Author’s Note: Last May (2016) I enlisted Jamin Still’s visual genius and together we launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring our picture book, The Wishes of the Fish King, to print as a Rabbit Room Press project. Hopefully all of you who partnered with us either have your book(s) already or, if you also ordered the family book journal Stories We Shared, you’ll have them soon. For those who didn’t get in on the initial campaign but are still interested in securing a copy by Christmas, the Rabbit Room Store is your new best friend.
This week I thought to pen an article expounding on the themes of the book and delving into my reasons for writing it, but before doing so I happened to read a random tweet from someone who had just discovered an article I wrote and posted during the crowdfunding campaign last May. I skimmed back over it and thought “Oh. Okay. Huh. So I already said pretty much everything I had to say. Funny. I don’t remember writing that.”
Like I tell my kids: “If my brain was a computer, it would all be RAM. There is no hard drive.” No matter how many times I do something, it’s always the first time. So with a few tweaks to make it more relevant to the post-publishing stage of the Fish King project, I (re)present to you my already mentally-misplaced essay “Remembering What We Mean.” (Because apparently, I need more help than most with remembering pretty much anything.)
“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
It 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 recently completed 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 set out to accomplish 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 knew from the outset that I was 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 the Spirit pleases through such imperfect offerings.
As such, I took a strange, third-person encouragement in observing that the words of the story, paired for the first time with one of Jamin’s illustrations, were having a noticeable effect on me. The painting was called “The Sea of Fields.”
Even as a chalk sketch over a base coat it was already stunning. I wasn’t able to look at it without some emotion, as it was a fantastical rendering of a place and time I once inhabited. The tone is magical and perilous and fairytale-esque. And yet I saw the real place clearly pictured there. In fact, the blend of fantasy and memory created a layered vision that held the essence of that time more vividly than any photograph ever could. This fairy tale visual re-interpretation of that physical location and era, offered a keener sight of the deeper reality of the wonder and the beauty of it than a camera ever could capture. Jamin’s painting held 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 saw 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 saw the terrain and the history.
But in that painting, I saw also, as if in hindsight, the eternal glory that filled it as well. I saw the light. I saw all at once what was and what is and what is to come. And upon viewing the painting 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 The Wishes of the Fish King 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.]
The Wishes of the Fish King hardback, as well as the Audiobook/Original Musical Score CD version, are available now from the Rabbit Room Store.
The remote descendant of Scottish horse-thieving ancestors, Douglas McKelvey has already bested the dubious achievements of his predecessors by authoring five published books, writing and directing a passel of video projects, and penning lyrics for more than 250 songs recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, and Jason Gray. Under the alias “DKM,” McKelvey co-creates the ongoing “Subjects With Objects” collaborative gallery project. He currently serves as president of International Conspiracy & Trade Co. (This is not a joke, but probably should be…), and is hard at work completing the manuscript for a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel and developing with Ruckus Films a feature comedy-drama based on the shenanigans of notorious car thief Rabbit Veach.