catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 22 :: 2008.12.05 — 2008.12.19


Are we there yet?

“Are we there yet?”

All it takes is the sound of those words, and I’m back with my face sweating because it’s August, the air conditioning isn’t working again and I’m so bored that I’m experimenting with how it feels to have my face pressed against the vinyl of the front seat of one of my parents’ old cars. Since it’s the early 80s, I’m not wearing a seat belt. However safe or unsafe, this practice is a blessing to my young, squirmy body, boxed in as it is by brothers on both sides for weeks on end, on one of these family vacations that seem to last forever.

“Are we there yet, Papa Smurf?” I ask my father for the millionth time. One on level I’m hoping to elicit the desired response-“Not much further now”-which I’m pretty sure I gleaned from Saturday morning cartoons. But really, I’m hoping he’ll say, “It’s right around the next bend.”

“Not yet, Daughter Smurf,” he inevitably responds, breaking in on my nascent love of liturgy with the ritually “incorrect” response he delights so much to give. A joker, my dad.

“Dad, you’re not saying it right,” I say, when my mom breaks in, trying to forestall a replay of the argument we’ve had so many times on so many of these family vacations.

“Why don’t we play the alphabet game?” she asks.

“No, I’m bored with that. I want to know how much further.”

“It’s our long day today. Tomorrow we can rest a bit more. We’ll get there.”

Years later, I look up from the steering wheel and complain about the stop-and-go progress of the traffic. This time there’s no one else in the car, but I complain out loud, “When are they going to move? I just want to get there, already. Can’t it happen faster?”

See how I did that, just now? I spent a couple hundred words describing a few moments, then in two words-“years later”-I fast-forwarded you past twenty-five years of other moments to that second moment of impatience. 

In this way, I as a storyteller enacted the role of the artistic imagination. “[T]he anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress,” Alain de Botton says. They
“direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present” (from The Art of Travel).

Above, I used my artistic imagination to jump through a whole bunch of beautifully patient moments (and many other impatient ones as well) between these twin moments of impatience. In doing so, I give you a skewed picture of my life-after all, I quite enjoy a good road trip most of the time. But my artistic rendering of these moments isn’t just there to illustrate what de Botton points out about what storytelling does to life-they’re also there to illustrate what my anticipatory imagination did to contribute to their existence.

See, as de Botton points out, what’s so often frustrating for me in the times when I’m impatient, is that my actual experience of whatever I’m experiencing clashes so terribly with the narrative I had created for myself beforehand. One so often tells oneself one’s future stories in this lovely, glib way: “I’ll just run down to Indianapolis and back. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.” “We’ll be driving to the mountains, doing some camping, and having some good family time.”

These anticipatory narratives, Alain de Botton suggests, often conflict with the experiences we actually have, and it doesn’t help the situation that our memories and artistic renderings contract things together afterwards, so often glossing over the parts we’d rather not remember. It’s these disjunctions between the narratives we expect and the inevitable additions by life that we frequently rebel against in the thick of things.

Translated into spiritual terms, we gloss over our capacities for moments like the above. Then when our impatience emerges, we get mad at God the narrator for not narratively fast-forwarding us past the difficult parts instead of being repentant for our sinful responses.

Now that it’s Advent, the season of anticipation and for pondering on the ways God has fulfilled anticipations of the past in unexpected ways, I realize that at least I’m in good company. This was the same situation, I think, that the Israelites got themselves into, waiting for the Messiah. I think of Eve getting herded out of Eden wondering if that child of hers would really come and crush that devious serpent’s head. Of Moses, striking the rock out of frustration from all those years of wandering in the desert. Of Zechariah, not quite sure how to trust that Elizabeth was really going to have a son after all those years.

It’s a good thing God paused in his narration to set these examples from the past before me, because, quite frankly, there are days when I just want God the narrator to “years later” me straight to the new heavens and the new earth. I’d like the old one-along with my sinful nature-to pass away. I’d like the tears wiped from my eyes, please. Are we there yet?

That tantalizing phrase, “Behold, I am coming soon,” always comes as the response, breaking in on my expectations as effectively (if frustratingly) as my earthly father’s refrain did on all those road trips when I was a kid.

Soon. It could be around the next bend, or it could be twelve thousand bends from now.

Sigh. At least I have a liturgical response to give: Come soon, Lord Jesus. Come soon. And in the meantime, Lord, have mercy.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus