Stars and Broken Seashells

I haven’t posted in a while. I apologize. Life has a nasty way of putting things we enjoy doing to the edge of our days. But, in any case…

Raindrops slapped the tinted leaves and rolled onto the path, now dyed black by moisture. I kept my hood down, sheltered by leaves, and took in the ruddy hills and open fields, the trees around me sighing with the weight of rain.

The air was wet and subdued, while a rumpled gray spanned the sky, tucked into the horizon like an old blanket. I could feel things slowing down, fall coming, a dimming twilight before winter, the air changing.

I started talking Sunday walks–once per week–after I stopped going to church last fall. The empty ritual and hollow chants didn’t nourish me. I figured a walk in the woods held promise, unbound by the time-soaked labels of the Latin Rite and the Christian cannon.

Even if I didn’t call it God, something in nature holds the same transcendent immanence for me–even if it’s just an illusion of experience. It’s something I can cling to and feel cradled in.

I also use my walk as a time to think. Today was no exception.

Around the time I stopped going to church, I needed to fill the void left by God’s absence. An hour-long walk standing in for church wouldn’t suffice. I needed a philosophy.

In the midst of gray November last year, I clung to writing and started a story called Angels, too, Struggle to Fly. It’s about a teacher who senses a girl in her class is abused from her father, but he can never find enough proof, despite investigations. He suffered abuse as a kid from an alcoholic mother and can sense her anguish, even if she never voices it.

He struggles to find justice for the girl and rectify his past. The title enters the story from a reflection the girl writes for class. “Angels, too, struggle to fly,” she says.

It becomes an important symbol.

Each character struggles with something. The narrator with depression and abuse. His wife with a memory of her best friend killing herself. The young girl with her life at home. The narrator’s mother with alcoholism.

As one character says, “My God, how we struggle. When I see what we wrestle with as humans, I’m awed. Where does it come from? How do we cope? Is there any meaning to it? Any redemption? Is life simply a joke? So many questions without answers. ”

The characters are good people, but they struggle to simply live. Despite their goodness, they stumble and suffer. Hence, “Angels, too, struggle to fly.”

In the end, the narrator overcomes his abuse when he realizes that he too is like his mother. Caught up in a broken world, he realizes his mother needed to cling to alcohol to cope. In the same way, he clings to his wife and the young girl clings to a stuffed angel: “The angel. Her small hands clasped against that dirty angel. Nothing else.”

I haven’t touched the story since finishing it. But in its wake, I’ve pieced together a new philosophy.

I once looked at stars for symbols. They were the ideals I wanted. I admired their cool distance and fixed gaze–especially the North Star. It never moves. The heavens revolve around it, tuned with their own regularity, tugging mythology across the gulf.

Everything is well ordered—perfect, even.

The North Star mans its post and gazes without comment as our small world unfolds in the cosmic dark. Time neither chips nor scares its surface. It’s the same star I studied as a child, the same star my children might see.

The legalistic police inspector Javert from the musical Les Miserables, based on the 19th century novel, has a similar view. Stars symbolize his rigid ideals. I sang his solo for voice lessons, and often quote the line: “You know your place in the sky. You hold your course and your aim. And each in your season returns and returns and is always the same.”

I knew that even if I could never reach the stars, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be strong and stoical, aligned with my ideals despite anything.

Since last fall, when I lost God, I’ve gravitated to images of brokenness.

Instead of stars, another image speaks to me: broken seashells. As a child, I would collect seashells with my mom whenever we went to the beach. I always wanted the perfect ones. I’d scan the tossing waves and thrust my hand in when one looked promising, throwing it out if it had a blemish.

My mom would always get the weathered ones. They had holes or chips blended into the smoothed surface, like scars traced across pale skin.

“Why do you always pick out the broken shells?” I asked he once.

“Because the’re so beautiful,” she said.

Likewise, I I’ve learned find beauty despite brokenness. I would love to live among the stars, but I cannot. Humans can never reach them and the world needs healing.

Old coats wearing old faces thread through soup kitchens, their eyes webbed with cracks, hands raw and hard like concrete. Refugees bleed through boarders, displaced, confused. Inmates shuffle through gray-tiled systems,their families exiled outside. The work whistle rips the night away. We import coffins cradled in flags.

In Egypt, I watched children play in garbage and women beg for food. I currently serve in a soup kitchen each week. Somehow these broken populations are happy. Somehow, they find the strength to remain human in a world that wants to wrestle that humanity away with its indignities–often inflicted by other humans.

To me, people struggling to find order and achieve morality, even as they stumble, is a testament to their courage and endurance. They may have broken wings, the crimes of our history still sting, and the pain of the present cannot be ignored. We, too, wound the world and craft hells.

But as Camus said, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.”

Thus, I’ve found my philosophy and my faith: people simply trying to live. Where that takes me remains in question.

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