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August 2015

My Top-Down Dream

Lately I have been driving what had been my daughter’s 2005 Mini Cooper S Convertible. I’m cognizant of the fact that middle-aged men often buy sports cars, convertibles, or big trucks, and that this is looked upon as the sad embodiment of some dream they have of youth or muscle or manhood. But not me. Oh no. I have this car by default. My daughter went to Kansas and left it here.

Driving home from work downtown yesterday, I put the top down. I rarely do that. It’s too hot, too cold, too windy, too loud, or too. . . exposed. But with a touch of Fall in the air, and it being the weekend, I went for it. I loosened my tie. I pulled it off and tossed it over my shoulder into the back seat. I think. Driving by the Krispy Kreme, I realized while stopped under the shadow of its iconic sign, as I had not before when locked in the insulated environment of my non-convertible car, that you can smell the doughnuts from some distance. I wondered what it must be like to live downwind of a confectionary. If I lived here, I mused, the path between my house and the Krispy Kreme would be, as one gentlemen once quipped, “slicker than an otter’s slide,” so traveled it would be and so rotund would I be.

In fact, the smell itself triggered memories. Like being 10 and riding bikes in the wee hours of morning to Krispy Kreme in Greensboro, eating half a dozen doughnuts, and then riding, much slower, home, as if the tires had been deflated or our feet were dragging the ground. Or walking from then Peace College to Krispy Kreme for doughnuts back in college when doughnuts consumed did not translate to larger waist size. Or being here with my then young family after plays or choral concerts. Without the top down, I may never had thought such thoughts.

A city bus passes. It’s diesel loud, and a cloud of billowing black exhaust rolls over me. I hold my breath. I must endure. I am a writer, and this is experience.

When I roll to a stop at a traffic light, I feel a new sense of shyness. If the driver next door has a window down, I feel obligated to greet them, as if we are standing side by side — and yet, I hesitate. I position myself midway between cars, so as not to be put in this awkward position. Even more awkward is pulling up beside another convertible, particularly a lone female. I avoid that as well. I rest my arm on the window sill, my wedding band exposed. That she might care is, I know, a part of my delusion.

Once, I rolled to a stop by a man waiting for a bus. I nodded. “Hey, you like your Cooper?,” he said. I acknowledged that I did, that it was my daughter’s, that it was a stiff ride and hard on me — all to mitigate against what he must be thinking: There goes a man with a dream of youth.

Today, my wife went out with me. “Are you going to put the top down?,” she said. I did. Once I looked over at her and thought, we look like two oversized kids in a toy car. The wind was blowing her hair, tamed by a hat. I said, “You’re a good sport.” But she said she liked it, as long as she had a hat. I’m not nearly as self-conscious when she is with me. She’s a good reminder that I need worry less about me.

At home, memory triggered by my windy ride home, I pull a book from my shelves. Brave New Wanda. I reviewed the book once, years ago, and remember liking it best because it featured a 60s-era blue Cadillac convertible on its cover and documented a far ranging adventure by an unlicensed teen to find her daddy. One reviewer said “clever and idiosyncratic.” I don’t think I’ll read it again. I’m having my own adventure.


My Life in Books

What's the last time you went to a library? And I don't mean to just pick up a book. I mean to study, research, or just browse the shelves.

That's what I thought. That long.

I love libraries, particularly the old ones with bifocaled, pansophic ancient librarians that enforce a strict code of silence, shushing the gregarious. That's rare these days, and yet libraries should be quiet places, full of reverence and awe, places where you can think and daydream and even succumb to an osmotic nap on an open Intro to Anthropology book. I did.

In college I studied in a carrel by the window on the ninth and top floor of the book stack. Sometimes for a study warmup I'd run up the nine flights of stairs, just because I could. At the landing, winded, I would pause and compose myself, opening the door only when my breathing slowed, stepping into the quiet, breathing in the musty, inky smell of old books, settling into my place by the window. I looked out on the green trees of a local neighborhood and wondered what calculus meant, if I had made a mistake taking it, what I should do with my life, until I put the equation-filled tome aside and walked the corridors of history books, found something interesting and, absorbed, settled in.

Today, libraries are less for the solitary as for collaborators, chatty groups that ping-pong ideas off each other, and for Internet “research.” This can be shallow. And silence? Forget that. James Billington, head of the Library of Congress, says columnist Brian Bethune, “considers [libraries] crucial in the defense of global democracy, for the librarian-less Internet is no substitute. Billington [says] online life resembles an echo chamber, while in a library, contradictory arguments sit side by side on a shelf. That makes the library, Billington proclaims, the world’s best ‘antidote to fanaticism.’”

Fanaticism? Democracy? I wasn’t thinking about any of this in 1976. I was trying to get by, to figure things out. To figure me out. Snow drifted past the window by my carrel. Dusk came, and headlights and streetlights flicked on, and and even heavier silence fell on the library. Open until midnight, lonely volumes sought to be read, to matter. I ran my hand along the books, sometimes, imagined I could absorb their collected wisdom that way. “Read me,” “choose me,” they might have said, and some I courted, some I spurned. Their sad bindings slipped deeper into the darkness.

But you are probably thinking, you need a life, friend. Well, I got a life, eventually. I met a girl and married, but kept the books for mistress. Even now their siren call beckons.

Danny's Magnificent Defeat

In college I knew an upperclassmam named Danny. Danny was an amputee, having lost part of one arm above the elbow. Sometimes I met him on Hillsborough Street at Baxleys where he sat with his back to the wall having lunch and reading his Bible. He was always reading his Bible, on a first name basis with the women who served (only women then, all ancient), and always ready to talk about Jesus.

One day Danny gave me a small booklet on self-denial, on living unto Christ in all things. I could read down its short paragraphs and tick off my failures. Yet I carried it with me that freshman year. It was in my shirt pocket, a prickly reminder of my self-love, or laid on the corner of my desk in the evenings, whispering “conviction.” I can’t remember what it said, but I remember its feel, and it haunts me like a tactile memory.

Frederick Buechner once spoke in a sermon of the “magnificent defeat.” I think that’s what Danny was onto. Speaking of how Jacob wrestled with God, Buechner said “God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure.” I’m still learning that, but 39 years ago, Danny started me on that path to surrender, of laying down my life. I’m not very good at it, but it’s one battle I’ll be glad to lose.

Buechner leaves his parishioners with this: “Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” One day maybe we can say that losing our lives is wonderful. For now, it’s hard.

Leaving Prayers

After a quick lunch today, I drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood, wasting a little time among the tree-shaded streets, to think, heart full.  I found myself in a city park, my car parked facing a field, a place I go to pray sometimes.

I remembered Edith Schaeffer writing about praying while on a crowded city bus, in almost-perfect communion with God amongst the din.  Here I am, in near quiet, distracted by great oaks and birds lighting on branches in front of me, on God’s distractions.  I am trying to pray Collisions 2:6-7 for someone, asking that God would allow this one “to walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith. . . abounding in thanksgiving,” a verse I learned by memory long ago.  Open-eyed, my mind skitters off track, so I pray the distractions, wrap them up in praise. 

Walking in Him. That’s tough. Growing in Him. That’s a process of fits and starts. Who will water the roots, I wonder? Who will build the life of faith? Who will walk with them to help them find their way?

God knows.

When I drive off, I leave the prayer, full of questions, hanging there on a branch still twittering, perched there with the birds about whom He cares.

Mapping Our Memory

If I were to draw a map of the memory of this weekend, there would be dead end roads, roads that peter out in the wilderness of unfulfilled longings, and tangential roads that seem to have no relation at all to the memories we have. On the other hand, there would be great intersections of thought, the bright confluence of shared experiences, and great refreshing swaths of village greens and blue water to soothe parched souls.

We took a trip to the coast. It was all these things. Somehow, in the bright and relentless Summer sun, a Appalachian breeze blew. Pelicans and sea gulls flew overhead, barely working their wings, the lightness of their beings soaring to the heavens and once came so close she could have reached out and touched their wings.

I was reading poetry by the pool and heard two teens talking about the beach at Monte Carlo. That doesn't happen everyday. A slight man helped his stout but partially paralyzed wife into the water. My skin hot to touch, I slid in too, into the deep, surfacing only to hang on the side, arms outstretched, like a beached sea lion on Fisherman's Wharf docks.

One night I sat with my daughter enjoying ice cream while a Sixty-ish couple settled into their van. A oversize lab crawled into the woman's lap, laying his great head and paws outside the window, a canine clerk at a fast food restaurant window. I smiled. My daughter left and my wife came and sat down with me, as I finished my oatmeal cookie cinnamon ice cream, not wanting me to be alone. She is smiling at me. I am never alone.

One night I shared a bedtime devotion with my 21-year old daughter, analogizing God's work in our lives to the building of a great skyscraper. For so long I say, we see nothing but the great hole of our lives, a lot of effort but nothing to show for it, but God is digging down so that he can build up, His work unseen. I am preaching to myself, really, but she says "I like to think of it as Him pulling back an arrow, so that He can let us fly," and at that moment the roads on our maps intersect in recognition, before we draw away on our separate journeys. I think back and remember crossing a road or sitting beside each other, holding hands almost subconsciously, not talking, feeling like US1 and US1Alt, having the same heading but separate terrain to traverse.

Maps make it all seem simple. The open road is an adventure. My advice: Carry a map at all times and pray yourself Home.

God's Breath

A narrow break in the marsh grass led me into a small pool, no more than 12 inches deep.  The cordgrass, spartina alterniflora, to be exact, begins in a muckish black soil and is gray to the high tide line, then a pleasing khaki skyward.  Until reading about it, I didn't know it flowered.  I did know its importance, its role as habitat for mussels and birds.

I raised my paddle high to indicate where I was located, as you cannot see over the grass that rises three to five feet over the water, reaching for a sky that is an expansive blue.  Looking down I see a blue-tinted crab skitter away, sideways, over the sand beneath, littered with barnacles, and I apologize for my intrusion. I press through the grass, poling my way when the water level is low, scraping along on the sand until emerging, rejoining my family.

We made our way up the channel this morning, against the tide and wind, hugging the shore past tethered boats, paddle-boarders, and a group of long-distance swimmers, heads down, following the tide. When my hands tire of gripping the paddle, I place its bar across my lap, let my hands trail in the water until the tide begins to push me backwards. The bottom is 11 to 14 feet down, and fish ply the water, even dolphin. I wish for one now.

We make the bridge and enjoy the shade underneath, the water lapping the pilings, before pressing on, rounding a promontory that juts out, and dig in, the wind pushing harder.  After the corner, we enter a narrow cut, slide beneath another graying bridge built in 1955, the year my wife was born, and begin to wind our way through the marshland. At high tide, the water is still shallow yet plenty deep for a kayak, and I think it still until I stop and begin sliding back, slowing under the pull of the tide.  In a few hours this small channel will become non-navigable, the domain of only wildlife.  A heron's graceful neck extends above the grass.  As we move closer, she flies farther in, lighting around the next bend, watching us warily.  She continues this movement, always a 100 yards ahead.

"What makes the tides?" someone says, and I say "The rotation of the earth, mostly," having just read that the day before, I thought, "and the moon, a bit."  I say it like I know it for sure, but I don't.  I plan to google it later and revise my certitude.  I do, actually, and I am wrong --- the gravitational pull of the moon is the primary factor in causing the tides; the rotation explains the sloshing motion, the high and low.

When we reach the end of the channel, the tidal action is almost nil, yet not quite. We turn for home and feel its slight catch. Paddling out, we are pushed along, the tide and wind like a gentle hand at our backs.  Passing under the bridge into the larger channel, I look up and, at that moment, I see someone I know. He is walking, but I am flying to the sea, God's breath at my back, the sun high, my mind still in His glory.  I do not hale him.  To speak would diminish the moment.


After reading less than one paragraph of Simon Garfield's Just the Type: A Book About Fonts, I can't stop noticing the shape and look of the typefaces all around me, whether the red, bold, all caps of the NO WAKE sign that I paddled wearily by today, against the tide and wind, or the artistic flourish on the face of a Hobie paddleboard we were shown later on by a bearded, mature surfer explaining the differences in the boards to us. I'm too old for this, I type, in Geriatric font.

At work I am surrounded by a stodgy Courier New which, I assume, someone believes is a dignified medium of legal documents, having gravity --- a serious font for serious matters. In fact, the relatively serious Times New Roman showed up in the waiver of liability I signed earlier today, where I agreed I would not hold the bearded surfer who called me dude liable if I killed myself vaulting through the waterway. Just once, I'd like to file a legal document in something more playful, like Chalkduster or Felt Marker. (I'd also like to enliven the briefs by relevant drawings, my own, perhaps something Rorschach-like, open to interpretation. . . but I'd like to keep my job.)

Fonts convey moods and are often selected to help sell us something, convey excitement, mark a brand (and include you in the tribe) or (as in the case of legal documents) invite sober consideration. Yet these messages are subconscious; we are not often aware of how we are being impacted. It's not devious, or usually not anyway, but it is often purposeful. Hobie? Dude, that makes me want to think I could get amped and catch a wave. But then, as I look over the surf shop employees, probably not.

Being aware of type is just a part of being attentive to the world, of living life with eyes wide open. Garfield's previous books about letter-writing, cartography, and stamp collecting are just as fascinating and eye-opening, a mind expanding experience without LSD. While we can't live in such a state of high alert that we are constantly aware of the richness of either natural, built, or cultural environment around us --- as such manic attentiveness would literally drive us crazy --- we can cultivate a better love of Creation, of the rich and varied world God has given us. Type is just one of those parts of life that can better enrich us if we notice and understand its effect on us. Even the pleasing Helvetica of these words I type makes me feel good, the letterforms pleasing to the eye. My own handwriting, not so much.

Maybe, say the words on the surfboard, you could do it, with a little practice, maybe on a steady longboard, maybe. . . For God so loved the world. . . . So should we. Even as tiny a thing as type. A word. A letter. The dot on an eye. All of it. Cowabunga.


It’s difficult to define the conjunction “but,” but (there you go) we all understand what is meant when it is said. Children often hear it as limitation or restriction. “You can go out and play,” my mother would say, “but come in for dinner,” thereby putting boundaries on my play. “You can go to the park, wherever you like, “she’d say, expansively, “but don’t get in the water.” I felt tethered.

The Bible is full of “but.” The first one is also experienced by Adam and Eve as a word of limitation. In Genesis 3:3, answering the serpent, Eve echoes the prohibition spoken by God in 2:16: “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But God said. After a burst of explosive creative activity marked by the word “let,” as in “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), Adam and Eve stumble over the first “but,” over the first “shall not.” And yet the prohibitions are intended to maximize our freedom to be who we were fashioned to be. Not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil preserved our sinless state, where all we would have done would have been permitted and good.

But not only is “but” a word of prohibition, it can also be a word that heralds overcoming. The familiar John 3:16 ends with the promise that those who believe in Jesus “shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Psalmist says “My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:27). The long lament of the writer of Lamentations, a thesis of judgment, is broken by the antithesis of hope contained in vv. 21-23: “But this I call to mind, and therefore have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.”

My mother ended her days on earth under the pall of Parkinson’s Disease, a sickness which progressively restricts movement and lucid thought, tethered, as if God said “you can live and breathe and see, but you cannot leave this bed, this room, this place.” But who am I to say that this word of restriction did not give her soul a freedom she had never known, that she experienced her Father in a way that she might not have without that illness?

Joseph, after enduring all he did at the hands of brothers, all that was allowed by God to happen, could say “For it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:8). But he didn’t know that until later. And we don’t always know that until later, if at all. Yet we can live in antithesis. Faced by difficulty or challenge, with what seems like restrictions on our ability to play out our lives, we can say, “but God.”

Driving, Home

Driving home tonight, my car chiseled out a path in a lingering fog and rain. Streetlights are muted, soft, the light lying gently on the asphalt. I consider them shining all night on no one, persisting without anyone to be grateful for them, anyone to notice. Electrical current continues to flow, a slight hum of the light-song beneath. I noticed, anyway.

The soundtrack for such rumination is, again, The Innocence Mission. My Room In the Trees is not my favorite of their albums musically, but its subdued tone and lack of a standout song fits this nocturnal drive through a half-hearted rain and tentacled fog. Lyrically, rain abounds in the lyrics. Karen Peris sings “rain sails us in a leafy boat down the street,” or about blow[ing] down alleyways in our raincoats,” about walking under clouds, the “gentle rain at home,” how the “streets were in a downpour,” about “raincoats and lakes,” and how “all we can do with the rain is shout for joy.” Here too are affirmations of God’s care in the weather of life, that “God is love and love will never fail me,” how “across the morning, the beautiful air/ I will be aware/ my Father is there/ and stay calm,” how “everything that is broken you’ll mend.” Hearing these phrases, the rain and fog become assuring, like a personification of God’s love.

I turn right, up the hill from the valley, home. When I first saw this valley 45 years ago, cows grazed its grass taking water at its creek. Now, concrete covers most of it. Commerce, not cows rules. Yet, glancing at it, I can imagine the owls in the trees along the creek bank still carrying some dim instinctual memory of that day, passed down by ancestors, or a fox traversing its banks, homeward bound, ears alert. Or even beaver, damming.

But thinking of what’s lost, of what’s changed, I just want to be home. As I sail upstream, alone in the light of night, I hear “my Father is there,” and I smile.

The One Jesus Loves

I dislike mixers. When on occasion I am required to attend a conference for work, and there is the obligatory mixer on the second full day in, I usually skip it. First there is the intimidation posed by little clumps of people standing together who seem to already know each other. And second, there is the fact that much of this discussion is idle chatter that dances around who we really are. We’re not entering into long-term relationships with these people, so it seems like a vain exercise. No one is saying who they really are. (Well, occasionally someone might, but usually there is a warning sign attached to them.)

In her devotional for children, Thoughts to Make your Heart Sing, Sally Lloyd-Jones nails what I really want to say in such networking events, and what would likely part the waters:

“When you first meet someone, she might
ask, ‘Who are you?’

And you might say, ‘Well, I’m So-and-So.
and I’m very good at this thing and that
thing and here’s where I live and this is
my family and — ‘

But do you know who God says you are?

The one Jesus loves.”

At least one disciple of Jesus referred to himself in just that way, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” or the “beloved disciple.” Yet we all have such warrant. All over the world we identify ourselves by our vocation, family history, tribe, nation, interests, and religion. But is it not paramount, a primary identity, to say, “I’m [insert name], the one Jesus loves?” (Gal. 2:20).

So that’s another reason I don’t go to mixers. One day, there might come that awkward moment of introduction, when eyes turn toward me, and I tell them who I really am.

Mapping My Reality

In rush hour the city is like a great lung that first inhales and then exhales, drawing me to work, and then sending me home. While the traffic flows in my city of work have increasingly become asymmetric — going all ways, that is, at once — there is still an identifiable flow of traffic to the center city in morning and converse outflow to the suburbs in evening. Commuting is organic and barely conscious, like breathing, a living product of tens of thousands of cars and their inhabitants on the move.

My car is a leaf on the breath of the city, floating home on air, shaking the dust of work off my feet on the exodus. Inbound, I worship in song or, in stillness, pray, readying for the battle of the day; outbound, I party. Morning is sober; evening I am drunk on the thought of home. Sometimes, even in heat and exhaust, I roll down the windows, let the air rush in, hear the engine — even, in the still of a traffic light, hear the call of a lone sentry bird on its own homeward flight. The open window lets me map the real, uninsulated from the current.

There is a regular current of air I travel, and yet I sometimes deviate for amusement. One path finds me floating through historic and inner ring neighborhoods, over a topography that is undulating, wooded, and without easily identifiable landmarks. I travel it so seldom that I grope my way each time, sometimes missing one or more of the 15+ turns, backing up or turning around, so that driving home becomes an adventure.

This afternoon, I dredged up a faded paper map of the city, spread its creased pages across the patio table, and beheld the webbed and meandering streets. I have always looked at maps, as I seem to have been born with a question: Where am I? Sitting in church as a young child I would draw elaborate maps of my world, or a fantasy world, while my father’s watch ticked out the minutes until benediction.

Unlike GPS, a map allows you to see things whole, to affix a grid of the city to your mind to orient yourself when lost. Finger on paper, I followed the wriggled lines of my deviated path home, realizing that it was not made for easy passage, being full of dead end streets, turn upon turn, and parks and divided highways that imposed barriers to passage. I tried to fix the names of streets in my mind, but I know they will leave me. In the end, the adventure will remain, a mirror to my spirit.

In Skyfaring, pilot Mark Vanhoenacker concludes that “whatever our idea of the sacred, our simplest questions — how the one relates to the many, how time equates to distance, how the present rests on the past as simply as our lights lie on each night’s darkened sphere — are rarely framed as clearly as they are by the window of an airplane. We look through it, over snowcapped cordilleras in the last red turn of the day, or upon the shining night-palmistry of cities, and we see the window is a mirror, briefly raised upon the world.” Just so, earthbound, I hold up my mirror to the city, on a drive, and ask, “Where am I?” Under a blinking caution light I slow to a stop and send a prayer skyward.


Comfort Across the Ages

GiudgeAll day it seems I have been waiting until the respite when I can sit with book in hand and read. I had two such interludes of 15 minutes each; the reading was electric, a book entitled The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America. As I have lingering cough from a cold, the distraction of reading takes my mind off the tickle in my throat and discomfort of giving in.

Reading is respite, medicinal. In a 1964 anthology I discovered in my mother’s library, entitled A Book of Comfort, Elizabeth Goudge collects scripture, poems, and bits of prose and wisdom literature. Grudge, who died in 1984, was an English author and Christian well known for her 1946 fantasy The Little White Horse, a book that J.K. Rowling identified as a direct influence on the Harry Potter series. The title itself invites. In her preface, Goudge says

“The sources of our comfort are legion, and cannot be counted, but if we attempted the impossible and tried to make a list most of us would place books very high indeed, perhaps second only to faith, for reading is not only a pleasure in itself, with its concomitants of stillness, quietness and forgetfulness of self, but in what we read many of our other comforts are present with us like reflections seen in a mirror. If the light of our faith flickers we can make it steady again by reading of the faith of the saints, and hearing poetry sing to us the songs of the lovers of God. In the absence of children we can read about them, and in the cold and darkness of midwinter, look in the mirror of our book and see flowers and butterflies, and spring passing into he glow and warmth of summer.”

Stillness. Quietness. Forgetfulness of self. Those words seem alien to our time. I know only two ways to ways to cultivate such qualities: prayer and reading. It is a symptom of our time that on a weekend day I managed not more than 30 minutes of both such disciplines.

IMG_4188I don’t know if my mother read much of the book. Thumbing through the pages, they retain a stiffness that suggests she didn’t, that perhaps it wasn’t to her taste. But between pages 92 and 93 — perhaps where her persistence flagged — I found a handmade card to me from my Sunday school class, signed by Elizabeth, Wayne, David, Sherrie, Carla, Terrie, and Mrs. Hendren, enjoining me to “get well in one or two days.”

Having a cold, I needed that well-wish across a half-century as if yesterday. Comforted, I place the card back in the book, between pages 92 and 93. I may need it later.

Notes for Writers Young and Old

Annie Dillard, besides being a fine writer (think Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) has some wonderful suggestions for writers:

“Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go.” I’d add that you have to read everything you write out loud. Can you dance to it? If so, you have a keeper.

“Learn grammar. Get a grammar book and read it two or three times a year. (Struck and White is a classic.)” I’d add that the illustrated version is best.  See Spot run. Illustrated grammar. Omit needless words.

“Always locate the reader in time and space — again and again.” On August 7th she sat at her desk high in her room above campus, a single lined page in front of her, one ink blue word on the paper. She put down her pen, placed her palm on the window, savoring its cold, and watched the traffic light at the intersection beat out time as she remembered. Well, you get the point.

“Don’t write about yourself.” Bang. Annie get your gun. I second this. If you find yourself endlessly interesting, please don’t write about it. If you are that interesting, someone else will write about you. Wait for it.

“Never, never get yourself into a situation where you have nothing to do but write and read. You’ll go into a depression. You have to do something good for the world, something undeniably useful; you need exercise, too, and people.” Life is your research. Steal your experiences. Ride the bus sometime so you can write about it. Walk a different way home, so you can write about it. Meet someone. Learn something. So you can write about it. If you don’t live, you have nothing to say.

So that’s just five of the many Annie Dillard aphorisms. In her essay, “Notes for Young Writers,” there are many more. But here’s a few of my own. You can do them even if you don’t write.

Hold something. You have to use some discretion here. A smooth stone, a leaf, a gray cat, tree bark — holding something reminds you that writing starts with the particular, not the universal, with the concrete, not the abstract. Invert that rule and you become pedantic, boring.

End with a pithy sentence. My son rebelled against this exhortation, yet “pithy,” in addition to being a fun word to say (if you don’t spit with it), leaves the reader with a place to go without telling them what to think. I recommend it.

Don’t worry about what you going to say before you say it. Just begin. Begin with where you are, what you saw, what you heard, or what you read. Let it take you where it will. You can always back up and rework it.

Use round words. I mean words that you can swim around in. All thinking, Dorothy Sayers reminds us, is analogic, that is, we know the word’s meaning by reference to something else, but good writers use words that provide vivid or even multiple analogies. Renovate. Refuge. Pluperfect. Pimpernel. Scarlet. Scaffolding. Free associate. It’s fun.

And one more: Write something every day, even if it’s terrible. I mean really terrible. We need the discipline. You don’t have to (please don’t) share it.

So maybe you don’t write and don’t care to. Still, there’s one thing you can take to heart. Step away from the monitor, television screen, tablet, or smartphone and take something or someone in hand. Remind yourself what’s real. Whether writer, reader, or just human, we all need to wake up to life, need to savor the incarnate.

That's all.


Shout for Joy

After arriving at home, a slight rain started. I pried open my study window to hear its patter, drops on shingle pooling, slow rivulets of water trickling down the roof’s slope into a gutter newly cleaned. A robin peered across the pine floor, eyes sharp for worms or seeds that make do. A downspout drip beat out a rhythm, kept time for evening thoughts.

The rain did not live up to the sky’s portent. Earlier, driving home, an untimely darkness descended, clouds pressing down, like a canvas tent-roof puddled by rain-catch threatening to burst any moment. But it refrained, only a light spray washing down, enough to speckle the windshield, like a playful flick of God’s wet hand.

On the radio, Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission sang “Rain or shine, this street of mine is golden. . . God is love, and love will never fail me.” Here now, by the window-gap, reminded, I reach for the CD, run my finger past Peter Himmelman’s Skin, smiling at his wit, until my fingers find the Is, and the album, My Room in the Trees, where, opening it, I find the words, “God is Love. . . I can walk under these clouds.”

An article I read on Walker Percy — whose book, “The Moviegoer,” perches promisingly on a shelf above — reminds me of his theory that people feel better in hurricanes, or bad weather. As the writer, Walter Isaacson, summarizes, “Percy’s diagnosis was that when we are mired in the everydayness of ordinary life, we are susceptible to what he called ‘the malaise,’ a free-floating despair associated with the feeling that you’re not a part of the world or connected to the people in it. You are alienated, detached.” Monks called it the “noonday demons” and, in its most chronic form, “acedia.” I know its atmosphere, a languid calm.

But my cat is at my feet, gazing intently, her gentle face pitched upwards, inquiring of me as I type this sentence. She has nothing particular in mind but my attention, to distract. But I forgive her, as she is a prop for mood, for ambience, who added to the sounds of the evening, memory of the drive, and thoughts of Walker Percy, make incarnate those words, “God is love.” I pick her up, drape her gelatinous and malleable form over my shoulder, and let her low purr reverberate through me until, satisfied, she pushes away, the rain slowing.

Percy was right. When my wife and I were dating (or friending, for lack of a better term), we were happy in the fury of a thunderstorm observed from the safety of the indoors. We loved the thunder, the rain, the clapping of God’s hands. Maybe it is the sense of security. More likely it is the wonder of connectedness to a Creation not safe, but good. And when the storms ended, perhaps malaise is not the word for what descended, but mundanity, the ordinary run-of-the-mill returning, like work and dishes, laundry and love: The ordinary works of love. Faithfulness in rush-hour. The stewardship of minutes. Grace.

The rain has stopped. Birds emerge and begin to chirp and tweet. The last muted light of day is failing. “Oh, its over,” sings Peris, “all the weather is gone.” A few soggy leaves strewn across gray shingles, drying, are all that remain, but these words. Here, at the end, my fingers still, like Peris, “I said so little. . . The words all flew away, up away from me, up into the trees, where they shout, shout for joy.”

For that I am thankful.

Learning to Count

“We went through fire and and through water; but you brought us out to rich fulfillment” (Ps. 66:12)

Psalm 66 is one of thanksgiving, of God’s faithfulness not only to a particular person (“I will tell you what he has done for my soul”) but for a community of people (“he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man”). Just as all particular acts of faithfulness point back to the great deliverance of God’s people in the Exodus in the Old Testament, all particular acts of faithfulness in the present point back to Jesus, to his death and resurrection, and even further back to the Exodus. God has delivered and is delivering an exiled people from Egypt, from Babylon, from Rome, from America, from the bondage of sin. He is making a people for Himself.

In the meantime, though, there’s fire and water. James says “Count it all joy, brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Ja. 1:2). He doesn’t say it IS joy, much less that it is happy, which would be nonsense, but he says we count it as joy, meaning, I think, that we can look beyond the moment to what it produces.

I just wish there was an easier way to get there. For some folks, that kind of counting comes hard. You have to learn to count that way.

My mother, who had Parkinson’s Disease, pretty much laid in a bed in a nursing home for two years. She was a believer. She wasn’t angry or bitter. She didn’t take refuge in self-pity. At the same time, she wasn’t happy. I do not know how she did that. Maybe in her better moments she was able to count it all joy. Maybe being so near the door of eternity she could, at times, glimpse a life come. I hope to count like her and then be “brought [ ] out to rich fulfillment.”

The Psalmist here speaks of real trials, of being brought into the net, of having a crushing burden laid on his back, of the Lord letting men ride over his head, of all the things God let happen to him. And yet he still blesses God, “because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!” (v. 20).

Frederick Buechner says "I only know about myself — that often it’s in my own darkest times, or out of them somehow, has come a treasure, a glimpse of something beyond or deep at the heart of suffering." All to say suffering is universal and yet individual, unique to each person. God comes to each of us in His own way. To some of us He has more to teach.

The psalm is one of promise and challenge. Can we bless God when he lets us suffer? Will we trust His work in fire and water?

The Speech of the Oh So Wise

I’m mildly interested in politics and yet feel incompetent to say anything about it. The politicians themselves and pundits seem to say enough, or more than enough. What I am interested in The Word and words.

Thomas Franks' recent essay in Harper’s Weekly, entitled “Broken English,” tackles the worn out cliches of political speech — words often divorced from a context that has been forgotten, making them seem oddly misplaced if you know their original context. He also attacks contingent-speak, as when a commentator or politician says “one might argue” such and such, a distancing effect, “an extraordinary divorce of speaker from subject.” He concludes that this oh so wise usage is “a kind of shortcut to objectivity, and suggests that the pundit in question doesn’t actually believe something — oh heavens no — but is merely reporting that the belief might be held by someone, somewhere.” This kind of roundabout speech, always with an escape hatch, is, he says, intended to cue the audience to the presence of a professional, or an elite if you will, one undoubtedly “complicated.” Right.

Do me a favor: If you hear me talk like this, call me on it. This ranks on my list of barely tolerable speech, like that of publicists and music business A&R people who always tell you what you want to hear, and then quietly act otherwise. Or people who seem unable to commit to a date (dinner, Friday?) because something better may come along and they may be left out (FOMO). Say what you mean people! Say it with love, if you can, but say it.

My parents didn’t speak like this. They never said “It might be a good idea if you cleaned your room.” It was just “Clean your room.” They also never said “one might argue that doing your homework is a good idea.” Just “Sit down and do your homework.” Their directives were few (actually, clean your room was not on the list) but. . . well. . . direct, meant to be obeyed. Indeed, words were often unnecessary; the code was written on my heart. (Ok, so I didn’t always obey, but there was no contingency.)

Which brings me to cliches, the refuge of the pundit and politician: Stop. Like “lay down a marker.” Heard that enough? Users of the phrase, Franks notes, have no idea that it originated in gambling parlance, likely popularized by a famous line from a musical, Guys and Dolls, where “the gambler Nathan Detroit utters this famous line: ‘A marker is the one pledge a guy cannot welsh on, never.'” All of which gives enhanced meaning to the statement that “voting for such and such politician may be quite a gamble.” Or how about when pundits talk about one politician “eviscerating” another? Really? Disembowelment? It’s an over-the-top husk of a phrase that should be consigned to the word dump. Somewhat tongue in cheek Franks concludes that all of “[t]his lingo is the jittery patter of a would-be democratic aristocracy, utterly incapable of introspection and yet better than the rest of us in every way.” I can't listen.

There. I’ve said nothing about politics and something about words. But I leave you with the unstated biblical truth of what Franks is saying: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37). Simple-speak is disarming and refreshing. Indeed, one might argue that this biblical exhortation is good advice.



ChiiledAs I have been reading Harper Lee’s “new” book, Go Set a Watchman, which involves many of the same characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, imagine my surprise to find Boo Radley mentioned on the first page of Tom Jackson’s Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do So Again. Jackson analogizes the refrigerator to Boo, “normally pale, frequently indoors, seldom thought about much but always there, and in the end (spoiler alert) we need it to make everything right.” I’m only 50 pages in, but what I love about this entertaining book is the way it takes something in the background, that we take for granted, and gives it a starring role. For a moment, anyway. Anyone ever make you feel that way?

I have a lot of memories associated with refrigerators. I hung out with refrigerators as a child, as my Dad was partners in an appliance dealership. After hours, we ran around the showroom and stock room, opening doors and closing doors, the new smell of rubber wafting out, clambering over boxes in search of hiding places, and pushing any button we could find. And then my best friend used to come over and enter our always unlocked kitchen door and help himself to some food in our fridge. Mostly, a cheese slice.

KelvinatorMy grandmother never quite got used to having any refrigerator but a Kelvinator, one of the early refrigerators, first produced in 1916. She called all refrigerators kelvinators, and until I was old enough to know better, I thought that’s what they all were. Then came Whirlpools and Maytags, and I had to adjust my thinking, allow for differing personalities. But the squatty Kelvinator stuck for a while.

My dad kept a pitcher of water in the refrigerator. He’d come in the house sometimes, and I’d be in bed in my room off the kitchen, and I’d hear him open the door, slide the pitcher out, uncap it, and take a long drink right from it. Guilty! Of course, we were told not to do that. Since I was the last one asleep, I heard it all. Once, very late, he came in. His mother had died. He took a very long drink that night and I believe he stood there for awhile, maybe leaning up against the refrigerator. I heard him.

I’ve been to Africa five times, and I can tell you, there are not nearly as many refrigerators on that continent as here, and almost none in rural villages. Air conditioning is limited to some shops and offices in the cities. Usually, the first cold air I feel in Africa is a blast from the interior of a KLM jet. . . when I’m leaving. I feel that and am already gone into the West, a whole world of heat and humidity and wood fire smell behind me.

When I worked for a department store in high school, I delivered a few refrigerators to buyers. But I don’t want to think about that. Putting one in a trailer is a challenge. That’s why I went to law school. I’d rather die by the law than on the steps of a trailer out of which we just dropped a refrigerator. Sorry, I didn’t want to think about that.

Do you know how a refrigerator works? Be honest. Or lie. Either way, Jackson does a good job of explaining it without getting all nerdy-engineer on us. I like this description: “A refrigerator is a ‘heat pump,’ which on the face of it is an uninspiring term. However, dig a little deeper into the concept and it reveals something rather amazing —- tiny acts of rebellion against the conformity of the universe.” What? As he explains, a heat pump pushes heat against the universal flow, pushing heat out of the food and freezer compartments into the surroundings, and as a result everything inside gets colder. Hmmm. And I thought it blew cold air into the compartments. I don’t know anything. Tiny acts of rebellion. War on the law of thermodynamics. I know about rebellion. My tiny acts of rebellion were so tiny no one noticed. Do those matter? (Like once I drank out of the pitcher of water, just like my dad.)

My mother’s refrigerator was always covered with magnets, cutesy ones as well as photo magnets. At least I think so. It’s been so long. I used to lean against its coolness and talk to her as she cooked or cleaned, as word seem to sound better in the air of the kitchen, and then I’d open the fridge and pull out an ice cold Coke, in the small bottle, with a chunk of cheddar cheese. Cheese and coke. And Matlock, her favorite TV show. During the show you could not talk with her, as she was glued to the screen, her head actually leaning forward to catch his every golden word. Before that, it was The Fugitive, with David Jansen, on whom she may have had a crush. I’d make more than one trip to the refrigerator. Tiny acts of rebellion. In fact, to my shame, I associate the refrigerator with TV; I can’t have one without the other.

He’s right. I need the refrigerator to make everything right. I might give mine a name: Boo. Excuse me while I go see Boo.

Dry Bones Dance

Today’s sermon on Ezekiel 37 sent me back to a song by the very late Mark Heard, called “The Dry Bones Dance.” If you recall, the very odd vision given the prophet in Ezekiel 37 was a vision of a valley of bones — the remains of his friends and family — being re-enfleshed and animated, given the breath of life, being reborn. The lesson: God’s words give life to dead people, to dead places, literally bring back from the dead those who are very, very dead.

In his song, Mark Heard sings “Every now and then I seem to dream these dreams/ Where the mute ones speak and the deaf ones sing/ Touching that miraculous circumstance/ Where the blind ones see and the dry bones dance.” What he points to is the idolatry of self that so many of us are trapped in without God — mute, deaf, and lifeless, “prisoners of the small worlds that orbit in our skulls.” And yet his dream is really the Gospel, the hope that dead men and dead places will once again live, “where the dead ones live and the hurt ones heal,” “where the orphans suckle and the slaves go free.”

I confess that a fatalistic demon regularly whispers to my heart, saying nothing changes, people don’t change, creation unwinds from entropy, and culture devolves, with no countervailing life-animating force. And yet scripture and history say otherwise. It’s in those times I pray “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Like Ezekiel, I need a reminder that God has given us life-giving words that, once spoken, do not return void.

In another song off the same album, “Strong Hand of Love,” Heard sings “We can laugh and we can cry/ And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows/ We can dance and we can sigh/ And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows.” He reminds us that so much of what God does is hidden, a kingdom built in stealth. Outside our vision, things are happening, a re-animating Spirit is bringing new life.

To a hopeless people in exile, God says speak to the dead. That seems useless. God says “Can these bones live?” and Ezekiel says “O Lord God, only you know,” meaning only God can do it. The demon whispers “Can these bones live? Can people change? Can a culture be transformed? The only way to silence its petulance is to say three words: dry bones dance. He’ll remember, and flee.

[The video here is of poor quality but is of Mark's last performance, at Cornerstone Music Festival,  before his untimely death.]


Atticus Finch's Fall From Grace

Go TellIf Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Tell a Watchman, was an inchoate version of the famous To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s still masterful in capturing the feel of a Southern town, its latent (and sometimes patent) racism, its fear lurking beneath the surface of its dignity, and yet its beauty. I can forgive Lee for humanizing Atticus Finch, for stripping him of his purity in old age, because Lee gives such wonderful descriptions of Maycomb.

When a nearly 30-year old Scout (known here mainly as Jean Louise), after finding her father in the company of a racist “citizens’ committee,” steps out onto the yard of her father’s home, the description is moving:

“On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbird’s early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world. She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines to a brilliant eastern sky, and her senses would have succumbed to the joy of morning.”

But not that morning, as her father, a man she remembered as a defender of the unpopular, of a black man accused of rape, had fallen from grace. I am midway; the rest of the book no doubt works out the conflicted feelings she must have. Yet in the end, we all know this story: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Even Atticus Finch.

But that’s not the end of the story. I’ll keep reading.


Bustin' Out

I didn't like camp. In fourth grade, when my Mom suggested it, it seemed like fun. I enlisted my best friend but, then, at the last minute, he backed out and I had to go alone. I didn’t want to go any longer. If you can be homesick before you even leave home, I was. But, the money paid, I had to go. So my Mom drove me to camp and left me. I watched her car pull away, the taillights of her Oldsmobile rounding the corner. I was alone.

Well, not exactly alone. I was standing with about 40 other kids and a handful of counselors. I think it felt sort of like it might feel if you had just climbed out of the prison bus, you and a lot of other poor souls consigned to hard time. I pulled myself together, barely, and began to plot my escape.

That night, I told my bunkmate Sam that I was going to bust out. “Where you gonna go?” he said. “I don’ know. I need a map. I gotta figure out where I am.”

No, no that didn’t really happen. I imagined that conversation. I wish it had happened. I thought so hard and long about getting home that I dreamed stuff up.

That night, after Rev. Huffstedtler said devotions and the lights went out, I lay in my bunk, wide awake. Our regular counselor didn’t show, for some reason, and Rev. Huffstedtler, who I think was about a hundred years old, was our sub. I think our cabin went to sleep a little earlier than other cabins. I lay in my bunk, the sheets sticking to me in the humidity, and I listened as one by one eleven boys drifted off to sleep, their breathing becoming heavy, and Rev. Huffstedtler began snoring loudly, wheezing. I couldn’t sleep. Who was I kidding? There were no cell phones, and no access to the camp phone, and I didn’t know where I was and had no map. I was consigned to sleepless, sweaty nights, open air cold showers, and no contact with the outside world. I wanted to go home. It was dark and airless. Even God was asleep.

What I remember of camp is episodic. We had a scavenger hunt in the rain and were successful but for the five red ants that were required. We buried a live turtle we found. We thought it dead. We dug it up when someone said they thought it twitched. We raided the girls’ side of camp. Our motives were pure (remember, this is fourth grade), and we were purely annoying. We sang songs across the lake to each other, bonfires blazing.

But in spite of moments of fun, I never lost sight of the road out of there.

One night we spread a tarp in the field and lay there under the stars with our counselor, the college kid who finally made it. He read Psalm 8 to us and prayed. I stayed awake with him for a long time after the others had fallen asleep. I kept him up as long as I could but, in the end, he fell asleep too, and I remained awake, last down.

It’s always been that way. Now, I don’t mind so much. I can hear better at night. I can shuffle crazy thoughts through my mind. I can pray. I can listen to an aging house settle on its haunches and sigh. I can attend the sounds of distant traffic, train whistle lonely in the dark, an owl and nightingale, the hum of the air conditioning coming on and shutting down, the contented resting of my family, the dream of a cat, the patter of the rain, the white noise of cicadas.

Sleeplessness is a gift, and as I have been awake since camp, I am rich.