How to Clean Up before Christmas

Start by observing the residue of childhood. Note the rotting oak leaves on last year’s toys, plastics long since dissuaded from their original color by ultraviolet rays. Recall how they emerged, shining hydrogenated petroleum, the last gasp of some grasping raptor. Marvel as casual conspiracy between a forgetful toddler and her neighborhood star undoes industrial complexity. Brace yourself as this year’s toys arrive in waves. Strategically maneuver around school crafts and children’s church presents. Have UPS kill off a few extra dinosaurs, for good measure, to ship the good intentions of far-flung relatives or even your own nagging guilt. Sweep up litter. Weep over glitter. Whisper a litany for global trade and the Pacific garbage patch. Tidy up as though it is a game of chicken with the universe. Be careful what you cast out—thoughts count, and twaddle is freighted with love. Try not to stuff souls past and present into stockings. Calculate the cycle of ashes and dust looping from eternity past to Christmas morning to landfill. Measure the relative proximity of Bethlehem to your living room. Factor in the arc of the great circle. Set a stopwatch for the distance in time, a route growing longer with each revolution. Feel the warping of the continuum as the accretion of candles and carols and traditions makes mangers manageable. When you have swept the last artificial fir needle and loaded the last dessert spoon into a groaning dishwasher, don’t rest. Embrace the life you’re tasked with living. Meditate on your insignificance and significance. Look, look in the mirror at your own demise and resurrection. Think dead men’s thoughts after them.

For the time being
Seven demons scour earth
For a spotless room.

Fire One Morning

Was it for nothing that the blueberry
      In the backyard,
            Its fruit consumed,
      Its year’s growth pruned,
            Caught fire one morning?
I took off my shoes, there in the kitchen,
    Beholding it aflame.

Is this newfound bioluminescence?
      Can a shrub throb with photons
            As surely as neon waves,
      Plankton, a lampshade jelly,
            The lure of a dragonfish,
Alive with luciferin like foxfire
    That startles campers awake?

All life must glow, as dewdrops on a fern,
      The shimmer of scales
            On a fritillary wing,
      Mucosal sheen of a passing slug.
            If the paper-skin of the deceased
Can be translucent, then a blueberry
    Bush may burn yet not be consumed.

Light is not light unless compared to dark,
      And so my squinting
            At the world, charged as it is,
      Is for the dullness of my soul.
            What sparkles through the glass
So dimly may be glory, or it may
    Be the devil, crouching at the door.

With Fear and Great Joy

With fear and great joy
They ran to tell.

If your kind and faithful friend had died
A gruesome death and then said, “Good morning!”
From behind as you went to put flowers
On their fresh-tilled grave, what would you do?

Where do you run
With fear and great joy?

How is a new world announced? “Do not fear”
Whispered with power, growing, rippling out
To hill and hollow, city, field, and slum
With the holy whiplash of redemption.

With fear and great joy
You catch your breath

Frozen with longing for something not yet,
Glass-eyed, like a road-killed coyote in
The permanent howl of rigor mortis.
Truth is the hardest story to swallow.

You will see it
With fear and great joy.

Each friendship is resurrection practice,
Reaching for love and faith and hope and rest
Knowing full-well that time and space and sin
And death wait to undo every effort.

With fear and great joy
Hold tight to them.

Darkness first fell in the garden light made.
Hope wept in a garden after midnight,
And life was proved in a garden anew.
Oaks of righteousness rise from ruined land

To bring good news
With fear and great joy.

 

Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS