the harvest

Here’s a short story I wrote in college; the assignment was to write on the theme of death for a younger audience.

Copyright 2012 Cian FentonAs Kevin stepped out of his family’s two-story Victorian home on Auburn Street, bright red maple leaves were soaring across the blue October sky like sparks from a roaring campfire. Kevin felt a tinge of sadness on this crisp Saturday morning. Although he enjoyed the colorful shower of leaves, he knew that it would soon give way to the bland skies and bleached earth of November.

After strolling seven blocks down Auburn, he turned right onto Melrose Avenue. The public library, a red brick building with a large clock tower, sat comfortably upon the curb of the avenue two blocks ahead. It was almost nine-thirty. Remembering that the weekly puppet show began at that time, Kevin quickened his pace and soon found himself inside the library’s main entrance. As he stepped inside, he noticed an unusual silence. Much to his surprise, the children’s corner of the library was vacant—no puppet stage, no puppets, no people. He hurried to the librarian’s desk.

“Where’s the puppet show today?” he asked anxiously.

“There is no puppet show today,” explained the librarian in an even whisper. “We have puppet shows all summer, but not in the fall. They’ll start up again next spring.” She smiled apologetically.

Disheartened, Kevin turned around and slowly headed home, kicking leaves off the sidewalk and secretly wishing it were summer again.

Suddenly, his eye caught sight of several orange pumpkins peeking out of a lush garden on the corner of Auburn and Melrose. An elderly man in red overalls with a white baseball cap was milling through a jungle of squash vines. There were many other vegetables in his garden—tomatoes, corn, cabbage, carrots, peas and potatoes—but Kevin’s eyes shot instantly toward the large pumpkins resting in the shade of their vines.

Pumpkins fascinated Kevin. Every October, his father would drive him and his sisters to a roadside stand outside of town to find pumpkins for Halloween. Without fail, Kevin would search out the largest and roundest pumpkin available.

The old man in the garden waved to Kevin and, noticing the boy’s interest, motioned to him to come into the pumpkin patch. Kevin was overjoyed.

“Hello, young man,” said the gardener, removing his cap to wipe some sweat from his brow.

“Hi,” said Kevin in a distracted tone of voice. “These are the hugest pumpkins I’ve ever seen. Did you grow them yourself?”

The old man smiled warmly. “Not really,” he replied. “I planted them, weeded around them when they were small and watered them, but God did the rest.”

Kevin stood in silent admiration of the pumpkins. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. “Can I have one?”

Laughing softly, the old man replaced his cap. “Sure. They’re not quite ready to be picked yet, though. In another couple of days they’ll be ready. Come back sometime next week and I’ll let you choose one.”

“Thanks! I’ll stop by after school sometime,” replied Kevin as he turned back toward the road.

The old man called after him. “If I’m not in the garden, I’ll be up at the house. My name’s Sidney.”

Kevin turned toward Sidney. “I’m Kevin. See ya later, Sidney.”

The days flew past like migrating geese and soon it was Wednesday. When class was dismissed that afternoon, Kevin hurried home to his garage, padded his wagon with some leaves and headed toward Sidney’s.

When he arrived, Sidney was out in the garden picking squash. The garden had changed drastically since Saturday. All of the vines had wilted into limp brown clumps and the colorful squash sat exposed atop the withered foliage. Kevin was horrified by the change.

Sidney stopped his work and greeted the boy. “Hi, Kevin.”

“What happened to all the vines?” asked Kevin. He surveyed the garden with knitted brows.

“We had a hard frost last night. The vines can’t handle that kind of cold weather. The chilly nights are right on time; they always arrive just when the pumpkins are ready,” said Sidney.

“You mean it’s s’posed to happen like this?”

“Yep. Every year it’s the same. God has a pretty good plan for growing things. He waits for the plants to finish their work and then he puts ‘em down to sleep.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “It’s sorta sad, though, isn’t it? I mean, the dying plants and the falling leaves.”

“It all depends on how you look at it, Kevin. Look at this pumpkin here, for example. The pumpkin seed I planted last spring had one thing in mind when I put it in the ground; its task was to grow into this pumpkin. All summer long, it grew into vines to absorb the sun and water so that it could produce a pumpkin. Then, when the pumpkin was ready, the vine was no longer needed. So the cold weather came and took the vine away so that everyone could see the beautiful pumpkin. So it’s not really sad, Kevin. The vine did its job and the pumpkin is the result of its hard work.”

Kevin thought he understood what Sidney was saying. He had another question, though. “But why does the vine have to die?”

“Vines aren’t meant to last forever. Although they grow and spread through the garden, they’re mostly interested in making a pumpkin. That’s the important thing. When the pumpkin is ready, the rest of the plant isn’t needed anymore.”

Satisfied with this answer, Kevin began to survey the pumpkin patch. He soon discovered his favorite pumpkin; naturally, it was the largest. Sidney helped him twist the pumpkin from its vine and put it gently into the wagon.

“You sure know how to pick ‘em,” said Sidney. “Why don’t you come inside and have a cup of cider and some cookies? Then you can meet Judy, my wife. I told her you were coming, and she baked a batch of cookies yesterday so I’d have something to give such a hard-working pumpkin picker.”

Kevin had no objections. As they entered Sidney’s house, the aroma of cinnamon and apples wafted through the door to greet them. Judy, a kind woman with a face full of smiling wrinkles, greeted them as well. The old couple chatted with Kevin about the garden and the neighborhood and pumpkins. “If you’d like to help me plant my pumpkins next year, I sure would appreciate the help,” said Sidney. Kevin thought it was an excellent idea.

Soon, Kevin remembered that he had homework waiting for him. He thanked the old couple for the snack and stepped out onto the porch. “Stop by any time,” Sidney offered. “Enjoy your pumpkin.”

As autumn turned to winter, Kevin made regular visits to Sidney’s house. Sidney and Judy treated Kevin like a grandson; they had no grandchildren of their own, so they always enjoyed his company. Whenever Kevin visited, Judy would bring out a set of finger paints and then Kevin would create a masterpiece for the front of their refrigerator. By Christmastime, the refrigerator was covered with his artwork.

One day in February when Kevin stopped by, Judy came to the door and told him that Sidney was sick and couldn’t get out of bed. Kevin asked if he could see him. “Well, since he’s not asleep, I don’t see why not,” replied Judy.

Kevin entered the bedroom quietly. “Hi, Sidney.”

“Well, it’s Kevin!” Sidney exclaimed weakly. “It’s nice of you to stop by. How are you?”

“Okay,” Kevin replied. “Are you real sick?”

Sidney smiled. “Oh, it’s not so bad. I went out to get the mail without my coat on last week and I think I just caught a little cold. If I rest up, I should be healthy again in no time.”

“You look awfully white, Sidney. You sure you’re all right?”

“I think so. I went to see the doctor yesterday and he’s supposed to call me if it’s anything serious. Hey! Guess what? I’ve got a surprise for you,” Sidney said, reaching for a small wrapped package in the top drawer of his nightstand. He handed the present to Kevin.

Kevin unwrapped the present recklessly. Inside, he found a package of pumpkin seeds. “Mammoth pumpkins!” Kevin exclaimed after examining the label. “Wow, I bet these’ll be huge!”

“I guess we’ll find out next summer,” said Sidney. “I’ve never tried that kind of seed before.”

After visiting for a little while, Kevin returned home. He could hardly wait for the arrival of spring when he could plant the seeds. Arriving in his bedroom, he stowed them safely in his sock drawer.

Later that week, Kevin went back to visit Sidney again. This time he brought some of his mom’s chicken noodle soup. Judy greeted him at the door. She took the soup graciously and gently placed it on the stove. Her wrinkles looked different today, Kevin thought—they were stretched more tightly, almost stretched into frowns.

Sidney was still in bed, and he wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, he told Kevin that the doctor had asked him to go to the hospital where doctors could take better care of him.

Kevin sat in frightened silence for a moment. “Are you gonna get better?” he asked with a quivering voice.

Sidney paused for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he said softly. “I’m getting pretty old and I don’t fight off sickness like I used to. I’m sure they’ll take good care of me at the hospital, and maybe I’ll be coming back home real soon.”

Kevin winced, trying to hold back tears.

“Kevin, it’s okay if you want to cry. I cry sometimes too.”

Kevin was sobbing uncontrollably now. Sidney reached out and embraced him.

“You know, I’m not too worried about going to sleep and not waking up again. You know why? Because I’m sorta like that pumpkin plant I was telling you about. God planted me one day and has taken care of me for seventy-five years. While I’ve been here, I’ve branched out to see many things and meet many people, including you. I think maybe God’s getting ready to harvest me, though. He’s been waiting a long time for me, and I think maybe I’m just about ripe.” Sidney chuckled gently through the tears that were now in his own eyes. “When I’m ready, God’s gonna take me up to his house and I’ll be up there with him forever. So I’m not worried about dying.”

“I’m gonna miss you if you go,” Kevin blurted out between sobs.

“I’ll miss you too, Kevin. But we’ll be together again one day. Someday you’ll be ripe and God’ll pick you and bring you up to his house too. Until then, though, enjoy being like that pumpkin vine. Spread out your branches—meet other people and enjoy the things around you, and never forget that God’s your best friend. It’s an exciting thing, growing up. Scary, sometimes, too. God’s taking care of you and one day you’ll be with him for always.”

Kevin sat back and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“I want you to promise me something, Kevin. If God harvests me before next spring, I want you to go ahead and plant those pumpkins anyway. You’ll do a terrific job. Is it a deal?”

“Deal.”

Kevin continued to stop by Sidney’s house to see Judy and bring drawings for Sidney that he had made at school. One day when he arrived at Sidney’s house, Judy didn’t answer the doorbell. Turning back toward the street, he saw a car pulling slowly into the driveway. It was Judy.

As she approached on the sidewalk, Kevin noticed a thin smile on her face. “Hello, Kevin. Have you been standing here long? I’m sorry. I just got back from the hospital. Come in.”

Once inside, Judy brought out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, without saying a word. Kevin knew that something was wrong.

“Is Sidney okay?” he asked anxiously.

“Kevin,” she said quietly, “Sidney didn’t wake up today.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say. He felt his stomach plummet—the way it would in a car speeding over the top of a steep hill. Staring blankly at the refrigerator with all of his paintings on it, he started to cry.

Judy followed his eyes to the refrigerator. “Those are some beautiful paintings,” she said. “You know, Sidney’s just like one of those paintings. God painted him one day and put him in the world to dry. It took a long time, but God was really patient. As soon as the paint dried, God wanted to put him up on his refrigerator so he could see him all the time. And you know what? I think Sidney’s pretty happy there.” A tear slowly worked its way across her wrinkled face.

Kevin nodded in agreement.

On a crisp Saturday morning in late May, Kevin went over to Sidney’s old garden and planted his pumpkin seeds with Judy’s help. He took his gardening seriously: as soon as he had planted the seeds, he went directly to the library to check out a book on growing pumpkins.

Kevin visited the garden at least twice a week during the summer to water the vines, to weed around the plants and to spend time with Judy. The vines spread from one edge of the garden to the other, meeting the fence on one side and embracing the rock terrace on the opposite. One pumpkin grew to be especially large. Since it was Kevin’s favorite, he decided to name it Sidney.

Before long, the maple leaves were once again dancing through the autumn breeze like blizzard-driven snowflakes. Kevin watched vigilantly for the first frost to steal its way across the neighborhood, and when it had, he padded his wagon and headed down to the garden to harvest the pumpkins. After enjoying some cookies with Judy, he picked the pumpkins and gave them all to her—all, that is, except one. Kevin picked up one enormous pumpkin and put it in the back of his wagon.

As he hauled the wagon down the driveway toward Melrose Avenue, he waved toward the bay window where Judy stood watching him. Then, surrounded by a flurry of red and orange leaves, he turned the corner onto Auburn Street.

“Come on, Sidney,” he said to the pumpkin. “You’re comin’ home with me.”

© 1990 All rights reserved

treating human life like a Joker

Joker movieI saw the movie Joker yesterday. This is possibly the most satanic film I’ve seen since Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I’m referring to its vision of the human person, and its insistence on a world without forgiveness, and thus a world without hope.

It is dark in a way that is more extreme than the truth, and political in a way that is even more polarizing than our current climate.

And then there is the gratuitous, intimate on-screen violence.

I predict it will leaven the culture in a very bad way. Two thumbs down.

I’m reminded of a quote from Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book titled Image of Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi:

Amorality is worse than immorality. The immoral man can repent his moral failure, he can turn back to his depth, whereas the amoral man has condemned himself to the periphery and finds no way back, when he has committed something objectively immoral.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had a moral compass I could accept.

But the Joker truly is the hero in this new film, convinced as he is of humanity’s total depravity. Nothing in this movie ultimately proves him wrong. I’m not a Calvinist, so I find that problematic.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck (aka Joker) is very compelling. However, I thought the character study was quite uneven… at times nuanced and thoughtful, and at other times, as hyperbolic and binary as a two-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum. I suppose one could argue that faithfully reflects a certain sort of mental illness; I don’t know.

The movie never suggests that the evil that overtakes Arthur Fleck is anything more than of human origin; it never makes a nod to the supernatural (either divine or demonic), which is another reason I consider this movie satanic in character.

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the movie is willing to — at least partially — scapegoat those who suffer from mental illness. And our culture needs that right now like a hole in the head.

On the other hand: I felt the movie consistently allowed the Joker to claim victim status, without ever really holding him to account… It was more interested in shaming the aggressors than in recognizing that the Joker had choices.  For instance, the talk show host played by Robert De Niro was portrayed as a hypocritical scold. In this sense, Joker rather reminded me of Mystic River; my review of that movie can be found here.

I do think the story touches on several wounds in our culture: among others, our fascination with posturing, shaming and scapegoating (three catalysts of the phenomenon of social media); the modern tendency to descend into narcissism and solipsism; and the insistence on denying transcendence, which reveals itself in the myth of self-manufacture, most especially through gender ideology.

One story problem — something shared by many films today — was the lack of an ending. At a certain point in the film, after one of Arthur Fleck’s unmitigated victories, the screen just went dark, after throwing up a stylized title screen with “The End” on it.

Maybe the audience was supposed to feel like the Joker’s next victim at the end: lights out, so to speak. We, too, had been victimized, or at least robbed. The Joker is on us:

There are a lot of mirrors in Joker—many shots of Fleck looking at himself, his clown makeup smeared by blood and tears. But the ghastly images of Fleck are less disturbing than what the film reflects back to us: a society strangely intoxicated by macabre spectacles but oddly resistant to confronting the realities of evil, least of all in our own hearts.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers may be laughing all the way to the bank. Joker has broken box office records for October, raking in $93 million on opening weekend, with a $55 million budget. If the filmmakers had any reservations about what they created, that kind of windfall is sure to anesthetize their consciences. I do hope they set aside some of the profit to pay for support for those left behind after the next mass shooting; it’s not a question of if, but only a question of when.

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 26

The movie has nothing beneficial to say to us; it is devoid of what Pope Benedict XVI once described to educators in the United States as “intellectual charity”:

Within… a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. We witness an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing, is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk’, bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.

How might Christian educators respond? These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call “intellectual charity”. This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience “in what” and “in whom” it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

Lately, I’ve been listening with great interest to Eric Weinstein’s new podcast, The Portal. I find it fascinating as an analysis of the conversations we are not having as a culture because of a de rigueur climate of political correctness and shaming which inhibits the free expression of ideas. He describes a global phenomenon of preference falsification, with the 2016 US presidential election as an example of how disastrous it is when people no longer express their political opinions in the open, but save them for the ballot box alone. The idea of preference falsification is one I think it would be valuable to explore, and a Joker movie could provide a powerful dramatic way to examine the theme. But this movie had nothing meaningful to offer in this regard. Alas, it was too much to hope for from Hollywood.

I do recommend The Portal podcast. The topic of preference falsification is discussed most thoroughly in episode 4: Timur Kuran: The Economics of Revolution and Mass Deception.

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution? On this episode of the Portal, Eric is joined by renegade Economist Professor Timur Kuran whose theory of Preference Falsification appears to explain the world wide surge towards populism, and is now threatening to rewrite the core tenets of modern economics.”

Eric Weinstein

Last night, after wasting 150 minutes on Joker, I spent 15 minutes watching Rabbi Sacks. Very clarifying:

For a slightly different take, see the review by friend and fellow Act One alumnus Carl Kozlowski: Sympathy for the Devil.

Also: Steven Greydanus critiques the film in his characteristically thoughtful and nuanced style; he mentions a dimension of the film that I omitted, and does so in a way that includes no spoilers (kudos, Steven):

Arthur’s descent into violence seems to have a liberating, empowering effect on him. By making spectacular use of a gun, he gets the attention and even apparently the celebration that all mass shooters desire.

Or does he? One can choose, not unreasonably, to regard some or all of the denouement as a self-gratifying delusion. (I know where I would draw the line between reality and fantasy.) Regardless, though, Joker does nothing to cross-examine the Joker’s experience of triumph. On some level the film offers a mass-shooter fantasy fulfilled.

You can read his full review in the National Catholic Register.

my memories of Archbishop Flynn

Flynn-1I meant to write a post about my experiences with Archbishop Flynn last week, but instead chose to prioritize posting audio from some of his retreat conferences.

And as I began to think about him, I struggled with conflicting emotions, given the circumstances of recent years. I’m not writing today as a journalist but as a friend. I’m not here to point out his shortcomings, still less to explain them away.

Over the years, I told Flynn a number of things about the abuses happening in the seminary. He always listened, but he never offered a word of response and never promised to do anything. He allowed me to be vulnerable in this way, but would never reciprocate.

I love him still, and I love him sorely.

I remember his arrival in the Twin Cities vividly, because I was in my first year of seminary at the time.

As I became acquainted with him personally, and particularly as he served as my spiritual director for two years after I left the seminary, I became more familiar with the warmth of his personality; it was inseparable from his commitment to prayer. The words which G.K. Chesterton once attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi could have come from Archbishop Flynn:

Be not troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.

Saint Francis of Assisi, as quoted in G.K. Chesterton’s Life of Saint Francis, speaking to a friar struggling between humility and morbidity

His warmth of character and his sense of humor made me comfortable in his presence.

What is the meaning of comfort? How does it come about? Certainly not by reasoning and reckoning. Advice and argument are no comfort: they leave us cold. They leave man alone in his need and suffering. Nothing comes to him from them. But comfort is full of life; it has an immediacy and an intimacy that makes all things new. To comfort, you must love. You must be open and enter into the other’s heart. You must be observant; you must have the free and sensitive heart that finds the paths of life with quiet assurance; you must be able to discover the sore and withered places. You must have the subtlety and strength to penetrate the living center, to the deep source of life that has dried up. The heart must combine with this source of life, must summon it to life again so that it can flow through all the deserts and ruins within.

Monsignor Romano Guardini

He also had a great love for the priesthood, and for the celibate life as Christian witness. His presentation to the seminarians about celibacy was the best thing we received on the subject.

Defining celibacy only as giving up sex is just as unrealistic as seeing marriage [only] as giving up all other women. Neither marriage nor celibacy is liveable without a commitment of love so deep as to cause one to want to give up all else.

Bishop Harry Flynn, “Celibacy: A Way to Love”, Address to the 1990 World Synod of Bishops

He wrote me a good number of letters over the years. A few highlights from the correspondence we shared:

Every once in a while, it is good to step back from our intended paths and give some thought to what we are about…. I am convinced that the unhappiness that seems to pervade in so many hearts in today’s society is because people do not take time to listen to the Lord, and the Lord will always tell us how much he loves us, but he will always keep us on the right path.  (May 13, 1996)

Keep searching for the will of God. Our Lord will let you know what His will for you is, and then have the courage to embrace it.  (May 29, 1997)

I want to impress upon you once again the importance of prayer in your everyday life. Find some time when you can be alone with our Lord. Then ask Him what He wants to do with your life, and then learn to listen for the answer, and you will find it within your own heart…. Our Lord has a plan for you, and eventually that plan will be revealed to you, and you will have the courage to embrace it, and do it, whatever it might be.  (December 23, 1997)

Now the archbishop has moved from one life to the next. From my point-of-view, the transition seems like the fulfillment of the kind of life he lived.

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live.’

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, paragraph 27

May you find the life you so often reminded us to seek, Archbishop Flynn. And may the angels lead you into Paradise.

fifteen years

wake in other waters

9/23/04
3:40 am
Hope, Idaho

Dad made his passage to the next life at 1:18 am this morning, with Mom, Katy & Jeff & I present. It was a peaceful, awe-inspiring time. His breaths became shorter and less pronounced, in the way that the lapping waves on the shore — after the wake of a passing ship — become less pronounced and then fade entirely. His ship is now creating a wake in other waters.

Related posts:
learning to fear the right things
remembering Pops
on the passage through life
in gratitude for my Dad
the upset of Easter, and the last things