I had a wonderful conversation with my older brother Steve coming back from watching a movie the other night. It was rare moment because my brother has a way of hijacking most conversations and turning them into mini lectures on military history. It’s often annoying, but at other times, I am pretty amazed at just how much stuff he knows; I mean stuff that nobody else would know. I passed a couple classes at Fresno State without reading the textbooks because I went over to his house and asked him the questions from the syllabus. He would provide me with perspectives and little facts that impressed the professors. Once, I even corrected a professor for a mistake he had made in a lecture.
Our conversation after the movie was about a shared memory, and once again he was able to provide me with little details that nobody knew. This particular memory was about a ride home from our uncle’s house after a Thanksgiving dinner. In those days, my uncle lived in the middle of nowhere somewhere northwest of Bakersfield. To get to his house, my dad always took a shortcut that ran right through Buena Vista lake. The lake was crisscrossed with a series of levees that dad knew like the back of his hand.
The problem was that my dad was usually drunk when we left my uncle’s, and my mom and him would always get into the biggest fights on the way back home. We would barrel down the levee, and my parents would yell and scream, and mom would try to hit him while he tried to ward her off. My brother and I cowered in the backseat of our red and white 56 Mercury wondering what the hell was going on, and more precisely, what was going to happen afterwards.
Steve reminded me of one of those hurricane rides; my dad was too drunk to drive and allowed Steve to get behind the wheel and guide us across the lake. When Steve, who was too young to drive, got close to where the levee left off, and the paved road started, my dad started yelling at him to stop. My mom was yelling too and Steve had a meltdown. I guess the plan was for Steve to drive to the paved road and Dad would have sobered up a little by then and would drive the rest of the way. My dad had not sobered a bit though, and so my parents decided that we would go back and spend the night at my uncle’s house.
That night Steve and I avoided going into the house as long as we could. It was a strange night where we were surrounded by a eerie kind of darkness and a radiant diamond covered sky. Steve said that he was wrapped up in his own chaotic thoughts, wondering if our parents were going to split-up. Our older cousin Ronnie was messing around in this little one room shed, entering with a flashlight and discovering a bat hanging from a rafter. The windows of the shed were covered with canvas, and my cousin’s effort to kill the bat played out in silhouette upon the canvas.
When Steve told this story, I suddenly remembered the image of the bat outlined on that canvas. The background light provided by the flashlight was golden. The sight transfixed us. It was like we had traveled back in time and were attending a puppet show sometime in the late Middle Ages.
I was driving along 99 Highway and listening intently, and the memory Steve was painting moved me greatly; it was like a tiny bit of magic had attached itself to some very brutal reality. It was like a fantasy from a Fellini movie, and it made me wonder just how many such magical moments we encounter in our lives, and why we are so hell bent to ignore them. Is it because we have our noses so far up the fat ass of reality that we no longer possess a sense of magic?
It made me understand that God is not just the architect of the universe, he is also the great composer of nature; an author that puts the cumulative efforts of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and all of the other authors to shame; and an award winning movie maker who creates wonderful surrealistic images as well as starkly beautiful realism. Many of us have forgotten this, much to our own detriment, and are no longer capable of loving the magician’s act, preferring instead to have the tricks explained by the people in lab coats using the language of math and cold hard facts.
The next day, I was reading a book about the life of Nietzsche and ran across a passage that explained that the incident that pushed him into madness had happened while he was walking down a street and saw a horse lying in the street being beaten by its angry owner. The story goes that Nietzsche threw his arms across the horse’s neck and cried as he protected it from the blows. This is very important scene because a lot of smart people feel that Nietzsche never got to the point in his writings where he understood that it was love and empathy that made life worth living, yet, this scene seems to suggest otherwise.
This caused me to wonder if these magical little scenes, scenes that would normally vanish into the mist as quickly as they appeared, contain more meaning than we realize. Are they left overs from pagan times before the language of reason supplanted the language of myth?
I have a sense that this is true. I can’t prove it, but I really, really want it to be true. It could help us so much to know that the universe is in the skilled and able hands of a master magician who desires to amaze us and fill us with wonder.
So, I challenge you. No, I implore you that when you run head first into a situation that demands your total focus, to back up a few steps, gain a wider perspective and notice what is going on in the periphery. I’ll bet that you will start to see a little magic.