Outside Week: The Wall


I had my son with me for a little while at work today, so when I got a break, I took him out to a large lawn on the other side of the parking lot from my office. I work underground—literally—so some fresh air and sunshine always sounds like a good idea after I’ve been staring at a screen for a couple of hours.

The lawn slopes a tad toward a large white-brick wall, on the other side of which is a jungle-like tangle of plants covering an even steeper slope that leads to a creek.

When I freed my boy from the carrier in which I’d imprisoned him, he ran a few delighted steps on the grass, then headed straight for the wall and tried to climb it.

It’s what I would have done at his age. It’s what I still do, in fact, when faced with similar surroundings.

But why?

My son had a football-field-sized swath of green (proportionally to him, anyway) on which to walk, run, roll, whatever. There were plenty of dead leaves to kick around and crunch, sticks for waving and poking into eyes and nostrils, and little green and white pellets that were probably fertilizer, but looked like candy. But despite this carpet of riches, he focused on the wall.

He’s a bit young for strategy, I think, so I ruled out any desire of his to take the high ground and thereby gain a tactical advantage over his enemies.

Then I had two simultaneous thoughts. Try to read the next two lines as one single, overlapping sentence, to best approximate what was going on inside my head:

It must be our nature to not be content with what we have, to ignore what’s in front of us while we try to escape to what we imagine must be something more and better despite not knowing what it is.


I am amazed at humanity’s fearless urge to explore this world, to not be content with the known and the safe and the carefully manicured and curated, to strive despite ferocious odds against the barriers we see or sense but do not accept.

Yes, I’m that eloquent in my head, even on the fly.

The opposing feelings made me laugh (again, in my head—I probably looked like a crazy person to passersby). Something as simple as my son trying to scale a wall more than double his height made me at once frustrated and proud, for him and for all people.

There is a tension here, in this life. Even at our happiest, I believe, we are still, however slightly, yearning for something more. The Not Yet. We are still looking to what Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia books, would call “further up and further in.” To believe in God—the Christian God, anyway, as I do—is to embrace (or at least be OK with) paradox. This life is great, on the whole, but there’s still something on the other side of that wall. I can be happy and discontent, grateful and dissatisfied. Here and there. Or wanting to be in one. Or the other. Or both.

Faced with such mysteries unfolding unexpectedly in the middle of a workday, I scooped up my son, handed him a stick too long to cause any eye-gouging damage (on himself, anyway), and plunked him on top of the wall. He refused to even sit on it without me holding his shoulders or hips—at first. But he soon raised himself to standing, and, with my help, leaned out over the other side to poke at leaves and branches growing close enough for him to reach.

Then he took my hand and walked the length of the wall, never once looking down at the ground on either side.


Identity Week: By the Pricking of My Thumbs

Identity Week: By the Pricking of My Thumbs

A good friend of ours is throwing a pre-Halloween Halloween party tonight, so—yeah—we’re pretty excited.

My wife and I each brought a costume box into our marriage, and we’ve made good use of the combined fantastical wardrobe over the years. There’s no portal at the back of our closet; Narnia exists within the confined space itself, all corsets and vests, scarves, gauntlets, and boots. We’re equipped for any Renaissance faire, theme party, or theatrical production (not that we find our way into many of the latter, but still), and the collection only continues to expand through thrift shop and garage sale finds.

We have wigs of the powdered, anime, and Rapunzel variety. We each have a cloak. We have items that lace, buckle, snap, and tie, and we like to make use of them.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere in the Shallows that thoughts of trick-or-treating yet to come prompted us to avoid Halloween itself as a wedding date, but we still wanted an excuse to dress up. So we had a masquerade ball a couple of weeks earlier, justifying the theme—not that we needed justification—as a celebration and exploration of identity, considering our debut as a new Us. We chose an overarching appropriate Bible verse to reflect the idea: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” We encouraged our guests to dress however they felt. There were Victorians and Edwardians, pirates and wizards, some medieval folks, and others.

The idea of a new identity, one not worn every day, is so appealing to me. I love acting. I recently began playing Dungeons and Dragons with some friends, which involves roleplaying a character. When I write fiction, of course I try out fresh voices coming from my own throat. And I love dressing up for Halloween. Why is all that?

In years past, I’ve been Hagrid from Harry Potter, Strider (not Aragorn) from The Lord of the Rings, and Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. My wife and I have aimed for literary-related costumes since our first child was born (that year I went out as Edgar Allan Poe, my wife was a pallid Lenore, and our baby was a raven with a “Nevermore” speech bubble Velcroed to her), though the more kids we’ve had and the older they’ve gotten, the more will they’ve exerted when it comes to costume decisions.

Last year, my firstborn chose to be Superwoman, my younger daughter chose Clark Kent, and my baby son was Kal-El (i.e. Baby Superman, being raised by the bucolic Mrs. and Mr. Kent, played by my wife and myself, respectively). As a geek at heart (and every other part), I wasn’t arguing. And we were even still characters from a printed medium, if not literature.

My favorite costumes include the set from three years ago, when we co-hosted a Steampunk Mother Goose party and dressed our eldest as Little Miss Muffet. My wife was a Victorian lace spiderweb wearing our then-baby daughter as a clockwork spider. I was the tuffet.

And two years back, we aimed for Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is as wonderful a book as you could hope for. Ray Bradbury—my favorite, favorite author, from whom I once managed to get a signature on my vintage typewriter—was a master of language in a way that leaves me adoring and jealous, and his story of a dark carnival descending on a small town and the two boys who learn about boyhood, manhood, fatherhood, friendship, life, and death is an amazing seasonal read. It’s an amazing anytime read, but Bradbury particularly breathed October into his tales, and you can smell the woodsmoke and falling leaves on these pages.

The carnival at the heart of the story is dubbed Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, and Mr. Dark is a man with images of his circus performers and sideshow acts inked up and down his arms. He uses the tattoos to manipulate his subordinates.

For the party we threw two years ago year, I obtained photos of many of the expected guests and printed them out on a special tattoo paper my wife had found. Then I transferred their faces onto my arms and hands. My wife was Mr. Dark’s carousel, which bent the age of any rider depending of the direction it spun. My girls were its passengers. We were pretty proud of this one.

Since the party for tonight is Disney (and therefore also Marvel and Star Wars) themed, this year, we’re going the comic route again, per my daughters’ request. Since the oldest wanted to be Firestar and the middle wanted to be Spider-Man, we figured we’d round out the cast of the 1980s cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends by making the baby Iceman. My wife and I are doing our own thing: She’s the evil queen from Snow White, and I’m her mirror. As I’ll be standing next to her, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to lose me now, I’m expecting to get some Justin Timberlake jokes.

Perhaps the best thing about costumes is being able to take them off at the end of an agreed-upon appointed time. It’s like a low-risk identity trial period—not that a costume wearer is necessarily seeking a new permanent identity (especially an evil one). There’s some comfort in wiping off the make-up, unlacing and and unbuckling and unsnapping and untying everything to find yourself still you underneath it all. Kids know that. We should too.

So what are you dressing up as this year?