Everything is Ordinary, Everything is Wonderful

Gold is just a rock. Money is just fancy paper—or these days, even less—ones and zeros floating invisible out of our mobile phones with a little bleep. But then, mobile phones are really just a collection of sand, a few bits of rare stones, and some electrically charged lithium-ions and such. Even the hands that hold them are a mix of basic components like carbon, water, calcium, and a few other things.

When you really break it down, life itself is a collection of dead elements and minerals. Under a microscope, the colours and patterns of flower petals and butterfly wings are lost in a confusion of nucleotides and mitochondrion and smooth endoplasmic reticulum.

Continue reading Everything is Ordinary, Everything is Wonderful

Being The Bad Guy

At our house, I’ve always been the bad guy. To be more precise, I’ve been a lot of bad guys. Sometimes it is just part of me, like when my hands became the Flying Tickle Spiders. Other times I’ve needed extra props, like the brown blanket for the times when the Muddy Hole Troll tried to trap my children in his muddy pit in a terrible plot to keep them filthy. In lightsaber fights, Sith Seth has always been the one threatening destruction and calling good little Jedis to join the dark side. Then there have been attacks from the electric Volt-ure who zapped children (disclaimer: no real electricity was involved) and the Alien Chef who has tried to make them into sandwiches between the beanbags. Our house has been a dangerous place. 

The thing is, all my terrible plots have ended in failure. I guess I’m not really that great at being an evil mastermind. Somehow, the children have always found a way to defeat me. Which is fine. Actually, I’m happy. I want the bad guys to lose, too. Yes, our house can be a dangerous place, but it is only silly danger, and my children can fight my evil plots with complete confidence of eventual victory. We just have fun together, and I hope they remember that. But I hope they remember more—I hope they hold on to that feeling of confidence, of knowing they will win eventually. They are growing up now, growing beyond the games and closer to the reality of the world, and here’s the thing: the world is a dangerous place.

Continue reading Being The Bad Guy

The Headless Head Of Ireland

The history of Ireland is written in stone—crumbling stone—in the ancient walls and castles and cottages and churches dotted all across her landscape. I find them constantly fascinating, which I’m sure has something to do with the fact that I came here from a country that wasn’t covered in such tangible monuments to the past. When I look at them, they remind me that life is short, history is long, and the possessions and power that humans collect here on earth are only temporary. 

Last week, our family stumbled across the ruined mansion of a man who was powerful and important, in the extreme. It was enormous. Even in ruins, it still impresses. But among the ruins, there was a statue that had toppled from its place in the Big Wind of 1839, and when it fell, the head broke off and was never recovered. Psalm 146 tells us to put our trust in the Lord, not in the power of mortal princes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more vivid picture of this warning than that statue of a man who was the head of all of Ireland, whose head has never been recovered. As I thought about what we had seen, I wrote this poem:

Continue reading The Headless Head Of Ireland

The Discipline Of Being Overwhelmed

Beside the road, the grass was parted into a path created by the feet of those who had walked there before me. I didn’t know the destination, but I had time, so I decided to follow the lead of those feet and find out where they were going.

It was a good decision. The path took me over a rise and around a corner, then sloped down gradually with a panoramic view of the ocean in front of me. On the right, the ground sloped down sharply towards a rocky cove where people were swimming. On the left, there was no ground. Only a sheer cliff, and the waves far below.

Continue reading The Discipline Of Being Overwhelmed

The Deceptive Permanence Of Cities

Cities have long lives. Many of the buildings stand basically unchanged as multiple generations of humans pass through their doors. The streets bear the traffic of life down the same old paths, through days and nights and decades, like ever-flowing rivers. It all looks the same, feels the same, year after year. Even the construction is familiar, the same cranes popping up in different places, the same traffic cones and men at work signs slowing down different roads in turn. Yes, some things do change, but the newness wears off quickly as the changes blend into the familiarity around them.  

Continue reading The Deceptive Permanence Of Cities

The Mind Behind The Art

The mysterious Mona Lisa has been sitting on a secret (with a smile like hers it was obvious, wasn’t it?). But now, with the help of multispectral infrared reflectographic camera technology (whatever that means) researchers can see under her, and what they’ve discovered is that the famous lady actually began as a sketch—and here’s the thing—the original sketch was made somewhere else, because the lines were transferred to Lisa’s now priceless poplar panel by means of a technique known as spolvero. 

Continue reading The Mind Behind The Art

We’ve Inherited More, But That Doesn’t Make Us Better

Humans don’t fly. Every human in the world knew this for most of history—but I’ve flown. I’ve flown many times, over long distances, at heights and speeds that boggle the mind. How did I do it? I have no idea. I know it had something to do with aerodynamics and jet propulsion and lift and thrust and stuff like that, but mostly I just stepped through the door and when I walked out I was on a different continent. In my pocket I carry a small computer, which I know does something with invisible waves and towers and space satellites and stuff like that, but mostly I just know I can talk to my friends and family through it. I turn the key in my car, and I know there are belts and gears and little petrol explosions that push pistons, but mostly I just sit down and push a little pedal with my foot and wish the other cars would get out of my way. In the kitchen I have hot running water and cold food, and I can make the cold food hot in minutes with some kind of micro-radiation cube.

Continue reading We’ve Inherited More, But That Doesn’t Make Us Better

The Reason For Windows

It’s a good thing I like my house. As Ireland’s third coronavirus lockdown drags on with no end in sight, we’re all getting used to being in our own spaces. One of the reasons I like my house is the windows, especially the ones in the back that let the sun stretch all the way across the floor whenever it takes a fancy. From those same windows, I can watch the songbirds gather at our bird feeder, and I can see the flowers bloom in our little garden. All of these things remind me that the world is bigger than the box I live in.

Continue reading The Reason For Windows

The Fisherman’s Advice

Evidently I don’t have a strong stomach, because the last time I went fishing at sea I got sick. I know fishing trips are famous for being exaggerated, but I’ll be honest with you: there was no storm. It was a normal day, with normal waves, and we didn’t even go far out to sea. Still, as the boat continually shifted, my insides rebelled against me in slow motion. It was getting harder and harder to focus on my fishing line or the conversation going on around me. I felt bad. All I wanted was for the floor to stop moving—was that so much to ask? Thankfully, I was with an experienced fisherman who gave me helpful advice: “Look at the shore,” he said, “it will give you a reference point, and help you be able to roll with the waves.” I could tell he knew what he was talking about, because he had no trouble at all moving confidently around the constantly rocking boat.

Continue reading The Fisherman’s Advice