A Winter Diary (Excerpt)

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“I am always humbled by the infinite ingenuity of the Lord, who can make a red barn cast a blue shadow.” (E.B. White)

Saturday

Snow is in the forecast, yet the weather people hedge their bets, prognosticating winter weather so as to cover rain, freezing rain, sleet, or snow, to be vindicated in their predictions no matter what the Lord brings. A gray, cold sky is promising; even the birds have gone quiet; a blue shadow is over the land. A construction worker hammers away, and I hear in his frenetic tapping expectation. Advent.

I put the kettle on for tea. I peruse the selections. Opting for a more radical course, I chose Holiday Chai. I’d like to say I know what chai means but confess I don’t. I look it up. “A drink of tea made with cardamon and various other spices,” I read. Cardamon? “The aromatic seed capsules of a tropical Asian plant, Elettaria cardamomum, of the ginger family, used as a spice or condiment and in medicine.” A chai is also “a shed or other aboveground building where a winemaker stores wine in casks.” A red barn, perhaps. “Elettaria cardamomum,” I say, aloud, and my voice sounds odd around such a phrase so early in the morning. Chai Holiday wasn’t bad. Like drinking a Christmas tree.

The tree we bought a week ago is slurping water. Yesterday the well of the tree stand was dry. In little more than one day, it drank over four liters, measured out by the Diet Coke bottle I use to fill it. Then again, the cats have been hovering near the tree and have been known to drink its elixir. Cat chai. I need to check it. I let one cat out, with assistance. “You’ll thank me later,” I say. “Ciao.” She slinks away beneath the shrubbery.

I went out for a walk alone. No one was around. Ambition seized me and I began working through a mental prayer list, yet I continually veered off the path of piety. I thought about the pine trees leaning toward my neighbor’s home and the impending winter weather. I found myself walking down the dirt streets of Kampala, Uganda, with Ugandan friends. I circled back to prayer, only to detour to lists and plans and wonderings, mixing the impious with the pious.

I came in, settled in my chair, and read Psalm 121. “The Lord will keep. . . your life. . . . The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” The verse is an epigram in the front of a book I read entitled Picking Up. The author, anthropologist Robin Nagle, signed on with the sanitation workers of New York City for a first-hand report on their world. Her trashy book is staring at me from its perch high on the bookshelf.

There are men on the roof. No, I am not delusional. Men are extending ladders onto our high roof and cleaning off the roof and gutters. Their work boots clomp up and down its incline. Pine straw and leaves shower from the eaves. High in the pines, squirrels scurry from branch to branch, busy putting away winter stores. A male cardinal alights in the tree outside my study window, cocking his head to look at me before taking flight.

“Awoke early and lay still in the dark,” wrote E.B. White circa 1942, an unremarkable statement recalling an impromptu, unplanned stay in an inn found in a place with the unlikely name of China, Maine. And yet I identify here, 76 years later. I always awake early. This morning I awoke aware that for the first time in a couple of days I could breathe easily, having had until then a tremendous head cold. I lay there breathing thanks, grateful for the ingenuity of the Lord in giving us two nostrils, as in practice I have found that even though one may be occluded, the other will function. And that’s probably more than you wish to hear about that.

“Lay still in the dark,” wrote White, “listening to the singing in the next room.” Two nights ago, after a showing of Disney on Ice with a far younger crowd, I sat in my study listening to my 24-year old daughter sing. That is a beautiful sound, liquid and pure, seeping in between the molecules of the drywall. I stopped my typing so I could listen and smile.

That I get to be here, that I get to see and hear all this. It’s humbling, here, in the shadow.


Paying Attention

AC476616-2E83-4694-B0E4-F908CC423C99It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

(“Praying,” by Mary Oliver, in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, 2017)

At lunch a few days ago, a friend said, “Look, you have four hours in a car. What do you do? You don’t want it to be dead time. You want it to matter.”

He’s right. I want to pay attention.

When I pull back the curtain on the single window in our hotel room, a rectangle of cool blackness fills in. There’s a sheen of water painted on blacktop, tree limbs shellacked with ice, a dusting of powdered snow on car tops. On the ridge above me the lit squares of apartment windows tell me someone’s home. Dreams flicker in the night.

I want to pay attention.

A man leans against a car, huddled against the cold, smoking a cigarette. A lonely car passes on an elevated road, taillights winking. A light pole leans in over the car park as if to say, all is well, light dispels the darkness, and then straightens, dutiful and mum.

All is not well, I know. Sidewalks are broken, paint peels. Walls crack and cars rust. Weeds push up through cracks. Light wanes. Houses sit abandoned by roadsides. Rooms sit empty during long days, waiting for their people to return. And a million pines and oaks and maples stand in the chill air, waiting, Spring deep in their veins. Sometimes I think you can hear even the inanimate groan for redemption.

Yesterday, in a moment of weakness, we bought doughnuts and while eating too many sat and watched a conveyer carry the unglazed holy ovals through the waterfall of sugar, yet a bearded worker plucked a few off the line and without emotion threw them away. My wife, who is tenderhearted toward even the inanimate, said, “Why is he doing that? What’s wrong with them?” What’s wrong with everything, I thought, a decidedly true yet too sober thought I did not share. Malformed and misshapen, I continued, following my rumination, born in sin and broken. All of which is a lot for a doughnut to carry, too much metaphor for dough.

I want to pay attention. I’m not beyond making much of a few small stones or weeds in a field. Or lights in a window. Or a doughnut.

On my desk: a leather wallet, fitted to me, made by Toyo, a leather worker, now 20 years old and rich with the memory of his Arizona shop; a collection of essays by E.B. (Andy) White, on the cover of which he sits on a hard bench tapping loudly away on a typewriter before a window open on the Atlantic, salt in the air and licking his keys; a small folded card with the handwritten name of Amber “It was my pleasure to tidy up the place,” the letters full and round and leaning back on their heels as if to say “do you have a problem with that?;” a coupon for one dollar off at a local restaurant, at the thought of which I feel my son who is 2000 miles away nodding behind me, knowing me and my ways. Reading glasses staring at me. A black rectangle I have just put to bed. Virgil Wander, a book that carries the scent of Lake Superior and rusting factories and a musty theater. Car keys splayed out, my house key inviting. A keyboard missing the number two button. And an index card bearing a verse that ends with “the upright shall see His face.”

And so we shall, at the thought of which my melancholy lifts as light dispels darkness. I rise and look out the window again. New, unblemished snow covers the ground, and the light pole leans in and says “behold His face” - a promise which holds my attention.


By a Thread

IMG_0350Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread so thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.



*

I do nothing. I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me

minute by minute
from falling.

Lord, You provide.

(Denise Levertov, excerpt from “ Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio),” in The Stream & the Sapphire)

While I have downed a Lake Superior of iced tea in my six decades of life, the amount of hot tea I have consumed would, I estimate, barely fill a bathtub. Mostly I drink hot tea when in Africa, where ice is as scarce as gold. Everybody’s doing it there, one of the better legacies of colonialism. Here, not so.

But today I awoke with a scratchy throat and, after a nap, told my wife I would take some hot tea on the veranda. Well, we don’t actually have a veranda, but I liked the sound of that word, “veranda,” which I read is not of European but Hindi descent. That’s exotic and makes up for the fact that I am drinking hot and not iced tea. Besides, piazza is a stretch; patio, too pedestrian.

My wife brightened at the thought that I would be drinking hot tea and were he here my son would join her in her gladness. Somewhere, a trumpet sounded. She began to educate me on the finer things involving tea: the cupboard with its many kinds of tea, including Russian tea (“heartier,” I think she may have said), Five Roses (South African), and so on. She bid me smell that Russian tea, and I did, unscrewing the lid of its container and dipping low for pass, a sniff.

“I’ll just have this,” I said, reaching for the English Tea. Black. Pekoe. (I need to look up “pekoe.”) I need to start somewhere. On the blue packaging it said “good anytime of the day,” which is a surprisingly optimistic statement for the English. I can’t really believe them, yet I’m in.

On the veranda where I write, a single leaf just sashayed its way from twig to earth. Why did it decide at this very moment to let go? What wooden thread snapped? Then another, yellow; another, red. The backyard is like a brilliantly trashed urban back alley, overflowing in color.

“This is a big lemon slice, so we can share it. If you like lemon in iced tea, you’ll probably like it in hot tea.” And yes, I allow as I probably will. If I like tea, that is, which I don’t much like, hot that is. I watch the teapot. The cat watches me. I don’t look at her. I know what is on her mind.

Our copper teapot has long lost its whistle. Now, it just makes an airish sound, like me trying to unsuccessfully whistle through my fingers. Or a novice trying to play a saxophone. It’s lost its music. It soldiers on.

“I think I’ll have it without sugar,” I say bravely.

“You won’t like it. Try some honey.”

I agree honey sounds good. Besides, it may be good for my throat, which is the only reason I’m drinking hot tea. That, and the veranda, just the thought of which makes me smile.

The honey is reluctant. I tip the bottle up and squeeze, harder than I think I should have to. A drop appears, stretching slowly toward my waiting spoon. It’s taking its time, I think, and yet I fill two teaspoons, dive them under the tan-colored liquid, stir, and turn toward my wife. I tell her I am going out on the veranda, tea in hand. To write, I say. Something will come to me. I take a few books for inspiration. It feels very righteous, even if I haven’t even written a word. She reminds me to put the honey back in the ziplock plastic bag, and I do, cautioning me that I should make sure it is completely sealed because “if even a tiny corner is left unsealed, an ant will find it.” And I imagine a scout ant not believing his good fortune when he sniffs the stout honey smell wafting from that corner, the message he will bear for his queen. Yet not this time.

The cat is still watching me, trying to catch my eye. I see what she’s about.

The sun just dropped below a cloud, rooflines outlined against a graying sky. Red maple leaves are piling up. The window opens, and my wife’s head pops out.

“Are you praying?”

“No.” Well, maybe I am. Or want to be. Or should be.

“Can I ask you a question?” Please ask me a question to take my mind off the blank page staring back at me.

It’s our inexpensive intercom system, floor to veranda. I crane my neck up to meet her smiling face. We talk. We don’t resolve a thing, really, but I enjoyed the talk and think she did too.

The sky darkens. I think of all that lies in front of me this week and all that drags behind me, and I begin to feel the weigh of left undone and still to come.

The window opens again. “I have another question,” she says, smiling. And I think, so do I. I like questions.

Someone is blowing leaves, with no regard for their kaleidoscope display. The cicadas have begun. The temperature drops. The gossamer hammock invites. So, here at dusk, I give in, rock in its grip, do nothing but be held by a heavenward thread that will not break.


Call to Worship

A042C3F3-0C29-4146-A229-8F20D658A5ACThis morning, while my wife went off to a heathen art class (her words), my son and I attended church. While it is not an unfamiliar church, we visit only once a year . . .if for 37 years. That makes us regular attenders, sort of, or at least something other than just visitors. We were early. My son said, “Oh no, we’re early. I don’t like to be early. We may have to talk with someone.” I said, “It’s OK, maybe we’ll see Winston.” Winston is a pastor here who once impiously yet innocently used the word “HELL” in a conversation in the narthex of the church. I have admired him ever since. I even wrote him a letter after that.

After glad handing with the doorman (and door-woman), I strode into the sanctuary and made my way to the front of the 500-seat room, to the second row, and sat. It’s a holdover of an old, somewhat contrarian habit dating from my children’s childhood - contrary, that is, to the observation that new people sit in the back of the church and will leave if there are no open seats. Not us! Plenty of room up front, particularly in the penumbra of the pastor. If we sit up front in a new church, the reasoning also went, they (and we) would pay better attention and they would better behave (the children, that is). Mostly, it worked. I was better behaved.

I sat, yet my son informed me that I was sitting on the wrong side, motioning for me to move. Heavens. How could I forget? I did move. He was right. We sat down behind a man I did not recognize, with a balding head and a microphone attached to him. Oh, the new pastor. We didn’t speak. I don’t make it a habit of speaking to pastors prior to the sermon. I might distract them. They might forget the tightly coiled script in their heads and somewhere in the sermon forget an apropos anecdote, the punch line of a joke, or commit some Freudian slip. I don’t want to be a cause of expositional error. We sat mum.

The music was. . . Well, never mind about the music. I took leave and rewound the clock to this morning. When I could sleep no more and could count the bedsprings so insistent were their jabs, I arose. It was 5:30. Based on what I was told by another occupant of the room, my electric razor, zinging behind the closed door of the lavatory, sounded like a lawn mower, and the quarter inch crack of light that beamed blindingly from the finger-high space beneath the shut door was much too much light, too too soon, on vacation time. So I left. Taking care with the door, I stepped out under a sky lit by a waxing 5/8 moon, turning right down the brittle asphalt path that encircles the property.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus. . .

I’m mindful of rattlesnakes, though I’ve never seen one on this walk. The lead landscaper, a reticent man named Jeff, took down all of the Beware of Rattlesnakes signs because, as he was told, they “made people nervous.” He gave them to us, depositing them on our balcony with a plastic vase of purple flowers, a small kindness from a shy man. Occasionally we see him out on the property, in a rare idle moment, meandering along the path, a hand behind his back. He’s holding a cigarette but is embarrassed by it. My wife let’s him know that we’ll keep his secret.

To the east there’s the faintest light behind the peaks of the Catalinas, highlighting a few brooding clouds, outlining the jagged peaks. Rabbits scatter as I walk, their white tails flashing. I planned to listen to music but unplug so as to hear the birds wake, the doves cooing, two spaced 15 feet apart on the telephone line, staring straight ahead, as if they had a spat during the night. Surely it will be repaired. Or, perhaps, they await the rising sun, like me, to see the colors of the mountains change, the cacti swathed in new light, the desert floor coming into sharp relief.

And, can it be, that I should gain and interest in the Savior’s blood?

Wondrous love, desert love. Somehow when I come here I am interested in everything - every tree, bush, and flower, every rabbit, range and river, dry or running wet - when at home the life in the world so often passes unnoticed. A runner overtakes me and passes. I turn up the road to the horse corral and stop. A coyote emerging from the corral path walks away from me, a hundred feet away, his body and head outlined against the mountain. He turns to look at me, his province invaded, and then moves away. Twenty feet more and he turns again to check my progress, before moving away into the wash.

I round the east side of the property, muscle up the incline, pass the vacant tennis courts, pass out onto the road. At the patch of grass around the fountain, the sprinklers wet my ankles. Back on the sidewalk, the black of the night sky melds to indigo. A couple walk ahead, and I’m gaining on them, so I circle back to give them room, turn, and then they disappear down the sidewalk. I press on. Meeting an smiling older woman walking toward me, cane in hand, I tell her about the coyote. She wants to know how many there were. One, I say. She waves her stick, says “I’m not worried about one, but I keep the stick for if there’s more than one.”

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart.

“A disciple is someone who has been captivated,” says the pastor, “by the most beautiful person of all, Jesus.”

The moon blinks off. The sun peaks the corner of the Catalina’s. I turn for home, remembering all I have seen.

Rejoice, the Lord is King.


Trees, Unforgotten

C3098F86-A1C0-4F6A-AD46-824C4B4A5165“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” (John Muir)

Over 34 years ago, our patch of land was hewed from a mostly loblolly pine forest, a relatively young stand which grew up after the mature hardwoods that originally grew here were painstakeningly cut and the land farmed. The red clay dirt proved unsuitable for farming and was abandoned, and the pines, the eager first comers, grew their lanky trunks and green crowns, such as they were, until profit was in sight and the cutting began. I wasn’t here, of course, for the cutting, digging, and plowing and surmise this only from the relative youth of the trees and knowledge of the area. This wasn’t always suburbia; out on the edge of my memory, it was country, a land of red dirt roads and farm houses, clapboard churches and volunteer fire departments, fields of tobacco and woodlots.

To his credit, the developer of this land cut as little as was needed. Some homeowners cut more. We didn’t, preferring forest to sunlight. Sometimes in strong winds the pines bend and wave and creak, aged denizens as they are. One fell after an ice storm, dropping parallel to our house, breaking our fence yet sparing our roof; it lay there like an apology, welcomed. No tree has ever hit our home. I like to think there is a collective gratitude, a wooden pact to spare their guests that indignity, all of which makes me think carefully about whether to take any down.

In our front yard three of those pines lean slightly toward our neighbor’s home, threatening. They’re not much to look at, as what branches and green they have are near sky and all on one side, the side facing my neighbor’s home, like awkward, cock-eyed giants reaching for the West. A couple of weeks ago I called a tree man to discuss my problem. I expected a sympathetic knower of trees, a dispenser of palliative care, but he was matter of fact, all business. He never even touched the trees.

Later I lay in the hammock under the trees. A hammock is a wonderful place to think. And I must think. I lay there thankful for tree-shade, for green against blue, for the aged trunks, for pine cones and tree pollen which is the dust of life, and the sap of the sage - for life so abundant in the trees.

In Lives of the Trees, Diana Wells spends all of five pages on the ignoble pines - all variety of pines. Pines can grow in poor soils and adapt to very different climates. Their cones hang down and not up like firs. And those pinecones that littered my driveway after Hurricane Michael? They are the female reproductive organs of the trees. That explains why some cultures regarded them as symbols of fertility. Pine needles can be eaten and provide some nourishment, though, having tried some, I cannot recommend it. Pine bark can be used to make a kind of tea, though I haven’t tried that and won’t. Wells writes of Li-Li Weng, a seventeenth century Chinese artist and gardener who wrote “When one sits in a garden with peach trees, flowers and willows, without a single pine in sight, it is like sitting among children and women without any venerable men in the vicinity to whom one may look up.” Some respect is accorded age, even the age of a tree.

In reassuring his people through the prophet Isaiah, God says “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isa. ‭41:19-20‬ ‭ESV‬‬). So in God’s redemptive history, even the often misshapen, wopsided pine is exalted, made part of the greening of the desert, part of the comfort of a God who says “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you’” (Isaiah‬ ‭41:13‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Knowing that, I can never look at a pine again without assurance that I need not fear, that the God who made the pines and held them up for all their years will hold me up too.

“I believe the Bible has a forest of trees because trees teach us about the nature of God, says Matthew Sleeth. “Just like a tree, God is constantly giving. Trees have been giving life long before human beings had a clue oxygen existed. Trees give life, beauty, food, and shade. . . . No wonder God uses trees to instruct us about life, death, and resurrection. Trees, like God, give life even after death.” Sleeth says that trees are the most mentioned non-human living thing in scripture, a number that says “pay attention.”

For love of neighbor, the trees may need to go. I’m neither a tree-hugger nor overly sentimental and recognize the utility of trees and the God-allowed natural calamities that fell many thousands of trees each year if not month. Yet it would be wrong not to pause before ending the long lives of these trees and recognize that they too are a kind of neighbor entitled to neighbor-love. The felling of a tree is not earth-shattering, and certainly will not register in human history nor, for long, in my personal history. Yet it is no small thing. It matters as much as a sparrow that falls from a tree. “[N]ot one is forgotten before God” (Lk. 12:6).

I think I’ll call an arborist. An arborist may understand.


My Interlocutors, My Dance

Images“Thank you for meeting with me today. After 34 years of work at the same place, I felt like I needed to explain a few things about my leaving” I looked up. To a one, the men and women who peered at me were aged, unsmiling, and slightly bemused. The one in the middle shuffled some papers.

“Well, go on.”

“On August 30th, I retired.”

“Have you filed a proper motion? You can’t have a new trial without a proper motion and hardly ever then.”


“Oh no, no, perhaps I misspoke [I didn’t]. I said retired, not retried.”

“Hmmf. That’s not allowed.”

“Your honor, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I have changed jobs. . .


“Well, do say what you mean.”

“If I may. . .”

“You may.”

“As I was saying, on August 30th I left my job. The next day my wife and went to the coast. We had a great day on the beach. Sunny skies, ocean breezes, the waves breaking. Late in the day we swam in the ocean, splashed around until we tired, and then lay facedown on the beach, directly on the sand, our feet trailing in the water, promptly falling asleep. When I woke up, I felt a great peace. I said to myself, ‘This must be what its like to be retired.’”

“Only you said try were not retired.”

“Right, right. I’m getting to that. But first. . . That word, ‘retired,’ is actually related to a French word. . .

“Well, that’s the first thing you said that makes sense. French people are good at not working.”


“Your honor, please.”

“Go on, go on.”

“The word, 'retire,' refers to a movement in ballet. So, you see, to retire is really to engage in a kind of dance, a different movement.”

“Nonsense.”

“Oh no, it makes perfect sense. Life is like a dance, you see, and this withdrawal from my former work is simply a new movement, one part of the great dance, the dance of life.”

“I thought you were a lawyer.”

“In my former life, yes.”

“And now you’re dancing to a different beat?”

“You might say that.”

“Well what is it you do now?”

“I’m a writer.” Loud guffaws issued. They looked knowingly at one another, nodding their heads, and then turned to stare at me. I said, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Well because writers don’t really work, do they? They just do a lot of navel-gazing and then spew out a bunch of rubbish, blabbering on about the meaning of a rock, for example, making something out of nothing. It certainly can’t be as important as your work as a lawyer.”

“Perhaps not.”


“Have you made any money at it?”


“Not much.”


“I thought not. Then why do it?”


“I think I am called to do it.”

“Who called?”

“Well. . . Him.” I pointed up.

“Oh, him. Well, far be it from me to argue with him. Higher court, and all that. . .Tell me about some of your scribblings. . . I mean, writings.”

“Well, I recently wrote about a water fountain.”


“Oh really. . .”


“And a fence around my backyard. . .”

“Thrilling.”


“”The first car I owned.”

“I know the world is richer for it.”

“And I am at work on a book about an American missionary to Europe, Francis Schaeffer.”

“Who? Never heard of him.”

“Well, that’s the point. By writing about him, I might introduce him to a new audience.”

“Well why don’t you tell us about a typical day at this writing.”


“I’d love to. I get up at 5:45 and my wife and I walk for about an hour. Sometimes I see things I want to write about as I walk, like a telephone pole, a fox chasing a cat, the brook that passes under street before the rise of Kill Devil Hill. We often pray, but we get distracted. We follow the distraction. We pray about the distraction. Or maybe we forget to pray. Maybe we just talk. Maybe we’re just silent, deep in our own thoughts.”

“Exercise is fortifying. I commend you.”

“Well, not too quick. Sometimes we sleep in. But even then I’m thinking. I wake up and listen to the house, the sounds it makes, the whirring of the heat pump, the rain slapping the window, the purr of the cat, the birds waking just before dawn, a truck on the highway. . .”

“Yes, yes, I get the point. What do you do next?”

“After the walk, or after rising, I shower, dress for work (no pajamas or shorts, shirt tucked in), eat breakfast, and have a personal worship time. I read my Bible. I pray.”

“Pray again?”

“Of course. Only sometimes I miss.”

“That’s bad, right? God doesn’t like that, does he?”

“God loves me just the same. I missed out on time with Him, that’s all. Anyway, after that I go to work. I have an office on the third floor devoted to nothing but writing. I read a bit, do my research. Then I sit in my chair and stare out the window. I try to take myself back to the village of Huemoz, Switzerland, in 1957. As all the pictures I have are black and white, I have to add the color -- the wildflowers in the fields, or the white on the snow-capped Alps, or the yellow of the post bus that passes periodically on its way to Villars. I hear cowbells, laughter, and conversation - always conversation. Then I go back to my desk and write a line, or two, on my way to a page. A page a day, page on page, until its done. Bird by bird, as Anne Lammott says.”

“That’s it, a page a day? That doesn’t seem very productive.”

“Well, you forget about the rest of the page, the empty white space of the page, all that’s left unsaid. I have to make choices, you see, about what to include and what to leave out. People have to fill in the white with their own images, helped by the words I do include on the page. I guess it does look like a lot of nothing, but it’s not. John McPhee, who has done a lot of writing, said once he did his research for an article, on oranges I think, and then lay on the picnic table in his backyard for two weeks trying to figure out how to organize his material. It looked like he was doing nothing. But he wasn’t.”

“I'll bet he took a few naps. Anyway, is that it?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“What do you hope to get out of all this? Not money, I presume.”

“Peace, I guess. Peace at being in the place where God would have me be, I suppose. Money if he gives it; the satisfaction of being in the right place, if not. I don’t write because it’s fun; it’s generally not. I don’t write because it’s lucrative; it’s seldom that. There are a lot of easier things to do - like being a lawyer. Or painting houses. I don’t love writing. John McPhee says that people who say that they love to write aren’t writers at all. If they were they wouldn’t say such ridiculous things.”

“For God’s sake, man, you’re an attorney. Why waste your time and what talent you have on writing about trees or some obscure American pastor?”

“Do you like music?”

“Of course. Beethoven. Bach. Even the Gershwins.”

“Well that’s why I write. When it all comes together, when the right words fall in place, it’s like a song. I read it aloud and there’s melody to it, a rhythm, a beat, some truly tiny distant echo of the song the stars made at Creation. It doesn’t happen much, but I live for those rare moments when I've done the best I can, and I stand back and say with all humility, how could I have written that? And then it has its own life and begins to talk to me and teach me.”

“Well, you’re either delusional or on to something.”

"I appreciate you hearing me out about this.”

“It seems a foolish course to us, a huge waste of time and one with little money-making potential.”

“I see how it appears.”

“But we’ll consider what you said and let you know what we think. For now, carry on. Or should we say, dance on. And God help you.




The Eyes of the Heart

Fullsizeoutput_7f72A few weeks ago my wife and I were cleaning out some closets or files (at the moment I’ve forgotten which) and discovered the pellet-pocked National Rifle Association 5 Meter BB Gun target saved from her happy years at Camp Yonalossee. Not a sentimentalist, she threw it away. I retrieved it and retained it, a reminder of her aptitude. It’s in a manilla folder marked “resources,” a place where I file clippings and salvaged memorabilia of uncertain use, items that portend meaning if as yet unknown. I pull it out of the folder and examine it again. Some shots went wide, clipping the edges of the target, yet a number hit their mark, I note, sobered by her eye, her resolute fire.

She’s always had a good eye. In 1987 when we were in Kenya and Tanzania on safari, she spotted a serval cat at a distance of over a thousand feet without the aid of binoculars, identifying it for our guide, Elvis, who was impressed if initially doubtful. “Good eyes, Madam,” he said, after confirming her sighting with binoculars. Servals are shy cats, with overly long legs, small heads, and demure faces. They catch their prey by leaping up to ten feet high and pouncing with both front paws, and often play with their prey before eating it. I look sideways at my large cat, with her overly short legs, laconic eyes, and domestic demeanor, and I can’t quite make the connection.

My eyes are not so good. I have been severely near-sighted since third grade, and now I have “floaters.” In the terminology of the retina specialists, they are caused by posterior vitreous detachment, something which happens as you age. The white matter of the eye tends to pull away from the back of the eye. The result is like looking through spidery webs, particularly noticeable when looking at a bright sky or light-filled windows. There’s no recommended treatment. They annoy but don’t impact my already-compromised vision. Remarkably, the brain has a way of filtering them out of consciousness, like the items heaped at the bottom of the stairs for weeks that you’ve meant to carry upstairs, yet haven’t. You eventually don’t notice them. Much.

"Did you find her?, she said, referring to the fluid waif-like cat, sister to the large one. "I've looked everywhere," I say, and I did. At least I thought I did. First floor. Second floor. Under the beds, behind chairs, in all the usual hiding places into which only she can slither. I can't find her! But of course, she finds her, her lugubrious fur-covered gelato stuffed in a crack behind the bed. Eyes do not fail my wife. With effort, the cat is retrieved, pried from the carpet. Perhaps I could have seen her, but my eyes have been trained to inattention, it seems, lazy and impatient.

In one of his memoirs, Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner lets us peer into his Magic Kingdom, his palace of memory. Looking around the various photos and other memorabilia of his study, he summons up voices from the past, let’s them speak to him and he to them. It’s as if he pulls out his file called “resources” and examines an item at a time, letting it speak and give up meaning. He concludes it this way:

What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The one who sits upon its throne says, “Behold, I make all things new,” and the streets of it are of gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl.

So that's it. If we have the eyes to see, Buechner is saying, then everything points beyond itself to something greater. Yet when I train a BB gun on life, I don't always fare so well. Things are not quite in focus. The spidery webs of brokenness born of detachment occlude my vision. I often miss the mark and go wide. Yet with the graces of Word and prayer, I begin to see more of the Kingdom. I glimpse the heaven in and beyond the world. What is it that the Apostle says? Having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you. That’s my target. That’s the serval cat in my sights. That’s the Reality beyond my occlusion. I just need the eyes to see.


Cleaning the Fountain

Fullsizeoutput_7f09I love cleaning the fountain, I said, which if not precisely true, is not false. I do it for her. I am under her spell. We are doing it together.

The fountain has three copper pieces: a bowl circular yet fashioned in waves; a centerpiece of four cattails surrounded by leafy fronds; and a motor covered by a hand-sized cup. Oxidation has blued the copper, giving color. Water presses upward and drops to the pool below, spare music for the afternoon.

She is directing me, and I am trying to keep my mind on what I am doing, which is no small thing, as the sound of the water is dream-inducing. First, she says, you lift the centerpiece with cattails and fronds directly up out of the water, taking care to lift by two fronds so as not to bend the piece. And stay upright, she cautions, and take care, as one of the fronds might put your eye out. I lift it, eyes averted from its nakedness, and place it flatly on the walk, lifeless and inanimate.

Returning, I help her scoop water out of the bowl, using the cup that covered the motor. She pulls up pine straw, baring earth, and shows me how she pours the water just so and then covers it, so it all looks undisturbed. (I make a note that this is more complicated than I first imagined.) After many scoop-scoop-scoops, copper on copper, splashing of water, I scrap bottom. To remove the rest of the water, she says, you gently cup your hands under the sides of the bowl and tip it forward, like this she says, demonstrating, so as not to crack it. A healer, she shows me the thin lines of adhesive applied to previous cracks, copper-love. I cup and tip it, tenderly, as holding a baby.

She hands me a brush. She demonstrates how to brush the sides and bottom of the bowl carefully, removing the slime. I take over. She sits on the steps at our door, coaching. I like the rhythm of the brushing, the ease of the cleaning, the new clarity of the copper beneath. My mind wanders, as it is wont to, while she watches.

We are wandering the dusty streets of Tubac, in southern Arizona, walking by the many artisans, just above the oft-dry Santa Cruz River. The fountain was born in Tubac, fashioned by a metalworker named Lee Blackwell, we later recall, the copper mined in the mountains nearby. Sometimes, rather than shop the artisans, I give her space to shop at ease, without the company of my impatience, and I walk the nearly six miles of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which is a mighty name for a dirt walk beside a river that mostly hides beneath the desert.

When you finish that, she says, we’ll rinse it. I finished. I rinsed.

I walk the trail from Tubac, just below the Presidio, the site of the original Spanish garrison, winding through the cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite, watching for rattlesnakes that love the heat of the day. Once, she came too. I took her hand and helped her over downed trees and between the slats of a fence. Sometimes, I just took her hand.

Once we rinsed the bowl, we moved to the centerpiece, pulling pine straw and debris from its innards, taking care, of course, for our eyes. As we could, we scrubbed, lightly. Then, carefully clasping two fronds in hands, I set it back down into the bowl, seated it. She cleaned the motor. She is nothing if not thorough. She instructed. I listened and nodded, imagining the calls of the birds along the Santa Cruz, the crunch of the compacted desert sand underfoot, the solitude of the walk. I cross the river, which trickles in the Spring, and make my way to the mission at Tumacacori where the Holy stills ghosts its ruins, where she will drive and pick me up.

Now we fill it, she says, and we sit down side by side on the few steps that lead to our door. We are quiet. I feed the hose around the handrails, and we listen to its filling, so full together.


A Bird Nest & A Little Broken Glass

F9030A5F-1B08-41CC-9797-2CF93656F546“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

(‭‭Colossians‬ ‭1:19-20‬ ‭ESV)‬‬

Two boys are playing catch in the newly shorn forest behind my house. I hear the slap of ball on mitt, an indecipherable exclamation here and there. From the periphery of my vision, movement: arms waving, gesticulations, sighs. Then, laughter. The ball arcs high.

Poet Ted Kooser writes about such common things, yet under his pen the ordinary becomes luminous. An inhabitant of the Great Plains - a region that coastal elites often contemptuously regard as flyover country - his poetry shines a flashlight down into the people and places of the region.

It might be a fence that garners his attention:

The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.

And reading that brief observation or, better yet, sounding it out with an out-loud reading, you hear the tension of unburdened freedom and yet aloneness, a person striking out into the cold solitary and yet resolute, even defiant.

Or it could be a change in the weather, read by animals, as in

You will know that the weather is changing
when your sheep leave the pasture
too slowly, and your dogs lie about
and look tired; when the cat
turns her back to the fire,
washing her face, and the pigs
wallow in litter.

And so on, and so on. The geese are too noisy, says Kooser, and swallows fly low, skimming the earth, and the swan flies at the wind. They know. Kooser is saying watch the animals and they will tell us.

And that’s mostly what he does in these poems: he watches the human and nonhuman creation. Reads the clues. Catches glimpses of underlying meaning.

A siren. Two female cardinals sit side by side in a nearby tree, the bright red male nearby. Wife and concubine? Cicadas interject. Birds twitter. A jet descends, followed by the sound of a single-engine prop plane. Traffic hums in the background. The wind stirs.

In “In An Old Apple Orchard,” the wind is personified:

The wind’s an old man
to this orchard; these trees
have been feeling
the soft tug of his gloves
for a hundred years.
Now it’s April again,
and again that old fool
thinks he’s young.

This afternoon, the wind barely lifts his finger to rustle the branches above my head. He naps on the forest floor, like a cat splayed out and dreamy, his periodic twitching and restlessness moving the tree bough ever so slightly, his soft hand the lightest brush against my skin.

Or maybe Kooser animates an ironing board, as in “Song of the Ironing Board,” letting it speak in its steamy, heated used-up voice:

So many hands lay hot on my belly
over the years, and oh, how many ghosts
I held, their bodies damp and slack,
their long arms fallen to either side.
I gave till my legs shook, but then
they were up and away. Thus the lovely
soft nap of my youth was worn down.
But I gave myself and was proud.

And with that, the wind he stirred, like he heard in the iron’s song some longing for more, and brushed more boldly across my neck, threw a puff even in my face. For a moment, he thought himself young, and it April, and the earth new.

On two facing pages of Kindest Regards, Kooser’s latest collection of poetry, the titles juxtapose the epitome of the mundane: Dishwater. Applesauce. There’s more on the following pages: A Jar of Buttons. Sparklers. Old Dog in March. Shoes. Laundry. Ladder.

There’s poetry in titles, even in just naming. A blower interrupts my reverie, modulating with its fanning motion, with its reminder of work undone. Traffic hums constant beneath the twitter of the aviary. An empty, unoccupied house is a vacant stare into my backyard. The wind wakes, exhales.

Why poetry? Why something so small, so obscure, and so useless? Because, says Kooser, were he to comment on his observations of the ordinary, “the good works of the Lord are all around,” and the “cross is only God knows where.” The poet goes looking. We can look over the shoulder of the God-conscious poet and see hints of the divine in the stuff of life. Says Kooser, in “The Red Wing Church,”

There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church
in Red Wing, Nebraska, in a coat of mud
and straw that drags the floor. A broken plow
sprawls beggar-like behind it on some planks
that make a sort of roadway up the steps.
The steeple’s gone. A black tar-paper scar
that lightning might have made replaces it.
They’ve taken it down to change the house of God
to Homer Johnson’s barn, but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger-lilies in the grass
and one of those boxlike, glassed-in signs
that give the sermon’s topic (reading now
a bird nest and a little broken glass).
The good works of the Lord are all around:
the steeple top is standing in a garden
just up the alley; it’s a henhouse now:
fat leghorns gossip at its crowded door.
Pews stretch on porches up and down the street,
the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house,
and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square.
The cross is only God know where.

Kooser looks at the works of God dispersed, at the steeples and pews and bells displayed in Creation. It’s still a church. God knows where the cross is. It cuts across His good works. It stands over all things.

That’s why I am here, outside, in the humidity and heat of the day, listening to the slap, slap of a ball on mitt, to the planes overhead, to the cicada-cries, to the wind tapping on my bare knees, saying did you see, did you hear? Did you hear the sermon in the wind?


Oh, Mercy

EA62F4D4-ABFA-4FF2-8217-A216AB7044E7“The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”

(Ps.‬ ‭145:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Last night there was a wind off the Atlantic that hummed and whistled through the balcony doors. Then, a gust brought a flapping of the unsecured storm shutters where they had been hastily opened in a driving rain that greeted us midway down the coastal plain and endured well after our coming. I put down the book that I had taken to bed, opened the whistling door, and secured the shutter. Rain-chastened, I returned to bed.

Earlier in the afternoon we had watched a woman come to the ocean edge in a steady downpour, try unsuccessfully to open an umbrella, and finally settle into a chair wrapped in a towel to watch the waves slap the shore. Another couple were doing the same, both presumably drawn by something elemental, nameless, their thoughts ebbing and flowing like the tide, first expansive, then contracting, their eyes searching the frothing waters. Other than these, there were no others. The beach lay fallow.

In the book I lay reading, Draft No. 4, writer John McPhee’s memoir on the writing process, he says that a “lead” for a nonfiction article “should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring.” I had to get over that he did not bother to put “and” after the last comma in that series, something William Strunk would not allow. He is John McPhee, after all. I also had to look up meretricious, an annoyance. (It means “apparently attractive but having no value or integrity.”) He says the lead “should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.” That makes me think of the Psalmist who said ““Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps.‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭ESV‬‬). God’s Word, a flashlight to eternity.

The wind whistles eternity. Out in the dark the Gulf Stream swirls. Sand, the broken down and weathered granular fragments of quartz and other rocks and minerals, moves while we sleep, creeping toward the mainland, accreting on the sound side, eroding on the ocean side. Ocean dark meets the dark of sky at an eternally receding horizon. Out on the ocean a light marks a fishing vessel alone at sea.

A flashlight that shines down into the story? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” is about the most promising lead imaginable. Questions form. Who is God? Other than God, what else was there before the beginning? Did God always exist? How did he create? What did he create? To what end did he create? The lead shines down into the great story that follows.

Under the dunes blanketed with cordgrass, there are warrens of rabbits sleeping, emerging just before dawn to nibble at the grass, flopping easily, silently until the sun rises. A mockingbird lets go songs in the night. The rain stops, but the air is sopped with water.

McPhee, on interviewing: “You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit.” To some, I would add, this comes natural; others, it takes practice. One law enforcement agent I once knew presented as Mayberry’s Goober in uniform, yet wasn’t: criminals talked freely with him and were helped on their way to jail. I look around for a handy interviewee, yet all slumber. Slow of wit, I interview the night.

A feral cat plies the moonless night. Mice, wary, retire early. A lone beachcomber meanders in and out of the tide, drunk in thought. The light on the ocean blinks against the night. Where dark meets dark at the horizon, the dim outline of thunderheads lean in. Eternity whistles in the wind.

McPhee again: “Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.” But you’re not a writer, you think, thank God, and yet every person faces block in the often small and yet sometimes incessant demon that says “you can’t do it” can’t get up can’t talk with that person can’t change one more diaper wash one more pile of clothes listen to one more unhappy client. Can’t. His advice? Write your mother.

Dear Mom, I write, scrawling my thoughts into the night, there’s a brawl in the sandy lane of the beach access road, and I can’t sleep due to the beat beat beat of the party next door, and did I mention that I took up surfing for my 60th (catch a wave) birthday and that I’m sitting on top of the world? And that the sand of barrier islands is a great metaphor for the of the temporal ever-shifting circumstances of life and the seagrass-planted dunes a hedge against the feral? I didn’t think so.

“Is it wrong to alter a fact in order to improve the rhythm of your prose ?,” says McPhee. And then, “I know so, and so do you.” Oh mercy. Chastened, I withdraw the light on the sea, feral cat and retiring mice, rabbits in their warren, and beachcomber that I conjured from the night. And the drunken brawl and party next door and surfin’ safari prevarication. I apologize yet add, “they could have been.” Part of me wants to rise out of bed and on a midnight walk fact-check this bit of prose before withdrawing it. Even ring up the local surf shop (hey dude) and reserve a lesson. Because it could have been and maybe is or maybe will all come true. Sigh.

I turn off the light. The other shutter flaps. I leave it. Yet sleep hesitates. I continue my letter to the night. I think about a light on the ocean, tiny in the darkness of sea, about a man on the sand casting great hopes against the flood of night, about the resoluteness of the few perched on the ever-shifting sand, arrayed against the fury of the waves and wind, about the near-silent footfalls of the feral cat and the shushed quiet of the dune mice, about the mockingbird’s operetta, about the great mercy of a God who shines a searchlight into our eternity, who is kind in all His works.

I omit the “and” before the final comma in that series, McPhee-like in my rebellion, before sleep comes.


Behind the Fence

IMG_1949“So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under.”

(Laura Ingall Wilders)

When we moved into our home over 33 years ago, there was no fence enclosing our back yard. The forest from which our subdivision was hewed lapped up to nearly our back door and, there being only woods and a country lane behind us, our existence and identity dribbled out into the world that preceded us, a world of forest life and piney woods that before that were likely a cutover or timbered woodlot that became farmland. In one place the land still bore the marks of its furrows. Our claim was staked, literally, by orange-tasseled wooden posts in the corners of our lot; an invisible and imaginary line ran between them and then from each of them on to the street in front of our home, a trapezoid imposed on an unruly Creation. With that, our lives were bounded.

We erected a fence only because of the arrival of our faithful German Shepherd, to contain her. We needn’t have bothered. Given her interest in what was going on in the home and not out, she lingered near the portals, her longing face windowed in the doors. But she died 21 years ago, and our children who, but for the fence, may have wandered off into the dark woods, red riding hood like, have crossed the imaginary lines and live outside the lines --- and yet, surely, they remain tethered here.

There’s not much need for a fence now. The deer easily vault the four feet, bed down in our pine straw, purloin our bird seed from the feeders, and peer curiously and cautiously into our windows. Our modest, malleable near liquid cat it gives no pause; in the morning she glides through its rungs effortlessly, melting into the leafy ether of the diminished woodland, unfailingly returning under cover of darkness, admitting nothing. (She learns things we cannot fathom. That, or nothing.) Squirrels chatter right over its heights. And birds, they have another universe, a sky unbounded.

This bounded land is ours, right down to its subterranean depths, to the center of the earth, and up to navigable airspace. If I wanted to, I could begin digging through the topsoil and, with effort, through red clay, down to bedrock. People may wonder about my large hole, but no matter. It’s mine. All mine. But I won’t do that. The most I have dug is about two feet into unyielding earth. Thus, my inheritance must remain largely untapped and unknown. That’s grace: I have been given much more than I can know or appropriate.

I’ve walked outside the fence. A neighbor, at some point prior to our residency here, placed an old bathtub in the narrow strip near the corner of our lot. Why, I don’t know, whether to water the animals or through mere neglect. Once, a gentleman who lived in the brick house on the country road behind us hiked to our fence and, inexplicably, cast something over the fence into our yard. My wife was on it. They had a discussion over the fence, one polite enough, after which he retreated, admonished. He didn’t do that again. We also had an ice storm once, and a tree fell across the fence. It still bears its wound but has sprung back, resilient.

Walking along the fence today, I run a stick across its wire mesh. It makes its own music, a bit dull but resonant. Just like people, all fences make different sounds. The one I occasionally slammed into playing dodge ball on the elementary school court clanged, a prickly schoolchildren minder; the oversize bars around the zoo elephant went thunk-thunk-thunk as in don’t-even-think-about-it; the plastic fence around my child-size barnyard animal set barely made any sound; the tapping of my wedding ring on the fence behind which we waited more than once is the sound of bliss, bounded by vow.

Some people don’t like fences, preferring a world of untrammeled unboundedness, much like the backyards I ran through as a child. Not me. Fences define. Behind them we refine who we are. Rarely are they impermeable: the immigrant deer and squirrels come, and visitors are let in. Sun and rain and wind touch us all. Yet without a fence we may forget who we are; with a fence we are free to become more of who we are.

“The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” says the Psalmist, and “indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Turning, looking back from the line of my lot, leaning against the fence, I see our place, our lives, our memories, our home. My children played in the shade of the trees that grow here, explored, pretended, and imagined. The fence reminds me that it’s here and not over there where life is lived. Life grows in a place, a bounded place, and is freer and more defined by its boundaries. It becomes home. And “home,” said Laura Ingall Wilders, “is the nicest word there is.” Life flourishes behind the fence. “Jesus, be a fence around me,” sings Fred Hammond in the old Sam Cooke song. “This is my prayer Lord that I pray each and every day/ That you would guide my footsteps lest I stumble and stray/ Lord, I need you to direct me all the way long/ Oh Lord be a fence all around me everyday.”

I let go the fence. I go inside. I look out the unshuttered windows of my home at the piney woods and pray, “Lord, be a fence around me everyday, Lord be a fence today.”


Rain, Delight

A53DAAB5-83F8-438B-9788-4A58BAAB79BD“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” (‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭62:4‬ , ESV‬‬)

We were nearly a mile and a half into the canyon when we saw the first sign of life. A Western tanager, a brilliant yellow bird with a red head and black wings, alighted on a tree branch jutting up from the canyon bank, hundreds of feet above his normal riparian habitat. He flew higher and, being an avid singer, chirped a plaintive song marking territory, before darting away up canyon.

It is the first day of our time here, and we began late, so the sun is high in the New Mexico sky and we feel it sap our energy. We’ve walked down into Frijoles Canyon of Bandolier National Monument, meeting no one on the way, down to see the Upper Falls, only there is no falling water. Drought lays heavy on the land, and the creek that the guidebook says runs year round has vanished, gone covert, snaking slowly underground, until the rains swell, until the summer monsoons come and the creek re-emerges, transformed. I look down to where the canyon drops away into woodland and see the muddy-brown flow of the Rio Grande, the trees a bosky ribbon of green along its bank, and yet here it is only dry, the green defiant but tired.

Fire is an ever-present danger, so the backcountry of Bandolier and campgrounds are closed. Just north, in the long inactive caldera of the Valle Caldera Preserve that we visited yesterday, the green observed from the lip of the caldera is deceptive: the grasses are desiccated, and the wind that sweeps across the plain could whip a spark into a hellish fire that would consume all in its path. The ranger in the caldera, a woman from Jemez Springs, reminded us of the nineteen firefighters who lost their lives there in 2013, overtaken by flames while battling the Thompson Ridge Fire, an inferno that at its height burned an acre a minute.

But the tanager is waiting for water, as are the towering, stolid Pondera pines that anchor the canyon floor, their reddish bark brilliant against a blue sky, resilient even in the parched landscape. As are the grasses of the caldera and its herds of elk and coteries of prairie dogs darting here and there, dropping down a hole here and popping out of a hole there, comic. And yet the land and its life, though conditioned to drought, are beginning to suffer under the effects of this drought’s desolations, a tragic reminder of both the fragility and resilience of life in the desert. We drink water and turn to go back.

“Take small steps,” she says, “as it’ll conserve your energy.” I do. I let her lead, as her eyes are sharp and concentration better than mine. I have been accused of daydreaming.

I have in fact been daydreaming, my feet moving but my head walking elsewhere. I confess I have been thinking of those great scientists of nearby Los Alamos, like physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, or Ernest Lawrence, who back in the mid-Forties, at the founding of the secret city, escaped the confines of the closely guarded community, part of The Manhattan Project, and came here, on horseback or on a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, for solace from the conflicted thoughts that sometimes haunted their building of an atomic bomb, a horrible weapon to kill many to save many more. And so while I am here, the trail dust stirred by my every footfall, my thoughts are in 1943, stirred by those men riding horses through the canyon, comforted by the seemingly stable and only slowly changing nature of the canyon. “Science is not everything,” said the often poetic Oppenheimer, but science is very beautiful,” and so too is nature --- not everything, far from everything, and yet beautiful if fraught, riven by sin.

There were once people who lived in Frijoles Canyon --- Anasazi, ancestral people, native Americans --- who dug caves in the canyon walls out of the “tuff,” a soft rock made from compacted volcanic ash. We visited their leavings. On the second day we rose very early and entered the canyon just after dawn, walked two miles in, and climbed ladders reaching 120 feet up the canyon walls, entering some of the caves and alcoves of these ancestors. In the cool of the morning we saw life we did not see in yesterday’s mid-day heat --- a bright-eyed rock squirrel foraging for food not more than five feet from us, coyotes flanking a lone mule deer, hoping for a meal, lizards scurrying across our trail. A nuthatch on a tree branch. A flicker (or woodpecker), heard but not seen. We heard the distinctive, plummeting call of the red-tailed hawk. Even the creek in places bubbled up life, evidence that all is not lost and the promise of more to come.

Two days later, the rains do come. From my window on Santa Fe, miles from Bandolier, I imagine the tanager drinking from a pool, the pines drawing deep draughts through their roots, the coyotes lapping life-giving water from a now coursing Frijoles Creek, the waterfall now living up to its name, a trickle giving way to a torrent cast down the rock wall. Periodically thunder peals, like God’s voice announcing his delight. His rain, his delight.


Strange Cases, Found

IMG_0334“Wanna sit at the bar?”

Hosts assume that persons dining alone want to sit at a bar, presumably where they won’t feel so alone. They’re often wrong.

“Nope. Booth, please.”

I slide into a cavernous coop made for six people, back to the kitchen, face to the door. Plenty of room for me and my friends, the ghosts of past conversations, the phantoms of a long memory, or for worlds conjured up by words.

I dine alone once each week, an introvert’s allowance, a pittance for my sanity. I need time to process. I need time to observe and reflect. I need to do a little life summary, take my pulse, make sure I am still living and not just existing. I need to get away from the phone, the screens, the. . .well. . .people. I recognize that it would be problematic to do this every day. But I don’t.

“Hi, I’m Penny.”

Penny is the server. She calls me honey. But here in this corner of the South, in this particular restaurant that doesn’t cater to transplants or the hip, there’s no romance in that sweetness, just hospitality.

“Is Penny short for Penelope?” I can’t hear Penny without hearing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” its “in my ears and in my eyes/ Here beneath the blue suburban skies.”

“Yep, but that’s a mouthful.”

Sure is. Penny is probably in her Forties but looks like she’s in her Sixties, aged by smoking and life’s burdens. Penelope seems too fussy; Penny, too girlish. I give her my order. She whisks away yet continues to supply copious amounts of ice tea to fuel my meditations.

I’m reading an article in the New York Times Magazine, a lengthy feature by Jack Hitt entitled “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar.” Hitt is chasing down what became of a renowned Boston University professor, John Kidd, a James Joyce scholar who two decades ago simply disappeared. I have never heard of the man. Never read Joyce’s Ulysses either, and certainly never knew of the insane obsession that the novel is for certain folks. None of these people would deign dine with a denizen like me. The author ultimately locates the Gandalf-ish looking Kidd in Rio de Janeiro (of course) still very much alive and obsessed with yet another novel.

While I read Hitt’s article mostly for the journalistic chase, his dogged pursuit of the facts, the heart of it was found in what was to Hitt perhaps just an aside, a tangential observation. Hitt is commenting on Kidd’s compulsiveness, such as his obsession over the size of a period at the end of a paragraph of Ulysses, a giant black dot on the page at the end of the last chapter featuring the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. Essays have been written on the dot which, according to Hitt, “ends a long, hilarious chapter that parodies the kind of crisp, cold tone associated with scientific discourse,” as if Joyce is saying, “Just shut up.” Essayists opine otherwise, of course. As Hitt summarizes, “Some see the big dot as Earth, viewed from the heavenly throne of God, who is often understood to be the annoyingly precise narrator of this chapter. Some think it’s a black hole or maybe Bloom’s open mouth, finally collapsing into sleep at the interrogator’s moronic questions.” I won’t even mention some of the more lively (or profane) interpretations. What I can say is that reading about such tripe in a place frequented by blue collar workers, to people who deal in the brick and mortar of life, is a surreal experience.

“You need anything else?”

“Thanks Penny. I don’t. I’m just reading.”

“Stay as long as you like. We’re open until eight.”

“I won’t make it quite that long.” It’s only noon.

Hitt gets to the point later in the article, as he addresses Kidd’s compulsion for completeness:

“Theorists who study folk art sometimes describe those crowded, image-packed creations, like Howard Finster’s ‘Paradise Garden’ or Grandma Moses’ ‘Country Fair,’ not merely as a prominent theme but as a kind of mental illness common to the form. They argue that these artists’ works are expressions of a compulsion to fill an existential emptiness. This anxiety has its own Latin name, horror vacui, fear of the void — and Kidd brings this intensity to his understanding of every book he reads.”

Horror vacui. People like Kidd and other “artists of completion” help us see in sharp relief the void in a human life lived apart from God, even if that void is hidden beneath a veneer of distraction or steady soliloquy of self-love . Considering why people commit suicide, Walker Percy said “We do not know where we came from, why we are here, or what comes at the end. We do not know what it means to have a good life or a good death.” Kidd’s compulsion masks the fear of the void; obsession hides emptiness. All of which is tragic of course, part of the brokenness of a God-denying yet Christ-haunted world.

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man, said Blaise Pascal, “which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” God gives us someone like John Kidd to show us the extreme, to bring to the surface what lies at the soul of every person. For Christians, Christ is our holy obsession. Completeness is found only in Him. The Apostle Paul says “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Meaning can’t be made up. We can’t self-define. Meaning is part of the givenness of life, a gift.

Penny is back, this time a bit awkwardly (for me, anyway) she sits across from me, refilling the sweeteners and jellies at the table. For a moment I wonder if she is aware of the void in her life and how she fills it.

“Don’t mind me,” she says, as if she were non-existent, a non-entity. I know better. Everyone is to be minded. Everyone matters.

As for John Kidd? Pray for him, that his void might be filled to overflowing with the death and life of Christ. God takes strange cases. He gets to the bottom of our empty. Then, He fills us up.

I left Penny a good tip, but I should have offered her more. Next time, I just might.

[The photo of present-day John Kidd was taken by Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times.]


Courage, Heart

53763B0A-F25D-4D6B-869A-1460964E5744“Life may be uncertain, our neighbors may be afraid, and we may be disappointed by all that is unfolding. But these things, though significant, are not the ultimate realities. The tomb remains empty, God’s promises remain certain, and Christ remains King.”

(Dennis Haack, in Critique: A Magazine of Ransom Fellowship, 2017:4)

Maria is buoyant, radiant.

“I won’t be working here as much,” she offers. “I have an internship.” She says it like it’s the best job in the world. “I get to work outside and meet people.” She smiles broadly, her eyes bright.

“You’ll be good at that,” I say. Or maybe I just thought that. I envy her energy, the zest in the face of life. It’s doubtful I would have remembered Maria’s name, given my self-absorption at times. My wife is far better. She types the names of servers into her smartphone with some clue about their appearance (short, brown hair, smile) and then reviews them before we enter a restaurant as an aid to memory. But I have gotten modestly better at valuing people, particularly servers and other service people: I look up, catch their eyes, smile. Sometimes.

I took the day off. We parked single-wide (our slight, feline waif) at the spa a/k/a vet, ordering up all the first-class accoutrements of her stay, and headed east, toward the coastal plain. Somehow, just east of the Piedmont, the city in my exhaust, stress falls away. “I wanna live on a boat and sail away with my children,” sings Steven Delopoulos, and I nod. My wife says, “so do I,” and yet the children are now too big for the boat, and we don’t have a boat anyway, but we’re thinking about kayaks. We are. We say that all the time.

“Can I refill your drink,” asks Maria.

“I think I’m OK for now,” I say. I peer over the edge of my cup. It’s nearly full. Yet she’s so excited about refilling my drink. “But thanks.” Maria springs away. She returns, repeatedly, until I down four cups of iced tea and accumulate a stack of used artificial sweetener packets which, I know, I know, cause all kinds of terrible things, according to the internet. But I can only work on one problem at a time. First I need to remember peoples’ names.

Things are looking up. I just got a full house and took the lead by four points in our game of Yahtzee. I hand the smartphone back to my wife so she can have a turn. “I want you to win,” I say. And she does. She’s highly competitive; I’m such a loser that I’ve gotten to where I have learned to enjoy it, like I’ve signed a non-compete clause with life. Plus, she smiles when she wins. But she smiles when she loses as well. I can’t go wrong.

On the drive down I thought of the call from my friend yesterday and the consequences of bad decisions he labors under, things Maria likely hasn’t lived long enough to see. I gave him the strongest thing I could give him, a prayerful coda to our talk, and driving down I thought of what a small thing a prayer can be and yet how the scrap of it, rewritten by the Spirit, a prayer Post-It, sits even now before the Father, handed up by the Son.

“Those flowers are beautiful, a yellow that’s unusual,” says my wife. I look out the window, see the rows of flowers in bloom by the road, planted by workers with the Department of Transportation. Behind that are the ubiquitous pines in the right-of-way, and then the fields tilled by those who still farm, and up beyond that, a cobalt sky softened by building cumulous clouds and lit by a sun that comes up, unfailingly, every single day - life rolling out moment by moment, just plain goodness and beauty and truth breaking out all over.

I don’t know what animates Maria’s good cheer, whether a repository of common grace, natural predisposition to optimism, or Christ indwelling. There’s a lot wrong in the world. Underneath the happy veneer of distraction, many are afraid. As writer Denis Haack suggests, “[i]t might be wise to resurrect a biblical greeting that was used when God’s people faced uncertain times - ‘Be of good courage.’” Or, because “courage” actually derives from the Latin word “cor,” which means “heart,” I want to say to my friend, and you, and even myself, “Take heart. Sin casts a long shadow over your life and that of others, and not everything can be mended here. Yet all is not lost. Like a flower pushing up through the earth, if you stay rooted, you too will rise up and bear fruit - insignificant, perhaps, but still beautiful and noticed by the only One who matters.” If not yet, then soon.

Our meal finished, we stand to leave. I let the screen door fall slap-slap-slap behind me, deliberately, because it reminds me of the door on my childhood home which I hear echoing through the years, a little root snaking back into the good soil of those years. I reach out and take her hand, my heart really, and I feel a little more courage that one day all disappointment will end.

Let the door slap behind you. Be of good courage. Take heart. Christ is King.


Watch This

Fullsizeoutput_7d27“I don’t want eco. I want a car that leaps forward like a caged circus animal with a grievance, not one that lumbers into the intersection like a polar bear trying to step off an ice floe.”

(James Lileks, “Driver’s Id,” in National Review, April 30, 2018)

A couple months short of my 16th birthday in 1974, I bought a 1972 gold in color Camaro. With a 350 cc engine and eight cylinders, it chugged gas like it was Gatorade; it averaged a pathetic nine miles per gallon. With no jockey, it sat tethered at the base of the driveway, a smoldering powerhouse of internal combustion, straining at its ropes, longing for the white line out of town, to anywhere.

At midnight on that fateful birthday, zero hour, my friend John came over to my house, scratching noisily on my ground-floor window screen. John was three months older, so he had somehow sleepwalked through and passed a 7:00 AM drivers’ training class and waltzed through a driving test conducted by a somnolent DMV examiner. He had his license. At that time armed with a learner’s permit you could drive anywhere with any licensed driver, even a novice like John still percolating in adolescent angst and fervor. (I at least had been driving with my aunt since I was six. But that’s another story.) So, provisioned with a full tank of gas, John and I proceeded to drive all night, on a school night, rolling over the darkened roads of four counties. To that point, our wanderlust had been circumscribed by the distance to which our feet could carry us, whether walking or bicycling. This was new. This smelled like freedom.

We barreled through lonely crossroads with four-way stops, and through the blinking red light of some hamlet’s intersection. Hounds sleeping on farm house porches raised their heads as we passed, curious at the insomniac vehicle rolling by. Cats paused in their nightly rounds, initially startled but then returning to their forays. Cows munched silently, unperturbed, their great heads following our lights. A full moon lit our way, our headlights searching for the next hill, the next curve, reaching for the horizon.

“Open your window, John,” I said, as I rolled mine down and let my hand drag the wind. The humid night air rushed in, heated by an earth not yet cooled from the hot mid-July day, still oppressive, weighing on us. And yet we were buoyed by a crescendo of cicadas, enchanted by fireflies in the meadows like stars come to earth, blinking on and off. “Jesus is just all right with me” sang the Doobie Brothers on the eight-track. “Turn it up,” said John, straining forward at the wheel, and I obliged, the words sermoned out into the landscape. Mapless, venturing out of town for the first time, we navigated by the white line and full moon, which is to say, not at all. We wandered.

In the early darkness of morning, we stopped at a curb market at some unknown crossroads and stocked up on junk food, and that fueled our adventure until shortly before dawn as we munched our way across county line after county line. We shared the driving. We just took it all in, like Kerouac and Nichols burning down the highways, on the road. I don’t even remember talking, each of us lost in free-fall thought. The music, the white line, the curves in the road, the rumbling power of the motor underneath the hood - our thoughts were inarticulable, inchoate.

On the way back into town, John driving, he decided to visit his girlfriend Mary. Never mind that it was 4:00 AM. The sugar and the ecstasy of the road had staged a coup de tat on what meager brains we possessed. Barreling down a four-lane road, blocks before its intersection at a traffic light with another four lane road, John looked at me, his eyes popping, barely tethered, as they were wont to do at such moments of high risk, and said, “Watch this.” He put the accelerator to the floor and we quickly accelerated to 90 miles per hour as we rocketed through the intersection. On the other side of the crossing, the road dipped. The car didn’t. For a few brief, exhilarating seconds, we were airborne, until we bottomed out on the other side, the undercarriage whopping the pavement.

I loved that Camaro. I liked looking out over the football-field length of the hood, admiring all that muscle underneath. I liked its low-slung posture, just inches above asphalt, where you were assaulted by every speed bump. I liked the roomy front bucket seats that made up for the chihuahua-sized second row. Better, I appreciated the slight bump it gave to my poor social standing at my high school. When you only had 25 minutes for lunch, speed mattered. I could whisk a carload of ravenous teenagers to the golden arches for a whistle-stop and make it back with time to spare (though, admittedly, there was always a proposal that we not return to school, usually made by one of the more reprobate delinquents in the back seat).

Long about 1977, at the height of the gas crisis, tiring of exorbitant gas prices (37 cents) and long lines, I traded the Camaro for a Datsun 210, one of the last vehicles to use regular, leaded (and cheaper) gas. The Datsun promised gas mileage four times that of the Camaro. It lacked the substantiality of the Camaro, the machismo. When you opened the car door, if you weren’t careful it felt as if it might come unhinged, featherweight, and go flying into he air. It was eco before there was eco. And it was a time-saver: when the red light turned green and you pressed the accelerator, you had enough time to search for and load another cassette tape before combustion, before anything actually happened and you had to look up at the road.

“What’s a cassette tape,” you ask? And wait, “what in the world is an 8-track tape?” Well. [Shaking head.] Go ask your parents. Go ask them about their first car. Ask them what it felt like to be free to go anywhere --- not on the internet, which is nowhere --- but in their God-given flesh to some real place in the dirt beyond their neighborhood. Ask them about the night air wafting through open windows, about an uncaged adventure with their best friend, about how freedom --- at least the freedom they thought they tasted --- is not what it’s cracked up to be, but is just a foretaste of the freedom to be who you were intended to be. Ask them if they are free. Ask them if the love of Christ has set them free.

I don’t recommend muscling cars too fast through busy intersections. But at least it was real. The road, the speed, the fear --- at least those solid realities told me I was living and asked me what for.

John became a weatherman, faithful husband, good father, and kind son to his now 90-something mother. I became a lawyer, and everyday I see or hear of men and women who are still "driving too fast" and suffering the shattering reality of their freedom, like circus animals who have burst their bonds in search of life outside the bounds, yet chained once again. To them --- to me, to you --- Christ says, “Watch this. Take my yoke upon you. It’s easy. My burden is light. In me you will find freedom."


Listening in the Dark


BCC5F60B-618C-4D76-AB2D-F6218E087928“The end of all things is at hand.”

(1 Pet. 4:7a)

In the middle of the night I awoke to hear the lullaby rhythm of a freight train passing by our hotel, its clickety-clack like a poem’s iambic pentameter. A long, epic poem, its lyric carriages filed slowly by. I imagined the poet-engineer atop its pulsing diesel heart, staring into the void of night, the darkened houses and wooded bluffs east; the dark, coursing river west. He must love its rhyme and rhythm, I thought, even if inarticulable, the aloneness of its journey. I lay still listening for its end, sad to hear its strains fade. On rising, I found out that my wife had heard the same train, had been listening in the dark, each of us unaware that the other was awake.

The trains pass regularly beneath our window, no more than a couple hundred feet away and perhaps 40 feet below our balcony. At first I thought the rumble and occasional soundings might disturb me, a light sleeper, but I found the racket mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. Watching the passenger trains pass, my mind ran to the people whose profiles filled each window -- their unknown names like words made flesh, stretched out in a line, common yet different. And then there’s the water. Beyond the tracks lies the Hudson, perhaps a half mile wide at this point, flowing south yet, given the wind, appearing to flow north, an inland sea of space in which the poem slides. An occasional fishing boat passes, lost in the couplets’ deluge, a speck on the poem’s page. An even more occasional tug bullies a barge upstream, pushing a noun, resilient against the flow.

Farther on, west of the Hudson, the Catskill Mountains rise, mist hanging over their summits. In the evenings after dinner I sit and watch the sun set behind them until the wind chills and drives me inside to watch from the window which I crack slightly so as to better hear the trains, smell the Catskill air, and catch snippets of conversation from the bar below, indecipherable yet reassuring: we are not entirely alone.

The reclaimed wood floors of The Rhinecliff Inn creak. The walls lack soundproofing. The air conditioning vent blows right onto your head as you lie in bed. We slept not with our heads on pillows but under pillows so as to allay the draft. The cold water is actually warm, the rainfall shower novel but annoying, and the service in the single restaurant excruciatingly slow, which is conducive to ruminating and conversing and, yes, listening to the trains.

The corner of the aged Amtrak station next door can be glimpsed from our balcony, airy and unkempt. The shiniest things in town are the vehicles, the Mercedes and BMWs, peppered with pickup trucks, the holdouts to the gentrifying of the river’s shore. The few brick and frame buildings at the center of this hamlet are vacant, commerce gone elsewhere. A private residence fills what once was a small brick church. The cemetery surrounding the small Catholic Church spreads out around the chapel, a meadow of silent witnesses to the finitude of life.

“The end of all things is near,” says Peter. That phrase sounds like death, not life, and yet he means it as an ending that resonates with hope. Speaking to a people who are suffering under the iron hand of a conquering nation and the religious people of the day, he gives instructions for the last days: Be sober. Watch yourself. Keep loving. Forgive each other. Show hospitality. Don’t grumble. Use your gift to serve. Speak, he says, “as one who speaks the very oracles of God.” (I Pet. 4:11a). By all means, speak.

Though my balcony is atop the bar, I am sober, and I am speaking. The dead speak from the hill above the town. The nameless people train north and south, their silence speaking. The freight of life moves in the night. Yet if you listen in the dark, you might hear the percolating life beneath: birdsong at dawn, a cross around a woman’s neck shouting death to death, a meadow whispering dandelions, the laughter of a child waiting for a school bus, waiting for something more. Waiting.

“You know what my favorite thing is about that picture,” I asked my wife, holding up a just snapped photo of my hand holding a dandelion just blown in a meadow north of town, its seeds scattered to the wind. “The ring. The wedding band.”

And the green field, and flowers. The meandering poets’ walk south of Red Hook. The buzzing bee held still in the air, evaluating us. The breeze, meadowland’s fall and rise, the Bassett hound lumbering through the life of Rhinebeck, and the glimpse of what once was and what will yet be.

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,” she reads from Psalm 25. “I like to think of the paths we walked these days with signs on them saying ‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness,’” she says. She smiles behind her tea cup, and I think of the trails and country lanes we walked with all those unseen signs speaking steadfast love and faithfulness, reassurances for pilgrim-travelers.

The end is near. For all those listening in the dark, take heart. Christ moves in the shadows. The light and sound of his train will never end.


All Things New

IMG_1596“That’s the one. J-4. Pull that one out.” I gave the canoe a tug. Nothing.

“I think I need a hand,” I confessed. We were used to pulling kayaks, not canoes, and J-4 was wedged in its berth three feet off the ground. Together, we slid it out, carried it to the pond’s edge, and moved it gently into the water.

“Whatever you do, don’t stand up in it,” she said. That part I remember from camp. There may have been some unpleasantness associated with the memory, an image of teetering pre-teens and overturned crafts bottom-side up, yet I dispel the thought, as unlike the camp lake which was foreboding but relatively safe, the woman at the visitors center said this pond had alligators. But we pushed off, navigated decently, and glided over the still water, the only locomotion provided by our oars and a gentle breeze.

I was beset by unarticulated questions. Can alligators jump over the side of the canoe? What do we do if one does? Grab its jaws and hold them shut? (I had heard that they had little muscle strength to open the jaws, just close them, but I did not want to test the theory.) And what then do we do with the writhing, tale-slapping reptile, even if we manage to stay upright?

But I don’t see an alligator. A queue of turtles line a tree branch jutting from the water. One by one, as we moved closer, they dove in. Plop. One lagged behind, the rear guard, until he too took to the drink, droping in behind his kin.

“Are you rowing back there?” She turns her head, looks back at me.

“Oops. No. Sorry.” In the midst of rumination, I had stopped rowing, and our vessel was listing starboard, if you can say starboard about a canoe, heading straight for a gargantuan bald cypress looming over us, its trunk likely five feet in diameter, with appendages snaking out into the water. “Back in business,” I say, placing my oar back in the black water, back stroking, moving us away from the tree.

We moved in and out of the cypress trees for better than an hour, with no method. When we looked up, we had lost sight of the visitors’ center. We had no company on the pond. In solitude, we navigated our way back by following buoys, like bread crumbs, placed in the pond to allow errant travelers to make their way home.

I put my hand up and felt the breeze. Here (I mean here, as in here on earth) when I put my hand into the air, into a tiny bit of atmosphere that wraps the planet, I know something of what I am touching. The atmosphere, or air that the eastern Carolina breeze moves, is some thing - protons, neutrons, and electrons bundled together into atoms - just like the Earth and stars, moon, and sun. Things. But as far as we know, these visible things make up only five percent of the universe or, at least, the tiny bit of the universe that we can observe. That means 95% of the universe is made up of what scientists have coined dark matter and dark energy, and it is expanding. The thought that we do not know the nature of dark matter or dark energy, and know relatively little about the visible universe we have observed, is humbling. Which means that relative to God, who knows all things, there’s not much difference between the scientifically-challenged person like me and Stephen Hawking. Well, maybe there’s a little.

I rest my case.

“Are you rowing back there?”

I plunge the oar back in, and we steam ahead.

Merchant’s Millpond State Park is not a place you would just happen upon on a cross-country jaunt. Finding it requires intention. The “pond” label seems a misnomer, as it conjures up an image of a small pool of water, yet this pond is a large, meandering snake of black water punctuated by bald cypress and swamp. Come here to get away from things, for quiet, so you can glide across the water and think.

Which brings me to the realm of speculative theology. It’s not speculative at all to say that God is love or that God is the creator, that loving and creating are intrinsic to who He is. And if that’s so, then He cannot not love, He cannot not create. And here’s the speculative part: If this is so, perhaps the reason the universe is expanding is because God is continuing to create, continuing to lovingly make worlds and suns and more because He cannot help himself. It is who He is. All of which makes dark matter and dark energy more light than dark; it’s the stuff of creation.

But I’m making my head hurt.

“Do you think we should head back?”

“Yes, I guess so,” I say. “Which way is back?”

“Ahead. Follow the buoys.”

Sometimes, I confess, sitting behind her, I did not row. Content, I rested the oar on my lap, raised my hands in the air, and let the atmosphere slide over them. I looked up. In the azure sky, a bit of leftover moon still shone. Ancient bald cypress trees towered over us, here long before we were born. Later, I read that there is a cypress tree in Bladen County, North Carolina that is over 1,620 years old, making it one of the oldest living plants in North America, over 60 times older than me. These trees are not so old, but they are much older than me, all of which makes me feel small and insignificant in the presence of my elders, under a sky that runs to infinity, moving through a soup of unknown matter and energy that is ever growing because God’s loving and making are everlasting.

The water swirls behind my oar. Stroke by stroke, we head for shore, our canoe a tiny microbe in infinity.

I’m not small. I’m not insignificant. I’m not unknown and not unloved. The Love that makes the universe made me and can’t stop remaking me or anything else until all things become new, until we reach the farthest shore.


He Giveth

FBC869BB-A34A-4C96-92DD-1A9D5ED3D633“You want biscuits or cornbread with that?”

Sheila on your name tag, I want biscuits. I want cornbread too. I want it all.

“No, thank you,” I say, shaking my head, resignedly.

“How ‘bout banana puddin’?”

Oh yes, I want that too. Lots of it. Room temperature. With homemade meringue, and real bananas. In fact, forget the vegetables. Just bring a heaping dinner plate of that.

“Nope. I’m no fun today. I’m in training.”

“What are you training for?”

“A marathon.” Life, actually.

Weight Watchers (hereafter referred to lovingly, as “WW”), while seemingly benevolent, insisting that you can eat whatever you want, is in the end a parsimonious sovereign.

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” I say to my laconic cat sitting at the edge of my desk as I write, paws draped fetchingly over its edge. I imagine her saying, “alright, so how about you giveth me some food?,” not a bit concerned at her rotundity, her spreading mass, her lapping largesse.

Each morning I drive by Krispy Kreme. WW says I can have that doughnut, that hot dough slathered by a waterfall of liquid sugar. The HOT sign toys with me and a tantalizing smell wafts through my cracked window. I roll it up. Let’s see, a doughnut - no, two doughnuts, as I have never eaten only one - is only eight points. I’ll have two. . . oh, who am I kidding, I’ll have three, and three times eight is twenty-four, which is how many points I get in the day. So, WW says, you can eat those three doughnuts, but that’s it, buddy, nothing else for the day, and part of me says I can handle that, I can make it the rest of the day, as I won’t be thinking about it at work, and then pretty soon thereafter I’ll be asleep, and that time will pass quickly. I should be able to do that, right? Or if I’m weak, I’ll just eat celery and lettuce and fruit the rest of the day. Zero points. I got this.

I drive on by. In the rear view mirror the red light of waywardness fades.

The problem with WW is that after a season of assigning numbers to foods, you can forget to appreciate the food for what it is. Take your average salad bar. They’re populated by a lot of self-righteous zeros, yet sprinkled among them you’ll find fours (seven croutons) and twos (bacon bits, two tablespoons, two points), and sixes (ranch dressing, one serving). Well, there goes the farm.

Dan Doriani, professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, says that “food and drink are a blessed part of the holistic life.” Amen. Pass the rolls. A holistic life, he says, “keeps us from hyper-spirituality [and] neglect of the body, and it promotes community.” Exactly what I was thinking, though maybe not with such precision.

Food is not just sustenance but one of the blessings of life, something full-bodied, with color, taste, texture, and smell, a sensory experience that roots us in reality, a little incarnation of a grander feast to come. Peter Leithart says:

Food is a central theme in the Bible. As the Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, God created man a hungry being and invited him to eat ‘every seed-bearing plant ... and every tree that has fruit with seed in it’ (Gen 1:29). It’s notable that the menu comes immediately after the command to fill, rule, and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). We need food in order to rule, but the text points in the other direction: We rule so we can eat; we subdue the earth in order to enjoy its fruits. Food is more than fuel. Food is for feasting.

In other words, our feasting now foreshadows a greater feast to come, the wedding feast of the Lamb. I am a hungry man.

A week ago, my wife and I were meandering our way home from Norfolk and took a detour through Warrenton. I was hungry again, a fact not so remarkable. We stumbled over Mazatlan, a Mexican restaurant in a converted gas station, ringed by fields and farms. There, two brothers, owners Jose and Alfredo, served me the best chicken mole I had ever had. In its savory light, everything shimmered like shook foil. The field out the window was golden, the 4 x 4s tucked under the eaves glittering chariots, the overheard conversations liquid and luminous, like rough-hewn poetry. Jose, Alfredo, I was hungry and you took me in. I was so overcome I knocked over a full glass of ice tea. But even that couldn’t spoil the feast.

“You sure you won’t have some banana puddin’?”

“Bring it.” Bring it, Sheila. God wants me to have it. I need it. It’s a down payment on the wedding feast to come. The Lord giveth. Now get behind me WW.


What I Need

99aa21a857262b856420fa765eed3472“What do you need, Stephen?”

My grandmother is standing over me where I sit at the table, hands on her hips, waiting. I had just downed two pieces of her fresh-baked pumpkin pie and was ready to push back from the vinyl-clothed table.

“Nothing, Grandma. I can’t eat any more.”

“Eat some more. It’ll just go to waste.” She stood there.

I ate another piece. I ate the entire pie. I was eight.

For my grandma, eating large portions of her cooking was a sign of good health, of thriving, at least when it came to others. She and grandpa ate much less, perhaps a Depression-borne habit from making sure children had enough to eat first. She sifted flower from a wooden flour bin that my grandpa made and rolled out lard-laden dough and shaped biscuits, pressing each with her knuckles. She snapped garden-grown green beans and cooked them in a pot with a slab of fatback. She shucked corn and cooked the ears in boiling water. She baked sweet potatoes and served them whole, their wrinkled and slightly charred skins loose over the orange interior. She sliced fresh, brilliant red tomatoes and laid them on a plate, ready to add to a sliced, buttered biscuit.

Much of the food she prepared came fresh from her garden. By the time I came along, she and grandpa had graduated from an ox and plow to a gas-powered plow, but I remember standing at the fence enclosing the garden watching her walk behind the rocking plow, her bonnet tight, readying the field for planting. I was told stories of her hitching herself to the ox, the black compacted soil giving way to her dogged persistence, yet I never saw it.

Once the table was laid, she’d go to the living room, to the chair where my grandpa often sat when in the house, lean over, and say, loudly, “DAD, SUPPER’S READY.”

“Hmmf?

“SUPPER.”

My grandpa worked in a mill for many years and could not hear well. He got up and shuffled and clomped into the dining room, where he set down in his chair and commenced eating. He did not make conversation. She’d pour a glass of buttermilk for him and he’d crumble a biscuit and mix it into the nasty concoction, eating it with a spoon. After, he’d have coffee, tipping the cup to spill it black into the saucer, sopping it with a biscuit.

All done eating, my grandfather would push back his chair, grab his hat and coat if necessary, and go out the back door to, presumably, his woodshed, a wooden building behind the house where he had various tools and woodworking equipment. He made things, like a rudely fashioned if sturdy table that my wife and I used for our dinner table the first year of our marriage. He made a Rubic’s cube sort of wood puzzle that I could never work but he did not tire of working, emitting a child’s chuckle when he completed it. I don’t ever remember having a conversation with him, but sometimes I’d accidentally cross his path and he’d stop, make google eyes at me, and say “Boo,” or something to that effect, unintelligible, laughing, and I’d clear out.

Sometimes we visited people. Old people. Armed with pie and pocketbook, my grandmother would walk, my sister and I skipping ahead, down the road, through the drained and revegetated remains of a lake bed, even down trails through the woods. We’d sit and stare at the furnishings and implements of their homes, all of which had a musty, old smell, cut by the aroma of a wood and coal fire. Once, in route to an old person’s home, I was in some unremembered way picking on my sister, or she claimed as much, and my grandma, having warned me, stopped and “cut a switch” from a vine growing by the road. She didn’t need to use it. I was persuaded by its length and her stern look.

Grandma and grandpa had a television. Mostly it sat cold and dark in the living room. I never touched it. We watched Lassie on occasion, my grandpa laughing at the canine’s exploits, and a black and white Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evenings. And at least once, The Wizard of Oz, after which, spooked, I curled at the feet of my mother in the footwell of the car for the dark ride home. Otherwise, we were busy doing nothing - messing with the barn cats, playing hide and seek, watching grandma cook, sipping coke poured from a bottle kept in the Kelvinater (which, until I was older, I thought was the name of all refrigerators), running around an oak-filled side yard, and visiting with whatever family was there, including an uncle who pinched your knee for fun and an aunt who took you to the fair and rode the rides with you, screaming all the time. I have no idea what they talked about. I was operating on a different plane, flying low, staying out from underfoot.

Writer Matthew Loftus addresses the task of parenting in our time, with the goal being that “we want to form human beings who will choose to love particular places and embrace their particular callings. This task of postliberal parenting,” says Loftus, “will require discipline of all sorts, but most necessary now are the values of solidarity, discernment, and rootedness.” Solidarity is the sense that “we are all dependent on one another and that it is good to fulfill our obligations to one another,” that we are not autonomous human beings. Neither my parents nor my grandma would have articulated it that way, but by actions they showed me that caring for other people, for neighbors, was part of what it meant to be a Christian, which is just another way of saying that it is part what it meant to be a human being.

And there’s discernment, which Loftus says means helping children to make real moral choices, not dictating their choices. Watching both my parents and grandparents gave me a innate, generally unspoken moral compass. An outsider watching either my parents or grandparents may have thought them permissive; we often ran at large, unbridled by their rules or words. Yet while far from obedient to it, I possessed an internal governor, an amalgam of Bible stories, folk wisdom, and observations that is growing clearer all the time, and still is, much like those scratch art crayon drawings from kindergarten where you scrape away the black crayon to reveal the “beautiful” and colorful drawing underneath. The picture my parents and grandma drew of a faithful life was not perfect, but it was faithful; they drew it as best they could.

But rootedness, says Loftus, is perhaps the most important of the triad of qualities needed for post-liberal parenting. Rootedness means long and faithful attention to one place and one work. It means staying put. He says it is “a necessity in a world where freedom allows people to flit from one place to another whenever things get difficult.” My grandparents and parents were rooted by necessity; we are rooted by choice. Their rootedness was encouraged by an economy and social structure that then encouraged staying put and discouraged high mobility, that is, flitting about, which was generally frowned upon and not understood. Ours is often, and necessarily, by choice, a choice more of us should make.

What do you need, Stephen? Well, deep down, even if inarticulable, my grandma and parents knew that what I needed was solidarity, discernment, and rootedness. Or put another way, I needed to be a good neighbor, to make wise choices, and to stick to my work and place as best I could. And maybe I needed some pumpkin pie, a whole pie, which becomes, in retrospect, a wish for a more whole, more abundant life.

“Grandma, can I go outdoors?”

“I ‘spect so.”

I’m still outdoors. I’m still running around the fields of my little world trying to figure out how to be a neighbor, how to make wise choices, and how to stick to my calling and place. I’m still falling down and failing. But I’m not alone. As I till, as I lean into the plow, He gives me hope.

(Quotations are from “Raising a Molecular Family in an Atomic Age,” by Matthew Loftus, in Fare Forward, Issue 8, December 2017)


Holy Saturday (A Poem)

Holy Saturday

I paid the bills.
He descended into hell.
I remembered that tax is due
in weeks, and more than that
will be required of me, eventually.
He descended into hell.
The lawnmower hummed,
cutting down the green shoots
tending heavenward.
He descended into hell.
A robin foraged, unaware, her
life one long, innate obedience.
He descended into hell.
We struggled, breathless,
up hills, perplexed at our
weariness.
He descended into hell.
I made breakfast, put away dishes,
opened a window, rearranged
my desk, made plans for the day.
He descended into hell.
I daydreamed, then watched a square of
sunlight advance across my desk.
He descended into hell.
I prayed come, Lord Jesus.
He descended into hell.


Something New

4309EBD6-A38F-4140-8C24-AF0803471597I thank you for that secret praise
Which burns in every creature,
And I ask you to bring us to life
Out of every sort of death

And teach us mercy.

(Anne Porter, “Leavetaking,” in Living Things)

In the dim hours of dawn, on awakening, I said to myself, “Lord, show me something.” Waking twice in the night, summoned out of impossible dreams, I said to the shadows as well, “Show me something, show me something new.” Lying in the dark, I traced the steps and feel and smell of our earlier walk that morning to see if there was something I missed, something unnoticed.

I unlocked and then let latch the gate behind us. Footfalls sounded across a quiet street, the rhythmic beat, the swish of fabric, the unwillingness to speak at first, to interrupt the quiet. The walk rises, leaves earth on a bridge through the air across the channel. I run my hand lightly along a cold handrail, rusted and warped from incident. The wind puffs lightly, northward up the channel, cold on my face. A few sailboats anchor in the placid water. Falling to ground again, feet slapping concrete, the car park of a harbor inn is empty. Vacancy. I leave off there, turn back, sleep overtaking my reverie.

Rising after dawn, I try again for real. Out the gate we go, past a congregation of crows cawing over a dumpster of lunch-leavings. They scatter. On the bridge this time she calls me back, breaks my pace, in my crossing. We lean over the aluminum rails, peer down into the brackish water. “Dolphins, six of them,” she says. I watch them surface, side by side, gray on gray, turning and rolling back below, praise burning in the deep. A neighbor-walker stops, says, “yes, they’re beautiful, aren’t they?,” and we give assent, smile.

In the marsh the tide is out, the mud flats dark against the green of sea grass. Praise burns in its varied grasses - smooth cordgrass mostly, though I learn that low, black needlerush, salt grass, or saltmeadow grass stake out areas that are slightly higher in elevation. Sometimes, though not today, the white-stemmed head of an egret rises above the grasses, aloof. But there are others unseen or unknown to me: the loons and grebes, cormorant, sandpiper, herons, terns, and sparrows, the ones about whom I am mostly ignorant, bookish and inexperienced. Today, the black sands bubble in hope, suggesting a muckish life between the reeds, a secret praise. We walk on.

On the far side of the loop, in the midst of spoken prayers, I consider my reading that day, Paul’s letter to the church in Philipi, when he roots his every hope to see his friends again “in the Lord,” in the certainty of God’s purposes. He makes no wish, no mere precation, but trusts in God to bring it about. And I think: I have been clouded about such things, laboring under wishes and not trusting in the Lord. And here is Paul sending Timothy, his son in faith, when all others “seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:21), speaking life to his friends out of those sorts of deaths, out of seeing self-interest triumph. And still he will “hope in the Lord.” Still, he is faithful in hope.

The north bridge over the channel bears a date, 1955, making it our contemporary. Over half a century it has borne the weight of traffic and storm, the relentless movement of the tides, and yet it holds. Adding yet another burden to it in my tread, adding to over a half century of wear, I think: Lord, have mercy. Carry my burdens. Let life come out of every little death. When cicadas sing, give me ears for secret praise. When the sun rises over the water, let me burn with praise. Teach me mercy under the concrete and traffic of life, in the rattle and rub of the day. Give me an unclouded love like that of parent for child, an untempered hope, a praise not secret but regular and new. Show me something new. Everyday, show me something new.


Moon-Glory

IMG_1582From my perch atop the Hanger Cafe, I overhear the passionate talk of pilots below, passing the time before having breakfast. “Man, all I do,” says one animated forty-ish man, his voice rising like that of an excited child, “is watch YouTube videos of takeoffs and landings.” Another is recounting stories of flying his plane back and forth to California. And the woman sitting near me on the observation deck, cradling a baby, is talking about her plane. This goes on for some time. I look out at the runway, take in the line of planes and hangers to my right. Should I join the conversation, mention that Beach Boy Brian Wilson once wrote a quirky song about an airplane? Probably not.

My wife is a passenger in a Super Cub single-engine plane piloted by my son. “Watch for us,” she texts. “Just getting ready to do a touch and go. Landing now.” The white and red vintage high-wing slides in, touches the runway, and soars upward, the propeller buzzing happily. If I had binoculars, I suspect I would see my son’s slight smile and determined gaze in the cockpit window, like an ancient Kaboutermanneke,* warding off evil. . . well, the troubles of the day, anyway. Flying is his respite and refuge, an antidote for the faux-urgency that life can pretend to have. I suspect many pilots would concur.

Oops. They’re back, the plane taxiing slowly into the line reserved for it, next to an open cockpit Great Lakes. My turn. I descend the stairs and walk across the tarmac.

Entering the back seat of a Super Cub is not the most graceful of maneuvers. You put your foot here but not there, contort your body as you hoist yourself in, then attempt to untangle yourself, assuming you’ve managed to avoid sitting on the stick which protrudes from the floor of the cabin and has such range of movement that it requires you to sit bow legged, as if astride a horse. Thankfully the wing hid me from the other patrons of the cafe. I made it without injury, intact.

The plane I am sitting in has some age, as Piper Aircraft stopped manufacturing the Super Cub in 1994. It started making them in 1949. The plane is prized for its ability to take off and land on short runways and laughs a sputtering laugh (my word) at dirt. It’s a bush plane, a former working plane - trainer, crop duster, border patroller, and military liaison aircraft - now the beloved province of plane aficionados, prized for their nostalgic value but also for their utility as recreational back country transport, enabling you to fly into remote places, pitch a tent, watch the stars in a dark sky, and consider as you lay in your tent the paper-thin fabric separating you from mountain lions. It’s a plane for adventure. And as my son says calmly, “If you lose an engine on this plane out here in the desert, you can land anywhere. You’re basically idling when you land anyway.” It’s a thought both comforting and disturbing at the same time. A grand adventure.

“You doing OK back there, Dad?”

“I’m doing great.” I watch the landscape spread below us, the subdivisions, golf course greens, lagoons, canals, and highways of greater Phoenix; the oddly circular-green irrigated fields; and all around the seemingly desolate desert sands and jagged mountains pressed up against a cerulean sky. I think about the hike my wife and I had near Oracle a few days ago, south of the mountains to my left, where we caught a glimpse of a coyote near a waterhole stalked by what we think was a bobcat, reminding us that the desert is alive with life, albeit mostly nocturnal. I remember the copper mines of Hayden and Kearney, the miners’ houses perched on the hills that we passed en route from Tucson to Phoenix. I remember the wonderful hot dog I had at the Circle K in Monmouth, the best the town could offer, what some might have disdained but which I accepted gratefully.

“They don’t make it easy, do they?” said the weathered man next to me applying condiments to twin and bunless wieners.

“They sure don’t,” I said. I settled for mustard and the catsup my wife suggested. In the car, I ate it quickly, watching the crinkled desert-dwellers entering and exiting the store.

Leaving my reverie, I say to my son, “Can you see Picacho Peak from here?” We look left, Southwest, scanning the horizon for the mountain’s singular peak.

“Not today. Too hazy.” He paused and offered, “Do you want to fly some?”

I look out the window, considering. “I guess so,” I say tentatively. Is he really suggesting that his daydreaming, distracted father take the stick?

“Just put your thumb and one finger on it. I’ll have my hand on it.” I’m behind him, tandem, slightly anxious.

Writing is all about experience, I recall, so I take the wheel, so to speak, for the sake of art. I found the responsiveness of the Super Cub both exhilarating and frightening. I move the stick only slightly away from me, and the plane dips noticeably; I move it slightly to the left, and we bank left; to the right, and we bank right. Hair-trigger, I think. One impulsive, jerky, ill-considered move, I reflect, and. . .

“You can take it now.” The human-plane connection, the immediacy of it, was unsettling, and yet it gave me a sense of how this plane was the real thing, about why pilots must love its tactility, the sense that it is a mere extension of your body.

He banks right, turns the plane for Chandler. The airport in sight, he radios the tower, using his radio voice - an assured, professional, pilot voice that rolls off his tongue. We circle, are cleared for landing, and touch down lightly, taxiing back to our place near the Hangar Cafe. Lunch awaits.

Exiting the Cub is no easier than entering it. I attempted to reverse the steps I took to enter the plane. Advice was offered, but my exit was already in progress.

“Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way, but it worked,” said my son, as my feet reached the tarmac.

On the ground again, I righted myself. Klunk. I hit my head on the wing. They are laughing at me. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt. The plane is “rag and tube,” that is, fabric stretched over a steel frame, so the wing is relatively lightweight, and soft. My head is harder. They are still laughing at me, my head-banging preserved on video. They replay it, waiting for the klunk.

The point of it all? Nothing, really, and yet everything. We were together, the three of us. I rode in a plane over the desert. I remembered days with my wife in this landscape of life. I flew, barely. I listened to my son talk about all manner of things with passion that is contagious. We talked over lunch with a view of planes and mountains. We spent our days together. We laughed. We prayed. In the twilight of our vacation, we redeemed our time, eking out the minutes, wasting time extravagantly with each other, lavishly if imperfectly, a tiny reflection of a Greater Love, basking in our slight but sure moon-glory.
______________

* Right. I did not know what a Kaboutermanneke was either but ran across it when searching for the name of the decorative figurehead on the bow of a some ships. It is of German origin, referring to a spirit that wards off evil.


From the Desert

8486E08C-8292-4523-99D3-8C7C7AE2D950“yet always rejoicing”

(2 Cor. 6:10a)

“I didn’t have a single melancholy thought on that hike,” I said.

“I’ll bet you did,” said my son. “Think about it.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m feeling melancholy now about not having a melancholy thought.”

We had just completed a trek in Catalina Foothills State Park, the desert greened after the rains last week, sahuaro cacti waterlogged, the stream with water and even small trickling waterfalls. Beautiful. Yet you can never fully relax on a desert hike. Hikes in the desert Southwest are fraught with danger. Miss your footing and it can be a sheer drop not into a relatively soft, fuzzy shrub or pine tree but into a prickly pear cactus or a teddy bear cholla, barbed and bristly.

Just tonight, returning from dinner, I heard a stern mother warning her child: “Genesis, stop warmin’ up to that cactus and get over here. That’s a cactus, boy, and you get up against that and you gonna know something. Now get in that car.”

I never met anyone named Genesis. That’s a lot to bear, to be the beginning. I want to meet Genesis’s brothers and sisters and see how far his parents went. I want to meet Revelation. I want to see the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega.

But back to danger. Yesterday, we were hiking the four miles of the Phoneline Trail, high above the Sabino Canyon. Fall off the trail, my wife reminded me cheerily (she insists that this is her favorite trail), and you may be “impaled by a cactus.” Beautiful danger is all around. I nearly lost my balance once and reached out for a handhold - on a cactus which, thankfully, I only touched tentatively and let go quickly. And a few years ago, in the heat of a mid-day sun on the same trail, I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake that slithered across the trail. Now, my wife or son goes in front, as my son informs me that I may be daydreaming or writing a poem in my head. Or having a melancholy thought, a regular and unfounded indictment that makes me. . . well. . . sad.

“Are you writing another blog post, Dad?”

“Yes. I’m stealing your experiences, exaggerating and prevaricating and making up words. It’s what writers do.”

I love the desert. Yesterday, flying over the washboard roads of the Ironwood National Monument, we saw one rancher in a truck and a dusty couple in a fatally low of clearance car, all in two hours. We stopped in the splintered shade of a mesquite once, turned the ignition off, as we are wont to do when on such rovings, and listened. The wind lapped gently on the palo verde, mesquite, and ironwood trees. An occasional quail or cactus wren called. The motor ticked. As we sat in the shadow of Ragged Top Mountain, these ironwood trees, which can live as long as 800 years, surrounded us, like a platoon of elders, their gnarled trunks and evergreen providing a nursery shade for sahuaro and other baby plants, homes for desert mice and birds, and, until protected here, for firewood. I motored on.

“Dad, can you slow down?”

“I can’t figure out if it’s better to slow down for the ruts and rocks or just speed through and levitate over them.”

“I don’t think that works.”

Which, according to the brilliant stars of that formerly BBC show, Top Gear, is incorrect. Just last night, in a show filmed ten years ago, which I am just getting round to, the short chap of the threesome, Hamilton, said otherwise, and demonstrated. Of course, he lost much of his car in the demonstration, including, in this show, doors, bumpers, and side mirrors.

I didn’t. To my knowledge anyway. Dollar Rental can be glad.

Yet on the western border of Ironwood, the greatest discovery of all was had: El Tiro Gliderport, home of the Tucson Soaring Club. My tech-savvy wife, who was navigating from the rear seat using her sharp eyes and Google World, located first a sail plane and then, via World, an airport of sorts. We turned down another gravel-topped road off Pump Station Road and pulled up to a double wide, preceded by an open hanger full of sail planes. For over an hour we watched the tow plane hitch sailplanes to it, take them aloft, and release them to free-fall back to the earth, to a soft landing, after riding thermals around and around, looking down, silently, on the ironwood forest. A crusty sailplane veteran, with patched jeans and a grizzly face, told us one pilot had once stayed aloft nearly seven hours, traveling all the way to the Mexican border and back - with no engine. That’s like no engine.

I had a melancholy thought, then. But it didn’t last long. The sun is warming, the air is cool, my son is out on the line talking to a pilot about one of his great loves, and my wife is basking in the desert air and sun, an almost permanent and beautiful smile on her face.

She’s still smiling. She loves the desert, as do I. This one, the Sonoran, is not barren but full of life.

In a hour or so, just before dusk, the birds will come to the tree off our patio, squawking and jostling for position before settling in for the night. From our balcony perch we’ll look out over the desert wash and then up to the Catalinas and let the cooing of the doves and the golden color of the slanted light dispel every melancholy thought that may intrude. And as the sun descends and the shadows lengthen, we’ll remember what another desert traveler said, that “in this world you will have trouble,” and yet, as He bid, we will take heart, because He has overcome the world and become the light and song in our every desert, rejoicing over us with singing (Zephaniah 3:17). Maybe that’s why you’d name a little boy Genesis, to bear great hope.


A Speech Without Words

71099659-CE3E-4004-BAC0-F3388E677BEAYou are the one who made us
You silver all the minnows in all the rivers
You wait in the deep woods
To find the newborn fox cubs
And unseal their eyes
You shower the sky with stars

(Anne Porter, from “The Bird of Passage,” in Living Things)

At 4:00 AM this morning, a full moon shone so brightly that the windows in my room were lit as if a spotlight shone through them. After rising, I went out on my back patio to shepherd closed an umbrella, anticipating wind, and the cold warmth of the moon bathed me. In its brilliance I could not even see its dry and cratered seas. I turned away, moonstruck, moons still in my sight.

“We are like the moon,” said singer Barry McGuire once in introducing a song. “He is the light, the sun, and we can only reflect his glory.”

Moonlight on airplanes. William is driving us to our flight, moving through the nearly empty roads. In a soft voice, this large man is telling us of his daughter, how she loves gymnastics, how well she is doing. He’s been awake since yesterday morning, driving a cab. “The wind,” he says, has been blowing all night.” I make a mental note to find out why the wind blows, as I am ignorant; I can only think of Who has been blowing, the Who behind the moon.

“Why,” I ask my scientist son later, “does the wind blow,” feeling like a curious child asking his father yet another “why” question.

“It has to do with different air pressures, which are affected by temperature, and the turning of the earth, and other things.” Of course it does. I must have learned that somewhere.

When we opened the squawking door of our garage to load our oversized luggage in William’s cab, we were met by our nocturnal neighbor, the unofficial constable of our street, a friendly if not quite huggable black cat who lives at large, using our neighbor’s yard and driveway as a base of operation but conducting reconnaissance throughout the area. I’ve never seen him sleep. Somehow it gives me comfort, a sense of security, to know that he is about, up all night, yet now he is a pest, wanting in our garage. “Skat, says my wife, “skat.” He moves on, continuing his rounds.

“I guess you have to work all these long hours to pay for those gymnastics lessons,” I say to William, “and then you can go see her competitions.”

“I can’t go see her,” he says, “but I can send her.” And underneath his voice I can hear a whisper of longing, glory, and regret, and an appreciable measure of love, reflected, like the moon on the lake we motor past.

Our plane takes off to the northwest, lumbering into the air, held aloft by air and thrust, by Bernoulli’s principle, by some kind of power unseen. Clouds glow in moonlight, and the subdivisions and streets and sleeping people meld into humanity and civilization and ultimately just earth. William drives away, his daughter in his sights; a black cat is checking doors and watching for marauders; the first birds are waking with chipper blessings; and houses hum and yawn with a new day. Underneath it all, something courses, something animates.

Ann Porter, who died a few years ago a childlike and very articulate 99, finished her poem with these words:

When the Canada geese
Are coming down from the north
When the storks of Europe
Stretch out their necks toward Egypt
From their nests on the chimney tops
When shaking their big wings open
And trailing their long legs after them

They rise up heavily
To begin their autumn flight

You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers

To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey.

This week a friend reminded me that “the Kingdom of God has come” to his workplace, that he doesn’t have to “make something happen.” I often forget that, I say. I often forget that God in Christ is up all night, at work 24-7 reconciling the universe - every atom of it - to himself, setting all things right, and He has made us all ambassadors of that reconciliation. We are qualified not by our abilities but by our lack, a diplomatic corp of brokenness trumpeting the glory of the Son. We are the moon, the voice of liberty. And He inhabits our work, is hiding in our wings.

I appreciate His delicate certainty underneath, His speech without words, the poetry of His presence.

Because the journey can be long, and fraught with danger, yet full of light.


It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

79CA8974-337B-4E9B-912E-6C8362A10ED8The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day,
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

(“Travel”, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Favorite Poems: Old and New, Selected by Helen Farris)

From my home it is nearly seven miles to the nearest train tracks. Between me and that crossing, there are busy highways, a suburban mall, residential neighborhoods, and even a gain in elevation - hill and valley, wood and field, concrete and condo. I rarely hear a train pass. Yet, on a clear night, when the wind blows from the south or southwest, I hear its plaintive whistle - even, unless my mind deceives, hear its wheels on the tracks, a low rumble, an undercurrent to the hum of traffic. Last night, about 11:00, I cracked the window slightly to the night air, pressed my ear into its opening, leaning on the windowsill, and heard the faint clickety-clack and rumble of the wheels. It takes a train to cry, I thought.

Train whistles provoke longings. They make me want to leave, to go, to travel no matter where. The very idea of movement and compelling visions of mountain gorges and lonely prairies and desolate, moonlit deserts stirs the wanderlust. “Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,” concludes Millay in her poem, “no matter where it’s going.” Reading that, I nod my assent back across time.

Once our family took an overnight train from Jasper, Alberta through the fir trees and mountains of British Columbia. We slept in comfortable bunk beds, lulled to sleep by the wheels on track and the rare and lonely station light. Another time we traveled cross the high plains of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota from Glacier National Park to Minneapolis. Though not nearly as comfortable as the Canadian train, our consolation was that we could rest, walk around, and eat in the dining car, not worrying at all about driving. And when, after all, would I next be in Minot, North Dakota? Never, I thought, smiling. Unless I came by train, wandering across an endless landscape.

The length of some trains is beguiling. Once, we sat at a railway crossing outside Vail, Arizona, while a seemingly mile-long freight train snaked across the desert. Another time, I stood feet away from another freight passing through Fargo, North Dakota, enjoying the snapshots of main street between the passing cars, the power of locomotion, the clanging of the crossing bells and lights, and the endless linkage of cars trailing off into the horizon. And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone, the last car rounding a curve and leaving sight.

I understand why some have hopped aboard freight cars, like Dustbowl refugees, Okies, and Woody Guthries. It makes me wonder if I have hobo kin, restless travelers bound for glory or, at least, adventure. And maybe that’s what beckons - that desire to experience something other, something new, something unknown. When as a child I watched the Southern Railway trains pass, I knew someone was going somewhere far away, and I wasn’t. But I wanted to. I wanted to go and see what could be seen, to get loose of my little world. There was that ineffable if incomprehensible sadness when the caboose and waving conductor faded from my view.

“Trains, says writer Dana Frank, “tap into some deep American collective memory.” So it’s not just our own personal history that trains conjure up but something deeper, something about expansion and movement and hope, about grass that is greener elsewhere, about dreams, about moving on. Trains seem timeless, throwbacks to an earlier age, reminders that we are always moving.

It takes a train to cry, says Bob Dylan, in that world-weary song from 1965. Dylan returned to the imagery of a train over decades later with “Slow Train Coming,” an apocalyptic vision of a reckoning to come. In one verse, he snarls:

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Next time you hear a train, consider where you are and where you’ve been, as well as where you need to be. The whistle you hear is longing. The power rushing past is reckoning. Yet the gleam in your eye as the last car rounds the bend is hope that you too, with grace, will soon reach your hobo home, where longing meets laughter, where all our wandering leads us home.


A Bridge's Promise


IMG_2809“A bridge is a promise that a broken world can be whole.”

(D.J. Waldie, in “A Traveler Comes to a Bridge:
An Encounter With the 4th Street Viaduct”)

For most of us bridges, like the other parts of the urban landscape, pass largely unnoticed. Even iconic bridges, like the Golden Gate, may, after many passes by a commuter, move into the background, a blur. Awe accommodates itself to repetition, like floaters in the eye, unnoticed after a time. "Bridges," says Bruce Jackson, "are perhaps the most invisible form of public architecture." What is common and ordinary becomes invisible.

The first bridge I recall was one from my early childhood. My bonneted grandmother, hands on her hips, let us wade and play in the stream which pooled beneath the trestled bridge of the Southern Railway tracks. As the train passed overhead, the conductor waved and the trestles seemed to shake.

Later, friends and I waded through the stream flowing through the twin tunnels of the bridge over the creek that flowed through our neighborhood. We caught tadpoles, skipped rocks across the water's surface, and let our voices reverberate off the walls.

There are great and even tragic stories behind some bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge, or the iconic Charles Bridge, in Prague, and very tiny stories behind many other bridges that are largely unrecounted and forgotten. Most embodied very pedestrian hopes, like that of better traffic flow or safer passage or, maybe, just a way to get home. Some, like those connecting a barrier island with the mainland, bore the hope of profit. And some, like the one over the stream in my neighborhood, an etching on a developer's plan or, for many a parent, a place to pause with a stroller and let a child hear the gurgling water and dream of all the places to which that water may travel.

And then, there's another kind of bridge altogether, like the one a friend heard about in his college years. While ambling about a mountain music festival in the early Seventies, a bearded man stopped him and said, simply and only, "Jesus is the bridge, man." After dropping that metaphor, the bridge-tender walked on, yet that one bridge reverberated in my friend's mind the rest of the day and on into the early hours of the morning, when, full of hope and in trust, he walked across it into another country.

“A traveler comes to a bridge," muses essayist D.L. Waldie. "As the traveler starts to cross, one foot is still earth bound. Empty space is beneath the other. The next step requires trust. The traveler is uplifted less by concrete or masonry and more by forces kept in balance with the void waiting below. The bridge seems static, but every footfall must be absorbed, its effects distributed by tension or resisted by compression. The bridge responds. Its span springs to the traveler’s step in order to seem unmoved."

I try not to take any bridge for granted. The bridge holds me up. It gives me a perspective on the flow below. It carries me to where I need to go. It absorbs my weight, carries my burdens and, finally, takes me Home.


Carry That Weight

41Tqk1XdLQL._SX398_BO1 204 203 200_At nearly six pounds and two and one-half inches thick, it’s not a book to take to bed. I’m sure that Santa was glad to divest himself of it this Christmas when he placed it under my tree. Yet All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, is, however, worth its heft. Somehow, given the contributions that The Fab Four have made to the canon of popular music, reading this song encyclopedia on a tablet or smartphone would make ephemeral what is timeless. I held it on my lap. When my legs grew numb, I hoisted it away.

The Beatles released a remarkable 213 songs in less than a decade. I was nearly 14, the year 1972, before I knew or cared about any of them. And then, when I finally heard them and figured that there was something to this band, they had disbanded. I spent the next several years working my way back through the catalog, reliving their music a half-decade late, catching up with them when they were on to their solo careers, watching that unintended testament to their break up three times (the movie, Let It Be), poring over their lyrics, and having heated discussions with other Beatles fans at high school lunch breaks.

The authors of All the Songs, in addition to recording the details about each song - writers, musicians, date and location of recording, number of takes, technical team, and (where applicable) single release dates - include relatively brief information about the genesis of the songs, production, and technical details (instruments, recording technique). Some of this is pure nerd-dom, as when the authors note mistakes an inexperienced George Harrison made in singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” For example, in the bridge, he sang “I’ve known a secret for the week or two,” instead of “a week or two.” That, and the minor mistakes that Paul made on the bass around 1:10 and 1:50 in the coda will have Beatles fanatics all a-twitter, scrambling for their recordings to hear it for themselves. I confess, I listened and heard, gasped at that mis-plucked string.

But you needn’t get lost in such trivia when the story here is the songs themselves and the impetus reading about them gives to giving these well-worn recordings another listen. For example, I had to pull down their first album, Please Please Me, released in the UK on March 22, 1963, for a listen during drive time this week. Its crackling energy and freshness was palpable, particularly having read the account of how it was recorded. On one day, February 11, 1963, between 10:00 a.m. and 10:45 p.m., eleven songs were recorded. There were multiple takes, of course, anywhere from one to 18, yet the energy of the performances is incredible, something that I now understand stems in part from the then unorthodox way it was recorded. Contrary to what was standard for the day, sound engineer Norman Smith did not attempt to separate the instruments but, rather, simulated a live performance by stationing the microphones away from the instruments. The band was literally performing live, and even without a proper sound system and listening to compressed digital files on my car’s modest sound system, I felt it. On the two takes given the incredible “Twist and Shout,” the last recording of the day, John Lennon’s voice is nearly broken, and yet this #1 hit is high-energy and a testament to the energy and commitment to perfection of this working band. For a minute, I wasn’t at a traffic light but present in Abby Road studio that day in February, 1963. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were, of course, mere boys when they began. Whatever you think of their escapades (and they had many), they were tireless workmen first. They honed their craft in the raucous clubs of Hamburg, Germany, over the course of two years - between 1960 and 1962, when the boys were 17 to 20 years of age - playing to drunken German audiences for as long as six hours at a time. As John later said, “As long as we played it loud, they liked it.” For more of that story, I recommend Bob Spitz’s well-researched and documented 2005 biography, The Beatles, where he provides details about their unheated, unsanitary accommodations and scrappy food. And they endured all this at a time when they didn’t know if they’d amount to anything, before they became, as John Lennon quipped, the “clever Beatles.”

Well, that’s just the first 14 songs. Open this book anyplace, at random even, and there are gems to discover. I flipped to the end, to the little known “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number),” the B-Side of the 1970 better known “Let It Be” single. It’s not their best, but it is their last, and I will listen with new appreciation knowing what went on in its recording. I remember the look and feel and smell of that particular 45 rpm Capital Records single. In fact, I’m holding it now.

Reading this massive book, hearing these now half-century old songs, I have a touch of sadness. So many no longer appreciate the weight of words and of recorded music, of the effort bound up in those early three-minute pop songs. With an internet saturated with music and words, talk and sound is cheap. If every feckless twenty-something with their digital playlist had to lug All These Songs around under their arm for a week or so, it might sink in: This was work. This was craft. This was four working-class young men who, despite their faults and misbehaving, cared about making good music and about doing good work, at least for a time. From that, we can learn.

You may not rush out and buy All the Songs. But you can do something: Listen well and listen long. Carry that weight of words.


Loving Babar, the Moon, Forever

080922_r17748aIn the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of-
The cow jumping over the moon.

One resolution I made for this new year is to read more children's books. Well, it may be my only resolution, as it may be the only one I can keep. You'll find me awkwardly sitting in the children's chairs in Barnes and Nobles, reading books long on pictures and short on words. On second thought, maybe not.

If we believe ourselves above children's books, then we are mistaken. Like God condescended to us, so we should condescend to children and, becoming like them, know what they know, which is that everything is fascinating, everything matters. The best children's books are written by authors who do just this. They write true, adult stories using child-size words, writing not for children but for themselves and, indirectly, for others similarly situated. When I grow up, I want to be just like those writers, with a child-like wonder and few yet musical words.

Take the author of Babar, Laurent de Brunhoff. At 92, having just completed his final book in the series, the first of which he authored and illustrated in 1945, de Brunhoff is well beyond childhood, yet he has a continuing child-like fascination with the elephant. That's nearly 92 years of loving the elephant, of being enraptured by its long trunk and big ears.

"I like to make the elephant alive," said de Brunhoff to a recent interviewer. "The elephant is a very appealing animal with its big ears and trunk, even when it is not dressed up like a human." De Brunhoff understates his love: he has been writing and drawing elephants since 1945, infected by a elephantine passion nurtured by his own father, who wrote the first Babar book in 1931, and who died when he was only 12. De Brunhoff is not trying to relate to children, to speak down to them, but is addressing his love of elephants to them much as he would to adults, only with less and simpler words. "I never really think of children when I do my books," says de Brunhoff. "Babar was my friend and I invented stories with him, not with kids in the corner of my mind. I write it for myself."

And who wouldn't love Babar? Who wouldn't want to ride a department-store elevator up and down with a kind and affable elephant? And what elephant wouldn't want to live in the city, with its relative safety, rather than in the far more dangerous realm of the jungle, where a hunter may shoot you? Who wouldn't want Babar for a friend?

Margaret Wise Brown, author of the classics Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, wrote her books out of her own love of nature, a love nurtured by time spent among the giant live oaks, high dunes, and sea grass of Cumberland Island, Georgia. She could not help but make up stories about the wildlife she observed there. "In the great green room" of nature, everything fascinated her. Everything had a story.

Whenever I have read the simple lines of Goodnight Moon, I have been comforted by the pleasing cadence, the sense of security conveyed by the particular, familiar things in the child's room, and the presence of the grandmotherly bunny waiting for the child to sleep. It is the look and sound of home. Read it slowly. Take note of every object in the room, pointing at and touching them. Better yet, read it to a child again and again. In Goodnight Moon particular things matter immensely, things we pass over in everyday adult life, things like "two little kittens, and a pair of mittens, and a little toy house, and a young mouse, and a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush." Well, just everything, really, given more life in the dim light of night.

Yet another book, I Love You Forever, while ostensibly for children, deals with the weighty topics of familial love and mortality. In it, over the recurring chorus of "I love you forever, I like you for always, as long as I'm living my baby you'll be," the child grows and the parents age until, near the end of life, the child becomes the parent in a sense, the caregiver, and sings, "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my Mommy you'll be."

The author, Robert Munsch, wrote the book after he and his wife had two still born babies. "For a long time I had it in my head and I couldn’t even sing it," says Munsch, "because every time I tried to sing it I cried. It was very strange having a song in my head that I couldn’t sing." You can't read I Love You Forever without a tear dropped or held, of course, but whatever tears you have wash up on the shores of deep, abiding, family love. Most children will laugh at the funny parts and be mystified or indifferent to the sadnesses that linger there; others, old souls in young bodies, may entreat you, as one did me, to "never, ever read or mention that story to me again" - which means it was good, I think.

But that's enough of resolutions. It's late, and my book awaits. So. . .

Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere

Goodnight nobody.


No Little Lord

Fullsizeoutput_78faWell after midnight on Christmas Eve, as I lay propped up and reading a Christmas sermon from Martin Luther, having a spiritual moment, there was a knock on the bedroom door. “Come in,” I said.

My son’s smiling face poked through the door. “I need Mom,” he said, somewhat mysteriously.

“What for?”

“I need Mom.”

“You said that.” I hailed his mother. Leaving the room, she closed the door. I heard muffled voices from the other room. Shufflings, like the movement of boxes, came from the area where my son’s closet adjoined our bedroom wall. More indecipherable discussion ensued. Then, foot steps. I removed my ear from the wall and got back under the covers.

“Everything ok?,” I say, as they re-entered.

“Of course,” said my son. “Fine.” But I know better. Something is afoot.

I forgot to say goodnight to my daughter so I throw back the covers and walk over to her room, knock.

“Enter.”

She is propped in bed. Across the land-mined abyss of her cluttered floor I address her, “Hey. . .”

“I need Mom.”

“You too?”

Nobody needs me. I go back to bed, back to Luther’s sermon. I read, “When I die I see nothing but sheer blackness. . .” That’s cheery, I think. He continues, “except for this light: ‘Unto you is born this day. . . a Savior.’” That’s better. I think back on the sermon from earlier that day, the three points of which can be summed as (a) this could be your last Christmas, (b) you’re all gonna die, and (c) come to Jesus now. I close my eyes for a minute, try to imagine what sheer blackness might look like, but light seeps in. And Luther.

I love Luther. He was so plainspoken, so honest. About the Annunciation, he said “‘Fear not,’ said the angel. I fear death,” said Luther, “the judgment of God, the world, hunger, and the like. The angel announces a Savior who will free us from fear.” I’m afraid of everything and everybody, Luther is saying, but I don’t need to be, don’t want to be.

The cat remains downstairs. She grew weary of following my wife up then down then up the stairs again. She has wrapped her gelatinous self around a heat vent in the floor. On some occasions, her sister will spread her barely-there fur and bones over another heat vent, a double oven of cats. Just yesterday, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I received a letter from Duke Power that said, “Last month you used $49 more per month on energy than your neighbor.” I know why. The heat has been sucked up in our fulsome felines where they simmer in sleep.

Earlier I went out into the bracing air to muscle our trash and recycle bin to the curb. Hearing the sound of the piano, I stopped in front of our home and listened to my wife play. Warm light poured out the windows with the sound. I wanted to say to the neighborhood, “Did you hear that?”

I don’t know what is happening in the room next door. I don’t know what all the whispering was about. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Perhaps penury from feline-inflated power bills, or the ravages of debt collectors fueled by excessive vet bills. To that, I say with Luther, “piffle to such confounded nonsense!” And, “God is amazing. The Babe is in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet he is called Saviour and Lord.”

I switch off the light. Just minutes from Christmas, light and love and Luther. And no little Lord in a manger saying, “Do not be afraid.”


Love, Haste

61991C55-E15C-475B-8283-2BF751BA5B0CThere is a humming from the other room. It’s the voice of contentment, a sweet lilting Christmas carol sung by my daughter behind her closed door.

Elsewhere, the elves are in the workroom, and I in my study. Low voices, generally unintelligible, overlie the rustling of tissue paper, wrap, scissor sounds, and gentle exclamations. “Don’t listen,” one says, and I don’t, much, though there are strange squeaks and strivings from the corridor. “Don’t listen,” someone says again, and so I put on “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

I wish it would snow. Outside it’s balmy. The last snow on Christmas that I remember was in my childhood, sometime in the late Sixties. Santa brought a purple Schwinn bicycle that year, one with high handlebars and 24-inch wheels, and as I took it for a spin on the asphalt of my street it began to snow. Half a century ago, and it seems like yesterday I could feel the snow on my skin, taste the soft flakes as I flew down the street.

“You can listen now,” I hear. So, I do. I mute “Let It Snow,” and I hear my daughter at another point in her vast repertoire, happy just to sing. She’s on “Frosty the Snowman” now. I picture her smiling, at work on some project, pleased with herself.

The cats are in the workroom, in the middle of it all, desiring to look into all that is going on, but their attention span is short. They watch the wrapping. A bit of ribbon is sufficient to entertain them. One pulls herself, crab-like, across the carpet. The other spreads her large self and watches lazily behind placid eyes.

I wish it would snow. E.B. White wrote a “pocket poem” called “Chairs in Snow.” It goes like this:

Quiet upon the terraces,
The garden chairs repose;
In fall they wore their sooty dress,
Now the lees of snows.
How like the furnishings of youth,
In back yards of the mind:
Residuals of summer’s truth
And seasons left behind.

I’d like to see some lees of snow, see white fluff build upon the eaves of our roof, mound the slender handrails of the porch, cover the car hoods like a blanket on a fine horse.

“The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree”

Says Robert Frost,

“Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.”

Dust of snow. Snow has a way of brightening a dimming day, making new a rutted way, making bright a forest under moonlit skies. Snow swirling in a street light is a promise that we’ll wake to a quiet morning unmarked by anything but squirrel stepping. But, oh, the weather outside is balmy.

Out to dinner tonight, the mall was all a-frenzy. A line of confused drivers were exiting where you enter, making a mess of things. I imagined mothers mad with last minute buying, and yet we have our own madness. I feel like sending postcard to someone, signing it as did E.B. White just before Christmas in 1938, with a “Love, haste,” which says it all.

The singing from the other room has ended. Side One of the LP is over. I knock on my daughter’s door, ask her to flip the LP, play the other side, to which she laughs sweetly.

It’s the eve before the Eve. Love, haste.


Those Christmas Lights

A941826C-0D94-47CF-A053-FDDE04F7E957“What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a Kingdom more magic still that comes down out of Heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The one who sits upon the throne says, ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ and the streets of it are gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl.”

(Frederick Buechner, in The Eyes of the Heart)

At the bottom of “Kill Devil Hill,” just before ascent, our neighbors by the creek have a side yard with Mr. and Mrs. Snowman lit and live, hands clasped, heads tilted back as if seized by some moment of jocularity, eternally smiling, even in the dark of 6:00 am. I look closer, slow my walk. Between them they cradle a baby snowman, also smiling.

Seeing them I remember that we are not yet all lit at our home. A week or so ago, I plugged the lights on our front yard trees which we had left up all year into the outlet. My hopes were dashed. Part of one strand on one tree lit, its end a bare wire cut by an errant landscaper. The rest were dark. I gave up and opted for lower hanging fruit. The shrubs. I ripped open new boxes of tightly packaged lights, tearing twist ties carefully tied by Chinese workers, throwing aside the six point font “USER SERVICING INSTRUCTIONS” backed by “IMPORTANT SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS.” (Does anyone ever read such things? Paper and font suggest not.), snaking the colored lights randomly across the boughs of the shrubs and, finally, for those hard to reach places, tossing the colored glass with great hope, which is compensation for impatience. I bend and dig out from a pine straw bed the extension cord left waiting, coiled and also hopeful, since last year. I plug my glass minions in and bask in their display.

In my childhood, to see such colored lights my parents drove us across town, across the tracks. There, in their modest and hardscrabble homes, my distant neighbors collected all manner of cobbled kitsch, luminous in the winter night: head-high candles, reindeer, Santas, babyjesuses, angels, shepherds, and carolers. And snowmen. Sometimes, if we cracked the window, we could hear the strain of music, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, sung by Nat King Cole, or the like. We were warmed by the display, transported, our imaginations sprung. I was envious.

In a letter to family written during the Advent before his execution, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of living “in a great unseen realm of whose existence I am in no doubt.” He had only the Christmas lights of memory to brighten his Advent in a solitary jail cell. And yet he managed in solitude to see beyond the captivity of his present. And so I lose myself for a moment in the lights and try to imagine an eternally lit world, one where there is no need for sun or moon, where a vision says “the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23‬ ‭ESV‬‬).

We put lights on our trees to capture some ineffable presence, to testify to transcendence. To say as many have that they symbolize the light of Christ is a worthy metaphor. Yet perhaps it is more than a few strands of inexpensive glowing bulbs can bear. Maybe it’s enough to say that they remind us of something more, something beyond today, something unseen, a Magic Kingdom yet to come.

It’s a start.

Next year I’ll order some enormous lit candles for the front yard, and maybe a snowman. And Santa With his reindeer. For the children.


Our Muscled Home

31C1B282-CA14-4BCD-9DF4-15A46AF4BB27Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great antagonist Winter. In the bare trees and twigs what a display of muscle.”

(Henry David Thoreau, 1858)

Every few moments a leaf yields, loses grip on branch or twig, and flutters lightly to the ground, bedded amongst its own, a mottled carpet of red, yellow, and orange. Some pile on the rooftop, clutter the gutter; others gather by the fence; still others hold fast, quivering in the slight breeze, reluctant to accede. Looking up, a buck with a full set of antlers races across the wooded area behind me, in pursuit or pursued. And just now, the sun pops up above the trees, a skylight, glaring tremulously through the canopy.

I like a late autumnal, unkempt lawn, one strewn in leaves, kaleidoscopic, and darkening, slowly: castoffs, muscled off in tough love. Trees are trimming down, losing the weaker members, as the cold creeps up their branches. Some leaves are pocked by holes where insects have feasted; others, diseased; and still others, torn and worn by too many hot or windy, rain-beaten days. Where the leaf stem meets twig or branch there is a layer of cells called the abscission layer. As autumn days shorten, they begin to close, choking off the supply of water to the leaves and food into the tree. They must give way. The tree must steel itself for winter.

The day has warmed, Summer underneath Fall, and so I unlatch and slide open the window. What I hear is the juxtaposition of humanity and nature: the constant drone of a leaf blower mixed with the calls of a crow; the rattling of a workman’s ladder overlaying the pecking of a bird at seed; the drone of traffic undergirded by the gentler, more ancient wave of the winds.

I push back my chair, stand, and walk downstairs. I open the door to the backyard, and step out, walking back along the fence line, leaves crunching underfoot, the slanted rays of sunlight still warm. At the back fence, I turn and face our home, a fragile scaffold against the world, an aging but muscled display against winter’s coming, still standing, still home, a slight repository of Eternity.


Scar

F505B662-1DD8-B71B-0B69B1A3BD3FBB5D“. . . why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?"

(Jack Kerouac, in On the Road)

On the back of my left hand there is an unsightly scratch. Scabbed over now, it looks even worse than when fresh. I don’t mind. I don’t even mind if it leaves a scar.

A week ago we drove southwest from Tucson across the Tohono O’Odhom Indian Reservation, passing south of the Tucson Mountains and Ryan Field, built by the Army for flight training in 1942 in what was then open desert, though now suburban Tucson has crept round the public lands and flanked Highway 86, finally petering out just before the airstrip. We pass the domed observatory at Kitt Peak, blink and nearly miss Sells, and arrive at the crossroads of Why, Arizona, where the village coyote welcomes us.

At lunch the next day, my son says, “Where did you get that scratch?” But I tell him it's just a memory. Or maybe I just thought that.

After slowing for a sunny Border Control checkpoint, we crossed into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, created by FDR in 1937 to preserve the fulsome cactus of its name. One wonders how many people visited the area in 1937, given its remoteness. There is no hotel in Why, and the nearest town, Ajo, boasts only one hotel and a guest house. We were last here over 20 years ago, yet other than a ramped up Border Patrol, it doesn’t seem to have changed. The wind and sand sculpt the rocks; cacti inch toward the sun; and the more adventurous tourists blow through on their way to the Mexican Baja beaches of Puerto Penasco via Lukeville. We drove the hard packed gravel Ajo Mountain Drive, intending to leave it at that, and yet the loneliness and beauty of the terrain provoked us to declare that we would return the next morning for a two and one-half mile hike into Echo Canyon.

“Press this napkin over the cut,” my wife said, “and hold your hand over your head to help stop the bleeding.” I complied. Hands bleed freely.

We overnighted at the Sonoran Desert Inn which lay on the darkened residential skirt of the town of Ajo. The former elementary school in town, it was upstaged by a new school, fell into disrepair for over 20 years, and then was rescued by a local nonprofit, restored using local labor and on-job training, and now offers rooms in the former classrooms. The high-ceilinged, contemporary rooms are warm and inviting, with nearly floor to ceiling windows that overlook gardens. Not a bit like school.

Checking in, I ask the hostess, who looks like an aging flower child, if I may have the room that formerly served as detention for my daughter. She points to a small room behind her, an office.

“I think they used to put them in there,” she says.

“Good, “ I say, “in case she needs it.” My daughter smiles. She doesn’t need detention. I might, if I don’t eat. “Is there any place to eat?”

“Well,” says the flower child, “there’s Estrella’s, but it closes six months out of the year. Which is a shame in the summer, because we want to eat out just so we can get out of the house, as it’s so hot we don’t go out. We want to see somebody. Not a lot to do here. Burgers and beer. Might be open.” She thought a minute. “There’s a new place, Agave Grill, but two couples here last night said they went there and the place was full and the chef walked out. Left a room full of customers. So, I don’t know about that.”

“We’ll give it a try.”

She had a menu for the Agave Grill. Asian, in Ajo. Like traffic and weather, I thought.

“It’s over by the Shell station.”

Down the West breezeway, our classroom (that is, room) lay behind a large yellow door, with a transom atop it, like one to which a big kid might hoist a little kid to keep watch out for the teacher. I settled into a chair and pondered where the blackboard may have been located, the desks and chairs, the sinewy and tanned schoolmarm, and the Little Ajo-ians (or is that Ajohites?) at their desks, some fixed on the blackboard and the squeaking white chalk, some daydreaming about . . . well, I don’t know what you’d daydream about in Ajo, some sleeping from early pre-dawn morning chores and long bus rides. Had I trouble sleeping, I may have done my multiplication tables to lull me, but no need. It was dead quiet, and I was out with the light. I had some school dreams, but I forgot them.

At daylight, we loaded up and drove back to Organ Pipe. Back through Why, past Why Not (a convenience store), where we slowed in case the village coyote was crossing the road, back through the Border Control checkpoint, back down a lonely stretch of blacktop curtained by mesquite and creosote and prickly pear cactus. Back down Ajo Mountain Drive, this time with some speed and dust-cloud, intent on reaching the trailhead, and finally parking near Echo Canyon, where we began confidently, midday.

We wound our way through a rock-strewn wash with little shade. We saw no one. The sun was relentless. Not even an animal was out that we could see. When we began our ascent of the ridge, I realized that the heat and past week’s respiratory sickness had weakened me. I had to stop several times. We bent under the shade of a palo verde tree once, yet mostly there was no shade. My daughter was ahead of us, finding out why it was called Echo Canyon. One area we passed through was flanked by teddy bear cholla, the fuzzy cactus hemming us in. The sun. A slight breeze. We drank water. We went 20 feet. We stopped again. Near the ridge we finally reached an area that was in the shade, and it was a reward for our effort. That and the view down the canyon, one devoid of people, one full of Organ Pipe Cacti, anchored all over the mountainside.

I let down my guard and raked my hand against the gray stem of an ocotillo shrub, its thorns drawing blood.

“You don’t have to hold it up in the air,” said my wife. “Just higher than your heart. Until it stops bleeding.”

I put it over my heart, held it there, and walked on up and over the ridge, carrying a memory close, etched in blood, so glad to be alive to see sky and rock and cacti and the red-haired girl bobbing up ahead, happy to be here in a golden land.


A Tearless World

299DE837-27F6-49A9-B962-206A7EAF97CEIn late Fall Sabino Creek runs deep -- so deep, in fact, as to be invisible, having dropped stealth-like under the dry earth, a subterranean watercourse, leaving sand washes, exposed rocks, and bridges over nothing but playgrounds for lizards and, perhaps, a rattlesnake or desert hare. Quiet has descended on the canyon. Even the wind puffs but gently, like breath on a burning wick, teasing but not extinguishing.

As we have all been sick and are weakened by sleeplessness, we do not take the switchbacks to the ridge-line trail but ride the tram up the road, with the driver’s sing-song narration, and are deposited at stop nine, a cul-de-sac, where we disembark and begin our four-mile walk down the canyon. After the tram passes and we gain ground and outpace our nearest walkers, we are happily alone, watched only by sahuaro sentries, rock and red sand and an azure sky hemming us in. My daughter stooped and picked up a grasshopper with banded legs. “It bit me,” she exclaimed, dropping it. “It has pinchers on its mouth.” I stoop to look at his fancy pants. He springs away.

It is not all dry. At one point where the road traversed the stream bed, we came on a pool of tea-tinted water, the color a product of the tannic acid of dying leaves. Beneath its tawny surface, life thrives. The water was filled with darting gila chubs, holding onto the last of the water. An unidentified insect floated atop the water, trapped, fighting to free itself, yet the chubs, though omnivorous, were uninterested, perhaps algae full. They minnow on.

In an adjacent pool, an eel-like worm twists. My daughter lifts it out of the water on a stick about which it curls. Flat, not cylindrical, it has a red head or tail, like a tiny lollipop. Later, I learn that it is a horsehair worm, one of perhaps 351 kinds of such worms worldwide, and I marvel at a God who would create so diverse an array of barely-there lives. She lays the horsehair worm gently at water’s edge, where it has knotted itself around the stick, and we leave it to its knotting, to its work.

Walking out I imagined night settling on the canyon, the shadows lengthening, a full moon rising. Then, when all is still, when humanity has retreated, a mountain lion slinks down the canyon wall, softly padding over the boulder-strewn stream bed, and at the pool’s edge bends its head and laps rusty water. The chubs skitter. The horsehair worms knot and cling to crevices. The cat drinks long and then stretches out on a still-warm rock and washes, her eyes heavy. The chubs reconvene, wary but relieved. The horsehair worms stretch and float, at rest.

“Where do you think they go when the water dries up,” says my daughter. “Downstream?”

“Maybe,” I say. I read later that the chubs may not, that some hang on to the last pooled water until it is too late, until there is no exit, until finally, the water gone, they become food for hares and coyotes. Late that night, when I hear rain on the roof, when droplets increase in frequency, I pray they wet the chubs and give them more time to live and move in the diminishing pool. They may not have souls, may not be in God’s image, but they are not nothing, not to be disregarded.

In her biography of missionary Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die, Elisabeth Elliot tells a story of how Amy rushed out of the house when she heard that a child was crushing a beetle with a stone. The old woman recounting it, a young child at the time, said that “she got hold of my tiny hand and hit me with the same stone, stating that the beetle had all the freedom to live unless it came inside the house. . . . The lesson learnt was to be forever kind to any creature.” She called nature the “Second Bible,” and of one mountain place in particular summed up its balm: “There is so much sadness in the world, so many hearts ache, so many tears fall, it is rather wonderful to be away for a little while in a tearless world, left just as God made it . . . . These fundamental things seem to carry one back to the beginnings, the fundamentals, the things that cannot be shaken, ancient verities of God.”

Topping the last hill, we entered the last long stretch, leaving the canyon behind. I looked back at ancient verities, now memories, buoyed by the thought that a God who loves the near nothingness of the horsehair worm and watery life of the gila chub, loves me even more.

And made me for a tearless world.


The Light I’m After

IMG_0245Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun

("Here Comes the Sun," George Harrison)

In one of my favorite (if modest) restaurants, the table at which I like to sit is by a window.

“I like a table with a view,” I say to my wife. She smiles. The window overlooks an alleyway no more than three feet wide; the view is of a gray concrete wall. Still. I rest my hand on a warm square of sunlight on the gingham tablecloth, touch the window-glass with a finger, watch how the light catches a wisp of her hair. Even the food seems to soak up a bit of light and tastes brighter, a hamburger with a garnish of sunlight; a common french fry, light-suffused.

Light is what I am after, of course. I’ve had better views. Like the Paris view from a cafe toward the Eiffel Tower. Or overlooking the azure calm of Lake Louise reflecting glaciered peaks. Or perched at the edge of the continental United States in the Cliff House in San Francisco, looking down on a fog-laden Pacific, my then young daughter asleep at her dinner, her cheek pressed against the window. Or the 50-mile view across southern Arizona from the foothills of the Catalinas. Or better yet, the view from my kitchen table to the back 40 (feet), a doe and fawn quietly munching.

But the light is what I’m after.

During the workday, I bask in light, my wall of windows overlooking a rooftop of solar panels, their upturned faces soaking up the rays. In the summer it’s too hot; the winter, too cold. But I am buoyed by my window on the world, even treetops visible in the distance. Even an occasional pigeon scuttles by in a solar saunter. And when storms roll in from the Southwest, I have a cinematic view of their fury, light occluded, the tapping of keys on keyboard a soundtrack to their display. Once in a while, I sit on the broad windowsill and let the sun wash over me, until the phone rings and stirs me from my reverie.

Light makes all the difference. The other day, turning to walk up the stairs of our home, the bent yellow-orange rays of a setting sun caught me unaware, as if a window I had passed for over 30 years was newly cut. Contractors had cleared and thinned the forest behind us to build new homes, opening up the sky, and the sun came in fresh, finding new paths through which to lay its beams. I sat down at the bottom of the steps and took it in, watched the lengthening shadows of trees creep up the walls of our home until, in moments, the sun dropped below the horizon and dusk came. Then, darkness.

In her children’s devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, Sally Lloyd-Jones shines light on great profundities, meting them out in child-size packages. She says, “When you open the windows, do you have to beg the fresh air to come in? Or when you open the curtains in the morning, do you have to argue with the sun to make it shine in your room? How silly!” I find myself shaking my head to no one in particular, mumbling no, no, of course not, of course that’s silly, Sally. But you can, of course, draw the curtain, and you can, of course, look to the light, and you can, of course, sit down at the bottom of a staircase and gaze out a window at the fading light.

The light is what I’m after, of course. “Don’t try to work it out by yourself,” says Sally Lloyd-Jones. “Let God’s peace flow in - like sunshine into a dark room.” It’s grace, unbidden and free. Yet it helps to look. It helps to take a table by the window, to look at love lit by sunlight, to see everything else in the light.

And I say it’s all right. It’s better than all right.


Sky Parlor

98971“The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound, and the future is anybody’s guess.” - James Thurber

Late one evening this week, in a bit of late-night brooding, I ascended the steps to the attic. I was looking for a typewriter, a writer’s relic. But I didn’t find it. I opened the door and flicked on the bare bulb light. It was just here, I thought, meaning I saw it here perhaps 20 years ago. We likely loaned it out as a prop for a high school play and forgot to reclaim it. And now, when I need it, it’s gone. Do I need it? Not really. But I do want to hear the click of its keys and the whir of its motor and the ring of its return, ribboning back to my past.

“The first six months of retirement,” I said to my wife later, “ will be spent cleaning out the attic.” Someone has been using ours as a hold for the inanimate, a purgatory of what we cannot let go but cannot use. The only things I remember actually using, lately, are the luggage, folding chairs, and air filters; the rest, I don’t know. They washed up on shore, one by one, in successive waves.

“We’re not waiting that long,” she said, from her repose. I looked up. The cast-offs of our lives lay heavy above us.

Fifteen years ago we took care of the cleaning in one fell swoop: a fire burned it all. Local firefighters broke the dormer window and pitched what they could into the yard. We scooped up the charred remains, salvaged pieces. It’s fast, but messy, and there is collateral damage.

But this is a project, this assemblage. Life accretes.

There’s a bulging yellow carrying case of Matchbox cars, old VHS tapes, and a decade of tax returns and financial information (in case I am audited). Add to that a dangling strand of Christmas tree lights, bulb-less lamp, old desk-chair, vacuum cleaner, wicker chest, another lamp, and boxes unapproachable, attic-ed and forgotten. Pink insulation covers the walls, and a silver-serpentine wrap of duct-work snakes above. A furnace lives by the outer wall, alive but sleeping, whirring on when temperature changes summon.

In my childhood home, the attic was a place of hidden treasure. And danger. We climbed the creaky drop-down stairs and ascended to a plywood island from which planks stretched across two by fours traversing a attic-scape of pink, itchy insulation. Quicksand. Fall in and you never come out, just kept falling, falling. Walk the plank and teeter on the brink of hellish doom. Late in life, my elderly mother did indeed fall through, landing softly, providentially, on a sofa below, as if she was just napping, a bit shook up but none the worse for it. We, however, never fell, as we searched for hidden Christmas presents, to peel away a corner of their wrap and have a preview of Santa’s offerings.

I put my hand to the sloping roof, inches from a starry sky, the wood and shingle the thin membrane of infinity. Life, I thought, is pitched towards eternity. “[W]hat is man that you are mindful of him,” says the Psalmist, “and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps.‬ ‭8:4‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Nothing, and something, I think. And what are all our possessions, our things? Nothing, I think, and something.

“On Ellen’s first night she was assigned a spot in the ‘sky parlor,’ or attic, at the boardinghouse, sharing one of the beds and acclimating to the dim light and lack of heat,” writes Sarah Kilborne, in her biography of textile baron William Skinner. “The place was very cold, but she and her sisters, along with the rest, huddled together under soldiers’ blankets, willingly sacrificing the comforts of home for the freedom of being away from home and earning their own living.” Sky parlor. That’s a word with possibilities, and with that the attic’s edges blur and I imagine that somewhere hidden beneath the detritus of our lives is a missing scrap of paper with a story written in a high school creative writing class, a long-lost letter, childhood coin collection, or some other ancient treasure, demurely waiting to be found, to be awakened from its slumber by the touch of a hand, the embrace of an exclamation. Somewhere, I think, in all these icons of the past, is the key to what’s to come, to what’s been lost and what’s been found and what we are becoming.

But it’s late, too late for such parlor musings, and I’m tired, and I forgot what I am looking for up here, anyway. I switch off the light and carefully descend the stairs, snugly closing the door behind me. I was met by my cat. Even cats long to look into such things, I thought, stooping to run my hand along her back.

“What were you doing up there?” said my wife, looking up from her book.

“Looking for something,” I said. Actually, I thought, looking for anything, looking for possibilities. An old armchair, maybe. A scrap of paper with forgotten words. Or even, a touch of sky.

“Hmmm . . . Did you find it?”

“Not yet.”


The Weight


PetersonJordan Peterson is not far from the Kingdom.

A few days ago, I was lunching alone at a favorite lunch place. I read an article in The Spectator, a British magazine, about University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson. By it’s title, “Jordan Peterson and the transgender wars,” I figured that this was just another article about an academic who had run afoul of the thought police. Though it was, there was much more to it. Like the author of the article, after watching a few of Peterson's videos, i was intrigued by the passion he had for his subjects, the intensity of his gaze, and his authenticity.

About human nature, Peterson says, “We are all monsters and if you don’t know that, then you are in danger of becoming the very monster that you deny.”

About why 90 percent of the audience for his online videos is men: “I’m telling them something they desperately need to hear — that there are important things that need to be fixed up. I’m saying, ‘You guys really need to get your act together and you need to bear some responsibility and grow the hell up.’

About the cultural forces impacting men: “The lack of an identifiable and compelling path forward and the denialism these kids are being fed on a daily basis is undoubtedly destroying them and that is especially true of the young men.”

But the part that touches me, that makes me stop eating and pay better attention, is when Peterson himself begins to weep in compassion, as he talks through tears: “Every time I talk about this, it breaks me up,” he says. “The message I’ve been delivering is, ‘Find the heaviest weight you can and pick it up. And that will make you strong. You’re not who you could be. And who you could be is worthwhile.'"

But it might not make you only strong. It might just make you proud. It might make you despise the weak. It also ignores the upside-down nature of the Gospel, that the greatest weight is the lightest burden: the Cross. What Peterson seems to be saying is that there is more to life than pleasure, that there is meaning in life, and that there is work to be done. And yet though he identifies as a Christian, albeit unorthodox, what I have seen of Peterson’s provocative videos fails to give adequate motivation for a meaningful life. Yet there is something in his tears.

He goes on: “They’re so starving for that message. Young men are so desperate for a pathway that they are dying for it. And it’s heart-breaking and terrible that this idea has been kept from them. It is a malevolent conspiracy or ignorance to keep that from young men. Some of the young men who come to my lectures are desperately hanging on every word because I am telling them that they are sinful, and insufficient, and deceitful and contemptible in their current form, but that they could be far more than that, and that the world NEEDS THAT. This presents an ideal that can be approached and life without that is intolerable. It’s just meaningless suffering and that’s true if you have all the cake you can eat and all the girls you can have one-night stands with.”

I look up. The server brings the tab. I pay it through tears.


Once Upon a Moon

IMG_0318It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order.

(Isa. 48:13)

Until I was about ten, the moon had not entered my consciousness. I lay in my bed and on a clear night and watched its slanted rays light the corners of my room, but I thought nothing of it. My thoughts were earthbound, given to superhero fantasies or playing backyard capture the flag or testing the limits of how far I could ride my bicycle (which was far indeed). But Apollo changed that.

Though Santa Claus was preeminent on Christmas Eve of 1968, I was there in front of a nine-inch black and white Zenith TV when Frank Bowman said, "This is Apollo 8, coming to you live from the moon." I was ten and suddenly the universe came into view for the first time. Anything seemed possible. That only seven months later Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon seemed a given. Of course he would.

In Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon, Jeffrey Kruger tells the story of the run up to the moon well, from the fateful fire that took the lives of the Apollo 1 astronauts to the successful mission of Apollo 8. Kluger provides mini-biographies of the crew - Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders - profiles of other personalities that figured prominently in the mission, such as Flight Director Gene Kranz and Nasa Director of Flight Operations Chris Kraft, life from the perspective of the astronaut's wives, and a non-technical blow-by-blow account of the flight. It's a story rich in actual dialogue, as Kluger has mined NASA's mission transcripts and conducted personal interviews of the three astronauts so as to provide a faithful account of their witness to what few have ever seen.

That Apollo happened at all is astounding. NASA personnel had a razor-sharp focus on John F. Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970, all against the backdrop of a country where cities were burning with racial riots, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and where and college campuses were rife with anti-war protests - all against the backdrop of a deadly war in Vietnam, newly bloodied by the Tet Offensive, a Cold War with Russia, and radical social change. It seemed there was trouble everywhere. And yet the men and women of NASA worked on.

Though this story takes little account of God, the unseen hand of Providence figures throughout the account. At so many junctures the mission could have gone awry. Would the Saturn V rocket function as it should, carrying them into orbit? Would life support systems on board function appropriately? Would they enter the moon's orbit properly or spin off into the darkness of outer space or into a decaying lunar orbit? Would they exit orbit well or again spin off into space? And finally, would they renter earth's orbit in precisely the right way so as not to burn up on reentry? At every juncture they succeeded. That such a mission could be carried off is a testament to both the dedication of NASA employees and to God's faithfulness.

There were magical moments. Seeing the earth suspended in space for the first time, Frank Borman thought, This is what God sees. Jim Lovell marveled that he could extend his arm and hide the entire earth behind his thumb. On the Christmas Eve transmission from lunar orbit, Anders, Lovell, and Borman read the Creation account from Genesis 1, its poetic refrains ending with "And God saw that it was good." More than one-third of the planet - more than had ever watched a television broadcast - heard those words and saw the grainy black and white images of the astronauts and the view of a smallish earth from the moon. Back at Mission Control, which had at critical moments in the mission erupted in applause (and cigarette smoke), Kluger recounts a solemnly quiet room. Ex-military man Gene Kranz stood quietly at the back-of-the-room console, basking in the glow of what had just happened. Kluger reports that

Jerry Bostick, the flight dynamics officer at his console in the trench, felt something he could only describe as a wave of gratitude - for the astonishing moment in history that was unfolding in front of him, and for the accident of birth and timing and talent that had placed him, one person out of billions, in the middle of that moment. Thank you, Lord, for letting me be here and be a part of this, he said to himself silently.

Gratitude. Reading this account, like any account of the space program, fills me with thankfulness for people with vision and dedication. It wasn't just the Frank Bormans, Chris Krafts, and Gene Kranzs of NASA who mattered. Mostly, it was also the many rank and file engineers, scientists, and support personnel who simply did their jobs. That's how things get done. In his account, Kluger reminds us that dedicated people can do amazing things. And as Kluger faithfully reminds us in his account, at least a few of them were praying.

Awaking just after midnight last night, the room was lit by the light of a full moon. The story of Apollo 8 still ricocheted in my brain, and I was unwilling to leave it yet. I shuffled to the window and looked up at the brightly lit orb laying heavy above the horizon. A thin cloud divided it. Once the cloud passed, I imagined what it must have been like to circumnavigate it, to stare down at its rocky, alien surface, right there above the Sea of Tranquility, 40 years ago. I whispered a small prayer that we would have the knowledge and will to go again. Then, I stretched out my hand and covered it with my thumb. I thought, This is what God sees.


What I Need


IMG_0332At lunch a couple days ago, a friend asked "Do you have any spiritual needs?" I looked away from his searching face, to the salt shaker, as if the answer might lie there. I know the answer. It's a rhetorical question. And yet I had to think about it for a moment, as it is one of those questions that doesn't often get asked, particularly by one man to another. I look up, meet his eyes.

"Joy," I said. "I need the joy of the Lord. Scripture says 'Rejoice in the Lord always,' but how do I do that?"

Joy does not equate to happiness. Joy is a depth charge, exploding underneath, reverberating; happiness, a flash on the surface, ephemeral. Bob Dylan captured it best in a 1991 Rolling Stone interview. “Happiness, “said Dylan, “is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things.” His interlocutor records that he fell silent for a few moments and stared at his hands. “You know,” he said, “these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It’s not happiness or unhappiness, it’s either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, ‘Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.’ Now, that must be a happy man. Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that’s much more important than just being happy.”

After seeing my daughter off early this morning, my wife and I took to the darkened streets. The mist hung over us, curling around muted streetlights. For at least ten blocks we saw neither person nor car. Mostly, we were silent but for the offbeat footfalls and swish of clothing, the occasional audible prayers juxtaposed with the silent company of God. We crossed a stream swollen with the rain from the previous day. Water is a magnet, so we always look down at its hypnotic draw. Floating about in the mush of my barely awake mind was that phrase from the first line of the Creed: “God the Father Almighty.” And then another word that the Apostles use time and again of us, of me: “beloved.” Like a tiny jigsaw puzzle of weighty pieces, I put it together: The Almighty God calls me beloved. Jesus loves me. Though elementary, it’s a puzzle I must rework every day.

Happy? I don’t think much about being happy. Nor do I think much about being sad. But when I consider an almighty God calling me beloved, my brooding over the world and over me - my blessed mourning, to use the beatitude - is riven by joy, by some inarticulable sense that I am out walking just where He wants me, that I am blessed. C.S. Lewis once said that joy “jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights. It shocks one awake when the other [just doing well] puts one to sleep.” I think such experience a rare, unbidden treat. As Lewis said in his memoir, “Joy is never in our power.” Yet by focusing on the tidal wave he missed the steady lapping wave of joy, the irrepressible love of a Savior who bids us come.

I told my friend across the table that sometimes, after being reminded by a judge that I don’t know anything or, at least, that what I know is inadequate, I feel dejected, and I am deeply aware of my inadequacy. I try not to harden my defenses to this by getting angry or by silent protestations of my rightness. After leaving the courtroom, I let the heavy door shut, take the elevator back to my office, and entering slump at my desk. I look at my hands, their lines and creases testifying to the friction of life and time, of water under the bridge, and with a sigh of relief say to myself, “Well, Jesus loves me anyway. Jesus loves me. God almighty, Jesus loves me.”

That’s all I need. That’s joy. That’s a keyhole to the light of eternity.


An Ordinary Time

IMG_0315A week or so ago, I had lunch with my friend Pete. Pete has a shining, angelic face, though he would laugh at such a description. He has always worn his heart on his face - broken, but redeemed; joyful even with sadness. We share a general sense of professional ineptitude, a vocation by grace alone. So, we are who we are, yet thankful.

We begin our lunch with a call to worship, a prayer of blessing over not only food but conversation, asking that we might build each other up, even, sometimes, pick each other up. There is a bit of small talk, the announcements of our life - work, home, family, the askings after - and then we move quickly into confession, the telling of our preoccupations and failings, followed by affirmations of God's grace.

"You want sweet tea," says Carol, an imposing server. The way she says it make me doubt that it's a question. Carol is like the whiskey priest with the communion wine, brusque and business-like, yet flawed. I hesitate.

"I'll have unsweetened." I realize that's like asking this unwitting acolyte for grape juice instead of wine, but I risk it. Carol shoves a pitcher across the table, leaves with a huff.

The soundtrack of our service is a cacophony of noises: the tentative, titterings of two elderly women across the way, eruptions of laughter from two construction workers in another corner, the unintelligible conversations of the many in the larger room next door, and the salutations of the hostess and the cashier by the door. We break bread, have communion, wash the biscuit down with ice tea, and I say, "What have you learned lately," as he says the same to me, and we begin to tell our small stories, our obscure meditations on our lives.

Tish Harrison Warren says that:

Christ's ordinary years are part of our redemption story. Because of the incarnation and those long, unrecorded years of Jesus' life, our small normal lives matter. If Christ was a carpenter, all of us who are in Christ find that our work is sanctified and made holy. If Christ spent time in obscurity, then there is infinite worth found in obscurity. If Christ spent most of his life in quotidian ways, then all of life is brought under his Lordship. There is no task too small or too routine to reflect God's glory and worth.

It's a reminder to me not to dismiss these small moments as insignificant, to not dismiss my life as insignificant. Carol refills my glass, and I smile. "Thank you," I say, gulping down half, gratefully, as Pete pushes back his chair. We are silent for a moment, content, resting in the refracted glow of God's grace toward us both.

In the end, with thankfulness, we rise and exit, blinking at the sunlight as we emerge. I walk him to his truck, a well-worn conveyance, and we say our benediction prayers there by the car door, out in the world, he pronouncing blessing over me and I over him, before we leave and return to the rest of our lives - to the ordinary, mundane, and obscure, to the papers to be filed and phone calls to be made, to the jots and tittles of law upon law, to common people who appear and reappear in our days.

Ordinary, yet shining.

[The quote is from Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, IVP Books, 2016. The photo is by the late photo-journalist, Sol Libsohn, entitled "together in order to." It's what our ordinary lunch may have looked like in the 1930s.]


Welcome to the Bell

S3-27000-w-ca-257_15-lt-5"At the basis of Jesus Christ's Kingdom is the loveliness of the commonplace." (Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, August 21)

“There is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all." (B.B. Warfield)

Birds have little problem with the doctrines of grace. That holds true for squirrels, voles, fox, deer, and other woodland creatures. They are beneficiaries of God's wondrous grace, provided for and loved, yet they never think it up to them. They have no idols, make no little gods. They just live in love, beloved by the One who so loved the world.

Not so with us. We find it difficult to rest in Love.

I took myself to lunch alone. But I am not alone. I sit by the window and eat fast food slow, watching men wash cars. Their movements are rhythmic: drying, wiping, standing, moving about the cars until, finished, they tap the horn and raise their arm to the sky. Across from me, two middle age men eat sullenly, one staring at his food and the other at the shining screen of his phone. A family laughs in the booth next to them, yet the sounds of the kitchen and drive-through orders drowns out their words. Looking down, a bird titters on the outside lip of the window, briefly, before flitting off at the sound of an advancing car.

I do this sometimes - eat or walk or sit in the most pedestrian of places -when I am sad about the world, or sad about me, recalling, as Jesus reminds me, that blessed are those who mourn about sin - about people who hate other people, about greed, about the unborn and unfed or about my own selfishness and sloth - because they shall be comforted. How? By the gospel, by the truth that He calls us beloved, by our irrevocable adoption into His family. I need that. And besides, if you're not sad about the world or yourself sometimes - if you don't know how broken we are - then grace is kept at remove. Cheap and ephermeral.

"Try the mini-quesadilla. That's something different. Only a dollar," said a clerk, brightly. I notice she is overweight. I make judgments about her life, though I know better, before I catch myself.

"Sure. I'll try it. The price is right." She works at Taco Bell. I'm wondering how she survives on what she makes as I mentally calculate the monthly wages of a minimum wage earner. And yet she smiles and her voice is upbeat. She's better at her job than I am at mine. There's no complaint in her voice, no attitude, no cynicism.

Out the window men are washing cars, many of the cars worth more than than they could ever hope to make in a year or even two years. They work in the heat, sweat glistening on their arms and dripping from their foreheads. I am no better than them. Why am I here? I'm after what G.K. Chesterton called "[t]hat profound feeling of mortal fraternity and frailty," the dignity of the commonplace, the blessedness of the ordinary, the truth that we're all in the same boat, that but for Christ, we are all the orphans of God.

"Hey, the quesadilla. . . It was great," I called out on leaving.

She looked up. Her ordinary smile shone over the lobby, as I turned and walked away, mortal but accepted, common, but uncommonly loved. Driving away, I considering tapping my horn and raising my arm to the sky. I should have.


Weapon of Prayer


While there is no copyright on my weathered volume of D.L. Moody's Prevailing Prayer, following the contents page there is a page entitled "How to Use This Book" that helps date this edition to a time at least 50 years ago, if not more. Among the suggestions listed are "Present the book to the grocer's boy, milkman or someone calling at your door," and "Forward it to a lumber camp or prison, the sailors, soldiers, firemen and other neglected classes." That makes me long for that time when it would have been presumed by most that praying was a necessary and good thing, even if they did not much pray themselves. First published in 1884 (Moody died in 1899), the book has likely stayed in print because of the efficacy of its exhortations and clarity of its language, even across more than a century. And yet in a time when the culture is largely naked of Christian truths, the book is near samizdat: an operator's manual for the least used weapon of the dissident movement known as the Church --- to be read, savored, and employed with fire and holy fury.

Military imagery is cringe-inducing nowadays, and yet previous generations had no qualms about it. In 1951 the Louvin Brothers released a recording entitled "Weapon of Prayer" which opined that those at home praying were just as much warriors as those soldiers fighting in Korea. One stanza is my favorite:

When the planes and tanks and guns have done all that they can do And the mighty bombs have rained and fell Still the helpful Hand above holds a weapon made of love And against Him none on Earth prevail

And indeed none do. Over and over in Prevailing Prayer Moody makes the claim that prayer is our greatest power. He says it is the "mighty power that has moved not only God, but man." "Those who have left the deepest impression on this sin-cursed earth," says Moody, "have been men and women of prayer." Using one after another biblical examples, he shows that "when believing prayer went up to God, the answer came down." A friend summarizes it this way: "We pray, and God will surely do something. What we don’t know, but he will do something.” Citing Baxter, Luther, Knox, Whitefield, Wesley, and McCheyne, Moody shows how "all God's people have been praying people." About Baxter: "He stained his study walls with praying breath; and after he was anointed with the unction of the Holy Ghost, sent a river of living water over Kidderminster, and converted hundreds." About Knox he said that "he grasped all Scotland in his strong arms of faith; his prayers terrified tyrants." What if it were the prayers of God's people and not firepower that terrified tyrants like North Korea's Kim Jong-un ? What if our president called for a national day of prayer, and we saw the crumbling of that fell regime under the strong hand of love?

Why don't we pray, or why don't we pray more? Maybe because we do not sufficiently believe in its power. Or at least we believe that it's a weapon of last resort, one that may or may not work, one that we hope is answered in some recognizable way but that probably won't be. Or maybe even because we don’t believe that God cares enough to answer. If we believed that answers come down when believing prayers go up, we would be praying all the time. We have access to a King who is omnipotent and who loves us and promises to answer.

Do we have time? Of course we do. If it's our greatest power, the thing that moves the hand of God, then of course we do. Luther, who was a busy man, said (according to Moody) that "I have so much to do that I cannot get on without three hours a day praying." Do they get answered? We are promised that they do. Moody says "I think that we shall find a great many of our prayers that we thought unanswered answered when we get to heaven."

Everything said in this book is still relevant. We still need to pray. More than anything we need to pray. Prayer is holy breathing: we can't live without it. We need a faith weaponized by prevailing prayers that, in Moody’s words, “ move the Arm that moves the world.” For Christ's sake, pray. For the offense and defense of God’s world, pray.


Silence

EgPb%ywKSoGbr2vSSJA9Pg_thumb_72d3What I know about classical music you can put in a thimble. Yet, for whatever reason, a few years ago I bought a copy of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. I'm listening to it as I sit on the patio on a pleasant, warm day, savoring it with the neighbor's cat, who seems lulled by its graceful sounds.

There's an abundance of silence in Gorecki's work, reminds Robert Reilly, a silence which some might interpret as "nothing happens." Yet that is the plague of the Western, modern (and Post-modern) mind. According to Reilly,

During a trip to Washington, DC, in the early 1990s, Górecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Nonesuch recording of which sold more than 800,000 copies. Górecki responded, "Let’s be quiet." Perhaps that is [his] most urgent message [ ], "Be quiet." Or perhaps more biblically, "Be still." This stillness is not empty silence [ ]. It is a full, gestational silence that allows one, like Moses, to hear the remaining words: "And know that I am God.”

Well, a soaring soprano was enough for the cat. He left.

If I turn off the music, I have my own form of silence here, the ostensible silence of “nothing happening.” The rustle of a leaf-laden tree branch. The crescendo of daytime cicadas. The twittering songs of sparrows, bluebirds, and chickadees, and the mimicry of a mockingbird. Faraway, there is the distant hum of traffic, the winding out of a motorcycle. Above me a single-engine prop plane makes its buzzing descent. Yet in between that cacophony, there are interstices of silence. Like Gorecki.

Like the work of John Tavener and Arvo Part, the profound silence that permeates the work of Gorecki is not empty but pregnant with meaning. “Some of [his] compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility and remain barely above it," says Reilly, "conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say. When not used in this way, a grammar of silence is nonetheless employed that punctuates even the more extrovert and vociferous works. Moments of silence stand like sentinels, guarding the inner stillness from the violence of sounds that have not come out of the silence."

We all need such sentinels. It might be the silence of a William Carlos Williams poem that we need, a white space pregnant with expectation. It might be a silent sanctuary before a call to worship when scripture resounds. It might be the thoughtful pause before you respond to a rash word spoken or email sent. It might be the great empty satellite silence of space that only a few among us have experienced, before God in some time unknown reconciles all things and reconstitutes His universe. It might be the anticipatory stillness before a God who lets our urgent plea hang in the silence between heaven and earth, until faith buoys it upward.

"[F]aith for me is everything," Gorecki once said. "If I did not have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.” It was faith that kept Henryk Gorecki during the communist oppression in his native Poland. It underlines the melancholy chorales of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Faith girds his silences, carries his sound.

In his classic book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster links silence and solitude, the latter a necessary counterpoint to community. “Without silence,” he says, “there is no solitude.” Pointing to the example of Jesus, who often left the crowds to go to a “lonely place,” he concludes that “we must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully.” Just as solitude doesn’t mean we are alone, silence doesn’t mean nothing is happening, Just as great declarations are being made from the silence of space (Ps. 19:1-4a), so profound declarations are being made in the small silences we cultivate.

A lawn mower has started, its sound ebbing and flowing as it moves behind a neighbor's house. Children laugh. A car door slams and my daughter backs away for her day, with a smile and a wave and words of endearment from an open window. Even the neighbor's cat returns, a winsome black smudge against the sky. And then, something near to silence descends again, and I think, “be still," Gorecki’s “let’s be quiet,” the anticipatory silence before the thunder of, "And know that I am God."


Spelunking


IMG_0308"Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind"

("The Cave," by Mumford and Son, from the album, Sigh No More)

Near the end, as we picked our way up the rock-strewn entrance to the cave, a cheery notification lit the screen of my IPhone: "Its time to write in your journal again!" I hate exclamation points. About their use writer William Zinsser says, just to sum it up, "Don't." He notes that the exclamation point "has a gushy aura, the breathless excitement of a debutante commenting on an event that was exciting only to her." There is nothing exciting about writing in your journal. It is discipline, the constraint of words, and often mundane. But perhaps my disposition was brittle: I was tired and had just slipped on a rock and fallen on my rear.

Lava River Cave is a 700,000 year old, one mile underground passageway under the pine tree floor of the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff, Arizona. After leaving the blacktop off I-40 West, I drove about seven miles on a hard-packed gravel road into the forest, with regular exhortations from my wife and son to slow down and watch for potholes. "I'm watching for them," I said. "I am." Kerthump. I follow the philosophy that the faster you go the less wheel is in the hole and less damage done. It's possible that I am wrong about this, but plenty of people seem to be doing it, and yet I hear my mother's voice, "That doesn't make it right, Stephen," which is how she addressed me when I was dead wrong. The road was fine, until it wasn't, and we hit a jarring pothole that made me glad it was a rental car. A Dollar rental car. My passengers remind me that it has no remote key lock or back seat cup holders.

The entrance to the cave was a tumble down hole in the earth, a rock slide around which humanity milled, slicker than an otter slide in places, which kept it interesting. But hold on: We signed in on the book at the entrance, in pencil, apparently to denote our impermanence. I'm not sure why. Perhaps so they could identify our bodies later? We then scrambled over boulders and loose rock, betwixt jubilant ascenders who'd been there and back, maybe 30-40 feet down, until we reached the floor of the lava tube. But not before we stopped and took a picture of Jesus, who had just emerged from the tomb, I mean cave. No, not Jesus, just a lone spelunker with an abundance of head and facial hair.

I am 59 and wonder how my body will feel tomorrow when I awake. I needn’t as I know how decrepit I will feel on rising. “There's no shame in crawling," I say, preferring to get low so as to reduce the height from which I might fall. But I don't fall, yet.

The floor of the cave is staccato, a blanket of rocks melded together by the lava flow. Occasionally, a smooth cave cay in a sea of rock waves appears, and we stand on it to rest, an island in a molten sea, a boulder fallen centuries ago into the flow from the cavern roof on which we balance. At some points the roof of the cave is 30 feet high; other times, five feet high. I bend, humbling myself, cognizant that the unsupported weight of the world is above me. I watch my head. I watch my feet. I breathe cave air, cold and dank, run my hands along rocks encrusted with cave dust.

Is there a bathroom in here? Nope. That’s the least of my concerns. In here there are all kinds of ways to go wrong. You can fall into a hole or slide a foot into a crack of doom from which extrication is complicated. You can get too high and bang your head, lose consciousness. And then there's heart attacks, leg breaks, ankle twists, and so on - cheery thoughts. Yet I am an attorney: I traffic in doom; if it can happen, it will.

Some people are loud and boisterous as they spelunk. Yo, cave bro. (No one actually said that to me.) There is a veneer of commonality. We are one. Unity in diversity. They pose for status updates. High-fives. A few even have a musical accompaniment, thought it's not Mumford and Son's "The Cave" or even Owl City's "Cave In," but some synth-pop or rap "I'm-just-saying-I-go-caving-with-the-homies, you know." Me, I feel reverent, among an old one, and I speak, if at all, in a hushed voice. We all do. When the people leave, even here God lives and moves, His Spirit seeping through walls and in every crevice. He knew a cave, once.

When we get to the end, there is no private concession, no Starbucks with latte or hot chocolate. The roof bends down until you cannot pass, as if God said, “Here, and no farther.” A man hails us, with a good natured, ”Welcome to the party!,” a frivolity in the face of wonder, our tunnel a bare scratch in the mantle of His world. We turn and retrace our steps, the homing oddly shorter, until I see light and scramble upward, falling in my haste.

Once, underneath, we found ourselves alone and switched off our lamps, let the quiet settle in. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have found yourself alone, like Elijah, cabined in by the walls, groping in the dark, and then to hear a voice calling to you, "What are you doing here?," and to realize that you are not alone, that you are never alone, that God moves even in the darkness, moves through walls, and leads His people upward, into the light, the Truth for broken minds. That alone is worth exclamation.

I scramble up to sky, with hope. . . for lunch.


God's Business

1I switched off the light, adjusted my pillow, put the latest tome to rest on the nightstand, and drew the covers up around my head. Wait, what's that light?

"Honey, did you leave a light on?"

"No. That's the moon, a full moon. Want me to draw the curtain?

"No. That's God's business. It's ok with me." I turn and sigh.

I don't why I said it that way: "God's business." I lay there a while imagining all the countless, simultaneous things God must do in every nanosecond, effortlessly. Like holding together the not insubstantial atoms that comprise my cat, a gelatinous fur-sack asleep on my foot. Nudging her I nudge God, God listening to the petitions of millions, present for each individual in a way that I sometimes struggle to be for even the one person in front of me. God never sleeping, always attentive, tracking every movement and every thought. God 24-7, up all night, awake to all that is.

I’m awake too, albeit with none of His omniscience. I can't sleep. I get up, shuffle to the window, and stare out at God's night light, a moon hovering over the water. I thought about earlier in the evening, when thunderheads scudded seaward, jagged cracks of lightning thrown across them. He did that too, while all the time hearing the inarticulable prayer underneath my spoken prayer, reading my thoughts while orchestrating tides and gravity and holding together the dark matter of space.

The cat brushes my bare ankle, takes up position beside me, impassive face seaward. Infinity is in her eyes. Or maybe it’s just a plea for food, a midnight snack.

“‘Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jer. 23:24). J.I. Packer explains that “he is present everywhere in the fullness of all that he is and all the powers he has, and needy souls praying to him anywhere in the world receive the same fullness of his undivided attention." My tiny little prayer that wafts heavenward, caught by the ocean breeze, lit by moonlight, joins with the weighty petition of a persecuted saint languishing in a North Korean prison or the hungry prayer of a malnourished African. God gives each His full attention without the expenditure of an iota of his great mind or strength.

No one can understand that mystery. And yet we have pictures of it in scripture. A woman suffering from a decade of bleeding manages to touch Jesus in spite of a crowd, and Jesus saw and healed her (Lk. 8:43-48). A lame beggar calls out to Peter and John, and it is recorded that “Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John,” and he was healed (Acts 3:1-10). God has a razor-sharp focus on the prayers of His people, directs His gaze of love unto us.

I look down. The cat has departed, following the rut worn in the carpet between our room and the food bowl. I say one more prayer, letting it fall back into the deep with the undertow, deep unto deep, and return to bed.

“Did you draw the curtain?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t. God is still up.”


Hope Beyond all Hopes

IMG_0307As a child, on the way home from church, I'd say to my sister, "I hope we go to McDonalds for lunch," and she'd say, "Me too," and pious child that I was I'd even pray it so, screwing my eyes shut and concentrating very hard on the object of my hope. Pray the turn signal would be green, that my Dad would turn the wheels toward the Golden Arches. But no. No, at least not that day. The light would change and we'd motor on to white bread tomato or pimento cheese sandwiches and long, endless Sunday afternoons of "rest", our parents snoozing away, inexplicably exhausted, before we were back at church, installment two.

Maybe hope is something non-gastronomic, like when my wife said the other day, "I hope it doesn't rain." It rained buckets. "I hope I get an A" I thought to myself in law school, and I did, two times, but mostly not. Hope falls easily from the tongue, a longing. And yet real hope is something more substantial, something that has an object that is durable and true and is more than the mere precatory language we often use about mundane things like food and weather. Those are wishes. And we know they are.

I don’t personally know anyone who lacks hope, though I have known some at times acutely stricken by its lack. Hope has broad currency. Hope is not just the province of believers or even just generally religious people. Mostly when I hear it said I hear an expression of longing more than anything else and, underneath the longing, some vague sense that there is a basis for hope, even if the basis is paper thin and fragile, or even inarticulable.

In an article called “Soul Comforter,” Josh Mayo explores what underlies expressions of hope. He asks “What can explain the human soul's insistent and persistent hope against titanic odds?” Mayo identifies two prevalent notions of hope, two “songs of optimism.” First, there is the Song of Progress. Things are getting better every day. Technology will solve our problems. It's the credo of Silicon Valley: a new startup, a new smartphone, solar-powered airplanes, the trans-human body. Or there is the Song of Karma, says Mayo. Give love, receive love. Good deeds get good returns. Do right, or mostly right, and it'll all work out in the end. You'll make it to heaven, the afterlife, a reincarnated life, whatever.

And yet, as Mayo says, both bases for hope are bankrupt. “No honest survey of ourselves or the world provides any such hope for beatitude contingent on ethics,” says Mayo, but rather, is cause for despair. Every technological solution creates more problems; good is often not rewarded but even punished, given the bent nature of human beings. Under the longing, under the songs of karma and progress, is the rumble of something desperate and grasping. Under the sheen and buoyancy of pop culture, and behind the chatter of talk show hosts, you hear it.

Yet it need not be. About hope, Frederick Buechner once said:

For Christians, hope is ultimately hope in Christ. The hope that he really is what for centuries we have been claiming he is. The hope that despite the fact that sin and death still rule the world, he somehow conquered them. The hope that in him and through him all of us stand a chance of somehow conquering them too. The hope that at some unforeseeable time and in some unimaginable way he will return with healing in his wings.

Real hope has a true and faithful object, and for the the Christian - for the world - that object is Jesus Christ." When voices of discouragement or even despair whisper, we can know two things. First, that positionally something is very different for us as Christians, something irrevocable: we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, of Jesus (Col. 1:13). This movement is by grace and not of our own doing. And second, God is at work reconciling the whole creation to himself (Col. 1:20). This too is God's initiative, His power. Progress marred by sin; karma that gets you in the end. But hope, in Christ alone, the currency of His people.

Next time you say "I hope," then in the mundanity of your hope consider the Hope beyond all hopes, the One to whom they all point. Out beyond the Golden Arches.


The Father-Haunted Life of Brian Wilson

41E3WXJMmaL._SX342_BO1 204 203 200_
At 25 I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my
tired eyes
But now I’m back, drawing shades of kind
blue skies.

(From “Going Home,” By Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett, from the album, That Lucky Old Sun)

Early in his recent memoir, entitled I Am Brian Wilson, the enigmatic Beach Boy draws attention to the single most important person to impact his early life: his father, Murray Wilson. Though he is long dead, Wilson says that even now he hears the voice of his dad in his head: “Your music is no damned good, Brian. Get to work, Brian. You’re falling behind, Brian.” Time and again in the pages that follow he circles his father, alternating between love and appreciation and revulsion at his abuse.

Brian Wilson is 75, and yet he is still deeply impacted by his father. He says that “he stayed one of the most important people in my life, in good ways and bad. He could be generous and guide me toward great things, but he could also be brutal and belittle me and sometimes even make me regret that I was even alive.” Recalling a song that his father wrote when Brian was in school, he says that “[s]ometimes in school I would think about it and get tears in my eyes. People ask what made it a good song. He did. My dad did.” He loved his dad. He hated what he did.

In an extended reflection, Brian says he wants to try and explain his dad, yet it’s obvious that he is till grappling with how to understand him. He talks about how his dad gave him and his brothers the gift of music. But he also “took things away, by being rough and demanding.” He “yelled at me all the time and made me nervous,” he says, and “grabbed us by the arms and shoved us and hit us with hands that were sometimes open and sometimes even closed.” And yet, in all that he says about his dad, it is obvious that Brian loved him, appreciated him, and, perhaps more than anything, deeply desired his approval. Indeed, Brian’s adulation of producer Phil Spector may also reflect his desire for the approval of a father-figure. (Spector was not accommodating.) Even the psycho-therapist Eugene Landry, who likely saved Brian’s life only to assert an excessive control over it, may have been helped by Wilson’s need for a father-figure.

On one of the tracks on the Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set, you can listen in on a recording session where Murray Wilson harangues Brian. To visualize it further, watch the critically acclaimed biopic about Wilson, Love and Mercy. It is a fair rendering of a life impacted by not only his father but drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and his once controlling psychotherapist, Eugene Landy. And yet it’s difficult not to conclude how Brian Wilson would have been given more resources to deal with his demons had his father been at his side.

Reading it now makes me thankful for my own father, burdens me for the father-absence that so many children now experience, and prompts a prayer for Brian Wilson, that he will before the end of his life understand how great is his Father in Heaven’s love for him, how far He has come for him, and what great music remains for him to write in eternity. God only knows.

[For a thorough and well-documented bio of Wilson, I recommend Peter Ames Carlin’s 2006 book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Follow that with Wilson’s own 2016 memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. His ghostwriter, Ben Greenman, does an excellent job of capturing Wilson’s voice, his child-like expressions of wonder, simple language, and questions, like, when he reflects on his brothers’ deaths, “they’re gone, and i don’t know where they’re gone." Finally, cap it with a viewing of the 2015 biopic, Love and Mercy.]


That Fargo Thing


IMG_0305When one of my children found out that I bought a Fargo t-shirt and hat on my recent excursion to that famous city, they told me I needed to give the "Fargo thing a rest," or something to that effect. I admit it: I have gushed a bit about Fargo. But bear with me. It was all in the interest of science, an anthropological study based on participant observation.

Take the mornings. I left my hotel curtains open to the sky, as I did not want to miss a moment of high plains daylight. The sun rose at 5:00, slipping quietly up over the horizon. By 5:20 I was out the hotel door, waving at the somnulant clerk at the lobby counter. I walked past the shuttered shops on Broadway, over the train tracks (north or south, they hemmed in the business district) where I stopped to stare longingly down their iron rails, and into a residential area. Passing a woman walking her dog, I waved and said, "Hi neighbor." No, I didn't say that, as only Mr. Rogers can say that and get away with it. But I did nod at the few people I passed on the sidewalk, and they nodded back. Once I turned to look back at a person, and their dog turned to look at me as if to say, "You imposter." He knew. But otherwise I was under the radar until I opened my mouth to speak and the languid sound of The South wafted out on my words.

Part of That Fargo Thing is my attempt at deeper observation of a place as an aid to writing, as an aid to understanding, as an aid to loving the world. (Sorry, that sounds a bit highfalutin, but it's true.) I write down street names, notice inscriptions on buildings, listen to what clerks and waiters say. Like the young female server who called everyone "hon'," a term of endearment that lapped over to Dakota from the shores of Minnesota. Filtered through my south of Mason-Dixon mind, I heard it as "sugar" or just "sug," words you can still hear in some establishments of the South. Noticing things, paying attention, and writing them down is my tiny little way of loving. For if "God so loved the world," shouldn't I? The uncomeliest bit of vegetation or bereft pine matter. So do the flowers that line a shop window or push up through the untidy patch at the edge of the railway right-of-way. Even the inanimate things matter. The sidewalks, curb and gutter, street signs that raise questions (Is Fargo's Broadway a jest, a jab at big city life?). They all matter.

Without a hint of romanticism or personification, pastor Francis Schaeffer once said that, “Because it is right, on the basis of the whole Christian system - which is strong enough to stand it all because it is true - as I face the buttercup, I say: ‘Fellow-creature, fellow-creature, I won’t walk on you. We are both creatures together.” He went on to say that, “If nature is only a meaningless particular, is ‘decreated,’ to use Simone Weil’s evocative word, with no universal to give it meaning, then the wonder is gone from it.” So, every little thing has value. Every little thing has a bit of magic in it.

But I addressed no buttercups in Fargo. I did speak on one occasion to a starlit tent of sky.

In his classic book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser encourages the good writer to collect a surplus of details, to "look for your material everywhere. . . . Look at signs and at billboards and at all the junk written along the American roadside. Read the labels on our packages and the instructions on our toys, the claims on our medicines and the graffiti on our walls." Out of an abundance of particulars comes not just a few interesting facts but also more universal observations, truths that underlie all things. And in the finding of that truth or truths rapt attention teases out a bit of love for a place and a people. So, while it's not home, I love plainspoken Fargo just a little, hon'.

Author D.L. Waldie, who lives in the "ancient" (Fifties) Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood and who does not drive, encourages pedestrianism, as do I:

I would. . ..urge you to wander in the city and wander in your neighborhood. I would urge you to become an expert flaneur [idler]. I would urge you to acquire not only pedestrianism as a vice but flaneurie as a vice as well — the ability to walk into your community and expect something to occur to you as you found your way to some undiscovered part of your neighborhood.

You don't have to go to Fargo for that vice. That Fargo Thing is as near as your neighborhood.


Before the Internet

I flopped in a floral armchair in the living room and read the latest sci-fi book ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club. When my Mom would say "dinner!" I'd yell back, "I'm coming." But I wasn't. I had punched out. Eventually, I made it to the table, book in hand, and on occasion was allowed to read my way through dinner, because I think my Mom knew that when you are three hours into another world you can't just stop and eat dinner. You just can't.

I watched my Mom prepare dinner. She cut potatoes, and I ate them uncooked. Ditto on uncooked corn , carrots, celery, and most other vegetables, but I drew the line at okra. Nasty. Occasionally I scored some brown sugar, spoonfuls out of the box in a cupboard that required climbing to reach. The counter where I watched my Mom was eye level, so for leverage I pulled out the bottom drawer in the cabinet and stood on it. She let me. It probably wasn't good for the drawer, but she didn't pick a fight. She rolled out dough for biscuits. I took a bite of that, too. Ugh.

The only friends I had were the ones you could lay eyes on. Well, I take that back. I had a pen pal once, in Kalamazoo or some foreign place like that. That's different. I did write letters to a red-headed mountain girl I met at Myrtle Beach when I was 14. Well, two letters. But the connection was tenuous. I called her on the phone one time and, you know, what do you say to a girl on the phone that you barely know and can't see every day or so? Long silences punctuated by stutters.

I was familiar with every crook and cranny of our house. I scoped it. Hey, with no computer or cell phone or internet (what?), I had time. I had nothing but time. I was my own Google search, a walking Wikipedia. In the "utility room," I pondered the cracks where the HVAC unit was housed in the wall but the mortar had given way and you could see daylight. I noted where the carpet was tacked to the floor in the hallway when I lay there listening to Uriah Heep on the college radio station after dinner. I reareanged refrigerator magnets to suit the impulse of the day. I stood staring into the recesses of the refrigerator, daydreaming, and ate a slice of cheese, or two. Watched the neighbor's dog. Watched the neighbor’s cat. Watched the neighbor’s cat chase the neighbor’s dog. Took the screen off and jumped out the second floor window with a Superman bath towel cape on. Watched the girl with long brown swishy hair who rode her pink sparkling bike back and forth in front of my house. Ran my bike into a parked school bus while watching the girl with long brown swishy hair ride her pink sparkling bike back around the block. Yech. Love hurts. I mean, you have to put your eyes on something. I had no idea then that people would stop looking at things except through a shiny screen.

I lay in bed watching the lights of cars on the four lane passing, beginning in a corner near the windows and then stretching like a dragon across the wall and round the corner. Where were people going that time of night? I lay on the bed cross-ways with arms dangling over the side, wide awake. Darkness hovered like a gargoyle outside my windows. When everyone else was asleep, I was awake, wondering how you could go to sleep if you were thinking about how you could go to sleep and then worrying that it was a problem to be thinking about how you shouldn't be thinking about how you should go to sleep. But I got to think about a lot of things that way. They were my own thoughts and not somebody else’. Thanks insomnia.

Everyone wasn't popular and happy all the time. I mean, I wasn’t popular at all and didn’t have 4287 Facebook friends. I had two honest-to-goodness-flesh-and-blood friends, and they were fast friends, the kind you could fight with and then make up with twice a day if need be. They lived across the street. My friend John's girlfriend busted up with him and he came and told me, and we took a walk. I said you wanna talk and he say nope. He was sad. I didn't talk. We went to Pizza Hut and he drowned his sorrows in a beer. I ordered him a pitcher. No one said boo about any ID. I didn't drink it. Hey, all we had was presence. We had no glossy little screens to stare into and stroke ourselves with, all those so-called friends.

Surfin' was what The Beach Boys did. Not the wondrous World Wide Web. I lay on the floor of my room and spun scratched Beach Boys records on my cheap record player, transported by the harmonies and ear-splitting screams of girls in the audience on their In Concert record that my cousin loaned me. Or I turned on the black light and played Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Or Ten Years After “I’d Love to Change the World.” I thought long and hard about the end of the world, scared out of mind by Hal Lindsey’s 666-Armageddon-Left Behind books and decided to believe in God. It was the only way. I clicked the link. Got connected.

All before the Internet.

[I am indebted to Emma Rathbone who, in her "Before the Internet," reminded me that there was life before the internet."]


Fireflies

Fireflies-1500x1000When I was a child and catching lightning bugs in my backyard, I had no idea why they lit the sky. My sisters and I and friends ran through the yard, pouring them into clear Mason jars with holes punched by an ice pick in the tops for ventilation. Now I know that their bioluminescence was all about love or, at least, finding a mate. With their on again-off again lights they were saying I - am - avail - able, I - am - avail - able. I’m glad I didn’t know that then, as I was at the age that such a notion would have been distasteful. We just loved their light; ephemeral though it was, it was a child’s strobe, a pre-bedtime light show. Once, I even kept a jar of them by the bed, a night light companion.

There are 2000 species of fireflies, and new ones are still being discovered. What imagination God must have had, and what time, to think up 2000 different kinds of fireflies what with everything else he had to do at Creation. In some species, both male and female fly; in others, the females stay home and keep house. Females and males look alike, for the most part, only females have compound eyes. Maybe that’s like Bette Davis eyes. They see more than the weak-eyed males, detect motion better. So, if the male is slippin’ off to a night rendezvous with Zsa-Zsa, Mom knows and there will be fire when he comes home.

In some places in the world there are times when thousands of fireflies blink in unison, like a light-choir. These events are the kinds of things that entomologists lie awake thinking about at night and wait for with expectation. My college friend Terry, an aged grad student when I was a freshman, used to bend my ear about insects whenever he could. He would sidle over to a group of students, an intense look in his eyes, and then began to regale them with interesting happenings in the insect world. No matter what the topic of conversation he would eventually connect it to the insect world. I thought he was weird, but now I understand: he had a passion. And he was wierd.

Sadly, some fireflies are not the brightest bulb in the pack. I found one on my windowsill this morning when I drew the shade, dead. I can only imagine the effort it took to burrow under the sill and into the room, only to find nothing but a snoring human being and a traditionally built cat, asleep. I - am - avail. . . oh what’s the use, he probably said, and lay down and died. Later, in my study, same thing: firefly, prone on the floor, expired. I’m going to post a sign on my window: “NO MATING HERE - TURN BACK NOW.” Yet they are likely illiterate, and lonely, and can’t help themselves, like moths to the flame.

Like everywhere else in nature writing, there is a narrative of loss. Fireflies are disappearing, it is said, and human beings are to blame. They say its development and light pollution. I read that synchronous fireflies get out of synch for a few minutes after a car's headlights pass. They lose the beat. But I’m not a scientist, just a memoirist. I think about those summer nights, catching fireflies, carrying blinking mason-jar lanterns around the yard, and I don’t think I’m to blame for this ecological problem: I let them all go at the end of the night. Promise.

I laid the body of the expired lighting bug on the sill outside of my window. There, his blinking friends can pay their respects as I did mine, in memory and hope. With thanks to the God of small things.