Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Smile, You're on Panoramic Camera!

When I was a child, the most fun thing to me—but also the scariest—was a skeleton. I was obsessed by the knowledge that a person had that strange structure underneath it all, that a smiling face hid a death grimace. It was, I admit, a morbid fascination; death called early in my life and left its mark on my family. 

It made me dream of becoming a doctor. I learned the names of all the major bones and I pored over the illustrations and overlays in the “H" (for human body) volume of our red leather set of World Books.

My Halloween costume of choice was, of course, a skeleton. It consisted of a black nylon jumpsuit-sort-of-thing with the tibias and fibulas, the sacrum and the clavicles rendered in glittery, glow-in-the-dark paint. The mask was a skull with a spider crawling out of the nose hole.

On our black-and-white Zenith, I happened to see Jason and the Argonauts do battle with an army of skeletons. Now THAT was scary! How exactly do you kill skeletons? You can thrust swords and spears right through them and they’ll just rattle on; they’ll keep on coming!

All of this came back to me when I went to the dentist last week. I had the panoramic x-ray, the one where you stand still and the camera travels around your head, scanning as it goes. Here were new and accurate pictures of my own leering skull. It’s not fun or scary anymore, but weird it is. Still. 

It's strange to me that humans are able to stand because the architecture of death—the memento mori—lies within us. And that “Remember, you will die!” message jangles like a jawbone all through world art—visual and literary—and perhaps through all the accomplishments of science and technology.

Pop culture, saturated as it is these days with vampires and zombies, complicates the message some. Whether we should fear the undead or love them is apparently the question pop culture wants answered.

Might not our morbid fascination be the collective unconscious's guilty verdict on a society that vacuums babies from the womb while it pleads mercy for Satanic criminals?

Do we, at some level, individually and/or collectively, identify with the undead? Are we afraid that we will die or that we already have? 

Or are we the weaponless ones in a battle with an army of skeletons?

Or . . . is this, like my dreams of being a doctor, just a childish, passing phase?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Way to Wait

Waiting is perhaps the finest of the fine arts.

To wait without appearing to wait—without wearing your impatience on your sleeve—that is perhaps the truest test of creativity, of grace, and of faith.

Calm acceptance of delayed gratification, said to be the measure of maturity, is achieved only by those who have given up on achieving anything. They can stand to wait because they know their moment isn’t coming. 

Everyone else is hopping impatient on the inside, whatever they are like on the outside. Ambition, desirethis is bad company for patience. It chafes and burns and torments.

Aging means we must wait less and less. Christmas comes around more than once a year. And what month IS this anyway? Last time I checked was a week ago, and I’ve flipped two calendar pages since then. 

And yet, aging means we must wait more as well, because almost everyone is younger and therefore in the kind of hurry that inevitably creates delay.

Age can be a crowbar. If we want, we can use it to pry into checkout lines and leave everyone gaping at our arrogant impatience. Not recommended. 

Age is also an excuse to slow down. To take time. Not as thief, but as connoisseur. To savor and consider.

Waiting for a novel to take shape is like waiting on the mountaintop for stone tablets. Believe it: more are coming. Age protectively forgets the number that crumbled on the way down the slope.


The way to wait has more to do with faith than youth can imagine.