Newtown

I am an exposed nerve,
Raw and pulsating;
Open for all
To poke and prod as they will.

I am an exposed nerve
In the bleeding wound that is
The world.

I am an exposed nerve-
Frayed
Yet unafraid-

Because I know that
The world
Is an exposed nerve
In the bleeding wound
That is

Me.

DSC_0943

Tilting at Windmills

Since the school shooting in Connecticut last Friday, I’ve been struggling to express the thoughts and feelings sprinting around inside my head. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get them out in some way other than a simple, primal scream. Of horror; of despair; of desperation; of anger; of pretty much any heightened emotion a person could name. I’m torn between calling down curses on the NRA, mocking the ill-timed piety of the “don’t-worry-God-is-still-in-control” Facebook crowd, and crawling into a hole to die. However you look at it, I’m messed up. More than I remember being by this sort of thing in the past. And it’s not, sadly, like there’s no point of reference for that observation…

I don’t know why. I don’t have children of my own, so I can neither share nor really even understand that particular brand of suffering. It’s a bit late to claim a crisis of faith, so I can’t blame my reaction on the infamous “existential dilemma.” I’ve never, nor has anyone in my family ever, been threatened with gun violence (or really any kind of violence), so it’s not like I’ve got any post-traumatic skeletons in my closet. I really can’t explain it.

Maybe it’s that the last great gun massacre, the Dark Knight tragedy in Colorado, is only a few short months in the rearview. Maybe it’s the fact that the terrifying novelty of a Columbine or a Jonesboro has given way to an almost apathetic resignation–a non-reaction, if you will. We’ve been desensitized by senseless violence. We barely even register surprise anymore when these headlines jump from the nightly newscast. They used to frighten us, shock us; now, we bat an eyelid (maybe) and go back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Maybe it’s the complete refusal to acknowledge that we’ve got a problem on our hands (and in our hands). I’ve seen so much denial in the past four days that I can barely remember what recognition looks like. Maybe it’s the self-righteousness with which many have insisted that now’s not the time to talk about it. Too soon. Tell that to the newly diagnosed cancer patient. “It’s too soon to talk about treatment options. We’ll revisit the issue in a few weeks, when things have calmed down…”

Maybe it’s that gun violence seems to be the only instance in life in which the proposed solution to a problem is more of the problem. We don’t fight termites by releasing more termites into our walls. We don’t deal with drunk driving by putting more drunks behind the wheel in the hopes they’ll all take each other out. But guns? How do we solve the problem of gun violence? MORE GUNS.

Of course, that solution makes perfect sense, because, after all, “guns aren’t the problem.” And if “guns aren’t the problem,” then by golly, they must be the solution. So don’t disarm the bad guy. Instead, arm everybody else. ‘Cause friendly fire never killed anyone…

Now, I understand that trying to stem the tide of gun violence by legislating against firearms is the rough equivalent of attempting to eliminate drunk driving by banning cars. I also understand that, for a gun to kill someone, someone has to use it. Moreover, it’s hard to argue with the whole “laws don’t stop criminals” thing–it’s kind of their stock in trade. There is an extent to which all preventative measures in the case of gun violence will have to be reactive, not proactive. None of this, however, means we should just drop the subject, bury our heads in the sand, and insist that the 2nd Amendment trumps all.

(It is, by the way, possible to uphold the 2nd Amendment without believing folks should be able to go duck hunting with rocket launchers.)

We can insist that guns aren’t the problem until we’re blue in the face. We may actually be right; in fact, we probably are. But knowing what the problem isn’t gets us no closer to solving the problem, and since all other discussion seems to have been taken off the table, who knows if we ever will. If guns are not the problem, what is the problem?

Could it be that our motto has become: You can’t hurt me if I hurt you first? Fortune favors the fastest? I don’t care what happens to anyone else in the room as long as nothing happens to me? We can’t beat it, so we might as well join it?

This is a volatile subject, and it must be handled with care (much like the shotgun out in the garage). But we have to admit that, ultimately, WE are the problem, at least insofar as we stand in the way of a solution. WE are the problem, in that we place so high a value on our own freedoms that we’re willing to place price-tags on other people’s heads.

The heart of democracy ISN’T being able to do whatever we want; the heart of democracy is being free to do whatever we want…and choosing not to, for the good of others. Until we realize that little nugget of wisdom, we won’t be solving anything anytime soon.

And we’ll be writing stuff like this about things like this. Over and over again…

Time Keeps Tickin’ Away

A very brief note on 12/12/12:

This is the last time in my lifetime that I will get a triple-date day, and for whatever reason it makes me feel my mortality on a heightened level. I also, oddly, feel privileged (for once) to be a cataloger of books, since this means that, during the course of the day I will get to write that date approximately 100 times. I don’t know why, but that just feels like a treat to me…

Anyway, on a date that presents all but the youngest of us with something of a milestone, a point beyond which we must go, but from which we cannot return, I have but one piece of sage(?) advice: LIVE THE HELL OUT OF IT!

Doomsday_Clock

Becoming Holy Island, pt. 2

The first time I went to Holy Island, I went as a tourist. I was there for about four hours, most of which time I spent dodging the giant crowds of fellow tourists–folks with dogs, folks with kids, folks with dogs and kids–an infestation if I ever saw one. Then we were off, beating the tide…because we still had to drive to our Travelodge outside of York, with a stop at Whitby in between. Needless to say, this fly-by-night schedule afforded little opportunity to really see the place, especially since the place was fairly well obscured by the people crawling all over it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Holy Island market cross, complete with Celtic wheel design. Some say this is a holdover from pagan times, symbolizing solar worship; others, that it is symbolic of Christ, the “sun” of God, hanging on the cross.

The second time, I went as a researcher, fresh from the reading room at the NLS in Edinburgh. This time we stayed for a full week, leading up to Christmas. I was there to gather information for my Master’s thesis. Several years before, while working as a youth minister in rural Missouri, I had stumbled across the Venerable Bede and his saints. Like so many others before and after me, I fell in love. I became convinced that these ancient Christians, the “Celtic Christians,” with their standing crosses and illuminated Gospels, were the key to everything superficial about 21st-century religion, an impression I carried with me right into graduate studies, onto a British Airways jet, and across the causeway to Lindisfarne. I came in search of answers; I came in search of Aidan, Cuthbert, and their band of medieval holy men. And I found them…in a manner of speaking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

St. Aidan, founder of the Lindisfarne community in 635, stands outside the priory ruins.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cuthbert of the Farnes. This sculpture of the saint in prayer stands within the priory walls. It conveys a sense of spiritual agony that is difficult to describe from a distance, as if the statue itself were in pain…

Given the total absence from the island of any vestige of the tourist trade–even the shops lining Marygate were closed against the winter months–we (well, I, anyway; Tammy was overcome by the cold) rambled about the place in solitary fashion. On the original visit, I hadn’t had the time to explore the priory ruins. This time I did so at my leisure, and completely by my lonesome. Throughout the hour I spent knocking around the structure’s reddish-tan remains, not another soul crossed my path (at least not one visible to the eye). There is an air of liminality about the place; whether that is inherent in the locale or is experienced due to conditioning–a sort of spiritual backward masking, if you will–I leave to the judgments of more impartial observers. For my part, I believe in friendly ghosts…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Solid as they must be, dating as they do from the 12th century, the delicate stonework and soaring archways impart to the walls an air of fragility, as if they might tumble away if looked at too forcefully…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A glimpse…perhaps, of eternity?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Through a gap in the ruins, Lindisfarne Castle beckons. After it fell prey to Henry VIII’s Great Dissolution in the 16th century, stones from the priory were taken by his soldiers and used in the castle’s construction.

Another of my favorite quotes, this one concerning the spiritual history of the island, comes from a BBC documentary series entitled Memorable Leaders in Christian History. In the episode on Aidan, Andy Raine, a member of the Northumbria Community, described the spot as soaked in the devotion of the early saints: through them, the seeker is offered “a blank check of…prayers that have already been prayed that are waiting to be cashed in on.”

Cuthbert's Island

A memorial cross stands on Cuthbert’s Isle, a small island separated from Lindisfarne by some 60 to 70 yards of water. According to legend, the saint for which it is named would withdraw here (and beyond, to the one of the smaller Farnes farther out into the sea) to indulge his hermit’s nature and commune with his God.

I leave you with this blessing from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica:

Thine be the might of river,
Thine be the might of ocean,
The might of victory on field.

Thine be the might of fire,
Thine be the might of levin,
The might of a strong rock.

Thine be the might of element,
Thine be the might of fountain,
The might of the love on high.

Until we meet again…

Becoming Holy Island (Interlude)

One of my favorite descriptions of Lindisfarne comes from the 17th-century Legend of St. Cuthbert, with the Antiquities of the Church of Durham, by Robert Hegge (1599-1629). Given its limited access, governed by the rise and fall of the tide and the consequent filling and emptying of the estuary separating it from the mainland, Hegge wrote: “In ancient description it was an island but twice a day, and embraced by Neptune only at full tide, and at Ebbe shaked hands with the Continent.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The tidal estuary at sunset (which, in December, is around 3:30 in the afternoon). Today, a paved road connects island to mainland; in the days of Aidan and Cuthbert, the crossing was marked by a series of poles (still present) set into the sand of the estuary. This original route is still used by pilgrims following St. Cuthbert’s Way, a long-distance walking trail tracing the saint’s journey from his previous community at Melrose to his new home on the island.

Becoming Holy Island, pt. 1

I have been on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) twice: once in June, at the height of tourist season, and again in December, the week before Christmas, as out of season as can be. Of the two experiences, I highly recommend the latter. Other than another young couple who spent one night at our B&B–and the people who came over for the Christmas service at St. Cuthbert’s Centre–I’m fairly sure Tammy and I were the only non-islanders to put in an appearance that week.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A clear December morning, 2007, through the condensation-fogged window of our B&B accomodations. There is something about this image that fascinates me: taken on a lark, I have come to treasure it as one of my favorite from the visit. It is a fitting symbol for an island defined by the wishful thinking of those who go there seeking the ghosts of saints gone by–not as it is, or even as it once was, but as we would that it were…

We were fortunate enough to stay at Rose Villa, a small bed and breakfast at the center of the town. The concept of renting a room in someone else’s house and sharing, albeit briefly, the intimacy of their home life is still new to a person raised on a diet of Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. It took me a bit to get comfortable with the idea. Once I did, though, I learned to love it. Furthermore, if you have never had the pleasure of an English breakfast, this is the place to seek out your first. I have seen less food on some buffet lines, and cooked to absolute gorgeous perfection, from the expertly prepared haggis right down to the little roasted tomato (and I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes). Added bonus: Tammy couldn’t do the haggis, so…more for me!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rose Villa. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. And tell them the Woodses sent you. Maybe there’s a discount in it for us!

One of the joys of traveling to Lindisfarne in the off-season is the strong sense of solitude it confers upon one unfamiliar with island living, and the opportunity to wander for the most part unhindered, uninterrupted, and unnoticed over the wide expanse of duneland (declared a national nature reserve in 1964). Legend (and Bede) has it that St. Cuthbert, abbot of Lindisfarne from 684-686, walked these dunes during his tenure, communing with the nature he so loved, and a patchwork of fading and faded footpaths testify to the great number of pilgrims who have, in the interval, sought to follow in his steps.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One caveat: To wander these dunes is to court confusion, and it takes someone willing to become completely lost to truly feel at home here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That being said, if you give yourself over to the possibilities, wonder awaits…

During our week on the island, I dedicated several hours to exploration among the dunes and along the shoreline of the North Sea, not a few times thinking I had finally done it–I’d never be seen or heard from again. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem to matter. There was too much to see, so much beautiful bleakness to take in. So, there I stayed, fearless and freezing, lost but found, simultaneously sure and unsure of where I was. I was, in all events, THERE–and if I had vanished into the ether nevermore to appear, I’m not convinced I would have minded…

pc190220.jpg

The North Sea in winter rests immobile as a pane of liquid glass. There is no deeper peace than this…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Land gives way to sea so gradually that it becomes almost impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The island is known for its waterfowl, and the winter months are the best time to see them (presumably because there aren’t any crowds to frighten them away). They did seem somewhat taken aback when I peremptorily invaded their personal space. (My apologies for the grainy nature of the image. My camera at the time was a bit “zoom-challenged.”)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My only companions as I wandered (besides the birds) were the sheep. This is another of my favorite pictures from the trip. It’s ready for a close-up, Mr. DeMille…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the distance, the rock of Bamburgh, ancient seat of the Northumbrian kings, emerges from the mist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wood meets stone in one of the multitude of dividing walls that honeycomb the island.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Leaving the dunes to re-enter civilization (sort of).

Lindisfarne

Standing below Lindisfarne Castle. One of the rare instances in which I find myself in front of the camera rather than behind it. After all, how could one go to such an amazing place and not provide proof of having been there?

They say that Lindisfarne is a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth meet, so closely intertwined that one might punch right through whatever metaphysical barrier hangs in between and touch the face of God. Now, I did not stumble upon any wayward medieval spirits, and I never heard voices from beyond the edge of time. But I did, in my own small way, manage to break through that barrier and glimpse–perhaps–just a fringe of what lies beyond. I leave you with this succession of images I captured while strolling from town out to the castle, just after a midafternoon rainstorm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Calm returns in the wake of the storm…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A wind from the southwest begins to break up the lingering clouds and blow them out to sea…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The returning sun chips away at the receding front…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A gentle glow…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A pathway appears, a sunshine road stretching to the horizon…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The pathway becomes a highway…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then, prompted by who knows what whispered call, I turned from sea to land…and captured perfection.

Until the journey continues…