Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 12, 2008

Missing the Saintly Mark

You know the cruise line commercial… the one where suddenly the screen fills with the pointed bow of a ship whose immense size and slicing lines would make Columbus scream in terror; would puzzle geometrists and pain naval architects; whose potential treasures in passengers and “booty” lures pirates, “Disco Stu”, and “educators” into giving never ending sales presentations… whose seaworthiness astounds physicists and leaves engineers open to the possibilities for floating other edifices off the East Bronx Expressway… and whose crew of Cap’n Bogart, 1st Lt. Cagney, First Mate Bronson and a disappointed Steward (Keanu Reeves) greet you with a wry smile, a bottle of whiskey, a couple of rounds from 9mm automatics.. and a “Yo’ duuuuude!”

“Hey…. enough already. We get it. Something’s completely wrong…”

And out of the cold clammy darkness a voice full of luxurious intention booms:

“Somewhere between not sleeping, not exercising, not getting your work done, and not getting home to dinner until ten o’clock at night… suddenly it hits you….. you’re completely inadequate without a week’s ride on our yacht. Yes, we know that after a week of almost daily services (Holy Week – yes, can’t compromise the ol’ nomination prospects for Slacker the Year Award by looking too… too… uh… Orthodox), you can feel the same inadequacies around the home, the office… just about anywhere: Mail piles up, reports go unread, memos unwritten. Even newspapers look irrelevant: Stuff happened; you weren’t a part of it; what else do you need to know? And instead of getting over it…. you feel yourself under it…. And that if only it were over… but it’s not, and it won’t be. So rather than getting back to it, why not just get away… really away… why not come aboard…”

I reach over, and switch it off… and shift back to sifting paperwork and rebuilding the model of my life where the pieces fly off and get re-attached… only to fly off again. Of course, with just the right amount of redefinition of parameters, a small rethinking of the original intent…. “Failure is good”, yeah… and I’m “done” and “moving on”. Can’t hold out over the overlap between the “included” and “excluded” as if it mattered… as if “ought” and “are” could overlap as well…I mean it’s only a model… not the real world. We’ll just keep tweaking… it’ll come out. But the closer you look, the more clearly you see the need to start all over again with something fresh. But opportunity knocks… and even a less than ideal solution clearly serves better than none. Sure.. it won’t feel right and the probability of error is high, but the added value of further paralysis by analysis is offset by diminishing prospects. So you go with what you’ve got, and you use the model anyway. You call it a day. Tomorrow will be another chance, another start, and another compromise… or maybe you’ll finally get it.

Sure, confidence flags a bit… but only slightly. This is it… the top of the game, and the best we can manage. I mean… this is what they’re paying me for….right? And it’s working, isn’t it? At least so long as I’m aware that I’m making these compromises…. I’m still in control? Maybe far more rides on this than admitted…. and maybe less. Maybe I’m overstating my importance, or the importance of the moment; and maybe this confusion is the problem. Hard to tell. G.K. Chesterton had it right long ago that no matter how far we take it, no matter how much research and well-seasoned experience we use to prevent it, … deep down we know there is a degree to which our irrational fears are justified… and an inevitable, almost terrible “wildness lies in wait”… a wildness that doesn’t just trip us later, but trips us even now …and on those things about which we feel most certain.

And thus at root, all our hard sciences and our hard numbers harbor this notion of uncertainty as the limit of knowledge approaches zero, and the “squishiness” of life remains. And like an amoeba, the cell walls of this squishiness divide, and multiply our divergences into limitless possibilities. We see little of this, but in reality, this “choice” represents an unwitting failure to admit the Heisenberg principle that the demarcation between the observed and observer collapses… or at least remains inherent in the design rather than a separate experience. And then it ocurrs to us to wonder, “Who is the designer of my life? Perhaps there is no separate, there is no “sola”… and this is it: our impact on the waters like that under the bow of a ship is something we mistake as a true divide when in truth it leaves no more than a surface wake. For further back the water eddies and re-conforms to the broader currents, and pulls back around us, even swelling against our hulls and rudders as if pushing us downhill from behind and along our way.

And yet here in our secure tacks where we are most confident and self-assured we find that living life is far more art than science, and understand that science itself is something of an art. And here I witness to my own artlessness, as surely portrayed as a Mondrian paint-toss free-for-all rather than the well-framed, perfectly executed Turner landscape I profess. For no matter what anyone might say of his painting, Turner at least knew when he was done, and would turn, pack it up, and walk away while the others continued their “corrections”. By contrast, I find I’ve only begun to understand how I am un-done…. or can’t be done… at least not alone. And were this a canvass of oils… the mess could clean up – and even if muddied, might be painted over once hardened. Yet it seems here far more as if the canvass becomes an ink and watercolor wash where the stains and errors show themselves happily to their advantage in others… but less so the closer we turn to gaze back upon ourselves.

And so it is that I become keenly aware of how much I miss the saintly mark, so close upon Pascha, so close upon Bright Week and its happy seeming respite from repentance.. and here am I.. all but dulled again…and ready for another ride, but lacking the terseness, the immediacy and virtue of St. Mark.


  1. you said: And yet here in our secure tacks where we are most confident and self-assured we find that living life is far more art than science,

    Amen. I think life is also experimentation…and sometimes it really does blow up in our faces… and sometimes in that chaos we make grand discoveries.

    I don’t quite understand what you’ve written here, but I did like that statement.

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