W Publishing Group
I went spelunking last summer with my daughter Nicola, 9-years old at the time, and 40 of her classmates. Spelunking is cave exploring. Spelunking means you find some pleat in earth's crust and slither, lizard-like, into it. You thread your way down shafts narrow as the grave, shimmy your way up holes tights as chimney flues. You emerge into vaults and caverns hidden forever from sun and wind, hewn by the brute violence of tectonics, the solemn patience of melting ice, the slow burnish of trickling water.
I didn't think I'd be up for it. I suffer mild claustrophobia, and can easily relive the terror of a childhood event when my brother and his friend locked me in a trailer's closet. I panicked. I rammed my shoulder against the thin mahogany door, splintered it off its hinges. The trailer belonged to the parents of my brother's friend, and he stood to catch trouble for the damage. I couldn't have cared less.
So spelunking held no initial charm. To enter one cave I had to flatten my body to a knife blade, insert it between a thin cleft of rock, and step into the underworld's thick silence and thicker darkness. I picked my way down a staircase of boulders. I descended twisting chutes, squeezed between narrowing shafts, shoehorned myself through rock eyelets, duck walked damp tunnels. The trail led nowhere, just further in, deeper down.
Why did I come?
It was unclear at first. I came to test something, to prove something, to overcome something. I came to see things daylight can't produce. I came because it's shameful to fear the dark at my age. I came because my daughter and her classmates needed me in some vague, loose way, and I couldn't let them down. Nor let them show me up.
And what did I discover?
Beauty beyond imagining. Stalactites long and sharp as Zeus's thunderbolts. Stalagmites tall and jagged as tigerpit stakes. Snowy-white cascades of calcite. Filigrees of encrusted mineral. Exotic rock sculptures finessed by seepage, as though by fingertips, over eons. And then, when all the lights turned out, a blackness so complete it is one of the few holy and perfect things I've touched in this unholy, imperfect world.
This is a book about practicing virtue, which at first may seem -- it did to me -- a descent into something narrow and dark and enclosing, a world without wind, without open spaces where weather dances its varied moods. The word virtue almost made me claustrophobic. By temperament and against better instinct, I still have moments where I think the good life is seeking my own pleasure at my own convenience, and so the very thought of practicing virtue chafed me. I pictured Victorian women bound in corsets. I pictured Mormon boys in starched white shirts and crisp ties, earnestly soliciting at the door. I pictured primness and stiffness and pursed lips and arched eyebrows.
I never imagined life to the full.
But that's what I'm discovering: a world vast, and beautiful, and holy, and that all along has been hidden in plain sight.
Why don't you come in here with me, and see for yourself?