Remembering What We Mean

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“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

house ship005It might not be a bad idea just to let Chesterton drop the mic right there and leave readers in a wide and silent space to ponder his ponderous words. Still, at the risk of slapping bumper stickers on the sunset, I want to unpack this notion of Chesterton’s and make it a bit more personal.

Because it is so very personal.

My Anglican pastor tells me that for him, consecrating the elements for communion was a huge step the first time it was his responsibility to perform the ceremony. The act of consecration is a conscious drawing forth, a lifting up, a marking out, a recognition of these particular things as holy—not because this bread and this wine are any more holy than all other bread and all other wine, but because by this conscious act we are reminding ourselves of the truth that everything in the world will one day be this; all parts of creation will one day be seen for what they truly are, viewed again through the knowledge of their consecration, both in their parts and in the whole. And so, this bread and this cup of wine, so consecrated, are a first fruits, are a reminder, are a means of refocusing our vision with a greater clarity that sees all things, even if only for this flickering moment, as they more truly and eternally are, each imbued with a holy light.

Chesterton’s point about the work of fairy tales is, I think, exactly that same point. Fairy tales… make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. Fairy tales employ the tool of the fantastic to jar us back to a truer vision that sees that all things are fantastic. Wonder is an appropriate response to all things because all things are wonderfully made.

Though few of us can remember that earliest season of awakened wonder, there yet was a time when everything was new to our hearts and minds and senses, when everything was an unfolding delight. There was a first time we first saw the ripe redness of a strawberry. There was a first time we encountered a rushing stream and dipped our bare feet in the giddy laughter of it. There was a first time we met the sort of rollicking, affable beast we call a dog, and reveled in the uproarious, comic beauty of its romp. There was a time when all things were new and so were seen and encountered as the wonders they actually are. And the work of fairy tales, according to Chesterton, is to rescue that wonder from the grey sediments it has long been silted over with.

Songs penned by Mark Heard in the ’80s and early ’90s had a profound influence on my own development as a lyricist. One of the devastating lines that early etched itself in my consciousness came from the song “Worry Too Much:”

It’s these sandpaper eyes
It’s the way they rub the lustre from what is seen
It’s the way we tell ourselves that all these things are normal
Till we can’t remember what we mean.

Fairy tales, apparently, are about helping us remember what we mean.

They’re about helping us see things with the lustre recovered. Because that’s the true nature of nature and of all creation. It shines from within with a bright, luminous glow, with a deep “magic.” When we are children, we see it. We see it with aching clarity.

And then our vision goes flat, fuzzy, out-of-focus. We grow bored, tired, wounded, cynical. We lose the ability to see the wonder for what it is. We gravitate instead to the novel, the flashy, the garish, consuming all that we can, addict-like, in a long, misguided attempt to reclaim those lost wonders by sheer excess and volume. By the age of 12 most of us have forgotten that an earlier sense of Eden ever existed in our lives. It takes something like a fairy tale, or a consecration, to pull our vision back into true focus. To lift an element out of the commonality of our banal slog, and to show us again that this singular thing is fraught with wonder. And if this thing is so fraught, then is not everything? Have you forgotten? we are asked. Look again!

I’m now in the middle of a collaborative book project with painter/illustrator Jamin Still. The Wishes of the Fish King is a manuscript I wrote when my oldest daughter was two. We lived in a house on a hill in a forest. The hill swept down and out into magnificent views of fields and pond and forest and faraway hills and even a forest island set in the midst of the billowing field grasses. At dusk we would join hands and walk together, exploring our own little corner of the world. For my daughter Anastina Mansi, it was a season of perpetual wonder, of the unfolding of creation, of all things shiny and new and resplendent with their native glories. For me, it was a time of shedding my old cynicism, of negating my sandpaper vision, and of seeing the world anew as my daughter saw it, bright and joyful!

Of course, there was simultaneously the sense that I carried of the fleetingness of things. I knew this was but a small window in the span of my daughter’s life. With it came an attendant and consequent grieving for the passing of that small season even as we were still walking and breathing in the midst of it. For a mother or father watching their small child delight in the newly-discovered creation, there is that bittersweetness that comes from the knowledge of the loss and the longing they will one day encounter.

Andrew Peterson sings in “Don’t You Want To Thank Someone:”

And when the world is new again
And the children of the king
Are ancient in their youth again
Maybe it’s a better thing
To be more than merely innocent
But to be broken, then redeemed by love

This is the wellspring of the bittersweetness. It flows from the knowing that our children cannot remain in the bright place they are. They will have to walk their own wild journey through pain, woundedness, heartache, suffering, brokenness and loss. They will lose this true and delightful vision of creation somewhere along the way, just as each of us has in our own journeys.

But as their parents we have lived long enough that we can also see further ahead to the even greater joy that will await them beyond those sorrows. We can look ahead to the time when vision will be eternally renewed and that first innocent delight and the brokenness and sorrow that followed it will all be wrapped up in the same glorious redemption that restores our delight but that does ever so much more than simply restore. We hold this promise and anticipate the coming advent that will see the redemption of our vision of all things and of our place in them, making it right and true and new and as unbreakable and as beautiful as diamonds shot with a fairy light. And though we cannot see it all that way yet, we have caught enough glimpses in stories and songs and paintings and starfields and moonrises and sunsets and romping dogs and glad streams and giddy romances to know that it is real and that it is already breaking into our brittle-edged world.

We will see one day with such an unbroken, sacramental vision. All things. All things for the inexhaustible wonders that they hold, for the inexhaustible glories they reveal of the mind of the artist and storyteller who created them. But fairy tales, and luminous paintings, and the voices of cellos and the taste of a wild, sun-warmed blackberry or the sparkling of a chalice held aloft or the visual force and scale of a wide, windswept ocean can sometimes jar us back to that sacramental vision, even if only for a brief, precious moment.

That is the particular notion that resides at the heart of what I’m attempting to do with The Wishes of the Fish King. I want adults to read it and lose themselves in the rhythm of the words and in the glow of the paintings and to remember what it was to see the world anew. And I want the words and images to nest in the hearts and memories of young children so that their vision might be more sacramentally shaped as they grow. I want them to one day return to the story as adults with young children of their own that they might be reminded again of the delightful garden they once knew and of the shining city that awaits.

I know it is a lofty goal. And I know that I am unequipped to pull it off adequately. But my prayer with such endeavors is always that the whole will somehow be more than the sum of the parts and that there will be spaces between my words that winds of another world might blow through. I think that my hope is to create sacramental spaces where more important things can happen that don’t even involve me. If in twenty years I have mastered one aspect of being a writer, it is the ability to step back and let a thing go, knowing that its journey from here will scarcely involve me, and that the rest is dependent upon the Spirit whispering as He pleases through such imperfect offerings.

As such, I take a strange, third-person encouragement in observing that the words of the story, paired for the first time with Jamin’s latest illustration, are already having a noticeable effect on me. This painting is called The Sea of Fields.

seaoffields006 (1)

Even as a chalk sketch over a base coat it was already stunning. I haven’t been able to look at it without some emotion, as it’s a fantastical rendering of a place and time I once inhabited. The tone is magical and perilous and fairytale-esque. And yet I see the real place clearly pictured here. In fact, the blend of fantasy and memory creates a layered vision that holds the essence of that time more vividly than any photograph ever could. This fairy tale visual re-interpretation of that physical location and era, offers a keener sight of the deeper reality of the wonder and the beauty of it than a camera ever could capture. Jamin’s painting holds an iconic familiarity in its placement of the house atop the great hill, sweeping down to the wind-rippled fields and the forest island. I see it clearly as my old home. This was once my land. I walked it. I fished it. I tended it. My second daughter was born here. I see the terrain and the history.

But in this painting, I see also, as if in hindsight, the eternal glory that filled it as well. I see the light. I see all at once what was and what is and what is to come. And something in me rises and says Yes, that was always how it was, even when I couldn’t see it. The Sea of Fields is a sacramental painting of a real place and a real time in the lives of real people. And I was one of them.

And I hope that though this story began as a personal reflection to capture for my daughter the memories of that bright season, that it will still function for others as a window flung open to the bright, sacramental nature of their own corner of creation and of their own lives and relationships and of their own histories of glory and brokenness, and especially of that brief season with their young children when all the world is seen as new.

I hope that in some small way our book will help children to grow wise and will help adults to grow childlike.

And with that, now I finally will just step out of the way and let Chesterton bring the point home, because in his continuing words resides the point of it all…

“…[G]rown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

[Chesterton drops the mic, walks off stage.]


To visit “The Wishes of the Fish King” Kickstarter campaign, Click HERE.

Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).


27 Comments

  1. SHEILA

    Intake of breath…closing of eyes. I am grateful for this today. Sometimes I peer into the faces of the grownups I know, looking for the child. I see myself more and more often as a child; Jesus is giving me new vision. Wonder is part of the healing I so badly need for my exhaustion and disappointment. I BELIEVE! Your words compel me onward. Thanks.

  2. Chinwe

    I am so grateful for art that does this for me — opens up my eyes to see that “all things are wonderfully made.” SO thankful for writers like Frederick Buechner and Marilynne Robinson and many others. It sure gets dark and gloomy here. SO thankful for those who clear away the obstructions, in order to show us the beauty in this bright and beautiful world. Thanks for your part, Doug. Excited for this project!

  3. Doug McKelvey

    @dougmckelvey

    Chinwe, I’m guessing your photography is another means of trying to get at the same thing; to put a frame around one small piece of creation so that the rest of us might look at it and really see it, perhaps for the first time. It’s interesting to think of the act of framing a photograph in the viewfinder as an act of consecration of the subject.

  4. Chinwe

    Ah, Doug! Your words mean so much to me. Yes, I try so much to capture the Beauty with my photography. It is such a sweet grace to discover it once in a while, then to share it.

  5. Helena

    Dammit, Doug! You’ve made me cry twice today.
    Why is it so challenging to stop and share our children’s wonder? I am aware of the need to do it, of the blessing of it, and I try to be intentional. But I struggle against an insidious need to hurry them up, quiet them down, calm them down. It breaks my heart just typing the words. How beautiful these years are, if only we can see it!
    Also, this: “If in twenty years I have mastered one aspect of being a writer, it is the ability to step back and let a thing go, knowing that its journey from here will scarcely involve me, and that the rest is dependent upon the Spirit whispering as He pleases through such imperfect offerings.” This is something I have not mastered, and the words were a cup of cold water in my face. I needed them. Thank you!

  6. Elisa

    Doug – you have just explained to me why poems about the innocence of childhood, the loss of it, and the wisdom gained from experience, as well as the desire to find that innocence again intrigued me and caused me to ponder in high school. And why in college Andrew Peterson’s whole album _Light for the Lost Boy_ helped me mourn the loss of the good things I thought I had that were really tainted, and yet yearn for restoration and life. And why I love fiction and fantasy and art (of all forms) – because it helps make internal realities external, and helps us see the things that are unseen. This is why creativity is important – because the world is wonderful, even in its brokenness. Because God made it, and because it all has eternal, transcendent significance, however mundane it might be.

  7. Siobhan Maloney

    Doug, this was incredible. Even your explanation of what you want to do in your book rings and shimmers with the sacramental vision that you are describing, so I can’t wait to experience the book itself!

    You captured in this post so completely and perfectly what I was grasping after in my reflections on Tolkien and Fairytales, posted here last year, and in this recent post on my blog, which might be of some interest to you: https://throwingabridge.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/growing-young/

    …And you used my two favorite Chesterton quotes of all time. Thank you for recalling us to beauty!

  8. Doug McKelvey

    @dougmckelvey

    So true, Elisa. Well summed!

    Arthur, I would point out that in your songs you have managed to consecrate our pain & shadow, and that, brother, is such a rare and life-giving gift.

    Helena, your response does not leave me unmoved. I think all we get now are glimpses. And the thing is to pause and let those glimpses unfold into little moments. We don’t yet have the ability to live in an unbroken awareness. But we can learn to practice the wonder more consistently, and to consciously frame the world in those terms for our children, so that when they feel that longing, that ache, that restlessness, that sudden joy, they have a context for it and they come to understand that they are glimpsing the eternal kingdom through it.

  9. April Pickle

    This here comment is putting a bumper sticker on a sunset, but you sir, did no such thing. You’ve masterfully and graciously pointed out details we would otherwise miss. I’m copying quotes from this into my journal.
    There’s a scene from Driving Miss Daisy that has stuck with me all these years and the Chesterton quote put me in mind of it. Daisy says, “I was thinking about the first time I ever went to Mobile. It was Walter’s wedding, 1888. I was twelve. We went on a train. And I was so excited. I’d never been on a train, I’d never been in a wedding party and I’d never seen the ocean. Papa said it was the Gulf of Mexico and not the ocean, but it was all the same to me. I remember we were at a picnic somewhere – somebody must have taken us all bathing – and I asked Papa if it was all right to dip my hand in the water. He laughed because I was so timid. And then I tasted the salt water on my fingers. Isn’t it silly to remember that?”
    Thank you for another stunning and brilliant post. I can’t wait for the book!

  10. EmmaJ

    So true and so beautiful, Doug.

    Also…what Elisa said above about poems of innocence.

    You’ve made me realize something. I’ve learned to avoid “coming of age” stories. Until this moment, mostly because they almost inevitably center around teens and sex. But I think there’s more…because the way that the world tends to paint things…those stories are not really about an entry into wonder. While on the surface they are supposed to be stories of discovery, of the world opening up…what they’re really about is slamming the door shut on wonder and walking into dreary, wearying season.

    So great a mercy that there should be among us people who are gifted with reigniting the spark of wonder.

    Thanks for these good words and for all the love & effort you and Jamin have poured into this book!

  11. Elisa

    EmmaJ,
    If you haven’t seen Secondhand Lions, go see it. It is a coming of age story that is about entry into wonder. So wonderful.

  12. Doug McKelvey

    @dougmckelvey

    “What if this “disillusionment” is actually the illusion?” –Siobhan, wow! I can only wish that I’d had as much wisdom and insight at your age. Fascinating how similar our pieces are, in the territory we’re exploring and the conclusions we reach.

    April, thanks for citing the Driving Miss Daisy dialogue. There’s something so transcendent about an elderly person reminiscing like that about those very specific moments from their childhood, about those moments of wonder.

    Emma, that’s a really keen observation on the pattern of so many “coming of age” stories. They are so often about shedding “hope” and making peace with a more “realistic,” and “sophisticated” nihilism or self-actualization with no greater reference point on which to hang our eternal longings, right? It does leave one feeling rather tepid. As Walker Percy wrote when he interviewed himself:

    Q: Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
    A: Yes.

    Q: Why?
    A: It’s not good enough.

    Q: Why not?
    A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

    Q: Grabbed aholt?
    A: A Louisiana expression.

  13. Doug McKelvey

    @dougmckelvey

    Ami,

    Definitely. We have prints (and the original paintings) available via the Kickstarter campaign, both as reward levels and as add-ons.

  14. Peter B

    Great, now there’s sehnsucht all over the keyboard. I don’t even have words for the wonder you’ve reawakened.

    “If in twenty years I have mastered one aspect of being a writer, it is the ability to step back and let a thing go, knowing that its journey from here will scarcely involve me, and that the rest is dependent upon the Spirit whispering as He pleases through such imperfect offerings.”

    Dang, yes yes YES this is what’s been (gently) hammered into me by a loving, all-wise Father for forty-two years now.

    So anyway… thanks.

  15. Lisa

    Thank you so much. Your words are a reminder of that faraway country, where everything becomes new again. What a marvellous delight we have in store for us….and can experience now, if we only had eyes to see.

  16. Nicole Eckerson

    Well, I’m certainly going to have to read this again in order soak up all the truth, wisdom, and what C.S. Lewis called Joy that is held in these words. Thank you for writing them. I am so looking forward to reading your forthcoming book!

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