State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
On the evening of November 25 I stood in our condo complex driveway and stared like a Cro-Magnon Dimwit at the fire sweeping the nearby mountains. I live near enough to the foothills in Santa Barbara that the quickly-spreading conflagration looked from my vantage like a dazzling and not terribly convincing special effect. In the upper reaches, near the peaks, you could see twisting towers of flame that had to be hundreds of feet high, like the articulated dervishes of fire that gyrate along the surface of the sun. It was really something to see.
A small crowd was gathered there in the driveway, watching avidly but without visible panic—Pompeiians lackadaisically regarding the umpteenth nuisance-eruption of Vesuvius. But this December fire was a particular affront—it was as if the fire didn’t know what month it was, and what convivial joy and peace and mistletoe mischief could be ours if we just weren’t obliterated in an annihilating spasm of flame. At one point a woman appeared out of the firelit shadows to stand beside me and coo with teary alarm. “It’ll be okay,” I murmured, like someone in a lazily written movie.
In other news, a report on the radio today described a relic being returned to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, amid much ecumenical fanfare. The little chunk of wood, said to be a sliver of Christ’s cradle from the Bethlehem manger where He was born, was returning home after a thousand year residence in the well-meaning but architecturally mismatched Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome. It seems St. Sophronius, 7th century Patriarch of Jerusalem, had gifted the whole of Christ’s cradle to Pope Theodore I in that day.
What Rome returned to Bethlehem a thousand years later was not the entire cradle—which at the 11th hour was deemed too fragile to transport—but a tiny, lavishly ensconced sliver of sacred wood, held fast in a bewildering tabletop reliquary. News reporters in Bethlehem were keen to get the locals on record, one of whom—32 year-old Sandy Shahin Hijazeen—spoke frankly of being let down. “It’s a small piece. We thought it would be a bigger piece,” she complained.
Our earthly intuitions about sanctity can only disappoint, ultimately. We misapprehend the true and undiminished gravity of daily living by taking a glamorized long view, our hopes pinned to the numinous. Magic infants, many-armed blue people with elephant snouts, that fat smiling guy in the Sumo thong—this nutty cohort is telling us something important, and we mistakenly think it’s in code.
Yes, there is likely some spark-throwing dynamo at the swirling, Anthropic, Technicolor center of All This®— but whatever swaggering space siren strung those amino acids into that impossibly energizing sequence billions of years ago, She surely doesn’t endorse the garden rake levering up to smash our foolish teeth as we lift our eyes in vacant praise. This is not a realm of zero-sum amazement. Immerse yourself in the “o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” while enjoying a lukewarm chili dog. I’m telling you, that is a chakra-shuffling double header you can take to the bank. Lower your eyes in praise and get in on some of the magic down here on the ground. I mean, look around you. A cloud of gnats dancing by firelight, Elon Musk’s “pickup truck”… there is wonder.
Is life sacred? Um…not so’s you’d notice. Those who defend its jurisdictional sanctity on the one hand while packing heat with the other have divined a Confucian peace we can but envy from afar. And anyway, we’re not compelled by the empirical evidence of Life’s sacred status. As a matter of record, your cosmic interdimensional heartlight can be extinguished by a miswired toaster, aspirated cocktail onion, or sinkhole. Pediatric cancers befall our happy and blameless children, freak hailstones bludgeon us into eternal bliss, brakes fail. A startled pet dog of the proper size and temperament will snatch away your inner radiance and fling it over the River Styx like a mauled Frisbee™. Okay? If we are sanctified Beings of Light in this universe, how are the ordinary lunkheads faring? One shudders to think.
But yeah—another December. People haul trees into their homes, carolers in rented Victoriana sing and wave hangover-tormenting holiday bells with hellish abandon, and soot-covered Dick Van Dyke-types jitterbug alarmingly across the rooftops. If this be the month you venerate the Unknowable, please remember to tip the Knowable while you’re at it. No, Life is not sacred—but people are ringingly so. When that frightened little parabola of heat timidly leaps between us, one to another, the Newtonian machinery is minutely affected. This can’t help but be true. Sometime this December, look across the room at someone else. That’s all. When they look back at you, no matter the intent or expression, the majestical roof will be fretted with golden fire like nobody’s business. Isn’t that what we all want? For where two or three are gathered and exchange wordless glances and arched eyebrows, sanctity is with thee—and it is of your making. Believe.