In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a bunch of people simultaneously, and independently, experience a strange inner compulsion to construct a mound of dirt; the mounds differ in materials of construction and skilled applied to the task, but not in the passion behind the effort. Later, they discover the source of this compulsion in an alien space ship atop a mountain which looks almost exactly like all those little dirt mounds. I make the same point here. No doubt, my story is redundant to the point of embarrassment. I don't add any insights that haven't been seen more clearly or explained better before by others. But I'd like to show you what I've been compelled to make of my life, and then we'll see how similar it is to what you, perhaps, have done with yours... and then venture the possibility that were all modeling the same Subject.
According to Sixties historian Todd Gitlin "the years 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1970 were a cyclone in a wind tunnel." If those years were, to adjust the metaphor a little, just such a hurricane then I grew up smack in the eye. I spent the "Summer of Love" at my grandparent's house in a town and at a time where six year olds could still have the run of the neighborhood until dark. My family had just moved from Chicago, away from failed dreams and riots in the streets. I was oblivious to the social and personal disintegration around me, enjoying instead my part in perhaps the last generation of childhoods spent in small town America, before shopping malls and cable TV carved the heart out of local culture and identity.
I learned to read and prowled the town on my Sting Ray until I discovered the public library. Science fiction and adventure stories expanded my prowling radius forever. I devoured all I could lay my hands on of the boy's Sci Fi novels written in the 1950's; books with V2-style spaceships on the covers and titles like Lost Race of Mars and Starship Troopers. My favorites always featured some young stowaway on a rocket who ends up saving the day, maybe the universe. Then Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe (in abridged or Classics Illustrated comic adaptations) made the earth as wonderful and exotic as Mars or Alpha Centauri.
My discovery of Jules Verne was a momentous occasion indeed, akin to finding the lost map of old Arne Saknuessem -- subterranean pioneer in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Coat hangers soon started disappearing from my bedroom closet, found later by my mother, bent into grappling hooks with a length of clothesline attached. My father gave me a stern lecture about the danger railroad spikes pounded into the lawn presented to lawn mowers, but he didn't realize they were a matter of life and death to explorers lowering themselves to the earth's core.
One of my most significant discoveries about this time was, however, sociological rather than geological. I found that friends came in two distinct categories. There were friends with whom you could play baseball, and there were friends with whom you could play make-believe... rarely indeed did one find a pal amenable to both. I recall that a friend of the second type planned with me one of many trips to the center of the Earth. In the Jules Verne version, the explorers follow their map and the scratched initials of old Arne Saknuessem to an underground sea which they must cross in order to continue their journey. My friend and I plotted our route via the neighborhood creek which disappeared into the cornfields at the edge of town.
What gave us the idea for this expedition, I think, was an article in that month's issue of Boy's Life magazine, which showed how to make your own backpack. We adapted the design, with compartments for plenty of railroad spikes, clothesline, and coat hangers. We also built the pack itself... out of wood. This pack, if you stood on the brink of a volcanic crater and happened to lose your balance, would carry you to the center of the earth quickly indeed.
Which would be a shame since, in this as in most everything else, the trip was half the fun. Maybe even more than half. And getting ready for the trip -- carefully sawing and nailing the pack, drawing the maps, walking down the tracks to collect the loose railroad spikes -- was the other half.
The big day arrived, overcast and cold. I had impulsively recruited another friend and his older brother. This turned out to be both a good and a bad thing. Good because my original buddy -- the one who'd made all the maps and plans with me -- wasn't able to get permission to leave the yard that gloomy day, much less go to the earth's core. Bad because the new friend was a baseball-only friend, and worse, his older brother was -- of all things -- a teenager, who immediately assumed command of our expedition and stamped out the imaginative atmosphere with his unrelenting post-pubescent realism.
Our new leader's first decision was for us to leave the impossibly heavy backpack behind, an idea not entirely without merit. We also left behind, however, all talk of the center of the earth, mole people, and what not. Instead of traveling across a subterranean sea, we merely splashed a mile or so down a muddy creek. This, too, had its attractions: we observed along the way, for example, a floating dead muskrat. But the journey lost a good deal in the translation from vision to reality.
For the most part then, I found that I had to make my imaginative journeys alone. My parents were either too busy trying to kick start a new life, or keep the old one from sputtering out. There were no older brothers or sisters to show me the way. And most of my friends just didn't get it. There were always clues though, for those looking for them: notches left by previous explorers down this path -- those who had already been where I was always being desperately drawn.
Like Harry Houdini, Blackstone, and the Great Thurston. I got my first magic tricks from sending box tops to Trix cereal. My first show was to the First Grade. Some wise guy in the front row caught me sneaking that little ball into the genie bottle (the one that holds the rope in and makes it float) and he blabbed it to the whole class. (The same wise guy explained to me on the playground the next year about the birds & the bees. He was a teenager before his time).
I was always having people tie me up so I could escape like Houdini, and some of the time I did. Books on Houdini from the library explained his most famous tricks, like how he walked through that wall and a trick called "The Metamorphosis." If you've seen the movie starring Tony Curtis you'll remember this one; it's the trick where they chain him up and put him into a box and his wife stands on top of the box and at the count of three they magically change places.
Another friend (of the make-believe bent) and I used to practice "The Metamorphosis" on the playground, using monkey-bars for the box. About this time, our teacher made the mistake of assigning the class to write letters to the president. I could only think of one issue to discuss with the man: "Dear Mr. President," I wrote, "What is your opinion of kids performing Houdini's Metamorphosis?" I received, of course, no response -- despite the fact that the letter was addressed to a newly elected fellow known as "Tricky Dick."
This was also the Golden Age of the Space Program, when manned space travel was as big as the O.J. Simpson trial, when everyone knew the names of the astronauts, and the ships and occupants still looked like the pictures in my 50's sci-fi books, when the missions were a little less prosaic than shuttling up to change the battery in a satellite owned by Rupert Murdoch. And the space program -- in the middle of a Cold War race to the moon -- had plenty of money. They used some of it to send piles of pamphlets and booklets and wall charts and autographed photographs to any kid who would write for them; it wasn't long before I figured this out and began to do so regularly.
Collecting freebies from NASA taught me more about research than anything I ever learned in school. I was able to track down the addresses of every space agency installation from Houston, Texas to Huntsville, Alabama. And soon, tons of the niftiest space stuff you ever saw was piling up in my room. I was my own private space camp. I learned everything an eight-year old could about orbits, retro rockets, the LEM (that's the Lunar Excursion Module, of course) and I knew the difference between a Saturn V and a Saturn 1B.
One day, sitting in math class, I designed what I thought was a brilliant idea for a Mars rocket on a piece of notebook paper. I liked it so much that I impulsively stuck it in an envelope and, when school let out, fired it off to NASA. But the next day, I discovered to my horror that this Junior Werner von Braun masterpiece was still in my math book -- I'd accidentally sent my math homework to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
I didn't panic. I knew that candidates for the astronaut program had to be proficient in math. And since that particular paper had received an "A+" I had good reason to hope that the folks at NASA might still be impressed and take me under consideration. Unfortunately, I received no reply -- which was probably just as well. For that was almost certainly the last time I ever got an "A" on a math paper. As time went on, I'm afraid it became more and more apparent that -- where math was concerned -- I just don't have the Right Stuff.
My subject was English, and I read beyond my years. I breezed through a mixed bag of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein... and then suddenly found my jets being cooled. As I graduated from Have Rocket, Will Travel and Jules Verne to the modern, up-to-date brand of sci-fi (or SF, as it suddenly became important to call it) I definitely noticed a change in atmosphere. I realize now that what I was sensing was very real; accurately reflecting that "cyclone in a wind tunnel" of which I spoke -- science fiction lost its humanity. The lines between the good guys and the bad guys -- between good and evil -- got all muddy and blurred, as did the lines between human beings and soulless androids. Science had become the enemy of wonder: no longer a confident guide to a shining future, pure objectivity was the destroyer of myth, magic, and meaning.
Was that the real world? Was my instinctive desire for a transcendent moral order in the cosmos merely an escape into fantasy? I didn't think too deeply about it at the time; I was already facing some unpleasant realities.
My parents divorced. My mother remarried, and we moved to a bigger town, one with a new shopping mall and cable TV. It was the Summer of Watergate, my last before becoming a teenager. We moved again, to a collection of houses and trailers and taverns in the middle of nowhere; an anti-community. Walking through an empty field one day with a new friend (a rare make-believe and baseball friend) I was overcome with feelings of self-consciousness. I realized that we were probably the last kids our age in town to still be playing make-believe. We turned our attention exclusively to baseball.
My imaginative impulses didn't completely die, however. School was in another town, where kids who rode the bus were outsiders. At a table in the lunch room I saw some guys from my class drawing monsters on notebook paper. Drawing had always been my thing -- and I used it as a passport, the one way I could always make friends. And I could draw a pretty mean Frankenstein. The guys noticed and approved. And so they let me into their charmed circle. We formed a monster club. Members had to make a list of all the monster movies they'd ever seen. The longer your list the better your standing in the club.
This was before VCR's; your only chance to add to those lists was either at midnight Friday or not at all. Our local Creature Feature was sponsored by the Acri Siding Company in Peoria, Acri Creature Feature, and Chuck Acri himself introduced the movies, bantering with "Bernie the Talking Skull" during breaks -- when he wasn't pitching aluminum siding. Midway through the show Chuck would announce the "Creep of the Week." My Frankenstein drawings brought me Creature Feature's highest honor. I'll never forget the moment when the camera, panning across pieces of artwork sent in by youthful viewers, stopped on mine. Chuck Acri mispronounced my name and concluded, "Mike... you're a creep." I liked to think so.
Summer nights make the most vivid memories. It's very late. The front door is open, I can hear crickets chirping through the screen. It's so hot that I stick to the vinyl chair as I shift around, trying to stay awake. The TV volume is low, so I don't remind my parents I'm not in bed and give them cause to reconsider that idea. Sometimes I have to go and splash water on my face, or get out and run around the yard. Waking at three AM to see television static and realize I'd missed another chance to add to my list was an enormous letdown -- even worse than watching some of the movies I sat through, like Billy the Kid versus Dracula. I knew that the other guys in the club had not fallen asleep and that I'd never hear the end of it.
We all subscribed to and collected Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, competing with each other to see who could save their pennies and buy the oldest back issues.
Famous Monsters took me backstage in Hollywood, my first exposure to the art of special effects and movie make-up. I learned how to make myself and my friends up as monsters. My specialty was "The Mummy." I had a secret recipe of flour and water which could be applied to the face and wrinkled and molded in horrifying fashion. One day, I emerged unannounced from the basement to surprise my step-father, who was innocently reading the paper at the kitchen table. He looked up to see this thing with a white, wrinkled head and he nearly spat out his bridgework. He, too, could see that I was a creep.
Going "backstage" opened up new and dangerous possibilities -- getting into the mechanics and craft of illusion. The old analogy here is that of dissecting a frog -- you come to understand the inner workings of your subject, but the subject dies from the treatment. This was a new, adult obstacle to overcome on the road to keeping wonder alive in one's heart -- to cultivate the twin ability to know the secret, yet still thrill to the magic.
There was a place called "Magic, Incorporated" in far off Chicago. I got their mail-order catalog, as thick as a book of theology, full of magic tricks ranging from the "Vanishing Penny" to "Sawing a Lady in Half." How many hours I spent pouring over those pages like a theologian indeed, dreaming, trying to figure out how the simpler tricks were done in hopes of fabricating my own, thus saving my lawn mowing and paper route money for more exotic illusions like "The Chinese Linking Rings" and "The Square/Circle Production Box.' Then there was the eternal wait for the UPS package to arrive. When it finally did, it was like somebody on Mars receiving a bottle of fresh oxygen from Earth. Parcels of imagination from the far off place where magic is made.
Other sources of imaginative oxygen included "Ray's Hobby Shop," where you could find the smaller-potatoes magic tricks, but also Estes model rockets, rubber chickens etc., and Aurora monster models. And there was "Lincoln Enterprises," a mail order house which specialized in Star Trek paraphernalia like scripts and crewmen's patches. In those pre-video days I made audio recordings of syndicated Star Trek episodes, carefully labeling each tape with the title and collecting them in a shoe book. I had a standing bet with my stepbrother that I could name the title of any Star Trek episode before the opening pre-credits teaser ended.
Here's one: a landing party beams down to a planet that seems deserted, until Kirk and crew see dirty little children running among the ruins... The episode is Miri, about a world where adults -- known as "grups" -- die of a dreadful disease which children catch upon reaching adolescence. I, too, was becoming a grup -- affected by the raging hormones and emotions, narrow ambitions, and frightened role-playing that is teenage. High School is generally not a safe place to indulge in wonder, where any behavior other than "cool" (that is, bored irony) risks social exile. One of the few socially acceptable forms of creative expression was rock-n-roll music, which, unfortunately, had grown rather cynical by the mid 70's; the cyclone in the wind tunnel had blown itself out. We youngest baby-boomers came of age to find all wars fought, all causes out-of-style, all gods dead. Yet the myth of the 60's still had strong appeal. Though there was a lot of evidence to support the idea, it was still hard for some of us to believe that our older sibling's dream of a new world, their protest against the 20th century's war on community and wonder and meaning, had been just another fleeting, ultimately absurd fantasy.
But what of the continuing call of wonder? I've already expressed how Christianity validated and fulfilled my instinctive longing for the community that was everywhere disappearing in America. But what was the relationship between my newly discovered faith and my lifelong love affair with the imaginative? I didn't know many Christians who talked about Jules Verne, or Frankenstein, or Houdini, or flying to the moon. I wasn't sure these sorts of things had any place in the new life I'd chosen for myself. There seemed to be a solid brick wall between the new world of faith and loving community that I was experiencing as a Christian and the old world of fantasy & imagination that had so often sustained me in the past. Was Christ calling me to renounce these things and remake myself as a different person entirely? I could still hear strange, beautiful echoes coming from certain "secular" films, books, and music. Was this merely a temptation, an offer of forbidden fruit? Was Plato right? Are the poets dangerous? As a Christian, was I to stop my ears to the siren call of romance?
Providentially, I was put onto new guides, new Arne Saknuessems, who'd left useful maps of their own journeys. Men like Francis Schaeffer -- the great evangelical philosopher who broke down the wall between secular & sacred, giving me permission to use my mind and imagination to look for clues to reality wherever they may be found. Or C.S. Lewis -- the Oxford scholar who connected the dots, showing me how imagination can be the means, not for escaping reality, but for accessing it. And, of course, G.K. Chesterton -- the English poet & journalist who, perhaps more than anyone else, seemed able to preserve all the joy and wonder of childhood in the mind of an uncommonly brilliant and passionately sane adult. At this same moment I should pause to note that I was increasingly aware that Christianity itself was seen by many as merely a work of the imagination, an empty romance, a fairy tale -- though many were sympathetic to anything that might help people cope with life in a meaningless universe. Kurt Vonnegut -- in his Cat's Cradle -- had spoken approvingly of "helpful lies," whatever gets one through the cold dark night of modernity. Yet Vonnegut's own fiction grew increasingly morose as he seemed to realize that he had no basis for even this absurd hope. In the later Galapagos, Vonnegut concluded that the best the human race could hope for was to maybe someday evolve backwards into some lower form of life, like a fish, without wars or hopes or dreams, just blissful ignorance.
Such a conclusion seemed compassionate, given the moral and social chaos unleashed by turning the culture over to whatever subjective reality could be concocted by each individual. This was the dark side of the counter-cultural myth -- do your own thing. The idea of the imaginative impulse, of fantasy, was corrupted: at worst it was a threat to sanity and social order, at best an anesthetic to dull the pain of reality. For if man is just an accidental collection of atoms, his dreams and desires no more than chemical movements in his brain, then the call of wonder is at bottom just a dirty trick of nature to get the species to reproduce.
It was vital to me that I understand first that Christianity was able to stand on its own as not merely another "head trip" but as truth -- as the most reasonable alternative to this relativistic and absurdist babble. The evidence of nature, human nature, and history vindicated the Christian view of transcendent reality as the only rational way to make sense of all the pains and wonders found in this big universe. But the key to putting it all together in my life was my discovery that this same ancient creed also redeemed and purified the use of imagination. It was no coincidence, and fortunate indeed for me, that the same men who showed me the sanity of Christianity were also poets, romantics, writers of fairy tales, and science fiction authors.
C. S. Lewis, creator of the famous Chronicles of Narnia, was also a classically trained logician and debater, led from atheism to faith by what he termed "joy": experiences of intense, almost painful, longing. He wrote that possessing anything else was inferior to merely desiring the object of this longing -- if only he could figure out what that was. "Joy" might be triggered by a song, a line of poetry, a memory. Yet if any of these stimuli were pursued, each turned out to be inadequate to the desire. It became clear that "the human soul was made to enjoy some object it is never fully given" -- an object that can't even be imagined, only glimpsed in other things.
Lewis believed that while God does speak in all the traditional religious ways, he also speaks in "pictures." Countless different pictures, new ones in each new age, which wake in men a desire for something beyond this world. The path for all Pagans to God, says Lewis, is always a "desire born of the pictures." True, that desire may lead down a thousand false trails and the object of that desire may be confused with "common or even with vile satisfactions lying close to hand." But any man who honestly pursues the object of his desire, rejecting all false candidates as soon as they are exposed as false, he will be lead at last to the place "where true joys are to be found."
The same ideas are expressed by Tolstoy: "No matter what wonders are described, or what animals may talk in human language, what flying carpets may carry people from place to place, the legends, parables or fairy tales will be true, if there is in them the truth of the kingdom of God."
The Bible speaks of those who are always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. I decided I'd rather possess the object of my desires, even if it means endless trouble and perilous journeys, than to be satisfied with the mere want of it, with mere glimpses. My journey to the center of the earth, in a sense, both started and ended with this realization.
But let's be careful here. This approach can disguise a common cop out. The most creditable complaint of that other Lewis -- Sinclair -- against "Main Street" was that the inhabitants had grown deaf to the call of the transcendent, that they'd given up the search, and so became a kind of walking dead. How is it possible to both find your heart's desire, and keep on looking? How can we, like Dorothy back in Oz, find adventure without leaving our own backyard? How I say both "I believe in Kingdom come" and "I still haven't found what I'm looking for?"
Just as the myths and legends demand, there is a riddle at the heart of the universe; it requires putting camels through the eye of a needle, saving one's life by losing it, becoming a little child.
My favorite Steven Spielberg movie is just such a parable and, if such a thing is possible for a Steven Spielberg movie, actually quite under-rated. In Hook, Robin Williams is Peter Pan -- all grown up, despite his oft repeated determination not to. Now he has become Peter Banning, lawyer, corporate raider (a pirate!), a slave to his cell phone and appointment book, successful, glib, shallow, uptight, too busy for anything that is not related to his work. He is in danger of missing his kids' childhood, and missing everything that can only be seen through children's eyes.
Captain Hook on the other hand (played by Dustin Hoffman), is as we last saw him: breathing revenge against Pan, and so doing kidnaps Peter's children. Tinkerbell appears and pixie dusts Peter, against his will, back to Neverland to rescue his kids. But before he can do that, Peter must remember everything he has forgotten: how to fly, how to play, how to use his imagination, and become like a little child in order to see.
This is a profound movie, with a very knowing script, eminently suited to Spielberg's gifts. Hook raises questions unanswered in the original story, about what it means to be a child, or a grown-up, about the difference between being childish and being childlike. Either by design or by "accident" this movie tells the truth of the Kingdom of God. For, despite my own past adventures, I, too, am in danger of growing cold to the voice of childlike wonder. (Sometimes, most ironically, when I'm "backstage," in the midst of some creative project.)
What keeps me young is the ever needful choice and re-choice to surrender and become like a little child before God, remaining open and vulnerable to those around me whom I count as my family, and by being ready to drop to the floor at a moment's notice to play make-believe with my little daughter and the other little children in my life. My own continued forays into an ever-expanding imaginative universe play a vital role as well. My journey here has moved on from magic and monsters and even rock-n-roll, though each of these continues and has even acquired the added fascination of being bathed with the warm glow of nostalgia. But I continue to discover new sources of wonder, new instructive and entertaining pictures of God and His creation, of human glory and of human folly, in all kinds of novels, histories, music, poetry, and movies.
And in baseball, too. Make-believe's old rival also continues a constant thread in my life, though I long ago declared a truce between the two and the former belligerents now actually seem cut from the same wondrous cloth. The other day I went to a Cubs game and as I stepped up from below the stadium to catch my first glimpse of the field I was, as I always am at Wrigley Field, swept up in a sense of Joy -- for reasons I do not understand, the place reminds me of God. And my response, as I looked out across the green grass of the outfield, was a silent "Thank You." The practical result of looking on the panorama of life as so many pictures of God and supernatural reality is, as G.K. Chesterton so often insisted, gratitude.
To quote briefly from one of Chesterton's biographers, "G.K. liked everybody very much and everything very much. He liked even things most of us dislike. He liked to get wet. He liked to be tired..." G.K. himself writes, "It was a long time before I had anything worth calling a religion; what I had was not even sufficiently coherent to be called a philosophy. But it was, in a sense, a view of life; I had it in the beginning; and I am more and more coming back to it in the end... my original and almost mystical conviction of the miracle of all existence and the essential excitement of all experience."
We all begin with this view: childhood is an answer to the beguiling call to wonder: treasure maps, magic spells, secret codes, initials scratched into a cave wall, adventure stories, and magic shows. With adolescence comes childhood's end; the call is still there, but our ability to hear it, interpret it, and act on it is adult-erated. For me, my yen for romantic adventure led me to a Christian community, where one of my first discoveries was an unromantic truth about myself: my tendency to chase after whatever I thought might produce those feelings of wonder had made me into a self-absorbed and selfish person. So I learned to make commitments, to be faithful in little, ordinary things. And, like C. S. Lewis, I was surprised by joy: I found that commitment and faithfulness were the quickest path to where I wanted to go all along.
The final question, since our conversation has turned to talk of ultimate and eternal happiness, is raised, also in Hook, by the pirate's first mate Mr. Smee, who asks, "What would the world be like without Captain Hook?" Or, to put it more generally, quoting Frank Capra, "You can't tell a story without a villain." How can all these stories, with their conflict and struggle between good and evil, be a foretaste of glory, if the popular idea of heaven -- bloodless angels on clouds plucking harps -- is correct?
We look again to C.S. Lewis, who reminds us that every one of our pictures of God and Heaven are merely metaphors. In The Pilgrim's Regress, the title character fears that what God intends for him in the end will be unlike the things he really desires. "They will be very unlike the things you imagine," he is told. "But you already know that the objects which your desire imagines are always inadequate to that desire. Until you have it you will not know what you wanted."
What it is I have wanted so desperately all my life, I concede I do not know exactly. But I have come to believe that God reveals Himself to us through symbols: He is the Great Shepherd, the Vine, the Door, the Rock of Ages. He is the Bread and the Wine. My love of adventure, of conflict and resolution, and of quest I now understand to be crude metaphors for an eternal rhythm beyond all imaging. Until I see face to face I must content myself with gazes in a dark glass, seeing glimpses of this reality through a dark glass. For me, these glimpses come most frequently by pictures: rocketing to the stars aboard a spaceship with fins, voyaging to the bottom of the sea, finding buried treasure, killing the dragon who guards the Golden Fleece, floating down the Mississippi on a raft, sliding safely into home, flying beyond the second star to the right and straight on till morning, where I will someday find my Holy Grail -- the Source of my quest. And even then there will be more of Arne's notches to follow, "further up and further in," on a journey forever towards an infinite Center.
As usual, Chesterton provides a delightful poetic summation of life lived with gratitude and a ready sense of wonder:
You say grace before meals
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
And I say grace after sharing my story with you.
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