Light from Darkness
Last night I went to a community food drive/get together at the neighbourhood oyster bar, initiated by these guys. It was a great idea. My kids loved it. Next time, I vote we move it to an outdoor site, preferably bounded by steep mountain slopes on three sides and a pack of border collies on the fourth. Then I could save my voice and finish my beer.
This oyster bar is home to the world's greatest jukebox. Or "juicebox," as my seven year old kept calling it, as he shook me down for more quarters. Fortunately I had a coin-purse full, and was able to fill the dozen or so little flashing hands that appeared as soon as word got out there was money for juiceboxes.
I've reminisced here before about my own jukebox memories:
Play Mull of Kintyre, he'd say, and I'd skip back through the dark, smoky room and flip the 45s all the way through until I found it, and then come back to rest my head on his shoulder while he held court from his captain's chair.
My boys belong to another century, but they were just as mesmerized. As our friend Courtney flipped through the catalogue with them, patiently reading each band name and track title, they pressed their earnest faces against the backlit display. Pilgrims at the neon altar of choice.
That's the appeal, isn't it? Deciding what you want, and getting exactly that. There's nothing random about it. The whole thing, from the swagger across the linoleum to the Wurlitzer, to the careful selection of numbers and letters is an exercise of deliberation. A triumph of will.
Watching my boys' faces in the green glow reminded me a little of penny candles, too. When I was a child, many Catholic churches had racks of votive candles in the back, or off to the side. For a penny, you could light a candle and say a prayera petition, the type of prayer where you are asking for something. Or at least that's how I understood it. Another kind of jukebox, but with an outcome that is much less certain. I never saw anyone swagger up to a penny candle, that's for sure.
Recently my life has been less like the Wurlitzer and more like a dim corner where I'm fumbling around with a match. As I was picking up a few items for the food drive, I was mindful of how tough things were for us the last six months of 2007. Miraculously, we never once had any services cut off, not even the non-essential ones, and our cupboards never got completely bare, but there were days when it seemed certain that they soon would be, and we felt powerless to do anything about it.
We survived those months one last minute reprieve after another. Disaster would loom, and a check would appear, the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour. The first month or so of this, I was able to spin it positively. It was a lesson in gratitude. An exercise in faith. An opportunity to live more simply. But as the freelance drought wore on, and we fell further behind, the platitudes came less easily. I was frustrated, fatigued and flat-out pissed off at the uncanny zero-sum-ness of it all. Always just enough. Always just in time. I was sick of just. I got it. Lesson learned. Let's move on.
I am wired to read meaning into things. Every situation is a fortune cookie waiting to be cracked open, a pan of mud to be sieved. It is mostly an interesting, rich way to live, even when the scroll inside is cryptic, even when the nugget is a speck. But if I am honest with myself, at least part of it is about control, about feeling that if I can just figure out how life works, I can make it work for me.
People have been repackaging that idea since time out of mind. It's in the Old Testament. It's in the Secret. It's in my kids' Lego Star Wars xbox game. Meet the challenge, learn the lesson, pat yourself on the back and move up a level.
The problem with approaching life this way is that sooner or later things go badly wrong for you or for somebody in a way that defies causality. A situation where the platitudes roll off your tongue and thud to the floor. Some people give up on meaning at that point, decide that it's all random. Others cling to the idea that someone, somewhere must be to blamethemselves, others, God, fate, whatever.
I've swung back and forth between both, these past six months. And I've decided I have to live as if both are true. That there is an underlying order, a pattern, a plan to much of lifetimes when you can pick your letter and number, feed your quarter in the slot and the universe plays back just what you expected it would. But I have to allow for pockets of chaos and randomness, too. Dim and drafty corners where flames are lit and burn out, and you never know what it meant or if it mattered, if you got your penny's worth.
Maybe the plan is still being rolled out. Those of us who believe in a genesis moment tend to think of creation as a point in time, fait d'accomplit. But maybe it's a process, unfolding right in front of us.
Maybe it's okay not to know.