Dearest Freshness Deep Down

Last weekend I flew to Vancouver for Jolene’s wedding. This act of travel, of going to this other home of mine, was good for me. When you fly west, you end up chasing the light, and we landed around sunset. The skies were clearer than I thought they would be, for all the dumping cold grey the Pacific Northwest has been having, and a smile bloomed involuntarily from my gut when I saw the city’s glittering, twisting self rising to meet me. I split my time between looking toward land, and watching the faces of others who were watching it as well—still and childlike, lit by the reflection of the sun. I would’ve cried if I hadn’t been so busy with the watching.

This is my 300th entry, and I think that after more than a decade of this blog and thousands upon thousands of words I may finally be in a place (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, semantically) to tell you what the dang thing is actually about—it’s about the things that are more than they seem, which make joy and surety and gratitude rise strong and indisputable out of nearly nothing.

The day before I left I finished All the King’s Men with my AP Lit kids and told them that I had cried at the last chapter, that I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d found so moving but that I’d thought—oh, I’d thought—that it was Jack finally calling Willie his friend. And on the plane I watched Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, which was sweet and fun and not notably profound except that when the Dior dresses came out on those models, and the little London house-cleaner gasped over the beauty of them and imagined which she would buy, I thought, “Yes, yes, yes,” and scooted as far forward as my seatbelt would let me. And now back home I’m teaching The Sun Also Rises, which I haven’t read since college, when I remember finishing it right before class one day at a crowded cafeteria table of strangers during the lunch rush, my nose tipped into the book, and every muscle in my chest taut because I could tell something was happening to Jake Barnes, something big. He was being brave.

This blog is about those things, the small, thorny, glistening gifts of this world, of art, of nature, of circumstance. Things that can be buried, unnoticed for a long old time, but then they’re brought out in some new way, and it’s like that song of Andrew Peterson’s: “When the joy that you feel leaves a terrible ache in your bones, that’s the voice of Jesus, calling you back home.” 

So now I’m reminding myself (and maybe you) to look always for the land that’s been lying fallow, to roll up my sleeves and, with gentle assurance, to turn over that soil, to unearth Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things” which have been waiting there, their faces ready to reflect the light.

Lessons from Cinderella and Jake Barnes

I’ve watched a lot of movies since the beginning of college–most of them alone, on a computer screen. I like watching things this way. I feel free to criticize or adore whenever and however I want. I get to watch on my terms. Funnily enough though, when I give myself that choice I almost always choose criticism. I’ve gotten in the habit of quietly dissecting and improving and making-over most everything I watch. But last weekend I went and saw the new, live-action Cinderella with my family. I put my feet up on the empty theater seat in front of me, and let the whole thing carry me away.

It’s a beautiful movie shot in all the color you could wish for and told with complete openness. It looks at grief and joy and meanness and hope and tells each bit as straight as it can. I loved the end: when Cinderella is found because the sound of her voice carries out the open window and her unasked-for forgiveness makes her stepmother sink down and lean against the banister of the stairs with the weight of it. But I think the moment I loved the most was when Cinderella walks into the ball. She has arrived a bit too late for comfort, and she comes down the stairs by herself, with no one to announce her. Strangely, what was most evident to me was not that she is beautiful or hoping to find Kit, but that she is walking into a room alone. I have walked into a room alone, you have walked into a room alone–some days it is the bravest thing that we do. She descends with all eyes on her: nameless to all of them and probably already loathed by every woman in the room. Step by step she approaches the bottom of the stairs, and she has no idea what will happen when she gets there.

Then, late this past Monday night, I found myself on a little mental jag, when I should have been going to sleep. I lay in bed and thought about Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: where he begins, and where he goes, and, most of all, where he ends up. He pines over Brett, letting his own physical inability to have her smash the side of his face down in the dirt and pummel him with punches again and again. He lets his wounds, real and imaginary, take him over and he throws away his self-respect and his aficion for bullfighting by letting Brett have, and ruin, the hopeful young Romero. But that’s not the way he ends: after everything that happens in Pamplona he literally goes into the sea alone, washes, and comes out clean.

And that’s when I thought of it: Jake’s like Cinderella. Perhaps this is silly and those of you who love Hemingway or fairy tales more fully than I do are looking askance, but let me try to explain.

When Brett sends for Jake, he signs the wire with love and loyally goes, but somehow he has unhooked her from his soul: he eats more than he drinks as they have lunch together, and the last image of the book–the raising of the policeman’s baton–means that Jake is willing to seek manhood and courage and meaning wherever he may have them, and lay the wounds of war and love to rest. This is him walking into the room alone, perilously free of the self-pity and self-sabotage he has had to protect him for so long.

All the good stories tell the same truths (this is why I love literature) and the principles which motivate Jake and Cinderella at their best are very near to one another. Though community and closeness and hands that hold onto yours are very important, there are things that can really only be learned alone. To walk into the room, to “have courage,” to “be kind,” to “get to know the values”: these are ultimately acts chosen by, and affecting, the individual soul.

As I have been thinking about this I keep remembering that this sort of independent bravery is  what I want for my students. The ones of whom I’m the most proud are the ones who are able to love their classmates without being swayed by them, who have found their own feet and are learning to stand on them: to walk down the steps, to raise whatever baton they’ve got.

But then I laugh, because really, who am I kidding? If I am telling the whole truth, I must admit that this freedom is what I want for myself–not to follow the scents and sights around me but instead, to be prepared to be separate, to be new and be different, to transform instead of conform. I want to be willing to find goodness and meaning outside of where the world has told me it must lie, and, though strange eyes may look on, to allow myself to be cut from a different cloth.