Crossing the Distance

by Mark Rozema

Photo by Mark Rozema

Photo by Mark Rozema

A long-dead Greek fellow by the name of Zeno told the tale of a race between Achilles and a tortoise. If you will recall, Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. After all, how hard can it be to pass a tortoise? To his dismay, Achilles discovered that he couldn’t catch up, because, of course, it’s impossible to cross an infinite distance. No matter the size of the gap, it can always be cut in half, over and over. No matter how much distance is covered, more remains. Movement, Zeno would have us believe, is an illusion. Think you are getting somewhere? Think again.
Ah, those Greeks! We have them to thank, also, for the stories of Sisyphus, whose fate it was to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, and of Tantalus, who could never quite reach the tempting cluster of grapes just above his head. And the Greeks didn’t corner the market on this cheery theme: A few centuries later, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted God and Adam trying to reach out and touch each other. The gap between their fingers is the centerpiece of the painting. (It occurs to me that all these examples are of men. Do women know how to get somewhere?)
Maybe Zeno’s paradox is a trick. After all, I move every day. I cross distances and reach destinations. Don’t I? Well, I don’t know if movement is an illusion or not, but sometimes I feel like Achilles trying to catch the tortoise. Every New Year’s Eve, the same resolutions pop up in my head as if they were fresh ideas. My student loans never seem to shrink. I lose my keys over and over again. (Or have I only lost them once, in the eternal now?) At any rate, questions remain: How should I measure change? How can I speak of growth? How can I ever cross the finish line, go the distance, reach a destination?
The stimulus for these ruminations was a seven-hour drive home after a miserable performance in a track meet a few weeks ago. I drove home with a bronze medal, but since there were only three runners in my race, this did not console me. For six months, I had been trying to improve my time in the 400-meters, and I had high hopes for doing so at the Canadian Masters National Indoor Championships. Alas, after running my race, I understood the stories of both Achilles and of Sisyphus.
I’d brought a book to read in the motel the night before the meet: Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick. (Neither Chaos Theory nor the book is new anymore, having been published in 1987. But it was new to me.) If my goal was to read something that might help me finish a race in better time, choosing Gleick was a mistake. As if Zeno’s famous race wasn’t discouraging enough, Gleick introduced me to a mathematical perversity known as the Koch Snowflake.
The Koch Snowflake (which, thank goodness, has nothing to do with the Koch brothers) is an ever-expanding shape enclosed within a finite perimeter. Start with two intersecting equilateral triangles: a Star of David. This is the basic template for the snowflake. The points of the star make six smaller equilateral triangles. Now, make the middle third of each side of these six triangles the base of another, smaller triangle that juts outward. This results in a Star of David with cute little prickles on it. Repeat this step again, again, and again. Each addition lengthens the snowflake’s perimeter by one third. Soon you will need a microscopic pencil. You can increase the perimeter forever—if you have forever at your disposal. At some point in the project, simply draw a circle around the snowflake, and there you have it: an infinitely expanding shape, contained within the circle.
The snowflake flirts with the concept of boundlessness within limits. How can such a thing be? I am a mathematical idiot, perhaps too easily impressed. Geometry is as far as I got in high school—and I barely squeaked through that. No doubt some people I know could explain, in between yawns, how these things can, in fact, be. But even I am clever enough to see that the perimeter of a Koch Snowflake is potentially, rather than actually, infinite. Its infinity can only be realized in eternity. It’s not infinite in the meantime. In other words, don’t pay an architect to draw you one. (At least don’t pay by the hour.) It is, one might say, a conceptual reality, rather than an embodied one. An embodied reality—well, has a body.
I like bodies. That’s why I run. Or, at least, it is partly why I run. I understand bodies better than I do conceptual snowflakes. When the contemplation of infinity and eternity makes me dizzy, I retreat into the life of the body. It’s where I’m most comfortable. That’s why, whenever I am confused, I go to the track. It doesn’t relieve my confusion, but it usually makes me feel better. Lately, however, I’ve been seeing evidence of infinity even within the body and its very evident limits.
My favorite pastime, sprinting, exhibits a Sisyphusean pointlessness that might appeal to the sort of mathematician who enjoys a Koch Snowflake. Consider, for instance, the 400-meter dash: what could be more pointless than running around in a circle? The 400 is a perfect exercise in both futility and masochism: the point is to end up exactly where you started, but in as much pain as possible. What could be more fun than that?
A 400-meter track is a circle squashed into an oval. A somewhat flattened Koch Snowflake might fit within it, where the football field is. In the final 100 meters of a 400 meter dash, it’s easy to believe that infinity can be surreptitiously folded within the circle. When the body is awash with lactic acid, it’s easy to believe, with Zeno, that movement is an illusion. It’s also easy to believe that time is elastic, and not all minutes are of equal duration. But, miraculously, I do in fact cross the distance to reach something called “a finish line,” and it seems real enough. It happens in less than a minute.
How can eternity be condensed into a minute? Or, to put it another way: How can a minute expand enough to hold eternity? I suspect, when I consider the questions I’ve just asked, that I’m not framing the inquiry correctly in the first place. My real concern is a different sort of journey, one that crosses neither time nor meters, but rather some sort of distance more difficult to measure. I may not be smart enough to know what to call it—much less how to measure it—so it stands to reason that I don’t know if I’ve crossed it. But there have been a few situations in my life where I felt outside of time, situations that seemed both to last forever and to take no time at all. These situations are hard to describe. I don’t even know what verb tense to use.
Many years ago—if I may be permitted to assume chronology—I attended seminary, where I struggled with verbs. To be precise, I struggled with verbs of the future perfect tense in the Greek New Testament. I won’t try very hard to explain the future perfect tense as used in the New Testament, except to say that it means something like already… and not yet, as in Saint Paul’s dubious assurance to believers that “you have been (already and not yet) sanctified.” Perhaps Paul was acquainted with Zeno.
I expressed my confusion to my Greek professor, who said, reassuringly, “Our sanctification is a done deal. It just isn’t done yet.” That made it clear as mud. His explanation seemed to strain the meaning of the word done, but he was smarter than me, so I assumed he knew what he meant. Sensing that my grasp of the future perfect tense was tenuous, he elaborated. “It is prophetic. This verb tense refers to something that has already been accomplished but the effects of which have not yet been realized.” I looked at him blankly, and then said, “So, in the meantime….”
It’s a common phrase: In the meantime. What is this thing called the meantime? My Greek professor might have described it as the part of the prophetic future perfect tense captured by the words “not yet.” I think of it as a gap. Think of the gap between Achilles and the Tortoise, between Tantalus and his grapes, and, in Michelangelo’s painting, between Adam’s finger and God’s. The meantime is the moment in which Sisyphus sighs, rolls up his sleeves, and says “Oh, well.” The Buddha might say it is the moment in which desire exists—and, of course, is not fulfilled. It’s the distance between what is, and what is next. Can you cross it?
I was driven to seminary by a kind of thirst. I can’t get more precise than that. I’m not sure, in hindsight, that I understood it. I don’t understand it now. Some people may nod their heads earnestly and say, “You were searching for God.” Maybe. I don’t know if most of us know what we mean by such statements. At any rate, my time in seminary was not as memorable as the journey that brought me there, in the summer of 1986.
On my way to seminary, I crossed the states of Virginia and West Virginia on a bicycle. My goal was not to overtake a tortoise, but to cross the Ohio River—my version of the river Jordan—and meet up on the other side with my friend Matt. Matt was a gregarious fellow, an unlikely combination of Puerto-Rican blood, a backwoods Georgia upbringing, and Dutch Calvinist theology. He was a Holy Ghost Warrior in a black pickup truck. We were both on our way to Michigan, where we had enrolled in seminary to become (after mastering those troublesome verbs) preachers. We both believed in the possibility of change, of redemption, of forward progress, of winning the race set before us.
I believed, also, in traveling light, so for my bike trip I just threw some clothes and a sleeping bag in a duffel bag and called it sufficient. Taking my cue from San Juan De La Cruz, the fourteenth-century Spanish mystic who wandered shoeless across Spain making shoes for the poor, I had decided to keep my preparations to a minimum and to move with boldness into the future God had planned for me, unhindered by possessions, worry, or common sense.
So I had no helmet, no headlight, no spare tubes, no tent, no credit card, no spandex tights, and no bicycle pump. (I vacillated in regard to the pump, understanding its almost certain utility but determined that I had just enough money in my wallet for food. I would have to trust God to provide adequate tire pressure.) What else did I have? Zeal, of course. A surplus of youthful energy, a tattered copy of Dark Night of the Soul, and a hammer. At least I didn’t follow the example of Juan De La Cruz in every respect. I wore shoes.
I had started my journey in Fairbanks, Alaska. I didn’t have my own car, having relieved myself of that particular burden before leaving the north. My friend Peggy graciously let me drive her Honda from Fairbanks to Arizona, and then to Norfolk, Virginia, where I dropped it off for her at her new home. All across the country, I slept outside wherever I felt like throwing my bag. I met all kinds of interesting people. But I needed to find my own way across the Appalachians, so I got the cheapest Huffy bicycle K-Mart could provide and was soon on my way.
I had five days to reach Ohio, where I would meet Matt, who was on his way up from Georgia. Aside from that, my only plan was to not have a plan—and I followed that plan exactly. My timing for this trip coincided with a hurricane that delivered a glancing blow to the Virginia coast. I couldn’t wait for the weather to change, so Peggy drove me to Richmond, where the wind was a bit less extreme than in Norfolk. I parted ways with my friend in the middle of the night, during a torrential downpour. She may have thought I was unhinged.
Not more than twenty miles out of Richmond, on an obscure country road, I suffered my first breakdown: without warning or apparent cause, one of my foot pedals simply fell off. Just like that. In the horizontal rain and fierce wind, without a flashlight or headlamp, I fixed it the only way available to me: by beating on it with my hammer. (A hammer was the only tool in my possession. If you ask me why I took it, I will tell you that I took it just in case a foot pedal fell off.) After banging the pedal back onto the sprocket, I remounted the Huffy and rode for fifteen hours straight. There was no point in trying to sleep, since everything in my duffel was soaked, and there was no patch of ground that had not been rendered a bog.
On day two, the sun came out. “Jesus rays” pierced the clouds, and I crossed Shenandoah bathed in splendid golden light. My butt hurt like hell, but it didn’t diminish my enthusiasm. The corrugated land rippled away in all directions, its contours softened by dense flora and fuzzy air. I reveled in the eastern trees, the tight-weave of dogwood and alder, and the mitten hands of sassafras. On day three, I entered West Virginia. If a line is the shortest distance between two points, then there are no lines in West Virginia. Neither are there any flat spots. Biking this country was hard work; steep, narrow roads with no shoulder wound ceaselessly up hills, down into hollows, and over again. At the bottom of each hollow, a small creek babbled like a Holy Roller speaking in tongues.
When evening came, I spread my bag under the jagged crags of Seneca Rocks. On the morning of day four, the first rays of the sun split into rainbow by dew that gathered itself on the downy underside of tall grasses. Before leaving Seneca Rocks, I climbed without ropes as far as I dared up the beautiful sandstone and watched a hawk circling. Late in the day, near Elkins, I met a soft-spoken botanist with a prodigious beard who walked me through the forest on his homestead and taught me the eastern trees. It turned out that what seemed a mature forest to my western eyes was actually second growth over hills scarred by a century of coal mining and bad farming, an impoverished landscape sparse in both wildlife and plant diversity. Like all of us, damaged, but beautiful anyway. The botanist offered me a dry bed in which to spend the night, and his gracious wife cooked a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes while she soothed my ears with her lovely Dutch accent.
On the fifth day, I veered away from my path, drawn northward to the town of Fairmont, where there was to be a revival meeting that very night. All over West Virginia, I had been seeing posters announcing a night of worship and exhortation, with maybe some healing and prophesy thrown in for good measure. Leading it all was a man who was famous in evangelical circles for ministering to gangsters and drug addicts in the roughest barrios of New York City. He was a man I admired—I thought.
A preacher in training should hear a preacher, so I rode hard into Fairmont. I was wound up with excitement. The revival was being held in a football stadium, and it was well underway when I arrived. It looked like a couple of thousand people were in attendance. A low hum emanated from the crowd, like the hum of power lines. As I entered the stadium, the hum differentiated into individual voices, speaking in the cadences peculiar to Pentecostal Christians unleashed. The hum quieted—but the sense of zealous anticipation did not diminish—when the evangelist began to speak.
That night, more than anything else, I wanted to believe in the transformative power of grace. I wanted, as a matter of fact, to be transformed by such grace. I wanted the Holy Spirit to move through me as a wave moves through water and the wind moves through trees. I wanted to be inspired—which means, literally, to be filled with breath. I wanted the breath of God to move through me. But the night would not unfold as I had expected. (Does it ever?) I would in fact be inspired by the revival, but in a funny ass-backwards sort of way.
The famous evangelist had a lot to say, but he spoke more of sin than of grace. He seemed to be on intimate terms with a God who was going to throw many people into a lake of fire. His righteous ire was particularly aimed at homosexuals and secular humanists, emphasizing not only their willful depravity, but also their intent to deceive the weak of mind and tempt the weak of will. It was 1986, and AIDS was ravaging the gay community in many American cities, and the evangelist said the disease was God’s righteous judgment on Sodomites. He went on to condemn the secular humanists that had wrested control of the universities and the public schools and were poisoning the nation’s youth. He heaped contempt on the liberal Christians who were letting it all happen; they were, he insisted, not really Christians at all.
As he preached, I thought of my siblings who were dedicated teachers. I considered my father, a university math professor, a gentle, humble man and a “liberal” Christian. I recalled my dear friend Peggy, a “humanist” who had taught me to love poetry and to keep my eyes open for the beauty in the world—whether or not it could be explained by my theology. I thought of friends I knew, people of integrity who experienced no shame in loving partners of their own gender.
I had gone to the revival seeking a night of love and praise. What I found, instead, was self-righteousness and—there is no other word for it—malice. My pulse quickened as I considered what I had always heard and believed about this man. I realized I had been mistaken. Neither the tone nor the substance of the evangelist’s message fit my expectation. I couldn’t see into the man’s soul; I could only tell that I didn’t trust him. He claimed to be guided by grace, but I discerned no grace in his words.
All day long I had wanted to attend the revival; it was as if my pedaling feet had been guided to this destination. But now, in an instant, I knew that I needed to get out. This need was too visceral to be called a choice. It was more like a need to breathe—which is, literally, a need to be inspired.
It took some physical effort to leave. It was like leaving a rock concert. I was in the front of the large crowd and had to aggressively shoulder my way past worshippers with their hands raised. On my way out, my eyes briefly connected with the eyes of a woman. We exchanged no words but her glance seemed to ask me “What’s the matter, don’t you want to praise the Lord?” I’m sure my eyes gave the unequivocal answer, “Not yours.”
Sometimes confusion propels the journeys we must take. I had planned to sleep somewhere near Fairmont, but I knew, now, that I would not be able to sleep. I straddled my bike and began to pedal with a ferocity born of cognitive dissonance. The revival had left me wondering who I was, what I believed, and who “my people” were. Picturing the man whose testimony I had just heard, I thought to myself “Lord, whoever I am on my way to becoming, let it not be that.”
That night in West Virginia is a sharp-edged memory. The August air was muggy and thick. The road was blessedly empty of traffic, and I weaved crazily from side to side. Wind whipped through my hair. (I had hair in those days.) Lightning shredded the horizon. Oblivious to time and fatigue, I moved through the landscape as a gathering wave moves through water. I didn’t tire. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I did tire, but I pushed through it. I found more breath than I had ever found before. Many centuries ago, Saint Benedict said “work is prayer,” and that night I poured my spirit into a prayer expressed not in words, but in work. I prayed with quads, glutes, hamstrings and breath. I prayed with lactic acid.
Surely I was moving—but toward what? Toward peace and joy, I hoped. Toward a certainty of things unseen, I hoped. Most of all, I hoped to be moving toward two things: grace and freedom. It took some time, but at some point in the night, I quit thinking and began to feel free. A verse of Scripture rose to the surface of my awareness and lingered till dawn: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
For a few blessed hours, anyway, it was true. I didn’t trouble myself with questions; the bad taste of the revival faded and was replaced by the simple sensation of speed, the smells of a summer night, and the fickle glow of fireflies in thickets along the road. There was no need to prove anything, understand anything, protest anything.
Such moments are fleeting, as we all know. They are like faint stars that vanish when you look at them directly. Yet, in another way, they stay with you forever. I am tempted to say that the night didn’t pass at all—that I am still in it. But of course, in the usual way that we measure change, which is to say, in time, it did pass. At sunrise, I arrived at the banks of the Ohio River, with its old, metallic surface, its inscrutable currents. I would cross that river into a new life, and I hoped that in that new life, the twin stars of grace and freedom would not be elusive.
Alas, they proved elusive. I met some truly good people at seminary, but increasingly I felt not at home among them. After one year banging my head against the sacred walls, I realized that I had not found my place after all, and it was once again time to get out. Sometimes we are moving, but not toward the destination we assume. I thought I was headed toward deeper assurance and certainty in my faith, when actually I was moving away from it. As it turned out, the Ohio River was not my Jordan, and Michigan was not my Promised Land. It was only Michigan.
I had a small taste of freedom, on that August night in West Virginia. It was tentative—like a star too faint to be seen directly, like a flickering firefly—yet it also seemed more eternal and more enduring than the usual goals and obligations and mistakes that we can put on a list. What is freedom, and how do we get there? That is a complicated question. For me, part of the answer lies in trusting my own inclinations, even when they go against what I think I should believe. It is, I suppose, letting go of what burdens me. Sometimes it takes a long time to do that. Accurate diagnosis of one’s burdens is long-term work.
From what burdens would I like to be set free? Here is a partial list: I would like to be free from the incessant yammering of salesmen, the manipulations of politicians, the claptrap of church, the straightjackets of doctrine. I would like to be free from the should-haves and the could-haves that clutter my mind late at night. I would like to be free of resentments that poison the well of joy. I would like to be free from the traps of self-pity, self-doubt, and self-consciousness.
I would like to enter into the freedom that comes from losing the self. I would like to be fully present in each moment, fully engaged with each person who comes my way, and so be freed from regrets about the past and worries about the future. I would like to be free to grow old gracefully, without bitterness. I would like to be free of the need to be right, or the need to be certain. I would like to be free of the desire to judge others, so that I might hear and attend to them instead.
I’d like to be free of debt. For that matter, I’d like to be free of money altogether. I’d like to be free of both the fear of failure and the need for success. I’d like to be free of the insistent desire to own things. I’d like to be free of the desire to control others, or to elevate myself at their expense. I’d like to be free of the desire to hurt others or make them feel small. I’d like to be free of the constant noise that follows me around daily, so that I can hear my inner voice and find my center and make my own decisions.
I know of a woman who for 35 years was married to a man who sought to control every detail of his environment. (He considered his wife part of his environment.) I won’t go into the sorry details of their marriage. Suffice it to say that she was trapped. She thought it was an arrangement ordained by God. Movement, for so many years, did not seem possible to her.
One day, she decided to leave. Just like that. When she left her husband, the only thing of his that she took were his neckties. (I should explain. This man had a dresser in which each drawer contained socks of a different color. In his basement, he had stockpiled enough toilet paper to last perhaps a century. In his walk-in closet there was a wraparound tie rack that held hundreds of meticulously arranged neckties.)
She drove away from what had been her existence, with her husband’s ties in a disheveled pile in the passenger seat. I can imagine her accelerating down the interstate, rolling down the window, feeling the wind on her face. This is how I see it: She drives with one hand. With the other, she reaches into the pile of ties, and one by one, releases them out the open window. She sees them in the rear-view mirror, flapping wildly, then fluttering without fuss to the pavement, like butterflies alighting on blossoms. Her movement toward freedom is measured by the periodic appearance of neckties on the highway.
How do we move into freedom? I’m not sure I can answer that, for me or for anyone else. I’m still working on it. I think we all have to find our own way, and we have to do it over and over again. Sometimes we make mistakes; or at least I do. Just as on that bike trip across West Virginia, I sometimes think I am moving toward a goal, when in fact I am moving away from it. Some of my biggest mistakes involve contradictions that seem obvious—in hindsight. If I experience God as an ineffable mystery, for instance, then why go to a school where the intent is to explain the mystery?
And, more recently, there is this one: If my goal is to embrace simplicity, then why take out huge student loans to enroll in a ridiculously expensive university? I hoped to learn how to pursue ecological and economic sustainability, social justice, and self-sufficiency in both my own life and in society. What was I thinking? It’s like shelling out big bucks to take a seminar on how to free yourself from debt. It’s like taking an anger management class from Mel Gibson, or a self-esteem seminar from John Calvin. I should have planted an orchard instead.
There are people in life who have no regrets. I’m not one of them, but it pays to have a sense of humor about such things. After all, I’m in good company: Achilles, Sisyphus, Tantalus, Adam: kindred spirits all. And Moses too, whose job it was to lead his people across a wilderness that was as much psychological as geographical. He never made it into the Promised Land, because he struck a rock with his staff instead of speaking to the rock. Ooops. I propose a toast to all of them: Here’s to the prophetic perfect tense, gents! Here’s to journeys that never end, infinite digressions, incremental progress and frequent fuckups along the road to freedom. Lift your half-filled glasses, and drink up! Here’s to being and not being satisfied.
If the meantime is the not yet, then what words help us grasp the already? Christians have, I suppose, eternity. Hindus have nirvana. Australian aborigines have dreamtime. As concepts, I like dreamtime the best, because it conjures up colors, sounds, smells, and tastes. It sounds more like story time, which appeals to a storyteller. It’s hard, on the other hand, to get excited about nothing-ness, and the word eternity makes me think of being stuck in an endless church service in which I must listen to that dreadful stuff they call praise music. But regardless of the name for it, finding a doorway into the already is the tricky part. How do we get there? Death? Love? A proper understanding of subatomic physics? Psilocybic mushrooms?
Not long ago, I sat at my father’s bedside during his last night on earth. He was reaching his final destination, after crossing the distance from cradle to grave. Some people have asked me if his death was peaceful or not. I can’t answer that. I don’t know what peaceful means to a dying person. His body fought for breath; his eyes didn’t appear to see me. It was a hard night and it leaves me with difficult memories. It went on for a long time, or for what I would call a long time. I have no idea how my father experienced the passage of time on that night; perhaps he was already somewhere else. I held his hand, and sang him hymns, and told family stories about hikes, his kids and grandkids, his wife, the places he loved. I talked about chopping wood and catching rainbow trout at Wheatfields Lake. I took him with me into the Grand Canyon. I told him what he meant to me, and how much I loved him, and why. I’ve been told that hearing is the last of the senses to fade away; I hope this is true, because I hope that he heard me.
Anyone who has been by the bedside of a dying person all through a long night knows what I mean when I say that he seemed outside of time. Or maybe outside of the meantime. Some would say that “he had one foot in heaven,” or some such thing. I don’t know what that means. There is no way for me to know what that means. Heaven is in the prophetic perfect tense, and I am in the meantime. Others might say that there is no mystery in this journey, his brain was just shutting down. What his last hours reminded me of is the last fifty yards of a 400 meter race, when about all that is left in the consciousness is an almost automatic need to keep going, keep struggling against the limits of an exhausted body. Somewhere in that journey, time and space vanish. It is as if the body is a circle, and the spirit is a Koch Snowflake inside of it.
We all have our own races to run, and we all have that last fifty yards. I’m not there yet. What will I do, here, in the meantime? Like Sisyphus, I’ll roll the boulder again. I’ll look for the damn keys every morning. Like Achilles, I’ll keep assuming that my effort will get me somewhere. I’ll pet the dogs and plant a garden. I’ll keep running those pointless 400 meter dashes. I will love those whom I love, and occasionally I’ll feel like they are an uncrossable distance away from me—but I’ll love them no less for that. And like Adam, I’ll keep my hand outstretched—waiting, waiting. For what? For sanctification? Solvency? Enlightenment? The perfect wave? The perfect taco truck? Freedom?
Yes. Such waiting is not passive; it is, like prayer, the act of paying attention. And I think both freedom and love come through paying attention, and together they unhinge us from the limitations of time and space. On my very first date with the woman who is now my wife, she told me that she thought the point of life was learning how to love well. I thought it interesting that her answer was a process rather than a destination. Or maybe it’s both—and we have already and not yet arrived. At any rate, I liked her answer. It is as good an answer as any I’ve heard.