Spirit life and diminishing dots


The unveiling of the bronze statue of Minnesota Twins star slugger Kent Hrbek seems star-crossed to coincide roughly with the hundred year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Hrbek was a titanic presence on the baseball field. Who can forget the home run he hit in 1987 (or was it 1991?) that won the World Series final game for the Twins? And who hasn’t forgotten (or never known) that the Titans were a race of gods doomed to be overwhelmed by the Olympians, a coalition of younger gods?

I had the bronze statue of Hrbek on my mind when a friend of mine, a very bright pastor of a local church, confessed that he was afflicted by a bout of sermon block, a condition I routinely experience as writer’s block. He was stressed about what message to deliver at the Easter Sunday morning service, a renewal celebration that also coincided with the sinking of the Titanic. What were my thoughts about that?

In my mind baseball’s advent is a renewal ritual too, a sure sign of spring like “the life of the spirit” Easter represents. Happily coinciding with pagan rituals that celebrate nature’s cycles, Easter chimes Christian promises with ancient notions of renewal and rebirth. Though spring this year had a premature February birth that still has us fretting about whether we’re doomed to experience the re-seasoning of our months into a long globally warmed summer of our discontent, we love to bask in the early blossoming that melted winter’s frozen heart. Baseball, with its outfield and infield grasses, with its wind-ups and walks toward nine inning conclusions, has all the excitement of a normal pregnancy. When baseball air is fragrant and warm it seems reassuring to be safe at home enjoying an inviting plate.

While the recent unveiling of the graven image of Kent Hrbek shows him frozen in bronze, it also renews the heroic stature that cooled when he became a TV salesman for air conditioners. As statue he hardens our memory of the slugger who hit that fateful home run in 1987 (or was it 1991?). If princes and popes once employed great artists to provide grandeur to their kingdoms and Church, Hrbek’s bronzed form puts a new shine on the glory of the Minnesota Twins. Children born after Twins World Series glory days can now enjoy substantial lessons in history from the teachable moments their parents offer them.

I’ve been fortunate enough to stand in European capital cities gawking at statues, many of them of gods and saints but most of heroes, kings, and generals. Most of their names I never knew or had forgotten, and often their victories seemed more hollow than the solid artwork of the nameless men (always men) who worked hours, even years, to carve the stones or cast the bronze. As I age, all the history I’ve learned seems to fail me in some way, because memory fails and because many of the history lessons I learned in younger years fail to pass the tests provided by time’s perspectives. Still, haunting questions keep resurrecting themselves. Who, really, were these men shaped in stone or bronze? Is their memory worth keeping alive in statues and history books? In some dim way their lives live on, famously, infamously, or, like most of us, anonymously. Are the famous worthy of their fame? What has fame to do with “the life of the spirit”? The philosopher in me also can’t shut up: Does spirit have ongoing life?

I’m enough of a realist to believe what scientists say about energy: Except for the infinitesimal amounts lost through nuclear explosions, energy can change its forms but cannot be “destroyed.” If life is an energy, it therefore lives on and on, even while human artifacts as they were once known keep disappearing and we as individual identities bite the dust. My simple logic, therefore, concludes that everything achieved by Moses, Caligula, Napoleon, or John and Mary Doe, for good or ill, lives on in some form as a force in history. Everything ever caused has an ongoing effect, usually unfelt, invisible, not measureable, unnamed, and often unknowable. When tiny (or large) forces add up to push in the same direction, be it for good or ill, historians write books about trends. They rarely use terms like “the life of the spirit” but don’t shy away from referring to “the spirit of the times” or “spirit of the age.”

Some newer historians, perhaps tired of thinking of history as a succession of wars won and lost on dates students are required to memorize, have begun studying the impact of everyday people like you and me. What they study are small routine acts of ordinary folk, hoping to account by their accumulated force the outcome of famous or infamous historical events. What is difficult to calculate and often overlooked as “alive” in “the spirit of the times” are routine failures to perform certain acts. What did German preachers and priests not say when Hitler was coming to power? How did “the life of the spirit” in thousands of German pulpits worm its silent way into the “spirit of the times” and from there into the death chambers of Auschwitz and Dachau? That which doesn’t appear to count often counts terribly. It is difficult to cast in bronze that which is not said or done.

I’m finding it easier and harder to remember things. With a few clicks of my mouse I can access just about any tidbit of recorded human history, trivial or not. I’m also so overwhelmed by the sheer mass of what’s available to both know and believe that I’m rather paralyzed by most of it. A lot of my research now turns inward toward my own ignorance. How do I prioritize what’s worth remembering, knowing, resurrecting and keeping alive as my own “life of the spirit”? It’s tempting to gravitate with prejudice toward the merely cheerful. Cheerful optimism helps me feel good, especially when it’s spring and another baseball season is coming around. But the confidence cheerfulness inspires dims when I wonder whether billions of people who refuse to recycle their waste can imagine a time when the seasons will discontinue their recycling on our behalf.

But fame and what we remember and value by it is, I suspect, mainly non-seasonal. Fame seems linear, its impact diminishing over time like a line of disappearing dots. Who remembers the writers John Skelton or John Clare these days, or reads their works or books about them? They are disappearing dots. And though Shakespeare and the Bible continue to have celebrity status and star power, they, their complex originals, also become diminishing dots when the big splashes made in their names read our minds rather than theirs. Like John Skelton’s or John Clare’s, these texts live mainly incognito, mainly unread in Hebrew, Greek or English.

There’s something to be said for losing our minds, as we inevitably will. If memory loss is one terrible way nature has of spring cleaning us, it’s probably a natural and good thing that kids, most of them originally creative and curious, resist memorizing answers for standardized tests. They know they’re just being asked to spit the answers out. Standardized fame in particular poses disposal problems. It’s easy enough to diminish the once famous to small dots by forgetting them, but what do we do with statues cast in bronze? Memorabilia piles up over time and gets stuck on Ebay until luckily it’s picked off by someone in cyberspace. Many memorable artifacts lose their place in history this way. Most don’t lend themselves to composting, though they, like everything and everyone else, will turn into something else and have an ongoing existence, for good or ill.

This gives us good reason for profound cheer. Things become invisible, they lose their names and identities, and we all die. But “the life of the spirit,” also invisible, lives on. New life becomes possible even as, and perhaps because, the old goes somewhere away into deep dark memory holes. Loss usually opens up new spaces and provides the opportunity to build something new, for good or ill.

So Easter rose again this year on the fragrant breath of new blossoming, even as the Titanic sank out of sight for the hundredth time. What suggestion could I make to my preacher friend with sermon block?

There’s a book I can’t forget. It’s called Moby-Dick, written by a writer most schoolchildren have never heard of. Though most do know the words “Moby-Dick,” mainly from picture books and cartoons, only the rarest child will grow up to actually read the book. So Herman Melville’s “classic” Moby-Dick is a diminishing dot, as we all are.

On the last page of that memorable book Ishmael, its main character, is saved from a sinking ship by his best friend’s coffin. Ishmael then reappears on page one to tell his tale.