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Steve West
I'm a writer, walker, and nature lover
Interests: walking, nature, and writing, reading (both good fiction and non-fiction), listening to music (particularly power-pop and alt-country), travel (particularly in the west)
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“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.] Continue reading
Posted 3 days ago at Out Walking
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“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. Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2018 at Out Walking
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“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." Continue reading
Posted May 28, 2018 at Out Walking
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“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. Continue reading
Posted May 19, 2018 at Out Walking
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“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. Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2018 at Out Walking
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“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. Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2018 at Out Walking
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“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) Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2018 at Out Walking
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. Continue reading
Posted Mar 31, 2018 at Out Walking
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I 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. Continue reading
Posted Mar 25, 2018 at Out Walking
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From 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. Continue reading
Posted Mar 12, 2018 at Out Walking
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“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. Continue reading
Posted Mar 7, 2018 at Out Walking
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You 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. Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2018 at Out Walking
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The 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. Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2018 at Out Walking
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“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. Continue reading
Posted Jan 18, 2018 at Out Walking
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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. Continue reading
Posted Jan 11, 2018 at Out Walking
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In 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. Continue reading
Posted Jan 3, 2018 at Out Walking
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Well 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.” Continue reading
Posted Dec 27, 2017 at Out Walking
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There 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. Continue reading
Posted Dec 24, 2017 at Out Walking
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“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. Continue reading
Posted Dec 15, 2017 at Out Walking
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“Nature 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. Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2017 at Out Walking
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“. . . 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. Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2017 at Out Walking
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In 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. Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2017 at Out Walking
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Little 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. Continue reading
Posted Oct 19, 2017 at Out Walking
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“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.” Continue reading
Posted Oct 6, 2017 at Out Walking
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Jordan 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. Continue reading
Posted Sep 30, 2017 at Out Walking