Friday, July 11, 2014

Summertime Reruns: Swatting the Monkey

Once upon a time, Bonnie and I discussed in conversation certain changes she was making to the manuscript of her not-yet published novel, Fish.  I begged, “please, don’t change your protagonist.”

“What do you like about her?” Bonnie asked.

I explained that I like those times when I strongly suspect the character is clinically insane, but also suspect, just as strongly, that she may be God, himself. Something she says or does suggests a kind of wild love, and a profound knowing that gives me shivers.

Bonnie observed, “You like thin places.”

And I thought , “Of course. Don’t we all?”

Don’t you?

You know what thin places are, right? The ancient Celts used the term to describe places that were both one thing and another, and neither. The slope between the plane and the mountain is not mountain or plane,  and it is both. The shore between the land and the sea. The age between childhood and adulthood.  It was thought that these locations and times were holy places, where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was so thin, you could touch hand to hand with God through the cloth.  I’ve always wanted to touch hand to hand.

And after talking to Bonnie, it came to me that yes, this was exactly why I read.  The books I love are full of thin places, and the ones I don’t love… well, they aren’t.

There’s a book on my shelf, Christian Mythmakers by Roland Hein, that puts a name to this kind of writing. The name - you may have guessed – is “Myth,” and the definition Hein gives to myths is “stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal.” Thin places, those stories that offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien said in On Fairy Stories, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the Walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Joy poignant as grief. Couldn’t you spend a week thinking on that one?

One definition my dictionary gives for the word, “poignant” is “Keenly distressing to the mind or feelings.” I’ll admit, it’s the second definition, the first being simply, “arousing affect,” with little or no negative implications. But the kind of stories I like arouse a kind of joy that is heart-breakingly close to grief. I think that’s why I like the faith aspects of novels to stray into the unexpected. We expect God to peek out through the eyes of Father Flanagan. But when he reaches through the hands of the mentally ill, he touches me in the places of my own neuroses. When he descends on a cloud, that’s impressive, but when he calls through the voice of a broken minister (see Leaving Ruin, by Jeff Berryman), my own broken shards  become puzzle pieces, with at least a hope of wholeness.

It’s why crazyness and brokenness are so vital to a story. As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

We are all children in the inner layers, and we all have our dragons.

I think of a favorite scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, (the first one). Do you remember? A moonlit night, and Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) climbs a rope ladder to board The Black Pearl, even though the ship is overrun with cursed pirates that look like rotting corpses. Just when things are really tense, Jack the monkey confronts her full on, looking like the picture here. You can see what a terrible moment it is. But then it dawns on Elizabeth that this is just a monkey, after all. She gives the creature a look that says as much, swats at him, and he ducks his head and skulks away.

The new testament tells us of a devil defanged, defeated already, no matter what he tries. Oh Hell, where is your victory? Resist him and he will flee from you.

It’s like the story about Martin Luther – which may or may not have happened:  Luther awakes to find the devil himself seated on the end of his bed. He springs upright, prepared to scramble, till he takes a good look and says, “Oh, it’s only you,” and goes back to sleep.

What a story that is! Even if it isn't factual, it's true.

Just as thin places are true. We touch our hand to the veil, and another touches back.

What books are thin places for you? What about the story places your hand on the veil?

Do tell. We love to read what you have to say.


Megan Sayer said...

Oh! Katy I'm so glad you posted this again. I was thinking about this post a few weeks ago, remembering it, with no idea what it was called, or when it was posted, but remembering that it had impacted me greatly and wanting to read it again.
To tell you the truth, that first time I read your third-last sentence - touching the hand to the veil - somewhere in that sentence an image was birthed that led to an opening, that led to the genesis of a novel. I tried to write it back then and ended up realising I needed to let it simmer a while longer. I tried again a few months ago and it's closer, but not there yet. It's kind of comforting, however, to know it's waiting there.
That has nothing to do with anything here...but there you go. Thank you again! Katy I do think you may be my muse... :)

Josey Bozzo said...

Love this post! It made me *sigh* the way I do at the end of books.
Honestly though, it's been a long time since I've read a book with "thin places" in it.
Lately most of what I've been reading is for elementary students. I'm a librarian.
But I'm sure I've had that moment before in books. It's why I read......chasing that moment.

Latayne C Scott said...

This article touched me; poignant in all the best ways.

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, I'm honored to attend the birth of your novels. Thank you.

Josey, some of my favorite books are for children. And I love librarians. And me too: I read for just those moments.

Latayne, your are the master (mistress?) of thin places in literature.