how to catch a whale

Call me a below average reader. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – I decided to read Moby Dick.

I’m still going.

Moby Dick is itself my White Whale. Several times I have taken up the chase and left off after this Leviathan of a book has escaped my grasp. But not this time.  I have the madness of Ahab on me and I’ll pursue that thing to the grave if need be. It’s not that Moby Dick is a bad book, just that when life gets busy it’s not the first way you choose to unwind after a big day. Leaping astride its preposterous bulk is just the beginning. Still, I have discovered the secret: you can read it for a while and then leave it aside for days, weeks, yea verily even a couple of months and return to it and find you haven’t forgotten anything that’s happened.

Because nothing has.

Ah Ryan, you say, why continue? Why struggle, push, strive, beat and drag yourself on? Why not just curl up on your poo brown lounge with Twilight instead? Or wouldn’t it be better (as suggested by a good friend) to just get the audio book and have done in a mere 26 hours whilst stuck in peak hour? That’d make more sense, right?

No, no, NO! A pox on your shiny pop vampires and new fandangled technomological shortcuts!

For this book is pure delight. A delight I can’t quite put my finger on. The language itself is encrusted with barnacles and sea salt, chilled with the north Atlantic air, but then it’s more than that. Then there’s my till just now unsettling identification with Ishmael, whose itching discontent and simple joy at immersing himself into the world is one with my own. But go on. The book is a journey, a  voyage, is itself an epic. The Pequod’s ponderous pursuit of the white whale across the oceans can’t be rushed. It has to be savoured. Sat with. There’s a depth and breadth to this book’s vision that entices and yet eludes me, like the whale itself eludes Ahab. It appears simple but isn’t. Quickly jet across this ocean to your destination and you’ll miss the richness of the world beneath the surface. And no, kind hearted spoiler, I don’t want to be told.

In its slowness, in its breadth, in its misleading simplicity and its slow pursuit of an elusive object always somewhere out of reach there’s something of life here and I’m loving it. And so today on this 161st anniversary of Melville’s classic I will pick up the Leviathan again and drink it in.

With patience, with determination and maybe just a hint of obsession. That’s how you catch a whale.

life as a cactus

I left them to die. I had to go away for about a week and didn’t have time to deal with them. So I left them in my room, locking the door behind me with the life ebbing out of them. When I arrived home the other day their shrivelled corpses were there slumped by my window.

Marigolds and snapdragons are touchy, sensitive plants. I’ve decided I don’t do ‘high maintenance’. Or maybe I should’ve just put them outside in the sun. I dunno.

I don’t have the greatest track record with plants. OK, OK, I’m a serial killer. This is the reputation I’m garnering among family and friends. Over the years plant after plant has died. The little parlour palm and my Dracaena fragens ‘Massangeana’ I purchased recently also nearly gave up the ghost but lest you think me heartless let me clarify that in their case it was because I cared too much. Those things just wanna be left alone. Preferably in the dark (who am I to judge?). Yet despite almost completely loving the life out of it even the palm looks set to pull through. Ish.

This pathological repressed hatred of all things botanical seems to run in the family. One sibling has long since given up and changed to fake plants urging me, for the sake of any poor vegetation that might otherwise cross my path, to do the same. Meanwhile another sibling, apparently, killed a cactus. Yeah you heard me. I didn’t think those things even could be killed. You may be designed to survive the harshest, most plant hating terrains on earth, but you’re no match for our gene pool.

It was in fact while I was at the nursery picking out my poor doomed garden flowers that a friend actually suggested that I get a cactus.  I declined, long feeling that in their grim, stoic I’m-still-here-come-and-get-me-ism towards the aridity of life and their passive aggressive  stay-the-hell-away-from-me attitude to all other living things, not to mention their plain old squat ugliness cacti are rather depressing plants. Just move somewhere fertile, grow some leaves, look nice and chill out, for crying out loud. Before I could point this out my friend told me the reason I should get one is that they’re the perfect plant for me. Representative. Cheers buddy.

And yet this throw away line, like so many, became a seed planted in my brain. As I contemplated the brown husks of flowers I knew awaited me when I returned home yet being unwilling to concede botanical defeat the seed grew and I decided to embrace the cactus in all its butt ugly glory as my own. Why not embrace the truth? I’m not daisies and dandelions after all (thank goodness), but I’m still here. And though my transformation long ago into a person guarded behind a thick protective, spiky barrier that both I and those I love find so difficult to penetrate has been one of the deepest griefs of my life, sometimes that which causes pain also brings about something good. I’m still here. And I know now what I must do.

And so I write. I have begun and I won’t stop. It takes its time, effort and devotion but the ball point is the weapon I wield, with which I’ll pierce a hole in that tough flesh to let out some of the stuff stored up inside.  It takes time, effort, devotion – but it gives such joy. Drink or not as you wish, just mind the spikes.

So there now sits a little pincushion cactus on my window sill. It’s small and squat, but in a lovable kind of way, and I hear it’s beautiful in bloom. Growth will be very slow, but it will grow.

And it will live.

(Wellllll… then again I sort of tipped it over in the bag as I was walking home. Got all the soil back in the pot but was it naturally growing with that lean when I purchased it? We’ll see).

stories and the story

Each life is a story. And each person, as they go about each day, writes that story of their life. Post modernity told us that we each were free to form the narrative of our lives with our language. Who I will be awaits to be seen,awaits me to form it. But what post modernity never told us, indeed, emphatically denied, was that each one of our life stories might be caught up in a story much bigger than ourselves. That history might not be simply an endless stream of brief flashes-of-life, each its own narrative here for just a moment and then gone forever, meaningful for the one it centred around for the duration of their life and then fading like a mist, but that history might itself be a story playing out to a conclusion.

This is, I feel, a great paradox in the modern day philosophy, perhaps on the wane anyway, that each of our lives is our own truth and story alone, and we form this narrative around ourselves, centred on ourselves, on finding ourselves and finding our place. Because we’re told and believe that this is what we want, but don’t we all have this deep longing to be a part of something bigger than ourselves as well? Isn’t that why, for all our self autonomy we rack up facebook friends, always checking in and getting updated, trying to stay as connected to everything as we can? Isn’t that why we keep going to read and watch those stories of Harry Potter and the Narnia kids and the like, those stories of a world beyond what we can see, of those epic battles between good and evil, and ordinary little people standing in the gap for what’s right? Isn’t that why the more each of us chase that dream of self autonomy and personal fulfillment, the more isolated and fragmented we feel, despite most of us living surrounded by more people than at any time in history?

There is an amazing story stretching from the dawn of history to its end, a story of incredible beauty and ugliness, betrayal, suffering, sacrifice, hope and love, from which all stories draw their existence. A story that catches all our stories up into it and invests them with eternal significance. Much like the Copernican Revolution several hundred years ago shifted people’s view from believing the Sun revolved around them to realising the earth revolved around the Sun, I’m starting to learn slowly to see that who God is and what he’s doing doesn’t revolve around me, but instead the story of my life revolves around his story, finding its centre in a man named Jesus Christ. And contrary to what you might expect, I’m finding great joy there.

It’s the greatest story ever told. You’re not the hero of the piece, and you’re not in control of the plot, but I would definitely recommend giving it a read.