I’m only ten years old but there’s something in Karen Carpenter’s voice that sends me into a third heaven. I can feel sugar effervescing across my shoulders and down my arms. “White lace and promises, a kiss for luck and we’re on our way.” I don’t think I have the words, yet, to describe the sort of bliss radiating out from the image of a country wedding and the young couple making their way across the grain field highways. It feels like a harvest party out there around the bend, in my future somewhere.
It’s a brilliant green day in the spring, and the crowd is jump dancing all around me. This is senior year at Stanford, Frost Amphitheater, and a pick-up band is playing Van Morrison flawlessly; each beat of the guitar is the heartbeat of a beautiful, brown eyed girl. There is beer and joy in the air, and an enormous amount of sheer future: everyone is off to the gold fields of grad school or apprenticeship. This is an earned celebration, a meritocracy riot, with a big current of boy-girl wonder running through it. I can remember bookmarking the moment.
My own family. I can never quite get over how flawlessly God delivers new little souls and bodies. Their eyes are clear. Their hair is like silk. They have nothing but puppy-like potential. If you sit around a table with so many reaching hands, and so many questions, you can’t help but feel promise in the future, some corner of civilization being built. Your four year old covers a pancake with whipped cream and chocolate chips. This really is the land flowing with milk and honey. You can tell, because your hand sticks to the table.
I’m utterly charmed by a family band. The daughters are beauties in the making. The young buck on the mandolin is fiercely grim in the face of his happy, racing melody. They all fall into a gospel harmony and I weep at the beauty of the thing, a family nearing a dozen in number, out on the road, in the joy business together. It feels like the beginning of some golden-light Hollywood biopic.
Your knees and feet are swollen. You weren’t aware such pain could reside in your lower lip, where a doctor has cut out some non-aggressive cancer. The teenagers are off somewhere. A couple you have known for thirty years is getting divorced. A Christian self-help author, widely revered by some of your friends ten years before, has renounced his faith and has become the darling of the alt-sex crowd. Closer to home and commerce, the thought of planning and investing and research — pursuits you always loved — suddenly begin to feel fatiguing. You find yourself asking the question “what’s the point?” quite a bit.
Some years before, you took those first brutal blows of finding out the children who once looked to you for guidance now consider you a bit of an eccentric. The world itself seems to be splitting apart like a volleyball with bad stitching: some “woke” young pastor decides its time to divide the congregation by race; the very faith that built civilization, and hope, is being dismantled by crackpot academics. If they remade the Crocker Bank commercial today, there would be two young men in the front seat, with a furry in the back talking about his “pod.” (And these three would conform to Facebook Community Standards perfectly; you are the one the world has to worry about.)
And then you consider all the fractured relationships of your life — the friends and family who are no more, the daughter who won’t talk to you, the college friend who wonders, now, whether you have lost your mind for accepting Christ, the people who saw you at your worst, and can’t forget it, or forgive it. The huge divide between the tolerance and hope we say we hold dear, and the way we really behave towards each other — well, it makes you wonder whether anyone really believes in anything at all.
Where was that ten year old Karen Carpenter joy? Where did it go? Where is that sugar that once danced on my neck?
My sense is that time itself is one of God’s most powerful teachers. It’s a bittersweet bitch. She’s pretty sexy at 24 but expensive and grumpy at 60, and that, too, is one of life’s lessons. The future always feels pretty tempting, and when you’re young you can spend far too much of your time there, dreaming. When you’re old, the past can feel like such brittle and brutal melancholy, and it can leave you weeping if you think about it too much.
But the present, that’s what you have to get in touch with, young man.
The house is empty, but there’s a big beautiful sky out there and you have a camera and a new lens. Take a picture of it all.