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DEATH BY LIVING
By N. D. WILSON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 N. D. Wilson
All rights reserved.
Guy in the tapered corduroys with the flapjack butt, catechumen of cool, keeper of your generation's two and a half original thoughts—I'd like to speak with you.
And you, all-natural gluten-less girl, lover of things shade grown, shedder of tears for unseen chickens, lesser priestess of the Cruelty-Free, defender of the helpless (excluding womb-dwellers).
And you, guy in the belted khakis, young republican't, worshipper of the imaginary (secular but holy) American Financial Fertility Goddess.
And you, mother of seven, snarling at the back rows in your extendo-van.
And you, masturbatory middle-aged gym poser, leering past your own veiny reflection at the girl on the rowing machine.
And you, Christian youth, straddler of two stools, devotee of an unambitious god who wants only to serve as the figurehead of your personal aorta (graciously leaving the rest to your peers).
Athletes and worship leaders and cheaters, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters.
Abused or abuser. Lost or repentant, wandering or rooted, germ cultures of pride or of self-loathing.
Ahoy, the numb and the debauched (or both).
Shut your eyes. Inhale slowly. Now hold that breath while your eyes open. Assess your position before you exhale, between your last breath and the next. Start simply. Where are you?
On a park bench? A bus seat? The john? In a secondhand archaic armchair alone in a seventeenth-hand apartment? Where are you exactly on this planet? How many feet above sea level and how many feet below and above the nearest stars? Where are you in time, in history, in the beyond-all-human-comprehension parade of handcrafted matter marching in noise and glory through this thing we call the present moment?
Please provide me with your physical, temporal, genealogical, historical, narratival, and spiritual coordinates, because I want to know you (not personally, just as a viewer, thanks). I'm coming to your story at least halfway through the show, and I missed seasons one through seventy-four. I'm flipping through a novel thicker than the General Sherman (on onion skin paper too), and I can't find you or your dadgum moment.
How far are you from your birth? No, let me try flipping backward from the end. How close are you to your death? Help me find your narrative.
"Story, story, my life is a story," says the hipster to his Twitter feed.
Right. Narrative. Story. Boy, it sounds nice and groovy, but it's coming from someone who barely has enough of an attention span to get through a Web clip of over four minutes, and may the postmodern gods show their mercy if the atmospheric WiFi wanes or his little browser starts buffering.
No matter how trendy it might be when some people say it, life is a story. All of history is a story. Every particle has its own story trailing backward until it reaches the first Word of the One and Three, and all of those trailing threads—those many—are woven into the one great ever-growing divinely spoken narrative.
In other words, no matter how trite we might be, no matter how much we might use the idea to inflate our own perception of our own personal autonomous self-worth, no matter how much we might swank about in trend-appropriate glasses and trend-appropriate jeans, flexing Story like that one word and the thoughtfulness it implies is all the mojo we could ever need. We are, in fact, on to something. Each of us is in the middle of a story.
But for some reason, we don't show the slightest desire to read it, let alone live it with any kind of humble self-awareness.
Some people see the huge swirl of history—the impossibly numerous narrative threads always rolling toward the beach in one incomprehensibly massive wave, and they make one large theological assumption posing as a conclusion (it's all just too much, even for the God speaking it all), and then they climb up into the pulpit to issue an utterance for those among us who might be too simple or naïve to have noticed the bigness of reality.
"How dare you thank God after you win a football game. Do you really think He cares?"
"How dare you pray before your event at the Olympics and get all pious after victory. Do you think God doesn't like the other girls?"
Some people see only the swirl of their immediate surroundings, and then only in a radius of inches. Life is a story. I'm a superstar. Get out of my way, I'm busy starring in this little thing I like to call Me. Which, Mom, you clearly don't understand. Headphones firmly on ...
On the one hand, people assume that God is diffident and distant, with all the personality of the Great Gray Yawn in the Sky. On the other, people act like God is their personal gnome of narrative manipulation.
Ready, set, chop the baby.
The world is big, yes. But God is bigger. Yes, your life is a story, but you are carpet-dwelling, dust-mite teensy on the scale of this stage, and number only one in the multitude of His cast.
Your world is tiny, yes. But God gets tinier. Not one dust mite falls through the carpet fibers and into the pad apart from your Father. He's big enough that small doesn't matter. Dust-mite drama doesn't use up His attention, taking it away from something deemed by mentally incontinent college professors to be more worthy of His attention. When one is infinite, one can enjoy two black holes arm-wrestling over a galactic snack, and an uncoordinated junior high quarterback struggling to escape an overweight junior high defensive end. Infinite goes all the way up and all the way down; and at every level, with equal attention, He creates with the full dose of His personality.
Job of Uz: Why?
The Whirlwind: Did you clothe the hipster and give him his coffee and inverted brand fascination?
A drought in the Midwest and a hawk chasing a crow are both scenes that hold His attention. They are not things that happen which He then may or may not notice ... He speaks and crafts every piece of matter woven into those scenes, and that is why they happen. His speaking is their happening.
Understand this: we are both tiny and massive. We are nothing more than molded clay given breath, but we are nothing less than divine self-portraits, huffing and puffing along mountain ranges of epic narrative arcs prepared for us by the Infinite Word Himself. Swell with pride and gratitude, for you are tiny and given much. You are as spoken by God as the stars. You stand in history with stories stretching out both behind and before. We should want to live our chapters well, but doing so requires that we know the chapters that led up to us in our time and our moment; it requires that we open our eyes and consciously begin to shape those chapters that are coming after.
Those who love to talk about Story rarely attempt to read much past their own immediate moment, and that not well. But it's hard to blame them. Try it. You have already held your breath and looked around yourself. Wherever you are, it is a scene, a location, a setting. How did you get there? Why are you there? What are you supposed to be doing? If you were imaginary, and you could read your scene in a book, you would have an easier time answering. Get outside your own head and your own little decisions and read the story. How did you get here? You can't really know where you should be going next, until you've taken a look at the road behind you.
Unhinge your jaw; struggle to read and learn and speak God's story of yourself after Him, that story in which you live. Know that you have a better chance of spewing out the Snake River than of telling your full story well. But not trying is the shortest route to character failure.
Clear your throat and open your eyes. You are on stage. The lights are on. It's only natural if you're sweating, because this isn't make-believe. This is theater for keeps. Yes, it is a massive stage, and there are millions of others on stage with you. Yes, you can try to shake the fright by blending in. But it won't work. You have the Creator God's full attention, as much attention as He ever gave Napoleon. Or Churchill. Or even Moses. Or billions of others who lived and died unknown. Or a grain of sand. Or one spike on one snowflake. You are spoken. You are seen. It is your turn to participate in creation. Like a kindergartener shoved out from behind the curtain during his first play, you might not know which scene you are in or what comes next, but God is far less patronizing than we are. You are His art, and He has no trouble stooping.
You can even ask Him for your lines.
Soul Food, Paper Boats, and the Pitcher: Stories Told
I AM A LONE IN MY BED, STUDYING THE L EGO WAR THAT I have left frozen on the floor, listening to the washing machine rumble on the other side of my bedroom/laundry room, waiting for my mother. A homemade stick-horse is watching me from the corner (a large brown velveteen head was mom-sewn over a hockey stick). A mom-sewn hot-air balloon is hanging from my low lean-to ceiling (despite the fact that the balloon occasionally and nightmarishly becomes a giant's head looming above me). I am accompanied in my bed by a stubby rhino (that will eventually inspire a creature in my 100 Cupboards trilogy), a lopsided killer whale packed with incredibly dense stuffing (deadly in pillow fights and eventually banned), and Billy, a soft bear with odd ears and a speckled gray sweat suit sewn for him by my mother.
Tonight, as I look back from some two and a half decades later, that killer whale is in my basement, the rhino is in the attic with four sleepers, and Billy is sleeping beside my two-year-old daughter. He's still wearing that sweat suit.
On that long-ago night (and on many others like it), those animals and I were waiting for a story.
It was a small house, but my sisters' bedroom was on the far side of it. I could hear muffled voices and laughs that would eventually lead to footsteps that would eventually lead to me. My father sang and prayed over all of us and read us our first Lewis and Tolkien at the dinner table, but at bedtime, my mother was the storyteller. When she stepped (one step) down into my room and sat on my bed, there were two things that I would immediately request—a back rub and a story about Tiny Tim.
I don't remember any of the stories. My mother is relieved that I don't, sure that they would be embarrassing now (they wouldn't be). But I do remember the hum of the washing machine, the rattle of the dryer, and the deep thrill of getting what I wanted—of setting off on a trek with my friend Tim, who was no taller than my finger.
Stories are soul food. I fed on those stories, sending my imagination wandering as sleep took me, just as much as I fed on the classics of fantasy and adventure that my father read to us at the dinner table. As much as the stories of war and farms and trains that I heard from my grandfathers. As much as I fed on a short book my father wrote for me (and starring me), in which I accidentally killed a goblin king with my baseball bat while walking home from a game and got myself sucked into an underworld.
Growth requires food. Multiple times every day, throughout my entire childhood, I was fed. How many specific meals do I remember? How many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches do I remember uniquely as distinct from all the others? I remember meals in the same way that I remember story times. The atmosphere and aura of feeding—goblets and goblins, milk and villains, ice cream and orcs. I was fed. I grew. Inside and out. We are narrative creatures, and we need narrative nourishment—narrative catechisms.
Tiny Tim and I did some great things together. (Ask Billy; he remembers.)
For years, all we do is feed. We don't control what our parents feed us for dinner, we don't control what they read to us (or don't read to us) or what they let us watch. We are like jars of wet clay, and we are loaded full with every kind of tale—films; books; TV shows; stories from friends, parents, grandparents. And as we dry, we take the shape of what has been dumped inside of us. When we begin to make our own choices, when we become an active character in our own narratives, all of that soul food is behind us. We might not even remember the stories, but they groomed and molded us while we were still unfired clay.
Even in adults, stories groom instincts, and instincts control loyalties, and loyalties shape choices. But growth is harder for adults.
And then we move beyond just making our own choices. We begin deciding what narratives we will pour (or allow to be poured) into our own small people. We will feed them. Or, far more frequently, others will do it for us.
Souls will be fed and shaped from the inside out. That much is inescapable.
My children haven't heard a thing about Tiny Tim. But they do know Tiny Sinbad. He's the one who collects their lost teeth (leaving money and a tiny grateful note explaining what he plans on carving with the human ivory). And when they were still too young to be reading books on their own and (mostly) too squirrelly to sit still while I read to them, we started a tradition. Almost.
Bedtime. As a character in her own story, my mother taught me how rich that twilight of wakefulness could be. At night, I had four pairs of young eyes and four eagerly bouncing young souls waiting for me in three beds and one crib. (And Billy.)
I had to try. What kind of hypocrite would I be otherwise? Stories are my job. And surely my own children deserved my best stuff? Well, too bad. Because stories are hard.
These days, three can read and the fourth is well underway. Only little number five begs for stories in the way they all used to. Three devour novels in their beds, the fourth devours my old Calvin and Hobbes, and the fifth is entirely dependent on others for her narrative grub. But it isn't hard to remember when there were just four, and they were all baby birds, squalling for a story.
Slide time back into an older present. I walk upstairs to the room that holds four beds that hold four children. They never think they're tired, these four. Their eyes are bright and their young minds crackle with surprising thoughts on the day, the future, the nature of the universe. I am here to bid them farewell, to break little bottles of champagne on little bows, to let go of four imaginations and send them floating alone through the darkness, unchaperoned, unguided, shaping visions for themselves, resting in warmth or wandering into terror.
Every night, I feel like I'm launching paper boats into an ocean. I point these children as best I can. I flavor their minds with subjects and characters and songs and dances and blessings. And when they are warm and spilling over with joy, I let go, and I wait for the morning to hear of their adventures.
This is why we sing about drunken sailors and what to do with them, about how some folks say a man is made out of mud, about lost Scottish love and the walls of Jerusalem. This is why I must tell them stories.
In those early days, when story nights came, I would gather them around the youngest brother (still in crib captivity), and I would tell them some fatherly version of a tale from history or legend. They heard all sorts of things about dragons and wars and Samson and David and Moses and prophets and ill-behaved gods and men and women who weren't scared of them. But after awhile, on one particular night when my brain felt like a pre-squeezed lime slice, I decided that I wanted my spawn to be more active than passive, more invested in the stories. And so, as they gathered around, I told them they could each pick one character (or thing) and I would weave them all into a single story. The arrangement would (I thought) stimulate growth in everyone involved. They got to participate, and I got a creative writing exercise (along with a running start).
And then they discovered hyphens. It was Lucia (then four) who introduced them to our little story sessions. Much to her older brother's chagrin, she loved butterflies. But she didn't love them exclusively. She loved unicorns (especially if they were part butterfly) and ballerinas (especially if they could turn into unicorns and butterflies) and princesses (so long as they knew ballet and could turn into unicorns and butterflies). Ameera (three) added slightly more courageous elements (puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons or clone themselves into whole packs of puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons). What could a brother do but play the game? Rory (five) struggled to counteract all the butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princessness with more and more gruesome monsters, hoping that his father would take the hint and allow the girlier elements in the story to be devoured—something I was simply unable to do (given that I wanted my daughters sleeping happily).
Excerpted from DEATH BY LIVING by N. D. WILSON. Copyright © 2013 by N. D. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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