The Silent Years

I came into Galilee on foot, feeling my way through the rocks and crevices with my staff.  On the outskirts of a town, I came to a small shack sitting alone in a clearing, the ground parched and cracked all around it.  There was a young man up on the top of this house, working on the peak of the roof, hammering long nails into the boards there.  I stopped before the door and looked up at him and waited.  He looked down from his work and saw me standing there.  He wiped the sweat from his brow and shaded his eyes with his arm.  I called up to him, asking for lodging, and he nodded, and the arrangements were made as simply as that.

In the evening, when the young man was done with his work on the roof, he made a fire in the yard in front of the house and he cooked some stew over the fire.  We sat in the yard eating the stew as the sun went down behind the house and a breeze blew in, cooling the sweat of the day.  Two men approached out of the gathering darkness.  They were friends of the young man.  They introduced themselves to me as Peter and John.  The one named Peter asked the young man if he was ready to go to Jerusalem, but the young man shook his head as he scraped the last of his stew from the bottom of his bowl.  He told Peter that he had to stay to finish the house.  He told both of the men to go on to Jerusalem without him.  He told them that he would meet them there when he was done.

The two men walked off, grumbling to themselves.  Peter glanced back a few times with a scowl on his face.  But eventually they receded back into the darkness and we were alone again before the fire.  The young man said nothing for a long time.  He just stared thoughtfully into the flames.  When the sun was almost completely set, I began to notice some lights far across the plains.  I tapped the young man on the shoulder and I nodded in the direction of the lights and asked, “Jerusalem?” He looked that way and nodded slowly.  I could see that it was something that he didn’t want to talk about.  I could see the lights reflected in his eyes and I knew that it was some dream that he had.  He sat gazing at it out there, just beyond his reach.

But he stayed there, working on the house, making a little more progress with each passing day.  Other men came, other friends, one named Andrew, others named James and Bartholomew.  They came in the mornings and the evenings and at midday.  They found the young man pounding the nails into the boards on the roof or mixing the pitch and the tar over a fire in the yard.  The conversation was always the same.  The men would tell him that they were headed on to Jerusalem.  They would ask him if he were coming with them.  He would tell them that he had to stay and finish the house and that he would meet them there when he was done.  And they would stomp away, grumbling and leaving dust in their wake.

Time went by, and eventually the friends stopped coming.  The last of them had moved on to Jerusalem years ago.  They had settled into their lives there, and they had probably long since forgotten about the young man, and they had probably taken jobs and gotten married and given up waiting for him.  The young man explained the situation to me many times, many evenings beside the fire, as though he had read my thoughts and he were answering some persistent question that I had never asked out loud.  The house had been left to him by his father.  It was the only thing of value that he had in the world.  He had to make sure that it was fixed up properly, and he had to find new owners to sell it to.  He couldn’t leave until this was taken care of.  I never said anything in response to this explanation, but I grew more frustrated every time I heard it.

As the young man grew older, his beard grew fuller and his brown hair grew longer.  One morning I woke up and I saw him washing his face in the clay basin across the room.  The water dripped from his beard as he lifted his head and wiped his face with a towel, and then, with that sudden fresh clarity that sometimes occurs upon waking, I realized for the first time exactly who he was.  I understood the whole thing.  These were the silent years, the ones the Gospels had never mentioned.  I knew the whole story.  I knew what was ahead.  And yet, at the same time, this future seemed so precious and unset.  There was no certainty that things would happen as they were supposed to.  My frustration got the better of me, and I started yelling at the young man, “How can you just stay here working on this house!?  You know who you are!  You know what’s going to happen, what needs to happen!  How can you waste all this time!?” But he said nothing.  He just followed his eyes to a support beam across the room, feeling its unsteadiness with his hand.  Another thing he’d have to fix.

I stopped talking to him for a long time after that.  I would stare sullenly at the fire in the evenings and I would snatch the bowl of stew from his hand when he offered it.  I knew I wasn’t being fair.  I knew I wasn’t being a thankful and respectful guest in his home.  I didn’t care.  I couldn’t stand to sit there while history was put on hold, maybe even jeopardized, just for the sake of some ramshackle house.  I felt like my skin was crawling with aggravation.  I thought of a thousand angry words to say, but I swallowed each one.  I shuddered at every pounding of the hammer.  I clenched my fist whenever I caught a whiff of tar in the air.

By the time the house was done, we were strangers.  We never even said goodbye to one another.  I just woke up in my bed one morning and the house was quiet, and I knew he was gone.  There was a headstone set in the ground beside the front door with a simple epitaph which read, “Gone to Jerusalem”, and there were a couple of bright desert flowers planted around the stone.  I understood that he had left the house with me and he trusted me to take care of it.  I stood over the stone for a long time.  I felt the flower petals with the tips of my fingers.  I walked around the house, inside and out, feeling the solid craftsmanship of the joints and the boards.  I sat on the edge of my bed, smoothing the blankets and situating the pillow.  I waited for the tears, but they never came.

That night I had a dream that rolled down through the ages.  I dreamt that I sat by the fire and watched as the lights of Jerusalem went out one by one.  Wars and nations came and went.  Travellers passed by, asking the way, their clothes and modes of transportation changing with every generation.  Soldiers passed, wearing different uniforms, belonging to different armies, pushing ever more sophisticated machines of war among their ranks.  And all the while the house stood, weathering every storm that swirled around it, rooted firm against every tide of time and fortune, until finally I woke up, and I knew that I was somewhere else now, adrift in human history.  I went to the door and looked out on this new world.  It still looked like the same desert, but I knew everything was different out there beyond what I could see.  Where would I go now?  What was I supposed to do?

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14 thoughts on “The Silent Years

    • Thank you, sir.

      There was a personal significance to this dream that’s almost comically obvious. For a few years now, my wife and I have been planning to move to Arizona, but we have to fix up our house and sell it first. There have been setbacks and aggravations along the way, and the whole thing has tested the limits of our patience. My wife was even pounding away with a hammer at something outside as I was dreaming. I wasn’t sure how Jesus came into it, but I was amused and amazed at how neatly it all fit. When I told her about the dream, my wife said, “Well, he was a carpenter.”

      I wasn’t sure if I would write about the dream at first. I wasn’t sure if there was anything there outside that personal context. And I wasn’t really sure how to approach it. But, I sat down and kind of worked it into something in my head, and then I figured, “Well, I’ll see how it goes”, and I started writing it “on spec”, you could say.

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  1. When I said “wow” yesterday I was reading on tablet in hospital while connected to my monthly drip “infusion” (rather stronger than tea!), but in any case knew your dream merited prolonged brooding before saying more.

    Now you’ve explained your plan to move, I find a wealth of possible meanings to it. One is a subconscious reluctance on your part. There is a fear attached to moving and the unconscious mind relates it to a sacrifice you are willing to make, like Jesus knowing his fate in Jerusalem, but calmly doing the necessary preparations, without yielding to the urge to get it over and stop it preying on his mind.

    But when you connect your sacrifice with his, you connect your consciousness with the longer timescale, beyond a single lifetime. Because you contemplate the outcome of that sacrifice made 2000 years ago. So much war, so much change, yet the house was still there.

    And you were adrift in human history! This seems close to a feeling I’m starting to have too, one which also relates to your “Season Ticket” post: that we can go to a place where we can safely observe the changes and not be their victim. It’s a place of comfort, and maybe something beyond that.

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    • I was thinking about what to say in response to this, but the reply I had planned grew into this whole long monstrosity in my head. You ever get that? You’re thinking and thinking really intensely about what to say in a reply, and it all starts piling up into this mountain of words, and you stand there looking at it with your tongue hanging out, feeling queasy, and then it hits you, “Hey, here’s an idea! How about I don’t do any of that?”, and then you just bail on the whole thing?

      I think I’ll just let it be.

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    • Okay. Forget the last comment. I’ve had a candy bar and I’ve gotten some energy and sugar from it, and now I’m ready to take on the mountain:

      I was going to start by saying that this was one of those cases where the dream wasn’t much more than a bare expression of the core idea. When I mentioned it to my wife, I just said, “I dreamt that the reason that Jesus didn’t start preaching until he was 30 was because he had this house that he was fixing up, and he couldn’t do anything until he sold it, and that’s why there’s that gap in the Gospels between his childhood and when he was 30.” I had just dreamt of Jesus working on top of this house in the desert and the disciples kept coming along and pestering him, “Are you coming with us? Are you coming with us?” Most everything beyond that was my taking that idea and trying to build a narrative around it. And so, as it is, most of the feelings that this stirred up and most of the feelings I was trying to express and what I was trying to say are all attached more to what I’ve written here than to the dream itself, in a way. So, what I was trying to say is kind of wrapped up in how I developed this.

      For starters, I had to find a role for myself. I have kind of a working rule with this blog that I have to appear somewhere in some capacity in the narrative. Sometimes I have dreams where I’m not really IN the dream; I just sort of dream about it happening, or at least, when I remember the dream, I’m not really clear where I fit into it, how I experienced or perceived the events in the dream. However, to maintain the continuity of a dream journal, I feel like the reader should always have some sense of a dreamER and that things should stay grounded in that perspective. If I just wrote about something like this with myself removed from the narrative, then it wouldn’t feel like it was maintaining that premise of a dream. So, I came up with the idea of myself as a traveller, coming to stay in the house.

      As for Jesus, my thoughts weren’t really on the ordeal of his death and crucifixion. There wasn’t really a sense of anxiety about what awaited him. It was more that he had this world-changing, history-shaping destiny. It was something exciting. It was like the very epitome of dreams and aspirations. He longed for this. Everyone and everything was waiting for him. The Gospel stories have always kind of felt like that to me, like this incredible time to be alive, the “Kingdom of Heaven” just within reach. And yes, I knew how it ended. I knew where it was going. But it all ends that way. For all of us. That’s not what mattered. It was the dream of it. It was those lights out there on the plains.

      But first he had to finish the house. And that was the thing, it was the juxtaposition of that destiny out there vs that daily plodding grind of fixing this house up and living in quiet obscurity. And the disciples coming along and pestering him was part of that, but I thought that there needed to be a little more to turn the screws. There needed to be someone to just go off on him about it, to try to push him with guilt and doubt, almost like the temptations. And I thought, “Ah, well that’s where I can come in”, but I wouldn’t be pushing him out of maliciousness, but rather out of my own doubt and weakness and uncertainty. So that added another emotional dynamic to it. It was another piece that fit together.

      The business with the headstone just kind of came to me. Maybe it was the ambiguity about it. You know, we spend our lives yearning for these dreams, and we either realize them or we die with them unfulfilled. The headstone seemed to play off both sides of this. I don’t know. It just seemed to fit. And as for the “dream” at the end, I’m not sure now if that was in the actual dream or if I made it up. That happens sometimes. But yeah, I pretty much agree with your take on it. History continues on its course, everything changes, but the house stands, the work that went into it endures.

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  2. Ok, I can make perfect sense from your explanation, and of various theories as to how it came about, if one were an investigator, it would likely come top of the list for credibility, given no contrary evidence. All the same, it’s a good example of a thing I’ve been pondering lately, without coming to any conclusion: the way human consciousness in two people can never totally align, or rather we cannot know if it does. We cannot see through another’s eyes or feel through their body. Only through art can we convey something, without knowing how much the message sent is the same as the message received.
    But your brief story reminds me more than a little of The Last Temptation, the book not the film (which I briefly wrote about here, by Nikos Kazantzakis. I’ve never managed to get far in the book, in fact I occasionally dip into it randomly, as it’s rather long. I know more of Zorba the Greek from book and film, where it is plain that the author’s actual experience and past aspirations is embodied in his writing and transformed in a way that reminds me of your dream narratives, especially this one. For what it’s worth.
    And when your carpenter thinks of Jerusalem, I can’t help my interpretation being coloured by Julian of Norwich and her Shewings, or Revelations of Divine Love, in which the Crucifixion is a nightmare turned into bliss, in a peculiar and (to me) ultimately dishonourable way of trying to reconcile the Christian God’s personal love for each of us (as envisioned by her) with the suffering heaped upon humanity in general. I withdrew my post about it but it is still visible here, unredeemed and maybe to be written properly some day.

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    • I’ve read The Last Temptation. A few times, actually. I’ve wanted to read Zorba the Greek, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I saw it a few times at the book store, but I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. Buying a book can be a little like committing to a relationship.

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    • There are some story and character choices in The Last Temptation that I don’t really care for (the last time I read it, in particular, some of these choices struck me as strangely cynical), but I’ve always absolutely loved the writing in that book. Probably my favorite book, if judged strictly by the writing. There’s this thickness or heaviness about it, like the prose is out of one of those books filled with tattered and torn pages that you see in old baroque paintings, like there’s only one copy of the book in all the world and it’s kept in a stone vault covered in moss and vines. All the imagery feels like it’s painted with blood and natural dyes made from substances dug up deep from the Earth, and every detail feels freighted with meaning. I love that kind of writing, and I’ve tried to learn as much as I can from it.

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  3. A dream of biblical proportions. Literally. Even if just a dream, witnessing these so-called silent years would certainly be amazing. And definitely, for him, not a waste of time.

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    • “HA! ‘Biblical proportions’!!! Get a load of this kid, Frankie. Hey kid, tell him what you said. Tell him what you said.”

      “I said, um, ‘biblical proportions” … cuz … like, the Bible … I guess.”

      “Ahhhhahahaha! I love this kid!!! You’re alright, kid. Here’s a nickel. Go get yourself some candy or sumptin'”

      ….annnnnd scene.

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    • “So we’re sitting around one day, and the kid says, ‘That’s a story of biblical pr.. pr.. Whatyacallit?”

      “Proportions.”

      “Proportions! That’s it!! HA! Proportions! So Frankie, you know Frankie, he starts givin’ the kid the business. Everytime he sees him, he says, ‘Hey, check out the proportions on this guy.’ Or he’d say something like, ‘Hey, how’d your mother like my proportions?’ That sort of thing. Finally, one night the kid’s had enough. He grabs a tire iron starts wailin’ on Frankie’s face. He tells him, ‘I’m gonna make you swallow every last one of ya teeth.’ This kid, he hits Frankie so hard, I swear on my mother’s life, he knocks Frankie’s head clean off his body. He knocks it clear across the room. It hits the wall right over there. BOOM! Straight in the garbage can. Hole in one! Ah, that was a great kid. Always made me laugh, that kid.”

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