Tuesday, April 27, 2010

R is for The Road

A few weeks ago I recommended the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I have since decided the book deserved its own post.

When I first read the book, I thought, “Wow.” But as the past few weeks have rolled by, and as I’ve thought more and more about it, I’ve come to think, “Double Wow.” (That’s right, double wow.) It’s hard to quantify why I love the book so much, other than to say it felt different than any other book I’ve ever read, and McCarthy is nothing short of brilliant. The imagery and lessons beautifully rendered in this book have forever changed the way I view the world, and I am confident it will be a staple of my bookshelf for the rest of my life.

The Road is a story placed in a “barren, silent, godless” world; the end of the world. There is no hope. None. And yet, in the shape of one father and one son, there is goodness. And that’s it, that’s the book. You never know the father’s name, and you never know the son’s name. And all they do is make their way down the road in hopes of getting to the coast.

It’s a book filled with mystery, and you are left with far more questions than answers. What happened that made the whole world on fire? How did things get so bad? How many people are still alive? For heaven’s sake, what are their names? And perhaps the biggest question of all: How do the father and son maintain their goodness in a world literally gone to hell?

The answer to the latter question is probably found in their love for each other. The father’s entire existence is to protect his son, who he loves unfailingly. And the son—very likely the most endearing character in all of literary history—simply follows his father. In his life, the son has only known a world where men have degenerated to something less than beasts. And yet he carries only virtue in his heart.

Man has a great propensity for evil. History has shown that when push comes to shove many resort to tremendous evil. But history has also shown that despite the evils of the world, there is still goodness. And in that goodness, there is always hope. Even when the world offers none. And that is why I love The Road.

“Do you remember that little boy, Papa?”
“Yes. I remember him.”
“Do you think that he’s all right that little boy?
“Oh yes. I think he’s all right.”
“Do you think he was lost?”
“No I don’t think he was lost.”
“I’m scared that he was lost.”
“I think he’s all right.”
“But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?”
“Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Q is for Quiet

When I was 18 years old I went to a U2 concert. After camping out for approximately 24 hours before the show, my friends and I secured a spot in the front row, right in between Bono and The Edge. There I was, just feet away from the favorite band of my youth.

U2 have been renowned as arguably the best live band in the world, and as far I was concerned, they were. Not only did my throat become hoarse with the screaming, but so did my ears and eyes. I was thoroughly over-hoarsed and over stimulated by the visual and audio bonanza. Picture Kevin from Home Alone screaming in the mirror for three straight hours—that was me. I had seen some good shows before, and I have seen some great shows since, but nothing has ever come close to my front row experience with U2 in their prime.

My favorite moment from the concert came during the song “One.” The song was especially poignant at the time since the concert was not even two months removed from 9-11. During a brief moment of quiet in the song, I realized that I couldn’t here a single peep from the crowd. In an arena jam-packed with people who had been acting like a particularly excited brand of Pentecostals all night, there was absolute silence. The calm of the moment completely overwhelmed me, shooting goose bumps through my whole body.

Somehow, amid the smorgasbord of sound and revelry that I had enjoyed all night, the one moment that left me completely in awe was one of silence.

Since that time I have come to appreciate the quiet more and more. I have come to love art that captures the sounds of silence (to steal a line from Paul Simon). A good artist can use a lot of words or images to create a vivid picture, one that is easily comprehended. But a great artist can do the same with far less; they can say a ton without seeming to say anything at all. Because once you can connect the dots on your own . . . well, good things happen.

About a month ago I was at a music festival in California. A man who is highly esteemed in musical education was there as a clinician, and he made two points that stuck with me. The first was that here in America we tend to celebrate the beats in our music. We love repetitive beats that are predictable and obvious. He then pointed out that in places such as Africa, they tend to celebrate everything in between the beats. We’re so caught up in getting to the next link in a chain of sound that we fail to appreciate the silence in between.

The second thing he talked about is how moments of silence in music are often times as powerful, or even more powerful, than the music itself. He implored his pupils to embrace the silence, and not be afraid of it. In these moments, he explained, we allow for the music to move in us, for our thoughts to form and comprehension set in. In a subtle way, these two connected thoughts were very profound to me.

I think this idea can be applied to literature and film as well. Art moves in us, and comprehension sets in, best when our thoughts have space to move around. And this occurs in the quiet. Many call this type of art boring. Sometimes it is. However, perhaps it is only boring because it requires something of us: our minds. And if we’re not willing to give the effort, it seems lacking.

But it’s not just art, it’s everything. It’s those moments during a deep conversation when nobody says anything for long stretches of time, seemingly letting it all sink in. It’s those moments when you find yourself in a grove of trees, and all you can hear is the breeze moving in and out of the wood. And it’s those moments when the soft breathing of a sleeping loved one inexplicably reminds you how much you love them.

It’s even in the scriptures. Scriptures teach us to “be still.” I think we are told to be still because there is something significant in the quiet waiting for us, something profound. And you don’t have to go to a concert to find it.


Today’s recommendation: One song that I think captures silence beautifully is “All the Wild Horses” by Ray Lamontagne. Try it at least a couple times, preferably when you are in a place where you can listen to it without distraction. My wife admitted to me that at first she thought it was just boring. Now, it’s one of her favorite songs. She loves it so much that she made an arrangement of it on the piano.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

P is for Privacy

Did you know that Tiger Wood’s private yacht is called “Privacy”?

Gives you a pretty good idea of what he values, I think. And if Tiger values privacy so much, it seems safe to assume that these past five months have been nothing short of hell for him.

Three months ago I wrote that “sports culture has become a dichotomy of virtue and vice, a constant highlight reel juxtaposed with both the David who killed Goliath and the David who had an affair with Bath-sheba.” When I wrote that it didn’t occur to me that I was succinctly describing the story of Tiger Woods. But I was.

The other day I was discussing Tiger with my wife, and I was trying to think of somebody in history who has had to pay as severely as Tiger has for his sins. After I failed to think of anyone, my wife said, “What about David?”

Oddly enough, it fit. David came from relative obscurity to become royalty. Just like Tiger. He became too famous, too adored, and his sense of reality became skewed in whatever direction he wanted it to be. Just like Tiger. He ultimately decided that his “needs” were greater than others’ and took whatever he wanted, including Bath-sheba. Just like Tiger. But when his actions came to a front, he dropped mightily from his throne. Again, just like Tiger. (Granted, Tiger hasn’t played an implicit role in the murder of anyone, but then again, David only had one Bath-sheba)

Think about it: I had to go back 3000 years to find somebody who has suffered in a comparable way. Tiger Woods went from king of the sports world to the butt of every joke in a matter of days. A man who desires constant privacy had everything about his life (Everything!) put into a worldwide microscope in an especially derisive manner. (It’s too bad Tiger isn’t an eloquent writer, because I think his Psalms would be an all-time best seller. Right up there with—dare I say it?—The Bible.)

My point? The Masters are this week. David had the Valley of Elah, and Tiger had The Masters in Augusta, Georgia. Just as David decapitated Goliath at Elah, propelling himself to greatness, Tiger decapitated everyone at the Masters as a young man propelling himself to greatness. But here’s the thing, David never got a chance to return to Elah and prove himself once more. This week, Tiger gets to try to do something unprecedented.

I don’t want to say that Tiger can redeem himself this week. That’s simply not true. But in an entirely unique way, Tiger has the opportunity to live out a real life epic at the grandest stage of the sport that made him as big as Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Babe Ruth, and apparently David.

Tiger can’t receive full redemption on a golf course. I think we can all agree on that. But he can receive a type of redemption. And small victories lead to bigger ones. I’m not certain what a victory this week entails, but at least by showing up and giving it his all, he has achieved something. As somebody who cheered on Tiger before he won a single professional tournament, I have a vested interest in his career. And simply put, I hope he can be redeemed.

David’s story is one that haunts us all. The idea that one so high and favored of God could fall to the point where redemption cannot take its full effect on him is a scary thing. We all have those hopeless moments when we wonder if we’re good enough, and only thoughts of redemption pull us out of the periodic despair that inevitably comes with life. We probably don’t talk about it too much, but I believe our private thoughts reveal this vulnerability. And maybe that is why Tiger has held on so firmly to his privacy. Privately, he has been tormented to the degree that he lived in sin. And that degree is pretty high, in case you haven’t heard.

And as Tiger (like most “heroes”) has acted for us all, given us an avenue for our own daydreams, and shown us the tremendous potential of the human will, he has also shown how low we all can fall. Just like David. He has, without consent, represented all of us. And for this reason I hope he can be redeemed. I hope he can look in the face of the world that has made a mockery of his struggle and decapitate the idea that redemption doesn’t exist. His real redemption will ultimately come off the golf course, of course, but a part of that may just begin in the confines of Augusta this weekend.

It is still sports, I know. But what sports represent, not the actual sports themselves, has always been why we draw towards it, why we care. It’s mostly drama and entertainment, but there is a reality that sports provide that other theatre never can.

If Tiger comes out victorious this weekend (however you classify “victorious”), it would be something special. It would be two cups of good drama, and two cups of tantalizing entertainment. But it would also be one tablespoon of real hope for everyone. And maybe even a sprinkle of redemption.

Privately, I think you agree with me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Today’s Recommendation: While we’re discussing David, I have a musical suggestion. You’ve all heard the song “Hallelujah.” There are, after all, about 342 versions out there. If you’re going to listen to that song, listen to the best ever version performed by Jeff Buckley. Now, I know art is subjective, and it’s impossible to claim anything is the best. However, this is an exception to that rule. Sorry.