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Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl
By N. D. Wilson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 N. D. Wilson
All right reserved.
I am a traveler.
Do I sound important? Or at least meaningful? I'm not Kerouac. And I'm not in sales. I travel like the flea on a dog's back. I travel unintentionally, a very small cowboy born on a bull. I travel with the Carnival. Where it goes, I go. Its people are my people, and its land is my land. Most of my time is spent on the Tilt-A-Whirl and occasionally in the squirrel cages. I couldn't stop traveling if I tried, and not because of some kind of wanderlust, gypsy blood, a need for meaningful experiences, or a desire to see Europe's castles.
I was born into the Carnival. I've done all my living, sleeping, playing, growing, and throwing up at the Carnival. When I die, I won't escape it-not that I'd want to. Death is that black stripe above my head on the measuring board. When I've reached it, well, then I can go on the gnarly rides.
Just to be clear, I live on a near perfect sphere hurtling through space at around 67,000 miles per hour. Mach 86 to pilots. Of course, this sphere of mine is also spinning while it hurtles, so tack on an extra 1,000 miles per hour at the fat parts. And it's all tucked into this giant hurricane of stars. Yes, it can be freaky. Once a month or so, my wife will find me lying inthe lawn, burrowing white knuckles into the grass, trying not to fly away. But most of the time I manage to keep my balance despite the speed, and I don't have to hold on with anything more than my toes.
You live here too. Which means I'm not special. We're all carnies, though some people are in denial. They want to be above it all, above the mayhem of laughter and people and lights and animals and the dark sadness that lurks in the corners and beneath the rides and in the trailers after hours. So they ride the Ferris wheel, and at the top, they think they've left it all behind. They've ascended to a place where they can take things seriously. Where they can be taken seriously.
Let them have their moment. You and I can eat our corn dogs and wait and smile. Solomon smiles with us.
The wheel turns. The earth spins and runs its laps. We all go around.
What the hell is this place? Just looking around, I can tell you that whatever is going on, spheres are a theme, and so are insects. We are on a sphere, spinning around a much bigger sphere (which happens to be burning hot enough to singe my face, even at this distance) while other spheres of various sizes do the same thing, and a smaller, sad, little-dead-poet sphere with acne scars spins around us, lighting the night, causing the oceans to heave their bosoms and pant, and increasing violent crime (really). And our blue ball is primarily populated by small things with exoskeletons, no matter how you measure it. Invertebrates outnumber us, outweigh us, out-vary us, and bite us more often than we bite them. If you find yourself a quiet little deciduous forest during the summer, you can sit still and listen to the clatter of their spoor falling into the undergrowth while chiggers creep carefully into your skivs. I have a friend who got some government money for doing just that.
If I were a publisher (which I'm not), and an agent (I wouldn't consider unagented submissions) submitted a proposal for a fantasy taking place in this world, then I would tell him in no uncertain terms that I only handle important stories, realistic stories, stories believable in texture and character, and then I would tell him to try the pulps, maybe aim for a straight-to-paperback grocery store novel, target an audience more likely to believe something so far-fetched-an audience less likely to have college degrees. In that pitched fantasy world, the spheres would be so perfectly aligned that when the moon passed in front of the sun, the two would be identically sized. And when the earth's shadow fell on the moon's face, it also would be perfectly sized to brown the moonlight. Yeah, right. Whatever. A bit contrived, don't you think? Perfect balls? Some flaunting tutus? Come now. Show some respect for my intelligence.
What is this place? Why is this place? Who approved it? Are the investors happy? The stockholders? Was this cosmic behavior expected? Am I supposed to take it seriously? How can I? I've watched goldfish make babies, and ants execute earwigs. I've seen a fly deliver live young while having its head eaten by a mantis. And I had a golden retriever that behaved like one.
This is not a sober world. A mouse once pooped on my toddler nephew, provoked by traps in the living room. Misled by board books, my nephew identified the offending rodent as a sheep. Bats really do exist. Caterpillars really turn into butterflies-it's not just a lie for children. Coal squishes into diamonds. Apple trees turn flowers into apples using sunlight and air.
I've seen a baby born. And, ahem, I know what made it. But I'm not telling. You'd never believe me.
There are various theories as to how and why this all happened, attempts at explaining the sheer number of creeping things in the world, the stars, the life cycle of frogs, the social behavior of fish, the meaning of love, life, and a really good hamburger. But in order to know why this is all here, a simple how is a prerequisite. How did this place happen? I live here, so it shouldn't be too hard to figure it out.
Call in the suspects. Make them line up, turn sideways, and wait impassively while we look them over. But before you do, one thing should be made perfectly clear. There can be no easily believable explanation for everything I've seen in this little ball-happy universe of ours. Occam's well-worn razor will do us no good. There will be no "simplest" explanation. A single world combining galaxies, black holes, Jerry Seinfeld, over 300,000 varieties of beetle, Shakespeare, adrenal glands, professional bowling, and the bizarre reproductive patterns of wasps (along with teams of BBC cameramen to document them), precludes easily palatable explanations.
A neutral observer would not find this world to be believable. Ergo, the cause of said unbelievable world must place similar stretch marks on the imagination.
Step forward, please. Turn to the left.
If I were an Apache Indian, I would tell you a story about the Creator rubbing his eyes as if long asleep and rousing himself to shape the world. He began with friends. When there were four of them, they clasped hands; the sweat mingled and dropped out in the shape of a ball. They kicked it around, and the wind helped it expand until it had grown into our world. For all I know, they're kicking it still. That the creative moment also served as the invention of soccer is a clever use of resources.
If I were Hawaiian, the story would be about a love triangle, fury, despair, and a volcano's revenge.
My Norse fathers (I'm sure there were some) understood that the world was a cold, hard, and depressing place. At the beginning, there had to be an evil ice giant, chopped up by Odin and his brothers. They recycled his flesh, using it to create the world.
Or try this: In the beginning, there was only an egg, laid in or on or through chaos. After thousands of years, it hatched and out came Pangu, the creator. Pangu divided Yin from Yang, the earth from the heavens, and eventually, he laid himself down and his body became creation, divvying things up nicely-hair into stars, breath into wind, eyes into sun and moon. All of his parasites crawled off and became people. Which, given the history of civilization, isn't too hard to believe.
Babylonians would get Marduk on stage, along with much begetting of monsters and the gutting of his goddess mother.
There are a lot more. I could behave myself, become academically cautious (no fear of that), and we could walk through one after the other, each expounded thoroughly along with all of its variations. We could get into African, Mayan, and Australian aboriginal versions, along with a few dozen others. Or we could move right on to the pervasive themes, those things that manage to crop up time and time again-order versus chaos, violent overthrow and creation by means of recycled dead, lots of blood, struggling gods, misguided affection, and serious divine parenting issues. But even those don't really get to the root, the common human itchiness when it comes to existence.
First, every culture has felt the overwhelming pressure of existence itself and the need to explain it. There's a sort of nervousness apparent in the myths of every people group, as if maybe we're not supposed to be here and we all have to rehearse our story before the authorities come.
"We're sorry ... there was this ice giant," we explain.
"When Pangu died, we had nowhere else to go," we tell the cop.
"Don't you like soccer?" we ask the judge.
Second, we don't just feel the need to explain and justify existence, we also seem to understand that our explanation needs to be as outlandish as ourselves, as impossible as reality. This is no time for dogs eating homework. This requires some serious imaginative effort. Personable dragons, wind-inflated worlds and carcasses, dying wolves, cosmic blood, divine urine, exploding gas, and an ever-expanding universe-pick your cast of characters and create your own mythology. Explain yourself. Justify your presence here, the presence of the world. Even harder, explain the world's personality. Find a single seed to account for it all. Sit by a campfire, or in a college lab, and spin your tale. Compete with the choir of old stories. Sign up your devotees and acolytes. Sculpt yourself something out of clay, add some odd anatomical detail, and convince yourself that it needs a bowl of fruit, or a goat, or maybe the volcano needs a virgin, or Zeus needs a shepherd girl (again). Or get a degree in philosophy, and ride that Ferris wheel. Look down at the Carnival, be safely above our madly spinning world, the mountains, thunderheads birthing lightning while they roll, the smell of lawn clippings and fresh-cut cedar. Hide behind big words, or listen to a child's first laugh and know that this world is here, that you are in it, and that its flavors are deep and layered and its lights are bright. Know that it's real.
Welcome to Carnival. Ride the wheel back down. Come out from the shadows and lopsided trailers. There's a story to tell, a world of surprises and questions to explore, a personality often searched for to be unearthed and understood in the reality around us. And there's someone behind it, uncomfortable answers to the hows and whys and whats.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through Him were all things made.
Welcome to His poem. His play. His novel. Skip the bowls of fruit and statues. Let the pages flick your thumbs.
This is His spoken world.
Chapter TwoTICKETS, PLEASE
Winter-the spinning begins.
Snow is so overused. One sentimental, overly structured ice flake might have some value. But God never seems capable of moderation or of understanding the basic concepts behind supply and demand. He constantly devalues His own products. Give me one flake, a cool room, and a magnifying glass and I will admire its artistry. But right now, I'm sitting by my window on a Christmas night, staring out at winter wastefulness in the extreme. Miles of clouds, clouds larger than states, have turned into crystal stars and now streak silently past my window to their deaths. Well, not quite silently. The stars are falling fast enough that if you step outside, like I just did, you can hear the whisper of collisions and delicate frozen impacts, each six-pointed perfection complaining as it arrives-
"They told me I was special. There's two and a half bazillion of us in this hedge and more falling. Does anyone here care about overpopulation? A market crash? Close the sky. Lobby for a moratorium."
But the storm-whispers sound more pleased to me. Excited even-
"I knew I was different from the rest of you plebes. Look how silly and gothic you all look with your skinny, knobbed arms. I'm unique. Neoclassical."
Try counting the flakes. Really count them. I'll step back outside for a quick estimate. Let's be conservative. Assuming that we're in the middle of this storm and it only stretches ten miles in each direction (Ha, says the weather man), and assuming that the storm is a tiny one hundred feet tall, and skipping the preexisting ground accumulation, and eyeball estimating the frenzied blizzard's air content at a meager ten flakes per cubic foot, then we are looking at about ... 11,151,360,000,000 flakes in the air above a small patch in Idaho at one particular moment on Christmas night at the end of the year 2007. Just this storm, this tiny little slice of winter could divvy out seventeen hundred flakes to every person on this planet. More impressively, that number has the US national debt beat by trillions.
I look out my window at the proud Christmas tumble. Ye flakes, do you care what I think? Hearken to my insults: You're totally devalued-like stars and galaxies and insect species. For all your balance and your beauty and your impossible symmetry, you're each not even worth a buck. Or a cent. If I could get a penny for each of you, then I'd make the Forbes rich-people list (somewhere below the Wal-Mart heirs).
We all know that each flake is different and unique, because we've all been to preschool. Each one is beautiful, yeah, yeah, we know that too. But how can we possibly value these things when their maker slings them around like so much trash? Actually, I've never seen anyone sling this much trash. Doesn't He realize that people will curse this tomorrow? That they'll shovel it and salt it and SUV it into gray slop? Does He know that my daughters are going to roll in it, melting thousands of flakes with their flushed cheeks and tens of thousands with their tongues?
Dogs are going to pee on this stuff in the morning. They're probably getting down to it right now.
So begins a new year, a new solar lap.
* * *
Philosophers have long marveled at the world. But that's not exactly accurate. Some philosophers have marveled. Most have responded to the overwhelming weight of reality with pontification and soft-boiled verbiage. The rest have just whined about what a terrible, hard, godless world it is. The world hurts their feelings, and so they fire back dissertations full of insults-calling it an accident, pointless, a derivative of chaos, occasionally even going so far as to deny its existence. But the world doesn't care. It has thick skin, and all the most important thinkers have become part of it.
Should we care about philosophers when the world so clearly doesn't? Should we bother to remember the names and ideas of men who may live on as nothing more than a headache to college freshmen everywhere?
Why wouldn't we want to? We name our diseases-interesting or no. We name schools of architecture. We name every novel, every play, every food, every ride at the county fair. These men felt burdened by our existence. They worked to justify and explain (or destroy) our presence in this universe, our communication, our ethics, our knowledge. They felt the need for a centuries-long game of intellectual Twister, and they've ruined many things. Doesn't that make them important enough to remember? Like the chicken pox, each of them happened only once. Like the common cold, they build on each other and mutate. If you've been to college, you've heard of them. If you live in the western world, you've played by their rules.
Plato, the first true pope of philosophy (sorry, Socrates), argued for a World of Forms above this reality-a transcendent plane of perfect essences, pure and lovely, where nothing ever gets muddy (including the essence of mud). No football. Many Christians today still think of Heaven in a sort of default, platonic way, and somehow manage to look forward to an existence in a cloudy, spiritual world busy with harps, and nothing much to do.
Aristotle snitched Plato's pure, untainted essences and crammed one inside each particular object on our own plane of material existence. My desk no longer partakes of platonic deskness in the sky, but is somehow inhabited by pure, inner deskness -and it is that internal purity that all desks share; it is that which makes them desks. My backache (when you get all the way down to its essence) is pure and perfect and ideal. If that sounds stupid, don't admit it. Mui importante, sî? Just nod and try to look sage and a little conflicted. They'll still give you your degree.
Excerpted from Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N. D. Wilson Copyright © 2009 by N. D. Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
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