Out and Back Again: Andrew Osenga's "Leonard, The Lonely Astronaut"
Inventing the Truth

A Paragraph In a Story In a Book On a Bookshelf By the Sea


“Everything in this world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics. When you see them you do not understand them. You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars. It is only years later that you understand.”

(Niko Kazantzakias)

Sometimes it is valuable to take a figurative step back and ponder the things with which we surround ourselves. Objects aren't just objects, after all. Take this seaside bookshelf, for instance, one we live around but rarely notice each time we visit a family home by the coast.

I can't nor would I claim, for example, one bookend here, Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, rank chic-lit. It begins unremarkably with "Who am I? And how, I wonder will this story end?" I can tell you. I flip over and catch the last line of a man writing "I am alone on the pier and I do care what others think as I bow my head and cry and cry and cry." Oh my. I'm glad I did not read that.

Next to it stands a classic, Beryl Markham's West With the Night. A contemporary of Isak Denison (also known as Karen Blixen), Markham wrote a memoir of her three loves: horses, airplanes, and Africa. (As my wife used to say, "How much more could a girl want - a horse, an airplane, and a life in Africa?" to which, I answer, "Me!") I cannot quote the entire opening paragraph (which I almost have memorized), one of the great book beginnings, but I listen once again to the music of these first words: "How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at her loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there is none other.'" I wish I could continue. It's like singing part of the first verse of a beautiful song, only to leave off. Go read that book. I catch it in the corner of my eye and I remember sitting in a tent in Africa reading it, serenaded by the sounds of lions and hyenas, with the low musical voices of our African friends. You may not be able to read it in Africa, but read it in a place you want to remember, because you will not forget where you read it.

Over a bit, letting my eyes float past The Encyclopedia of Boating (a book which has done my attempts to dock the boat no good), there is a small volume of very short stories called Asking Father, which, along with Father Calling, is dog-eared with use. These true stories of men and women were rousing 10-15 minute tales of people who encountered some difficulty which drove them to asking God for help. Prayers are answered, often in miraculous ways. Like the church that floated down the main street of a town, coming to rest at just the place which the congregation had sought to originally build it. What I liked was how these stories make real what scripture promises: that God listens to our prayers and answers them, that He listens to the smallest and weakest and least important of us as well as the big and strong and important. He listens to children. The books are timeless, really; I need them now as much as I thought my children needed them then.

There's more here, of course, than just books. There are games that make you work, like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit and Bananagrams, and games that let you rest, like Sorry or Uno. They summon up laughter as well as pouts, children stomping off to rooms after losing, arguments about words ("Get the Websters"), and the smell of popcorn still, I imagine, hanging onto lettered tiles.

Farther up the shelves, there are lots of sea shells in glass jars. Some people spend an enormous amount of time at the beach stooped over picking through shells. Not me. My wife likes to do that. I pretend like I'm doing that too, even rifle through a few at times, as I don't want to rush her, but mostly I'm daydreaming, traveling down some corridor in my mind, or several, until I hear "Look at this one" and mumble "Hmmm. . . nice. Unusual." Something like that. Living in my head. I need to get out more.

On the top shelf are a couple of dusty case books from the mid-1800s, cases decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court. When I tire of the beach and sun, I pull down a volume and read cases --- arguments over slaves, for example, or cartways (rights of way), contract disputes, and so on, a reminder that human nature has remained fairly constant. Sinful, that is. Lawyers live off our flawed nature. I should know. These cases give perspective, remind me that though the particulars of our lives may change, the universals of virtue and vice remain. On the one hand, pride, selfishness, and greed; on the other; humility, selflessness, and generosity.

That's just one bookcase. If we went room to room here, there would be stories to tell, objects that carry the past with them, that summon up memories and people and suggest connections. I understand hoarders a bit: They can't let go, maybe because some memory or some person is attached to an object, and they fear that if the object leaves so will the memory. If so, many of my memories have left. And yet I think all the good in them will be preserved and brought to fruition one day.

Reading this, you might say to me that "This is all very interesting (meaning, probably, that it's not), but what's the point?" Just this: Don't neglect the objects around you. From time to time, ponder them. Christians are called to meditate (ponder) both Word and World. Yet sometimes the World is just too big to think about. We can think better when we slow down and focus on just a few objects. On a bookcase, perhaps. On a book.  On a story in a book. On a paragraph in a story in a book on a bookshelf by the sea. You never know where that will take you.

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