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November 2015

The Sound of Heaven

It's Advent, even though most people don't know the word. Through the rain that falls today, puddling on the roof outside their windows, tapping on their gutters, many do wait and hope for something they can't quite name, to some kind of advent.

The New Yorker magazine has an online archive of everything published by it since 1925, so I searched to see what a great writer like E.B. White might say about Christmas. In a small Comment on Christmas Eve, 1949, there is, sadly, no mention of the Incarnation, but in his voice you can hear the longing for something more and, like all writers, his voice gives expression to what many others cannot articulate.

Into a world still recovering from a great world war, he said: "To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. There was a little device we noticed in one of the sporting-goods stores — a trumpet that hunters hold to their ears so that they can hear the distant music of the hounds. Something of the sort is needed now to hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it."

Well, there is "something of that sort." It is the simple yet profound texts of scripture centered in "for unto us a child is born." And it is not distant but God come near, at hand.

White goes on to say that "[t]he miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion."

Everlasting. Triumphant. Heard in the heart? Call it religion and you might smother it. Make it a greeting card cliche and sentimentalize and trivialize it. But listen to what it might mean for God to submit himself to earthly form for one reason only: love.

White again: “So this day and this century proceed toward the absolutes of convenience, of complexity, and of speed, only occasionally holding up the little trumpet (as at Christmastime) to be reminded of the simplicities, and to hear the distant music of the hound. . . . This [Christmas], many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star, seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas — and the sheep quiet, and the world waiting.”

As in 1949, now. The world is waiting for the hound. . . of Heaven.


Welcome to Struggleville

“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

‭(‭Ps. 103:15-16‬)

I'm sitting in the car waiting for my daughter, listening to a record I have not listened to for many years. It's Welcome to Struggleville, by the Vigilantes of Love. Don't you love that name? I'm just catching phrases of this fine record. . ."I'm been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence. . . The whole thing is full of decay. . . But in the rust I know the beast is falling." Well, the title says it all. Sin. Entropy. Fallen world. Yet, the Beast is falling. Victory is assured.

I took a late walk earlier, in full sun. Winding down is in the air. Autumn is a visual reminder for an image-soaked culture that there is a time for everything. The trees are nearly bare. Leaves clog the creek. In the new development near my home, every tree has been removed along with longstanding homes, people having moved elsewhere. Even the land has been raked over, plowed, shaped, piped, wired, and paved. A sign says "Homes from the $600s,” but the land is empty. Deer, fox, birds: gone. And yet in months there will be new homes, grass, families, cars, bicycles, swing sets - in short, life. And the people will not know those who lived their lives here before, every trace of whom has been removed. That's a loss, I think. There should be a reminder of those who came before. This place mattered to them.

If the people return months from now, they will barely be able to root their deep memories in the land, in the place where they arose. They had children here, grew families here, fought and argued here, entertained and read here. Gone. Loss permeates this small place; loss permeates our landscapes.

As author Paul Pastor recently reminded readers in his review of Walter Wangerin's new memoir, "Fred Buechner, in the introduction to his own (second) memoir, Now and Then, wrote: if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story.' Buechner further casts his memoir as 'a call to prayer.' (Such calls are universal.)" So many stories still hang over the land, left to seed new lives. I just wish someone had gathered up the stories before they left. Prayers still linger.

It’s not all loss. New lives will grow here. Children will be born, grow, and learn. God will do His work. The Kingdom will grow, even if small, in what is now empty. I walked today down paved streets with no houses. I said a prayer for those who come, a seed dropped in the ground that God will water.

My daughter just texted. “OMW.” Welcome to struggleville, caught between loss and promise. I’m on my way. The Beast is falling.



A Song Remembered

If you don’t read poetry, start. My friend Suzanne Underwood Rhodes says that “[i]maginative language - poetry - trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1)” In her guide to poetry, called The Roar on the Other Side, there are many fine poems yet, even better, she provides a guide to appreciating their music, to listening to the great truths and mysteries to which poetry point.

Speaking of metaphor, one of the strongest tools of poetry, she says: “When Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the Bread of life,’ He removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread - nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you’ (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent.” Sometimes I am silent because I am in awe of their beauty; sometimes, because I understand nothing and wait, dumbstruck.

That’s it: Sometimes before the words of a great poem, we must be silent, let the words was over us, let them do their work. As sometimes before the great God, we must be still, must wait, must listen for His voice. Let Him remove all the “fences of our seeing.” Let His still small voice come whisper in the wind.

Where to start? Try Mary Oliver, particularly her collection entitled Thirst. Or Jane Kenyon, in her Otherwise. Or even, if you are brave, Denise Levertov, in a slight collection entitled The Stream & the Sapphire. You’ll find faith of a sorts in them, though I don’t know its precise contours. Poets aren’t often precise on matters like dogma. But you will find much more: little truth and big Truths, little poems pointing to greater realities, particulars like dirt and sky, and universals like goodness and beauty and sadness and joy.

Read them aloud. Hear their music. Read them silently. Let pictures form in your mind. Tell someone what they say, if you can. You might find they begin quietly but, by the end of it, roar an dance in your head, arise unbidden while in the checkout line and bring the slightest of smiles to your mouth, a song remembered.


Rainfall, Evenly Distributed

With the recent killing of innocents in Paris recently, I thought of the last time I was in Paris. It was 2007, and my son and I had stopped there en route to Switzerland from England. We had traveled over to meet my writing partner Kevin and his daughter, and unbeknownst to us, halfway over, Heathrow was closed as result of the apprehended "shoe bomber". After doing some interviews in Cambridge and Oxford, we took the Chunnel train over to Paris. We had 36 hours to see Paris. My partner, who booked a flight from England to Switzerland, was stuck in England for three days, as no flights were going out.

We had lunch in a cafe with a clear view of Notre Dame. I tried my French on the server. My son said, "Dad, don't ever try to speak French again." He was right about that. It was a beautiful Summer day, and the views of the city were quite amazing - the Seine, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower - a beautiful city with people more generous and helpful than I had remembered.

Reading some of E.B. White's shorts and fillers for The New Yorker, I came across a single paragraph from one of his Notes and Comments fillers from September 2, 1944. Written upon the liberation of Paris, he says that on hearing the news of liberation, he couldn't think of what else to do but pull down the Encyclopedia Brittanica, turn to the article on Paris, and read its most "dullest" prose, only it came alive on that happy day:

“‘Paris,’ we began, ‘capital of France and of the department of the Seine, situated on the Ile de la Cite, the Ile St. Louis, and the Ile Louviers, in the Seine, as well as on the banks of the Seine, 233 miles from its mouth and 285 miles S.S.E. of London (by rail and steamer via Dover and Calais).’ The words seemed like the beginning of a great poem. A feeling of simple awe overtook us as we slowly turned the page and settled down to a study of the city’s weather graph and the view of the Seine looking east from Notre Dame. ‘The rainfall is rather evenly distributed,’ continued the encyclopaedist. Evenly distributed, we thought to oneself, like the tears of those who love Paris.”

Reading that, I imagine White hunched over the great book, his finger on the word “rainfall”, great tears welling in his eyes, tears of joy at liberation of that great city after its too long captivity. I imagine the tears shed only days ago, tears of sorrow, not joy. Still, I long for a “rainfall. . . evenly distributed,” a city of no fear. I can’t wait to hear that news.


The Trouble With Normal Is. . . It's Not Normal

In a newspaper clipping from our local paper on January 11, 2007, Washington Post journalist Linton Weeks writes of shifting baselines and changing standards. The article is called “When Normal Is a Moving Target.” Anytime I hear someone say that 80 is the new 60, I think about the article. It piqued my attention because it tracks the subtlety of change, the largely unnoticed changing baseline by which we sometimes measure normal.

According to the article, marine biologist Randy Olson says that shifting baselines “are the chronic, hard-to-notice changes in things, from he disappearance of birds and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from San Diego to Los Angeles.” The phrase was actually coined by a biology professor, Daniel Pauley, as he examined declining fish populations; then, he started seeing them everywhere. Sometimes baselines rise, as in longer life spans; sometimes drop, as in language, clothing, and manners. Mostly, however, given our skew toward dystopian scenarios, the literature on shifting baselines is riddled with a sense of loss and nostalgia, a lowered expectation, a settling for less.

But Pauly says that the concept has a very positive purpose as well, as “it means we can endure loss,” functioning as a helpful defense mechanism. If every generation passed on the full burden of the past, Pauly says “we would paralyze the next generation.” So, what he suggests we focus on is the identification of which baselines are important and essential. If we look carefully and watch for the incremental changes, we can even change the changes.

This is both knowledge and wisdom. To understand the past and the changes that are occurring is a huge step in reformation of individual lives and culture. For Christians, it resonates with the kind of remembering that God calls us to, the kind of looking about which Jesus speaks. As Christians, we recognize that all is abnormal, that culture, creation, and individual lives are malformed due to sin. To put it in naturalistic terms, all is subject to entropy. Yet at the same time there is a building up, a positive change that comes from a growing kingdom, from an Aslan on the move. As Francis Schaeffer often said, while we will not experience complete reformation on this side of Heaven, we can experience substantial healing, and if we push our time frame back far enough, we can see both decline and rebuilding throughout history, the friction of the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven.

Normal is not really a moving target. God’s standards are sure. The only way to check the cultural drift, the changing baseline of normal, is to look to the source, the Word, and when we are there confronted by how far we fall short, to remember Grace, about how God ever moves toward us in love. Always. Which means we are ever gaining, not losing, not paralyzed by loss but energized by grace.

The trouble with normal? It’s not normal.


A Muddled Memoir

“Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.” (William Zinsser, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir)

My son reminds me often that there will be no post-humous memoirs, that if I have any to write I must write them now, that he will not write them. But I suspect he would if there was anything to say. . . or, more accurately, if there was anyone to read what there is to be said.

How do you construct a life? Someone who writes, like me — well, like half the world, if you include Facebook — could be constructed by reading their social media posts. That would be highly inaccurate, would be, in fact, a construct. Most everyone would be successful, thin (or, to compensate, brilliant), and happy. Or they travel and eat out all the time. Their posts are full of smiling, happy people. I think we know better. Life has major and minor themes. But too much honesty on Facebook and “friends” would collectively say “this is neither the time nor the place.” Keep it light.

You could look at the letters they write. The over 1000 letters contained in the Letters of E.B. White, for example, give great insight into the life of a modest if gifted man, to good relationships with his parents and brother, and to a long and happy marriage to Katherine, as well as early insight into his gifts as a writer of wit. In one letter, written to his parents when he was 21, still in college at Cornell, he begins with “Dear Family: A robin woke me this morning but he should have held his peace, for he is a false prophet. The weather is beautiful though wintry. Spring dallies somewhere in the offing, like a backward child asked to perform.” I can tell you that the few letters I wrote home from college meant something to my mother, yes, but held no golden prose such as White’s, and she, not being sentimental, long ago disposed of them. Who keeps letters anyway?

I do. In my closet is a stack of letters, perhaps 100 or more. Some are letters from my wife to me before and after we were wed. But, of course, they tell me about her and only indirectly about me. Still, I save them.

You could interview me. “Me” is usually a good subject to engage me on as, like most people, I know a lot about the subject. But recollection is skewed. My version of some events may not match that recollected by my sisters, as in was I pushed off the tricycle, or did I fall off? The past is murky, clouded by the present. To some extent, as the title of Zinger’s book hints, we may be “inventing the truth” in the telling of it. Memoir doesn’t require fact-checking or corroboration. It’s about telling a good story. And yet, while such personal narrative is the author’s interpretation of a life, not being fiction, it should be rooted in fact. Further, it’s not self-indulgence, reprisal, or tell-all. Good memoir should have the same subtlety and understatement that make powerful any other good story. They leave mystery, as do lives. We don’t even fully know ourselves.

I wish I had those letters I wrote my mother. I want to hear my 18-year old words. I want to hear what it is I thought important to tell her. The documentation of those years is incomplete and my memory muddled. But one thing I know: God was telling a good story, though not complete, full of good and evil, plot turns and twists, shadowy threats and unmerited good, of hard lessons and miraculous deliverances. And I’m not the only one.

I can’t wait to read them all.


A Cold Morning

A cold winter’s morning, clouded and still, is, if not dismal, shrouded. Over breakfast I stared out over a lawn returning to forest, overnight. The lawn care workers came a day ago and blew it clean, made tidy edges to the new green grass, let walks manifest themselves. But overnight God, with a few puffs of stiff breath, covered it again. Brown leaves lay scattered over the green, with a blanket of pine straw worked in like yeast in dough, the beginning of the end, God reclaiming his own. I frowned, slightly, and a shadow crept across the table and my soul.

Then, a female cardinal alighted on the outdoor water dish for our cats, scarce four feet from me. She drank, chirping between sips. Occasionally she looked up at me in the window, briefly, before flying. My countenance changed as I turned away, to the words at the top of the page: “You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you!” (Ps. 40:5)

You could say it’s a matter of entropy, of inevitable order to disorder. Yet perhaps, it’s just our perspective; disorder may hold a deeper order; a bird carries hope. Who am I to say how the earth is husbanded? Who am I to Him?


Agressive Humility

“Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph. 5:25)

Whenever we read a verse that commands us to walk, we know that a progression is anticipated, a forward motion with purpose and destination, not a circuitous path or retreat. What this verse commands is an advance in love, a walking forward in love relationally and societally.

It can be cold out in the world. It was 37 degrees this morning, and forward motion was necessary just to stay warm. We passed one man and dog, both retracted, drawn in on themselves by virtue of the chill. Leaves lay quiet on the roadside, and our breath went ahead of us. We did not even pray until our bodies were warm.

The other part of the verse is prefaced by the phrase "as Christ." How did Christ walk? He moved forward in relationship sacrificially, laying down his rights, even his life, for others. Thus, this is an advance of love via death, — if not a physical death, then thousands of existential deaths: giving up your right to win the argument, to have your way, to exact justice for every offense. We tend to view this as retreat, but it is not. It is an aggressive love, a long walk, a steady march of humility.

We keep going. We pray up hill — breathless, short requests — and we pray downhill —- long exhales of gratitude. We pass carpenters, hammering, yelling in Spanish to one another, and I wonder if prayers are mumbled under breath or rest, inchoate, as day dreams. We pass on into intercession, to Lord, this and that; to Lord help, heal, and hinder. We walk on.

At our wedding my wife and I selected as text the words of Philippians 2: 1-11, where we are called to model Christ in his humility. The centerpiece is the Great Condescension of vv. 5-7, where Paul says “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” We are still working on our Little Condescensions, on getting low.

Down, down, down the hill we go, and down, down down Christ came for us, walking all the way from Heaven’s Throne for us.

Souls are won by this aggressive humility. Even worlds.


Urgent Care

I went to church today. I’ve done that virtually every Sunday for over 57 years, and while it may be that I miss an average of four Sundays each year, that adds up to a considerable number of sermons — roughly 2736. As infant and toddler I suppose I missed a few, though I was within their curtilage. My first conscious memory of listening was sitting next to father, drawing on the bulletin, periodically checking his watch and second hand for their terminus. I remember the interruption of one sermon where the pastor had to address his young and misbehaving son from the pulpit.

When we have traveled on vacations as a family, we generally have gone to church where we are, as I always said why would we take a vacation from church? If our regular church is a hospital for sinners, our vacation churches are like urgent cares, and we need them on vacations as much or even more than we do at home, as entitlement and self-interest can take hold when the long-awaited vacation comes. Sometimes we are sicker (we sin more).

We are always in need of treatment. It consists of diagnosis (sin) and prognosis (grace). There is physical exercise of a sort: we stand, we sit, we stand, we sit. The pastor, who is as sick as the rest of us, only slightly more aware of it, tells stories about the cure, recasting it in as many different ways as is necessary for us to hear, as hearing well is part of the cure. We read scripture, which is like a diagnostic manual. We sing, or we croak, but we open our mouths to receive, which is part of the cure (praise). We have a meal, odd though it be, a pittance to the eye but mystically multiplied like loaves and fishes within (communion). We are pronounced healed and discharged (benediction), and we exit to a world plagued by diseases. We’ll be back. We have to, as we’re sick.

Church is one of my favorite places. So when I read someone as thoughtful and in many ways caring as E.B. White write about church as cold and lifeless, it saddens me, and I wonder to what churches he was exposed. In one essay he says “In this house we cling to a few relics of religious observation, but there is no heart in it. If we possess faith (and I guess we do), it is of a secret and unconsecrated sort ill of ease in church.” Hearing that “and I guess we do” makes me think that what he felt was the absence of faith, not its presence, and his visits to church were like excursions in a wax museum hospital, where he saw what was but not what is, what’s left when Christ is absent.

On occasion I’ve been to some sorry churches. Terrible music. Sermons lacking any clear prescription. Lifeless singing. Yet always I find Jesus, in the words of Scripture, in the words of hymns, in a stained glass window, or even in silence. There may not be much care to be had, but it is urgent.


Dwell

My grandmother never drove a car. To travel with her meant walking, usually through paths in the woods leading to neighbors’ homes, a strawberry patch, the Southern Railway bridge with a pooling creek beneath it to swim in, or to an old cemetery in the trees, overgrown and unkempt, returning, dust to dust. She was intimately familiar with the land around her home and the ways of travel by foot. She never traveled over the landscape but moved in it. Yet she would never have thought much about it. Many of us, however, will never know that feeling of closeness to the land, given the freedom of travel by car over the world or virtually via the internet. That’s a loss unseen to most, so I’m glad I knew it as a child.

Wendell Berry says that “[t]he difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity. . . . It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand. . . embodies a resistance against the landscape. . . . It wishes to avoid contact with the landscape.”

His is a Manichaean view of reality. It’s not so simple. I follow a sidewalk every morning when I walk, and yet the roads I travel follow the contour of the land and are not made simply to move me from Point A to B. Some thought was given to the land and context. Further, the very fact that there is a sidewalk is a suggestion that a closer experience may be had by walking. Not enough people take the suggestion.

When I walk, I sometimes engage my imagination. I peel away the houses, telephone lines, streets, and sidewalks, one at a time, like they are mere overlays on the topography. I imagine I am on a path made by habit and familiarity through a forest or meadow. Sometimes, when I face an open stretch and know it is safe, I even close my eyes momentarily and walk trusting my memory for what’s ahead, and the sounds of the land become richer.

In Psalm 37:29, the Psalmist says that “the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” One meaning of “dwell” is to linger. Familiarity and habit and love for a place can only take root when we linger, and merely driving through it will not give us that rich sense of dwelling.

If you can, walk in your place. If you can’t then sit outside in it and listen. Find a way to sink deep in it. Let it seep into and be part of you.


Plotting Our Resurrection

E.B. White writes an endearing and prescient comment about his wife Katherine's fall laying out of the spring bulb garden, the only gardening task she dressed the part for, one he said was "carefully charted and full of witchcraft." She sat in a canvas chair placed for her at the end of the tulip plot, with clipboard and diagram in hand, while her helper showed her brown bag upon bag of bulbs, ready for "internment."

Then this: "As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion --- the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under the dark skies in the dying October, calming plotting the resurrection."

Aa much as White wrote, he kept Katherine at the margins, her story her own. But in that one sentence, he spoke worlds. He spoke of faith and hope and, finally, love. It's possible he even said more than the thought he said.

Each of us face not only the death that Katherine faced, but a hundred other smaller deaths in a life. Maybe you thought you'd become a brilliant scientist or author, and you didn't. Maybe you thought you'd live in a bigger house, or be in a better marriage, and you're not. Maybe you just thought you'd have an hour of time for yourself today, and you didn't, because there were clothes to wash and a house to clean and children to run to and fro. If you're really alive, you're also dying to yourself moment by moment.

And yet all is not lost. There is a life underneath the surface, a dream being nurtured in the winter of our dying.

Spring is coming. For now, bedraggled though we are, let us with laughter calmly plot the resurrection, when the dream underneath our dreams comes true.


A Little Death, A Greater Life


D0765I-Late-fall-woods-seriesIt’s November, time for kicking leaves lying shoe deep on the roadside, to hear their swish and crunch, dead but heaped in piles of memory, let go to make room for new life. Fall is my favorite time, particularly late Fall, past the prime of colored leaves, before the lights of Christmas, a time when the sky opens up for view, the trees, ever more desolate, deserted, and bare.

Many people are overwhelmed with sadness at Fall, an autumnal depression setting in. Not me. Poet Robert Frost even wrote a poem called “My November Guest,” in which he gives verse to a Fall sadness. He says, “My Sorrow, when she’s with me,/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be;/ She loves the bare, the withered tree;/ She walks the sodden pasture lane.” Later, Frost speaks of Sorrow, a personification of his melancholy, as “glad the birds are gone away,” of the “faded earth, the heavy sky.” For me, the same things I love about the desert begin to be true of a topography shorn of leaves. Gradually, the sky opens up, the contour of the land can be seen, the skeletal trunks and limbs and branches of trees can be seen, undrapped, the tree in its essence. What was once claustrophobic opens up. What was once hidden is now known. I smile at the hiddenness of glory, of glory past its prime.

This morning I stooped to pick up a browned oak tree leaf that was at least a foot long and six inches wide, like a massive hand outstretched. Had I reached up to shake it when it was still on tree, I could not have fully grasped it, like a child holding an adult’s hand. I traced its lines, like a practitioner of palmistry: prediction death, then new life.

In another poem, “A Late Walk,” Frost speaks of how “A tree beside the wall stands bare,/ But a leaf that lingered brown,/ Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,/ Comes softly rattling down.” Rattling down. Reading that, I imagine the cry of that last leaf, of the last hanger-on, losing grip, accepting its fate.

Sad? Not really. Like a desert river going underground, all the life is still there though hidden, waiting to break out. A little death before a greater life to come.

Time for kicking leaves. Time not for sorrow but for hope, casting off the old and waiting for the new. I’m full of anticipation.


Mighty Acorns

Acorn-188426_640“An acorn is only small. To look at it you’d think it weak and not very important at all. . . . [b]ut. . . a whole forest is inside a single acorn.”

(Sally Lloyd-Jones, in Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing)

What we are really saying when we say, “Christ in us, the hope of glory,” is not fully comprehensible. That’s like saying a whole forest is in an acorn. Except it’s more.

In 1976, as a struggling college freshman, a campus pastor had lunch with me. Actually, he didn’t eat. I understand why now: he didn’t have the money. I should have bought his lunch for what he shared with me. I was churched but not biblically literate.

That day he took me right to 2 Peter 1:3-11, which begins with “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us. . . .” He laid stress on all, which is what I needed to hear. I knew all about what I was supposed to do, as what I recalled of church and Sunday School was moralistic; what I needed to hear was what God was doing, what He had given me. There’s a host of things that we are exhorted to do in that passage, and yet what occupied my mind on my walk this morning was what or Who had taken up residence inside of me, the very same point the pastor made 39 years ago.

The God who made the universe — the planets, galaxies, and seemingly endless infinity — is living in me. He’s given me everything I need for life. If it doesn’t always feel that way, that’s my shortsightedness. Sometimes, I feel like nothing but a tiny acorn lying on the sidewalk, good for nothing much, trampled on by pedestrians, washed down gutters by rain, overcome, unable to help myself or anyone else. And yet, if by His grace and promise I come to rest in soil and take root, a forest. Let’s be honest. We struggle with believing that. We do not yet see it fully manifest. Yet if we did see all that God is doing through us, we might think ourselves mighty, when only He is mighty.

That’s the meat of it. That’s what we are. God desires and wills that we flourish not just here but for eternity. Yet it’s an unusual power, not tapped by bold action but by humility, by prayer, by quietness. Our exercise of power is our exercise of powerlessness, of dependence on our Source.

One of E.B. White’s most enduring collections of essays is a book entitled One Man’s Meat. All the essays in it were written from the saltwater farm in Maine to which White and his wife removed themselves, leaving New York City. The power of the essays comes from their humility as well as, in what is well said by Roger Ansell, their “sense of early morning clarity and possibility.” Bright hopefulness in a new day. While there is no indication that White had a saving faith in Christ, he did have a lighter faith in a new day, the kind that comes from small acts of faithfulness to the reality of the needs around him: the cow that needs to be milked, the pigs to be fed, the fence to be mended, the garden weeded. It’s a shadowland of hopefulness, and yet his small acts of faith bore fruit.

One man’s meat. It’s more than that. In small exercises of faithfulness, a towering forest of life will grow. I walk on, giving way to the mighty acorns.


Sleeping Beauties


IMG_0198“Cartographers call blank spaces on a map ‘sleeping beauties.’” (Annie Dillard, in Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Last week in the spacious clime of Arizona, I laid a map of the state out on our coffee table. I did the same tonight. The map had plenty of blank spaces, and I was drawn to them, to the emptiness and wonder. East of Tucson, north of I-10 and Benson, there is cavity of space labeled Allen Flat, one through which the thin blue line of the San Pedro River runs, as optimistic a blue as you will find, as rivers in Arizona are largely underground save in monsoon season, when normal watery introverts lose their manners and gush all over everyone. Literally. In those times the San Pedro runs bold.

Forty miles in, down a crooked gray line of a road, hyphenated to indicate tentativeness, lies what qualifies to the cartographer as the town of Cascabel. I’ve not been there but have fun imaging its character and residents. The website for Cascabel indicates it is “inhabited by diverse individuals, animals and plant species.” Diverse individuals is what my eye landed on. There is a community center; its calendar features lots of white space, yet there is a “peelum stickum gathering,” whatever that is, and, naturally, yoga. Ranch hands doing yoga. That’s worth traveling up the washboard road into the valley to see.

But Cascabel is civilization. My eyes fixate more on the white space around it, like a poem full of blankness, and I imagine walking miles outside of town, past the lights of the last ranch, and sitting on a rock on the Rincon Mountain foothills while the sun sets. Quiet settles in, and if you speak, your words sound odd, as if they don’t belong. You pocket your watch, because it doesn’t matter; you hear its muffled ticks cry out from the dark. You lean back on a rock that has been sitting in one place longer than you’ve been alive, let its coolness lull you. Dusk comes, and the quails go to the trees to roost, and you suddenly remember that Cascabel was named for a rattlesnake. You look around and step gingerly back to town.



Returning, Rain, Remembering


IMG_4363After returning late last evening from Arizona, a place of generous sun and expansive thinking, I woke this morning to a steady rain and truncated vision. I peeked out my window and could see to the corner, maybe four houses down, but no further, my world suddenly shrunken to dollhouse size from the arena of sky and mountain.. Yesterday, I opened my window on 50 miles, an over 9000 foot high Mount Lemon, and what seemed to be a party of dogs on the other side of the wash, living large. That’s “wash,” a usually dry low-lying area that occasionally fills up to overflowing with water. We call them gullies here. Here I look out, and it’s as if a shroud has been pulled over my world, the lights turned down low, a 25-watt world juxtaposed with yesterday’s 100-watt world.

Drip, drip, drip. I sat in my office today watching water puddle on the roof. On the way in, it was as if God had washed the color from the world in my absence. Most of the leaves couldn’t wait for my return but let go under the rain and apparent wind; they lie heaped up in gutters, littered over driveways, and propped against one another in yards, wet, floating down the creek over which I pass.

It was a city new to me after our diversion. I visited the local dive for lunch, nestled in the underarm of an aged strip shopping center. I had home cooked vegetables for the first time in 10 days — black-eye peas generously topped with diced onions, green beans seasoned with fatback, and collard greens stiffened by cider vinegar. Mix in the server’s accent, the server who nonchalantly sat down across from me in the booth to do her figuring, and it was the South, newly foreign. It has its pleasures, though it will take some getting used to.

First day back. I went to the eye doctor. He said “You’ve got a whopping floater in your left eye.” I said, “I know,” and I’m thinking tell me something I don’t know. He said “You have two options. Do nothing and live with it. Or, have surgery, with the risk of blindness.” I checked out.

The elevator was excruciatingly slow. When the doors opened, I stepped on board with eight other people. A sizable cavity remained, but the two young women still waiting said they’d wait for the next one. It could be quite a wait. One of the other passengers, an elderly lady who didn’t mind thinking aloud, said, as the door closed, “There’s plenty of room. I don’t know what’s the matter with them.”

They don’t live in Arizona, that’s their problem. There, you run up stairs, hike canyons, walk miles to church (for the experience), dream big, stretch your mind out over a valley, a mountain, and on near to Mexico, eat in a roadhouse in the desert with steaks cooked outside over mesquite fire, wander around alone in a canyon or ghost town, where all you can hear is your breath, slightly labored as you walk uphill. You try new things. You can even fail big, as the sun still rises the next day. Even a telephone pole, seen against a setting sun, summons up the Cross, means new life.

I miss it, just a little. Yet with dilated eyes, the world does seem brighter, a touch Arizona-like. And I’m not blind. There’s that, of course.


Presence

JoyOn the flight home from Arizona, I've managed to digest over a hundred more pages of Abigail Santamaria's carefully researched biography of Joy Davidman, entitled Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis. Joy is the woman who became the wife of C.S. Lewis. Prior to becoming a Christian, she was a brilliant if often insufferably condescending woman, her commitment to Marx and communism total. Her poetry was political, an apology for a Marxist ideology which allowed her to heap praise on Stalin, her morals lax to non-existent, and her humor biting and often at the expense of others. Had I lived then and met her (a highly doubtful proposition, as she moved in the circles of the intelligentsia), I would not have liked her or her writing.

But I just reached the point in the book where Joy begins to turn. She has lost faith in the Soviet Union and communism, after Stalin made a pact with the Nazis. Her first husband, Bill Davidman, also a writer, has called her from his office in the City and told her he is having a nervous breakdown. It is late, and she does not know where he is or if he will come home to her and her two small boys, even if he is alive or dead.

But then this, in her words, as she sat fretting in her room, near despair, wondering if Bill was alive or dead: "There was a Person with me in the room, directly present to my consciousness --- a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured for long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute. In that time, however, many things happened. I forgave some of my enemies. I understood that God had always been there, and that since childhood, I had been pouring half my energy onto the task of keeping him out."

In the end, Joy found herself on her knees, praying, "the world's most astonished atheist." She said her "awareness of God was no comforting illusion, conjured up to reassure me of my husband's safety. I was just as worried afterward as before. No; it was terror and ecstasy, repentance and rebirth."

That wasn't the end of it. But that set her on a quest to discover the God whose presence she felt. Eventually, her quest led her through Narnia to a Lion who knew her name and who had, as she said, always been there.

Not everyone receives the gift of Presence in the way that Joy Davidman did. But I have known others who can testify to such visitations, and the ones I know are not prone to imaginings or to looking for supernatural occurrences. Yet felt or not, all believers are promised His presence. In the air or on the ground, that promise means you are never without a companion in your journey, One who not only cares but who has the power to move mountains and hearts, the power to carry you through, the One with us to the ends of the earth, and even beyond.

That should be enough, for now.


An Antidote for Self-Pity

We had big plans for today, our last day in Arizona. We were going to hike the loop trail in Catalina State Park, on the western slope of the Santa Catalina Mountains, catching what is often a strikingly beautiful sunset over the Tucson Mountains. Then, after a quick change, it would be dinner out at a favorite, Wildflower, a sweet end to what was both a productive and fun time away. It was not to be.

After breakfast, my wife began feeling bad --- mostly headache, body aches, and general weakness. By mid-afternoon, we cancelled our plans. I took her to the local Urgent Care around 4:00. It appears to be a bacterial infection, that is, a "stomach bug," and so she received a shot of anti-inflammatory medicine and started antibiotics. Hopefully she'll be well enough to travel tomorrow.

I took myself to dinner at the McDonald's drive-through, something I never do at home. I wanted something cheap and filling, as I am not really hungry. At the window I told the young man my order, and then said, "How are you?"

"Tired," he responded.

"Me too. But you have a longer night ahead, right?"

"Yep. 2:00 a.m."

"Who eats burgers at 2:00 a.m?"

"You'd be surprised."

I'm sure I would. For a moment, I dwelled on what it must be like to work the fast food window at 2:00 a.m., and I had a moment of empathy for this young man who is tired but has six more hours to work.

I parked in a parking space to eat, uncertain if the smell of the food would be a problem for my patient. On the radio, David Jeremiah was preaching. I'm glad. I sat through the whole sermon as I finished my burger. I don't usually listen to preachers on the radio, but I did tonight.

I needed to hear what he said because I was feeling a bit down because of our last day being ruined by sickness. What Jeremiah said, in part, was that all temptations are rooted in unbelief, in a lack of trust in God. My own temptation to self-pity is rooted in a lack of trust that God is with us even when we face sickness, and in a particular kind of amnesia --- a forgetting of how he has protected and safeguarded us in the past. (We have all been sick on vacation before, on multiple occasions.) Sickness has a way of reminding us of our mortality and limitations, and it is a time, like any time of trial or hardship, for remembering God's faithfulness.

A verse we read earlier in the week at breakfast came back to me: "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:14). We get sick. Our plans are frustrated. We are tempted to self-pity. We forget His benefits. She may be physically sick, but I am at risk of a greater sickness. Yet a very honest radio preacher set me straight.

I pulled into Oracle, headed for the hotel. In the nearly moonless darkness, I can't see the Catalinas. But by faith, I know they are there. And I know too that the hikes we took, the laughs we shared, and the talks we had earlier this week are there too, etched in memories conscious and subconscious, and this is but one day in the many that will live on into eternity. And we will be well.


Eating With The Word


IMG_4447We took another hike today. It was about 100 feet roundtrip, from the parking lot into the local In-N-Out, for a hamburger, fries, and drink. In-N-Out has a limited menu: hamburgers, fries, and drinks. I think I said that. That's it. It's also a West Coast phenomena. The first one we ever hiked into was the original one in Westwood, in Los Angeles, near the campus of UCLA.

In-N-Out is the only restaurant I know of where you can actually take in Scripture while you eat. The drink cups have the John 3:16 reference printed on the underside of the cup. Drink it down a little before you raise your teetering cup and look for it. Take my advice on that. The hamburger wrapper references Revelation 3:20 ("Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.") That one seems particularly appropriate. And then the french fries are in a bag that references Proverbs 24:16 ("[F]or the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.") I had to look that one up. I like its hopefulness. I've been to In-N-Out many times, whenever I come West, and I know the scripture references are there, yet I always look for them.

I looked around the restaurant. No one else appeared to be examining the bottom of their drink cup, checking out the seam of their french fry wrapper, or closely regarding the hamburger packaging. Even if they did, it's likely that half the people would not even know that it's a Bible reference, given the extent of cultural illiteracy. The family that owns the restaurant chain thought it important to place these references on the packaging. They have not explained why, and they need not do so.

Outside the windows, a totally white clad young man is practicing Kung Fu moves alone in a parking space. "All I'm saying is that's weird," I say. We look on. In a few minutes an older woman and man arrive. The boys hugs the woman affectionately, pats her gently on the back. "Look," my wife says, "that's his mother." Suddenly, he's not so weird. He loves his Mom and is not ashamed to commit a public display of affection in the middle of the parking lot. "We'll let him pass," I say.

I don't usually eat hamburgers and fries, yet earlier today, on the other side of the mountain, far away from the restaurants of the city, a thought settled in my head: In "N Out. I said to my wife, "Let's go to In-N-Out." Her eyes brightened, as did mine. And now, we are reading the Bible and eating hamburgers together and watching the show outside, and He is here, together like a slightly greasy "cord of three strands" (Ecclesiastes 4:12). What could be better?


At Kentucky Camp

ImageIt's odd to think of Kentucky Camp as a bustling place. There is no one here now but the two of us, and we are visiting but for an hour, yet from 1874 on this whole area in the Santa Rita Mountains was bustling with activity. Gold was discovered that year, placer deposits (a mix of gold, sand, and gravel), the largest in Arizona. Lacking much water with which to filter the deposits and separate the gold from the sand and gravel, miners bagged the earth and carried it to the nearest water supply, often not very near at all. By 1886 the richest deposits were worked out, and the miners left.

In 1902 James Stetson bought the land. He channeled runoff from spring snowmelt into a reservoir. He figured it would allow ten months of water, plenty of time to mine the gold. When he died prematurely in 1905, the company went belly up; a lawyer from Tucson, Hummel, bought the land and turned it into a cattle ranch. The last Hummels left in the early 1960s, and the Forest Service bought the land, restoring the camp structures, ruins reclaimed.

We walked through the restored building that served as a hotel and office, floors creaking, an eerie feeling as if we have entered someone's home while they are away, in that the building has furniture, even if spartan, and is livable, but there is no one home. The door left standing open to the world, we walked in, helped ourselves. It is virtually silent here, an occasional birdsong all that intrudes. Our voices sound odd, unfiltered by ambient sound, foreign.

"I could sit on the porch all day," says my wife. I imagined what that would be like, alone, if you heard no one's voice but your own. You'd have to speak aloud a bit each day, so as not to become a stranger to yourself or, having carried on a conversation in your head for so long, forget that, in the presence of others, you must speak aloud to communicate.

We walked a few hundred yards down the Arizona Trail, north from the Camp, the grasses nearly chest high. Soon, too soon, the trail was barely discernible, like a mere animal path, the grasses compressed at ground level but overtaken higher up. We turned back.

"Wouldn't it be great to live out here?," she asks, and I say, "It's a long way from Barnes and Noble." And people. The nearest town is 14 miles away, Sonoita, and it's but a crossroads. We later had lunch in the gas station deli there, the best available. A woman sat alone across from us, having her lunch, reading, in what was probably a Mom's day out, a trip into town, a respite from the isolation of the ranch.

We are 40 miles southeast of Tucson, in the high grasslands of the Santa Rita foothills, high enough that there are many fewer cacti. The brownish-green grasses, waist high, extend as far as we can see in undulating waves across the terrain, punctuated by mesquite trees and an occasional Arizona ash or oak, large rotund trees with writhing branches. Some signaled Fall, their leaves yellowing.

Going back to Tucson, still well east of the city, we took Mescale Road, following the blacktop through a settlement of a few houses. At a railway crossing, a freight train blew past, the container cars a kaleidoscope of color. Then, another train dieseled past in the opposite direction, a rendezvous in a desolate place, the conductors in their engine windows.

We pushed on then onto gravel, then dirt, then dirt and rocks, the road narrowing, the ruts deepening. The road was to extend 16 miles into the Rincon Mountains, dead ending at the Miller Trailhead. We never made it. Due to the rains last week, the creek is flowing. At one crossing that appeared 2-4 inches deep, we drove through, though I felt the tires sink ominously in the soft sand. A few miles farther in, another crossing appeared, broader this time and deeper. Several yards down the road on the other side, a sign proclaimed Dead End 9 miles, and we looked at it longingly, wishing for a truck. We turned for home.

Later, at dinner in the city, my wife said, "Kentucky Camp seems so long ago," and I concurred. It was a century ago, yet still golden, silent beneath the stars and full of absence.


A Night-Walk In Our Alter Place


ImageThis afternoon we faced a case of the mid-vacation, mid-afternoon doldrums. At 3:45, well on our way to an afternoon nap, I said "Let's get out of here. If we stay here, we'll just lay around and sleep. Let's drive over to Saguaro East National Park, leave the car at the Visitor's Center, and walk the loop road to the Cactus Forest Trailhead about a half mile in. Then we can walk across the desert floor about dusk [about 3 miles], and wind up on the road at dark. Then we can walk the mile back to the car on the road." My wife leapt from repose. We were out the door in five minutes. It's a 45 minute drive to the Park, fueled by a cookie and a Coke.

After talking to the ranger at the Park, we realized that we had been a bit optimistic. Dark would likely overtake us somewhere on the desert trail, and it's a bit difficult to see rattlesnakes in the dark. So we walked the road in about two miles and then back out in the dark, virtually alone. As the sun set behind the Tucson Mountains, the colors on the mountains behind us, the Rincons, changed from green to red. Even the few clouds in the sky were a shade of red, almost orange. As darkness came, the birds became active, cicadas began their song. We hoped to sight deer or coyote, but were disappointed. As we passed the saguaro, prickly pear, barrel, and staghorn cacti, the palo verde and mesquite trees, and the creosote and brittlebush, part of what we relished was the alien nature of the place: vegetation unlike any at home; a stillness unknown to us; a vista far more compelling, with mountains and sky and a city of a million to the West.

“Your alter country is all that your first was not,” writes the English author Julian Barnes, adding that “commitment to it involves idealism, love, sentimentality and a certain selective vision.” That's true not only of another country we may love but of a place we love to visit, like Tucson. The places we vacation, even ones we have repeatedly visited, are at those times an unrealistic approximation of home. We are less distracted. We are at leisure. We eat at nice restaurants. We have no long-term relationships that require the work of love (save that of the ones we travel with). People being in a service industry are generally nice to us. In short, we are living in a dream, a good one. We cannot know what it is to actually live in the place unless we commit to it. Then we can understand.

"Are you going to walk with me, or ahead of me?," says my wife. I am in exercise walk mode, a natural pace. "I'm sorry. I'll try and slow down." We are stopping, often, listening, even recording the sounds of the desert. We talk little. We marvel that in 34 years of coming here, this is one thing, hiking alone in the dark in the desert, that we have not done. The Park has closed the gate, and the last two cars have passed us on the road out, and we are alone, silent. Then, a man is approaching, walking into the Park in the dark, two dogs in tow. "How are ya'll?," says my wife, as if she was asking the question of the dogs as well. And then, "Oh, sorry," with a slight laugh. "That's OK," he said, passing briskly by. "I'm from Kentucky. I understand."

I didn't hear what the dogs said.


Glory


ImageIf you think about it, and that's a big if for most of us, all of nature can become a metaphor for spirituality, as deep as it is broad. On a walk this morning, my wife noticed a regiment of ants carrying tiny light brown leaves across our path, single file, some in route, some returning. I missed them on the first pass, may have even stepped on a few in my inattention. They were carrying the leaves about 30 feet to a hole in the ground. We watched one, oblivious to us, disappear down the hole, to deposit it, for nesting perhaps, or bedding, or food. Their single-minded devotion to task and ability to carry much more than their weight is instructive, a metaphor for grace. By His grace, God can do immeasurably more than we can conceive. But maybe that thought is more than an ant can carry.

Mid-afternoon, we drove northwest of the city, through the irrigated cotton and corn fields of Marana, to where the blacktop ended, on Silverbell Road, the gravel road taking us into the Ironwood National Monument, an undeveloped largely natural area devoted to the stands of desert ironwood trees that grow here. They are, I have read, the "old growth" tree of the desert, and are found only here. Some are believed to be as old as 800 years, and they can grow as high as 30 feet, though we saw none like that. Dense, they supposedly sink in water, a useless bit of knowledge.

But again, they serve as an apt metaphor, instructive to us spiritually. Beneath their canopy cacti seedlings are sheltered from both extreme cold and heat. On freezing nights, the canopies of ironwood, below which the temperature may be 4º C warmer than in adjacent open areas, make the critical difference for vulnerable seedlings. Similarly, when stripped of ironwood’s protective cover above them, some cacti actually suffer sunburn and die. So, the stolid ironwoods are the nursemaids of the young, even those not even their own kind or their own concern. So too, in the penumbra of the believer's life, God's grace has greater reach, even beyond what we imagine. We, like the ironwood, live out our lives not fully aware of the salutary effect God has on others through His life in us. These trees, some nearly Methuselah-old, can carry that metaphor.

The road is badly rutted, yet with care our SUV navigates it. Reaching a T-intersection, we stop short of very deep ruts in both directions, likely impassable drop-offs, preceded by deep, loose sands, and I envision an axle-break or getting stuck in deep sand. We have some water, but not enough, and I have seen only one car in the last hour. Reluctantly, we turn to head back the same way. Midway, just outside the shadow of Ragged Mountain to the west, I stop the car, switch off the ignition, and we listen. There is the breeze brushing past and through the mesquite trees and creosote bushes, a few birdcalls, and the alien tick of the motor.

I step out for these pictures. "Watch out for the rattlesnakes," my wife says from the safety of the car. And Africanized bees. And a stray and highly poisonous Gila monster. I look down at the holes in the desert floor around me and wonder at the inhospitability of the desert. Yet, spiritually, the desert has been a place of exile, of chastening and of testing. Another metaphor, deep and wide.

In one photo I took the shot from the perspective of the ant, more desert floor than anything else, topped by an indiscernibly high sky not his concern. In another, a cholla hogs the screen in green and yellow brilliance. In another, shot across the fields of Marana, a radiant setting sun shines from behind a cloud, a telephone pole, a cross-like symbol, in the foreground. Though we have come here for 34 years, I still take photos to try and take the desert East with me. I never can. A photo cannot hold the expanse, the heat, the wind, the aloneness.

I only have one word for it: Glory.


Canyon-Strong

ImageWhen my wife's father was in school at the University of Arizona in the late 1930s, he recalls driving his date up the winding road into Sabino Canyon, on the outskirts of Tucson. We have been coming here for over 34 years, even strolling our son up the road into the canyon at the age of six weeks, 23 years ago, hiking the Phoneline Trail on the ridge above the canyon, or simply riding the tram.

Given the rain this fall, Sabino Creek is topping the concrete and stone bridges at a couple crossings, requiring us to gingerly ford the over-wash by picking our way over it on the edges of the bridge, the tea-colored water, the result of tannin from leaves and other decaying matter in the water, rushing over the falls caused by the bridges' dams. At times in the past, the water has been so deep that we have to wade through, shoeless; other times, a thin trickle of the creek treads its way below.

The road is has been closed to traffic for years. You can walk in about four miles, take a propane-powered open air tram, or cycle in (before 9:00 AM). We walked, the mostly level path giving way after a mile to a fairly steady incline, increasingly steep as we neared the turnaround at the end, at Stop 9. Yet, it's a nearly eight-mile walk that passes too quickly. The rock and cactus-covered canyon walls rise to a striking blue sky, and the cottonwoods, acacias, sycamore, and mesquite that suck water from the creek are are brilliant green, well hydrated by the rains. Saguaro trunks swell with water, drought-wise. The canyon is on the verge of its short Fall, November through mid-December, and then Winter just as short, through January, which can mean snow in the upper canyon, and then a Spring full of blooming flowers and new growth, the creek broadening and deepening from the snow-melt.

Bobcats and mountain lions are rare, but have been spotted here. Rangers counsel that if you confront one, you must not run but hold your ground, make yourself look larger by raising your arms, and, if you can pick up some rocks while still keeping your arms aloft, throw rocks and yell. Of course, no one has lived to carry out these instructions, which are the subjects of derision among the lions and bobcats. I've never seen one.

Our plan is to to walk all the way to the top, a disappointingly low 600-foot rise in elevation we later discover, as it seemed much more than that (I guessed 2000 feet, which seemed something to glory in), and then turn around and head back one stop to Anderson dam, a natural partial blockage of the creek made by gargantuan boulders loosed from the canyon walls by an earthquake centered in Mexico in 1887. The canyon can be crowded with people at times, sunning on rocks or playing on the sand beaches at Hutch's Pool, but it isn't today. The tram is running on the hour, for now, so except when it passes, the only sounds are the slight breeze whistling by our ears, the often-present sound of running water, and the occasional bird-song. Mostly, I hear my slightly labored breathing.

Sabino Creek, which originates high in the pine forests of the Catalina Mountains, fed by snow melt or the more plentiful rains on the mountain, eventually goes underground somewhere in Tucson, joining to the aquifer that lies below the city and on which the city depends. We too, by early afternoon, will be once again less perceptible, a part of the whole, the city, better for our time away, canyon-strong and more alive.


Rilke & Jonah


ImageWalking back from church today, I noticed a plaque in the sidewalk, a verse by the poet Rilke, "We wish on a star, because the star itself is a wish." For this one mile stretch of sidewalk, the city arts budget has apparently coughed up enough to place these monuments to poetry, and yet I wondered how many people would actually see them. In my mid-morning two and one-half mile walk, not a single other person was walking. The dozen or so bicyclists that whizzed by were moving too fast; to really see, you have to slow down. Even I have to be willing to stop, set destination and time aside for a moment, and look around me.

The sidewalk is along a four-lane called Skyline, if that tells you anything. To my right are the ever-steepening foothills that merge with the Santa Catalina Mountains, where desert cacti give way to pines and, finally, the deep evergreen of spruce and fir. Above that, an azure sky frames the peaks, with every so often the whiff of an orphan cloud, searching for its own.

To my other side, the city fans out, its grid broken by the dry beds of the Rillito and the Santa Cruz, or the interruption by the railroad tracks. Some roads cross, others give up, only to continue far into the desert on the other side. It's not hot, but I didn't dress for this, and I thought the road was level, following the ridge, but no, it has a slight incline that begins to slow my pace. When the sidewalk gives out, I walk on sand and rocks, more gingerly, watching for the unlikely but possible rattlesnake or gila monster.

I read earlier this morning that with El Nino it's expected to be a colder, wetter winter in Tucson. If the Santa Cruz overflows its banks, downtown Tucson will flood. In the 1983 record-setting flood caused by another El Nino, the Santa Cruz was at near capacity handling 42,000 cubit feet per second, a number that for me is incomprehensible. Water is big news here. Too much or too little and, as Professor Victor Baker says, "We have big trouble here." In other news: "Floods will test county's soil cement system." Front page. Oh yes, there's a 42-page section in the paper about the University of Arizona Wildcats. So, it's floods and jocks. I turned to the comics.

I do not know what Rilke meant. In my previous readings of his poetry, either he is being deliberately obtuse, or I am thick. Perhaps something is lost in translation. I thought I had some insight, then lost it after crossing First Avenue. So I revisited the 45-minute sermon on Jonah and the great fish. I learned a few things I did not know. First, God may have had the fish "vomit" and not "spit" or "set" Jonah on the land as an indication of displeasure at Jonah's not yet complete repentance. It wasn't the most savory part of the sermon. In short, God was disgusted but still merciful, as was I after three minutes discourse on this expulsion.

Second, I learned that Jonah may have actually died in the fish, then been resurrected by God, which makes sense if you see as do the Gospel writers Jesus as a greater Jonah, in His coming out of the tomb and preaching of Good News to the lost. I missed a few things in the content-rich sermon to my gazing at the mountains through the windows behind the pulpit. I took notes, but they are not now all decipherable.

But I know this: I got a lot more from Jonah than I did from Rilke. A star may be a wish, a wish of God, but it's more. It's good news. It's a 200-year flood of good news. It means He is there.


Golden Dust

Today dawned. Unlike yesterday it actually is qualified to be called dawn, as yesterday was just a slightly lighter version of night. Clouds and rain in the desert southwest cast a pall over the day, somehow darker than the darkest clouds of home, and everyone becomes a little more subdued, as if the welcome spell of wetness might lift if they say much about it.

Walking back from breakfast in a bright sun, there was little evidence of all the rain of yesterday. The desert sand sounded differently under my tread, and stooping down to scoop some up, water still clung to its grains. The frond of a yucca plant bent low, nearly touching the ground, water still pooled in its cup, refreshment for a bird or desert hare. A cote of doves, disturbed by my walk, scattered, all a-twitter by my passing.

I had breakfast with my wife, and she drove on, as I said I'd walk the nearly one mile back, as I did yesterday. I just kept walking. I walked six miles, looping several times around the property, leaving the path once to walk up the wash in hopes of spotting wildlife, which mostly consisted of rabbits disappearing around the side of barrel cactus, or cactus wrens peeking shyly around the edge of sahuaro trunks. A chipmunk, tale high, skittered across my path. A green and yellow hummingbird was not put off though, lighting on a flower no more than 15 feet away, wings fluttering furiously, before flitting away.

Later, I read that hummingbirds have an extremely high metabolism which, I suppose, follows from all the wing flapping, up to 50 times per second, and backward flying at up to 34 mph, something my friend John may have tried in his Mom's green Torino in high school, in a James Dean moment. He did worse. When food is scarce, hummingbirds go into a hibernation-like state called torpor, allowing them to slow their metabolism to 1/15 its normal rate. Some humans seem to be able to manage this as well. Some are born to it.

Along the path I passed a woman once, twice, three times. Each time she was talking furiously on her cell phone with her IPad open in front of her. I wondered if she knew where she was, if she noticed the Catalina Mountains above her, the rabbits hopping round her feet, the hummingbirds flitting by her head. But I'm too smug. I can be like her at home. Here, I turn off my phone most of the day, let it sit at the corner of my desk where it whimpers for a while, beckoning. I cover it with a book.

Today I wrote two thousand five hundred and twelve words; yesterday, three thousand six hundred and twenty. And yes, I know that when you write a number eleven or greater you do not spell it out, but it looks more impressive that way. Allow me those small pleasures, grammar queens. It's a start. I remember one author I met once told us that instead of writing a book he played mini-golf in his apartment for two years while his wife worked. I don't like golf. But there are easier things to do. If you think about it, pray I don't end up like him.

At breakfast we read Psalm 103, one I return to like a favorite cut off an album, particularly this line: "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are but dust." Yet, I think, golden dust, lit from within.