The year: 1944. The place: a makeshift military encampment in the verdant countryside outside of Madrid, where a company of Spanish soldiers is methodically eliminating the few remaining resistance fighters trying to topple the fascist government of General Franco.
The trouble is the halo. He’s never dissected one, prying it open with a blade under cover of night to determine its component parts: seeking with his fingertips for the thin band of cartilage that holds it erect, or the branched nerves channeling light as coldly steady as foxfire on a rotting log. The same goes for wings. Without evidence from his cadavers, he dispenses with them, painting angels as fit as young quarrymen and pasta-loving cherubs to whom aerodynamic principles will never apply. Even God looks as if he climbs into bed each night stiff from a hard day’s work but not ready for sleep, his brain crammed with thumbnail sketches of airy beings aglow with inexhaustible fuel flying by faith in unborn Bernoulli’s constant.
Close to an hour more of light since December’s solstice stood the calendar on edge, balancing my dwindling days between the here and the hereafter. This late January thaw has turned thoughts to spring again, those Holland-ordered bulbs I bedded late into November already showing green above the gray and crusted soil. You’d think, with seventy winters now beneath my crust, that I’d know better, learn to stay hunkered warm against those drifts that still must slump against the garage door. Yet an old, insistent summoning, wiser than winter’s experts, sends me back to the seed catalogs, makes me check trowel, fork and leaf mold, bends my head to bloom and blossoms yet unseen but lending never-ending fragrance to every lifeless, frigid scene.
Soulful and tough in equal measure, The Pursuit of Happyness is the ideal movie for the Christmas season. It’s a triumph-of-the-spirit film in which the protagonist’s journey from poverty and occasional homelessness to solvency and the promise of a future is so thorny and obstacle-laden that you can’t imagine how he’s going to get there.
These midwinter days that bridge Epiphany to Lent can seem anything but ordinary as the steady waxing light reflects across old December’s glaze of ice, a biting wind hisses across the stark bones of the bracken, and treetops signal sparse against a sky expecting still more snow before nightfall. Scarlet and speckled birds announce themselves about the brightness of the holly, spray from the creek creates bright frosted chandeliers among the tangled overhanging branches, and dusk draws down its spangling of stars so crystalline they lift the eye— heart too—toward a principality that banishes any vestige of routine predictability. Ordinariness exists—if at all— within the desiccated soul, too distracted by its fearful self to notice.
Even after years living with the blind, guide dogs continue gazing into the dead fish of their owner’s eyes. The dogs are not stupid. They simply see what eyes can’t see behind the bloodless husk of facts. And soon enough, their guileless trust awakens something in the blind: not sight, exactly, but the cognizance that they are seen—which is another kind of seeing—call it faith, blind faith.
A professor of the theory and practice of social media, Clay Shirky, doesn’t let his students use electronic devices in his classes. It’s not just that he can’t compete with the hardware or the software. Studies show that multitasking is bad for the kind of cognitive work required in a classroom. It has a negative effect on memory and recall. One study showed that students who multitasked in class scored lower than those who didn’t. The presence of electronic devices also distracts those who aren’t using them. “I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process,” Shirky said (Washington Post, September 25).