Tag Archives: Kerouac

Emptiness is Abundance

“The most expressive form of art today in connection with religion might be sacred emptiness; an emptiness which does not pretend to have at its disposal symbols which it actually does not have. In all realms of life today we must have some emptiness. … On the basis of a preliminary sacred emptiness, something may develop.”

-Paul Tillich

I believe in the desert. I go there perennially, to remind myself how much I believe. Last weekend, I went out to Joshua Tree, which is a desert National Park about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. It’s a vast, empty, preserved land of rocks, cactus, desert flowers, and lizards. And it’s in my backyard—just an hour away from one of the most hectic, crowded, chaotic cities in the world.

It’s desolate. There’s really not much to see out there. No waterfalls, no amazing mountains, no grand canyons. There is hardly any water anywhere. And it gets hot.

But oh is it beautiful. On a cool spring morning, when the heat is still at bay and the smog hasn’t yet wafted in from L.A., it’s as clear and clean and magnificent as just about anywhere on earth. I can see why U2 named an album after the place.

It’s a place that makes one forget that the world is abuzz just miles down the highway, that there are outlet malls and casinos and Rat Pack mansions down in the valley (Palm Springs). It’s a place that reminds you that flowers can grow in the unfriendliest climates, out of chalky moon dirt that sees rain maybe 8 times a year. Above all, it’s a place that reminds you that there is beauty is the desolate and abundance in emptiness. There is so much inferred in the lack.

In terms of how we live, what we long for, and what we find beautiful—so often the nexus of it is something that is absent. Absence drives our existence more than just about anything. Absence, I suggest, galvanizes us in our protestations against apathy, malaise, and debilitating continence. It gives us a reason to be passionate, to burn brightly and agonize over things like truth and beauty. It gives us hope; and we need hope.

It is no coincidence that so many of our great art works and stories summon the glories and beauty of days gone by, or envisage other worlds, or invoke the images and destinies of what might be (horizons, open roads, the unknown future). All of this is about the beyond: something absent and thereby unbound by our mortal limitations. As Jack Kerouac writes of his restless journey in On the Road, “It was always mañana. For the next week that was all I heard—mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.” We live for mañana, for tomorrow, for in our minds, tomorrow can be anything.

One of my favorite pieces of art is The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In that book (which I read every April), mañana is embodied in a green light that flashes from the dock of Daisy Buchanan—a light that Gatsby watches from across the bay, pining for something that remains absent in his life, despite his many successes. “It had gone beyond her, beyond everything,” Fitzgerald writes. “He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

For Gatsby, the green light was not really about Daisy, for she was just as mortal and flawed as him. His ambitions, like every human’s, were ultimately pointing toward that which could not be satiated within himself, or within another person, or with anything in this life. The green light is forever absent in this material world. And yet it still flashes, constantly, through the fog and across a vast expanse. It beckons us to look toward it, to look beyond, to see that the land it sits on is absent, but the light shining from it is present in our world, gleaming in our eyes and illuminating the darkness.

As we approach Easter, one of the most beautiful images of absence that I have been meditating on it that of the empty tomb. Like a sunset, this image is simultaneously joyful and tragic—joyful because it symbolizes a resurrected Jesus, tragic because it is a tomb: we see ourselves (and everyone we love) in it someday. When Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus first encountered the angel and the empty tomb, their immediate reaction was confusion and fright. Had someone stolen the body of Jesus? What was going on? But, as with so much in this life that appears stark and hopeless, there was a silver lining. Jesus was alive. There was hope through their tears, a holy reassurance in His absence. As the women fled the scene, they were “afraid yet filled with joy” (Matthew 28:8, TNIV)—and I wonder if this kind of joy isn’t the best kind there is. Joy amid fear, amid uncertainty, amid absence.

Art should not shy away from those things we associate with absence—loss, sadness, depravity, uncertainty. For without absence, there would be no reason for art. Art comes from the heart, and every human heart is like that empty tomb on Easter morning: missing something.

What is America, Anyway?

Every Fourth of July I get a little nostalgic. I also get patriotic, but mostly it’s just nostalgic. Can you relate? I think most of us can. This grand holiday is at once a momentous celebration of American independence, a celebration of American history and culture, but also a day of memories. In fact I’d say that more than 50% of my day this Fourth of July will be spent thinking fondly back to the various Independence Days of my youth, and this is not in the least a sad or pathetic thing.

I’ll be thinking back to the summers in Oklahoma when the neighborhood kids would get together and set off fireworks on someone’s driveway, when we’d prance around under the humid summer moon, sparkler in one hand and melting popsicle in the other.

Or I might recall the various summers I spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Colorado, when the whole family was there, eating homemade vanilla ice cream and apple pie, waiting for me and my cousins to perform Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American” (complete with hand motions!).

Then there was the Fourth of July my family and I spent in San Francisco, watching fireworks explode over the Golden Gate bridge, or the year I was in Boston, watching fireworks on the banks of the Charles River, Boston Pops playing in the background. Or the insanely hot Fourth of July my family and I spent in New York City, watching an afternoon ballgame at Yankees Stadium, baking in the upper deck as peanuts and hot dogs and beer sizzled in the July heat.

And I remember one time, the summer after the Persian Gulf War (I think it was 1991), we neighborhood kids in Broken Arrow (Oklahoma) marveled as a local war veteran shot off some special “scud missile” firework. That was such a quick, clean, wonderful war. It was one we could name fireworks for.

I’m not sure Fourth of Julys are ever really about patriotism, at least not as much as they are about family, and the glory of summer, and the making of memories. And perhaps above all it is a holiday about time… It’s a day that celebrates America’s past, which is a rarity for a country that so thrills in the future. But it’s also a day that lets us stop what we’re doing and sink into the present, losing ourselves in the mesmerizing flashes in the sky, the Sousa marches, the barbecues.

It’s a day that captures what is ineffably American, and it has nothing to do with trite slogans (“United We Stand!”) or Gap flag shirts. It has much more to do with the sorts of complexities pointed out by people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who described in The Great Gatsby how the “fresh, green breast of the new world … pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the first time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

It has to do with Melville’s whale, or Hawthorne’s letter “A,” or Bob Dylan’s harmonica. It is crystallized in Citizen Kane’s Rosebud sled, or the moment in Badlands when Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen dance in the cold prairie darkness to Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell.”

It has to do with loss, and grace, and all that is good and bad about man’s ambition in the world. And perhaps Jack Kerouac captures it most clearly in his drug-addled prose in On the Road:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”

I’m not really sure what any of this means, just like I’m not really sure what America means—especially these days. But I do know that things don’t have to be crystal clear or black and white (or red, white and blue) in order to be beautiful. We can and should be thankful for this country, for our place in it, even if we don’t always understand it.