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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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Craig Brown’s 2020 book, 150 Glimpses of the Beatles, is a fascinating farrago of Fab Four foolishness. And I mean that alliteratively. Sourced from hundreds of books and online references, Brown is, if not exhaustive, always interesting. And while he can’t resist adding a dab of personal memoir, none of his personal reflections get in the way of his cataloguing of the antics, poor decisions, genius, and excesses of the four boys from Liverpool. These are glances, to be sure, and more exhaustive biographies of the band and its members will have to fill in the blanks. Yet the value of the author’s two to six page dips into Beatles history is that you can turn to any of its entries and read them as standalone anecdotes. For Beatles fans who have forgotten more than they learned about the boys, it’s often an “aha” moment, as in, “Oh yes, I had forgotten that.” Yet I don’t recommend it for a newcomer to the story. Try Bob Spitz’s massive, The Beatles, for a more traditional and complete historical narrative. I came to The Beatles a tad late. I remember viewing the 1970 documentary, Let It Be, though I must have seen it on a second pass--probably 1972--as my rock music awareness did not kick in until I was about 14. By that time I was aware of the Beatles’ breakup, and there was an undercurrent of tension that I picked up on in the film, fueled by the ubiquitous and brooding presence of Yoko Ono. John Lennon’s avant-garde artist wife doesn’t fare well in Brown’s book. (Does she in any account of the supergroup?) One example will suffice: In Chapter 135, he summarizes Yoko’s conversation with Victor Spinetti, the director of a stage adaptation of John’s book, In His Own Write. Yoko also wants Spinetti to direct a play for her. Asked for a copy of the script, Yoko tells Spinetti: No, no. No script. All audience get in bus. And allowed to go to house. Then all people in bus allowed to come and open door to symbolise awareness. Then everyone get back in bus. Then they go to other house. All allowed to come out. This time allowed to meet in person. Symbolism beginning communication. Spinetti wasn’t impressed; “Now wait a minute, Yoko. What’s the big finish? I mean, what happens?” Yoko: “Oh, everyone go to Hyde Park and wait for something to happen.” Spinetti: “Like what?” Yoko: “Like chair falling out of sky.” What? When I owned a record company in the late Nineties, my general manager, Tony, would sometimes call. “Steve, Yoko called again.” That’s how it began. Then he would detail the latest suggestion our artist’s wife had. Before I leave Yoko, one warning. Cover up page 459. It’s a photo of the original cover of John and Yoko’s The Two Virgins, the album EMI declined to release. I stumbled on the fully nude photo of the two of them, not knowing that it was there. Now I can’t unsee that. And don’t bother listening to the album. It was recorded overnight at John’s home in Kenwood with Yoko while his wife Cynthia was away (more antics) and consists of a lot of experimental tape loops with Yoko’s high pitched voice thrown in. “She was doing her funny voices and I was pushing all the different buttons on my tape recorder and getting sound effects,” said John. I listened to some of it back then. Unforgettable, like a bad dream. 150 Glimpses is roughly chronological, running from the boys’ early years in Liverpool, to the formation of the band, to its breakup, with the usual stops and interesting tangents along the way. Brown’s magical mystery tour takes us to Rishikesh, India, where The Beatles and their young wives spent weeks with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, learning to mediate from the guru of Transcendental Meditation. He chronicles some utterly over the top parties at Apple HQ, an extended live-in visit by the Hell’s Angels, and recites the recollections of some who had brief encounters with the boys and lived to tell it, and tell, and tell it. There’s also quite a bit of whimsy. One chapter (glimpse) places the four annual Christmas greetings by the Beatles to their fan club next to Queen Elizabeth’s greetings to the commonwealth. As you might imagine, the contrast is striking, with the four jokesters coming off like middle school boys and the queen a stolid schoolmarm. In two photographs juxtaposed on page 531--one from 1964 and the other from 1969--there is a striking contrast, the band members transformed from smiling, happy-go-lucky boys to, sullen, brooding men, all in the course of five years. Brown says “it’s as though they have been crushed by the weight of the world’s adulation.” I confess to some undue adulation of my own, my junior high music clique absorbed in every Beatle lyric, cover art, and latest pronouncement falling from their mouths. You think Paul is really dead?” asked my friend Sam after 9th grade lunch. We’d both attempted to play “Revolution #9” off The White Album backwards, like every other Beatles fan, to see if we heard the ominous “Paul is dead.” It was inconclusive. And that photo from the Abbey Road album cover. . .could we look at it any longer, any harder? No, I suppose not. Brown recounts how every detail of the photo has been painstakingly scrutinized by Beatles fans. Yes, been there, done that. By the time I was old enough to care about the lads, the Beatles were over. Finished. So, beginning where I was, with Let It Be, I prodigiously bought up all their LPs. It’ll date me when I say that the first LP purchased in 1972 cost me a whopping $3.49 (around $21 in today’s dollars). Then I bought them again when they came out on CD. Then I bought them again in the remastered box set. (No, I did not buy the box set of the mono recordings. What do you think I am, a collector?) Then I began buying those multi-disc super deluxe sets for Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, and The White Album. Lest I forget. . .There’s the three-volume Anthology, recording and DVDs, and Let It Be Naked (the album minus the Phil Specter production). Some of these recordings I have bought at least four times, a total rivaled only by the number of times I have purchased Pet Sounds (an immodest number I withhold here for sake of my reputation.) “By the end, their world had soured,” says Brown. “Intimacy and friendship curdled into irritation and recrimination.” And yet until the day John Lennon died, we all had hopes they would reunite. I mean, surely they will work together again, right? But it was not to be. It was during a property class in my first year of law school that I learned John Lennon had been shot and killed. Someone told a girl sitting near the front of the room, and she shrieked and left the room, overcome with grief. They didn’t know what to do with wealth or fame. They bought huge houses and filled them with objects, and yet they were lost, bewildered by choices. Lavish and luxurious, Ringo’s Sunny Heights epitomized their new wealth and their exhaustion about what to do with their time. In a pensive moment during a 1968 visit by Roy Connolly, Ringo reflected on the four-room house he grew up in in Liverpool. “Sometimes I feel like I’d like to stop being famous and get back to where I was in Liverpool,” said the generally gregarious Beatle. “There don’t seem to be so many worries in that sort of life, although I thought there were at the time. I had to come here to realize that they counted for very little.” Finishing 150 Glances, I suffered a tinge of melancholy by this peek into the past, a sorrow over so many poor choices, over so much foolishness. But then, they were only boys. Continue reading
Posted Jun 5, 2021 at Out Walking
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“A white cement road is always a buttress against depression.” 
(Alistair Cooke, in The American Home Front: 1941-1942) Sometimes at stressful moments, when to-do list items cascade, we turn to one another and say, “Let’s run away.” We rarely ever do. But I have been known to back the car out into the night, and just drive around the city, down streets I’ve never navigated, losing myself in winding subdivision lanes that empty out in cul-de-sacs, the car filling with the winter air, the heat up, the click-clack of tires on rutted asphalt, the driving sound of “Get back to where you once belong” played out into the night air, until I turn the wheels for home. “Let’s run away” Maybe running away was all it was for Alistair Cooke, though there’s precious little hint of it offered in the former Masterpiece Theater host’s account of his drive through wartime America. Entitled The American Home Front: 1941-1942, Cooke’s prose is sufficient enough, his descriptions often quite vivid, yet it is all delivered with an air of cool detachment. Yet here between Good Friday and Easter, two bits of narrative stand out. One is his description of a meandering early morning drive in still dark Los Angeles, when he “got lost in the weaving boulevards,” when he “noticed how magically soothing was the scent of trees, the black foliage that looms all around you in that dreamlike town, and the occasional trailing of the pepper trees over the roof of the car.” Driving quiet streets, lost in thought, perhaps buttressing himself against depression, Cooke broods. “I let myself be lost for a time and drove aimlessly around the silent boulevards, threading the night foliage like a contented field snake sliding through undergrowth,” he says, a man wandering, a man on a quest, a man looking for himself. Next up is a sobering account of Cooke’s visit a few days later to the Japanese-American internment camp of Manzanar in the California desert east of Los Angeles. The federal government rounded up the internees in March 1942, allowing them two blankets and a few personal belongings. They left homes and businesses for “a valley dry as old chocolate and swirling with dust,” to find “windowless, heatless shacks,” Cooke chronicled. But it was the now 79-year old imagery of that drive that took me by surprise. Internment at Manzanar took place against a backdrop of magnificent, if austere, beauty. Cooke describes how the families forced to leave Los Angeles “went through the dark violet shadows of the Tehachapi Mountains, through Red Rock Canyon, up over a sagey plateau of creosote bushes and the spiked crucifix of Joshua trees, across barren flats where the afternoon sun makes the streaks of salt shine as painfully as turned swords.” Intentional or not, Cooke’s account contains subtle images appropriate for this Holy Weekend: a shadowed valley (of death), Tehachapi (a Kawaiisu word for “hard climb,” suggesting the agony of Christ’s climb to Calvary), a (blood) Red Canyon, a spiked crucifix (a splintered cross), a turned sword (in Christ’s side). Liberation three years later, which Cooke could only anticipate, suggests the promise of liberty to come: the risen Christ. Hope and new life from a tragic event, and yet a comedy of grace. Hidden in Cooke’s continent-ranging drive under the shadow of world war is an unspoken spiritual odyssey, a white line out of town to “buttress against depression” which, in a sense, explains all our journeys--at least, if not to shake off spiritual malaise they are to remember again who we are, and who we were, and who we can become. Earlier today I turned to her in a day that we had begun as a slog in fog, sun streaming through the window, light overcoming darkness, and said, “Let’s run away, ok?” And she smiled, as we turned for home. Continue reading
Posted Apr 4, 2021 at Out Walking
Don, that’s kind of you to say...and a relief. When you appropriate someone else’s words, there is always the danger of making them say something they didn’t. I actually had not read far enough in your book to come to the Christmas essay, but as I was considering Christmas, I thought, I wonder if Don has written on this? I was glad to find that you had, and so well—and then it gave me and opportunity to go back to our conversation last year, which was rich. May God give you many more words in the coming year, and may others come to love the place where they are as well.
Toggle Commented Dec 27, 2020 on Where We Are, Who We Are at Out Walking
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“If we make a mistake about where we are, we can make a mistake about who we are” (D.J.Waldie) Sometimes when I want to remember who I am, I think about where I am, and to think about where I am, I sometimes think about a place where I am not, a place foreign to me. Historian and memoirist Don Waldie remembers Christmas Day, 1956, in the southern California suburb where he lived as one of sweltering heat. “All the Christmas cards that year had snowmen and sleigh rides and carolers bundled up against the frost, but outside my house, midwinter meant that our lawn had turned brown, leaves on the neighbor’s tree had fallen, and the light of a low, southern sun glared through the smog.” By 1958, nothing much had changed in Lakewood, with temperatures above 80, morning fog, and then heavy smog later in the day. “I rode my Schwinn bike through hot, laden air that forecast wildfires while car radios played the holiday songs of an alien America where Jack Frost nipped at the noses of walkers in a winter wonderland and folks dressed up like Eskimos to hear sleigh bells in the snow.” In my North Carolina suburb, unlike sunny if smoggy southern California, Christmas usually came with cooler temperatures, but not snow—until Christmas, 1966, when there was a dusting of snow. That year I received a red Schwinn bike from Santa, and when I took it out for a ride, that snow began falling, wet on my face as I pedaled down the street. I remember smiling, haling my friend, thinking, “This is the best day ever,” with all the confidence my eight-year old mind could muster. Red bicycle, smiling boy, frenetic pedaling, winter wonderland—it could have been a postcard, Thomas Kincaid painting, or advertisement. “A sense of place is as necessary to a whole human being as is a sense of self,” Waldie said in an online interview earlier this fall in which he discussed his new collection of essays, Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place. He said the past is not just nostalgia or irony (both of which moderns and postmoderns have a penchant for) but an important clue as to who we are. A walker (he doesn’t drive), he speaks of a “tactile intimacy,” of walking as a “haptic practice.” Walking as knowing, footfalls as touch points for reality, suburbia not as dystopia or promised land but holy land nonetheless, as a sacred, ordinary place where “redemptive lives can be lived.” In my interview with Waldie in Lakewood’s City Hall early last year, he connected person and place. “[O]ne has to begin to think about the place as a body,” he said. “How do you come to know that body? It is—and I'm reaching for a sexual metaphor here—by all the ways that human equipment permits. One needs to learn how to fall in love with the place where you are.” Insomnia dispossessed me of the Santa Claus myth early on. My parents shuttled us off to bed, sat in the kitchen drinking coffee for a respectable length of time to allow us to fall asleep, and then began fetching presents from where they were secreted, wrapping them if necessary, their low voices incomprehensible yet suggestive. I lay awake. I seemed always to be awake. Once, when I thought my parents were just helping the real Santa Claus, I even thought I heard reindeer on the roof. I went to the window, the pane cold to the touch, pressing my nose against it, just hoping for a glimpse of Rudolph’s red nose. “I’ll be hoping for an old-fashion Christmas this year—enough chill in the air to require a sweater, a quiet walk before an early dinner, kids on skateboards in the street, and colored lights strung in palm trees,” says Waldie. Yet there’s quite a bit more I know he leaves unsaid, the empty page of the poet. There are the gift-giving parents that have gone before us and yet still inhabit the places through which we move, the carols we sang, the Christmas homilies we heard, the live nativities we pondered. And he knows it’s not simply where we are that defines who we are but, even more so, it’s whose we are. The angelic announcement to shepherds withering in fright was about One who would bring “good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10, ESV). To a backwater planet, to a minor people, to a poor couple without even a room, He came. He made our places important because He came, taking on flesh and all the earthiness of an embodied life. We are not just molecules but spiritual beings, and places are not just dirt and brick and mortar but memories, personal and communal, material and spiritual, inhabited by a Spirit that broods over all things. That Christmas of old is gone, yet it still inhabits the one my wife and children and I have made here in this home—in a lit tree and aged ornaments, window candles, manger scene, and angel tree. Yet pull one thread of the traditions that bind us to this place and time and and you’ll find your way back to the center, to Love that came down, to the Incarnate One who will one day answer all our longings as to who we are and where we belong, to the One who said not to be troubled as He was going to “prepare a place” for us, only to come again and take us there (Jn. 14:2-3). “I’m prepared to understand what I'm talking about as the humiliation of being human,” Waldie told me that unseasonably cold California day. “But once one understands that, then there is for you and me an answer. There is someone who takes and transforms our humiliation. The most humiliated, man, Jesus. He bears with us our humiliation, which makes it a burden that you can carry.” Yet he was emphatic that he wasn’t advocating stoicism. “I want to emphasize that it's not just resignation in the carrying of the burden. It's not just because, okay, that's what human beings are, and I understand my fallen state, and I get the theology of redemption, and now, grim faced, I trudge forward, yearning for the end of all of this. No, it's a burden I want to carry.” I want to say to him now, across the continent, that for you and me it’s a burden we carry together, as we bear each other up, communally (Gal. 6:2). For you and me. One childhood Christmas my parents told my sisters and I that Santa wouldn’t bring as much as usual that year. I forget the explanation, but looking back from an age older than they were now, I realize they must have suffered a financial setback. They had bit off an oversize bit of suburbia, a house that seemed enormous then, and were likely struggling with a mortgage payment, taxes, and the needs of four children. Still, Santa came. He always came. “I'm always looking for not just the right word, but the right rhythm of words,” Waldie told me. I understand. I have the rhythm of those Christmases past—the rustle of paper, the heavy footsteps on the stairs, the faintest sound of sleigh bells. Whispers and wind whipping round the eaves, and the soft and regular breathing of my sister in the next room. The coffee cups tinkling on saucers, and the murmuring myth that rises in my heart—Will he come? How much longer? And what gifts will He bring?—the questions hanging there until finally, the house settling in for a long winter’s night, I fall asleep to the sound of my own beating heart. Continue reading
Posted Dec 24, 2020 at Out Walking
Jackie, indeed it has been a hard year, and we have been waiting for something to happen, right? I’m glad these words were helpful to you. Let’s use this interstice for more prayer. God be with you.
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Slowing down is a difficult thing! Thanks Tanya.
Toggle Commented Oct 11, 2020 on Connecting October to April at Out Walking
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At the perimeter of the yard, huddled by the fence, lies our grill, veiled, like it is ashamed of its diminutive stature. Arcing above it is a maple that once near died but many years since has bent toward the sun and thrust upward, and the bashful grill there teeters, like a child with its newly-steadied mother, head buried in her skirts. “I remember when that magnolia was only this high,” my wife said over our lunch, holding her hands about twelve inches apart. “And now look,” as she pointed out past the patio toward the corner of the back yard at a volunteer maybe 25 feet high, its rust leaf backs toward us. “It’ll probably never bloom,” she predicted. “It never has.” I say something about lack of sun, to which she nods. But then I think, never say never. God majors in great reversals, changing seasons, upending the predicted. I look down. An 80-year old Ted Kooser, poet, is staring at me from the back cover of his latest book, Red Stilts, his forehead wrinkled, sweatered against the cold, expression pensive. An old man. Yet still child-like in how he sees. “The garbage truck’s tires had left two keyboards/ impressed in the snow, with the shadows of threads/ for the sharps and flats, at least a hundred octaves/ reaching far into silence, and a tattered leaf/ appeared as if out of thin air, sat down, and started/ playing,” he writes in “Recital,” telling of the cardinals, finches, and juncos that, perched in nearby bushes, play audience, chirping approval. And that, for sure, is rendered with the eyes of a child, to hear music in the tire tracks of life’s dirt. There’s a recital here too: the percussive beat of the nail guns tacking up one of the last new houses to be constructed behind us, the rhythm of the lawn mower’s whine, a circular saw that intermittently chimes in, and the twill and peep of birds peppering through. The air has changed. Humidity is up. Rain is coming, someone said. Which makes me glad for a blue umbrella, a shelter for these thoughts. “I watched a moth fly round and round the moon,/ or so it seemed as I stood looking up,” writes Kooser in “A Moth, a Moon,” and I think about the candle flies I scold that sometimes fly around the lamp I read by, somehow slipping by all our defenses, our closed windows and quickly-shut doors, as if they crawled on their bellies through the hairline cracks between window and sill, drawn by the light. But I take it back, let them fly round my moon, give in to their silent nattering, read on, only occasionally swiping away at their exuberant joy at light. Something is amiss with our bird feeder, I note, the seed gathered on one side, inexplicably. “Probably a deer pushed it with its nose,” she says. Maybe. Or maybe the world is off balance. Askew. Lilting. And everything is off, spinning madly, needing someone to set it right. I’m musing now about how “its impossible to keep the dust away/ from any color painted on Nebraska, despite/ the thin, transparent drop cloths of the rain,” as Kooser writes after ruminating on a greened out and flowering roadside ditch. So, for a moment I drive down a blacktop Nebraska road with him, as he sees for me, pointing out “the barns, in clear plastic slickers of rain,” the ones that “stand at the side of the muddy gravel road/ where they wait for the men to come home/ from the tavern in a fleet of old pickups/ awash in the misty gray waves of the hills.” When once we yield to Christ, said Oswald Chambers, we are emptied out, the old nature replaced by the new. “The first thing God will do with us is to ‘force thro’ the channels of a single heart’ the interests of the whole world,” says Chambers. “The love of God, the very nature of God, is introduced into us, and the nature of Almighty God is focused in John 3:16—‘God so loved the world. . . .’” And that introduces a new kind of seeing, a love for the world—the cosmos—that apart from God we don’t have. So, with Kooser, we can feel a kinship with the inanimate and animal, a birdbath or wheelbarrow, a squirrel or a robin—even a wooly caterpillar. “I came upon you on a sidewalk,/ black as a hyphen slowly crossing a page,/ as if you were trying to connect/ the last word in October with a word in/ the April to come,” he writes, stopping on a Nebraska sidewalk to see his inching neighbor who “looked like a casket being borne/ by a half-dozen soldiers walking in step,” a “casket [ ] draped with the flag/ of your country, orange like a leaf,” taking off his cap and bowing, “as they carried you into the distance.” Just a hyphen. Just a bridge between October and April. Just a bearer of the love that flows from God through us. What am I thinking about? she might have said but didn’t. Everything. Hyphens. Ditches. Nebraska roads. Tire tracks. Moths and roadside barns and a veiled grill. What a few words will bear across the world. About the love of God shed abroad on every single square inch of all that is. I look back at Kooser again, sweatered, bifocaled, a single sprig of white hair caught by the Great Plains’ wind, a man in love with the world in all its spareness and extravagance, its shadowed alleys and sun-filled rooms, connecting October to April, our fall with our redemption. That could be me one day, I think—minus the Pulitzer Prize. Continue reading
Posted Oct 5, 2020 at Out Walking
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“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Heb.‬ ‭11:13-14‬) Writing about the young adulthood of Georgia-born Leighton Wilson, early 19th century missionary to West Africa, Erskine Clarke draws attention to the impact of place on personality. “At some deep level of affection and self-understanding, he began to identify with this spot of ground, this particular place along the Black River,” says Clarke. For Wilson it was in large part the natural world--pine forests, cypress swamps, and cotton fields--yet mixed in with the natural environment were more cultivated influences. “Leighton’s memory and therefore his sense of self became intertwined with this specific place as the place insinuated itself into his most elemental senses: the sound of the night wind in the pines outside his window, the fragrance of new-plowed ground in the spring, the feel of matted pine straw under his feet, the taste of food prepared in a plantation kitchen, the sight of winter smoke rising from home fires, and the light of a winter sun on the forest floor.” That was the Georgia low country in the 1820s, not suburbia in the 1960s, and yet even the homogenized neighborhood of the 1960s and early 1970s that served as my childhood home had its on particular sights and sounds: the low voices of my parents around the kitchen table drinking coffee and reviewing the day, the lights of passing cars on my bedroom walls, the cicadas trill as the day ebbs, the smell of newly cut grass, the wind in my hair as I rode my red bike to the neighborhood pool. A few months ago, I went back there. Not content to just drive through, I parked in gravel lot near the overgrown site of what was formerly the neighborhood pool and walked. In some ways it felt that a miniature of what I remembered and I too big to fit the diorama. And as I later told my sister, who asked why I went there, it was underwhelming: I couldn’t quite recapture that sense of what it had been like to have grown up there. Yet I tried. Leaving the car, I walked down a grassy knoll to the creek. The footbridge remained, as did the sidewalk to the pool removed many years ago, its location now overgrown by a mature wood lot. The concrete steps to the showers remained. I took them. Green tentacles of ivy snaked across them, concrete edges of the steps had crumbled in places, and edges blurred where dirt had washed over them and rooted grasses--and yet, inexplicably, they remained, going nowhere, landing in a forested glen. I had a red bicycle I rode the five blocks between my house and the pool, sometimes bumping over the swishing grass of the park, sometimes speeding down the road, helmetless, wind whistling in my ears, crying out to my friend to wait, to wait up. I removed my sunglasses. I wanted to see it as a boy of eight, bare chested, a shine on my face born of the wonder of the moment. I walked up the stairs and, turning, stood for a moment, closed my eyes and heard the sounds of children yelling and water splashing, smelled the chlorine, heard the sound of showers and chatter in the bathhouse, remembered climbing the fence after midnight one night and taking a swim with a friend. Turning to leave, I walked through a mowed field that used to be tennis courts, crossed the road, and stared down into what had been a cleared area next to a creek full of minnows and tadpoles, and recalled the echoes of our calls in the bridge tunnels we traversed, like spelunkers. Now overgrown, the pale outline of a trail remained, and yet it was inaccessible. I stared down into a wooded area where my friend and I once built a fort from wood salvaged from a nearby construction site, fully intending to stay overnight. We didn’t. I followed the road a hundred feet or so to a four-lane parkway that ran behind my childhood home. Stopping behind my house, I looked up at the windows. Gray painted siding was peeling. An old car was parked in the driveway, hoisted on blocks. Patchy and weedy grass licked the brick foundation. My eyes moved across the shuttered windows, following my path from bedroom to bedroom as I moved, as my siblings married and moved on and we were promoted to the next (and better) room, finally resting in the ground floor room with easy access to a door and adventure. There to the left of the house, on that hill, was where I learned to ride my red bike. After some coaxing, my aunt placed me on it and pushed me down the hill, careening toward the four lane. I crossed our driveway, fell off in my neighbor’s backyard. Turning the corner of the block, I circled around and stood in front of the walk leading up to my front door. There’s the window over the kitchen sink where my mother prepared our breakfast and dinner every day, day in and day out. As a child I pulled out a bottom drawer and climbed onto the counter to watch her peel and cut potatoes and carrots, snap green beans, mix lard and flour and roll out dough to make biscuits and laid their hand-rounded shapes on a greased sheet to bake. There’s the double window in the dining room, the table where I wrestled with my homework, where my mother, already tired from her day, endeavored to assist me. On the wall was a picture of an old man praying, head bowed, hands clasped, candle burning, a piece of bread and chalice on the table before him. Those steps were where I sat and tried without success to rethread the chain on my bicycle. Tears fell, inexplicably, as if riding again with my friends was the most important thing in my life. Seeing me there an older kid in the neighborhood, a bully who had never said a kind word to me, stopped. He fixed my bike and told me it was OK. Clarke said of Leighton Wilson that his “experience of distant places would always be filtered through these early memories, and his voice, however tempered by other places, always carried the sounds and intonations of a Black River home.” When my mother wanted to call me in for dinner in those years, she’d lean out the side door of the house, the one off the kitchen, and yell my name at the top of her lungs. I’d hear it no matter how many backyards away I happened to be. And I’d come. Continue reading
Posted Aug 23, 2020 at Out Walking
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In these pandemic times, we have a well-oiled operation for food gathering. I pull up at the restaurant, click “I’m here,” and within minutes a masked stranger approaches the car. I crack my window a paper-thin virus-inhibiting sliver. “Steve?” How about that? He knows my name. Yes, I say, and I open the window a bit wider and wrench our meal from his gloved hands, compacting it as I pull it through the opening. I am thankful beyond measure. I park in a spot under a tree, for shade and ambience, at the corner of the car park where I can watch drivers, some masked, swivel in. We put down the windows. It’s hellish hot but, hey, God made it and so it’s good, right? I think to myself that it really doesn’t get much better than this: food, good company, conversation, shade, a slight breeze off the Atlantic, some 120 miles east, a table with a view, people at a distance. A bird alights on a tree branch no more than four feet away, beak open. The floor show. He looks at me, mouth still ajar. “I think they do that to help cool off,” she says. “Ummm.” I think it’s a ploy, currying favor. I know better. He has a good life here in the penumbra of “my pleasure.” Yet she is most likely correct, as she is the nature watcher; I, lost in my head. He hops onto the hood right in front of me, beak still open. I consider the horn for amusement, then reconsider given others’ sensibilities. Poor bird. She tosses him a french fry. Our pleasure, I prepare to say, but decide against. He’s either blind or ignores the fry as in poor taste, as beneath him. He arcs away. I find suitable music, something teary and world-weary to make us oh so thankful we don’t live in the song and which makes the food taste even better, while she whips out trays and placemats. We have assorted condiments, neatly stowed in zip lock bags. We’ve gotten good at this. I say grace, obliged to have food, and then it’s game on. Yahtzee. I click the box, “Play with a friend.” That’s how it all began, as friends. I prefer that she win, and I often tell her so, yet I don’t think she believes me. She is just more competitive than me. And I’m used to losing. Really. I rarely win at games, and I deeply dislike timed games. Too stressful. Or games where eyes are on you. I thought I was alone in this until an office party given by support staff required our participation in a timed, team tournament which required a lot of balloon popping and educated guesswork. It’s unbelievable how nervous one can get about throwing a dart at a balloon in the presence of 25 other people. It could have been the Olympics. Another attorney, Robert, was visibility perspiring at the task, up next in the competition, rattled by the attention. I sympathized with his discomfort. We talked about it. My team lost, of course. Don’t pick me for your team. You’ll lose. Losing is just so much less stressful. What? I won Yahtzee? That’s grace. God saying you’re lost but now you’re found. I said, “I wish you had won,” and she said, “I wish I had too. Let’s go again.” I don’t exactly remember if she actually said that, but I suspect she thought it. We played again, and she won. Next time she can take a victory lap around the car. She’s still my friend. “P.S. A pileated woodpecker stopped by here yesterday morning for about half an hour. I am enclosing a chip he threw down from a tree on our front lawn, where he was trying out a hole for size.” I love that. It’s from a letter by Edmund Ware Smith (“Smitty”) to E.B. White (a/k/a “Chief", or "Whitey"), “Tuesday, 1957,” written between the time of her birth and mine, I think, two middle-aged men writing witty letters to one another. And sending a wood chip in the mail. I thought about that because of the begging bird on the hood just now, who took his open mouth and left. It’s from a newly published book, Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship, which collects the letters White and Smith wrote to each other between 1956 and 1967. The letters were given to the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta, Maine by White in 1980. From there they went into a vault, not to be discovered until September 2018, when a bank clerk pried open the creaking vault and, pfffffffffff, blew the dust off a stack of yellowed envelopes, and tossed them on the desk of former director of development (how much development can there be in tiny Danariscotta, population around 2300?) Torie DeLisle, who, believe it or not, is not a mature 86-year old bespeckled retired schoolmarm but a youngish thirty-something farmer. She wrote the preface to the book, in which she called the letters a “rare and precious gift” twice in five paragraphs. And so they are. “You gonna take your turn?” “Sorry. Got distracted.” “What are you thinking about?” Chickens and gin. Bar Harbor, Maine. Whales. The aged. Those letters just laying there in the dark for 40 years. My disappearing food. “Oh, that bird. Where’d he go?” I asked. If you wondered about those proper names, so did I. Skidompha is an acronym of first letters in the names of Skidompha’s library’s founding club members and, according to the library’s website, started its existence above the Charles M. Jones General Store on Main Street in Damariscotta. And that town name, Damariscotta, is an Indian name meaning “river of little fish.” So now you know. Well, the river of little fish caught a bigger fish with these letters, I’ll say. It takes a little longer for her to eat than me. Well, it takes about ten times as long. That’s because she paces herself, and I don’t. It’s in the genes. Her father could spend 30 minutes on one Taco Bell taco, whereas I can eat one before I knew I had one. Sometimes I look at my shiny clean plate or empty tray before me and wonder what happened. “He just didn’t enjoy his food as much as you,” she says. “I’m just passionate, that’s all,” which explains a lot. . .and nothing. I’ve tried slowing down, but it feels like playing a 45 rpm record at 16 rpm speed. And if I have to explain that to you then you’re too young to be reading this. “Very dark here today--just enough light in the sky to strike a match by,” says Whitey to Smitty on New Year’s Day, 1958, a wonderful description of a nearly pitch dark day and of a time when people carried matches for, as they say, “their matchless friends,” and lighting up after a meal was common. That seems like a pleasant habit, a relic of bygone days, except for the fact that it will kill you. About Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which White was in the process of revising in 1959, Smith says, “It made me try to write sentences with no words, which its why you haven’t heard from me before now,” recalling Strunk’s famous exhortation spit in exasperation at his thick-headed Cornell students: “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!” I’m sorry, that’s enough excitement. I dislike sentences with exclamation marks, which occurs regularly in texts and emails. But it is a direct quote. Well, we’ve finished the meal and the game. Time to go, I suppose. Yet I like our corner, our tree, and even the bird who has the spunk to openly beg. We might just linger for a while. Both White and Smith were published in a large, five pound (says Smith) 1965 textbook entitled Values in Literature. Smith summed up their contributions: “ My piece is an honest thing about crawling through a sewer pipe. Yours is an equally miserable thing about hens.” And you, reader, have had to endure this meager offering about the most mundane of subjects: take out. You can thank me later or just omit these needless words. Just remember: There is nothing so mundane that one can’t write about it. Underneath the mundane, there’s always a bit of magic. . .miserable, magical mundanities. Continue reading
Posted Jul 5, 2020 at Out Walking
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Late afternoon light shines through chinks in the barn, climbs hay bales at dusk. Light always gets in, I tell myself. Someone way different than me, and yet not, smiles and says hello as we walk past. People take up brooms and clean glass-strewn streets. She points to the sky, says “Look, that crow has something in its beak, orange,” and I manage to look as it skims a rooftop, passes beyond my seeing. A city worker cleans the sidewalk, looks up to greet us. Unemployment, quite unexpectedly, goes down. Someone planted flowers by the walk. A restaurant founded by Sam and Bo renamed itself Peace & Love. A biker nearly runs into me, then dismounts, says “I’m sorry, I know better.” She sews, I write, the cat sleeps; the sun dips lower in the sky, the moon rises. “What’s on the calendar for tomorrow?” she says. “Nothing but an all day appointment with you,” I say, which earns a smile. Light. A pandemic swept in and cleared out my days, baled me out of busyness, interrupted my self-importance, renewed my friendship with our four square where splintered sunlight shines through chinks in the pines. We get takeout. Park facing a field or wood lot for entertainment, hoping for a cat, bird, swaying pine, rustling leaf, a surprise. It’s happened before. A bit of sunlight nettles its way between the trees that stolid, comfort and reassure. I crack a window, take in a couple inches of air off the Atlantic with a hint of the Gulf. Trays, green placemats, condiments aplenty are summoned, hands held, thanks returned. Sometimes we play a word game, words from jumbled letters, hewing new brain cells to replace ones we are fast shedding. “What screen are you on now?” I say. “Oh, 3679.” I’m on 29. She works at it, determined; I daydream. She gets six letter words from her six letters; I get two letter words from six letters, like “it” and “so” and, if I get lucky, graduate to “say” or “sno”. No, no, that last one is not a word, I know. I guess I’m just stupid. “I like the music it makes,” she says. “Ummm. . . .What’s that laser thing that just fired at your words?” “Oh, I get a special word ‘cause I have so many points.” Cause I’m brilliant. Cause I’m on LEVEL 3740. “Uh-huh.” Once, a couple weeks ago, we were having a form of takeout--yes, let’s call it that--parked in her now takeout food-infused vehicle, slurping down a box of sugar-encrusted, diet-breaking, but oh-so-sweet Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and she let go a little chink of light. “I like the way you do things,” she said. Just out of the blue. Suddenly, I felt emboldened. I had another doughnut. That comment, buoyed by three doughnuts, powered me all the way home. It doesn’t take much. On that walk this morning we saw a loon staring pensively into the distance just below the drawbridge, as light played off the water. Thinking about civilization and its discontents, I suppose, or where the next meal was coming from. It flapped away before she could snap a pic. Tide was up. Reed-covered water sloshed beneath the walkway as cars tracked overhead. Crossing, the world shook beneath our feet. We go down, crossover, take the less-traveled path under the oaks, speed up and pass a doddering millennial couple with a baby in tow, giving a wave as we track round. People all matter, I remind myself. Dogs matter. The crabs burrowing in the mud matter. Everything matters, I think. Every dog we see has light in his eyes, strains at their leashes to meet us, to say hello, to sniff and wag and slather, until brought up short by a leash, protesting. We forgot to pray, or maybe we did pray. Sometimes we are just deep in our own thoughts. Me, I have an inner conversation about what everything means, a running argument sometimes, fierce. Sometimes I think about what’s for lunch. “Do not love the world or the things of the world,” said John this morning as I squinted at the print of his letter, and then he tells me it’s all passing away anyway. But he’s talking about “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions.” Not the marsh, moonlight, mint, or mockingbird that performs its great repertoire each morning at our car park. Not the squirrel that crossed inches from our feet. Not the heron. Not the “pearl sky raining light like hail.” Not the people trying so hard just to figure everything out. We “were darkness but now we are light in the Lord,” says Paul, whose light falls all around us. No matter where or when you are, no matter how stolid the barn of indifference, no matter what walls we build, light always gets in, climbs up the bales, and, one day, will cover us in its shine. Continue reading
Posted Jun 8, 2020 at Out Walking
Dave, thanks for your comment. D.J. Waldie is coined house as “hero,” of course. I recommend his book, Holyland, which is a memoir of suburbia not as critique but love story. All the best to you. . .and your home in which you are making memories.
Toggle Commented May 12, 2020 on Allies at Out Walking
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That’s a poetic reply, Amanda. Thank you! Jane Kenyon is on my very small list of poets that I enjoy reading.
Toggle Commented May 7, 2020 on Allies at Out Walking
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“The world is hard to live in, it seems to me, and we need allies. Your house can be a hero, too. And how else could it ever be home, if you did not fall in love with it?” (D.J. Waldie, in California Romantica) Like many of you, I have been under near house arrest for weeks. When you are in one place that long, you begin to see things. I’m not hallucinatory, mind you, just super-sensitized to my surroundings, allied with the body of my captor—paint (gray, pollen-sheened), fiber cement siding, pink insulation, two-by-four frame, sheetrock, more paint (egg shell white, improved by whacks, bumps, and stains)—to which I am deeply grateful for bearing the weight of the elements: tornado (narrow miss), earthquake (tremulous, but tame), three-foot snows, freezing rain, and fallen trees, not to mention frigid air and searing sun. These days we’re having a conversation. I’m teasing words out of sticks and bricks and mortar, listening to the creaks in the flooring, the remains of long-ago conversations, watching the cat soak up the sun that stretches languidly across the floor. Melancholy, my familiar friend, deserts me, and happiness pushes to the front of the line, and I think of Jane Kenyon’s poem, “There’s just no accounting for happiness, / or the way it turns up like a prodigal / who comes back to the dust at your feet / having squandered a fortune far away.” Stay for awhile, I say. A house adapts and takes on your character, keeps watch and listens to to your voices. Put a bookcase in an empty room, fill it with books, and it beckons, all those words clamoring for attention, whispering once upon a times. A bed, a nightstand, a blanket and chair, and a room becomes somnolent, a sleep aid. Recline and prop a weighty tome against a lap pillow and it whispers sleep, sleep. Today I meant to make sense of my files, so I opened the drawer and looked down into its recesses. Confused voices emerge. Nags. Chatter of the put-aways. Whines of the forgotten. I close it, make an excuse, take a walkabout and listen elsewhere. A hallway with doors becomes an adventure; a patio, an invitation; a stoop, meditative; corners, surprises; windows, light falls; a heated oven, a hearth; a sofa, a conversation; a table by the window, a puzzle, hope, rest, thinking-place, challenge, with a soundtrack of birdsong; a now vacant room, a sun catcher, repository of possibilities, and memory of what and who once resided there. It’s aging. In some places, cracks appear where the wall has separated from the ceiling. High-traffic corners evidence lost paint, marks, and cat dusting. A switch plate reclines slightly from the wall. Well-walked hardwoods testify to chairs pushed back from dinner conversations, soles slapping wood between sofa and refrigerator, children hammering, people partying. Yet no walls have cracked, roofs sagged, or floors collapsed. Yet, anyway. It is enough. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God, not us,” says the Apostle Paul, and I think of Who lives and moves and has his being here, even here, and the One who holds the very atoms together, whose weighty hand keeps us from flying off into space. Who makes a place for us. Who gives us a home. Who inhabits us. When we rebuilt this house after a fire years ago, one span required a steel beam. Were I an engineer, I might not worry, yet I’m not and I sometimes do. Most of the house is wood, a three-story frame resting on a concrete foundation atop clay. Clay and sticks-stubble with a heart of steel. Sometimes I lie in bed thinking about the weight pressing down on that steel, wood, concrete, and clay—an oaken desk, hundreds of books, grand piano, roof, and all those memories, not to mention gravity that pulls it down, down, into clay that compresses. Sometimes I wonder how it has held up and for a moment feel a twinge of anxiety and wonder if I should lighten its load, slough off a few books, sell some furniture, give up some remembrances. I don’t think so. My ally stands. “Here’s a place—a fragile, earthen vessel, admittedly, yet one that will hold you, for now,” it says. And in the night, I whisper thank you to the hero that it is and to our co-belligerents: trees that clap their hands in wind, clay-rooted rocks that shout their praise, the owl and fox and robins and cardinals and every other thing God has made that come alongside and say, we’re here. We’re here with you. Continue reading
Posted Apr 29, 2020 at Out Walking
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I was away recently. Sometimes, when we go on vacation or are away for an extended period of time, I feel a twinge of sadness for my house, for all the rooms that are unattended, unread books murmuring on the shelves, walls ready to hear words, flatware in the drawers yearning to be taken up, floors longing to meet feet trodding, windows pining to be looked out, tables awaiting the press of elbows reclining, a reading chair unread, unoccupied. I lock the door behind me and turn away, and I feel the house’s tentacle of need reaching out--need to be loved, to be occupied--and as I walk away I feel a vague sense of betrayal. Man may be a little lower than the angels, an image-bearer of God, yet there is still a kinship with things. When I am away, I sometimes think about what is going on in the house. Morning sunlight stretches across a den floor as the sun travels across the sky, and dust particles float suspended in the air before settling softly into the carpet, onto the end table, grasping the slender lamp harps. As the sun rises, the light contracts. A shadow of a cloud darkens the rooms, momentarily. The last glimmers of the sun rest on a chair where I often read, glints through the pines, slips behind a neighbor’s home. Shadows deepen. Night settles and the streetlights and porch lights from other houses illuminate the rooms. A streetlight flickers on. A black cat sets up a neighborhood watch. Time is passing. The microwave announces hour and minute in blue. Our remaining analog clocks tick, tick, tick, measuring time for no one. Water waits in pipes, ready for taps to open so it can be on its way. The refrigerator condenser fan hums and falls silent, hums again and falls silent. The furnace wakes itself from sleep to blow as needed, though it’s not much needed, and no one says “it’s too hot” or “it’s freezing in here.” The darkened screen of the television flickereth not. Photographs look out on vacancy, call out to no one, smiles frozen. Piano keys await fingers, strings taut and ready. The house waits, through the hours of the night. Tomorrow, it wakes, and does it all again. Now I’m back. While I was away, I was reading Amor Towles’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. His protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyick Rostov, 30 years old, is confined by the Bolsheviks in 1922 to the Metropol Hotel under orders that if he ever left the hotel he would be shot. The Metropol is a grand hotel—as in The Ritz in Paris or Plaza of New York—yet, still, Rostov is a prisoner, stripped of his freedom and evicted from his spacious suite and exiled to the sixth floor attic rooms. And yet, he finds a way to plumb the beauties of the hotel and its various personalities, and live a full life. We’re all under a moderate form of house arrest these days—locked in. Our confinement is more social than physical, more a disruption of familiar habits and physical contact than confinement. We chafe at our restrictions. Yet lately I’m reminded that with constraints comes opportunities, even creativity, and a renewed love for things we take for granted. My infant son, “confined” to a playpen, bed, or room at a young age, given no more than three toys, would create far more than if given ten things to occupy him. My mother, a child of the Great Depression, used to tell me how she and her brothers and sisters milked a day of play out of an old tire and a stick. And given paper and pencil during an eternally long sermon in my childhood, I produced elaborate maps, drawings, and plans for neighborhoods and cities. So, I’m trying to learn the lesson of constraints. I sit in different places in the house, stare out different windows, to see if I have different inspirations, new thoughts. I listen to squirrels scamper across the roof, raindrops drip-drip-dripping from the eaves, a cacophony of birds who have no fear but sing. I just listen. I take inventory, discover misplaced scraps of writing, old notes, and cards. An old CD, pulled from its shelf and played, transports me--sometimes to the place and time I bought it, even a conversation about it. I sleep more, dream more, and awake in the night more, listening to a house content to settle and creak its happiness to be filled, to be needed. I keep my neighbors at a distance, and yet hold them close. I pray longer. I add prayers to those already etched in the rooms of this house. Old conversations linger and poke at my memory. God fills up the house and always did, so I walk around looking for Him, talking to Him, walking with Him to show me what He sees, what He knows. I play more music, the sounds waltzing through the rooms, and I sense the house must be glad to be needed, to be occupied, to be found again, to be noticed, to be attended, to be a home. Sometimes I go outside. I stand in the backyard and look at the house’s roof lines and right angles and windows, its chimney, shutters, and downspouts. It may not be the Metropol or Ritz, but its mine, I think, and looking at it I feel something like love. Then, full up, I go back in and attend to it, thankful for its kinship. Continue reading
Posted Mar 24, 2020 at Out Walking
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Carol doesn’t look a bit like my mother. She wears too much makeup, her cheeks rouge red, her hair too black for natural color. Yet she calls me honey, as did my Mom, and she makes sure I have enough to eat. Leaving home today, I drove a few blocks to the pinnacle of our neighborhood, a stop sign, and idled there. My friend had bowed out of lunch, with regrets, and I was on my own. I had been thinking about losses that morning, glasses half-empty, and I was pensive, melancholy, not good company anyway. I miss my Mom. I miss my Dad. I miss my crazy fun aunt. I miss my 20-year old cat, my childhood of tree-forts and creek-wading and capture the flag, my red Schwinn bicycle with the basket and playing cards click-clacking on tire spokes. I miss ball in backyards, walking the block with a friend, laying on the top of my Dad’s blue station wagon and staring at the stars, the cicadas’ song rising and falling. I’m gladly sad to have these losses and misses and time to contemplate them. I stare at the stop sign, surprised that no one has come from behind as I sit here idling too long in a neighborhood well emptied out of office -bound commuters. “Be still and know that I am God,” I recall from a passage I read this morning. I wait a little longer, then motor off right, answering a calling, asphalt singing on tires, choir-like. “Arise, and eat,” I hear, recalling other words from days ago. I came here by the window so I can eat meat and vegetables and biscuits like I ate in my childhood home and stare out at people who come here--farmers in blue jeans and ball caps, construction workers with clay-encrusted work boots, state workers with ill-fitting shirts and loosened ties, attorneys in suits sans jackets, and college students eating food from home to remind them of where they came from. These are my people, even while I know they all have a fatal affliction, a crack in their soul that has led each of them to do something wrong, or even yet, who are still caterwauling wildly through life, bent to no good. Broken. But still, I claim them. When Elijah was being chased by Jezebel (a great name for a villain), he went off into the desert and, dismissing his servant, lay down under a scrubby tree, depressed. “Lord, it’s enough,” he rasped, his throat dry with dust. “I’m done. Take my life. I’m no better than my fathers.” Angels came and attended him, said “arise, and eat,” and his acedia was swept away under that broom tree. I swallow hard, my throat drying. “Do you want some more ice tea?” Carol offers. Oh, I do, I do, I tell her. Please. As she tips the pitcher over my glass, I remind her once again of our decades-long acquaintance as she migrated from one restaurant to another, all of the same ilk. “That one? That was a good place to work,” she said. “I just came in one day and he said he was closing--that very day. I guess he just got tired of it.” Lord, it’s enough, I’m done, I imagine him saying. I remember his cigarette burning down in the ashtray next to the cash register, his bark from the kitchen, him locking up his loss that last day. I am not depressed. Not at all. Just supping with the past. Just retracing a few tracks to remember where I’ve been. “Be still.” Spiritual tenacity is what that’s about, said Oswald Chambers, inverting the usual understanding of the word to “working diligently on the certainty that God is not going to be worsted.” That’s so British. Unperturbable. Stiff upper lip and all. I can’t identify with that, yet I do look around at my people and sense that hope is somehow mustered in that room--in a child laughing, in men and women who will push away and go back to work, in crops that will be replanted, in another day in the office. On a gray day like this one, with headlines that portend plague and poverty, when the din of voices shouting from the screens around me causes me to lose my bearings, I come here. I sit still. I wait. I listen to the music of conversation. Take, and eat, says Carol. I mutter a prayer. I take up the wafer of the past. I wash it down with the astringent, sweet liquid of the present. I look out the window of what’s to come. Then, nourished, I push back and do the next thing. I pay the bill. [The photo was taken by Ken Liszewski. It was Ken’s TV. The idea for it came from the perpetually creative mind of Dave Danglis, of Pinwheel Creative, in Lima, New York. It was featured prominently in the artwork for the 1999 release of Aliens and Strangers, a compilation of Silent Planet Records artists which, along with Tony Shore, I put together for the label. You can still purchase that compilation of singer-songwriters here.] Continue reading
Posted Feb 26, 2020 at Out Walking
It’s good to hear from you, Michael, and thanks for sharing your heartfelt story. I will have to listen to Lennie Gallant, as I have not heard him, though I have visited your beautiful island many years ago. May God be with you and keep you and your son well. Blessings, Steve.
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“Give me such philosophic thoughts/ that I can rejoice everywhere I go/ in the lovable oddity of things.” (An excerpt from “The Prayer of the Elephant,” in Prayers from the Ark, by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold) My son has been reading a light book entitled Capture Dynamics and Chaotic Motions in Celestial Mechanics. The other day I peeked inside it’s cover, ever desirous of a good story. The first sentence I could make out, though it wasn’t a particularly rousing one, went, “The basic differential equations are defined that we will use throughout the book.” That’s not a strong lead. And then there was something about the “n-body problem.” I then lost the thread of the story, such as it was. From then on there were sentences with strange letters and numbers like this: “a2x(6df/42.4) x (whatintheworldisthis)%€¥^x37.” Also, there were no pictures. I was a wee bit disappointed. “Dad, what’s that you’re writing?” “Limericks, son. A bit of haiku.” I lied. “At least it’s not sad. . . It’s not sad, is it?” “Oh no no. Just. . .tragedy, comedy, fairy tale. Life. You know.” “I was afraid of that.” I asked him to explain Chaos Theory one evening at bedtime; I genuinely wanted to know. I was familiar with a form of that theory from law school where it was the unstated but understood governing principle. Chaos is fundamental to legal practice--indeed, the profession depends upon it--but it went differently here. I’ll say. Before my eyes got heavy, we had passed the moon and were somewhere in the hinterland of the universe, out beyond predictability, near chaos, where things come undone. Apparently, from what I recall, the goal is not to enter chaos with your spacecraft but navigate as close as possible in order to leverage its effect to propel you forward. But these are, we agreed, lilliputian differences, of bare consequence. There’s not much difference between lawyers and rocket scientists. The delivery is different. Both can be combustible. Both find opportunity in near chaos. “Is there a plot, some kind of narrative or story in your book?” “Sure. It’s step by step, a description of a process.” I nodded. I changed the subject. “We don’t know what gravity is, do we?” Or, for that matter, I thought, why a number divided by zero is undefined. Mysteries. Oddities. He acknowledged as much. We’ve ridden that horse before. I won't bring that up again. “Let’s stick with chaos, ok?” he says. I then left him there in his hibernaculum, returned to bed and book, to a story set by the River Thames, to a saturnine, traditionally built, and fulsome bedmate curled in a ball at my feet, eyes channeling the far reaches of the galaxy. The book, Diane Setterfield’s novel, Once Upon a River, centers on a puzzling occurrence in pre-Industrial Revolution England, a young girl who dies and then comes back to life. Stories and deeper mysteries ripple out from that event. I alternate that story with poems from the Polish poet Anna Kamienska, collected in Astonishments. (I didn't know who she was either, until a week ago.) They too circle mysteries. I like this one: How to depart and not thank animals and most of all the cat for being so separate and for teaching us with its whole body the wisdom of focus I extend my foot a bit, give the bit of fur at bed’s end a slight provocation. A bit of animal enrichment, I opine. Just as before a wedding I’ll have no time to thank you all corners and radiators I thank every spoon God bless you since who else would bless you. I think of all that dark matter miles above my head, extending into infinity. All that stuff that we don’t know how to define. Thank you. All those planets spinning for who knows what, mostly unseen to our largest eyes on sky. Thank you. All the spoons in the drawer downstairs, even the bent ones. Thank you. All those gray squirrels asleep in leafy nests high in the trees and the mental maps of all the places they have hidden nuts dancing in their wee brains. The fox and deer that move silently in the deep night. The owls who call out, the HVACs that hum and whirr, the street signs that name places for no one watching. And you I thank for knowledge fragile tea-cup you who taught me how to depart There are things worth more than we ourselves I did ask him what an “n-body” was during the bedtime story. I forget what he said. I was trying hard to listen, but. . . “Are you writing a blog in your head again?” he said. “You know you can never fly a plane, don’t you? You'd be looking out the window dreaming up something and crash.” I smiled. Flying is just a metaphor. “Oh, and I didn’t actually say half that stuff you’re writing in your head.” “That’s called literary license, son. Writers do that all the time. Besides, it’s my story.” I left him with his book of formulas, returned to bed, readjusted the cat, switched off the light, and lay there in the dark matter considering chaos and other oddities. And now depart all of you along with a crowd of holy statues I've had enough of you and enough of thanking The silent night looks at us with the eye of the abyss What are we in that dark pupil I sighed. Thank you, light. Bed. People everywhere. Chaos. Oddities. God. Continue reading
Posted Jan 16, 2020 at Out Walking
Unfortunately, the Claire Holley concert scheduled for December 29th has been cancelled. We will try to reschedule in the Spring! Continue reading
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34b) In a season when we say, “Peace on earth,” Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He goes on to say that he will set families at odds, that if we love our families more than him, we are not worthy, says that if we lose our lives for his sake, we will gain our lives. Writing about these hard words, Oswald Chambers says, “Jesus Christ came to send a sword through every peace that is not based on a personal relationship to himself.” In short, every sense of well-being and security not based on a relationship with Jesus will be wrecked by a God who knows that our own glory is only in knowing him. Dying to self—to what I want, desire, and need—and living unto God is the door to life, to abundant life. Be of good cheer, Jesus says. Then, take up your cross. Die. His burden is easy. But that was this morning when the house was quiet and you could think, when your thoughts had room to drift out of your head and down quiet hallways, settle onto stairway landings, rest in vacant spaces, sit on the sills of windows. You’re at the mall trying to squeeze your SUV into an available space marked C, for confident or perhaps conceivable, and you had to inhale to slip through the slender opening between your door and the car and were thankful that you were still trim enough to squirm through. And you thought you were done shopping, but there was that one item you needed. And then you remembered another thing you needed while sitting at the stoplight, and you wrote it on the back of a gas receipt stuffed in the cupholder. But you lost the paper in the crevice made for tiny people hands between the seat and the console. You thought a bad word, but at least you didn’t say it, today. You bought a Cinabon, just to soak up frustration, though you know you shouldn’t have, and besides, it’s Christmas, almost, you remind yourself. Sitting there eating it, slowly, you remembered the squirrel you saw at lunch yesterday deftly navigating the thin edge of the black fence behind your home carrying an oversize pine cone, like a tight-rope walker with a balance beam, stopping to strip away the husk to get at seeds and how, once down, he stopped and looked at you, dead on. Like he said, “What? What? This is what I do.” Nothing bothered the squirrel. Not the screeching circular saw at the home being constructed behind me. Not the hammers arresting silence. Not the blond real estate agent pacing back and forth on the unfinished patio, cell phone in hand, barking at someone, gesticulating, while the cement churned and workers looked on. Not the whine of a motorcycle on the avenue. Not the 747 passing overhead. You just remembered the second item you needed, pushed back from the table, joined the throng of shoppers humming along to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It’s said that the common ground squirrel can bury up to 1000 nuts and, remembering where each one is, dig them up later for a meal. That doesn’t sound common but extraordinary. Yet I suspect they lose a few. I have seen them scurrying about in the pine straw, all a titter about their lost nut. “I know I put it out here,” I can almost hear them say, “and yet, it’s not here.” They move on but then circle back. “I may have missed something,” they say. I may have missed something, I think. I forgot to buy something. Someone will be forgotten. Someone in my extended family. A child. No one will say anything, but they’ll remember me as the uncle who forgot. You put your hand to your head, and not softly, as if the percussive effect may jar loose a memory. My wife told me that a woodpecker has an area in its head behind its beak that acts as a shock absorber to his intermittent head-banging. I don’t know. There may be a reason why he (not to be sexist, but it seems like a man thing) is banging his head on an aluminum gutter. But I’m glad of it. The other morning a woodpecker was working out on my neighbor’s metal gutter, like a rivet gun, as if it might yield an insect, but won’t. Perhaps he was frustrated: it was one of those days when nothing seems to work, to come to fruition, when there’s nothing to point to as achievement. He may have forgotten something. I may have forgotten something. And then there are a lot of “what ifs.” What if, when I finish here, another Suburban has parked next to me and I cannot get in the door? What if the parking garage collapses? What if my kids are smarter than me? (Wait a minute. . .) I worry about things, but I needn’t have. When I return to my car there is a Fiat parked next to me in the shadow of my side mirror, leaving ample room for me to slip in, settle into the seat, close the door, recline my seat, and close my eyes. Just rest a minute before I get going, I think. Only I just remembered another item I forgot. I thought that word again. I was going to wrap this little journey up nicely, circle back to Oswald Chambers, mention the squirrel and woodpecker again. But I forgot where I was going with this. Only thinking back about those hard things I read this morning, about what Jesus said, I see a little more of who the baby Jesus really was, that Infant Disturber, that One who brings peace yet disrupts every false peace. It was like a sword in the stone of my heart. Continue reading
Posted Dec 25, 2019 at Out Walking
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“Claire Holley is an observer, a romantic reporter from the backyards and front porches of the heartland,” says Acoustic Guitar Magazine. And I could quote more such accolades for this really gifted singer-songwriter and player. She plays well, writes well, and sings well, and it all comes together in a winsome presence that makes you feel right at home. It also means a great deal that two of her albums are dedicated to and inspired by her late father. Both are collections of Gospel-inspired tunes, whether originals or hymns. Sanctuary was recorded 20 years ago; Every Hour this year, and both resonate with age-old truth. So sample some of that truth. Join us for a mid-winter's concert with Claire on Sunday evening, December 29th, at 7:00 at Peace Church in Cary and hear some of those songs and more. Doldrums can set in during the lull between Christmas and New Years, and this is a low-key way to enjoy some great music with old and new friends. After the music, there'll be a reception with (free) light refreshments and an opportunity to talk with Claire and visit with others. Christmas carols and lights may even find their way into the evening; is is, after all, Christmastide, and it will only be the fifth day of Christmas. Hang on to the Spirit a little longer. Save some money. Purchase tickets in advance for $15 here. (They will be $20 at the door). And be sure to share this link with friends and invite them to come along. Continue reading
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I first met Claire Holley over 20 years ago in a Chapel Hill coffeeshop, she was just off her second recording, Sanctuary. I was smitten by the collection of hymns and gospel-laced songs, rendered in her inimitable folk style and honey voice. That wasn't all Claire had to offer musically, as ensuing albums demonstrated, but the two decades since have only matured and deepened her sonic reservoir, bookending Sanctuary with a new collection of hymns and gospel songs, Every Hour. Claire grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has enjoyed singing ever since she was a little girl. She began writing songs in college and has released seven full length records and two EPs. Her music has been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition as well as in films & TV shows. She lives with husband and son in Los Angeles but visits Mississippi a lot. The Washington Post said, “The charm of Holley’s hummable melodies, imagistic lyrics and vocal prowess suggest she’ll keep bringing crowds in from the cold…” But I like what Image Journal said,“She owes much to the southern tradition of storytelling, and just as much to the southern tradition of charm…” So sample some of that Southern charm. Join us for a mid-winter's concert with Claire on Sunday evening, December 29th, at 7:00 at Peace Church in Cary and hear some of those songs and more. Doldrums can set in during the lull between Christmas and New Years, and this is a low-key way to enjoy some great music with old and new friends. After the music, there'll be a reception with (free) light refreshments and an opportunity to talk with Claire and visit with others. Christmas carols and lights may even find their way into the evening; is is, after all, Christmastide, and it will only be the fifth day of Christmas. Hang on to the Spirit a little longer. Save some money. Purchase tickets in advance for $15 here. (They will be $20 at the door). And be sure to share this link with friends and invite them to come along. Continue reading
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This morning I opened the window in my office just an inch or so to better hear the rain, tapping on the shingles, dribbling down the tree, its steady percussion a soothing music seeping in my room, reminding me that I am no more than an inch from the elements. In my personal worship time, I become a scribe. I write facts, lessons, and applications in a nonstandard size journal that my daughter bought for me in Johannesburg, South Africa—round, full letters spilling across the page. “See what large letters I write to you as I use my own hand,” said the Apostle (Gal. 6:11), and like a Braille maker I bear down to impress, to leave my mark. “This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write” (2 Thess. 3:17‬b), he says, and so, apostle, disciple, I make my mark, blue the page with tilting print that marches, soldiering across the blue line. The rain has stopped, left a sheen on the tree bark of the maple out my window. Beads of water cling to branches. The wind lifts what leaves hang on; periodically one lets go, sashays on air currents to the mottled ground below. Gathered with others there, destitute, they await what’s next. “We have to enter into His Kingdom through the door of destitution,” says Oswald Chambers, once again his words stretching across time and space. I imagine the disciple writing those words in a wood shack in a dusty desert camp near Cairo, Egypt during World War I, where he served as a YMCA Chaplain, men milling about in the lull before war. “The greatest blessing spiritually is the knowledge that we are destitute,” he writes. “We have to enter into His Kingdom through the door of destitution.” A dry wind rubs against the building, and fine sand has seeped through window cracks and door jambs. He brushes it away from his paper. It’s raining again, God’s cleansing. Living things rise up out of the earth. Trees lean over, gather, conspiring for their winter work. “Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,” writes poet Anne Porter, and I put my finger on the window pane, the glass cold, and wish them songs. But only a dog barks a psalm of complaint. I draw back, lay down my pen, turn the pages of the journal back—October, September, August—and feel the heat of summer sizzle from its leaves. August 22: “I need to pray God into all that I do.” August 7: “Pray about everything—never fear, but love.” And in the heat of July, the fire of resolve: “In my writing, push back against the antichrist, against the spirit of the world, saying ‘Christ has overcome, Christ rules, Jesus is coming soon.’” Destitute. These applications written in earnest mock me. I have nothing in my hands. Even my pen will run dry, the journal pages crumble, dust to dust. I entered the door behind him, closed the desert behind. The latch clicks, and the disciple-soldier turns in his chair and looks at me. Our eyes meet. “We have to realize that we cannot earn or win anything from God; we have to receive it as a gift or do without it,” he offers softly. I hang my head. A song is rising from the forest floor. Destitute leaves, decaying ever so slowly, quietly obey, do their work, with promise of the day they will rise again, be made new. I look down at the last two words in my journal, just written, the ink barely dry: “Christ alone.” There’s a very faint period after the words, tentative, as if that phrase is pushing forward, awaiting more. I put down my pen, turn to go, look back. And he smiles. Continue reading
Posted Nov 28, 2019 at Out Walking
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I first met Claire Holley over 20 years ago in a Chapel Hill coffeeshop, she was just off her second recording, Sanctuary. I was smitten by the collection of hymns and gospel-laced songs, rendered in her inimitable folk style and honey voice. That wasn't all Claire had to offer musically, as ensuing albums demonstrated, but the two decades since have only matured and deepened her sonic reservoir, bookending Sanctuary with a new collection of hymns and gospel songs, Every Hour. Claire grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has enjoyed singing ever since she was a little girl. She began writing songs in college and has released seven full length records and two EPs. Her music has been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition as well as in films & TV shows. She lives with husband and son in Los Angeles but visits Mississippi a lot. The Washington Post said, “The charm of Holley’s hummable melodies, imagistic lyrics and vocal prowess suggest she’ll keep bringing crowds in from the cold…” But I like what Image Journal said,“She owes much to the southern tradition of storytelling, and just as much to the southern tradition of charm…” So sample some of that Southern charm. Join us for a mid-winter's concert with Claire on Sunday evening, December 29th, at 7:00 at Peace Church in Cary and hear some of those songs and more. Doldrums can set in during the lull between Christmas and New Years, and this is a low-key way to enjoy some great music with old and new friends. After the music, there'll be a reception with (free) light refreshments and an opportunity to talk with Claire and visit with others. Christmas carols and lights may even find their way into the evening; is is, after all, Christmastide, and it will only be the fifth day of Christmas. Hang on to the Spirit a little longer. Save some money. Purchase tickets in advance for $15 here. (They will be $20 at the door). And be sure to share this link with friends and invite them to come along. Continue reading
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At the end of that day—Labor Day—a spray of quickly vanishing sunlight bathed the side of a new home constructed behind us. Falling so quickly, I can watch a diagonal shadow creep up the house wall, the sky’s blue deepen, the sun itself dropping, squeezed between the pines. And now, twilight settles in. The cicadas’ song swells and ebbs. For many people summer ended with the close of that day. They’ll sputter back into their driveways by early evening, sunburned, put the grills away, clean up, and figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Tomorrow is a workday for most, an odd Tuesday that feels Monday-like, and the sense sets in that the next day will be the same. And the next. And the next. And the little summers of the weekend may come too seldom, like em dashes betwixt our sentences, punctuating the little dramas of our lives. But wait. This is beginning to sound like a country song. Before you know it, the truck will break down, the dog run off, and Ruby will take her love to town. There’s more to it, right? Sure there is. Walking this morning, I made note of the operation of the second law of thermodynamics. I don’t really know anything about that particular law, even if I am a lawyer, but I know it has to do with how things move toward entropy, or disorder, over time, and disorder is something lawyers created. Well, actually Satan did. But let’s not quibble between taskmaster and henchmen. Sidewalks were cracking. Untended yards grew weedy and unkempt. A carport held a virtual junkyard, spilling out into a mildew-stained driveway. On some homes, paint peeled or faded. Someone parked mattress and furniture castoffs behind a strip shopping center. Dumpsters yawned in the early morning sun, chasms of detritus. Yet all this is external. The saddest entropy is what lies behind the walls. Busted-up families. Opioid addiction. An unraveling moral code. But there’s more to it, right? Sure there is. We let a few prayers snake up over the trees that lined the walk, got off a few shots into enemy territory, whispered “thy kingdom come.” That prolific English theologian, N.T. Wright, reminds us that “thy Kingdom come,” that second petition of The Lord’s Prayer, isn’t about some otherworldly place but about the here and now. “Earth is our world, our space,” says Wright. Think of the picture of the kingdom coming in Revelation, he says. “It isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven. The holy city, new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last. That is what we pray for when we pray ‘thy Kingdom come.’” It’s dark now. Yet windows of light appear in the darkness, shine rectangular pools of light on lawns and forest floors, like promises of a rising sun, reminders of the day. I saw other things on our walk: Manicured lawns. Tended flower gardens with blooms spilling through fence slats. A man running toward us smiled and waved. A cross walk signal that worked. Streetlights that burned and flickered off in the new day. And our little prayers--just murmurings above the din of the world--took rest with others at the altar of a Father who answers every plea, every thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2019 at Out Walking
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“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy Flying west from the coast we were silent, each in our own thoughts, the asphalt singing under our wheels. A few drops of rain were cast from the sky in some eastern county, leftovers, quickly brushed away by the slap of the wipers. I tilt the visor to ease her view when the sun presses through, watch her from the corner of my eye paging through a magazine, bright pictures shining in her eyes, her attention rapt. We lit out from home three days ago. Our passenger, corralled and cabined, kept a wordless watch in the back seat. Only an occasional, soft complaint escaped her lips, more reminder of her presence than cavil. Once reassured, quiet, she settled into an uneasy rest. Our plan was as always. Go to where the road ends. Dock. Covertly hike the sky, our rattling porter announcing our coming. Speak to no one, firstly. Unlax into the spell of habitation. Lay claim to the waters. Bask in the Sun. Let words fall over us. Feast. Be of good cheer. Take heart and put courage in each other. Go out among the English, finally. Watch the sky. Let waves break over our minds. Sit together. Roll the dice. Ink letters with the smooth point of a pen, impressing words on pages, mouthing their sounds. Draw from the well of memory. Bask in the Son. Row gently, softly, steadily across the waters. One fair day we spied a heron in the long grass, alone. Stealthily we rowed the shallow brackish pools of Middle Marsh, our oars windmilling through the salt air. Below, oysters resting in their beds looked up at us, their pale hearts winking, their muckish home sliding past. A finger trailing water plowed ripples that lapped up on reeds. Half-way in, people, like aliens, surprise us. We hale them as they slide quickly past, leaving us alone. We meander, thrust our noses through sloughy isthmuses until freed we enter open water. At end, we turn, let the tide carry us back out, as she wonders aloud where the water has traveled from, how far it has come to be with us. How far He has come to be with us, I think. A day later, we let words escape into the air above the marsh as we walk round its perimeter, hearts beating time. We offered thanks, registered complaints only to withdraw them, made supplication. She greeted man and woman along the way, as I did, sometimes. At the bridge she stopped to peer over, as she always does, as my feet itch to go, go is what they know. But I stop, because she sees better, sees more: High tide. White heron. Wind tickling water. Boats, lifted, basking in the sky. Happiness incarnate in canine cover. Sometimes, leaving, I consider turning around and going back. “Do you want to go back?” I say. She smiles. “Of course.” But I don’t, the longing unrequited. The rain has started again. The wipers, unbidden, do their work. Soon the water will be gone. Soon the rain will end. Soon all will be wiped away. Soon, we’ll turn into the long drive of home. Continue reading
Posted Aug 5, 2019 at Out Walking