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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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Somewhere someone is using a leaf blower. Men like leaf blowers. They wrest a mild order from the world while dinner cooks. And perhaps a bit of decompression is going on, a working out and winding down of the day’s troubles, troubles filtered through the whine. When the blowing stops, I hear children’s voices and a fatherly voice--by tone, an instruction. Men huddle on the unfinished back room of a recently framed-in house behind me and in murmurs plot the next day. A truck door slams and an engine wakes. Underneath all this the groan of traffic can be heard, the comings and goings, the hum of homecomings, garage doors haled. Twittering and chirping birds are interspersed in the days-end sounds and, beneath that, the swish of branches in the breeze. Rays of sunlight stretch across the lawn as the earth turns. I turn back to the poem I’m reading by the late James Tate about a raccoon named Elvis, the one he tried to shoot with a shotgun but ended up sleeping with. Reading such verse and pondering their meanings is what I do instead of blowing leaves. It has a calming effect. I didn’t know anything about Tate until now, because I don’t usually read journals like The Paris Review. Until today. Dinner is on, somewhere. The wind rubs against the magnolia leaves and the over 35-year old volunteer quivers, like the tremor of the aged. The unseasonably humid air cools as it licks my face, a dog just happy to see his master. A plane’s motor bemoans its passing. A black-wash shadow cast by my neighbors’ house creeps up the side of my home. Tate is odd. In his absurd poem entitled “The Government Lake,” also the title of a recent posthumous collection of his poetry, a man is in his car headed to the toy store. A policeman diverts traffic due to a fallen tree. The man drives for hours in a hypnotic trance. Finally he stops the car and begins walking. He comes to a lake with a dock and walks to the end of the dock where he sees a tire in the water--no, a man; no, a tire. Then this: A man walked up behind me and said, “This government lake is off-limits to the public. You’ll have to leave.” I said, “I didn’t know it was a government lake. Why should it be off-limits?” He said, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to leave.” “I don’t even know where I am,” I said. “You’ll still have to leave,” he said. “What about that man out there?” I said, pointing to the tire. “He’s dead,” he said. “No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,” I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. “Now he’s dead,” he said. I think Tate’s having a joke on us. Sleepy dusk twitters from workday birds. Jet flayed over sky. A last construction worker in an orange vest slogs wearily to his truck. Empty bird feeder. Mottled gray stone. Picnic-less table. Osmantis trees. Shaking blue umbrella. Creaking, aged pines--thin men with green heads in the clouds. Now I have a small brown paper bag in my hand, a mallet in the other, and I’m walking among the towering pines toward the plot at the back fence which serves as our animal graveyard. The last burial was that of my daughter’s gerbil, and that was many years ago. He didn’t get a memory stone. This time, it’s one of her beloved geckos, and I am her pall bearer. I keep the box she was laid in level out of respect, an honor guard with a carefully folded flag, body. I lay her gently on the pine straw, dig a hole in loamy black earth, place her in it, and cover her. And then, I pause and pray. Even a soulless gecko, with its small brain and bug eyes, is one of God’s own, and more, was one of my daughter’s beloveds. She was sad this morning when she discovered her lifeless body. Next month she will marry. Tate did make me smile with this poem, “The Blue Booby,” which I dedicate to the gecko, may she rest In peace: The blue booby lives on the bare rocks of Galápagos and fears nothing. It is a simple life: they live on fish, and there are few predators. Also, the males do not make fools of themselves chasing after the young ladies. Rather, they gather the blue objects of the world and construct from them a nest—an occasional Gaulois package, a string of beads, a piece of cloth from a sailor’s suit. This replaces the need for dazzling plumage; in fact, in the past fifty million years the male has grown considerably duller, nor can he sing well. The female, though, asks little of him— the blue satisfies her completely, has a magical effect on her. When she returns from her day of gossip and shopping, she sees he has found her a new shred of blue foil: for this she rewards him with her dark body, the stars turn slowly in the blue foil beside them like the eyes of a mild savior. That’s all it takes, apparently, for blue booby marital accord--just a new shred of blue foil. I could feel that way about blue. I look away. Pete has put away his leaf blower. Dinner is on. The children have been summoned. The rich, black earth has settled over her lizard body to await a new heavens and new earth. I look up to where stars hide behind the dusky, still sunlit, blue-foil sky, behind the eyes of which lie no mild Savior. Continue reading
Posted 5 days ago at Out Walking
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Pierce Pettis is taking stock of life. His first solo release in ten years, Father’s Son (Compass, Jan. 19) offers a retrospective on the past and a prayer for the future. As Pettis sums it up: “The overall theme, at least for me, is ‘Father’s Son’—and all that can imply. I’m thinking of my own father, as well as being a father. Two of my grown children are writing and doing music, experiencing a lot of the things I did. So there’s that.” Pettis reminds us that “there’s also the Hebrew/Aramaic name Barabbas, or Bar Abba, which literally means ‘son of the father.’ Or more literally, ‘Daddy’s son.’” Pettis has been at it for a while. He began his long career as a writer at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama and later as a staff songwriter for Polygram/Universal Music in Nashville. His songs have been covered by artists ranging from Garth Brooks and Dion to Joan Baez and Art Garfunkel. Probably his best known song is “You Move Me,” covered by Garth Brooks and Susan Ashton. As Pettis says, “That one helped me buy a house. Pretty hard not to like that one.” Yet Father’s Son contains more of his deft lyrics, great playing, and passionate voice—even if the years have left his voice more well-rutted gravel road than slick blacktop. The songs exude gratitude and contentment even amidst the challenges life presents—and Pettis has had some in the ensuing years. In the album’s lead cut, “Wouldn’t Change It For the World,” he observes “we all have something from which to recover,” and yet when all is said and done he resolves that he “wouldn’t change it for the world.” The songs move easily from the transcendent to the immanent. “More” is a recognition of Pascal’s oft-quoted recognition that there is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart: “A thing resounds when it its true/ When it’s ringing all the bells inside of you/ Like a golden sky on a summer eve/ Your heart is tugging at your sleeve and/ you cannot say why/ But you know there’s more.” And “Mr. Zeidman” is a true story about his small Alabama hometown’s one and only Jew, who “had a smile for every child/ A piece of candy, too/ There was kindness in the hands/Of our one and only Jew.” “Don’t Know Where I Am” is a testimony of a man losing his way, moonless: lost at sea, alone under the sky, floating far away. Although Pettis identifies as a “most unworthy and undeserving Christ-follower,” he moves easily in and out of Christian circles, writing and playing with contemporary Christian music songwriters like Andrew Peterson as well as mainstream writers like Tom Kimmel and Kate Campbell. It seems well-crafted songs are respected, no matter what the source. Part of that acceptance owes to Pettis’s congeniality: his enthusiasm, warmth, and passion for life are infectious—even if he sometimes leaves his audience behind. After telling one story at a concert, he observed that he “had to realize that not everyone was in his head.” Like all of his albums released since 1994, Father’s Son includes a song penned by the late Mark Heard—this time, “Look Over Your Shoulder.” Pettis recalls Heard’s deep influence: “Mark influenced me with his artistic integrity—for which, he would have credited Francis Schaffer, who was his mentor. Mark took his work seriously and himself, lightly. He was also very funny.” He has a poignant recollection of Heard: ‘Look Over Your Shoulder’ was the last song he ever performed in his life. I know that because Pam (Kate) Dwinell Miner and I were on stage with him at the time, at the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. So that song is pretty personal to me. Don’t think Mark could have picked a better exit song." As to the future, “Instrument,” the closing song on Father’s Son, may just sum it up: “Make me faithful, make me grateful/ Make me useful in this life/ All this living without giving/ Give me one more chance to try.” Between the regrets and blessings of his life, faith and craft keep Pettis centered. He is, after all, his Father’s son. Continue reading
Posted Mar 8, 2019 at Out Walking
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I’ve had trouble sleeping lately. No. No, I’m not worried about anything. My wife asks me what I think about when I am lying awake there in the night. Well, how long do you have, I think? It’s like asking her what she dreamed, and she begins trying to explain an incredible, fantastical adventure, a multi-layered parade of short stories laid end to end until she finally gets frustrated and says oh, never mind, it’s just too complicated. It’s a bit like that. I think about the thin mostly wooden membrane that separates me from the night, from owls and coyotes and deer grazing on the fresh green grass of suburban lawns, from the cold asphalt of ribboned streets, from the water drizzling down the curb and gutter, emptying into drainage pipes and then into the unnamed streams that traverse our subdivision, from granite rocks and pines and oaks and wild holly trees and sleeping squirrels and robins resting in nests, and from the nightlight moon over it all just doing what they were made to do. Until Christ comes. Come, Lord Jesus, come. The streets of my neighborhood are not laid out on a grid. By the Eighties, the grids of Fifties and Sixties subdivision construction had fallen into disfavor, attacked by urban planners and critics of suburbia who called places like where I have spent my entire life--suburbia--evil, even calling it God’s Own Junkyard, to use the title of one book. Tell that to the bluebirds at the feeders, to the jonquils pushing through the topsoil, to the raccoon halfway up the tree, to the ivy advancing from our neighbor’s yard, and to the red fox crossing the street in front of me. This place is not evil; we’re just the latest occupants of this forest home, keeping the wild at bay by cutting grass and pulling weeds and washing streets. Streets follow the contour of the land, rise and fall, and cul-de-sacs lead off the mains like beckoning doors, to places others call home. I think about the weight of things: the books in my study, the wood beams and plywood and insulation above me, the accumulated stuff of memory in our attic, the roof and rafters and shingles that are our first defense against the elements. All that weight pressing down on the two by fours that hold it up. I stop thinking about that. This, I think, is how people go crazy. It’s like when, on occasion, I hear about the size of the federal debt, or I’m driving and wonder if the tires might spin off the car or the axle break, or I pause and consider the rather small supports in the parking garage that hold up four floors above me--and I begin to get anxious. I go to Jesus. How do people live without the certainty that Christ holds all things things together? How in the night hours do they subdivide reality into the known and unknown and not end up stuck in a cul-de-sac of longing? I think about the weight of memory--one memory piled on top of another. About all the places that I’ve slept. About when I’d visit my aunt as a child and lie awake in the cold in a big bed in her guest room with layers of musty-smelling blankets pressing down on me, with all those spooky looking paintings staring down at me, the house creaking when the furnace came on, the graveyard just behind the back yard of the house, reaching for me. It’s no wonder I couldn’t sleep. Up above geese track through a night sky, I surmise, making their way from lake to lake, like pearls on a necklace, and I think about that poem by Anne Porter telling God that 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 And I wonder if she’s talking about us really, about me, and I think about riding at night with my parents with our headlights searching the dark, cocooned against the unknown. Sometimes I recite by memory a verse or two of scripture, soundless though heard in my mind. I imagine the words written in the inky air of the room, like skywriting, or silhouetted in the rectangular light of the window, until the letters begin to break apart and dissolve against the night. I try to pray. The prayers come unwound, skitter off into the air, sucked up by the intake of the HVAC, only to be launched into the outside air, into the night, to climb up, up, heavenward. No, actually, as I speak them they are, like the voice over a telephone across the world, instantly before the Lord, for whom all places are as one. I used to ask my mother--who had more severe insomnia--what she thought about when she lay awake. She said she “solved all the problems of the world.” I may take that up. I may take up where she left off and see what headway I can make. Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2019 at Out Walking
Scott, thanks for your feedback and insights. I agree - we can’t lionize Schaeffer, as we are wont to do with those we love and admire. He wouldn’t want that. But we can appreciate his sacrificial life and love for the Lord and the lost.
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“About thirty miles south of the main road, the track we had been following led us to the edge of a vast plain. Then it disappeared. . . .[W]e came to an immense network of saucer-shaped salt pans interlaced with crescents of grass savanna, touches of woodland, and wisps of palm islands. Some pans were filled with brackish, unpotable water and flowery masses of orange, purple, green, and red algae; others were covered with a thin salt crust. We were at the edge of an alien world---no roads, no trails, no people.” Cry of the Kalahari, Mark and Delia Owens (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984) From Mabele, Botswana you can hire a boat to take you out onto the waters of the Linyanti Swamp, where you can close in on elephants standing deep in the water, wrapping their trunks around the reeds and pulling them up by the roots, shaking their great heads, ears flapping, to free them of water, and stuffing them into their cavernous mouths. Across the swamp lies rural Namibia. Natives move about between round thatched huts that dot the landscape and wave from the shore. From Mabele you can take a road through Chobe National Park, entering at the Ghoha Gate, camp at Savute, and then motor on from there to the Moremi Game Reserve, in the Okavango Delta, one of the prize wildlife regions of Africa. Much of it is a dirt road, and the ride in an open air Land Cruiser can be punishing: The wind dries your skin, a relentless sun sizzles, and dust accretes on your clothing and skin. On the map Botswana seems contained and manageable. Solid, reasonably straight yellow lines with hopeful numbers like B334 lead from Kasane, near the border with Zimbabwe and Namibia, as far as Muchenje, near Chobe’s Ngoma Gate, and from there a lesser white line leads to the Okavango, a line which grows thinner and less distinct as it goes, suggesting change---and yet the clarity and certainty of the line reassures. On the ground the going is less certain, though no less colorful as lines on a map. A rustle in the trees along the road may portend a gray mud-caked elephant, who crosses ahead of us. Giraffes’ angular heads and craning necks may bob above trees as they winnow the leaves and lope across the plain. After rains, ruts may appear in roads and the going becomes circuitous, the Land Cruiser weaving from side to side in the road like a drunken load of partiers homeward bound from a late night bash. Roads lead out into the bush, only to peter out in brush or be blocked by a tree pushed down by an obstructionist elephant. In swamped roads the Land Cruiser sinks, water sloshing up above the running boards---none of which appears on the map. Signage is often lacking, so you depend on the driver to ferret out the way, or make a new way. I’ve pored over maps since I was a child. It’s no crime: I slept with Rand McNally, a dream on each page, a promise of adventure. Most fascinating to me were areas---then, the Western United States, and now, the Kalahari Desert of Botswana---that looked vast and empty and mysterious, or that had the faintest and loneliest of markings. In large areas of the Kalahari, there aren’t even the faint lines designated as “tracks,” which are appropriated animal corridors---vast empty places like the white space on a page of poetry. And the names on the page---Kumchuru, Kkhomodimo, Tshwane---are like one-word poems, beckoning across the miles of desert, punctuating the unfolded sheet of Africa. My eyes land on Deception Valley, and it’s a reminder of Picasso’s summation of art as “the lie that tells the truth.” A map deceives even as it tells the truth. I haven’t been to the Kalahari, yet I know that the vacant blotches on my map are not empty. Inside the cover of Mark and Delia Owens’ 1984 book, Cry of the Kalahari, there are named pans and hills and valleys that populate all that empty. Their seven-year adventure living in an unexplored area with no roads and no people but rich in lion, leopards, and hyenas is rich in detail. They survived, if barely. But the map gives little hint of the unforgiving nature of that land, only the single word: deception. To know the poem that is Africa, you must go there, just as you would go anywhere. You must walk among its lines and words, its pans and plains---all true, but more true in the living. The Psalmist may have said more than he knew when he said “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” As a map the Word is essential. Yet its interstices---all those open spaces and pans and hills and valleys hidden there have to be named in our walking. We have to get down in it, mine the poem for all it means. I just put a finger on the map, at random. Underneath is a single straight green line that demarcates the edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. There are no towns or safari camps where I landed, just a thin white line that tracks the wild. It’s likely that no one lives there, that weeks and months pass with no human being walking there. Yet even there God moves. His Spirit hovers over the plains and salt flats. He knows every springbok and lion, elephant and jackal, wildebeest and bat-eared fox. No map can do justice to that wild particularity. One day I’d like to walk that alien world with Him, the full moon a lamp unto my feet. Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2019 at Out Walking
Ring out 2018 early with a very special concert with Brooklyn's Burlap to Cashmere. Pop Matters says "If there’s room in your pop heaven for Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, the Indigo Girls, and Fleet Foxes, you oughta make room for Burlap to Cashmere, mostly-acoustic choogaloogers with a thing for lyrics both inscrutable and sincere." Christianity Today says of its self-titled album that "the new album's natural production allows acoustic guitars to sound like acoustic guitars—an important detail since the band's world-music influences remain intact (a good thing). . . .The flamenco guitars and uncommon time signatures are captivating, and the melodies in "Santorini," an ode to Greece, sound like they were snatched right off the country's shores." It'll be a treat to have Burlap to Cashmere here in Cary on December 30th. Please join us. Get your tickets now. Continue reading
In just three days we'll be hosting Brooklyn's Burlap to Cashmere in full touring band for a concert in Cary! This incredible, Meditteranean-sound influenced band can rock as well as sing soft, sweet, Simon and Garfunkel-esque songs, like "Love Reclaims the Atmosphere," a performance of which appears here. Don't miss this rare appearance of the full band. There's still room. Get your tickets now. WATCH B2C perform "Love Reclaims the Atmosphere": TICKETS: Click here. Continue reading
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In just five days Brooklyn's Burlap to Cashmere will be in concert in Cary. I can't describe the energy of hearing this band live - captivating, moving, lyrically provocative. That's a start. Listening to them you hear some deeply thoughtful lyrics delivered with passion and zest. Yet I can't quite describe their Mediterranean-infused folk rock. You have to hear it. Now that Christmas is over, think about next weekend. What's happening? Not much, right? Avoid the sometimes madness of New Years Eve and come out on the Eve of the Eve for a concert followed by light food and drink. Meet the band. Meet some new and old friends. Sunday, December 30th. 7:00. Peace Church. Cary. Get your tickets here. And check out this fabulous band in an energetic performance below. Continue reading
Christmas is around the corner, true, but just beyond that, on the horizon, is a very special concert with Brooklyn's Burlap to Cashmere. Pop Matters says "If there’s room in your pop heaven for Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, the Indigo Girls, and Fleet Foxes, you oughta make room for Burlap to Cashmere, mostly-acoustic choogaloogers with a thing for lyrics both inscrutable and sincere." Christianity Today says of its self-titled album that "the new album's natural production allows acoustic guitars to sound like acoustic guitars—an important detail since the band's world-music influences remain intact (a good thing). . . .The flamenco guitars and uncommon time signatures are captivating, and the melodies in "Santorini," an ode to Greece, sound like they were snatched right off the country's shores." It'll be a treat - a Christmas present - to have Burlap to cashmere here in Cary on December 30th. Please join us. Get your tickets now. Continue reading
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In 1976 I was sitting in my dormitory room, a freshman at university, reading a 1971 book by Walter Trobisch, entitled Love Is a Feeling to Be Learned. That September I had moved in with a high school acquaintance, Rick, a stocky design school student who was the son of one of my mother’s good friends. It was an antiquated building, the oldest dormitory on campus. A clanging announced the onset of radiator heat; a Southern Railways train periodically roared noisily through campus a block away, rattling our single window; and goings on by the less studious echoed off the uncarpeted hallways. But I kept reading. The noise receded to the background. Trobisch’s prose was riveting. More booklet than book, Trobisch’s point was not novel and yet was paradigm-changing for me: Love is not merely or primarily a feeling but an action, verb and not noun. Scripture gets at it when it observes that God “set His love” on Israel (Deut. 7:7). God sets His love on us. In His case, it was His deliberate choice to love the loveless, to reach across time and space, the infinite to the finite, and love, with all that entails. When we set our love on someone, we choose, irrespective of feeling, to commit ourselves to relationship with them, to do the work of love. But I didn’t know that then. Until then, I thought of love as something you fell into and out of - a frustrating roller-coaster of emotion. Trobisch changed that. I still have the book 42 years later and, on recently re-reading it, marveled at its relevancy, frankness, and wisdom. More than that, reading this book or any book by Trobisch is a warming and resuscitative experience. A pastor and counselor, you sense that he is almost across the table from you, having a conversation with you and only you, the world dropping away. Still more, Trobisch evinces a willingness to get involved, reaching out of the pages of his book and across the decades to the reader - to the perplexed, despondent, and lovelorn. Evidence: In the front of the book, he writes this: “Some of the readers of this booklet may also feel the need of a personal conversation with a trustworthy advisor. It is certainly preferable to find such a counsellor in your vicinity whom you see often at regular intervals.” Then this amazing invitation: “However, in case you find no one, you may write to me and I shall try to help you by correspondence.” He signed his name, followed by his personal address: Lichtenberg 6, A-4880 St. Georgen i.A., Austria. I would write him if I could, if nothing more than to thank him. Rick is eating cold pizza for a late breakfast, fuel for tackling introductory calculus problems. He warned me: It’s an all-male dorm, yet there’s a girl in the shower, a sometimes live-in down the hall. I thank him. “How can you eat that,” I say. “How can I not,” he says. He teeters back in his chair and sips hot tea, before diving back into the inexplicable: calculus. I don’t think Rick has a girlfriend or dates, but I don’t ask him. “You may write to me and I shall try to help you.” This and other books by Trobisch had a worldwide publication. Many of them, beginning with 1965’s I Loved a Girl, were based on such letters as Trobisch invited. Who today would carry on such correspondence? Who today would make such an unselfish offer? Trobisch founded no ministry, sought no donations, charged no fees. He simply offered to help, if he could. Trobisch was born in 1923 and came of age in Nazi Germany. At 18 he was drafted and sent to the Russian front. He survived the Battle of Stalingrad, but was severely wounded. During that tumult, he embraced Christ, the faith in which he had been schooled at home. After recuperating, he was sent to the Russian front again, where he was wounded again and narrowly escaped. During recuperation in Vienna, he was able to study theology. Yet once recovered, he was sent to the front for a third time, this time in Italy, where he was wounded yet again. In recovery there, he became convinced of the evil of the Nazi empire. Recalled to Germany to defend the Homeland, he was captured by Americans. When he was found to be a theological student, he was released. He walked 300 miles to his home in Leipzig, through a country littered with the destruction of war. Finding that the communists of now East Germany were in control, he fled to West Germany. Ultimately, he completed his studies in the United States, at Augustana University, where he met his wife Ingrid. Walter and Ingrid accepted a call to Cameroon, in West Africa, in 1953, where he became a chaplain and teacher. It was there that he entered into a counseling ministry focusing on relationships, marriage, and sex. His correspondence with Francois and Cecile, two West Africans, became the letters that make up I Loved a Girl and I Love a Young Man. In them, youth world-wide found that the particular cultural context in which this couple’s problems arose were overshadowed by the universal experiences they shared with all. Returning to Austria for a study sabbatical in the 1960s, he was inundated by hundreds of letters from young people seeking answers. He answered them. Sometimes Ingrid answered them. Yet all were answered. “Happiness is only a part of love - this is what has to be learned,” wrote Trobisch. “Suffering belongs to love also. This is the mystery of love, its beauty and burden.” I put the book down on my desk and look out my dormitory window. In the park across the street, couples sit and talk, leaning in toward one another. Rick left for the cocoon of his design studio. In a few minutes William will come by for a visit, and we’ll talk of love and lack of love, of how to navigate relationships with women, of frustrations and trouble, much of our own doing. I don’t know what happened to Rick. I moved out after that year and lost track of him. I lost track of William as well. I don’t know if they married or remain alone. I don't know what they learned or failed to learn about love in the decades that followed. The next year I met my wife. I set my love on her. It’s still setting right there. I’m not nearly as wise as was Walter Trobisch. You probably shouldn’t write me for advice. But I can tell you that he was right: Love is a feeling to be learned. You learn it in the doing of it. Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2018 at Out Walking
This is my favorite song - what I consider the centerpiece - of Burlap to Cashmere's self-titled record released a few years ago. Shortly after hearing the record, some friends along with my wife and I attended a Burlap to Cashmere concert at The Arts Center in Carrboro. It was especially poignant and comforting, as at the time my mother was in hospice and, unknown to me, would die two days later. So, that concert, and this record, and this song in particular, have special meaning for me. Since that first time hearing Burlap, I have heard them four times - twice in my house, and twice in New York City. They are excellent musicians and wonderfully kind people, and love interacting with an audience, on or off stage. It'll be a treat - a Christmas present - to have them here in Cary on December 30th. Please join us. Get your tickets now. TICKETS: Click here.! Continue reading
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“I am always humbled by the infinite ingenuity of the Lord, who can make a red barn cast a blue shadow.” (E.B. White) Saturday Snow is in the forecast, yet the weather people hedge their bets, prognosticating winter weather so as to cover rain, freezing rain, sleet, or snow, to be vindicated in their predictions no matter what the Lord brings. A gray, cold sky is promising; even the birds have gone quiet; a blue shadow is over the land. A construction worker hammers away, and I hear in his frenetic tapping expectation. Advent. I put the kettle on for tea. I peruse the selections. Opting for a more radical course, I chose Holiday Chai. I’d like to say I know what chai means but confess I don’t. I look it up. “A drink of tea made with cardamon and various other spices,” I read. Cardamon? “The aromatic seed capsules of a tropical Asian plant, Elettaria cardamomum, of the ginger family, used as a spice or condiment and in medicine.” A chai is also “a shed or other aboveground building where a winemaker stores wine in casks.” A red barn, perhaps. “Elettaria cardamomum,” I say, aloud, and my voice sounds odd around such a phrase so early in the morning. Chai Holiday wasn’t bad. Like drinking a Christmas tree. The tree we bought a week ago is slurping water. Yesterday the well of the tree stand was dry. In little more than one day, it drank over four liters, measured out by the Diet Coke bottle I use to fill it. Then again, the cats have been hovering near the tree and have been known to drink its elixir. Cat chai. I need to check it. I let one cat out, with assistance. “You’ll thank me later,” I say. “Ciao.” She slinks away beneath the shrubbery. I went out for a walk alone. No one was around. Ambition seized me and I began working through a mental prayer list, yet I continually veered off the path of piety. I thought about the pine trees leaning toward my neighbor’s home and the impending winter weather. I found myself walking down the dirt streets of Kampala, Uganda, with Ugandan friends. I circled back to prayer, only to detour to lists and plans and wonderings, mixing the impious with the pious. I came in, settled in my chair, and read Psalm 121. “The Lord will keep. . . your life. . . . The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” The verse is an epigram in the front of a book I read entitled Picking Up. The author, anthropologist Robin Nagle, signed on with the sanitation workers of New York City for a first-hand report on their world. Her trashy book is staring at me from its perch high on the bookshelf. There are men on the roof. No, I am not delusional. Men are extending ladders onto our high roof and cleaning off the roof and gutters. Their work boots clomp up and down its incline. Pine straw and leaves shower from the eaves. High in the pines, squirrels scurry from branch to branch, busy putting away winter stores. A male cardinal alights in the tree outside my study window, cocking his head to look at me before taking flight. “Awoke early and lay still in the dark,” wrote E.B. White circa 1942, an unremarkable statement recalling an impromptu, unplanned stay in an inn found in a place with the unlikely name of China, Maine. And yet I identify here, 76 years later. I always awake early. This morning I awoke aware that for the first time in a couple of days I could breathe easily, having had until then a tremendous head cold. I lay there breathing thanks, grateful for the ingenuity of the Lord in giving us two nostrils, as in practice I have found that even though one may be occluded, the other will function. And that’s probably more than you wish to hear about that. “Lay still in the dark,” wrote White, “listening to the singing in the next room.” Two nights ago, after a showing of Disney on Ice with a far younger crowd, I sat in my study listening to my 24-year old daughter sing. That is a beautiful sound, liquid and pure, seeping in between the molecules of the drywall. I stopped my typing so I could listen and smile. That I get to be here, that I get to see and hear all this. It’s humbling, here, in the shadow. Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2018 at Out Walking
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"Tonight you had real musicicans." That's what one attendee told me. "Incredible night, incredible venue, one I will not forget." That's what another person told me. And what a concert is was! On both occasions when I have had Burlap to Cashmere in the house, tickets have sold out. 75 people willingly cram together in my home for this popular band. This is a band that really connects with an audience and stays around talking to each person until the very last fan leaves. That's rare. Now, however, you have a bit more room, better stage and lighting, and a full band for the first time in the area when the band plays at Peace Presbyterian Church in Cary on Sunday, December 30th at 7:00. What are you doing that evening? That's what I thought - nothing! Avoid the NYE crowds and come out on the Eve of the Eve. And hang around for food and drink afterwards and talk with the band. Get your tickets now for this incredible show by clicking here. What do they play? Songs from their entire repertoire, audience requests, and new tunes from Freedom Souls, their newest release. And a few bonuses: Covers like "Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, and "The Boxer," by Paul Simon, and perhaps even a little B2C Christmas cheer. Wise cracks. Confessions. "Family" ribbing (Johnny and Steve are cousins, and Teddy may as well be, as he grew up with them.) And the fans? Many die-hard, some new. All convinced that this is a great band. The first time I hosted this band, one couple called to apologize that they could not make the "drive FROM OHIO due to the rain." Wow. Others drove a couple hours in the rain. But all were excited to be here. What a chemistry this band has, what warmth, what soul, and what heart. Brooklyn and Jersey come South. HERE'S MORE: READ: For a band that many wondered what had happened to, the last few years have seen Burlap to Cashmere blow back into the national scene with gusto. In 1998 the band released the critically acclaimed debut Anybody Out There? After a whirlwind of tours, awards and an ever-growing fan base, they did what no one expected. They disappeared. And then, they were back. In 2010 the band headed into the studio with acclaimed producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits). The result? A self-titled album of new, organic sounds with faith-tinged lyrics that won't leave your head. And with this year's Freedom Souls,they continue with that same organic sound with just enough tweak to keep us guessing, With its core lineup intact – singer/guitarist/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, guitarist John Philippidis, and drummer Theodore Pagano — Burlap to Cashmere returned with renewed focus, drive and energy. “There’s something about family and people you’ve known forever that makes the chemistry happen,” Delopoulos says. “There’s a sense of honesty and trust. That’s Burlap to Cashmere.” This is a band that has a deep and accomplished musicianship and a really distinctive sound. This is particularly apparent in the songs that incorporate their unique approach to traditional Greek rhythms, songs that recall the musical intimacy of Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, coupled with Delopoulos’ introspective, poetic songwriting. Fans of modern troubadour outfits like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons will find common ground with Burlap to Cashmere’s output, with the added textures of the Greek and Mediterranean influences further fleshing out the band’s unique take on 21st Century folk-rock music. WATCH B2C perform "Closer to the Edge"... Continue reading
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A couple years ago I wrote a review of Burlap to Cashmere's last album, Freedom Souls. I called lead singer Steven Delopoulous on the phone and had a good chat, distilling this review from listening to him. I think it gives a good insight into the soul of this band. "I still don't know how to write a song," says Steven Delopoulous, lead singer and songwriter for Burlap to Cashmere. "It's still a mystery, but still something I want to tackle."When Burlap to Cashmere burst into the Christian music scene in the late Nineties, they were in their twenties - a hardworking Brooklyn band fighting for every gig they got. A 1998 Squint/A&M debut, Anybody Out There?, garnered excellent reviews and better gigs, as well as an opening spot on a Jars of Clay tour. Watching a YouTube video of their performance of “Basic Instructions” at Creation Festival in 1999 is to behold a Greek version of an Avett Brothers/ Gypsy Kings mashup, band members full of movement, interacting with the crowd, and enjoying each other. This is family music, soaked in the sounds of the Mediterranean, mixed with a little Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel, and simmered in the stew of what you imagine to be a big, lovable, sometimes loud Greek family, with profound lyrics that won't leave your head. But while this talented band made a good start, constant touring took its toll. So in the early 2000s, band members each went their own way, some to marry and have families, all to steady jobs. After an incident of road rage left lead guitarist Johnny Phillipidis in a coma for three weeks, it wan’t clear that they would ever perform again. Yet, after a miraculous recovery, in 2011 the three founding members — Phillipidis, cousin Steven Delopoulous, and Theodore Pagano regrouped, releasing a critically acclaimed self-titled album on Sony/Jive. They recently returned with a crowd-funded follow up, Freedom Souls. OnFreedom Souls Greek rhythms once again appear, whether in the “The Great I Am,” a lyrical statement of faith, or the crowd-pleasing closer, “Dialing God,” which has a rousing three-minute coda of dizzying musicianship. In between, there are familiar folk and country strains, as well as a few departures, as in the title track, with its lounge music vibe. And while their 2011 album was lyrically rich but often veiled in meaning, like fine poetry, Freedom Souls is driven by more overt expressions of belief. The opening track, “I Will Follow,” is both a statement of deliverance from sin and a commitment to follow Christ, with lyricist and lead singer Deloupolous lamenting that “I have followed my bones, I have followed this world/ But in the long run it seems it never cured my woes.” In a way, Freedom Souls hearkens back to the declaratory statements of their 1998 debut, strained through the crucible of life experience. Deloupolous attributes the lyrical freedom to this being a fan-supported record. With the previous mainstream release, the label wanted him to “dumb down the lyrics, even though I naturally write that way. I enjoy writing faith-based records because it’s freeing for me. There’s a lot of meat and potatoes in a verse out of the Bible, and I like playing with that.” If there’s a lyrical centerpiece here, it’s likely the folksy mid-album ballad entitled “Passover,” which while not instrumentally incendiary has the memorable musical feel of the last album’s “Closer to the Edge.” With it’s reference to “blood on the door,” Delopulous summons up that familiar scriptural narrative of judgment and deliverance to animate the prayer of the chorus,... Continue reading
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"Tonight you had real musicicans." That's what one attendee told me. "Incredible night, incredible venue, one I will not forget." That's what another person told me. And what a concert is was! On both occasions when I have had Burlap to Cashmere in the house, tickets have sold out. 75 people willingly cram together in my home for this popular band. This is a band that really connects with an audience and stays around talking to each person until the very last fan leaves. That's rare. Now, however, you have a bit more room, better stage and lighting, and a full band for the first time in the area when the band plays at Peace Presbyterian Church in Cary on Sunday, December 30th at 7:00. What are you doing that evening? That's what I thought - nothing! Avoid the NYE crowds and come out on the Eve of the Eve. And hang around for food and drink afterwards and talk with the band. Get your tickets now for this incredible show by clicking here. What do they play? Songs from their entire repertoire, audience requests, and new tunes from Freedom Souls, their newest release. And a few bonuses: Covers like "Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, and "The Boxer," by Paul Simon, and perhaps even a little B2C Christmas cheer. Wise cracks. Confessions. "Family" ribbing (Johnny and Steve are cousins, and Teddy may as well be, as he grew up with them.) And the fans? Many die-hard, some new. All convinced that this is a great band. The first time I hosted this band, one couple called to apologize that they could not make the "drive FROM OHIO due to the rain." Wow. Others drove a couple hours in the rain. But all were excited to be here. What a chemistry this band has, what warmth, what soul, and what heart. Brooklyn and Jersey come South. HERE'S MORE: READ: For a band that many wondered what had happened to, the last few years have seen Burlap to Cashmere blow back into the national scene with gusto. In 1998 the band released the critically acclaimed debut Anybody Out There? After a whirlwind of tours, awards and an ever-growing fan base, they did what no one expected. They disappeared. And then, they were back. In 2010 the band headed into the studio with acclaimed producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits). The result? A self-titled album of new, organic sounds with faith-tinged lyrics that won't leave your head. And with this year's Freedom Souls,they continue with that same organic sound with just enough tweak to keep us guessing, With its core lineup intact – singer/guitarist/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, guitarist John Philippidis, and drummer Theodore Pagano — Burlap to Cashmere returned with renewed focus, drive and energy. “There’s something about family and people you’ve known forever that makes the chemistry happen,” Delopoulos says. “There’s a sense of honesty and trust. That’s Burlap to Cashmere.” This is a band that has a deep and accomplished musicianship and a really distinctive sound. This is particularly apparent in the songs that incorporate their unique approach to traditional Greek rhythms, songs that recall the musical intimacy of Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, coupled with Delopoulos’ introspective, poetic songwriting. Fans of modern troubadour outfits like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons will find common ground with Burlap to Cashmere’s output, with the added textures of the Greek and Mediterranean influences further fleshing out the band’s unique take on 21st Century folk-rock music. WATCH B2C perform "Closer to the Edge"... Continue reading
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It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak. (“Praying,” by Mary Oliver, in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, 2017) At lunch a few days ago, a friend said, “Look, you have four hours in a car. What do you do? You don’t want it to be dead time. You want it to matter.” He’s right. I want to pay attention. When I pull back the curtain on the single window in our hotel room, a rectangle of cool blackness fills in. There’s a sheen of water painted on blacktop, tree limbs shellacked with ice, a dusting of powdered snow on car tops. On the ridge above me the lit squares of apartment windows tell me someone’s home. Dreams flicker in the night. I want to pay attention. A man leans against a car, huddled against the cold, smoking a cigarette. A lonely car passes on an elevated road, taillights winking. A light pole leans in over the car park as if to say, all is well, light dispels the darkness, and then straightens, dutiful and mum. All is not well, I know. Sidewalks are broken, paint peels. Walls crack and cars rust. Weeds push up through cracks. Light wanes. Houses sit abandoned by roadsides. Rooms sit empty during long days, waiting for their people to return. And a million pines and oaks and maples stand in the chill air, waiting, Spring deep in their veins. Sometimes I think you can hear even the inanimate groan for redemption. Yesterday, in a moment of weakness, we bought doughnuts and while eating too many sat and watched a conveyer carry the unglazed holy ovals through the waterfall of sugar, yet a bearded worker plucked a few off the line and without emotion threw them away. My wife, who is tenderhearted toward even the inanimate, said, “Why is he doing that? What’s wrong with them?” What’s wrong with everything, I thought, a decidedly true yet too sober thought I did not share. Malformed and misshapen, I continued, following my rumination, born in sin and broken. All of which is a lot for a doughnut to carry, too much metaphor for dough. I want to pay attention. I’m not beyond making much of a few small stones or weeds in a field. Or lights in a window. Or a doughnut. On my desk: a leather wallet, fitted to me, made by Toyo, a leather worker, now 20 years old and rich with the memory of his Arizona shop; a collection of essays by E.B. (Andy) White, on the cover of which he sits on a hard bench tapping loudly away on a typewriter before a window open on the Atlantic, salt in the air and licking his keys; a small folded card with the handwritten name of Amber “It was my pleasure to tidy up the place,” the letters full and round and leaning back on their heels as if to say “do you have a problem with that?;” a coupon for one dollar off at a local restaurant, at the thought of which I feel my son who is 2000 miles away nodding behind me, knowing me and my ways. Reading glasses staring at me. A black rectangle I have just put to bed. Virgil Wander, a book that carries the scent of Lake Superior and rusting factories and a musty theater. Car keys splayed out, my house key inviting. A keyboard missing the number two button. And an index card bearing a verse that ends with “the upright shall see His face.” And so we shall, at the thought of which my melancholy lifts as light dispels darkness. I rise and look out the window again. New, unblemished snow covers the ground, and the light pole leans in and says “behold His face” - a promise which holds my attention. Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2018 at Out Walking
This is my favorite song - what I consider the centerpiece - of Burlap to Cashmere's self-titled record released a few years ago. Shortly after hearing the record, some friends along with my wife and I attended a Burlap to Cashmere concert at The Arts Center in Carrboro. It was especially poignant and comforting, as at the time my mother was in hospice and, unknown to me, would die two days later. So, that concert, and this record, and this song in particular, have special meaning for me. Since that first time hearing Burlap, I have heard them four times - twice in my house, and twice in New York City. They are excellent musicians and wonderfully kind people, and love interacting with an audience, on or off stage. It'll be a treat - a Christmas present - to have them here in Cary on December 30th. Please join us. Get your tickets now. TICKETS: Click here. Continue reading
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Lord, I curl in Thy grey gossamer hammock that swings by one elastic thread so thin twigs that could, that should break but don’t.

 * I do nothing. I give You nothing. Yet You hold me minute by minute from falling. Lord, You provide. (Denise Levertov, excerpt from “ Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio),” in The Stream & the Sapphire) While I have downed a Lake Superior of iced tea in my six decades of life, the amount of hot tea I have consumed would, I estimate, barely fill a bathtub. Mostly I drink hot tea when in Africa, where ice is as scarce as gold. Everybody’s doing it there, one of the better legacies of colonialism. Here, not so. But today I awoke with a scratchy throat and, after a nap, told my wife I would take some hot tea on the veranda. Well, we don’t actually have a veranda, but I liked the sound of that word, “veranda,” which I read is not of European but Hindi descent. That’s exotic and makes up for the fact that I am drinking hot and not iced tea. Besides, piazza is a stretch; patio, too pedestrian. My wife brightened at the thought that I would be drinking hot tea and were he here my son would join her in her gladness. Somewhere, a trumpet sounded. She began to educate me on the finer things involving tea: the cupboard with its many kinds of tea, including Russian tea (“heartier,” I think she may have said), Five Roses (South African), and so on. She bid me smell that Russian tea, and I did, unscrewing the lid of its container and dipping low for pass, a sniff. “I’ll just have this,” I said, reaching for the English Tea. Black. Pekoe. (I need to look up “pekoe.”) I need to start somewhere. On the blue packaging it said “good anytime of the day,” which is a surprisingly optimistic statement for the English. I can’t really believe them, yet I’m in. On the veranda where I write, a single leaf just sashayed its way from twig to earth. Why did it decide at this very moment to let go? What wooden thread snapped? Then another, yellow; another, red. The backyard is like a brilliantly trashed urban back alley, overflowing in color. “This is a big lemon slice, so we can share it. If you like lemon in iced tea, you’ll probably like it in hot tea.” And yes, I allow as I probably will. If I like tea, that is, which I don’t much like, hot that is. I watch the teapot. The cat watches me. I don’t look at her. I know what is on her mind. Our copper teapot has long lost its whistle. Now, it just makes an airish sound, like me trying to unsuccessfully whistle through my fingers. Or a novice trying to play a saxophone. It’s lost its music. It soldiers on. “I think I’ll have it without sugar,” I say bravely. “You won’t like it. Try some honey.” I agree honey sounds good. Besides, it may be good for my throat, which is the only reason I’m drinking hot tea. That, and the veranda, just the thought of which makes me smile. The honey is reluctant. I tip the bottle up and squeeze, harder than I think I should have to. A drop appears, stretching slowly toward my waiting spoon. It’s taking its time, I think, and yet I fill two teaspoons, dive them under the tan-colored liquid, stir, and turn toward my wife. I tell her I am going out on the veranda, tea in hand. To write, I say. Something will come to me. I take a few books for inspiration. It feels very righteous, even if I haven’t even written a word. She reminds me to put the honey back in the ziplock plastic bag, and I do, cautioning me that I should make sure it is completely sealed because “if even a tiny corner is left unsealed, an ant will find it.” And I imagine a scout ant not believing his good fortune when he sniffs the stout honey smell wafting from that corner, the message he will bear for his queen. Yet not this time. The cat is still watching me, trying to catch my eye. I see what she’s about. The sun just dropped below a cloud, rooflines outlined against a graying sky. Red maple leaves are piling up. The window opens, and my wife’s head pops out. “Are you praying?” “No.” Well, maybe I am. Or want to be. Or should be. “Can I ask you a question?” Please ask me a question to take my mind off the blank page staring back at me. It’s our inexpensive intercom system, floor to veranda. I crane my neck up to meet her smiling face. We talk. We don’t resolve a thing, really, but I enjoyed the talk and think she did too. The sky darkens. I think of all that lies in front of me this week and all that drags behind me, and I begin to feel the weigh of left undone and still to come. The window opens again. “I have another question,” she says, smiling. And I think, so do I. I like questions. Someone is blowing leaves, with no regard for their kaleidoscope display. The cicadas have begun. The temperature drops. The gossamer hammock invites. So, here at dusk, I give in, rock in its grip, do nothing but be held by a heavenward thread that will not break. Continue reading
Posted Nov 5, 2018 at Out Walking
In just 57 days we'll be hosting Burlap to Cashmere in full touring band for a concert in Cary! This incredible, Meditteranean-sound influenced band can rock as well as sing soft, sweet, Simon and Garfunkel-esque songs, like "Love Reclaims the Atmosphere," a performance of which appears here. Don't miss this show. Get your tickets now. WATCH B2C perform "Love Reclaims the Atmosphere": TICKETS: Click here. Continue reading
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"Tonight you had real musicicans." That's what one attendee told me. "Incredible night, incredible venue, one I will not forget." That's what another person told me. And what a concert is was! On both occasions when I have had Burlap to Cashmere in the house, tickets have sold out. 75 people willingly cram together in my home for this popular band. This is a band that really connects with an audience and stays around talking to each person until the very last fan leaves. That's rare. Now, however, you have a bit more room, better stage and lighting, and a full band for the first time in the area when the band plays at Peace Presbyterian Church in Cary on Sunday, December 30th at 7:00. What are you doing that evening? That's what I thought - nothing! Avoid the NYE crowds and come out on the Eve of the Eve. And hang around for food and drink afterwards and talk with the band. Get your tickets now for this incredible show by clicking here. What do they play? Songs from their entire repertoire, audience requests, and new tunes from Freedom Souls, their newest release. And a few bonuses: Covers like "Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, and "The Boxer," by Paul Simon, and perhaps even a little B2C Christmas cheer. Wise cracks. Confessions. "Family" ribbing (Johnny and Steve are cousins, and Teddy may as well be, as he grew up with them.) And the fans? Many die-hard, some new. All convinced that this is a great band. The first time I hosted this band, one couple called to apologize that they could not make the "drive FROM OHIO due to the rain." Wow. Others drove a couple hours in the rain. But all were excited to be here. What a chemistry this band has, what warmth, what soul, and what heart. Brooklyn and Jersey come South. HERE'S MORE: READ: For a band that many wondered what had happened to, the last few years have seen Burlap to Cashmere blow back into the national scene with gusto. In 1998 the band released the critically acclaimed debut Anybody Out There? After a whirlwind of tours, awards and an ever-growing fan base, they did what no one expected. They disappeared. And then, they were back. In 2010 the band headed into the studio with acclaimed producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits). The result? A self-titled album of new, organic sounds with faith-tinged lyrics that won't leave your head. And with this year's Freedom Souls,they continue with that same organic sound with just enough tweak to keep us guessing, With its core lineup intact – singer/guitarist/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, guitarist John Philippidis, and drummer Theodore Pagano — Burlap to Cashmere returned with renewed focus, drive and energy. “There’s something about family and people you’ve known forever that makes the chemistry happen,” Delopoulos says. “There’s a sense of honesty and trust. That’s Burlap to Cashmere.” This is a band that has a deep and accomplished musicianship and a really distinctive sound. This is particularly apparent in the songs that incorporate their unique approach to traditional Greek rhythms, songs that recall the musical intimacy of Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, coupled with Delopoulos’ introspective, poetic songwriting. Fans of modern troubadour outfits like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons will find common ground with Burlap to Cashmere’s output, with the added textures of the Greek and Mediterranean influences further fleshing out the band’s unique take on 21st Century folk-rock music. WATCH B2C perform "Closer to the Edge"... Continue reading
Hi Edwina. No, I don’t know that Judy ever found the poem. I asked a friend who had interviewed Myra before she died and who thought he had some of her unpublished poems, but no luck there either. The A over archives are housed at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Check here: http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv68070. I cannot tell from the online description if unpublished poems might be included. Best wishes to you!
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Hi James. It certainly has been a long time! I hope you are doing well. You are still remembered for your many visits here to Peace Church in Cary. Blessings.
Toggle Commented Oct 22, 2018 on Call to Worship at Out Walking
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This morning, while my wife went off to a heathen art class (her words), my son and I attended church. While it is not an unfamiliar church, we visit only once a year . . .if for 37 years. That makes us regular attenders, sort of, or at least something other than just visitors. We were early. My son said, “Oh no, we’re early. I don’t like to be early. We may have to talk with someone.” I said, “It’s OK, maybe we’ll see Winston.” Winston is a pastor here who once impiously yet innocently used the word “HELL” in a conversation in the narthex of the church. I have admired him ever since. I even wrote him a letter after that. After glad handing with the doorman (and door-woman), I strode into the sanctuary and made my way to the front of the 500-seat room, to the second row, and sat. It’s a holdover of an old, somewhat contrarian habit dating from my children’s childhood - contrary, that is, to the observation that new people sit in the back of the church and will leave if there are no open seats. Not us! Plenty of room up front, particularly in the penumbra of the pastor. If we sit up front in a new church, the reasoning also went, they (and we) would pay better attention and they would better behave (the children, that is). Mostly, it worked. I was better behaved. I sat, yet my son informed me that I was sitting on the wrong side, motioning for me to move. Heavens. How could I forget? I did move. He was right. We sat down behind a man I did not recognize, with a balding head and a microphone attached to him. Oh, the new pastor. We didn’t speak. I don’t make it a habit of speaking to pastors prior to the sermon. I might distract them. They might forget the tightly coiled script in their heads and somewhere in the sermon forget an apropos anecdote, the punch line of a joke, or commit some Freudian slip. I don’t want to be a cause of expositional error. We sat mum. The music was. . . Well, never mind about the music. I took leave and rewound the clock to this morning. When I could sleep no more and could count the bedsprings so insistent were their jabs, I arose. It was 5:30. Based on what I was told by another occupant of the room, my electric razor, zinging behind the closed door of the lavatory, sounded like a lawn mower, and the quarter inch crack of light that beamed blindingly from the finger-high space beneath the shut door was much too much light, too too soon, on vacation time. So I left. Taking care with the door, I stepped out under a sky lit by a waxing 5/8 moon, turning right down the brittle asphalt path that encircles the property. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus. . . I’m mindful of rattlesnakes, though I’ve never seen one on this walk. The lead landscaper, a reticent man named Jeff, took down all of the Beware of Rattlesnakes signs because, as he was told, they “made people nervous.” He gave them to us, depositing them on our balcony with a plastic vase of purple flowers, a small kindness from a shy man. Occasionally we see him out on the property, in a rare idle moment, meandering along the path, a hand behind his back. He’s holding a cigarette but is embarrassed by it. My wife let’s him know that we’ll keep his secret. To the east there’s the faintest light behind the peaks of the Catalinas, highlighting a few brooding clouds, outlining the jagged peaks. Rabbits scatter as I walk, their white tails flashing. I planned to listen to music but unplug so as to hear the birds wake, the doves cooing, two spaced 15 feet apart on the telephone line, staring straight ahead, as if they had a spat during the night. Surely it will be repaired. Or, perhaps, they await the rising sun, like me, to see the colors of the mountains change, the cacti swathed in new light, the desert floor coming into sharp relief. And, can it be, that I should gain and interest in the Savior’s blood? Wondrous love, desert love. Somehow when I come here I am interested in everything - every tree, bush, and flower, every rabbit, range and river, dry or running wet - when at home the life in the world so often passes unnoticed. A runner overtakes me and passes. I turn up the road to the horse corral and stop. A coyote emerging from the corral path walks away from me, a hundred feet away, his body and head outlined against the mountain. He turns to look at me, his province invaded, and then moves away. Twenty feet more and he turns again to check my progress, before moving away into the wash. I round the east side of the property, muscle up the incline, pass the vacant tennis courts, pass out onto the road. At the patch of grass around the fountain, the sprinklers wet my ankles. Back on the sidewalk, the black of the night sky melds to indigo. A couple walk ahead, and I’m gaining on them, so I circle back to give them room, turn, and then they disappear down the sidewalk. I press on. Meeting an smiling older woman walking toward me, cane in hand, I tell her about the coyote. She wants to know how many there were. One, I say. She waves her stick, says “I’m not worried about one, but I keep the stick for if there’s more than one.” Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart. “A disciple is someone who has been captivated,” says the pastor, “by the most beautiful person of all, Jesus.” The moon blinks off. The sun peaks the corner of the Catalina’s. I turn for home, remembering all I have seen. Rejoice, the Lord is King. Continue reading
Posted Oct 21, 2018 at Out Walking
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“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” (John Muir) Over 34 years ago, our patch of land was hewed from a mostly loblolly pine forest, a relatively young stand which grew up after the mature hardwoods that originally grew here were painstakeningly cut and the land farmed. The red clay dirt proved unsuitable for farming and was abandoned, and the pines, the eager first comers, grew their lanky trunks and green crowns, such as they were, until profit was in sight and the cutting began. I wasn’t here, of course, for the cutting, digging, and plowing and surmise this only from the relative youth of the trees and knowledge of the area. This wasn’t always suburbia; out on the edge of my memory, it was country, a land of red dirt roads and farm houses, clapboard churches and volunteer fire departments, fields of tobacco and woodlots. To his credit, the developer of this land cut as little as was needed. Some homeowners cut more. We didn’t, preferring forest to sunlight. Sometimes in strong winds the pines bend and wave and creak, aged denizens as they are. One fell after an ice storm, dropping parallel to our house, breaking our fence yet sparing our roof; it lay there like an apology, welcomed. No tree has ever hit our home. I like to think there is a collective gratitude, a wooden pact to spare their guests that indignity, all of which makes me think carefully about whether to take any down. In our front yard three of those pines lean slightly toward our neighbor’s home, threatening. They’re not much to look at, as what branches and green they have are near sky and all on one side, the side facing my neighbor’s home, like awkward, cock-eyed giants reaching for the West. A couple of weeks ago I called a tree man to discuss my problem. I expected a sympathetic knower of trees, a dispenser of palliative care, but he was matter of fact, all business. He never even touched the trees. Later I lay in the hammock under the trees. A hammock is a wonderful place to think. And I must think. I lay there thankful for tree-shade, for green against blue, for the aged trunks, for pine cones and tree pollen which is the dust of life, and the sap of the sage - for life so abundant in the trees. In Lives of the Trees, Diana Wells spends all of five pages on the ignoble pines - all variety of pines. Pines can grow in poor soils and adapt to very different climates. Their cones hang down and not up like firs. And those pinecones that littered my driveway after Hurricane Michael? They are the female reproductive organs of the trees. That explains why some cultures regarded them as symbols of fertility. Pine needles can be eaten and provide some nourishment, though, having tried some, I cannot recommend it. Pine bark can be used to make a kind of tea, though I haven’t tried that and won’t. Wells writes of Li-Li Weng, a seventeenth century Chinese artist and gardener who wrote “When one sits in a garden with peach trees, flowers and willows, without a single pine in sight, it is like sitting among children and women without any venerable men in the vicinity to whom one may look up.” Some respect is accorded age, even the age of a tree. In reassuring his people through the prophet Isaiah, God says “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isa. ‭41:19-20‬ ‭ESV‬‬). So in God’s redemptive history, even the often misshapen, wopsided pine is exalted, made part of the greening of the desert, part of the comfort of a God who says “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you’” (Isaiah‬ ‭41:13‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Knowing that, I can never look at a pine again without assurance that I need not fear, that the God who made the pines and held them up for all their years will hold me up too. “I believe the Bible has a forest of trees because trees teach us about the nature of God, says Matthew Sleeth. “Just like a tree, God is constantly giving. Trees have been giving life long before human beings had a clue oxygen existed. Trees give life, beauty, food, and shade. . . . No wonder God uses trees to instruct us about life, death, and resurrection. Trees, like God, give life even after death.” Sleeth says that trees are the most mentioned non-human living thing in scripture, a number that says “pay attention.” For love of neighbor, the trees may need to go. I’m neither a tree-hugger nor overly sentimental and recognize the utility of trees and the God-allowed natural calamities that fell many thousands of trees each year if not month. Yet it would be wrong not to pause before ending the long lives of these trees and recognize that they too are a kind of neighbor entitled to neighbor-love. The felling of a tree is not earth-shattering, and certainly will not register in human history nor, for long, in my personal history. Yet it is no small thing. It matters as much as a sparrow that falls from a tree. “[N]ot one is forgotten before God” (Lk. 12:6). I think I’ll call an arborist. An arborist may understand. Continue reading
Posted Oct 19, 2018 at Out Walking
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“Thank you for meeting with me today. After 34 years of work at the same place, I felt like I needed to explain a few things about my leaving” I looked up. To a one, the men and women who peered at me were aged, unsmiling, and slightly bemused. The one in the middle shuffled some papers. “Well, go on.” “On August 30th, I retired.” “Have you filed a proper motion? You can’t have a new trial without a proper motion and hardly ever then.”
 “Oh no, no, perhaps I misspoke [I didn’t]. I said retired, not retried.” “Hmmf. That’s not allowed.” “Your honor, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I have changed jobs. . .
 “Well, do say what you mean.” “If I may. . .” “You may.” “As I was saying, on August 30th I left my job. The next day my wife and went to the coast. We had a great day on the beach. Sunny skies, ocean breezes, the waves breaking. Late in the day we swam in the ocean, splashed around until we tired, and then lay facedown on the beach, directly on the sand, our feet trailing in the water, promptly falling asleep. When I woke up, I felt a great peace. I said to myself, ‘This must be what its like to be retired.’” “Only you said try were not retired.” “Right, right. I’m getting to that. But first. . . That word, ‘retired,’ is actually related to a French word. . . “Well, that’s the first thing you said that makes sense. French people are good at not working.”
 “Your honor, please.” “Go on, go on.” “The word, 'retire,' refers to a movement in ballet. So, you see, to retire is really to engage in a kind of dance, a different movement.” “Nonsense.” “Oh no, it makes perfect sense. Life is like a dance, you see, and this withdrawal from my former work is simply a new movement, one part of the great dance, the dance of life.” “I thought you were a lawyer.” “In my former life, yes.” “And now you’re dancing to a different beat?” “You might say that.” “Well what is it you do now?” “I’m a writer.” Loud guffaws issued. They looked knowingly at one another, nodding their heads, and then turned to stare at me. I said, “Why are you looking at me like that?” “Well because writers don’t really work, do they? They just do a lot of navel-gazing and then spew out a bunch of rubbish, blabbering on about the meaning of a rock, for example, making something out of nothing. It certainly can’t be as important as your work as a lawyer.” “Perhaps not.”
 “Have you made any money at it?”
 “Not much.”
 “I thought not. Then why do it?”
 “I think I am called to do it.” “Who called?” “Well. . . Him.” I pointed up. “Oh, him. Well, far be it from me to argue with him. Higher court, and all that. . .Tell me about some of your scribblings. . . I mean, writings.” “Well, I recently wrote about a water fountain.”
 “Oh really. . .”
 “And a fence around my backyard. . .” “Thrilling.”
 “”The first car I owned.” “I know the world is richer for it.” “And I am at work on a book about an American missionary to Europe, Francis Schaeffer.” “Who? Never heard of him.” “Well, that’s the point. By writing about him, I might introduce him to a new audience.” “Well why don’t you tell us about a typical day at this writing.”
 “I’d love to. I get up at 5:45 and my wife and I walk for about an hour. Sometimes I see things I want to write about as I walk, like a telephone pole, a fox chasing a cat, the brook that passes under street before the rise of Kill Devil Hill. We often pray, but we get distracted. We follow the distraction. We pray about the distraction. Or maybe we forget to pray. Maybe we just talk. Maybe we’re just silent, deep in our own thoughts.” “Exercise is fortifying. I commend you.” “Well, not too quick. Sometimes we sleep in. But even then I’m thinking. I wake up and listen to the house, the sounds it makes, the whirring of the heat pump, the rain slapping the window, the purr of the cat, the birds waking just before dawn, a truck on the highway. . .” “Yes, yes, I get the point. What do you do next?” “After the walk, or after rising, I shower, dress for work (no pajamas or shorts, shirt tucked in), eat breakfast, and have a personal worship time. I read my Bible. I pray.” “Pray again?” “Of course. Only sometimes I miss.” “That’s bad, right? God doesn’t like that, does he?” “God loves me just the same. I missed out on time with Him, that’s all. Anyway, after that I go to work. I have an office on the third floor devoted to nothing but writing. I read a bit, do my research. Then I sit in my chair and stare out the window. I try to take myself back to the village of Huemoz, Switzerland, in 1957. As all the pictures I have are black and white, I have to add the color -- the wildflowers in the fields, or the white on the snow-capped Alps, or the yellow of the post bus that passes periodically on its way to Villars. I hear cowbells, laughter, and conversation - always conversation. Then I go back to my desk and write a line, or two, on my way to a page. A page a day, page on page, until its done. Bird by bird, as Anne Lammott says.” “That’s it, a page a day? That doesn’t seem very productive.” “Well, you forget about the rest of the page, the empty white space of the page, all that’s left unsaid. I have to make choices, you see, about what to include and what to leave out. People have to fill in the white with their own images, helped by the words I do include on the page. I guess it does look like a lot of nothing, but it’s not. John McPhee, who has done a lot of writing, said once he did his research for an article, on oranges I think, and then lay on the picnic table in his backyard for two weeks trying to figure out how to organize his material. It looked like he was doing nothing. But he wasn’t.” “I'll bet he took a few naps. Anyway, is that it?” “Well, I suppose so.” “What do you hope to get out of all this? Not money, I presume.” “Peace, I guess. Peace at being in the place where God would have me be, I suppose. Money if he gives it; the satisfaction of being in the right place, if not. I don’t write because it’s fun; it’s generally not. I don’t write because it’s lucrative; it’s seldom that. There are a lot of easier things to do - like being a lawyer. Or painting houses. I don’t love writing. John McPhee says that people who say that they love to write aren’t writers at all. If they were they wouldn’t say such ridiculous things.” “For God’s sake, man, you’re an attorney. Why waste your time and what talent you have on writing about trees or some obscure American pastor?” “Do you like music?” “Of course. Beethoven. Bach. Even the Gershwins.” “Well that’s why I write. When it all comes together, when the right words fall in place, it’s like a song. I read it aloud and there’s melody to it, a rhythm, a beat, some truly tiny distant echo of the song the stars made at Creation. It doesn’t happen much, but I live for those rare moments when I've done the best I can, and I stand back and say with all humility, how could I have written that? And then it has its own life and begins to talk to me and teach me.” “Well, you’re either delusional or on to something.” "I appreciate you hearing me out about this.” “It seems a foolish course to us, a huge waste of time and one with little money-making potential.” “I see how it appears.” “But we’ll consider what you said and let you know what we think. For now, carry on. Or should we say, dance on. And God help you. 
 
 
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Posted Sep 16, 2018 at Out Walking