarette smoke that hangs over the room like a persistent fog.
I want to write about excess, about relentless desire and momentary satiation, about the merging of humans and machines in a trance at once fantastical, and then monotonous.
I want to write about the pregnant mother in the red t-shirt that drapes inelegantly over her burgeoning belly, standing with her back slightly arched back. She is a vision, a still figure set against a dull chaos, and I am transfixed.
I am moved to poetry. But Maya Angelou died this morning. And as I flirted with these lines of subtle judgmental observation, I thought to myself, why not write a new story? Why not compose a new song?
A few years ago, a friend referred me to the theologian and philosopher, Paul Tillich. To this day, I still often revisit this selection from his book, The Shaking of the Foundations. It’s a testament to how well she knows me, and to how profound an impact grace has on my life.
Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it.
But wait. Listen to this.
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
Music: Yo-Yo Ma with Roma Sinfonietta – The Lady Caliph: Dinner and The Lady Caliph: Nocturne
You spoke to me of the possibilities of relationships. I had brought up their challenges and the disappointments. I glimpsed only occasionally into your eyes, vacantly, to feign attention. I was distracted by the little boy sitting on the bench, his little legs dangling as he turned to his side, face tilted up towards his mother; “I love you, I love you,” he told her, stretching out his words, his eyes squinting and his face awash in a smile. My gaze dragged along the floor and back to your face, still vacant, and separated by a thousand miles of land and sea.
Music: Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
On Sunday, I chanced upon an interview by Larry King with Anjelica Huston, whose autobiography, A Story Lately Told, takes its title from a traditional nursery rhyme:
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
And four for death.
I looked again at the still, black fence. Nothing. The birds elsewhere seemed to pay no mind to misery or to joy. In the days that followed, the last remnants of snow and ice began to melt in the afternoon sun, which continued to rise and set over the valley. The crows antagonized the resident hawk, but neither party heard the clamor of hostility within these walls. The herd of deer marched on indifferently on both sides of the fence, and then today, spring arrived as it always does, and as it always must, upon winter’s end.
But didn’t you hear my silent resignation? I am the only human being living on the mountain. And I see magpies flying against storm clouds, but I don’t know where.
I’m afraid that my writing, along with my critical thinking and ability to self-analyze, feel, and reflect, will continue to atrophy if I don’t write more. It is becoming more and more of a struggle to write something coherent with each passing day. Writing is certainly like exercising a muscle – the longer it goes unused, the weaker (and harder to use) it gets. Confidence in its appearance and ability wanes and gives way to further inertia.
So start somewhere, and start simply. Just write, even if it doesn’t make sense, seems self-indulgent, or won’t impress anyone, including the author. To muster up the courage and self-determination required for a lanky, awkwardly-shaped boy to lift those lighter weights in the public arena of the gymnasium is a first victory, upon which greater successes are built. And so here I am re-familiarizing myself with words and their lives and their companions, and relating them to the experiences of my life, here and now. My arrangement of said words, however trite or banal or plain mediocre, is my own, and is new. There’s always something there – a thought, a muscle, a life – that could be nurtured, exercised, and developed into something productive and worthwhile. Convincing myself otherwise might have been the greatest contribution to its gradual atrophy.