A simple discipline for surreal times
Tomorrow I will sink my hands into the dirt.
Planting seeds won’t be a rebellious act of stability against these tumultuous days, and it won’t be a merely practical alternative to the early summer adventure we were hoping to take, though these are good reasons in themselves.
It will be, instead, my simple answer to surreality. With our calendar now bare, workplaces closed, and hard-but-necessary measures being implemented by the hour, the days and dates are beginning to blur together. The continuous headlines and live updates on my computer and phone carry the waiting tension of Kipling’s toad beneath the harrow, who “knows / Where every separate tooth-point goes” (“Pagett, M.P.”). And while the events that have swept like a tidal wave through the past few months have been unprecedented for our generation, I’ve begun to recognize this disconnected feeling that hovers just at the edge of my thoughts.
I know this inward place.
It springs up from uncertainties that have no clearly defined end. This is the echo-chamber where untruths reverberate into deafening shouts, where sunlight and fresh air are shut out.
If the Adversary prowls about like a lion seeking to devour (I Pet. 5:8), in my life I’ve found he does so with smoke and mirrors. Like the spells cast by the Lady of the Green Kirtle in Lewis’s The Silver Chair, the disorientation of an upended world dulls my senses first, and makes way for forgetfulness and insecurity to enter in.
When Eustace Scrubb, Jill Pole, and Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle descend into the underbelly of Narnia, the Witch Queen begins an insidious enchantment to convince them that their own world does not exist — indeed, that it never did. And she almost succeeds. “There never was any world but yours,”[i] the children begin to repeat, overcome by her cloying green fire and musical thrumming.
At certain hours in recent days, my own corner of the world has clouded over as well. I felt a chill creep up and squeeze the warmth out of my lungs on Tuesday, when I arrived at the grocery store as it opened to find the shelves and coolers picked almost clean of produce, canned vegetables, grains, and meat. “There never was any world but mine,” fear seemed to murmur then: a world crammed with projections, rumors, and sobering reports — and the conclusions and feelings of powerlessness that follow in their wake.
To tell the truth, I have never needed a worldwide crisis to hear this whisper. I’ve heard it on a constant basis all my life. But if I have the dubious advantage of knowing surreality well, I’ve also learned that it crumbles when it comes into contact with the stuff of God’s solid earth.
In the face of the Witch Queen’s deception, Puddleglum does a most extraordinary thing: he calls to mind simple, real objects. “But I know I was there once. I’ve seen the sky full of stars. I’ve seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And I’ve seen him up in the midday sky when I couldn’t look at him for brightness.” It is this recollection of the sky, the sun, the sea, and the mountains — of material realities — that jolts everyone from their hypnosis.
I have a small memento from one particularly busy season in college. On a dreary afternoon I dropped exhaustedly into my chair feeling utterly spent and unseen; loneliness mounted as I let my gaze drift across the tabletop — the trees outside the window — the wall. Perhaps, an inner voice suggested, you’ve been forgotten. Perhaps nothing in your service or your friendships has ever mattered enough to be worthwhile. But at that instant, my eyes settled on a small rectangle of paper wedged in a corner of my cork board — a postcard from a friend who had simply wanted to remind me of the love of God — and my restless gaze stilled. I didn’t even lift the card from the frame. For the next minute or so I kept my eyes steadily fixed on it as I talked with my Father, and the voice went away.
I am grateful that my Lord has set a clear precedent for this brand of practicality. Consider the lilies, He says; ponder the baskets of leftover bread; mark the fragrance wafting from a broken flask of nard. Break and eat, pour and drink in remembrance of Me. Somehow concrete things tie us to indestructible truths, making them exceedingly difficult for fear and disillusionment to refute. On occasion these helps break in upon our isolated imaginings, grace-sent — and, at other times, we must choose to find a firm foothold and steady ourselves upon the Great Cornerstone.
At the climax of The Silver Chair, the Witch redoubles her efforts. Her illusion is broken briefly again when Jill mentions the name of Aslan, but again, the Witch lulls them all back into doubt. Finally, Puddleglum gathers the last of his wits and walks over to the fire, grinding it out with his bare webbed foot.
At that precise instant, the Witch’s power dissipates: “For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer.” None more so than Puddleglum’s, whose own mind is shocked back to reality by the very real pain in his foot. No argument or feat of concentration could have worked a better end. And while the Witch meets her demise within a page, this is effectively and decisively the moment of her downfall.
The act of grasping truth amid the muddle of disorientation is, I’m discovering, a discipline. Sometimes the singing of hymns is a potent means toward this end, as is the keeping of short, digestible statements. Sometimes it is necessary to break the cycle of what-ifs with a firm grounding in what is before us, using tangible, tactile things to draw us back to the present moment. Phantom fears lose their menace as we are jarred to attention; concrete items help anchor our imaginations to the hour at hand. These can be as strong as the grasp of a rescuing hand in deep waters — and as blessedly startling as a whiff of burnt Marsh-wiggle.
This weekend at small Ithilien House, therefore, I will push my fingertips into damp soil. I will watch impossibly small black seeds run into the crevices of my palm and try not to lose sight of them as I divide them among the cells of the seedling tray. For all the present turmoil, the boundaries of my life have not actually changed: this body is still destined to perish, bound by the physical laws of a broken earth; it still has a limited amount of time to pour itself out for the love of its King and His people, and to do it without stinting. Memento mori. So I will do what I can: plant these seeds, press them in, and watch for the first green leaves — a miracle that never gets old. I will pray for the flourishing of growth and for fruit to provide for us and many around us, especially if this time of isolation lasts into the summer and the fall.
When that’s done, children and schedule permitting, I’ll sit down in my room for at least five minutes. I will feel the ground under my feet and the beat of a heart that is working, listen to the steady inflation of lungs silently drawing in oxygen, quiet the darting speed of my gaze, turn my head to see the sunlit sky, and give thanks like a child who is learning to receive this day’s provision without demanding to know whence tomorrow’s manna will come.
There I’ll pray that I will rise to an uncertain world with eyes enlivened to the reality before me, starting here. For the underworld of temporary difficulty is not all that exists, not by a long shot — not even with its threats of death. There is a Word and a Person more enduring and more present than these, as solid as the spear-slit scar in His side.
And despite the slow grinding of Time’s wheel and the entropy of the Fall, even the tiniest, wrinkled, cracking seed bears an assurance that the Enemy can neither blot nor smoke out: the promise of God-breathed life prevailing, if I will have Him — right here.
[i] All quotes from Ch. 12, “The Queen of Underland.” C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York, HarperCollins, 2001).
The featured image is (c) Fallon Michael of Unsplash and used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.