Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TIll We Have Faces

I have this friend. We’ve known each other for over thirty years. We don’t see each other often, but when we do we don’t have to reacquaint or search for topics of conversation. We tease and laugh and remember easily.

At least we used to. About five or six years ago my friend made some changes in her life, changes that she assumed I would find difficult to accept. I found out about those changes from someone else and so our encounters, always brief, became stiff and contrived.

A few days ago we ran into each other at one of those events where every moment is meant to be celebratory and no one is allowed discomfort of any kind. One of those events where putting on a happy face is practically the cost of admission.

Looking at her face across the room, seeing a teenager and not a middle-aged woman, I made a decision. The two of us would not go home pretending.

She was surprised, a few hours later, when I took her by the arm and pulled her away from the group with whom we’d been chatting. In the quiet of an empty hallway, having decided that subtlety would be irresponsible, I looked her in the eye and said, "Love is unconditional or it is nothing at all."

My friend, once an awkward girl and, at this moment, an equally awkward woman, blinked her eyes and asked, "Does this mean I can stop hiding from you?"

Ah, yes. Hiding. It is what we do when fear besieges the fortresses of our hearts. It is what we do when the facade of competence and self-sufficiency begins to crumble. It is what we do when doubting truth seems easier than facing it.

In the trek from forest to farm to city, we humans never lost the instinct for camouflage. We are born with a bent toward blending in. We wear uniforms and make-up. We join clubs and wave flags. And we do it because the world is a dangerous place.

Or so we pretend.

The reality is that that from which we are hiding is rarely evil or life-threatening. The reality is that that from which we are hiding is nothing more than the conviction that we are not worthy, that our value is insignificant, that we can not measure up. And whether the disguise is a fig leaf or a forced smile, it is never enough to hide our nakedness.

C. S. Lewis’s last published book, Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, is the story of two sisters – one beautiful, one hideously ugly. Living behind a veil so that her ugliness cannot be seen by the people she rules, Orual must eventually face the gods and their charges against her. And she must do it without the veil.

Orual says, "When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years ... you’ll not talk about the joy of words. ... Till that word can be dug out of us, why should [the gods] hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"

And, so, finally mustering the courage to reveal herself, what the gods see is the beautiful face of her sister."Does this mean I can stop hiding from you?"I wish I’d had time to prepare an answer. I wish I’d had some instant flash of insight. I wish I’d been quick enough, then, to say something about camouflage and fig leaves.

Instead, I looked my friend straight in the eyes and said only, "I love you."

We embraced and she walked away."

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds," William Shakespeare wrote. Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.

Copyright 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

Anything But Over Easy

They were just eggs. Ordinary eggs. Scrambled for breakfast, fried hard and slapped between two pieces of white bread with mayonnaise, broken into pound cake batter in fat gold globes.

But once a year they were anything but ordinary.Lowered gently into coffee cups with the thin wire egg holder that came in the Paas box with six colored disks that could have easily been mistaken for SweetTarts, they magically turned yellow like dandelions in morning dew and purple like verbena scattered across the churchyard. They became pale pink like dogwoods, brighter pink like azaleas and deep rose like camellias, the hues varying according to how long we could stand the smell of vinegar.

There were no adhesive stickers, no peel-off graphics, no stand-up cardboard caricatures. There was no glitter, no puff paint. We created Easter eggs with nothing but color.

But then we had to give them up, had to relinquish our beautiful treasures, into the hands of the those who would hide them before giving us the chance to reclaim them by demonstrating our skill and patience and cunning. We were, without knowing it, being introduced to the concept of quest – desire and pursuit.

Except for one thing, one thing that had never occurred to me until Easter Sunday afternoon when I drove past a yard where a single child was weaving slowly through the grass, basket in hand, eyes down.

Every Easter egg hunt in which I ever participated was started by an announcement, usually by the thick-chested Sunday School Superintendent standing on the steps of the social hall, as to the boundaries of the hunt. "Go back as far as the fence and over on that side as far as the ditch and on the other side up to the dogwood tree. Don’t go past the cars. No eggs over there." He told us, in essence, where to find the treasure.

And in a real quest, the kind that requires single-mindedness and the forsaking of all else, it’s never that easy. In a real quest, the object of longing having been identified and the heart having been given over to the consuming desire to have it for one’s own, one can’t know ahead of time the limits of the search. In a real quest, the kind that can take a lifetime to accomplish, the hero, the heroine has to ignore the fences and ditches and head straight toward the horizon.

A few weeks ago "Man of La Mancha" arrived at Sandhill in a red Netflix envelope. I’d never seen the movie, though I knew something of the story of the crazy old man who saw a giant in a windmill and a noble lady in a prostitute. Ridiculed and taunted by most and simply tolerated by his only friend, Don Quixote neared the end of his life tired and weak, but never wavering in the pursuit of his desire.

"This is my quest," he sang, "to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. To fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause."

Hell, I think, is probably way past the fence, way past the ditch.

I understand the need for boundaries and for consequences for violating those boundaries. I understand the need for limits, in society and in an individual life. What I also understand, though, is the need to stretch those limits in pursuit of one’s own heavenly cause.

And, maybe, if we started with an Easter egg hunt, some child somewhere would grow into a man or woman who – like Don Quixote scorned and covered with scars – teaches us all something about reaching for the unreachable star.

Copyright 2010