In Arabic poetry, there are four great subjects worthy of the poet: love, song, blood, and travel. Roger Housden writes:
These were considered the basic desires of the human heart, and thus travel was elevated to the dignity of being a necessity for any human being who is truly alive. The Romans felt the same way. Plutarch tells us that before the departure of a ship in stormy weather, the captain would pronounce that “to sail is necessary, to live is not.”
Though I know they aren’t supposed to arrive until early January, my favorite characters in the Christmas story are the Magi, the Wise Men, the Three Who Kings of Orient Were. They are the out-of-towners, foreigners, the mysterious ones, the only ones away from home, and, perhaps, the least likely to end up in the Nativity Scene.
David Lynch has made a new movie, Inland Empire. I heard an interview with him on WBUR, our local public radio station, in conjunction with the screening of the film at a local art house. Laura Dern was also interviewed about her role in the project. She is a regular fixture in Lynch’s movies and was interviewed about her role in the new film. For all the movies that left me intrigued and confused (Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive), he made two of my all-time favorites, The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, both of them about the journey of the discovery of what it means to be human.
For this one, Lynch didn’t begin with a screenplay, but used a consumer-quality digital camera to film scenes as they came to him and then used those as the raw material to construct a movie from the parts, almost like putting a puzzle together without having the picture on the box as a guide. Dern talked about the challenge and frustration of making a movie that way, and about the authenticity it created. “One of the dangers for an actor, when you know where your character has been and where she is going, is to feel as though you need to telegraph some of what is coming to the audience, but life doesn’t work that way.”
The Magi embody what Laura Dern was saying about the daily unknown with which we live: all they knew to do was follow the Star. Our days dissolve one into the other like scenes in a movie, but without a formulaic plot or any indication of what the larger picture is, for the most part. We have very few moments where we can feel the orchestra begin to swell in the background to tell us a dazzling song and dance number is about to begin. We rarely get the kind of split screen effect they use on 24 to let us see what is happening in several different places simultaneously. And we don’t get to see all the loose ends tied up in a heartwarming ending very often. We have way too many scenes that go nowhere. The cosmic, or even existential, significance of misplacing our keys, picking up a box of Cheerios, or hanging up on a telemarketer is rarely unearthed in the movie that is our lives.
My fascination with the Gift-Bearing Bunch has led me to assemble a small collection of poems that look at them from a number of different angles, some even in response to others. (One person put many of them in a sermon here.) This trio that comes cameling in from off-camera with unbelievably odd baby gifts, unnerving kings, and willing to go wherever the Star took them are the quintessential Adventers, even though we ask them to wait until we are through waiting ourselves. They didn’t hear angel choir – or any voices for that matter, they were not steeped in Judaic prophecy; all they had was a light they had to wait until dark to follow. Traversing afar must have been hard enough, but doing it in the cold dark desert night only made it tougher.
In The Straight Story, David Lynch tells the true tale of an elderly man who gets word that his estranged brother is ill and decides to go see him. He can no longer see well enough to drive, so he takes his riding lawnmower cross-country – nine hundred miles – to get to his brother’s house, not knowing how he will be received. The movie is the story of not only his journey, but the journeys he interests along the way. A runaway teenager shows up at his campfire one night and they talk about family. A woman whizzes past him on a country road only to hit a deer not too much father along. Here’s the scene from the screenplay:
EXT.–DUSK RED ROAD HWY 18
Alvin drives up to the woman. Alvin executes his slow dismount. The woman glances briefly at Alvin but barely registers his presence because she is so distraught.
Can I help Miss?
No you can’t help me. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. No one can help me.
Alvin moves around to the front of the car. He notes that the car has quite a few dents. We see that the woman has struck a nice eight point buck. Alvin’s face shows relief. All the while the woman rants and paces.
DEER WOMAN (cont’d)
I’ve tried driving with my lights on. I’ve tried sounding my horn. I scream out the window. I roll the window down and bang on the side of the door and play Public Enemy real loud…I have prayed to St. Francis of Assisi…St. Christopher too, what the hell! I have tried everything a person can do and still every week I plow into at least one deer. What is it?
Alvin shakes his head. She now begins walking around the car, the mower and Alvin. She flails her arms.
DEER WOMAN (cont’d)
I have hit 13 deer in seven weeks driving down this road mister and I have to drive this road every day 40 miles back and forth to work. I don’t know what to do…I have to drive to work and I have to drive home…
She pauses. Takes a deep breath and looks out over the flat landscape. She turns and pats the deer carcass.
DEER WOMAN (cont’d)
She starts to cry.
DEER WOMAN (cont’d)
And I love deer.
She turns and climbs back in her car. She backs up and sprays gravel as she accelerates away. Her front fender falls off and she runs over it. Alvin watches her drive away, then looks down at the deer.
The colorful band of characters that end up at our mangers and mantles had no idea that was where they were going. Much as Laura Dern described, they simply played their daily scenes without knowing much of how they were connected, only that they were. We label our days – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow – to give ourselves the same sense. Yet, how things stack up feels more like the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”:
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself – well . . . how did I get here?
We were breathed into being by the One who hung the Star the Magi followed; by the One we rehearsed the choir that sang to the shepherds; by the One who became fully human from birth to death and beyond; by the One who calls us to mark our days but not try to explain them, to know the Old, Old Story and tell it freshly every time. As W. B. Yeats wrote in his poem, “The Magi”:
Now as at all times I can see the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
Star of wonder, Star of Light, guide us to thy Perfect Light.