So I am neither dead nor lost in some Tron-like universe, detached from reality. I’m just very busy: a starring role in a musical, an honors thesis, and the day-to-day tasks of tutoring and studying. Still, I apologize for my absence.
That said, I don’t have anything new today. But I figured I could copy-and-paste part of my honor’s project, a memoir that also involves French writer Albert Camus called Coming of Age with Camus. It’s coming along, but still needs work. Call it a peace offering.
Last year I was reading the giving TheGiving Tree by Shel Silverstein to my nephew,
around five at the time. In the book, a tree sacrifices everything for a particular boy who gradually grows into into an old man. First simple things, like leaves, but by the conclusion, the tree is a stump with nothing left to give.
I closed the book, just like my dad did when I was a kid. “Believe it or not,” I said. Henry snuggled next to me with Eddy the Elephant and closed his eyes. The house was quiet, his brothers asleep in bed, his parents downstairs. Then, in the most innocent voice—as if he were asking for a cookie—he asked, “Why do people die?”
“I don’t know,” I said. It hurt to say it, but I couldn’t lie.
And I don’t think I’ll ever know. I may be able to craft a very elegant “I don’t know,” but in the end, that’s all it will be.
Rain clouds loomed outside as I sat across from my spiritual advisor, Br. Robert, in the simple room. “You have to own it,” he said. “You’re an artist. Own it.”
He talked about his early years as a friar. The other friars didn’t think much of his penchant for painting, forcing Br. Robert to sacrifice his own time, money, and space for it. At one point, he even tried to suppress the urge because it interfered so much with his religious duties. Just as Thomas Merton complained about his “double” as a writer pestering him during his early years with the Trappists, Br. Robert struggled with the artist fighting for expression from within.
When he left the friars–and the Catholic Church for a time–Brother Robert lived on Skid Row, trying to make his work as an artist. He found a deep, resonant calling. Surviving on rice and beans–tuna fish, when he could afford it–he scraped by, but his art taught him his vows better than his stint with the friars. Poverty. Obedience. Chastity. The words clarified as the years wore on.
For Br. Robert, devotion to art proved a devotion to God.
“Own it,” he had said. The words made sense as he said them, but didn’t resonate. As the years has pass, the words Br. Robert and I shared deepen and clarify, like his vows. Tempered and stretched by experience, his wisdom grows. I understand him now.
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.
I’ve been reading Camus’ preface to Jean Grenier’s The Islands, published in 1959. Like much of Camus’ later work–he died Jan. 4, 1960–the preface is nostalgic, yet mature.
Grenier’s book proved a major influence on Camus as a young man. In return, Camus dedicated his first collection of essays The Wrong Side and the Right Side and The Rebel to Grenier.
In the preface, Camus describes how he felt when he first started reading Grenier’s The Islands:
A garden of incomparable wealth was finally opening up to me; I had just discovered art. Something, someone was stirring dimly within me, longing to speak. Reading one book, hearing one conversation, can provoke this rebirth in a young person. One sentence stands out from the open book, one word still vibrates in the room [. . .] Already, at the same moment, in response to this perfect language, a timid, clumsier song rises from the darkness of our being.
Reading The Islands pushed Camus to be a writer. Other books aided the decision, but as Camus says in his preface, only The Islands lingered. It transformed his worldview, and he continued to quote it for the rest of his life, repeating the phrases as if they were his own.
There are moments, words, people that define who we are, that consume us like kindling in a violent flash. From there, we rebuild on a new foundation. But the fire never burns down. It continues to smolder.
With school and all that comes with it, I can’t put the same time I’d otherwise like to into my blog. I apologize. However, I’d still like to continue it in a series of “updates,” petit posts to fill the interim as I write my thesis, lead clubs, and cram classwork via tea and naps.
That said, I can’t put the same level of polish and professionalism that I’d otherwise like to, but hopefully a few phrases still ring and a few ideas linger after that final punctuation point.
I’ve been home from Egypt for about one and a half weeks. I’ve been busy setting
seeing friends and family, prodded with requests for stories. “What were the pyramids like?” they ask. Or, “Did you see the Sphinx?”
I’ve also been reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus and organizing loans and finances to prepare for my final year at college. Soon, I’ll be moving into campus housing, seeing old friends, and attending classes as if nothing happened.
But the transition to “reality” has been hard.
My third night home, my dad and I went out for a hot fudge sunday at a place nearby–an irregular tradition for past few years. As I ate my ice cream, the other customers walked up, laughing and buying their cones.
To me, they felt unreal. I couldn’t take my mind from the students I had taught in Egypt. Some had lost friends and family to religious violence. All had endured the throes of violent political change the past year. For some of them, justice was a truth worth dying for. Then, my thoughts turned to Libya and Syria, torn by their own violence, like the hundreds killed in the recent attack at Tremseh.
It hurt to know that a month and a half ago, I was just an oblivious American eating ice cream, too.