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March 2017

A World As Whole, Not Scribble

IMG_0510A few days ago - days which seem a long time ago now - we were walking in the desert foothills of the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson, Arizona. Our ambition was modest: we traversed a 3.4 mile loop, beginning on the Loma Verde trail, connecting with the Pink Hill trail, and finishing with the Squeeze Pen trail. With an elevation gain of only 60 feet, we weren't taxed; our pace was the stop again - start again of observers and not runners, so we made poor time but were richer for it.

Dispel from your mind all images of desolate, windswept sand dunes. Unlike the Mojave of Southern California or Sahara of North Africa, the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona is Edenic in comparison, lush in vegetation, so much so that some biologists want to reclassify the Arizona Uplands portion of the Sonoran that we are walking as thorn-scrub, not desert, yet that would rob it of rich literary associations, of its deployment as metaphor.

Loma Verde is apt, as "Loma" is Spanish for a hill or ridge having a broad top, and "Verde" means green. And a green hill it is. The well-trod path winds through a forest of mature mesquite trees, their nearly black trunks in sharp contrast with feathered green leaves and azure blue sky. Nursed by the shade of the mesquites, young sahuaro cacti grow, a few splitting into two trunks like co-joined twins, others overtaking their nursery trees and, ultimately, forcing their way to the sky, slipping from their nurses' coddling branches. Below, creosote bushes in full yellow bloom grow and, further below them, the yellow blooms of brittle-bush brush the desert floor, adding even more color, mixing with prickly-pear cactus, an occasional hedgehog cactus, and an unidentifiable purple flowering vine.

Surveying the swath of brittle-bush and creosote blooms that stretch to the horizon, I recall reading earlier in the week that the color yellow is supposed to make people angry, but I don't think so. I feel happy, like a legion of benign suns has come to earth, incarnate in a sea of green and brown.

Crossing over the sandy bottom of Montezuma wash, we pause, silent, to watch for animals. Seeing none, we press on, but my wife casts a glance backwards. "I just know that when we turn our backs the animals come out. They see us." She is confident, recounting times in the past when that has been the case, and so as we leave and for some time thereafter I glance back occasionally, hoping to catch a bobcat, coyote, or javelina peering shyly at us, a feral face in a rear view mirror, but I see nothing but absence and hope behind me.

After the wash, we climb a bluff onto the bajada, a gravel plain at the base of the mountain, bear right to follow the Pink Hill trail, and begin climbing. Rose-tinted soil marks our footfalls, and we look upward into the Rincons, hoping to catch a mountain goat circumnavigating a ridge or rocky outcrop. A cool breeze suddenly rushes through the space between Pink Hill and the mountain. I raise my arms to catch it, see a human-like great sahuaro with two arms similarly raised, leaning back facing the sky as if to shout "Praise."

Soon, we turn left on the Squeeze Pen trail. We ponder the name. She says a squeeze pen is a holding pen that cowboys drove cattle into for branding. Perhaps the natural topography - a depression between hill and mountain - reminded someone of a squeeze pen, or perhaps the area was once a cattle ranch and the natural topography made it a suitable place to locate an actual squeeze pen. We don't know. Our questions hang in the air. We look down, and a horned lizard looks up at us from a rock where he perches, unafraid. He allows a photo before moving on.

Patrick Henry Reardon says that "the Bible itself points to a prior book, the testimony of the created world." We're walking in that creation book now, our utterances full of wonder. Reardon says that ”the rationality and iconic quality of the universe. . . is the sustaining subtext of the human narrative and the fundamental context of poetry." That's a mouthful, yet here's the sum: "In other words, the world is a whole, not a scribble." A poem, story, and icon. A testimony to something Other.

Yet it's tempting to look at the world and see only a scribble, a John Cage splash of random pieces, noise and not song, to think of our tiny footprints on the earth as ephemeral, vanquished by the next monsoon rain or the accumulated desert winds. Mostly we pass in silence. A sahuaro grows at best an inch and a half each year, an infinitesimally small contribution to the universe. And what of the lizard’s tiny life? How along before he lays down, absorbed by the desert floor? Or a digger bee or tiger swallowtail butterfly, moth or magpie, or tiny elf owl? And yet if they don't matter, if the excruciatingly slow progress of the sahuaro doesn't matter, then neither do I. Yet God says otherwise.

Just before trail end, I looked back over my shoulder again, hopeful, but there was nothing. Yet they are there. He is there and not silent, in the world that is not a scribble but whole.


In the Heat of the Day

IMG_0287"And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.”

‭‭(Gen.‬ ‭18:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

In the desert the doves are the first birds to wake. Before a pre-dawn glow lights the mountains, their coos can be heard coaxing life back to their somnolent brethren, heads tucked beneath their feathers, a light breeze lifting their feathery down.

Off our balcony a mesquite tree shades. For approximately ten feet from the ground its trunk leans at a 25-degree angle before, at some point years ago, it reconsidered, took heart, and righted itself. "Be lifted up," God said, and it was so. Green, wispy leaves contrast with the blue sky, make a mottled, swaying, and hypnotic pattern across the balcony floor.

At twilight yesterday, the doves were also the house matrons shushing other birds as they bedded down for the night. Upwards of 50 birds settled into the tree, jumping from branch to branch, twittering and fussing at each other as the stolid doves tried to maintain order. Some sort of parasitic vine had hold of the tree, and where it clumped the birds nested. Some lodged alone on high branches, introverts seeking solitude; others, craving conversation, gossiped away the last light. Soon all the campers were ensconced, and by nightfall - devotion read, song sung, prayer offered (by the dove, of course) - all was quiet.

This morning they were gone, at work, or play, or perhaps both at once, their twittering constant.

At breakfast, a lone wren watched us eat from a perch no more than three feet away. Though small, it drew its breath and fluffed its feathers more than once. We were impressed but not afraid or provoked, if that were its point. It grew impatient of our leavings and left, lighting on the hot tile of a rooftop and, from there, flew on into the blue.

Some bird calls sound like questions; others, like nervous laughter; and yet others, like lullabies. One sounds like a rapid-fire ray gun. A small one. One even says, "I told you," one whose mate likely expelled him from hearth and home for a day, at least, until he changed his tune, stopped dredging up an old misstep. But he's still at it: "I told you." A pause. Then, "I told you." She's not having it.

The sun is high in the sky and bakes the sand, and I am siting here under Room 337's tree, under the tent flap or, if you will, the eave of the roof. Anything could happen. Last year at this time as I sat here a bobcat nonchalantly walked past me, no more than ten feet away and below. Yet I offered it nothing but the indignity of a photo of its hind parts. Yet today, on top of the twitter and twatter of the birds, all I have seen is the restless beating wings and bright heads of hummingbirds, yellow blooms of brittle-bush, green-branched palo verde trees, agave, cholla, and saguaro, butterflies in a dance, and the darkened peaks of the Catalina's, the paint of birch and fir. That's all.

But you never know. The Lord might show up, might walk right up, and after I fall down and spill a few words might speak to me as to a friend. And what He says might change the world a little or a lot, whether I live to see it, or not. You never know.


(Living In) Story Book Land

Storybookva2"[F]airy tales give us some hope of victory. The world is not to be understood in merely domestic categories, as though nothing existed that lay beyond our local and parochial concerns. Nor is it an unmeaning chaos, from which, to preserve our sanity, we need to avert our eyes. Fairyland is. . . the hint of a wilder and wider world than the domestic, from which the bolder of us might bring treasures if we can avoid its perils; a reminder of a world unconstrained by any of our familiar values, and threatening therefore to alienate us from our own; the dream of a world where everything can speak and everything contribute its own beauty to the growing whole."

(Stephen R.L. Clark, "Why We Believe in Fairies," in First Things, March 2017)

When I was a child and, along with my parents and younger sister making our way home from visiting relatives in Arlington, Virginia, my sister and I saw a billboard along the interstate advertising Story Book Land. My parents, though no doubt tired and longing for home, heeded our backseat pleas. From the front seat, there was a muted discussion and nods; our fate hung on gesture and tone, our hope faint. To our surprise, we turned off the highway and, in what seemed a few miles, reached the billboarded park, full of storybook characters set among a wood. I don't remember much of it, just the joy of what we might see, of characters we had read of coming to life. What I do remember is a giant Mother Goose beckoning at the entrance, a castle wall lining the car park, Humpty-Dumpty on a wall, the house of the three bears, a bridge across a stream, an old woman in a shoe. They were all there, all the ones I had read of, rhyme and story come alive.


872543e5bd7292168d303aa55507a8d3Story Book Land is a forgotten and neglected place. When Washington City Paper writer Eddie Dean wrote about it in 1995, likely 30 years after I visited, it had already been closed for more than ten years. Dean wrote that "When the park closed . . . the bucolic site—which boasted more than 100 life-size figures and two dozen storybook buildings—was left virtually intact, as if the owners meant to open it again someday." They never did. Mother Goose lay on the ground. Graffiti covered the buildings. Snow White's house had been used by the homeless. Vandals had beheaded some figures; one building was burnt. Less than one mile from Potomac Mills outlet, along US1, the site had been spared in part due to its status as wetlands. But then, by 2007, the whole area had been absorbed by a housing development, and the magic was really gone.

But this is not a tale of nostalgic longing but about what fired our imaginations. As children, we had not yet become materialists. We still believed that the worlds we read about in fairy tales were real or, at least, possibly real, that there was a "wilder and wider world than the domestic," the one parents and adults seemed to live in, the brick and mortar world of work and school and bills and taxes, a world bereft of magic. And yet as my parents shepherded us through that wood of fantasy, I suspect that somewhere deep down they hoped it or something like it was all true as well.

That was long ago, and far away. For most of us, our "magic forest of make-believe" (as Story Book Land heralded) has been clearcut. Life is not enchanted but simply what it is: asphalt and concrete and steel; bird and bear; a windswept prairie; atoms and quarks and lasers. Stuff. Things. Death and taxes. We long ago lost our wonder.

Christians profess a belief in the supernatural, in an unseen reality, yet we don't often act like it. In reading scripture, we spiritualize what we can't imagine is literal, pray to an unseen God and acknowledge an invisible heaven peopled by those who have gone on from here, and yet we mostly live our days not enraptured by what is behind what we see but stupefied by surface realities. A tree is only wood, a rock the mere leftover of some geological process, a mountain rising only to fall. What they are is what they are; nothing more.

But what if we took a different reading of scripture? Maybe we need to read Scripture as fairy tale, as a magical, astounding story of giants felled by little boys, of great armies put to run by angelic troops, of dead people coming back to life. A wood where rocks cry out, trees clap their hands, and mountains sing. And where, in the end, a magical, shining city comes down from the sky and heaven and earth become one. And no one dies. And no one cries.

"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind," said the great imagineer J.R.R. Tolkien, "that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."

"The Gospels contain a fairystory," said Tolkien, "or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . .There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath."

I confess that often when I read the great narrative of Scripture, the words lie on the page, two-dimensional and flat. But on occasion, on the days when I am best seeking and best seeing, the golden book of stories becomes a Story Book Land and I walk in the wood of words come to life, where I marvel at our visitation by extra-terrestrial Life, where I am struck in wonder at the word or touch that heals and revives from a Being that deigns to take our form and walk among us, Spirit his way in and among us, unseen.

“How can a merely material world ever accommodate our own experience of life?,” says philosopher Stephen Clark. It can’t, says the Bible, which is full of non-human angelic and demonic beings, a world behind the world, “fairies gone away,” as the the materialists say, always going away. Only they haven’t. If we can’t believe in fairies, in an unseen world, says Clark, then there’s no believing Scripture, no room for anything but the material, nothing but the “motion of material parts.” Rather, “banishing the little people from our lives was only a prelude to dispensing with the notions of God and the soul of man. If we can’t believe in fairies, we cannot properly believe in anything at all.”

That day in Story Book Land, my sister and I knew better. Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood were real, somewhere. That place may be gone, ploughed under by progress, yet we still walk in that Land. The Big Bad Wolf lurks, and Humpty Dumpty has fallen and we still can’t put him back together. But Someone can. Someone who hasn’t gone away. Someone from a wilder and wider world who beckons us “come.”


Puzzling Through

Pieces-of-the-puzzle-1925425_1920My favorite puzzles are the kind other people “work,” because that’s what it is to me: work. When I look at a tabletop of 1000 ragged, zig-zaggedy colored cardboard cutouts, I am lost. My wife is happy, though, enchanted by the thought of a new puzzle to pore over. During the holidays she set up a table by the windows in the penumbra of our Christmas tree and opened up shop. Leave her alone for minute, take your eye off of her, and there she is bent over the table, puzzling her way to a completed picture --- a print of blooming flowers, cityscape, or animals. All the interstices of her day are filled with puzzling.

It’s a silent activity. There’s no humming satisfaction that attends it, no singing, no sighing of frustration, no exclamations of glee at finding the missing piece. Just a quiet joy, a dogged determination, a resilient spirit, a patient trying, trying, trying and succeeding, god mending the fabric of creation, disorder to order, chaos to creation.

I ask her what she likes about puzzles, about the pointless waste of time and unending frustration of it (the latter I keep to myself). “I like the satisfaction of finding the right piece,” she says, “working with my hands.” In saying this, she doesn’t even look up, the task before her. I look down at the 1000-plus puzzle pieces mottled before me, all various shades of sky, “subtle variations of dark to pale,” and shake my head. In their cardboard perplexity, they mock me. I try to appreciate this past time , and yet there are a thousand other things I would rather do, and they all start with “read.” If it were up to me, I’d scoop their unfitted and machine-hewn bodies back into the box and put them far way in some dark cabinet behind the Monopoly board. Let them cry for Mommy.

And yet she loves this. I know what part of it is for her. Part of it is that the disassembled puzzle on the table is a problem a little god can fix; most of the big ones require a bigger God, the God. Despite the fact that utopian schemes abound, humankind is not evolving to perfect peace and happiness and bliss; we may find a cure for the common cold, cancer, and Alzheimers, and yet something else will take us. We can’t fix the people around us, remedy human imperfectability. We can’t fix ourselves. That requires a better puzzler. “Two forward and one back, sings Bruce Cockburn, “blind fingers groping for the right track.” That, or a puzzle piece.

“It’s an escape. I’m not worrying about any other problems when I’m working a puzzle.”

I believe that. She’s puzzling away while squirrels chatter a window pane away, while blow hards fill the airwaves and people wander in the streets. Civilization and its discontents. The puzzle writ large right outside our windows. “The world is a puzzle,” says none other than Lemony Snicket, “and we cannot solve it alone.” I look outside, squint at the sunlight streaming in.

“Where’s Mom?” I say to my son later that day.

“She’s working a puzzle.”

I nod knowingly. I watched her begin this latest puzzle. She spread all the pieces out on the table, brooding over the deep, over the chaos, and yet a little light came. She pulled back her hair so she could concentrate, put her placid yet serious puzzling face on. Her hands moved over the pieces, trying one, then another, until there was the subtle click of a fit and the world sighed just a bit. A strand of hair broke free and traced her face, but she ignored it in her deliberation. In a process that must be inductive and innate, she discerned patterns of color and began grouping like colors together. Starting wth the periphery, she built a frame of the world, finding the edges and corners. Over time, it began to take shape. Even in its negative space, I discern what will come. I sense hope and promise, a time when all things fit.

And then, a few days later, she finishes. Leaning back, resting, I can almost hear her say, “It is good. It is very good.” I admire her work, my hand resting on her shoulder, and smile at her pleasure.

Well, it’s a start on the world.