Saturday, November 27, 2010

How Travel Is Like a Science Fiction Novel

The key to any good science fiction novel is that something really weird happens to the protagonists. The normal method for this weirdness to occur usually involves something that would be really cool if it was actually real—like time travel, a wormhole, or high-speed travel to a distant planet. Or you can have all three, if some silly aliens are involved. If one has read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then this might make a little bit of sense.

See, at the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the main character’s planet (Earth) is destroyed by aliens. At that point, he has to move. And so it is with travel. You’re not at home anymore, so you might as well go somewhere else. Chances are you get into some sort of vehicle which hurtles you forward at speeds that will almost certainly kill you if something goes terribly wrong. So what do you do? Well, you don’t panic, and you hope you’re carrying a few extra towels, or at least a change of clothes. Sure, everyone you come into contact with is at least slightly crazy, but at least you’re not panicking.

Or sometimes travel is more like an Isaac Asimov story. Maybe you’re traveling to a place you have never been to before and you face an I, Robot dilemma. Really, how were you supposed to know that these new people had the potential to be as intelligent as you? In the end, however, you realize that all you have to do is find the main computer and unplug it—or at least hope they let you check out of the motel without any hidden fees or costs. Again, don’t panic.

And if you suddenly find yourself traveling into Frank Herbert’s Dune, don’t worry about it. If you come across some weirdoes that are addicted to some unusual local substance, it may not be that bad. After all, they know how to ride the sandworms, instead of being eaten by the monsters. Just explain to them how you are actually their prophesied leader, and all will be well. They probably won’t kill you.

So the next time you travel, take some sci-fi books with you to read. Sure, maybe you won’t get any great or profound insight about traveling by reading books about unreal things, but at least you won’t be bored. And most importantly, you won’t feel the need to panic.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lumen's Shadow

We rushed through the meadow
To the poetry house.
Rising up from the center a light
Shined into the sky.
Or perhaps, we hoped,
The light shone down.

Up the porch we ran.
Through the door and into the rooms,
We frantically searched the rustic setting.
The source of the light
Was not apparent,
But we found a hole in the floor.

We went into the basement,
Up from which we had seen the light
Through the hole.
And in the basement we found
A man holding a flashlight
Pointed at the sky,

Like a fool.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mr. Cheshire's Voice

There was a cat
Reclining on a bed,
Listening to human words
That were somehow unfamiliar.

And so to keep up with the times,
The cat voiced its opinion.
And though few noticed,
There was one polar bear

That came running around the corner,
Waving its claws in response.
The cat sprang up,
Back arched,

And went running down the hall.
It ran into a table,
Knocking over a vase of laurels,
Ending a less persecuted age.

And therefore it was,
With nowhere left to hide,
That the cat ended up in a corner—
The polar bear's roaring laughter drawing near.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Shabbat VII

And into the city came the flood and it wouldn't stop.
In came the water, suffering the fools,
Having no mercy on the righteous,
And what could they do to stop it?

"Close the city doors!"
Someone cried,
As the flood entered and ripped away houses.
Doors were in the streets with trees
And chairs and children.
"Someone shut the gate!"

So the guards strained and pulled
Against the flood, but the rush of flow
Was too much for their quickly wearying bodies.
They became tired.
"We need rest," they said.
And rest they were given.

A flash of light, a snap of the ropes,
And the flood was stopped.

And the people went into the street to gather the bodies,
Free at last from victimization
At their own hands.
For they had seen the flood coming and left the doors open.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Broken Cisterns, Pt. 3

After lunch I slowly walked home. It had been a nice meal at a small restaurant, and the conversation had been friendly. The entire time, I could not help but think of the envelope in my pocket. The cliché was true: it became heavier the longer I held it.

As I sat in front of the flames in my fireplace—created this warm spring day only for the purpose of burning the letter—I slowly and carefully opened the envelope. I had not decided yet whether to read it or not, but it seemed then as if I ought to. I would destroy the letter, for Jonny’s sake, but how could I let it go without being read?

Inside the envelope was one sheet of paper, folded into thirds, with writing on one side. I unfolded the paper to read the text. The words, formed in black pen ink, were written in a compact yet looping hand.
It read:

How are you? I am well, and sorry that I have not written back to you sooner. But it was not because I didn’t want to. In fact, I just got your letter today, even though you sent it over a month ago. So I am writing back as soon as possible.
I think I am not ready to answer some of the questions you asked me in your letter, but I will keep them in mind, my friend.
In the meantime, I am thinking of other things for us to discuss. My sister is here with me right now (she says ‘hi’) and she reminded me of how you used to talk about starting a school some day. I know you never talked with me about it very much, but I still think that would be a great idea! I don’t know how we would ever do it, but why not try, right? I would be glad to help you start it and run it, if we ever got that far. I guess this sounds a bit crazy, but it is such a neat idea! I really think it would work.
What else to talk about? I am reading my bible more these days. I don’t know what I should read, though. You always seem to have a good recommendation. I read the first chapter of Jeremiah earlier, but stopped when I got to chapter two. It was interesting, but kind of boring too. So what do you think I should read next?
Well, I cannot think of anything else to write at the moment, Jonny, so I will keep this letter short. (Easier for you to write back to sooner.) My sister says hello again and to be safe. So be blessed, and I hope to hear from you soon!

Your Friend,

I read the letter a second time. I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud at the irony of it all, and then carefully threw the paper and envelope into the fire. As the yellow-orange flames quickly combusted the paper into water and carbon, I tried to forget about what it had said. My mind refused to forget though, because Jonny would never know what he had missed. That is, unless this Eliana randomly tried to contact him some day. But knowing how path leads to path in life, I doubted the road should ever return this way. As I stared at the fire which was warming the room to an intolerable temperature, I could not determine if the situation called for weeping or further laughter, so I did neither. I sat like this for some time, and then there was a knock on the front door.

I stood up and walked to the window. I peeked around the pale brown curtains and saw Kerah standing there, so I opened the door.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” I answered. “Please, come in.” Kerah, arms crossed loosely over her stomach, took a few steps inside as I held the door open. “What brings you here?”

She had no prelude, no preamble, and no excuse. “Did you read the letter?” she asked quietly, looking me in the eyes.

I considered denying knowledge of a letter, but figured there was no good in that.
“Yes, a little while ago.”

“What did it say?”


Kerah nodded her head and looked away. She had a sad look in her eyes when she turned back to ask, “Do you still have it?”

“I burned it,” I said, pointing vaguely toward the fire.

She nodded again and stared at the door, which I still held open for some reason. I asked, “How did you know I had this letter?”

She hesitated, but said, “I’ve known Jonny had this letter tucked in his bible for several months. At first, I was slightly upset that he kept it there. But I realized that he was not going to open it, and almost began to feel sorry for him. He has talked about this girl and is sad not to know her anymore. He would deny being sad, for my sake, but he misses her.”

“He loves you,” I said out of obligation.

“I know,” she said, relief suddenly flooding her face. “And I resisted for these several months to open the letter when he wasn't looking. But he also resisted opening it, though I don’t know why.”

“I don’t know why either.”

“What did it say?”


She nodded once again and said, “I should go now, before Jonny suspects something.”

She laughed, and I laughed too. She walked out the door into the warm spring evening. We waved goodbye to each other and I closed the door.

I went back to my place in front of the fire. The letter was completely consumed and I tried not to imagine all the trouble it could have caused, had it been read by either Jonny or Kerah. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how things would be if they had. Sometimes answers are exactly where we don’t want to look for them. Maybe that’s why the water seems to keep on falling, from our broken cisterns and from our eyes.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Broken Cisterns, Pt. 2

It was a year later when I saw Jonny again. He never came to the Monastery anymore, and I eventually decided to find out what had happened to him. He had started a school after all, and it was set up in a small, old church on the south side of town. I came to the old church on a warm, rainy Wednesday, and saw from the sign outside that I was just in time for class. As I walked into the long, dusty room I saw the tables and chairs formed in neat rows, facing the far end of the room where there was a small, brown desk and one of those whiteboards on wheels. Jonny was alone in the room, sitting at the desk and reading the Holy Bible, so I went up to him.

As I came close, he looked up from the book and stared into my eyes, much the same way he had back in the Monastery. “Hello,” he said, giving me a smile which seemed forced. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Good to see you too, Jonny.” I paused, and he played with the pages of the book as he waited for me to continue. “The sign outside said there would be classes right now. Where is everyone?”

Jonny shrugged. He sat still then, staring past me, with a distant expression on his face. “Nobody came today. It’s all voluntary, of course, so some days nobody decides to show up.”

“How many days per week do you have classes?”

“Twice a week; on Saturdays and on Wednesdays, in the afternoon.”

“Do people normally show up?”

“They showed up in decent numbers at first, but now only half of them come on Saturdays, and almost none on Wednesdays.”

“Why don’t they come anymore? Did they get bored?”

“They always said it was interesting, and they seemed to read what I asked them to, for the most part. Although, I can always tell when they are about to stop showing up. They are the ones who have not read everything, or not read very closely.”

Jonny stood up from his seat and walked over to an open window, where sunlight streamed in. He put his hand on the sill and began tapping his fingers.

“So does Kerah help you run the school?”

He did not turn from the window as he answered. “Yes, she helps a lot. She teaches one class every two weeks, and I always talk with her about whatever we are studying.”

I nodded my head even though he didn’t see it. He was in no mood to talk, it seemed, but I did not feel like abandoning him too quickly. I walked over to his desk and looked over what he had been reading. I asked, “Is this what you were going to go over today?”

He finally looked away from the window. “Yeah, we are studying Jeremiah this week.”

“You are on the page where it talks about broken cisterns,” I said. “The same thing we talked about last year at the Monastery.”

“I’ve been thinking about it again.”

“Find anything new?”

“No, just what we already suspected.”

“And what is that?”

“That we always make ourselves broken cisterns.”

“True, but we don’t have to be broken cisterns, if we are well made.”

He shrugged and tugged on the sleeves of his shirt. “Still, nothing we make for ourselves can hold water, like this school.”

“Ah, surely it’s not that bad, Jonny.”

“It’s a lot of work to keep putting the water back into the cistern every time it falls out.” He returned his attention to the window, and I didn’t feel like saying anything more on the subject.

I began paging through his bible and finally came to the back cover. I wasn’t careful enough, and an envelope just inside the cover fell out onto the desk. I picked it up, saw it was still sealed, and turned it over to see the addresses. It was to Jonny from the girl he had been waiting to hear from. I looked at the postmark and saw it was from the previous spring.

“When did you receive this?” I asked.

His eyes looked tired when he returned his attention to me from the window. He briefly glanced at the envelope and said, “Last spring. The day after we met at the Monastery, actually.”

“Why didn’t you open it?”

“Didn’t feel like reading it. I was too busy, helping Kerah start the school and such. And I don’t want to read it now.”

“Why not? Well, it is too late now to respond to anything in it, but why not see what it says anyway? And why didn’t you feel like reading it? If I recall correctly, you were waiting rather impatiently for this.”

“Yes, but then I didn’t want it anymore, after the Monastery.”

“And you haven’t seen her since then?”


“Well, why don’t you read it now anyway? Who knows what it could say?”

He sighed and said, “That’s the problem. I’m afraid of what it might say, now that I’m going to marry Kerah.”

“I see. When are you going to marry her?”

“At the end of the summer.”

“Well then, if you are afraid of what this letter might say, why do you keep it?”

Jonny waved a hand at the letter. “I don’t want to keep it, and I should just get rid of it. You can have it if you want. I don’t care if you read it, as long as you don’t tell me what it says.”

I looked at the letter in my hands for a few moments, not sure whether I should take it. “Well, I don’t….”

“No, please take it,” said Jonny, holding a hand up towards me. “Do whatever you want with it, but please take it. If I kept it, I would try to burn it, but I don’t know if I could bring myself to do that.”

“Well, then I'll burn it for you, Jonny.”

“Thank you,” he said.

The doors opened then, and Kerah walked in. Jonny glanced at my hands before turning to smile at the young woman, so I stuffed the letter into a pocket in my jacket.

Kerah noticed me standing there, and after a moment recognized me. “Hello,” she said without any shyness.

“Good to see you again,” I replied.

“No one showed up again today, Jonny?” she asked him.

“Not a single person, except our friend here.”

“That’s too bad. This is the third time in three Wednesdays. Maybe we should really think about meeting only once a week.”

Jonny sat down at the desk again and said, “Maybe.”

Kerah looked sad and about to say something to him, but she instead turned to me.

“Well, since no one seems to be showing up, maybe we should all go out to lunch.”

I nodded slowly and said, “I am willing to do that, since I haven’t had anything to eat today since breakfast.”

Kerah turned to Jonny, her eyes asking him the question, and he said, “Yes, let’s go get something to eat. I’m hungry too.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Broken Cisterns, Pt. 1

I walked into the Monastery on the hill and scanned the opening hall and the chairs that lined the old stone walls. This was a restful place, with small plants gracing the narrow hallway to please the eyes. I came here often, at least once a week, to sit in the quiet hall and read the newspaper. On this day, I was glad to see a friend of mine sitting in a chair about halfway down the hall. I walked over to him, feeling comfortable doing so, as he was sitting in the same place as I had first met him.

“Hello, Jonny,” I said, and he turned his face toward me upon hearing his name.

When Jonny looked me in the eyes, it was not with enthusiasm or liveliness, but with certainty. He was a young man, and yet he gave the impression that he had knowledge. I sat in the chair opposite his and watched his right leg bounce steadily as he tapped his fingers on the armrest with the same rhythm. The yellow school bag on the floor at his feet was partially open, and a copy of the Holy Bible was falling out.

“Did she write back to you yet?” I asked him.

Jonny stopped tapping his fingers and plainly said, “No.” He turned his head to the wall past my shoulder and rested his chin on his palm. “I wish she would, but things are simpler when she doesn’t.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jon, she’s probably busy.”

Jonny tugged on the front of his shirt with his other hand as if the room was warm, which it wasn’t. He finally stopped bouncing his leg and looked at my face again, smirking. “I won’t worry about it. There are more important things to think about, even if I don’t think about them.”

“Like what?”

“Like life, and such things. I was reading the other day, and there was this one interesting thing I read. It talked about broken cisterns, and how they can’t hold water.”

“One of two evils,” I said, knowing the passage he meant from Jeremiah. I quoted, “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”

“Yeah,” Jonny said, “and I’m not sure which one is worse.” He stopped resting his head in his hand and continued bouncing his leg and tapping the fingers of his right hand on the armrest. I said nothing in response, and he kept looking me in the eyes before immediately averting them. Finally he said, “Her sister knows me too well.”

“Why do you say that?”

Jonny drew his eyebrows down momentarily. “I don’t ever talk to her, but I think she knows me and who I am.”

“Why is that bad?”

“It’s not. It’s just that it worries me when I think about it. How can someone know another person so well if they never talk to them?”

“You worry too much, and you are forgetting to remember who holds your heart.”

Jonny turned his head completely away from me and again stopped bouncing his leg and tapping his fingers. He gave a brief, dry laugh, and shifted his weight in the chair. “I’m not worrying, and it’s not her that holds my heart anyway. We are all broken cisterns, so how could she hold my heart, even if I asked her to?” He looked me in the eyes as he finished his question. He had surprisingly gray eyes, but today they seemed particularly gray. Not gray like storm clouds, but like a night time fog.

I did not say anything more, and a few minutes passed in silence, during which I unfolded the newspaper and pretended to read. He pulled a cell phone out of a pants’ pocket and glanced at it. “I need to go now,” he said.

“Good to see you again,” I said.

He nodded as he bent down to zip up his bag, pushing the Holy Bible inside. He stood up slowly, slinging the bag over his shoulders, and walked away into the Monastery with a half-hearted “See ya.”

I began to earnestly read the paper, but found nothing particularly interesting. There was some stuff about wars, and some stuff about the economy too. There was even a strange article about a man who was told by his doctors that he only had six weeks to live, so he gave away everything that he owned, only to be told the next week when he went to see the doctors that the tests were wrong. He was going to live after all.

After about twenty minutes, I heard the doors open at the end of the hallway which led further into the Monastery and saw Jonny walk out. I put down the paper and looked at him. His expression was downcast, and he flopped down into the chair opposite mine, letting his bag drop to the floor.

“What happened?” I asked.

He stared at the floor somewhere to the right of my feet and said, “They won’t let me join.”

“You want to join the Monastery?”

“Yeah, I thought I might, but they said it wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t want to commit to all of their rules.”

“Well, that seems fair.”

Jonny looked at me, brows drawn further down than before. He slowly began tapping the fingers of his right hand on the armrest and looked away again, sighing heavily. “They said they would want me to forget about her.”

“Surely you knew they would want that.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t want to hear it when they finally said it.”

“She will write back to you.”

Jonny shrugged and turned his face towards me, anger no longer showing through. “What if she doesn’t write back? I think about that a lot, you know. That’s why I wanted to join the Monastery, in part.”

“Maybe you should join the Monastery anyway.”

Jonny laughed. “What for?”

“To serve, of course. That’s why you read that book so much, right?” I pointed at his bag.

He stared at me emotionlessly. “Yes, that’s why I read that book so much.”

I chose not to say anything else just then, but instead looked down at the paper and thought about Jonny’s case. He wanted to hear from that girl he wrote to, but I could not remember why. He probably loved her or something, and wanted her to say the same to him. That could explain a lot, but he was still acting strangely.

He spoke up again and said, “If it comes to finding a way to serve, then I could probably find something better to do.”

“Yeah, probably. Have you ever thought about doing anything else?”

He smiled and said, “I always thought it would be cool to start a school. Not a school like every other school that teaches math and English and history, but a school that teaches about that book.”

“They already have schools like that.”

“Yeah, I know, but I’ve never talked to anyone else who sees things quite like we do, where I go.”

“That’s true, Jonny.”

He nodded and appeared to almost be staring through the wall behind me. I figured he was deep in thought. His leg started bouncing again and he began chewing on his bottom lip. After a few minutes of this he stood up and declared, “I have to go call someone.” I nodded and he walked out of the Monastery, leaving his yellow bag lying on the floor.

I went back to my paper and waited for him to return. It seemed like nearly an hour before he returned, but it was hard to be certain as I was not wearing a watch.

He picked up his bag without sitting down in the chair. “I called an old friend of mine,” he said. “She and I have talked before about starting a school like this. Always seriously, but never really thinking it could happen. But why can’t it happen? It would be a good thing, I think, and we could get people to come to it.”

“Yes, I’m sure you could,” I said.

He nodded his head gladly and said, “She lives near here, so she is going to meet me outside in less than an hour. Until then, I’m just going to wait outside. It’s a nice day, you know. Come and join me if you want to.”

I said that I would, and we both walked out of the Monastery into a sunny midmorning light. The spring air was warm, and before long I took off my jacket. We talked about a lot of things while he waited, but mostly about this young woman who was a friend of his. He told me she was nice and that I should stick around to meet her, so I did.

She approached the front of the Monastery with a smile on her face. She appeared to be about the same age as Jonny, but with a prettier face than his, and longer brown hair. Jonny introduced her as Kerah, and I listened as they began to talk.

“So, you really want to do this?” Jonny asked her.

Her smile broadened into a grin. “Yes,” she said.

“Well then, how shall we start?”

“I suppose we should go somewhere to discuss it, if you want to.”

“Yeah, where do you want to go? No reason to keep standing around here.”

She looked thoughtful and said, “I don’t know; where do you want to go?”

He shrugged and didn’t say anything, she just kept looking at him thoughtfully, and I eventually looked the other way.

At last, Kerah said, “Well, I’m hungry, so we might as well find someplace where there's food.”

“Yes, in town somewhere,” said Jonny. He looked at me and I smiled back. I thought he was about to invite me, so I pre-empted his attempt.

“I think I should head back home. Somehow, I’m always ready to return home after visiting the Monastery.”

Jonny relaxed visibly, probably in relief. We all said goodbye, then I walked away in one direction and they walked away in the other.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

In Praise, the Insufficiency of Words

Why should one strive and struggle to write words
That sound so very superfluously good,
When all they mean to do is praise their Creator?
Create an image, they say—
But the image I see is infinite.
All the trees of the forest
Condense into a single point in a single instant
And then explode into an ever-expanding reality.

And in it, here I am sliding about,
Not only amongst the trees,
Because it's not only the trees,
But also amongst all the images,
Everything that is made up of shadow.
Exploding from the point comes an intense light
That has such luminosity as I might be blinded
As it washes away my mind.

But the beauty is that I know this light
Is merely a shadow of something grander,
Something deeper, something thicker,
Something fuller, something more.
And so why should one struggle to write words that can never show
The deep inner gravity of everything true,
The full assurance of something that cannot be changed,
Or the inner solemn joy I have?