Ok, so here I go again, posting something that I wrote a couple of months ago. But on a recent beautiful trip down the river, an article started bubbling in my brain, but I realized that this one brings bring context to that one, so I’ll post this first and as I have time, give way to the urge to write the other one that’s forming in my mind.
I’m not sure when it all began. Perhaps it was when I read the book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, an unlikely book to inspire any kind of change. Or perhaps it was when I started traveling past my mailbox into the great unknown. I really don’t know. But sometime along the line it happened.
I’m not exactly sure what happened. But whatever it was, it did happen. Or it started to.
I know. That doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t really make sense to me either.
In the book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, a man travels through time and ends up in King Arthur’s era, and is quickly awakened to the reality of medieval times, which was not the glamorous fairy tale setting usually pictured of that time. Instead of noble knights in shining armor rescuing beautiful, intelligent maidens and sacrificing their noble lives for noble causes in a noble manner, the knights were actually fat, belching, lazy, impotent hobbledehoys, whose only passion was themselves. Not your typical fairy tale. But it probably was a more accurate picture of that era than many books are.
Our lives are filled with fairy tale fascinations, dreams of the past and of the future, heroes in shining armor, always gazing out past the dreary existence of our own lives and seeing with hope (in what?) of another place, a place where dreams come true.
Dreams are good. Let me clarify that-some dreams are good. I was a dreamer. I still am. Before I finally came to the realization (around the age of 14 or so) that you can actually listen to the ministers on Sunday, church was my primary place to dream. While well-meaning preachers thought my rapt gaze and attention was on them, I was off on my own, constructing worlds where I was the hero, the lady in shining armor, rescuing slaves after slavery had once again been allowed in my imaginary America, getting captured by cruel men and held in prison before escaping through the barred window with sheets made into ropes or parachutes (I forget which), being persecuted by Chinese police in green coats, or on my deathbed with pneumonia, as my friends crowded around apologizing for all the wrongs they had done me. In school, I would read about Ping in China, Nils in Finland, or Carlos in Mexico and research all I could on American Indians, regretting that I was born 150 years too late, too late to make it onto a wagon train headed for Oregon, too late to be an abolitionist ranting against slavery, and too late to head up into Yukon Territory to stake a gold claim like Jason did in Jason’s Gold.
I’m not saying that those dreams were bad. They helped foster an adventurous spirit that sometimes takes on more it can handle because it never stops to think that in real life this just might be too much. (That’s when it’s the grace of God that carries me.) But slowly I am coming to the realization that so much of the life I have lived has been lived in a dream, in a shadow.
We all do it, building castles in shadowlands to escape reality, some more than others and all to different degrees and in different areas. Some are doing it with the American dream, the fallacy that they can carve out a life for themselves in their own strength and that someday, once they are on the top of the ladder, they can stop working and happiness will finally be there to greet them. The sad thing is, they often actually do find themselves at the top of the ladder and that is a lonely place to be indeed. Some people live their life in the past, collecting relics and weaponry from ancient times and spending thousands on antiques and the like. Our hobbies can become our castles, places where we can escape from lives that are deathly boring. Museums do it, with simulated educational displays that show shadows of what really is reality. We live in a plastic world of video and computer games which only mirror what really is out there. We see this carried out in advertising all the time…. “Wear this kind of clothing and you will be beautiful and popular.(fulfill this dream)” “Buy this truck and your smile will look like this and your muscles will look like this and all these gorgeous ladies will hang around you all the time.(fulfill that dream)”
Please excuse me while I go throw up.
I do my castle building in various ways. When I was younger, I read with fascination all the books I could on other countries, wishing with all my heart that I could live in Mexico and go trading with Carlos, or that I could live on a Chinese junk on the Yangtze River with Ping, or tap a nail like Nils did in Finland to magically become small and live in a mouse hole with his friend. Life around the world was so much more interesting than my humdrum existence!
But it is changing. When someone looks at your own life with fascination, believing you live in a utopia-like world of quilts and horses and buggies and hand-crafted furniture, where families are always happy and all is slow-paced and predictable and peaceful, it makes you think several times when you look into the “fascinating” cultures of the lives of people around the world.
After spending more than 8 months in Asia, a little more of the fairy tale fascinations have left me. (Somebody help me! I’m growing up!) The beauty of the Orient has now become real, but so has the ugliness. Instead of hazy figures dressed in exotic costumes and living a surreal lifestyle like I dreamed they would, these are real people. They have real hurts. They have real needs. They do not see anything exotic about themselves.
Instead of numbers and vague figures when I now think of these people, I see the girl with lustrous black eyes mirroring an ocean of pain. I see the crippled beggar at the night market, helpless and unable to walk on his own. I see the tears of the bar girl, crying out her sorrow because the man that she thought actually loved her left her in the lurch. I see the dark almond shaped eyes of the little girl who has no father and whose mother is no more than a girl herself. I see the desperation of the
girl who wants to learn English in order not to enter the slave-like existence of the factory worker like her mother and father before her. These people are real.
If someone would have told me that I would write something like this years ago, I would have stoned them for false prophecy. Indeed, it almost feels heretical to say that I don’t need the dreams or castles that I had. Because we’re supposed to dream aren’t we? I still do. (North Korea anyone?) And I hope I never lose the wonder and the fascination of God’s world and the people he created.
The dreams I lived in before were enough. But they no longer suffice. Our world is a synthetic world of substitutes. We substitute fun for joy, money for happiness, dreams for reality, simulated displays and games for the real thing. Those things are merely shadows, the wrapping that points to what is actually inside the gift, the gift of reality. Why do we so often content ourselves with playing around with the wrapping and never open the gift?
I don’t know. Because once we taste a bit of reality, we are no longer content to feed ourselves on the ashes of before. But sometimes, without realizing it, we come back home expecting to fit right back into those dreams, but they no longer fit, and we feel like naked turtles that no longer fit into their shells.
When the expectations we have are stripped away, names and numbers become faces, and the future becomes the present, reality becomes reality.
And sometimes it hurts.
Yet what we see in the real people that we meet is still not the truest reality. The truest reality that exists is God, his truth, and heaven. We were not made for this world, and that is why we hide behind plastic. We were not created to weather life the way we are forced to do, or face the stark pain of life, and that is why we build castles.
Because we were made to live in castles.
Right now we live in the shadowlands of what is the realest reality. We look through a glass that is darkened with soot and sometimes God wipes away a bit of the soot and we glimpse more of what is on the other side and cry out desperately for more of that vision.
Oh God, give us eyes to see!