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May 2012

Journey of the Heart: A Review of "The Father's Tale," by Michael D. O' Brien

Father TaleOne is probably right to approach a 1072 page novel with fear and trepidation, as it is difficult to imagine that there are many books that can sustain one's interest for that long.  Like his previous novel, Island of the WorldCanadian Michael O' Brien's The Father's Tale is an epic story that richly rewards the reader with its reach across continents as well as deep into the human heart, plumbing the depths of human and divine love, the tension between good and evil, human fallibility and God's providence: a father goes looking for a missing son and is reborn, his character refined by the fire of experience.

Alexander Graham is a bookseller in a small town in Ontario.  A widower with two grown sons, he lives alone, consigning himself to living out the remainder of his days quietly if joylessly, bearing the loss of his wife and not knowing how to get on with life.  He is a religious man, Catholic, and yet one has the sense that the rituals of his religion have become somewhat lifeless; though believing, he has stopped living but merely waits out his days.  All this comes to an abrupt halt when one of his two sons, away at college in Oxford, goes missing, under the sway of some cultic organization.  Graham closes the bookshop, borrows the funds needed, and leaves for Oxford, intent on finding answers and locating his son.  Unbeknown to him, his journey would extend from Oxford to Finland to Russia and even China and subject him to deprivations he could never imagine.

Along the way there are rich descriptions of the locales in which he finds himself and an array of characters from all walks of life whom he meets, from a Moscow prostitute to Orthodox and Catholic monks of Siberia, to a widow and her two sons and Chinese believers.  O' Brien succeeds in opening up the Russian experience in a way that perhaps only Tolstoy or Dostoevsky might have in another time.  The protagonist suffers much.  Yet it seems God puts His people in his path and offers hope in places where he least expects it.

What O' Brien describes best however is the inner workings of the soul, of a man who reaches the point of despair more than once, confronts doubt, and yet who learns to love and trust once again.  To peer into his thinking, into his soul, illuminates our own hearts.

Though the fear of what was coming returned to him a little, he looked upward to a presence and spoke with it and listened to the answering silence.  He knew now that this silence was not absence or negation.  It was the language transcending all language, and it crossed the void that man's will had made between himself and God.

In no other novel that I have recently read is there such such elucidation of the doubt, questioning, and resulting growth of the spiritual life.  Graham comes to the end of himself more than once, realizing that all he has is God.  Summing up his experience for his son, Graham says that "It's true that I died a little, maybe more than I know, but my life was given back to me again, and God has brought a great good out of it, out of everything."  It's a fitting near end to a book rooted in the providence of God, one all about matters of the spiritual life yet without cliche or formula.

To say more about this magnum opus would be to tell too much.  Take this hefty volume (the hardbound volume is nearly three inches thick), prop it up (your hands will soon grow tired), and begin.  You could read it on a Kindle more conveniently, but the very weight of this book (nearly three pounds) has a sobering effect.  You respect it.  And in the end, I believe it will rank as one of the best books ever read, one that I glimpse on my shelf and remember, with love and awe for its economy of excess in words.

 


But

For two of four nights last week, I have attended high school voice and choir recitals that featured Broadway show tunes, nearly four and a half hours of them. I don't want to hear any more show tunes any time soon, except perhaps those sung by my son or daughter. It's like being locked in the room and being forced to watch American Idol. So over the top. Missing subtlety. Don't get me wrong. There are some great show tunes and great voices. But.

(But you can't use "but" like that can you, dangling there at the end of a paragraph, all alone? Can you?)

The last couple of days I listened to melancholy, angst-ridden, world-weary, and sometimes angry and bitter singer-songwriters during drive time, all plucking away on their guitars, strumming like the pull of a brush through unkempt hair. I even listened to some spout socially conscious songs that I generally disdain just so I could feel good and mad at them for mixing politics and good music. I loved it. I felt better, cleansed. It was an antidote for all that peppiness.

You see, "Wicked" grows tiresome. During a rendition of "Aquarius" I was so embarrassed for the young woman I had to look down. I fiddled with my phone. And "Son of a Preacher Man," from Pulp Fiction? I fiddled with my phone some more. I didn't even like it when Dusty Springfield did it.

The Kinks ridiculed the whole broadway/american idol/showbiz dream in that great album of social critique, Everybody's In Showbiz, which in 1972 referred mostly to the life of a rock star or a movie star. In "Celluloid Heroes," they sing "I wish my life was a non-stop hollywood movie-show,/ a fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes,/ because celluloid heroes never feel any pain,/ and celluloid heroes never really die." Everybody wants to be a star. Everyone is celebrity-obssessed. Everyone wants to live on beyond themselves. Everybody wants something more. Everybody wants. . . something. But.

But hold on a minute. Am I just a cranky 50-something irritated by having to sit so long in a hard chair? Yes, I suppose so. But.

But something is different here. When I was a kid I wanted to be a super hero and, later, a rock star.  My best friend and I tied towels around our necks and lurked about the neighborhood at night, ran faster than we thought we could, maybe even flew for a couple seconds.  As a teenager, I plugged in a moth-eaten tube amp and a Les Paul Gibson inherited from my Dad and played the biggest, loudest, fuzziest no-good chords I could find.  (My friend's dad said maybe I should keep my day job, and he was right.)  But I didn't really think I had a shot at super-heroeing or rock stardom, and it certainly wasn't for public consumption. It was a fun game of pretend.  It was in my head, a wonderful fantasy.  Yet surveys show that these days high-schoolers have off-the-chart unrealistic expectations of what life can hold for them.  Many will not earn any superlatives, much less achieve stardom (unless you count their Facebook page), will not be celebrated nationally, regionally, or locally.  The desire to be recognized and noticed is a human impulse but one that is ultimately dehumanizing, a great contraction of human life to image and persona.

You know, I'm not even that celebrated here at home.  

But.

But I am loved.  I know that.  I also know that the Maker of the universe, the One who need not have noticed me, did in fact make me in His image and is at work redeeming His image in me, making me more human, more of who He intended me to be.  It's a long project, and one I could be more cooperative with than I am.  And yet what an amazing hope that my life is not contracting into some media-shaped image but expanding into the fullness of who God made me to be.  Now that's a wicked work of love.

My daughter sang a tune from The Addams Family. Now that's different. She was beautiful.  She's a rock star and super-hero all in one.  But.


The Frail

"Frailty is a challenging time, but in caring for the frail, we can be enlightened about what it means to be fully human.  There's an awful lot that you can learn from frail people.  Of course, there are elements of frailty that can take away humanity.  Dementia is an example of that.  But generally, there is no reason to warehouse the frail, not to talk to the frail, not to be loved by the frail.  They may not be the people they once were, but they are human beings and there is great value to be found in them."

(Dr. Norton Hadler, in Rethinking Aging)

Cassie, and elderly African-American woman, was holding my hand, telling me about meeting her husband before World War II.  "When I met him," she said, "he told me he went and told his Mama that he was gonna marry me."  She proceeded to tell me more of her story, one that was no doubt paramount in her mind and one she must have thought about a great deal.  She had the time.

While we were talking, another white-haired woman wheeled over to me, got right up to me and wagged her finger at me: "I know you.  I've known you for 50 years!"

"You have?," I said.

"I certainly have."

"It's good to see you again."  I had never seen the woman.  Yet I've learned that you cannot counter the power of a memory held by someone who lives in memories.

"I own it all."

"You do?"

"Everything you see.  I own every bit of it."

"Wonderful."  I was still holding Cassie's hand.  "Thank you for having me here."

Florence, a well-dressed woman who sat bolt upright in her chair, asked me to pray for her.  I took her hand.  "Florence, how can I pray for you?" 

"For my health. I have some problems."  I prayed for her too.  I felt like a pretend preacher.  Did they know how little I knew?

I had been asked to this nursing home to "preach."  I don't know a lot about preaching, but I think they'll take anyone here.  When I arrived and the residents were wheeled in, I asked one African-American man, one of the only men in the room, if he'd let me know if I did OK.  He said he'd hold his hand up if I preached too long or if he didn't care for it.  I watched him.  He didn't do that.  He didn't smile either.  Afterwards, I asked him how I did.  He said it was alright.  He still didn't smile.

I tried to speak to all of the residents who were there, and touch them.  I came because I can imagine how lonely they can be, how much a visit from someone. . . anyone. . . is cherished.  My mother, who died last Fall, was in just such a place for about two years.  I wish she hadn't been.

Don't think me virtuous.  Driving down here, a little voice in my head said that nothing I said to these old folks would be remembered, that whatever little I did wouldn't matter.  These are folks on the margin of society who have nothing to offer you, the voice said.  Why are you wasting your time like this?  I don't usually speak to demons, but I spoke to that one then, telling it to leave me alone.  It may have, but its questions echoed in my mind.  The truth is that my immediate impulse on entering a nursing home is to flee from its sights, sounds, and smells.  I don't deserve them.

They are frail in body and sometimes in mind.  And while they can't stroke my ego, they remind me by their very frailness that our earthly tent is merely a shadow of our heavenly one.  I look around me and realize I am surrounded by the images of God --- human beings whose memories resonate with the truth of what matters, of what lies beyond the perishable: love and home.

She owns it all.  Maybe in truth she does --- in Christ she is heir of all things: "Now you are no longer a slave but God's own child. And since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you" (Gal. 4:7, NLT).  So even the dementia that fuels the ranting of this woman who yells at me is the voice of God speaking to me, telling me that He has given me everything.

When the last resident was taken away, I walked down the hall, out, and into the afternoon sun.  I had  a fresh sense of the poverty of my busyness, the emptiness of a task-oriented life, and the nearness of eternity.

And maybe I began to grasp that I own it all, too.



Monopoly

It's a feat to get my wife, teenage daughter, and college-age son together for an evening of Monopoly, yet we managed to do it for five consecutive evenings this week. In the process, I learned a lot about human nature and capitalism. I hate to lose.  I like to win.

I follow a simple strategy in the game. I always buy everything I land on, even if I have to mortgage other properties in order to do so. My goal is to secure all of one color and then build houses and hotels as soon as possible. If you play it safe and try and steward your cash, you'll end up with no property (and less than all of the same color) and no opportunity to make the big bucks. It doesn't always work out. This highly leveraged approach (something like that of the real estate speculators of the 90s real estate market) may make me a winner or bankrupt me early in the game. And some of it is luck a/k/a "being in the right place at the right time," a roll of the die, an early place in queue.  In all this, I behave quite contrary to my real-life risk-adverse self.  I am a lawyer, after all; it's my business to manage risk.

Take last night, for example,when my daughter, who the previous night had cleaned our clocks, and has no interest in business, went into the game vowing to "whup our butts," a cocky capitalist. When it didn't work out that way, when the bubble burst, you have never seen such a deflated investor. My son adopted my "always buy" strategy and soon ended up bankrupt. My wife read catalogs and was content with the modest (and that's an exxaggeration) rent off two properties she liked, steadily amassing cash, bit by bit, prizing liquidity rather than hard assets. We had to end the game early (school night), though I think I won. So it goes in the rough and tumble world of the real estate business.

The night before, however, when both my son and I were losing to my daughter, we considered the benefits of communism. We didn't enjoy being on the short end of the capitalist system, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It takes money to make money, they say, and there is truth to that, even in Monopoly. We lamented the injustice of the system, even considered staging our own "Occupy" movement. I did a little research today, and the irony is that an early version of the game, developed in 1903 by Lizzie Magie, had as its object showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. Oh, those activists, hijacking a good game!  But that night, my communism was worn lightly: I settled for a chocolate chip cookie instead., mollified and subdued.

I do like the simplified tax code. Add it up, take 10%, and pay it in or, if you don't want to crunch the numbers, just pay $200. Ten percent is good when you're only worth $18, as I was at one point, but when I was wealthy. . . well, it made my head hurt to think on it.  I paid the $200.  Chump change. Something like a flat tax. Were the game updated for 2012, we'd have a separate rule book for tax calculation along with a bevy of lawyers and accountants and a Keynesian-oriented government extra money to loan us.  But I digress. . .

In the end, Monopoly has some great moral lessons.  Like if you're gifted and talented and usually have things fall in your lap (not my problem), then you will lose at some point, and you just might develop an empathy for people whose lives are strung together by losses and can't seem to get ahead no matter what. Sometimes our lives are so insular that we don't see these people or aren't aware that behind their witty Facebook persona is someone struggling with being. . . yes. . . a loser.  At least they think they are a loser.  And then, Monopoly might just allow them to win sometime.

And then there's "pride goes before a fall."  One day you're up, hotels on Broadway and Park Place, and the next game you're busted, holding ten mortgaged properties and $18 of cash.  We're all just a step away from bankruptcy, financially and perhaps morally, and given the right set of circumstances, may find ourselves upside down in a world full of losers but in which no one wants to acknowledge that they are a loser.  Sometimes, I relish going to jail, as I can breathe there, stay out of trouble, and wait for a better day.  Winning is sheer grace in Monopoly and not so much a reflection of your skill.

But here's the best thing: At game end, no matter who wins or loses, we put the deeds and money away, fold up the board, look up, and are still loved by each other, no matter how cocky we were, how pitiful we were, what we said to each other in the heat of competition.  The game is just a scaffold on which we drape our family life, rediscover what we love about each other and what really annoys us about each other, remind ourselves what it is to hold our name in common.

We get on with the important things in life.

Pass the cookies, will you? 


Come On a Safari. With Me.

The-beach-boysIt began in the twilight of my childhood. Around 1967, when I was nine or so, I was rummaging through my cousin's LPs, a poorly kept collection of around 25 albums, some in sleeves, some loose, some packaged two to a sleeve, and so on. I pulled out a badly worn cover for an album called The Beach Boys Concert. It housed two scratched LPs, one of the same name and one called All Summer Long. They may have been the first LPs I ever handled or, at least, paid attention to --- heavy in my hands, a slightly musty smell lingering with vinyl, a multi-color Capital Records label imprint. I put The Beach Boys Concert on the turntable. Fred Vail (who I later met) emceed: "Now, from Hawthorne, California, to entertain you tonight, with a gala concert, and a recording session, the FABULOUS Beach Boys!"

And it was fabulous. I was entranced by the energy of the first tune, "Fun, Fun, Fun," the screams of the crowd that moved in waves through the songs, and the speed of delivery, as if someone cranked the RPMs up a notch. (Actually, I wasn't wrong about that, as early manager Murray Wilson's favorite trick was to have the original recordings "brightened" by having them sped up.) It was the first rock songs I ever paid attention to. But then, sustained attention isn't in the nature of most nine-year olds, and so my cousin came home and I went on with life. But I didn't forget the sparkling vocals and crackling energy of those songs.

Spin forward five years and I'm 14, introspective (that is, a teenager), sitting in my bedroom covered with posters, a black light in the corner, listening to a song that seems made for me, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson singing "There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/ In my room/ In this room I lock out all my worries and my fears/ In my room." I didn't know then, but "In My Room" was sadly true, as Brian Wilson was worried and afraid in ways I couldn't imagine then. I began buying up their records, beginning with Sunflower, an effervescent Seventies record, Surf's Up, which was (for the Beach Boys) oddly melancholy, and then worked my way back through their catalog through the early hot rod and surfing song albums. The albums were issued on CD for the first time, and I bought them again. Still later they were issued with bonus tracks and detailed liner notes. I bought them again. I believe I bought the seminal Pet Sounds album four or five times and chased bootleg recordings and trivia about the famous "lost" Smile sessions (released, finally, last year) for nearly 40 years. I don't regret it.

And then spin way forward, through college, marriage, and career, and into middle-age, and in 2002 I had a record label called Silent Planet Records. One day, either my General Manager, Tony Shore, or I said "why don't we. . .," and we did. We did a tribute to Brian Wilson called Making God Smile. It's the best thing we ever did on that label. It was my way of saying thank you for some music that has enriched my life.

Around that time, I googled Brian Wilson and ended up on the website of an evangelist from my hometown, Greensboro, North Carolina, who had an apologetics ministry. In Alex McFarland's website was a reference to Jeffrey Foskett, a member of Brian Wilson's band. That was unusual. I emailed McFarland to ask for the email address of Foskett, thinking I'd drop him a note to see if he had any ideas of good bands to sign to our label. When I emailed him, he responded and said that he might know of some bands, but that he may be interested as well. His album, Stars in the Sand, was released in 2004 on The Pop Collective, an imprint of Silent Planet Records, and we became friends. As a result, I have met Brian Wilson several times, in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Washington. To him I'm just a fan, a friend of Jeffrey's. He doesn't know me, nor need he. But when I see him on the stage or in person, I am glad to have met him, as it keeps me from idolizing him. I am reminded that he is a frail human being with a special gift for harmony.

I pray for him too. I pray that there are people in his life who tell him the truth about God and about himself, who aren't fans but friends who speak the truth in love. The same kind of friends I have.

Brian_wilson_2At this point, you may be thinking that this is just the nostalgic ramblings of a middle-aged man. It's not. There's nothing I want to go back to, no golden age, and I suspect Brian Wilson would also not want to turn back the clock to the many miseries he has endured in his life. What we think may have been golden for him was not golden at all. Others may have heard enough about this enigmatic artist. Yet I can't stop.

I remember that boy of nine, those pure vocals pouring out of my cousin's stereo, the teenage angst comforted by the words of "In My Room," and I wonder at the strange Providence that ever so slightly bent our paths toward one another. I don't believe in a universe of chance encounters, in any stray molecules, and yet it'd be presumptuous to say I know what it all means; but for belief in a sovereign God, it would be even comical to suggest it has meaning.

Sometimes, the poets say, words are set down that the writers don't grasp the meaning or meanings of until later, if at all. Brian Wilson said "Come On a Safari with me." I just took him up on it, that's all. He had no idea that he wasn't just talking about hot rods and surfing and girls. He was talking about my life, and yours.