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.


Fargoan

IMG_1050"We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God who created it and runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God." (J.I. Packer)

For the last four days I have walked the sidewalk between my downtown hotel and work, past a plaza peopled by a handful of homeless men, one block down Broadway with the Fargo theater behind me. But yesterday, about seven in the evening, I had had enough of this circumscribed world, having seen all I could by walking. I rented a bicycle. I settled into the seat and cruised helmutless and tentatively toward the river, detouring through parking lots, around construction, navigating broken pavement, until I reached the Red River banks. I followed the greenway south, upstream, and crossed over a bridge into Moorhead, into Minnesota, my wheels singing, the river on my right.

I don't know anyone here and yet for an hour I pretend that I live here, a Fargoan squeezing all the life I can out of the warm and breezy day, from sunup at five to sundown at ten, a respite from the long, frigid winter. There is a family on the path, and I timidly ring my bell as I pass, nod to them. College students lounge languidly on rocks near the rapids. A woman, then a man, run alone. One young man yells at me from a pontoon boat he shares with some friends. "What's up," he says. I wave. Fellow Minnesotan, I think. Dakotan. High plains drifter. I'm just moving in the elements, a Fargoan, I want to say, yet I don't. My accent would betray me.

Flying in a few days ago, North Dakota spread like a earthen tapestry before me, a succession of green fields, plowed fields, fallow fields, farmhouses hemmed by stitched trees to break the wind, the roads at right angles. Yet my eyes were drawn to the river, a serpentine ribbon of green, a scribbled line of watery life on an engineer's grid, a reminder that God makes his way in crookedness, doubling back on Himself, meandering here and there, yet always, always, going to the sea.

Packer, a man closer to God now than he is to earth, goes on to say that "[w]hen we disregard the study of God, we sentence ourselves to stumble through life blindfolded, with no sense of direction and no understanding of our surroundings." Grim travelers. No direction home. Like rolling stones. I think about that now as I hum along, about rocks and gray water and rabbits crossing the path and squirrels twittering up branches and people walking blindfolded along a river, disconnected dots in a landscape of loss, and I utter a few words of thanksgiving that my eyes are open and I have a map of sorts even if I do run up to its unfolded edge time and time again. A lamp unto my feet.

Reluctantly, I turn back and retrace my route. Huffing up the ever so slight incline from the river to downtown, a young boy on a bike hails me from the sidewalk.

"Hey, you wanna race?"

I don't want to race.

"Aw, I gotta sissy bike," I say.

"Come on." He looks so hopeful.

"Ok. To the corner. Go!"

I let him win. At the corner, he turns back, smiling, whooping, the old man beat.


IMG_1068When I finally make it back to the kiosk where I need to turn my bike in, I have seven minutes left on my time. I want to use it up, so I ride down Broadway, clattering over the train tracks. I stop and look both ways down the track, because the infinity of tracks is irresistible. Nothing. Then, about a block down, I turn, my time running. I have two minutes. I'll just make it. I feel smug in my frugality. But no, just as I reach the tracks, the gates close, the crossing bells clang, and a great locomotive roars past dragging freight, grain and fertilizer and lumber, a great elongated behemoth bullying its way across the plains. The delay cost me another four dollars, but the show was worth it. Multi-colored, graffiti-splashed freight cars rumbled past, the peeks of Broadway through their couplings like camera shots, click-click-click.

I had dinner at 9:00 at the Vinyl Taco, where everyone there was younger than me. The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress" was playing, and I smiled to myself in my darkened corner booth. I bought the album when it was released, could picture its gatefold art even now, and yet not a single person in this restaurant was born when I bought it. Not a single one. I consider asking the server what year she was born, but I hesitate. It could not have been before 1990, a year it seems odd to even type, and what would be the point? History is not much-loved.

About 10:00, sundown in Fargo, I sat eating ice cream at Insomnia Cookie. The extended daylight is beguiling, and so I couldn't bring myself to give up the day yet.

"Where you from? You're not from here, are you?" A man seated with his preteen son engaged me.

"How'd you guess?" The accent. Of course.

While we finished off our ice cream, I learned a lot about Joe Antinopolous, a true Fargoan.

"Fargo's a good place to raise a family. You still feel like you can leave your doors unlocked and not worry about anything."

I told him I was visiting for work, doing a peer review of an office like the one in which I worked, and I told him who was in charge of the office.

"Oh yeah," he said. "He's my neighbor. He and my son are in school together."

Of course they are.


IMG_1070Walking back to my hotel that evening, I thought about what Packer said, about how not knowing God we stumble about blindly. We need a map of the world, a compass, a way to connect all the disparate points of light and darkness. I thought also about an article I read earlier that week, a series of journal entries by a man walking in his neighborhood. Trying to come to grips with various tragedies in the world and their victims, he wonders, "What are the continuities between them, and between them and me?" He has no answer.

Walking back to the hotel with Angela, a co-worker, earlier that day, she told me that her only son, who was 32, had been shot four years previously by some kind of white supremacist. "He was nearly perfect," she said. "I still feel like he's near."

I said, "Scripture says 'God is near to the broken-hearted,' and if He is near but unseen, then perhaps your son really is near."

The Fargoan t-shirt I saw was more right than its designers knew: "Fargo, North of Normal," is supposed to be a nod to the quirkiness of this place. And yet all is abnormal. All is broken and seemingly random. People wander the world and try to find some continuity, some thread of meaning.

And yet there is a map of the world. With it you can can start anywhere and find your way home. Even in Fargo.


The Walking Stick

IMG_0941Our very competent guide, Katembo, has a walking stick this morning, that is, a firearm. It is required that he carry it for our walk In the Okavanga Delta, along with a cache of large round-tipped bullets, golden and standing at attention on his belt. In his commanding way, in his khakis and safari uniform, I imagine him a soldier in a previous life, though I do not know this. I know only that if he told me to drop to the ground, I would do so without hesitation.

Katembo is outfitted this way with a stick for walking because, after a morning game drive in the chill air, we took a one-hour walk in the savannah, sometimes on a road, sometimes bending off-road. Tall grass pressed in upon us, swished by our feet, the Kalahari sand kicked up by every footfall. Silence settled on us like mist in the fields of a new morning. We did not speak, by choice, so as to better listen. My mildly labored breathing mixed with the occasional sounds of impala warnings, with the constant rise and fall of the wind.

Topping a large termite mound, Katembo explained how the mound was the beginning of an island in the Delta, like the many we saw on our flight overhead a couple days ago, when we buzzed the bush airstrip to clear it of animals. The termites build the island up from sand mixed with their saliva, and then birds come and leave drippings that contain undigested seeds, and when the flood comes and washes it down, the seeds are dispersed and are the beginning of trees that will anchor this built up piece of ground, making an island. Land, from spit and sand and seed.

Later Katembo picked up a creeper vine, a long pliable grass, and showed how it could function as a jump rope. (I smiled thinking of Katembo at the age of ten, jumping rope, a miniature khaki-clad version of himself.) More practically, people used the vine to tie firewood together that they would then carry on their heads like everything else. Im my time in Africa I have seen the stout heads of Africans carry bananas, laundry, water, mattresses, furniture, and even, sadly, a tiny coffin.

Seeing an elephant in the distance busily chomping way on vegetation, we bent right, giving him a wide berth. He might like others shake his head in annoyance at us, or trumpet at us, or make a false but frightening charge. This is their home that we are visiting.

After walking, Equator took us on a boat ride through the channels of the delta, weaving in an out of the papyrus grass which floats on the water, rising and falling as it rises and falls. Elephants like the roots of the plant. They pull them up and slosh them back and forth in the water to shake loose the dirt and then stuff them in their large mouths. We had tea on board, under the partial shade of papyrus grass.

--------------------

Katembo stops the Landcruiser. "I need to check the tires," he says, as he steps out. This is code for "I drank too much tea and need to use the facilities (such as they are.)". We are on our way out of Moremi, en route to the airstrip, on our way over to the Okavango Delta and our new (and sadly, last) camp. Even en route, we are chasing the elusive leopard, who has left prints everywhere and yet remains unseen.


IMG_1017In Moremi we were reminded again of the wonderfully balanced but fallen nature of Creation. We saw an injured male lion, alone, and realized that his days were numbered, as he could no longer hunt. And then there was the bird with a broken wing. It is enough to bring tears. To say dismissively that it is the “survival of the fittest” is no comfort and deeply unsatisfying. We long for a time when the lion lays down with the lamb, when the need to kill ends, when nature is no longer tooth and claw.

At Moremi, I needed to charge my iPad battery, so I went into the staff area. The five young men who take care of us were there. The chef, Boeno, was cutting vegetables. Another was in the scullery, washing dishes from our lunch. All were at work. Boeno told me that they work together as a team. They all set up and take down camp together, but in between they each have their jobs. "He is a better chef than me," said Boeno, pointing to a smiling, larger man. He was pleased to give me a tour of his kitchen. He told me that he enjoyed his work, that he trained in a chef school in Maun, and that he stays busy in camp about ten months of the year, going home in Summer (December and January). They are hard-working and hospitable, funny, and kind. The chef announces the menu each evening and then after dinner may tell us a riddle.

One young man told us how he likes to sleep on a mat outside under the stars, with just a blanket. "Aren't you afraid of the bugs and mice and snakes that may crawl on you," asks my wife, sensibly. He smiles and shakes his head no, and then proceeds to tell us about sleeping with his brother once when he was ten and a black mamba crawled between them. "God was protecting you," she said. "Yes,” he nodded.

We flew from Moremi in a Cessna Caravan, up over the Okavango Delta, which spread out like a lush fan of green before us, water punctuated by marsh, with trees growing on intermittent higher ground. The flight was only 30 minutes, if that, and then our drive no more than that again. Our campsite sits on the edge of a broad marsh, our lunch table set under a chandelier that hangs from a tree branch.

On tonight’s game drive there was a huge surprise. We came upon a baby leopard alone out in the high grass, completely unafraid of us. As we watched her mill about and move around, two hyenas, one a mother and another a child, approached. The leopard spotted them. There was chase. The leopard bounded over the grass and went up a tree, not more than ten feet ahead of the hyena. The hyenas milled about and finally settled in the grass, patient as they waited. The leopard would be no match for them. After a while it came down, made its way to another tree, and climbed it. The hyenas followed, again settling in the tall grass. Then, the leopard moved again, finding her mother on another tree. They were together again, yet the hyenas followed. They are patient and opportunistic. The mother leopard likely has hunted and killed, but the hyenas may seek to take the carcass from her.

It was an extraordinary close to the evening, a rollicking journey off-road, a fine welcome to the Okavango Delta, with a beautiful sunset as well. Dinner was by a roaring fire, under a chandelier of lanterns, a fine finale to a beautiful day.

"I have to smell the flowers," says Katimbo as he once again exits the Landcruiser. Ah yes, so do we.

--------------------

I have been making lists. One list is that of all the birds and other animals we have seen in Zimbabwe and Botswana. These include:


IMG_0779African Elephant
Monkey Fingers (red fruit of tree that can be sweet and is edible; Trymore likes it very much)
Teak (trees used for lumber to build Cape to Cairo railroad)
Zebra
Warthog
Roller bird
Giant Eagle Owl
Red-Billed Horn Bill
Giraffe
Impala
Versus Monkey
Scorpion (in our room at Matetsi!)
Mouse (ate its way into and out of my wife’s knitting)
Gray Go-Away Bird
African Tawny Eagle
Weaver birds
Wild Basil (smells like Vapo-Rub when crushed; tells you when someone is following you)
Cape Buffalo
Comorant
Kingfisher
Fish Eagle
African Darter
Egyptian Geese
Baboons
Crocodile
Hippopotamus
Lilac-Breasted Roller (four color, and "rolls in display")
Grey Heron
Great White Egret
Sherry Goose
Malachi Kingfisher
Guinea Fowl
Magpie
Black-Back Jackal
Malibu Stork
Bateleur Eagle
Yellow-Billed White Stork
Kori Bustard
Lapwing
Water Dikkop
Roadrunner
Blue Waxbill
Water Monitor Lizard
Hammerkop
Banded Mongoose
Cobra
Kudu
Crown Shrike
Wild Dog
Cheetah
Burchell's Sand Grouse. 50
Swamp Booboo Bird
Waddled Crane (endangered)
Painted Reed Frog ("They need to get back to their reading," says says my son, about their very loud welcome)
Leopard
Cheetah
Bush baby

Another list is that of quotes, spontaneous utterances that seemed memorable:

"Where else am I going to order Stenbock?" (My daughter, ordering venison at our hotel in Johannesburg, SA)

"Nature is so very organized." (Vusa, our guide, at Matetsi River Lodge, Zimbabwe)

"It is good to see a family praying together." (Keith, a staff member, at Matetsi River Lodge, just before throwing rocks to chase baboons away from our breakfast)

"I will be your passport." (Peace, our guide and driver to Victoria Falls, when I asked if we needed our passports)

"He is reading the newspaper." (Vusa, on what Trymore, our tracker, is doing on our game drive)

"See, toasty elephant muffins" (Kenny, about the elephant poo in the water around our boat)

There is another list, a short one, that has all the experiences to be avoided on safari. One has to do with spiders. Compared to that one, the others are insignificant, so I omit them. Only, don’t take the mokoro boat ride.

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I awoke at 5:30 one morning to a scratching on the tent flap behind my head. Mice. As elephants are really afraid of mice, I thank them. We have had several up close and personal encounters with elephants, false charges with trunks lifted, bellowing a warning, and so though we love to see them we are cautious.

Our day begins with a 6:00 am wake up greeting from Katembo and the sound of our butler pouring warm water into our wash basin. I sit up. I gather my toothpaste and brush. Unzip tent flap. Rezip. Brush in the cold air by the light of a dim battery-powered lantern. Throw water on my face to wash sleep from my eyes. Unzip. Rezip. It is still dark, and by flashlight I dress and shave.

Unzip. Zip. These two steps are important, as we have heard the story of the family who did not do this, only to find their baby carried off and dropped by a hyena. Or the hyena that drug a blanket outside the tent, to be discovered the next morning by an awakened camper. We have had a pride of lions skirt our camp, elephants chomping grass nearby, and we know from tracks that the lions have visited us at night, while we are sleeping, perhaps peering into our tents and smelling our foreign presence.

Breakfast is taken together, around a table, our chef standing by the serving table. I drink Rovos or Five Roses tea, sweet, with milk, have cereal, melon or banana, toast, and, sometimes, eggs and bacon. And then, Katembo is ready. We gather our cameras and jackets and board the Landcruiser, an amazing vehicle that is part boat, pushing through three foot high marsh grass and water, through what surely must swamp our vehicle. But it does not.

We skirt the marshlands for about three hours and then stop for tea on a marsh-side clearing, arriving just in time to see three hippos, on land, running for the water, then submerging. Katembo sets up the table, arranges the tea, and asks for orders. I have tea again. It is what we do here. The chef has prepared fresh coconut muffins for us. I have one and one-half muffins. After tea, everything is returned to the vehicle and we set off again, until noon, through higher land this time. We see a hyena, elephants (very near the road), and some new birds. Unfailingly, I grow sleepy at some point (we all do) and my eyes blinker shut behind my sunglasses. Asleep on safari in Botswana.

Lunch is delicious. The chef read my mind! On the game drive I turned to my son and said, "I love all this food, but what I really want right now is pizza." For lunch, pizza. Three kinds. And another favorite: a salad of cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes. There are cucumbers in a yogurt sauce, homemade garlic bread, and, what else, tea.

After lunch I took an open air (but enclosed) shower in the room back of our tent and, dried, unzipped and re-zipped the tent flap (remembering the baby carried off by a hyena). I took razors to recharge at the vehicle parked in the staff area of the site, and the chef invited me into his open air kitchen. There were large blacks pots over fire, a Dutch oven, and a table on which he was cutting vegetables, preparing for dinner. Open before him on the table is a notebook of recipes. "You can copy it," he said. I said I would send my son, the chef.

--------------------


IMG_0825After dinner, I lay in bed listening to the sounds of the animals, from the scurrying of lizards on the tent flaps to the hippo grunts to the growl of the lions nearby. There is no light but starlight and moonlight on this last night in Botswana, no sounds but those of the animals that live here.

Then, I hear the engine of the Landcruiser turn over. Katembo is returning his walking stick to the lodge. He drives away alone into the darkness.


The House of Our Realities

IMG_0243“In no sense was this the house of our dreams. But over our lifetime it has slowly turned into something better, the house of our realities.”

(Lewis Mumford, in Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford: The Early Years)

Our home is 32 years old, and we are the original owners. Its rooms and hallways have been the arena of much of our non-public life. While it has seen three partial renovations, one after a fire, there is still much that is vintage, that is, if you can say "vintage" about a relatively young house like ours. It is not the house of our dreams, if only because early in our marriage my wife and I may not have imagined such a house. We were neither dreaming nor looking, but some friends who lived in the neighborhood told us of the house, and we bought fast food and sat in the mud room of the empty shell and decided to buy.

We have a running list of complaints that waft through the air that blows from room to room, yet we have learned over time not to listen to their insistent pleas: the rooms are configured badly, the floors creak, and the pantry is tiny, the voices whisper. Everyone ends up in the kitchen, they say! And what, after all, is the “keeping room” keeping? Hardwoods bear scratches, carpet wears, and paint fades. The pipes object when the spigot is too abruptly closed. Imperfections abound. Entropy is evident.

Yet it is not, after all, just a house. It is a home. For better or worse, the life and memories it holds anticipate a better dwelling. “A house becomes a home, one of the ultimate expressions of place” says the inimitable Wilfred McClay, “not only by being congenial and familiar and comfortable, but by taking on a life of its own.” He calls it the “everyday magic of place-making." Place-making has to do with everything that is life inside a house: meal preparation, furniture choice and placement, the orientation of the house, the way the sun plays on the floor of a room, the perspective afforded by a view out of a study window, and the creaks and rumbles and whirs of the night, of the HVAC beast that wakes and slumbers, doing its work, or the house settling on its haunches, returning slowly to the earth. It has to do with the rutted pathways of life: up and down the stairs, hallways, and in and out of slamming doors.

There are, of course, the latest non-human occupants. Cats dust-mop their way across the hardwoods, flopping here and there, settling in a chair by a window to greet the birds. They do their own place-making, rubbing scents on doorposts and cabinet corners, burrowing into a cushioned chair, or sleeping on my pillow --- reminders that they have come this way. Paths to food bowls are particularly well-traveled, and the sloven mealtime habits of one are on display in the food spilt from her bowl.

And then there are the sounds of our voices: the low conversation of parents, the laughter of children, the yelling up and down the stairs. Even in the middle of the night, there are the contented breathings of deep sleep. Even in the absence of my now grown children, I still hear their voices echoing from their rooms, remnants left behind and etched in these walls. There are even the distinctive smells of our home, the result of dust, mildew, and paint mixed with the scents of thousands of dinners and cookies baking. Coming home from work, we open the door and even were we blind we would know we are home.

People who move every few years lose something, their place-making being tentative and temporary. Unless they are deliberate, they make no full surrender to a place. In a poem, Robert Frost said it well:

Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from the land of the living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

McClay says that "to withhold one's sense of belonging to a place is to leave oneself weakened and uprooted, trapped in a virtual reality, possessed by phantoms and abstractions that have lost their touch with referents, forced to struggle on without possessing the nourishment of the memories and concrete associations to be derived from the very soil on which one is standing." We are meant to dwell, in the full sense of the word, meaning to live and linger, to commit to the here and now.

Walking in our places is a way of taking possession, of place-making, of following the ancient command to "till and keep," to take "dominion." This pedestrian activity is imbued with spiritual import, our living into the Creation and not detached from it. Even our footfalls say, "I am here, this is mine, this is home."

So maybe it's not the house of your dreams, but it's better: it's the house of our realities. It's home. We cherish it, and forgive it. Like us, it is imperfect, even broken, but it bears in it the seeds of hope for a new place prepared for us, for the home to come. Perhaps that is what the keeping room is keeping alive for us: Home.


Graduation Eve

IMG_0292If I had lived in this room, I would have lain on the bed and peered out the window regularly. I would have considered the rusty electrical transformer, the current pulsing through the wires, firing lights and microwaves and students' ubiquitous smartphones and laptops, and when the magnificent thunderstorms blew through the plains and lightning lit the courtyard, then from the safety of the bed, covers over head, I would have relished its display and waited like Dorothy for the funnel cloud to descend, sweeping notebooks and papers and professors and small dogs up, up, up, only to set them gently down in another time, another place, in the fecund yet tentative fields of life after graduation.

"Did you ever lie on the bed and look out your window," I ask her.

"Well, sure." She reconsidered. "Well, no, not really."

I would have. On a day like today, when the Midwest sun beams down on the manicured lawn of the courtyard, I would have rested my chin on a pillow draped across the bedpost and taken in all that the rectangle of window would have allowed. Like the fluttering of the leaves on the maple trees, green and other green, flipping and flopping in the gusts. Or the students trudging back and forth to and from classes on the walk. Or just an empty sidewalk, just that, like an empty canvas for pedestrian art, the art of walking, the varied intentions and thoughts and dreams that each one carries imprinted in concrete.

"Are you going to miss being here," I asked.

"Well no, not really. I'm glad to be done."

I turn away from the window and sit on the bare mattress of her bed. A desk, chair and nightstand. Bare walls. A room returning to empty, a receptacle for new dreams. I begin to feel sad. Four years of classes, student drama, roommates, oriental cooking, papers, persistent class attendance, puddle-hopping, snow sloshing, chapel, poor food, and grades. Late nights. Occasional mistakes. Misunderstandings. Fun and games. Laughter. All over.

The late philosophy professor, Ronald Nash, a gifted child, often had trouble sleeping. Only four, he was asked what he thought about as he lay in the bed, awake. He said, with all the gravity that his four-year old life allowed, "I think about the past." So I guess this leaving, this ending makes me think of my own past, makes me remember that I have left school, home, parents, college, and more, and in all my leavings there is a touch of sadness, a bittersweet passing of time.

I look out the window again and see an ornamental lamppost, one that seems patterned after that one where the children met the fawn, Mr. Tumnus, in Narnia, and I imagine seeing that lamppost one frigid evening, its yellow light splashed upon the snow, a beacon lighting the way home in a snowy winter. And seeing that, I would have returned to my repose, warmed and comforted by that light. Lying there, sleepless, I might have worked out a problem from the day, worried over a grade, nursed a grudge, or composed a rejoinder to some perceived putdown, until, hopefully, I recall one of the few memorized scriptures that somehow adhered to the gray matter of my brain, and recite it once, even twice, like a pindrop in the terrain of my consciousness. "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live. The life I live in the Spirit I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." And then, perhaps, after that reminder or who I am, sleep would come, while the lamppost shone, and winter blew away in the light of day.

"Did you ever lie on the bed and look out your window," I asked her. No, no she didn't, at least not just to look, not just to think about the past, about all that's been and all that might be. I pull the weight of memory. Not her: she lives the moment, the blessed freedom of the present.

"No, I guess you didn't. That's because you're not me."

"Yes, that's right. I'm not you."


Tumbling Toward Heaven

Bigstock-a-tree-in-a-field-with-space-b-41769235Like any good Calvinist, I hold to the doctrine of total depravity, meaning not that I am as bad as I could be but that sin touches all that I do. Beneath every good work lies subtle or not so subtle self-love: a bit of self-congratulation, elevation of myself at the expense of others, or an attempt to grab attention and praise. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says the Apostle (Rom. 3:23), and yet some have inevitably fallen shorter than us, right? Or so we can think. If you don't think so, sit in the DMV waiting room sometime and look around you, finding yourself grateful you don't go out in public looking like that or have children that act like that.

The late Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic, Southern, and often macabre writer, had a penchant for telling stories that strip away our pleasantries and self-delusions, that hold a mirror up to us and show us who we are. They are often ugly stories, peopled by characters that we don’t wish to meet, and yet they are us: in them we see ourselves.

One of those stories is “Revelation.” In it a “stout” Mrs. Turpin is waiting with her sanguine and likely hen-pecked husband Claud in the doctor’s waiting room, Claud having been kicked by a cow. O’Connor: “Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud’s shoulder and said in a voice that included anyone who wanted to listen, ‘Claud, you sit in that chair there,’ and gave him a firm push down into the vacant one.” You see what I mean. You see how Claud is. Across from Mrs. Turpin a young woman is reading a book and casting nasty stares her way, disfigured faces which only increase in their severity during the wait. Another woman is what she refers to (in her mind, of course) as “white trash.” She spends most of her time espousing racist views. “‘They ought to send all them niggers back to Africa,’ the white-trash woman said. ‘That’s where they come from in the first place.’” Mrs. Turpin holds no such view. “‘There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger,’ Mrs. Turpin agreed. ‘It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us.’”

O’Connor gives us a bit of Mrs. Turpin’s inner dialogue:

Sometimes at night when she couldn't go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, "There's only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash," what would she have said? "Please, Jesus, please," she would have said, "Just let me wait until there's another place available," and he would have said, "No, you have to go right now", and I have only those two places so make up your mind." She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then-but that don't mean a trashy one." And he would have made her a near clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.

At one point, overcome with gratitude for her blessing at being who she is, Mrs. Turpin exclaims, “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” At this point the girl making faces threw her book at her, hitting her in the face, and jumped on her, digging her fingernails into her neck. “Go back to hell where you came from you old wart hog,” she said, before being restrained. Eventually the girl is sedated and taken to the hospital, and yet Mrs. Turpin, even that afternoon, lying on her bed, cannot put what the girl said out of her mind, keeps telling herself that she is not an old wart hog. Lunatic, she thinks. “I am not a wart hog,” she says to the ceiling with clenched fist, Claud snoring away beside her..

Later that evening, near dusk, down at the pig parlor, she looks up, sees a purple streak across the sky caused by the setting sun. And in that looking, there was this revelation:

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.

Their virtues were being burned away.

Frederick Buechner once compared righteousness to a piano student who, while he might hit all the right notes in playing a piece, played with accuracy but no heart. Righteousness is not, he said, “playing by the book.” Pharisees do that. “Righteousness is,” he said, “getting it all right. If you play it the way it’s supposed to be played, there shouldn’t be a still foot in the house.” There should be singing and dancing and a lunatic grace. Old wart hogs from hell, virtues stripped away, join a throng of bastards and prostitutes and decidedly unhip , a “vast horde of souls. . . tumbling toward heaven.”

The lunatic girl spoke the truth. She saw the worst of us, the hell in all our virtue as we, thank God, tumble toward heaven, our only ticket grace.


Their Purpose-Driven Lives


IMG_0289As much as we know of animals, like humans, they retain significant mystery. In an article in The New Atlantis, Stephen Talbott challenges the idea that there is no purpose or meaning behind what animals do, that they are just acting instinctively, reflexively or, even, mechanically. Rather, he says that animals’ behavior is both intelligent and end-directed, even if we cannot conclude that their actions are the result of conscious deliberation. In some way, they know what to do, and they do it.

In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben makes the same point about trees. For example, scientists have discovered that when giraffes started feeding on umbrella thorn acacias in the African Savannah, it took the trees only minutes to begin pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the the large herbivores. They moved on. Not only that, but a tree "attacked" in this way gave off a warning gas, ethylene, that signaled neighboring trees who then began pumping toxics into their leaves to ward off the giraffes. The behavior is both purposeful and adaptive.

And yet significant mysteries remain. We know, for example, that water moves up the trunk of a tree, into branches, and then to leaves, and yet our traditional explanations, capillary action (the way water can defy gravity because of constricted vessels in the trees) and transpiration (the suction effect created when leaves and needles breathe out water into the air, drawing more water up the trunk) explains only some of the movement. The conclusion: We don't know. Wohlleben concludes that "[s]o many questions remain unanswered. Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery."

We have little warrant from Scripture for concluding that animals (or trees, for that matter) know their Creator in the sense that we might know Him, or that they are conscious of His Providence. The Psalms give us rich poetic language that animates Creation in God’s praise, as when the Psalmist says

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.

(Ps. 7-9a). We rightly read these verses not literally but figuratively, and yet as Scripture often is multi-layered in meaning, these verses are open to an even richer meaning, one where Nature purposely, intelligently, and consciously (as befits their kind) praises its Creator. Indeed, in Psalm 104 we read that animals look to God for their food and that when he withdraws his spirit, they return to the dust. Or Jesus reminds us that God marks the dropping of every sparrow. Our fate and that of animals and other non-human life is intertwined.

Wohlleben errs in attributing human qualities to the non-human creation. There is no warrant for that, even if we cannot preclude some type of non-human consciousness or reflection. And yet Jesus died for all Creation. John 3:16 remind us that His love is cosmic in scope, that it is for the love of the cosmos that Jesus came. The Great Reversal wrought by his death and resurrection has meaning not just for humankind but also for the oak and fir, the sparrow and bluebird. The Cross is the place where the curse is undone, where Creation is set free from bondage to decay, where Jesus begins making all things new. The salvation animals know may not be of the kind we experience, where our moral guilt is cleansed by Jesus’ death, yet not only man but lion and lamb will make it into the new Creation.

When next you see some non-human life - whether your cat, dog, or the tree you rest against - know this: It's not a machine but a living thing with purpose. Let your gratefulness and kindness to it mix with wonder and awe. It too is being saved.


They Know Where to Come

IMG_0550The finch has returned. A fern that hangs outside our side porch has annually furnished a Spring home for mother finches. The small, near-perfectly circular nest of pine straw is nestled in the middle of the greenery, and this morning the mother sat atop it, watching me warily as I moved past the window. Yesterday, my wife removed the fern while the mother was away, no doubt foraging, revealing five small, light blue eggs. She smiled broadly. Returning it, we watched from inside. She worried that the mother would not return.

"You're not their mother, you know," I said.

Maybe not. Yet she is their protector.

Finches are "gregarious" birds, I read, gathering at feeders with other birds, twittering on about who and what and where. Social gadflies. Their flight is described as "bouncy" which is probably a reflection of their gregarious nature, like driving and talking at the same time, speed modulated with the rise and fall of their voice. Beware a finch in the air. Give it a wide berth.

The chickadees have also nested in our bluebird house. Maybe once in the many years we have let the house rent-free, the intended tenants actually checked in, yet ever since, the chickadees lay first claim, squatters' rights. We peer in now and then to check on the progress, our curiosity the price they pay for free digs. I read that other birds flock around chickadees as chickadees call out whenever they find a good source of food. Less astute or blinder foragers appreciate this, no doubt, making chickadees a popular bird. They also mind humans less than other birds. So, in general they seem to be irenic birds, congenial though not gregarious.

And then, just yesterday, a turtle larger than a boxer waddled up our sidewalk, making for our fountain. My wife went in to get a bowl of water for him and somehow, in a matter of minutes, he walked away. Who knew a turtle could move so quickly? She looked everywhere for him. Or her. She looked in the mondo grass, under shrubs, around the house, and in the natural areas, pollen dusting her. But no turtle.

When she told her sister about the turtle, she said, "Well, they know where to come, don't they?" And she's right. My wife is an animal-magnet. The needy animal is drawn to her. Be it special needs or emotionally disturbed cats, cantankerous horses, or fence-jumping bird-seed eating deer, they know where to come.

Soon, the finch and chickadee chicks will hatch and, then, always when we aren’t watching, fly, packing up and leaving under cover of darkness, eschewing long goodbyes. Feathers and fuzz is what remains. My wife, the unpaid landlady, eventually cleans behind them, readies their lodgings for next year. The “vacant” sign goes up, but we don’t generally get any new tenants in late Spring. That ship has sailed. We don’t know where they go. Yet, we’ll see them again. They know where to come.

Today, my wife looked up at an awkwardly leaning pine tree with browning pine needles that sheltered the bluebird house. Pine trees don’t look like much anyway; this one, even less. “I’d remove that tree,” she said, “ only that’s the tree the birds land in before entering the bird house.”

That tree owes her its life.


A World As Whole, Not Scribble

IMG_0510A few days ago - days which seem a long time ago now - we were walking in the desert foothills of the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson, Arizona. Our ambition was modest: we traversed a 3.4 mile loop, beginning on the Loma Verde trail, connecting with the Pink Hill trail, and finishing with the Squeeze Pen trail. With an elevation gain of only 60 feet, we weren't taxed; our pace was the stop again - start again of observers and not runners, so we made poor time but were richer for it.

Dispel from your mind all images of desolate, windswept sand dunes. Unlike the Mojave of Southern California or Sahara of North Africa, the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona is Edenic in comparison, lush in vegetation, so much so that some biologists want to reclassify the Arizona Uplands portion of the Sonoran that we are walking as thorn-scrub, not desert, yet that would rob it of rich literary associations, of its deployment as metaphor.

Loma Verde is apt, as "Loma" is Spanish for a hill or ridge having a broad top, and "Verde" means green. And a green hill it is. The well-trod path winds through a forest of mature mesquite trees, their nearly black trunks in sharp contrast with feathered green leaves and azure blue sky. Nursed by the shade of the mesquites, young sahuaro cacti grow, a few splitting into two trunks like co-joined twins, others overtaking their nursery trees and, ultimately, forcing their way to the sky, slipping from their nurses' coddling branches. Below, creosote bushes in full yellow bloom grow and, further below them, the yellow blooms of brittle-bush brush the desert floor, adding even more color, mixing with prickly-pear cactus, an occasional hedgehog cactus, and an unidentifiable purple flowering vine.

Surveying the swath of brittle-bush and creosote blooms that stretch to the horizon, I recall reading earlier in the week that the color yellow is supposed to make people angry, but I don't think so. I feel happy, like a legion of benign suns has come to earth, incarnate in a sea of green and brown.

Crossing over the sandy bottom of Montezuma wash, we pause, silent, to watch for animals. Seeing none, we press on, but my wife casts a glance backwards. "I just know that when we turn our backs the animals come out. They see us." She is confident, recounting times in the past when that has been the case, and so as we leave and for some time thereafter I glance back occasionally, hoping to catch a bobcat, coyote, or javelina peering shyly at us, a feral face in a rear view mirror, but I see nothing but absence and hope behind me.

After the wash, we climb a bluff onto the bajada, a gravel plain at the base of the mountain, bear right to follow the Pink Hill trail, and begin climbing. Rose-tinted soil marks our footfalls, and we look upward into the Rincons, hoping to catch a mountain goat circumnavigating a ridge or rocky outcrop. A cool breeze suddenly rushes through the space between Pink Hill and the mountain. I raise my arms to catch it, see a human-like great sahuaro with two arms similarly raised, leaning back facing the sky as if to shout "Praise."

Soon, we turn left on the Squeeze Pen trail. We ponder the name. She says a squeeze pen is a holding pen that cowboys drove cattle into for branding. Perhaps the natural topography - a depression between hill and mountain - reminded someone of a squeeze pen, or perhaps the area was once a cattle ranch and the natural topography made it a suitable place to locate an actual squeeze pen. We don't know. Our questions hang in the air. We look down, and a horned lizard looks up at us from a rock where he perches, unafraid. He allows a photo before moving on.

Patrick Henry Reardon says that "the Bible itself points to a prior book, the testimony of the created world." We're walking in that creation book now, our utterances full of wonder. Reardon says that ”the rationality and iconic quality of the universe. . . is the sustaining subtext of the human narrative and the fundamental context of poetry." That's a mouthful, yet here's the sum: "In other words, the world is a whole, not a scribble." A poem, story, and icon. A testimony to something Other.

Yet it's tempting to look at the world and see only a scribble, a John Cage splash of random pieces, noise and not song, to think of our tiny footprints on the earth as ephemeral, vanquished by the next monsoon rain or the accumulated desert winds. Mostly we pass in silence. A sahuaro grows at best an inch and a half each year, an infinitesimally small contribution to the universe. And what of the lizard’s tiny life? How along before he lays down, absorbed by the desert floor? Or a digger bee or tiger swallowtail butterfly, moth or magpie, or tiny elf owl? And yet if they don't matter, if the excruciatingly slow progress of the sahuaro doesn't matter, then neither do I. Yet God says otherwise.

Just before trail end, I looked back over my shoulder again, hopeful, but there was nothing. Yet they are there. He is there and not silent, in the world that is not a scribble but whole.


In the Heat of the Day

IMG_0287"And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.”

‭‭(Gen.‬ ‭18:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

In the desert the doves are the first birds to wake. Before a pre-dawn glow lights the mountains, their coos can be heard coaxing life back to their somnolent brethren, heads tucked beneath their feathers, a light breeze lifting their feathery down.

Off our balcony a mesquite tree shades. For approximately ten feet from the ground its trunk leans at a 25-degree angle before, at some point years ago, it reconsidered, took heart, and righted itself. "Be lifted up," God said, and it was so. Green, wispy leaves contrast with the blue sky, make a mottled, swaying, and hypnotic pattern across the balcony floor.

At twilight yesterday, the doves were also the house matrons shushing other birds as they bedded down for the night. Upwards of 50 birds settled into the tree, jumping from branch to branch, twittering and fussing at each other as the stolid doves tried to maintain order. Some sort of parasitic vine had hold of the tree, and where it clumped the birds nested. Some lodged alone on high branches, introverts seeking solitude; others, craving conversation, gossiped away the last light. Soon all the campers were ensconced, and by nightfall - devotion read, song sung, prayer offered (by the dove, of course) - all was quiet.

This morning they were gone, at work, or play, or perhaps both at once, their twittering constant.

At breakfast, a lone wren watched us eat from a perch no more than three feet away. Though small, it drew its breath and fluffed its feathers more than once. We were impressed but not afraid or provoked, if that were its point. It grew impatient of our leavings and left, lighting on the hot tile of a rooftop and, from there, flew on into the blue.

Some bird calls sound like questions; others, like nervous laughter; and yet others, like lullabies. One sounds like a rapid-fire ray gun. A small one. One even says, "I told you," one whose mate likely expelled him from hearth and home for a day, at least, until he changed his tune, stopped dredging up an old misstep. But he's still at it: "I told you." A pause. Then, "I told you." She's not having it.

The sun is high in the sky and bakes the sand, and I am siting here under Room 337's tree, under the tent flap or, if you will, the eave of the roof. Anything could happen. Last year at this time as I sat here a bobcat nonchalantly walked past me, no more than ten feet away and below. Yet I offered it nothing but the indignity of a photo of its hind parts. Yet today, on top of the twitter and twatter of the birds, all I have seen is the restless beating wings and bright heads of hummingbirds, yellow blooms of brittle-bush, green-branched palo verde trees, agave, cholla, and saguaro, butterflies in a dance, and the darkened peaks of the Catalina's, the paint of birch and fir. That's all.

But you never know. The Lord might show up, might walk right up, and after I fall down and spill a few words might speak to me as to a friend. And what He says might change the world a little or a lot, whether I live to see it, or not. You never know.


(Living In) Story Book Land

Storybookva2"[F]airy tales give us some hope of victory. The world is not to be understood in merely domestic categories, as though nothing existed that lay beyond our local and parochial concerns. Nor is it an unmeaning chaos, from which, to preserve our sanity, we need to avert our eyes. Fairyland is. . . the hint of a wilder and wider world than the domestic, from which the bolder of us might bring treasures if we can avoid its perils; a reminder of a world unconstrained by any of our familiar values, and threatening therefore to alienate us from our own; the dream of a world where everything can speak and everything contribute its own beauty to the growing whole."

(Stephen R.L. Clark, "Why We Believe in Fairies," in First Things, March 2017)

When I was a child and, along with my parents and younger sister making our way home from visiting relatives in Arlington, Virginia, my sister and I saw a billboard along the interstate advertising Story Book Land. My parents, though no doubt tired and longing for home, heeded our backseat pleas. From the front seat, there was a muted discussion and nods; our fate hung on gesture and tone, our hope faint. To our surprise, we turned off the highway and, in what seemed a few miles, reached the billboarded park, full of storybook characters set among a wood. I don't remember much of it, just the joy of what we might see, of characters we had read of coming to life. What I do remember is a giant Mother Goose beckoning at the entrance, a castle wall lining the car park, Humpty-Dumpty on a wall, the house of the three bears, a bridge across a stream, an old woman in a shoe. They were all there, all the ones I had read of, rhyme and story come alive.


872543e5bd7292168d303aa55507a8d3Story Book Land is a forgotten and neglected place. When Washington City Paper writer Eddie Dean wrote about it in 1995, likely 30 years after I visited, it had already been closed for more than ten years. Dean wrote that "When the park closed . . . the bucolic site—which boasted more than 100 life-size figures and two dozen storybook buildings—was left virtually intact, as if the owners meant to open it again someday." They never did. Mother Goose lay on the ground. Graffiti covered the buildings. Snow White's house had been used by the homeless. Vandals had beheaded some figures; one building was burnt. Less than one mile from Potomac Mills outlet, along US1, the site had been spared in part due to its status as wetlands. But then, by 2007, the whole area had been absorbed by a housing development, and the magic was really gone.

But this is not a tale of nostalgic longing but about what fired our imaginations. As children, we had not yet become materialists. We still believed that the worlds we read about in fairy tales were real or, at least, possibly real, that there was a "wilder and wider world than the domestic," the one parents and adults seemed to live in, the brick and mortar world of work and school and bills and taxes, a world bereft of magic. And yet as my parents shepherded us through that wood of fantasy, I suspect that somewhere deep down they hoped it or something like it was all true as well.

That was long ago, and far away. For most of us, our "magic forest of make-believe" (as Story Book Land heralded) has been clearcut. Life is not enchanted but simply what it is: asphalt and concrete and steel; bird and bear; a windswept prairie; atoms and quarks and lasers. Stuff. Things. Death and taxes. We long ago lost our wonder.

Christians profess a belief in the supernatural, in an unseen reality, yet we don't often act like it. In reading scripture, we spiritualize what we can't imagine is literal, pray to an unseen God and acknowledge an invisible heaven peopled by those who have gone on from here, and yet we mostly live our days not enraptured by what is behind what we see but stupefied by surface realities. A tree is only wood, a rock the mere leftover of some geological process, a mountain rising only to fall. What they are is what they are; nothing more.

But what if we took a different reading of scripture? Maybe we need to read Scripture as fairy tale, as a magical, astounding story of giants felled by little boys, of great armies put to run by angelic troops, of dead people coming back to life. A wood where rocks cry out, trees clap their hands, and mountains sing. And where, in the end, a magical, shining city comes down from the sky and heaven and earth become one. And no one dies. And no one cries.

"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind," said the great imagineer J.R.R. Tolkien, "that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."

"The Gospels contain a fairystory," said Tolkien, "or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . .There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath."

I confess that often when I read the great narrative of Scripture, the words lie on the page, two-dimensional and flat. But on occasion, on the days when I am best seeking and best seeing, the golden book of stories becomes a Story Book Land and I walk in the wood of words come to life, where I marvel at our visitation by extra-terrestrial Life, where I am struck in wonder at the word or touch that heals and revives from a Being that deigns to take our form and walk among us, Spirit his way in and among us, unseen.

“How can a merely material world ever accommodate our own experience of life?,” says philosopher Stephen Clark. It can’t, says the Bible, which is full of non-human angelic and demonic beings, a world behind the world, “fairies gone away,” as the the materialists say, always going away. Only they haven’t. If we can’t believe in fairies, in an unseen world, says Clark, then there’s no believing Scripture, no room for anything but the material, nothing but the “motion of material parts.” Rather, “banishing the little people from our lives was only a prelude to dispensing with the notions of God and the soul of man. If we can’t believe in fairies, we cannot properly believe in anything at all.”

That day in Story Book Land, my sister and I knew better. Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood were real, somewhere. That place may be gone, ploughed under by progress, yet we still walk in that Land. The Big Bad Wolf lurks, and Humpty Dumpty has fallen and we still can’t put him back together. But Someone can. Someone who hasn’t gone away. Someone from a wilder and wider world who beckons us “come.”