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March 2007

Songs to Quiet the Spirit: The Innocence Mission & the Songs of Karen Peris

This has been a tough week for me, with two family members sick and much going on at work and travel to boot. A couple of nights ago, returning from out of town after dark, I was weary. Before leaving I had absent-mindedly tossed a recent (I thought) CD from The Innocence Mission in the car to listen to, though I did not get to it until I was on my way home. It was a beautiful evening. The rain which had fallen had cleansed the air of pollen, and I rode with the sunroof open, enjoying the air and ocassionally (if briefly) looking up through the open roof to a waxing moon positioned just above. I heard this:

BefriendedHang my head low, so low.
Don't see me only as I am but
see me how I long to be.
Shining like a flowering tree
under a gray Pennsylvania sky.
Look for me as you go by.
Hang my head so low, so low.
Every burden shall be lifted.
Every stone upon your back slide into the sea.
It's me for you and you for me.

("Look for Me As You Go By," by Don Peris)

I don't know how better to describe the songs of Innocence Mission but as songs to quiet the spirit. The arrangements are spare --- nothing more than acoustic guitar, bass, very light percussion, and some ocassional strings. The lyrics are full of space, like good poetry, which is what they are. In this album from 2003, Befriended, Karen writes as she always does of home, family, and faith. There is nothing dramatic about any of this, but at the same time the feeling that abides in the record is one of joy. That must be what it is, because Befriended buoyed my spirit, and I felt like maybe my car was cruising along suspended on a cushion just millimeters above the asphalt.

Innocence_missionInnocence Mission is, quite simply, Karen and Don Peris and a friend, Mike Bitts. Some of the simple authenticity of the music can perhaps be traced to the Peris's decision to remain at home and record at home, in the Amish countryside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania rather than Nashville, New York, or Los Angeles. Perhaps it's the Amish simplicity that shows here (though the Peris's are Catholic).

On Befriended, she writes of the loss of her mother, her best friend ("I Never Knew You From the Sun"), her brother ("One For Sorrow, Two For Joy"), or simply about giving up sorrow for life ("Walking Around"). I say the album is about joy, not happiness, because the joy underlies the very real sorrow in some of the songs, perhaps the feeling of loss for her mother. But honestly, no sprightly pop music could give me more hope than this soundtrack for a weary highway ride.

SpringReturning home, I was surprised to find that Befriended wasn't actually the newest release. I missed the release last week of We Walked In Song, another beautiful offering from this band and one much in the same vein of Befriended. On my walk today, I listened (seemed appropriate, a "walk in song") and immediately appreciated the songs. If there's one theme on We Walked In Song, it's the title of the first song, "Brotherhood of Man," and its words:

All day, since your haircut in the morning,
you have looked like a painting, even more than usual.
We are in the wind, planting maples.
We meet an older man who seems to know
I miss my dad.
And he smiles through the limbs.
We talk easily with him
until the rain begins.
This is the brotherhood of man.

Waiting at the airport on my suitcase,
a girl traveling from Spain becomes my sudden friend,
though I did not learn her name.
And when the subway dimmed
a stranger lit my way.
This is the brotherhood of man.

I never can say what I mean
but you will understand,
coming through clouds on the way.
This is the brotherhood of man.

("This Is the Brotherhood of Man," Karen Peris).

Listening to that song, a very simple song of shared moments with strangers, I know exactly what she means, even though she says she never can say what she means. The spareness of her words reminds me of Emily Dickinson's poetry --- simple, yet deep.

I recommend a healthy dose of The Innocence Mission. If you listen, you might feel befriended, or you might realize more deeply the brotherhood of man. But certainly, it'd be difficult to miss the joy that simmers underneath the words.



Amateur Providences

"Over and over again, we try to be amateur providences in someone's life. We are indeed amateurs, coming in and actually preventing God's will and saying, 'This person should not have to experience this difficulty.'"

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, March 24th)

If I could, I would not hesitate
to frustrate heartsickness, your
first broken heart, or maybe
physical suffering. I'm not sure
what he means by "actually
preventling God's will,
as if I really could, but

I would not withhold good, though I
am amateur. His plans may be
higher, and mysterious, but I live
here, where life spirals down at
times, where darkness lives just
down the street, where bad things
happen to everyone.

There are no amateur providences.
Just grace. Just the deliberateness of
a cup of water for a thirsty soul, a
rescue for the lovesick, a panoply of
"secondary causes" in a world of signs
and wonders. Just amateurs who might,
providentially, do something.


Christy: The Complete Season

ChristyThough I have never read the book, my wife refers to it as her favorite book of her teenage years, fondly recalling reading it for the first time at 14 on vacation with her family in the Virgin Islands. I can imagine her there, soaking up the story, living it vacariously as you do with any good book, there on the bow of a sailboat. And here is my daughter now reading the same story, quite in love with it.

The book I am referring to is Catherine Marshal's Christy, a classic tale of a young woman who left a life of privilege to teach at a mission school in the primitive community of Cutters Gap, deep in the Smoky Mountains. The book was written over 40 years ago and though billed as fiction is actually based on the life of Catherine Marshall's mother.

The thing that precipitated our renewed interest in the book is the release last week of the short-lived PAX Network series of the same name on DVD. This is excellent family entertainment with substance. Christy has faith and yet struggles with doubt and evil. It is a good picture of a faith that while real needs maturing as she deals with ignorance, superstition, suffering, and hardship in a poor mountain community. The scenery and people seem real, filmed as it was in and around Townsend, Tennessee.

Kellie Martin does a great job playing Christy in all her wide-eyed innocence and zeal as city gal meets Apppalachia (before it was called that). Tyne Daley (the Lacey in the cop show Cagney and Lacey) plays the mission head, a wise Quaker woman. Tess Harper plays a woman who becomes one of Christy's best friends.

These shows are not sappy or sentimental to a large extent. Sin abounds. There's feuding between clans, a narrowly averted lynching by a kangaroo court, ignorance and superstition that causes the death of a child, and hatred on display. There's also love, as Christy becomes a love interest of both the young pastor and the atheist doctor who begrudgingly accepts her presence in the community. And yet there's nothing here I can't watch with my almost 13 daughter, even though I smile as I know that part of her interest in the show and the book is the romance that is evident. It's a good way for her to learn about love and romance. There are plenty of series about sin, but little that show both the effects of the Fall and the redemptive power of love in the same program. You'll find that here.

Sadly, there was only one season of Christy, but I heartily recommend the DVD and my wife recommends the book to you. One warning: there are a series of Christy movies that followed the series. However, fans almost universally dislike the films for their allegedly poor plots and the fact that a different actress plays Christy. I do not recall the films, but it's something to consider.


Between Eden and the New Jerusalem

KidsThe Sixties era new neighborhood that I grew up in, that I tramped around in, played capture the flag in, and literally breathed in, sported such street names as Surry, Gracewood, Fernwood, Cornwallis, Pembroke and others such as that -- a kind of mix of colonial (the largely brick house style) and pleasant names that would tend to appeal to the "new" suburbanites. It may have been suburbia, but it was a different suburbia -- one where you knew your neighbors (even the more eccentric ones) and where you left your doors unlocked and windows open. As kids, we lived in the streets and backyards and rode our bikes with impunity all over the city with no concern for our safety. Those were mostly good days. There was a sense of community in those neigborhoods.

How things have changed. The houses are larger, the windows seldom open to the world outside, the people glued to TVs and computer monitors. Guilty. It's happened to me too. And yet sometimes, like today, I throw open the window and just listen to what is outside, just remembering that I am a part of something larger than what goes on in my self-contained house environment. One of my neighbors has a kid with a dirt bike that ocassionally rides it down the strip of land behind my house. How annoying, I think, and yet I remember the same, riding my mini-bike all over the woods and backyards, having a blast at my mobility and noise and coolness at the age of ten. So, thank God for the dirt bike, a valuable memory-prompter. I hear trucks and cars, the unloading of groceries at the supermarket nearby, the drone of an airplane, the chattering of a squirrel, birdsongs, and the kids two house over jumping on the trampoline. I can sense connections when I can hear, when I open up to the world and leave the sometimes ghetto of the house. You see, mostly I choose what goes on in here, but out there I have to take what comes, and I have the sense that that's what's good for me, that's the sound of true community.

WorldI'm prompted to think of such things by the excellent special issue of World Magazine which arrived today, an issue devoted to Architecture. I'm all over it, soaking it up. There's so little reflection on architecture and urban design from a Christian perspective. When Eternity Magazine folded over a cecade ago (or was it two decades ago?), World inherited its subscribers, and yet I've always felt that World lacked the kind of deep reflection on all of life that Eternity had, though I give it an A for effort. This issue gives me hope. In fact it makes me remember an old issue of Eternity devoted to Architecture! (My architect friend Andy will enjoy this issue.)

It's always amazed me that though much of our lives as believers in the world but not of it are spent in and around the built environment, we so seldom reflect on it. Beyond matters of taste ("What an ugly building," or "nice house") we are constantly readjusting to a ever-changing landscape. We lose landmarks, the very land is reshaped, and we find it difficult to remember what was there before. Call it urban drift --- the change that happens while we sleep. The old mall where my wife and new baby used to eat (cheaply) is gone and a new shopping center has risen from its ruins, but I sometimes wonder where exactly was that restaurant? I can't even locate it on the site anymore. Where are the people who worked there ("serve you please?"), where did they find new jobs, and what happened to all the old folks who used to meet there for dinner and community? How disorienting it must have been to them.

SuburbI know that we can't simply design community, can't simply build subdivisions differently or homes differently and have "community." It takes much more than that kind of environmental determinism. It requires an understanding of what it is to be human, of what we each need and desire, and it requires souls that are willing to look beyond themselves. In fact, it begins with a very human architecture: Me. And you. Us. And it's rooted in the community that was there in the Trinity from all eternity.

I like what Christopher Leerssen said about churches in one of the articles in World: "[C]hurches and their buildings should be less clubby, private affairs and more of that common ground for "the Church" proper to interact with the outside world and skeptics. Churches should throw open wide their doors by hosting art shows, financial seminars, offering mercy, and musical performances --- invite the public and create that haven for public discourse."

Open doors. Open windows. Open hearts. I guess the kid on the bike is not that annoying. And I'll bet he wants to belong, somewhere. In fact, I might just sleep with the window open. It might do my heart good.


Why I Am An Aaah-Millennialist

EndLast night's discussion in a class exploring the meaning of the Book of Revelation reminded me why I disagree with both the Pre-Millennialists and Post-Millennialists, as well as why I care. Given the wild imagery and symbolism of Revelation, I find it difficult to be dogmatic about such matters as this, and yet it does matter what you think about such things. Ideas inevitably affect actions. When I realized why it mattered, that's when I went "Aaah" and became an Amillennialist. I believe Christ reigns now, though sin contines, and the Millenium is not a literal 1000 years but that we are in this time of indefinite duration right now.

When I was in high school, I read Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth. It scared the @#$& out of me. I was convinced we were on a fast track to destruction and that I better get saved and serious and bring along whoever I could. The planet was going to "hell in a handbasket," and there was little to be done about it. We'd get raptured and then things would really get bad. In fact, everywhere I looked life seemed to be unwinding. The communists were winning. We just lost Vietnam. We were in a nuclear arms race with the Soviets, and surely the growing number of Chinese meant we were close to that final battle, Armageddon. Sexual inhibitions were falling, quickly; moral decay had set in. Really, it looked quite hopeless.

Then I discovered the post-millennialists -- people like Nicholas Rushdooney and Gary DeMars. Basically, these guys were asserting that the Church would usher in the Millenium and that, really, things were getting better and better. Their optimism was appealing. Their call to be culture-tranformers was a helpful corrective to the lifeboat mentality of the Preemies. Ultimately, however, their triumphalism was what began to grate on me, the idea that we Christians would ultimately rule society and reorder it based on Scripture. In addition, their optimism didn't seem to square with reality. I couldn't say, as the Beatles did, that "it's getting better all the time." And yet, I also couldn't say, with Bob Dylan, that "it's getting dark, too dark to see." Rather, good things were happeneing, and yet evil still flourished.

And that's why I concur with the guarded optimisim of the Amillennialist. The Kingdom of God is present and growing. The Hero is not in defeat but, rather, the outcome is sure even as the battle rages on. Evil still flourishes and may even seem overwhelming at times, much as in a good novel of good and evil the latter can seem ascendant before its ultimate demise. The Author of the story has the final say.

What you think profoundly impacts your attitude toward the created world. If, as the Preemies say, things are getting worse and worse, then everywhere you look that's what you see. You overlook the good. You circle the wagons and preserve the Christian way of life, or you combatively denounce sin in society. If, as the Posties say, things are getting better all the time, you don't necessarily dismiss the evil but you seem to harbor a false sense of how much the Kingdom will advance in this world; you make too much of certain trends. But the Amillennialist sees evil flourishing and the Kingdom advancing concurrently, almost a synthesis of these two views. Wheat and tare are growing up together. I see God at work all around me. I find His truth in about every film I watch, every book I read. It's not a blind optimism but a view that assumes His presence everywhere in the world and looks for Him, well aware that in the looking our eye will catch much that is not true or good or beautiful at the same time.

God is on the move. Aaah. . . . Be watchful, but relax and enjoy the millennium folks.


Come On, Rain

Rain_2Rivulets of water shimmer
on the roof, make puddles,
with steady, incessant beats.

"Are you alright?" she sings,
a perfect song for a dreary day,
one wrapped in rain's silent noise.

Come on, rain. I have work to do,
as the birds come and go, their
chatter uninterrupted by the wash.

Sing "I'm on a lonely road, and
I'm traveling, traveling, traveling," and
I know what she means. Rain has a

lonesome feel. It makes me travel,
thinking of lying on my bed in high
school, watching the water run down

my windows, waiting for something to
happen, soon. I crack the window,
breathe in deeply, and I smell the

mountains, Spring, rododendrons,
birch and fir trees, a crackling fire.
And all this rain and memory is free,

Like grace.

In Scripture, rain is both a sign of blessing and a sign of God's judgment. For the latter, we need go no further than Noah and the great flood of judgment. For blessing, you could go anywhere. Job says "He says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth,' and to the rain shower, 'Be a mighty downpour'" (Job 37:6).

But there is a definite emotional feeling associated with rain. If you haven't had it, you welcome it. You say things like "he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings the grass from the earth'" (2 Sa. 23:4). If you've had too much of it, or you get too much of it, you think of the "driving rain that leaves no crops" (Pr. 28:3). Sometimes, when you add rain to an otherwise bad day, it just feels worse, as when Ezra calls a sinful nation before him, confronting them with their sin, and we read that "all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain" (Ez. 10:9). I have to think the rain was symbolic on that ocassion of the washing away of the peoples' sin, and yet they did not see it that way.

I have good memories of rain -- like walking through puddles with my then young children, or lying on a bed by an open window enjoying the rest afforded by a cloudy, raining day. I also have bad memories -- of a flooded basement, as a child, or the kind of flooding that wipes out whole communities. Rain truly is memory-laden.

The challenge is to accept the good and hard rain of life in the same way the writer of Lamentations spoke of his great hardship: "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22-23).

Meanwhile, it sure is wet out there.



Loving a Place

OnionI love this place. I love its own particularity, its life, its difference, its smell, its feel, its topography, its air, its colors, and everything that makes it the place that it is. I love this place.

It's almost always this way for me. When I come to a place, I like to walk it, to drink it in, to breathe it in, to see its corners and back lots, its out of sight places, to stop and really look at what most others pass up in haste. I guess I want to know it and name it for myself. In a way, I get drunk on it.

Today I woke up in San Diego. It was early. My biological clock is still on East coast time. I can't change that. So I went out for about a one hour walk. I don't run. I don't want to miss anything. I walk so I can see things, really look at things, think about things. It may sound odd or even silly to say, but I love things.

It wasn't an ideal place to walk. I crossed a large parking lot and walked down the side of a frontage road of office buildings and hotels running parallel to an interstate highway. But I loved it. The air was crisp. The early morning sky was a deep blue. The juxtaposition of the browns of the earth and the stucco buildings, the green of grass and vegetation, and the blue of the sky almost hurts it's so rich. I never get tired of it.

I walked behind some buildings and discovered a golf course behind us, fenced in and yet visible, and in that border between parking lot and golf course, two man-altered environments, I was pleased to discover a strip of untamed land, where vegetation grew and birds rested and chirped, and where life was more natural. All I could think was how privileged I was to be able to look at this place.

I love this place. The man on the bustop bench smiles. Workers are cleaning a parking lot. I think for a minute about where they live, and what kind of families they have. I see the cars speeding along the interstate, four-wheeled worlds, and I wonder at the dreams, hopes, struggles, thoughts, and pure particularity of the individuals and families represented there. Where are they from? Where are they going?

I'm crossing a creek now, yet the sign boldly announces "San Diego River." I look down and see a beautiful flowing creek, lush with trees on its borders, marshy land, and a family of ducks wading. I put my hands to the side of my face, like blinders, shutting out the buildings on the periphery, and I try to imagine what this valley looked like 100 years ago. Ranches? Cattle? Dirt roads? Everything changes, I know, and yet underneath it all it's still there, and I wonder if I camped out by this river one night, long after most cars had gone, would I be able to feel what it must have been like?

I love this place. With all the uniformity created by commerce and pop culture, what amazes me is how different places remain. Notwithstanding the ubiquitous big box stores, malls, Starbucks, and chain hotels, I know full well I'm in Southern California and not North Carolina. I know the wind on my face is a breeze off the Pacific Ocean and not the wind in the pine trees of home.

I'm taking it all in. I want to take the place home with me. I want to remember what it looks like, smells like, feels like. I want to know it.

And then I think: this must be what heaven is like. It must be like arriving at a place and getting off the bus and thinking "I know this place. And I love it." I guess what I'm saying is I'm rehearsing now for that day.


The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien: A Reaction

8149585I just finished reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and I am a mixture of emotions. I love the book, and I despise it. So, this is not as dignified as a "review." Let's call it simply a "reaction."

O’Brien writes as one who knows the Vietnam War, and the book is essentially a collection of stories about the war. He writes vividly, emotionally, and he is able to transport you to the scene, to make you feel both the horror and even (though I could not have imagined it, and shudder at the thought of it) the exhilaration and excitement of war. Reading his stories it’s impossible to simply say war is hell or war is glorious, in some abstract way; rather we can now attach specific images to war --- the terror of death, the beauty of living on the edge with comrades.

But the problem here, the thing that makes me despise the book, is that it is truly postmodern: it is simply a collection of micro-narratives. One will search in vain for any overarching meta-narrative. At one point O’Brien even tells us that it doesn’t matter whether the stories are true or not. It matters only that they are stories. At the end of the book, we don’t even know if he is narrating his experience, at least in part, or making it all up. He says it’s all true; then he says none of it is true; and finally he says none of it matters. Here's a sample of what he says: "[I]n the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe 'Oh'." Or "A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." It's not the objective truth that is of concern but, rather, simply the emotional effect of the story, whether it makes you feel something. Truth doesn't matter.

And yet it does matter. When Rat Kiley cracks up and shoots himself in the foot, when Kiowa is shot and disappears beneath several feet of slime and mud, when Curt Lemon gets blown to bits or, after the war, when a despondent Norman Bowkers hangs himself, it matters if the stories are true. War is ugly. And wars without clear objectives are particularly ugly, as the sense of mission is lost, of meaning. Vietnam suffered from that. No one knew what we were there for in the end. And when we withdrew and all was lost, it seemed such a waste of life. The really ugly thing is the loss of meaning and hope, and that's what is ugly about this book. O'Brien survives and lives on, and yet we do not know how or why he does it, we do not know what sustains him or gives him hope and meaning.

And that's why I love and despise this book: great writing producing provocative stories in the service of, well, nothing but emotion. Is that all there is?


Afternoon in the House

CatIt's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.
I know you are with me, plants,
and cats --- and even som I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect
possibility.

(Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise)

Reading this today I wondered for a moment what Jane Kenyon was afraid of. Her poem paints a picture of contentment -- an afternoon at home --- much as the one I am enjoying today. But then we know, don't we? Things seem too perfect. Anything is possible, and surely something bad must happen to break the harmony of this scene. Most people, myself included, have this knowledge, the sense that when life is good then around the corner inevitably lies some struggle, trial, or evil. For most of us it is a momentary anxiety that passes, a fleeting thought (thank God) of impending . . . well, impending something, and yet we know not what. A preoccupation with anxiety leads to a neurosis where we live in constant fear of the future. Some even become psychotic, losing touch with reality as the insuuferable possibilities press in on them.

I've wondered sometimes what keeps us sane. One thing I think does is a God-sanctified memory, an ability to remember God's faithfulness to us in the past and, thus, believe his promise of faithfulness in the future. Everyone (almost) remembers, but the anxiety-ridden cannot credit those memories of normalcy but fixate on the memories of struggle and hardship. Yet when God says remember in Scripture He is always reminding us of His Ffaithfulness to us.

Another antidote to anxiety is thankfulness, a focus on the good gifts we have. When and if struck by some calamity, I'm sure I don't have it in myself not to despair, and yet I trust and hope the Holy Spirit will turn my focus to the good gifts of God.

I used to dislike that verse from Phillipians 4:6, the one that says "Do not be anxious about anything. . . ." I mean, how do you make yourself not anxious? But then I realized the answer was really in the remainder of the verse, the "with thanksgiving" portion. You can't not worry sometimes, but you can change your focus, audibly thanking God for the inumerable blessings He has provided.

So, here I am too, in the middle of "perfect possibility," well aware that DOOM may come tomorrow, and yet today I'm rehearsing my thankfulness, doing my part to remember, trusting that when calamity strikes I'll know my lines well enough that I will still be thankful.


Beginnings: The Things They Carried

Things_carriedFirst Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersy. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. . . . The letters weighed 10 ounces. They were signed, Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.

Unless you are an extraordinarily patient person, beginnings must be good. It's difficult to continue reading a book for long when the first few paragraphs fail to arouse curiousity, provoke amusement, or stimulate a question. Tim O'Brien's near classic 1990 book about Vietnam, The Things They Carried, captured me at the outset, and that's saying something.

I've never read a book about Vietnam, much less any war, and even though a friend highly recommended the book and brought it to me at lunch one day, I confess I was not looking forward to reading it. I felt I had a duty to check it out. I had other things on my list, and there was nothing particularly interesting about a war story to entice me. But. . . I do love good writing, and I found that here.

One might say that there is nothing gripping about this first paragraph, and that's right. However, I knew right away when I read it that O'Brien was a master of the particulars of life and that the book would be less about the war than about the people that inhabited it. Jimmy Cross and what appeared to be his unrequitted love of Martha, for example. I also loved the attention to "the things they carried" as these objects each illuminated each man's personality. The language is specific and sensual (meaning it engages the senses). Already it pulls me in, already I want to know what other things these men carry and who they are and what their hopes and dreams might be. This beginning seems a portent of a rich story.

That's the power of things --- they carry in them our memories and have a way of prompting remembrance. Like right now when, looking up for a moment, I glanced at the lamp on my desk and remembered where it was purchased on a family vacation in the mountains, and then a cascade of memory begins --- a meal by the fire, a long walk on a mountain top meadow, looking out a window at a valley below our room dusted with snow, my children doing what is so characteristically them --- until I turn back to write once more. That's the power of things. They are iconic, that is, they are an aid to memory and meditation on Providence, the working of God in history, both ours and mankind's in general. And whenever memory takes you Godward, it is good.

I look forward to reading the rest of The Things They Carried.I suspect that O'Brien's focus on specific objects will be a rich window into the the humanity we all share and remind me of the rich if sometimes perilous narrative we are all of us apart.



Rick Unruh

UnruhAnother of the artists that I had the pleasure of working with at Silent Planet Records was Canadian Rick Unruh. At the time I met him (1999), Rick had been performing and recording for over ten years with live performances on stage, television and radio. As a songwriter for Nashville’s Temple Gate Music, his songs were even in films and on several CD compilations.

Remember, Rick's 3rd CD and first and only CD on Silent Planet, was his first CD to enjoy wide release in the United States and was even nominated for a Prairie Music Award (a Canadian thing)!

Rick has toured Canada coast to coast and parts of the U.S.A. performing for audiences at colleges, festivals, churches, and clubs. At venues like Winnipeg’s acclaimed Folk Festival and renowned West End Cultural Centre, Unruh has shared the stage with Eric Bogle, Stephen Fearing, Sarah Harmer, Alejandro Escovedo, Jess Klein, Heather Bishop, and Connie Kaldor --- a kind of whos who of Canadian folk muisc.

Rick is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, and though things didn't work out for more recordings with Silent Planet, his passionate, sensitive voice and folk-influenced ballads are quite moving and have stood the test of time.

RememberRemember
Rick Unruh

With Remember, Rick Unruh brings passionate singing and playing in line with intelligent, articulate lyrical content. He evidences his faith without being preachy or didactic in approach. I love the subtlety of this CD, the songs that simply sneak up on you in their emotional appel.

To sample the excellent songs here, try "Hungry Ghost" here.


The Landscape of Loss: A Review of The Place You Love Is Gone, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Place_you_love_1Every now and then a writer comes along who manages to put on paper some of what you are feeling about life. With The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home, Melissa Holbrook Pierson does just that --- she explores the emotional sense of loss we all experience as everything changes around us. Frankly, given the title of the book and its theme, I was all prepared to like the book. I did like it. Then I didn't. And oddly enough, somewhere in the last portion of the book, I liked it again as it began to settle in my soul --- that sense that another human being on this earth knew and experienced what I know and experience, that is, the sadness in loss of place.

The book is part prose poem, part factual narrative, and part memoir as Pierson explores the effects of change on three places: Akron, Ohio, her birthplace, Hoboken, New Jersey in the changing Eighties, and upstate New York (the Catskills). But really, the book is one long lamentation over the effects of change, rising from a homesickness for the Akron of childhood to an odd disturbance to her sense of place when the lackluster backwaters of Hoboken began to gentrify in the mid-Eighties, to a rant over the effects of progress in the Catskill Mountains both historically (and here she focuses on New York City's use of the eminent domain power to flood land, displace whole communities, and even uproot cemeteries) and in current days (with houses multiplying and land being used up and solitude disturbed). It's not a happy book nor one that offers solutions. I love it, in part, for just that.

Some of the flavor of her angst can be found in this response to the loss of much of what she knew as her childhood home: "Is it any wonder that you grew up to feel murderous, vengeful, toward anyone who would dare change this landscape that made you what you are? 'Lost,' after all, is a euphemism for 'dead.' You may excuse your mother for later wallpapering your room at home, since you may forcibly remind yourself you are well into middle age. But can you forgive the people who, in return for money --- nothing but money! --- have taken the dirt road upon which you and the salamanders wandered in rich solitude and turned it into Hunter Ridge Estates? The whole thing sticks in your throat. . . . You might have an easier time of it if someone would just acknowledge the fundamental existential tragedy of more driveways, of what is lost and how it hurts to know that it will never come back." As she so aptly notes, the sights, sounds, and smells of our childhood home never leave us but follow us deep into life, seared in our cognitive map. The sound of the book is that of Chrissie Hynde's My City Is Gone: "Well, I went back to Ohio/ But my family was gone/ I stood on the back porch/ There was nobody home/ I was stunned and amazed/ My childhood memories/ Slowly swirled past/ Like the wind through the trees/ A, O, oh way to go, Ohio." Way to go. Going, going gone. An opressive sadness weighs in the pages of this book.

And then she moves to Hoboken, a place once dubbed the armpit of America, described by Pierson as "a town that is the misused back alley of some other, better place. Our town is the place you pass through, averting your gaze. It is the place they forgot to clean, forgot to love, forgot." And yet, in her freezing cold apartment, on the deserted streets, the town under overpasses in the shadow of grand New York, Pierson finds solitude, and love of place, so much love that she is angry when the develpers move in in the mid-Eighties and begin to refurbish the buildings, jack up rents, and otherwise bring progress home. Speaking of what used to be the frozen barrenness of her neighbor's backyard, Pierson wakes up one day to what it has become: "Now it was situated in the midst of ripe fullness. There were no gaping cracks anymore. There were no abandoned streets. No forgotten parks. No withered branch on which despir could alight, cawing and cawing until you put your hands over your ears and screamed, Enough! Lord, please, enough. And this felt bizarrely sad. At least it had been my despair, and very, very real." Yes, she can even lament the loss of her despair, empty streets, a forgotten place. Odd, and yet I know what she means --- it is, at least her place, and her memory.

When she reaches upstate New York Pierson's prose takes on a fury, perhaps because it is the place where she still resides. She bemoans the drowning of whole communities under reservoirs built to serve New York City, the loss of valleys, the fact that "just compensation" is never really just. There is a lot to learn here, a kind of mini-history of New York City's quest for water to quench the thirst of its teeming masses --- first, on Chambers Street on the isle of Manhatten, then moving upstate farther and farther with the Ashokan Reservoir (goodbye towns of Southeast Center, Milltown, Farmers Mills, and Red Mills). What do you do when you have no town to return to, when the church, schoolhouse, and home lie under water? She laments the loss of her own hillsides and other places of solitude to second homes for the wealthy, weekend mansions for the harried city people fleeing Manhattan.

But in the end, after all her venting, after most of her ink is spilled, Pierson has no answer to the march of progress. She comes to a sad resignation: "Wherever you go, it is coming to get you. (You can't stop progress.) Your job is to sit still and take it." Her aching conclusion is that we won't stop, that progress won't relent: "How much more do we get, how much more do we have to take? Enough is not too much. Too much is when we're gone. There is not a power upon the earth that will stop progress. Except progress itself. . . . Too bad we won't be around to celebrate our triumph over ourselves at last." Ouch. Futility? Is that her last word?

In an epilogue Pierson traces the literature of the back to nature movement, the many books that inspired city dwellers to leave civilization and seek the solitude (and hard work) of the rural life. It's a literature which circles around the image of the lonely cabin in the woods, an artistic convention from way back that captivates us. And yet even here fultility rears its head. She recognizes that there is really no turning back the clock, of undoing progress, of really rejoining nature. Summing them up, she says the cabin and the books embody the "universal impulse to long for childhood once it is irrevocably lost, and the wilderness offers a way to retrieve the childhood of man. . . ." And yet you can't go home again: "We press our noses against the glass and wish ourselves inside the cabin's warm embrace, even as we know that there is no real going back. The loss of how we used to be --- made from the materials of how we used to live --- must simply be borne. We are too far gone." All we have are our memories. All is lost.

Pierson's book of places, of lost landscapes, is beautiful in it's evocation of the sadness and reality of loss. It sticks to you, making you feel something, forcing you to remember much about your own places and long for homes you once knew. And yet as a Christian it is incomplete. Just as Pierson sees a devolution of the world under the engine of progress, there is a deeper engine unknown to her at work, a more subtle and yet more powerful "progress." The Creator is busy remaking his people, deconstructing pride and self-love and reforming hearts. Just so He is reforming culture and its places, the landscape of loss and of finding. Memory may be a well, but it is not a well in which we live but from which we draw to make things new. Ultimately God will make all things new, using the materials, the natural world, the cultural alleyways, and the landscapes of our memories in fashioning a new earth --- new and yet instantly familar. He knows us. He knows who we are and where we live and what we care about. And I can't help but think he will use all of this in making all things new. Never forget. Carry all the good you remember with you and invest it in the present.

My son asked me once what our heavenly home would be like. I told him it was like all the good we ever knew, every warm and cozy place, every smell of home, every grand lanscape seen. Only much, much more of all that is famllair to us. Instantly recognizable, and yet breathtakingly new --- a new place fashioned out of all we remember, long for, and dream of. Home. (Well, I said something like that!)

I should have known something would be missing in Pierson's book from the outset. God. Page One: "You can be traced back to a cell. But this cell needed to meet with bizarre chance so that it was this amoeba (and not that other amoeba) that washed up onshore amd started changing shape." Fundamentally, Pierson gives voice to a longing that cannot be met without God, for there is no Home to return to in the end. She writes well, portrayng the effects of that worldview honestly. It makes you want to weep for the lostness of everything and everyone. Thank God there is more to it.

Read this book. Read it and weep. And then read the rest of the story. You'll find it in Revelation 21. He is making everything new.


Dr. Shore Presents. . .

PodcastlogosmallMy friend and Pop Collective business partner Dr. Tony Shore (the "Dr." is an honorary title, sort of like the one Idi Amin gave himself) has produced the first installment of the Obvious Pop Podcast, 35 minutes of power-pop music from the likes of Jellyfish, Electric Light Orchestra, Fountains of Wayne, and more, with his humorous narration. I particularly like the original theme song by Ian Tanner. Give it a listen and check out his blog while you're at it here.

Tony was General Manager of my Silent Planet Records during its day, which he came to from a background in radio and label promotion. He brings some professionalism to the podcast that is sorely lacking in many homemade podcasts.

Now, maybe I'll have to get my own podcast. . . .


Baby, I Can Drive My Car (On the Landscape of Loss)

Scdilsobsign2This week I had the unenviable work-related obligation of traveling for nearly four hours each day for four consecutive days along the same stretch of three interstate highways. The firat part of Day One I listened to practically the entire Book of Romans on CD, a mental feat given the long run-on sentences of the Apostle Paul. That required some concentration which, frankly, I lacked, given what has happened and was happening outside my window. Thus, I shifted to an assortment of music --- Matthew Sweet, The Beach Boys, America, and Yes --- as a soundtrack for what I saw.

I both love and hate interstate highways, and I guess I love and hate cars. (More accurately, I love cars but hate what the car has done to the landscape of life.) Enough has probably been written on the effect of the car on society, much of which I read in undergraduate school in sociology and in graduate school in urban planning. But I guess what I can describe here is the inevitable sense of loss I experienced as I rode these marvelous (for speed, that is) interstate highways and enjoyed the speed and feel of the car under me.

Riding by farmland, some of which is now fallow, I know that the highways were preceded by eminent domain, that necessary evil of the modern state. Land, even land in your family for generations, can be confiscated by the government for any public purpose. It is unlikely that society could function without that power, and yet the loss is deeply felt. I remember well presiding over a condemnation action for the government, taking a 100 acre patch of scrub forest, pineland, and swamp for an expanding military installation, and watching a 70-year old man weep on the witness stand as he talked about his land, remembering hunting with his father on the land, picnics, and visiting the now delapidated homeplace on the land. We can shake our heads and say change is inevitable, but all such change comes with loss. And that's the loss I feel today, knowing that farms have been taken, bisected, and inevitably altered by the highway I now glide along. Even communities were separated by the limited access highways. And then the highways lured the next generation to cities and the promise of better jobs and a more exciting life than was offered in rural America. Progress, yes, and an end to a way of life as well.

Turning onto 1-95, southbound, I see the first of what must be hundreds of billboards for the tourist trap called South of the Border. This rural anomaly might be called a "classic" but for its blighted feel. I came here as a boy with my parents for fireworks, as they were illegal to sell in North Carolina. It later became, however, a place of outlet shopping and illegal lottery operations. It's ugly, and yet I know that it employed many rural poor and brought tax dollars into an otherwise poor county. But I wonder if they regret ever letting it in?

There are still scenic delights along the way, even on an interstate at great speed. Rivers hold some natural beauty, still, as in the Pee Dee River or the great Cape Fear. There are acres of pinelands in South Carolina and the blessed absence of billboards for a time. Nature impinges, but still it is like a movie rushing by. I roll down my window so I can feel and smell the air and try to grab some sensation of what kind of place this is. The highway is its own "place," and in one sense there is little to separate one interstate highway from another. I get off on an exit for gas. I pay for it, and the lady behind the counter is real, with a southern accent, someone from this place (which is Dillon, SC), and I know the movie has stopped for a moment and reality has cohered. It's a curious encounter for me, like most, in an unimportant in-between place, and yet it reminds me that most of life happens in these in-between places.

At times the highway parallels the remains of U.S. 301, the former north-south corridor, and the effects of the "superhighway" are on display. Just off the highway, the "Exit Motel" is but the last name for a motel property that in the Fifties and early Sixties was likely a quite comfortable stopover for families traveling south for vacation. Now, graffiti is scrawled across one large wall, the windows are vacant, and the parking lot crumbling and deserted. It's this way all along 301, limited access having ruined many a business that depended on a steady stream of traffic.

Inevitable change, right? It's "inevitability" makes it difficult to imagine alternative scenarios, and changes to the landscape make it difficult to remember how it was before. A kind of cultural forgetfulness sets in. Perhaps it truly is inevitable. Certainly it's not all bad. And yet loss pemeates the landscape.

How appropriate to be listening to The Beach Boys. That America is gone. How sad is that?