Categories
Books Life

Four Thousand Weeks in the Midnight Library

Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library asks: What if you could explore every what-if of your life, specifically those that turned into regrets? How many of your other lives would actually turn out better than your real one?

It’s an intriguing philosophical question that quickly turns personal for the book’s protagonist, Nora Seed, who comes to learn that each book in the titular library—rendered as a kind of metaphysical manifestation of purgatory—represents one of the infinite versions of her life.

Adventures in space-time

The idea of exploring what-ifs through magical realism or sci-fi isn’t new. It’s the narrative foundation of some of my favorite films (It’s A Wonderful Life, Back to the Future trilogy) and other intriguing cinematic counterfactuals (The Man in the High Castle, The Last Temptation of Christ, About Time).

But rather than focusing on (as Doc Brown would call it) one specific temporal junction point in the entire space-time continuum—what if George Bailey had never lived, what if Biff stole the Almanac, what if the Nazis won—The Midnight Library extends its ambit to the many sliding-doors moments in a single life.

Nora is given countless opportunities to choose and experience parallel lives where none of her regrets came to pass. “I stayed with that ex-boyfriend” and “I didn’t give up swimming” and “I pursued my dream of becoming a glaciologist” all get a spin. But none of these supposedly ideal realities live up to her expectations.

While she’s able to shorten her list of regrets—an immensely valuable gift in itself—her pursuit of happiness doesn’t solve the deeper existential crisis that plagues all of us at some point: per Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

4,000 Weeks

That question infuses another of my recent reads: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, an approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and our dysfunctional relationship with it.

I have an extensive list of quotes from the book that make for good ponderin’, but there are three specific ones that would fit right into The Midnight Library. (Synchroncity knows no bounds, temporal or otherwise.)

First, a reality check:

The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

Therefore, Burkeman writes, you have to make choices:

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

And once you do that:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

That “astonishingness” of being alive in the flow of time doesn’t arrive on command. You have to reorient your mind and your attention to create the conditions that allow for it to reveal itself.

In The Midnight Library, that process looks like an anguished young woman replacing her perceived unworthiness with gratitude for mere existence. (Just like George Bailey.)

In Four Thousand Weeks, that looks like embracing temporal limitations rather than resenting them.

And in my life, that looks like treating the things I love—my wife and son and family and friends and typewriter collection and bike rides and movie nights and library books—as the temporary gifts they are, for however long I live.

Categories
Film Life

Memories make us rich

Former Packers columnist Vic Ketchman likes to say “memories make us rich.”

I think about this a lot, but I gave it special consideration during this year’s annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when, at the very end—in arguably the film’s best moment—Harry says, “A toast to my big brother, George, the richest man in town.”

He’s rich because all of Bedford Falls is dumping a veritable fortune on his table. He’s also rich—richer, I’d say—because of who is doing the dumping and why they’re doing it.

George had been offered a similar financial windfall earlier in the film when Potter tried to hire him, but he rebuffed it. Had he decided otherwise, he would have gained wealth of a kind, but also a kind of poverty that no amount of money could cure. He wouldn’t have had the same relationships with all the friends and family and townsfolk who filled his house with a different kind of windfall.

George was rich in the end because he remembered. He remembered the barrenness of his ghostly alternate life where he was never born. And he remembered—suddenly, when he wanted to live again—the meaning of all his family and friends and frustrating failures and small victories that had accumulated into something like a wonderful life.

Clarence Odbody (Angel Second Class) gets the last word in the movie with his book inspiration to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” Remember these friends, he’s saying, not because they’re currently making you rich, but because they already have.

Categories
Film Life

Which movie changed you?

On Being—a top-5 podcast for me—has a new offshoot podcast called This Movie Changed Me, with “one fan talking about the transformative power of one movie.” So far they’ve featured Star Wars: A New HopeEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and You’ve Got Mail.

It made me think about what mine would be. The quick and easy answer would be Back to the Future, if only because of how much I’ve written about it on this site. But I think there are other candidates. Some that come to mind, all for different reasons, include It’s a Wonderful LifeHigh FidelityOnceToy Story, and Unbreakable.

I don’t know. I have to think about this. What’s yours?

Update: I want to include some of the replies I’ve gotten to this query:

  • “Oddly enough, Snowpiercer. While it’s a terribly chaotic movie, man, it haunts me every day. The ignorant frivolity of the front car compared to the ruthless survival of the back cars…way too real. I probably think about it every day. Because I’m one of the front car a**holes.”
  • “It’s A Wonderful Life. Each Christmas Eve we watch it I learn something from the movie that is applied to my life; courage through hardship, wisdom of God, love of family and friends, mystery of life. It’s amazing how this movie has been intertwined with me on a small yet profound level.”
  • “Cloud Atlas. I frankly had a spiritual experience in the theater. It articulated my worldview in a way I hadn’t really seen before (or at least to that extent). Uneven as it may be, it floored me.”
  • “While I look at it quite differently now, Chasing Amy had a huge impact on me. Her monologue about sexual freedom and independence is feminist AF and it was like finally having my thoughts and feelings validated.”
  • Do the Right Thing made me aware of how I process anger as a white person.”
Categories
Poetry

For when you want to live again

A half-deaf star with promise,
next always to the one who grew into a supernova
and left to shine brightly,
shrinks and stares at the cold abyss.
Then the supernova returns with its light,
to its small town in the universe.

A eucatastrophe to save a life,
For when you want to live again.

Good tidings it brings to its kin,
and salvation,
calling riches into being
for the sake of old times.

How it all comes together in the end:
The machinations of love embodied by
Mary, Christmas.
It’s a cacophonous love
that drafts through the doors,
with jubilation and release,
understanding and aid.
A jolly band on parade:
wine flowing,
voices singing,
bells ringing,
coins clinking,
and lovers bringing
peace and wholeness, like you’ve been given wings
for a first-class trip
home again.

Categories
God Life Religion

The Warmth Of The Snow

Living in a warm climate during the Christmas season is good and bad. On one hand, you can walk around in shorts and a t-shirt while your northern friends brave harsh winds and icy roads just to get to their mailbox. But on the other hand, it’s just not Christmas without the cold.

As a lifelong Midwesterner, I love the traditions of Christmas. My family has many of the well-known Hallmark moments of the holidays. My house and halls were always decked with green and ruby red Christmas lights and decorations. I always cut down the balsam fir evergreen with my family at a local tree farm and dragged it through the snow to the car, strapping it to the hood and bringing it home to bedazzle with ornaments new and old. We always – always – watch It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve with the fireplace roaring and the popcorn popping. And, yes, I even love the Midwestern cold that suffuses all of these things.

But like the winter cold, these things happen every year, no matter what. When we vacationed in Florida over Christmas one year, we knew we wouldn’t have the cold or the tree, but we still brought our copy of It’s a Wonderful Life to keep tradition alive. And that’s what Christmas is often about: keeping tradition alive in spite of the circumstances.

In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer uses the Exodus story to illustrate the idea of holiness and tradition, which are two concepts at the very center of Christmas. Tozer explains how the Israelites, having lived for four hundred years in Egypt surrounded by all kinds of idolatry, had forgotten the very idea of God’s holiness. To correct this, Tozer writes, “God began at the bottom. He localized Himself in the cloud and fire and later when the tabernacle had been built He dwelt between holy and unholy. There were holy days, holy vessels, holy garments. By these means Israel learned that God is holy.”

‘God is holy.’ That is the simple thought that permeates the Advent season. And so when I decorate my evergreen tree and listen to ancient hymns in church and watch a movie with my family and walk through the falling snow, I know that it is not these things in and of themselves that remind me of the reason for the season; it’s the warmth of God’s holiness.

“Let us believe,” Tozer concludes, “that God is in all our simple deeds and learn to find Him there.” Our traditions, like the Israelites’ cloud and fire, are best when they reveal God at His simplest and at His holiest.

Categories
Film

My Mouth’s Bleedin’!

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Today is the day, the only day of the year, when I watch It’s A Wonderful Life. Watching the classic Christmas movie with a bowl of popcorn and a crackling fire on Christmas Eve has become perhaps the longest tradition with my family. Another tradition, getting up at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning and waiting for our parents to wake up, luckily has died out now that we’re all grown. But I suspect watching George Bailey on his “red letter day” will never get old.