Books

Our Haptic God


IMG_3650Even in suburbia there’s a residue of wildness. Walking alone the other morning before dawn, in the darkness before the birds make their first tentative calls, I heard a chilling shriek. It may have been the wolf on its prey. We’ve seen him nervously cross the road ahead more than once, glancing furtively around, and for a moment it’s a welcome reminder that the manicured place where we live was not always so tame and even yet is not in hand. Deer leap our fence and eat flowers, move through the corridors left between developments. Hawks circles overhead. Owls hoot in the still of the night, before the last lights are switched off. Raccoons and possums move at will over the terrain, one they know better than us. And beneath, water still slides slowly downhill, bearing away the earth, bit by bit by bit. Pretty ordinary, I know, yet it’s the place where I get saved.

D.L. Waldie, author of the memoir called Holy Land, says of his life in the not-so-middle-class suburb of Lakewood, California, that he could not “find whatever it is that makes it possible to live in the world outside of the everyday. To put it in its crudest terms: one isn't saved over there; one is saved here. Salvation doesn't arrive from over there; it arrives here in this place, whatever kind of place it might be.” Waldie locates his this-worldly salvation in the Incarnation: if God can pour himself into a man — if Creator can condescend to be creature — then, all of Creation is imbued with value. We are not saved by the world, but we are saved in the world. “The everyday isn’t perfect,” he says. “It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but imbued with the Incarnation, it fires the imagination of others. The weight of everyday life is a burden I want to carry.”

But many people don’t want the weight of everyday life. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the walk into my office is deadening, or a rush hour drive seeing all the other people waiting at lights, eyes fixed ahead, rushing in or out, fills me with melancholy. I open the newspaper and my mind slides down a slippery slope of “what ifs.” It was like E.B. White said about life sometimes, given both his acute fears and chronic, lifelong, unspecified anxiety. “There would be times,” he said about his boyhood, “when a dismal sky conspired with a forlorn side street to create a moment of such profound bitterness that the world’s accumulated sorrow seemed to gather in a solid lump in [my] heart. The appearance of a coasting hill softening in a thaw, the look of backyards along the railroad tracks on hot afternoons, the faces of people in trolley cars on Sunday—these could and did engulf [me] in a vast wave of depression.” It was darkness he kicked at all his life.

I walk outside not only for its physical benefit but for its spiritual quickening. Waldie, also a walker, says that “walking is haptic in the fullest sense. All of the environment touches one when one is not in a car, when walking.” But it’s more than that. He says that “the presence of God is found in those moments when God rips your self-regard away. For me, that presence is revealed when you stop seeing the ordinary as a weight that needs to be dropped. It happens when the ordinary becomes transparent. You see in the operations of the everyday that which expands your moral imagination.”

Yesterday, I went out and walked the perimeter of our backyard, enjoyed sunlight streaming slant-wise and golden, lighting up the early fall leaves. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. You can see it too. Yet my children played here, grew their imaginations when the fence marked the boundary of their world. Our late dog knew it better than us, her own haptic running after squirrels and sticks and smells rooting her in this place.

Salvation is not some abstract deliverance, something particular to me; it happens in the here and now. It happens on these streets and in these neighborhoods and among these people. It happens in context. It happens in my backyard. The rescue plan that God has is as wide as the cosmos and as particular as my very ordinary home, and my very tiny little life. It reaches down into every crack and crevice of this world and will one day fill it. Salvation is haptic. He is in touch and on the move. In the burden of the ordinary He does His great yet often unseen work.

While I write, the window is open to the twitter of an unknown bird, to the flutter and sway of leaves, to the distant sounds of trucks downshifting. I turn back to my task. Cool air wafts in, gently and insistently tapping on my shoulder, saying, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?”


A Cat's Choice in Reading

IMG_0251Our cat, the ample one, is asleep on top of the pillow where I lay my head at night, her eyes squeezed tight, her white-glove paws draped over its edge, her ear twittering every now and then, an antenna to the slightest perturbation. I suppose that's fine, and I ponder for a moment whether her life is merely the interstices between naps or the naps are her life. But she doesn't philosophize about such things.

Weighing down one corner of my desk is the hardbound volume of The Complete Stories, by Flannery O'Connor, illustrated by one of her beloved peacocks perched on a tree branch. It looks as if it's been through a fire, its cover smoked. I read (or perhaps re-read) the first story in it yesterday evening, and I have been thinking about it since.

"The Geranium" tells of Old Dudley, a white man from the South who has gone to live with his daughter in New York City, and now regrets it. Everyday Old Dudley watches a man across the way in another apartment building place a potted geranium on the window ledge. He expects it. He waits for it. And today was no exception. Asked by his daughter to retrieve something from a neighbor a few floors below, he goes down. On return he grows winded and collapses on the stairs. A well-dressed Negro helps him up the stairs and to his room, exploding his categories of what was appropriate.

As Old Dudley says, "He hadn't looked at the nigger yet. All the way up the stairs, he hadn't looked at the nigger. 'Well,' the nigger said, 'it's a swell place, once you get used to it.' He patted Old Dudley on the back and went into his own apartment. Old Dudley went into his. The pain in his throat was all over his face now, leaking out his eyes." When Old Dudley sat down by the window, he began to cry. He looked down and saw that the geranium had fallen off the window ledge and lay cracked on the ground below. A man was at the window. "Where is the geranium," Old Dudley quavered. "It ought to be there. Not you."

"The Geranium," the first story that O'Connor wrote, is about racism and exploding categories, about how difficult it can be to change when set in your ways, about the cognitive dissonance that is created when the categories into which we put people don't match the reality we are confronted with. The expected (a geranium on a window sill, the subservient Negro that Old Dudleyused to hunt with down in Alabama) goes missing, falls and is even cracked open, and we have to reckon with that. We cannot long live with dissonance. At once we face our own dissonance, as we empathize with the aged man forced by his infirmities to live away from his home, confronted with a well-dressed Negro renting an apartment across the hall, while recoiling at his bigotry.

My cat has shifted, now facing away from me. She sinks further into the pillow, as if to say, "why bother?"

"Would you like to hear another story?" I say. "One about a dog? Or maybe a poem, just a little one? Something light?" I pull out Mary Oliver's collection, Red Bird, and choose a poem entitled "Percy and Books (Eight)," which I thought appropriate, and read it aloud to her:

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

Now she is on the floor by my feet, her tail rising in a spasm every now and then. She chirps, and turns green eyes toward me, searching. Maybe she does not like it when I read a book.

"Which did you like," I said. "The one about the dog or the one about the geranium?" Is the dog poem a sentimental throwaway, I think, or is there something deeper? Is "The Geranium" one of those "beautiful stories that rise or fall and turn into strength, or courage?

But by now she's back on the cratered pillow, back turned, as if to say, "neither." And I wonder if I too, having been prodded, will now return to sleep or whether the beautiful words will have their way with me.


Something Bigger In It


IMG_0001 (1)"A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it."

(Brian Doyle, "A Flurry of Owls," in First Things, Oct. 2016)

All of Mary Oliver’s poems are small things. In opening one of her books of verse, what impresses first is the emptiness of the pages, something which I relish. All that space within which to rest and ponder! One poem, “Invitation,” asks “Oh do you have time/ to linger/ for just a little while/ out of your busy/ and very important day/ for the goldfinches/ that have gathered/ in a field of thistles/ for a musical battle,/ to see who can sing/ the highest note,/ or the lowest,/ or the most expressive of mirth,/ or the most tender?

Not now, I say.

My wife is an inspiration for such solicitude. On the far side of the lake today, she stopped, peering over the rails of the boardwalk fence, and said, “Look at the size of that tree stump. How tall it must have been, how old.” I stopped obligingly, but my internal fitness coach was saying, “This is not a nature walk. Keep moving. Stay focused.” But I leaned over at her bidding and gazed at the gnarly mass of wood half-covered in water. She is the first to see an unusual bird, a red fox, and deer grazing, to hear an animal sound that is misplaced - a signpost for the divine. She is the voice saying, “Oh, do you have time to linger?”

Do I?

Small things have all manner of bigger in them. The seed I crunched under my heel on rejoining the trail may have contained in it an entire tree, a microscopic blueprint of brown and green and science and time only God fully comprehends. The gray cat reclining by my feet carries the weight of history, albeit lightly, unconsciously. I read just now that she is descended from Near Eastern wildcats, having diverged from other cats around 8,000 BC in West Asia. Which explains a few things. The point: she has bigger in her even if it is represented here as a twittering waif, searching my face for the barest sign of movement toward, what else, the food bowl.

“My busy and important day?” Oliver is gently poking my ego. Do you think you are so busy, she says, so very important, that you can’t pay attention to what is happening around you, to a couple of tiny, insignificant birds? She’s right, of course. All that busyness, all that bluster, all those very important phone calls and consultations are less eternal than the “musical battle” of the goldfinches. There should always be time to listen to the not-so-empty pages of life.

Why do they sing? Oliver says “not for your sake/ and not for mine/ but for sheer delight and gratitude — / believe us, they say,/ it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.” Which is something like worship, I think. Or perhaps it simply is worship. There really is something bigger in it.

Next time I hold the bread and cup, I’ll try not to think about lunch, about what I have to do in my busy, important life, about the lightness of being of what I hold, about the absurdity of a plastic cup of grape juice and Wonder bread pointing to God incarnate. I’ll remember the goldfinches, the poem, the gray cat, and the tree and how pitiable they are as expressions of the divine — and yet within them, the universe. And so, within the cup and bread, everything that matters.

As Oliver concluded,

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

But, for now, it is enough that the white space of a late Summer afternoon is spread out before me and another poem open to me: “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” Outside the window, a crescent leaf flickers in the slight breeze, and I imagine that if I stare at it I can see all the way back to the seed, to the tree that produced that seed, back to the ancestral trees that started it all, back to the Garden, back to the Spirit hovering over the waters, back to Him.

That’s ridiculous, I think, some kind of crazy grace to see that way, to see the big in the little. Yet I pray for more grace, because it is a serious thing to be alive in a broken world.

[The poem is “Invitation,” and is excerpted from Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2008]


Waking Up

In Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing up, An American Childhood, she writes of the process of self-consciousness for a child: “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad?” What she describes is the necessary process of discovering yourself and the world around, of waking up, of gradually and then all at once having it dawn on you that you are unique and separate, and that the world is larger and more mysterious than you thought — well, if you thought.

One such moment came for me before I was ten. I was riding in the car with my mother, going to my grandmother’s house, and I happened to look up from my book and notice a home I was passing, one more modest than mine, paint peeling, grass patchy and overgrown. A black woman was coming through the door, and the screen door was flapping on its hinges, and though I couldn’t hear it, I knew that sound. I was no longer a child. I was suddenly aware that I was different than this woman, than her family.

Dillard says “I noticed this process of waking, and guessed with terrifying logic that one of these years far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.” Never be free of myself again.

As necessary as this process of consciousness is, it is also sad, as it has the unfortunate consequence of making us think too much about ourselves and too little of others. And yet if a child is blessedly unconscious of self, he is also unaware of how his actions may impact others and, thus, he can act cruelly and selfishly. Our real goal as we grow old is to grow in wonder at and love for the world and others while cultivating our own self-forgetfulness.

In The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, Tim Keller writes that “True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.” Like children, it is possible for us to be blessedly unaware of ourselves. Yet unlike children, we are also aware of our tendency to relate everything to ourselves. Yet know the antidote: regular, moment-to-moment looking to Christ, who has forgiven us and accepts us just as we are (Rom. 8:1). Our identity is rooted in Christ. We wake up, for sure, but it's Christ we wake to.

It’s true we’ll never be free of ourselves again. But our picture of self will be transformed by Christ. That’s not sad at all. That's freedom, that's joy.


A Charlie Brown Religion: A Review

9781496804686_p0_v3_s487x700Of all the 17,897 Peanuts newspaper strips penned by Charles Schultz during his 50 years of creative endeavor, most of which I have not read, one exemplifies the surprising profundity that a four-panel comic strip could have under Schultz. Lucy and Charlie Brown are propped thoughtfully on a brick wall, and Charlie Brown says “You know what I wonder?,” and then, “Sometimes I wonder if God is pleased with me.” In the next (and third) panel, he turns to Lucy, whose expression has never changed as yet, and says “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Lucy turns, smiling smugly, and says, “He just HAS to be!” It’s funny, as it plays on Charlie Brown’s self-deprecation and doubt and on Lucy’s assuredness, and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s as if Lucy protests too much. She too wonders, we think, though unlike Charlie Brown, she covers with her confidence, with her assurance. The question is one that resonated, no doubt with millions of readers: Does God really love me? And if so, then why are things not going well for me? Or, could he really love me?

In A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schultz, author Stephen J. Lind does an excellent job exploring the way the late Schultz brought Christian faith to bear on his popular Peanuts series. No doubt all of us remember the poignancy of the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Linus’s telling of the Christmas story, reciting verbatim the words of scripture at the end, but we’re likely unaware of Schultz’s deep if somewhat idiosyncratic Christian faith and his persistent employment of scripture — both as directly quoted as well as alluded to — in some of his strips and animated shows. At the time, in the mid-Sixties, network TV programmers were extremely reluctant to include religious references, much less scripture, in their programming. Told that having Linus read the Gospel of Luke was “too religious,” Schultz stuck to his convictions, saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” The rest is history. He had the presence to make it happen. A memorable Christmas special was born. A barrier was broken.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles Schultz saw little of church as a child. In school, he fared poorly, failing many subjects, a shy boy with no obvious future calling. When high school ended, however, his mother suggested that he take a correspondence art course. It was his first step into honing his own craft. Drafted in 1943, he served in Europe, but most agonizingly, his mother contracted terminal cervical cancer in the years before he left, so as he said goodbye to her, he knew that it was likely the last time he would see her. While deployed, his father Carl began attending a small Church of God congregation, and on return, Schultz did as well. It was there, through Bible studies and friendships that he came to a realization of faith sometime in 1948. Asked about it, he said “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude.” Haunted by nightmares of war, suffering the too-early death of his mother, the community of faith he found buoyed him.

Lind gives good coverage in the book to the incremental and progressive achievements Schultz made in a career in comics. And yet the focus here is the continuing place that faith had in his life. He never forgot his roots in the Church of God or the pastoral and other friendships he developed there, never stopped reading and studying scripture (as evidenced by a well-used and marked Bible), and never stopped interjecting Bible truth into comic strips and animated specials. At the same time, none were preachy, none off-putting. As Lind writes, “Most of the salient religious references in the animated specials. . . used terminology , phrasing and anecdotes from Scripture to create laughter, not theological debate.” Nevertheless, the comic strips and animated specials often invited reflection.

In 1983’s It’s An Adventure, Charlie Brown, one short, “Butterfly,” is rich with questioning. Out on the lawn, a butterfly lands on Peppermint Patty’s nose. She falls asleep and Marcie sends it fluttering away. Awakening, Marcie exclaims, “A miracle, sir! While you were asleep it turned into an angel.” Peppermint Patty is convinced that she was chosen to bring a message to the world. However, she is unable to get any attention from a televangelist or any other religious people. And though Marcie is trying to tell her that she made the whole thing up, she can’t hear it. As Lind explains, “[I]f the viewer is willing to think through the issue with the scene, an invitation is extended to consider one’s relationship to miracles. The scene asks why it is that some are so wonderfully quick to believe that a miracle has happened to them when the ‘real’ explanation is being repeated over and over. Yet the viewer is also prompted to consider why others, who are purportedly in the business of miracles. . . , are so wrapped up with the tedious business of Sunday school papers and sprinkler systems that they lose the ability to listen to news of the miraculous.” Witty and profound, rich with questioning yet without trite answers, Schultz provokes reflection by those willing to pause. Doubtless the questions posed were the ones he also asked.

Though he never explicitly abandoned faith, at some point in life Charles Schultz stopped going to church. In a biography published in 1989, he was quoted saying “I guess you might say I’ve come around to secular humanism.” And yet Lind concludes, based on other comments by Schultz, that the statement neither reflected atheism nor a crisis of faith but, rather, a increasingly complex faith, a kind of biblical humanism or, perhaps, a Christian universalism. Lind says that “The view that Christ’s work had atoned for all of mankind’s sin, regardless of their religious affiliation, and that God knew the heart of each man and woman sufficient to determine if they were part of His kingdom, seems consistent with Sparky’s [Schultz’s] comments on faith.” If not universalism, it is certainly an openness to the inclusion in the Kingdom of those who do not even refer to themselves as Christians, who do not profess belief but who are “good” people. No one would refer to this as historic, orthodox Christian belief as reflected in its historic creeds, yet it seemed to be what Schultz embraced as he removed himself from the accountability of a church where new ideas could be discussed and, at times, countered. And though he did not stop discussing biblical theology with friends, they were also not of an evangelical ilk. In 1998 his friend Robert Short described him as a “Christian universalist,” explaining, using a Peanuts metaphor, that “he believed, as I do, that finally all people are going to be rounded up by Christ the sheep dog.” Whether he was correct is unclear; that Schultz’s own non-systematic theology has deep inconsistencies with the Bible is clear.

After battling cancer, Charles Schultz died in his sleep from a pulmonary embolism on the night of February 12, 2000. He struggled with faith in his last days, not seeing the efficacy of prayers on his behalf, wanting to continue to be active, as he had planned, on into his Eighties. Perhaps he even contemplated that question by Charlie Brown, “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Perhaps now he knows. Perhaps, as Lucy said, “he just has to be.”

I recommend A Charlie Brown Religion, even if, like me, you were not a fan of Peanuts but simply one who brushed up against a cultural icon. Highly readable and focused, my only criticism is the inclusion of the epilogue which read more like a introduction to the Peanuts brand and muted the power of the conclusions Lind drew from Schultz’s life. That aside, well-written biographies like Lind’s instruct and inspire, even warn. In the life of Charles Schultz, there is much to commend — his winsomeness, generosity, creativity, work ethic, and love for others — and yet much that serves as warning. He had an affair when married to his first wife. He failed to instruct his children in faith, reasoning that they each needed to come to their own conclusions (despite scriptural admonitions to do so), and, giving up the life of a community of faith (also commended in scripture) veered into an individualistic and non-orthodox spirituality rooted in Christian faith but free-floating and amorphous. In the end, we can celebrate the many commendable qualities of his life, leaving the rest between him and his Maker. After all, in the end, every human being is a mystery fully known only by his God.


On the Way to Fairyland

In Abigail Santamaria’s new biography of Joy Davidman, entitled Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, she recounts a recurring dream that Joy had throughout childhood. She found herself walking down a street called Daylight. She rounds a corner and follows a grassy path into an unfamiliar world. She stumbles along until the trail opens onto “a strange, immeasurable plane” where in the distance rose the towers of Fairyland, a perfect kingdom, a place where, she wrote, “Hate and heartbreak/ All were forgot there.” But then, before she could cross the threshold, she woke up, in a child-sized bedroom in the less idyllic world of the Bronx.

I love Autumn, but I have had people tell me they hate it. “Everything is dying,” someone told me, “and it makes me sad.” In a last blaze of color, of orange, red, and yellow, the leaves give their last, falling, but in their dying, bring new life to soil, readying the earth for the sleep of Winter and the new life of Spring. Everything is dying so that everything might live.

Isn’t that life? We have a recurring and true waking dream (and perhaps night dream) of Heaven, a place where hate and heartbreak are banished, and yet we stumble along a crooked path until we have a glimpse of that Kingdom, and then, we awake, realizing that it is coming, but not yet. We kick at the leaves on the path, the remnants of Fall, crunching acorns underfoot, on our way to Spring. For Joy, “hope lingered in the morning hours;” so too, hope endures in our every new morning. In Lamentations 3:23 the prophet in the midst of lament has that dream, that the Lord’s “mercies never come to an end,” that they are “new every morning.” In Fall, there is an emptying, a dying, and we kick leaves as we stumble along the path to Spring, to the new, to Fairyland, to Joy.

Honestly, I believe that most people, beneath their shellacked or impassive exterior, behind laughter and irony, are afraid and anxious. They lack hope. They fasten on the present. They kick at darkness but can’t ultimately hold it at bay. Yet God promises steadfast love. He promises Fairyland. He is certain in the midst of uncertainty. We may stumble, may even fall, may even lie down in the sleep of barren winter in our soul. But we will awake, in Fairyland, full of Spring.


Fairy-Stories

“[F]airy tales whisper to us of our deep need. The best fairy tale is a story you wish would come true. And this wish, in its turn, is merely the obverse side of a confession. It’s an admission that, in and of ourselves, we are incomplete.”

(Jim Ware, in God of the Fairy Tale: Finding Truth in the Land of the Make-Believe)

I love fairy tales. When I was very young, my aunt gave us an even then old volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with color illustrations, and I lay on the floor and pored over its stories. By the time I was 12, I had graduated to the science fiction genre and, as a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, was enthralled by the adult fiction of the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. They were not the best fantasies for a boy of 12, and many were not good tales, in that they pointed away from God.

One nihilistic short story I still remember. A man enters a multi-level department store such as you find in New York, with escalators that whisk you to as many as eight floors of shopping. He finishes his shopping on some upper floor, and begins his descent to the ground floor and exit — only he never makes it. Down he descends one floor, walks round to the next down escalator, and down he goes again. This keeps up, the crowds thinning as he goes, until, having descended many more floors than he can count, he is alone. He continues descending, becoming more frantic by the minute, until he is running down, down, down, dropping his packages, yelling for anyone to help, finally falling, splayed at the end of one descending belt of steps, weeping. The end. It’s a parable of futility and hopelessness. It’s not a good fairy tale, though it is told well — so well that 45 years later I still remember it.

A good fairy tale, unlike this story, take us to a place that is unlike what we know. Whether science fiction or fantasy or both, they whisk us away to an improbable reality where evil is evil and good is good, where there is a welcome and unexpected turning of the tables (as when small and humble Frodo the hobbit agrees to take the Ring to the Crack of Doom), where in the end justice is done and good triumphs, where the answer to Sam Gamgee’s question — “Is everything sad going to come untrue” — is yes, yes, of course, and we can finally say “and they all lived happily ever after.”

When I read fantasy as a boy, and when I read it now, I am looking for the good, the true, and the beautiful. I’m looking for the Gospel. Like C.S. Lewis said, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. . . . It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. . . . By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” Tolkien said it as well, that “[t]he Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” Good fantasies let me come back to the Gospel story and see it fresh, for the crazy Truth that it is: that a God will come down to lift up His creatures, that a God will turn the tables on the Villain of this world. That is the greatest fairy tale of them all. It’s worth regular reading.


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.


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.


Chillin'

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.


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.

 


Space to Dream

I ate lunch alone today.  Don't feel sorry for me.  I needed space to think, and my favorite Italian restaurant is perfect for that, like sliding on a pair of old shoes.

When I walked in, Lena, the hostess, said "Just one?," and I said, "Just me." I never even slowed down.  I pointed to the corner booth, said "I'm going to my hole," and she nodded.  This happens once every two weeks or so.  I sit down, they bring me what I always eat, keep the ice tea flowing, and pretty much leave me alone.  There's no chit-chat like a bartender might engage in with a single diner like me. Occasionally the owner, Frank, an Italian immigrant, walks out of the kitchen, maybe out onto the sidewalk, looks around, and comes back in.  We say hello.  But he knows what I am there for.

Today I am reading Leaving Orbit: Notes of the Last Days of American Spaceflight, by Margaret Lazarus Dean, an English professor at UT Knoxville. That's an ominous title. I am 96 pages in, and I keep hoping for more but keep coming up short.  Yet I can't stop.  Dean, who is quite a bit younger than me, is no doubt a fan of all things space, but so far this is a book about a young author writing a book, with shallow observations, laments over being born too late, and "ga-ga" moments, as when she spent a couple hours with Buzz Aldrin.  She deeply regrets being born too late to see the "heroic era" of spaceflight, and yet I have rarely read so many words about so little.  She pulls off the 528 Causeway on Merritt Island to watch with other tourists one of the last shuttle launches, and I long for rich descriptions of Discovery's liftoff, for deep reflections on the era, the flora and fauna of the island, anything.  But she doesn't have the words.  Asked her impression of the launch by a friend, all she can muster is "awesome," with the explanation that "sometimes the most complex events are summed up in a single word."  Maybe, but not that word.  But I still have a couple hundred pages to go, so maybe the fire is in the finish.

I take a bite of pizza. I am cutting my single oversized slice with knife and fork, making it last, as if I were writing Notes From the Last Days of Pizza, as if I need to describe it all to you, reader.  Frank's pizza is little more than a delicious sizzling piece of cheese held together by the slightest of flour atoms, like raclette, the only Swiss dish I care for.  Lena fills my glass, breezes by.  "Thanks," I say, not even looking up, deep in the Last Orbit, in space. I know why I'm reading the book. I'm a sucker for melancholy tales, for wistful longings, for lost dreams.  Or maybe, magically, I hope to see someone I know in these pages, might see what they see as they drive up to Kennedy Space Center, as the Vehicle Assembly Building looms staggeringly large over them, a building which seems to touch the clouds and welcome the sky. I'd look with their eyes over a archipelago of buildings strewn across Florida marsh and sand and wonder: What now? Seeing the open horizon, suddenly I don't feel so melancholy at all, even believe that Cape Canaveral-sized dreams are still worth dreaming, that even I might reach a metaphoric star.

"Thanks Lena," I say.  Thanks for that bit of space to fuel my day, to dream.


Where he Stars Shine Down

I am reading the Annotated Edition of Pioneer Girl, The Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Does this mean I lose my man-card? Here is my defense: Pioneer Girl, which Wilder finished in 1930, is not the sanitized version of Wilder’s life told in Little House on the Prairie. It’ s compelling, rich with details about the people and places of the prairies of southeastern Kansas, written in the first-person, creating an intimate look at everyday life — books, songs, Christmas presents, and all the items of that life.

“I lay there and looked through the opening in the wagon cover at the campfire with Ma and Pa sitting there,” she wrote on the first page. “It was lonesome and so still with the stars shining down on the great, flat land where no one lived.” I can attest to that. Last year I was in the Tall Grass Prairie Reserve of the Fint Hills of Kansas, and the slightly rolling hills stretch to the horizon unpeopled and almost flat. And beautiful. But imagine it without power lines, a ribbon of asphalt, or the occasional drone of an airplane, and you feel a great loneliness. You look out from your wagon bed and are comforted by the sight of your mother and father settling the day’s affairs over stiff black coffee.

I know that feeling. My parents did the same, only I viewed them from a bed under a roof, and they sat, speaking in low voices, around the kitchen table. I listened for any sign of worry in their voices, and not hearing any, could sleep. Pioneer Girl starts like this: “Once upon a time years and years ago, Pa stopped the horses and the wagon they were hauling away out on the prairie in Indian Territory. ‘Well, Caroline,’ he said ‘here’s the place we’ve been looking for. Might as well camp.’” That’s how all great stories begin, in a time and in a place. It makes you want to get out of town, to walk where the “stars are shining down.”

Alright, I confess. I watched all nine seasons of Little House. With my children. Of course.


What's On My Desk

“The critics of suburbs say that you and I live narrow lives. I agree. My life is narrow. From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow. Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger.”  (D.L. Waldie, in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir)

There are probably 600 books in my library. I haven’t even read some of them. I’m not bragging. I just feel a little less narrow with them around. Six hundred books. But on my desk are three: Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, by D.L. Waldie, which is a memoir of both a person and a place (Lakewood, California) so intertwined that I can’t tell the difference sometimes. It is a nourishing book. I regularly pull it out for its poetry, its humanity, and its faith. Inexplicably, it makes me want to walk the streets of Lakewood, but I settle for walking its pages.

And there’ s The National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways, which takes me out on the back roads. It presents, in its own words, a “labyrinth of possibilities.” I put the open road it presents next to the narrow focus of Holy Land, like a tramping Woody Guthrie meeting George Bailey. It’s a wonderful life if you can hold the two together.

But looming large is the ESV Study Bible, which, due to its largess I do not usually read, and yet it feels right to have it weight the other two books, tethering wanderlust and home to unseen realities. If I remove it, the other two seem diminished, so I leave it, the others hugging its sides. They’re all keepers. Side by side they’re huge: sidewalks and highways and galaxies. What more could we want?


A Wood Between the Worlds

"Surveys have been taken to assess strength of a local identification by determining how many locations in cities are immediately recognizable by residents. But there are other factors that make the home familiar; from the song of the cicadas at summer twilight to the violence of the prairie wind."  (Craig Miner, in The Wichita Reader)

I'm interested in those "other factors."  Like the red fox that crossed my path this morning. The familiar birdsong in the morning. The smell of rain on hot asphalt. The bright laser-sharp rays of morning sun through a pine forest. Even the regularity of dog-walkers, like Mike with Abby, or Tony with his aged canines. They all settle me here, make home familiar.

I picked up The Wichita Reader in Eighth Day Books on Douglas Avenue in Wichita, in a city of trees planted on the prairies of Kansas, home of Dorothy and Toto, where the wind always blows. When I go there, I go to Eighth Day, three floors of books in a white house and, oddly, feel at home. It's atmospherics: ink, dust, and mildew, I suppose, and tales of faraway places, and wise book tenders, and no one to rush me. I smile at the red head girl who who plies its lanes. I wished her home.

Eighth Day is The Wood Between the Worlds, you know, a place that opens to other places. Or it's Dorothy's spinning house that fell over the rainbow. I go there in my mind. But I'm dreaming again. The red fox moves away. The road bends uphill. Huffing, we climb. A woman stops and says, "Oh, he lives here. We see him all the time." I'm glad of it.


Thurber, and Remembering Well

The late humorist James Thurber once said that "humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility." Another way of saying it is that humor requires a certain remove. Distance. Sure it does. The funniest things I remember were also the most embarrassing for me, mostly in my teenage years, and mostly involve my failed attempts to connect with or impress a member of the opposite sex. I'll spare you any details.

In ninth grade Modern Grammar class, Mrs. Joyner, an eccentric "old maid," a slight but fearsome teacher, broke with punctuation and syntax and usage each week to tell stories or have us listen to stories. One I have not forgotten was a telling of "The Night the Bed Fell" by James Thurber himself, set in motion by a vinyl record spun on a turntable on loan from the library. One of many stories of his childhood in 1920s Cincinnati, I remembered it as hilarious in its slapstick telling of what happened when Thurber's fathers's attic bed fell, about a hysterical mother, slamming doors, his father's incorrect conclusion that the house was afire, and the dog Rex's attempt to eat his cousin Briggs.

So when I was in Wichita recently and in the wonderful Eighth Day Books on Douglas Avenue, I bought a copy of Thurber's short memoir of those early years, My Life and Hard Times, from Victoria, the tender of all those wonderful books, both of us remarking on what a classic story it was. Later, waiting for my wife to run an errand, I took ten minutes to read the story. It was not nearly as hilarious as I recalled from my hearing of it 42 years ago at the age of 14. But it is funny, in the smile-to-yourself-funny kind of way.

Others were funnier. Like "The Dog That Bit People," about his mother's unqualified defense of the family dog who had the habit of biting everyone but her. When the dog bites an important business associate of her husband's, Mrs. Thurber defends him as a good judge of character, letting us know that the man is untrustworthy. Or when Muggs bit Mrs. Rufus Sturtevant and Lieutenant Governor Malloy, it wasn't his fault, she said, but theirs, as "when he starts for them, they scream, and that excites him." And though it may be exaggerated for effect, the story has a ring of truth about it, as anyone who has witnessed a coddling dog owner's justifications for bad behavior can attest.

In "The Night the Ghost Got In," pandemonium again sets in upon the Thurber household. Thinking burglars are in the house and panicking, Mother throws a shoe through the window of the house next door, to rouse Boswell so that he can call the police. Grandfather, who had jumped to the conclusion that the police were deserters from Meade's army, shot a gun that grazed one of the policemen, one named Zither. And that's just how it seemed to go in the Thurber house. Something was always happening. And that, like in all households, such memorable events are punctuated by long stretches of normality, we are not concerned. In the Thurber household, this, we are led to believe, is normal.

It's tempting to say that Thurber exercised literary license with the events of his early life (that is, lied), that his telling is part truth and part fiction, and yet biographers note that he had a photographic memory, making them wont to challenge the minutest detail. Perhaps all our lives would be so humorous if we could remember so vividly and yet choose to remember the good.

Even in his last 15 years of life, when he was nearly blind, Thurber was a prolific writer, continuing to remember and rearrange memories in the inner mind. In those later years, he once said that "my one-eighth vision happily obscures sad and ungainly sights, leaving only the vivid and the radiant, some of whom are my friends and neighbors." Would that we were all so blind and so enraptured with the good.


The Story We Must Tell Ourselves

Marilyn came out to the pool to see us yesterday afternoon as we lounged. She is the bartender and asked if she could get us anything. We said no. Probably in her late Sixties, she has a nice smile, and her eyes agree with her smile. She says that if we get bored she has plenty of stories to tell. We laugh and go back to our reading as she slowly returns to the bar, navigating the pool, a slight shuffle in her walk in uncomely black brogans.

We are admiring the colors here in California, the adobe walls of the building juxtaposed with the green of the trees and the crisp blue sky. A bluejay lands on the tree, weaves among its needles, and leaves, flying up and over the wall. It makes me think of Southern Arizona, and I make a note to read up on the psychological effect of certain colors. Sometime.

But Marilyn is back, and though unbidden she has a story to tell. It's about her prized 29-year old Mustang convertible, and she gives us the details of its horsepower and longevity, about how the air conditioning lasted 23 years before failing, and how the transmission was fine until recently when she had to drive it in first gear all the way to the dealership. She has pictures, several, that she takes out of an envelope one by one, and they depict the car posed in her driveway, with a background of modest tract houses that look like those in which Kevin and Winnie live in The Wonder Years. She even wrote to the CEO of Ford Motor Company about her car, and he wrote back, and Alan (she is on a first name basis with him) is quite amazed at the longevity of her Mustang.

Marilyn said she tired of a stick shift and asked her son, Cory, to help her buy an automatic, as he drives down from Fremont to see her every week, and he made a very good deal on a Hyundai. She loves the car. She shows us its picture. She told us how she was stopped by a policeman after going through a yellow light, and how he let her go, telling her to "hold it down." He asked her where she worked, and she said she tended the bar at The Westin, and he said he didn’t go to bars like that, and she thought I don’t go to bars like you go to either, and he waved her on. She told us with some distress how her car was leaking oil and she had to have it towed from the hotel parking lot the other night, and how she couldn't believe that would happen to a new car. She couldn’t believe that could happen and she hoped it would be ok.

But we are thinking about how her son must mean the world to her.  She did not mention a husband. Maybe he died, or maybe she is divorced, but she has Cory.  And her Mustang. And a leaking Hyundai.

At the pool under a California sun, I'm reading a 1979 book of essays by Joan Didion, called The White Album, all because of the first sentence: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." In one of his many columns, D.L. Waldie, author of one of my favorite memoirs, Holy Land, appropriates that quote. It's a provocative one, as it made me wonder what stories I am telling myself. Oh, I know the right answer, the Sunday School answer, the one theologian D. Martin Lloyd Jones gave, that we are to preach the Gospel to ourselves, the narrative of grace, and yet there are times when the little stories that wind through my head begin to collectively stage a coup d'état on that truth, when a story laced by doubt begins to impinge. Times like that I have to start over again, like when you forget to say "Mother may I?" and, reluctantly, because you forgot, because you know better, in spite of the fact that you know how the story goes, you have to go back to start, kicking at the dirt, anxious to get on with it, and begin again.

So, lying in bed in the early morning hours, when doubt circles and weaves its tale of disappointment, frustration, or impatience, when I ache from lying too long or from the broken record of seemingly unanswered prayers (or at least ones not answered the way I like), I stretch my hands upward to take hold of a story that is bigger, better, and bolder than all the fiction that I'm entertaining, the one that says "In the beginning, God created, the one that says "for God so loved the world [and me] that he gave his only son," and the one that says “death shall be no more” --- chapter headings in a great saga of redemption, in the little story of me. I have to take hold of that story every morning, as I may lose it during the day.

But I don't know what story Marilyn is telling herself. Maybe it's a nostalgic one she relives when she drives her red Mustang up the 101, one about youth and about the "wild" spirit she remains. Or maybe it's one told vicariously through her one and only son to whom she clings after being cast off by a husband who simply moved on. I don't know.  But I do know that I was too self-indulgent, too begrudging of my time, too wedded to my book to offer her one single photograph from the album of my life, one scene from a narrative that makes sense of it all, a snapshot of the Only Begotten on the move.

But now the sun has gone behind the building, and a chill has entered the air. And Joan Didion, who is a masterful recorder of stories and cataloguer of places, and who is confused and anxious, is telling me of her life with her husband and child in the Bohemian Los Angeles culture of the late Sixties, of a recording session with Jim Morrison and The Doors, of her fascination with the Hoover Dam and all the means by which water pours into a dry California --- and yet, reflecting on the disparate images of those years, she concludes with the hopelessness of "writing has not helped me see what it all means." She says that life seemed to be "a story without a narrative." For all her powers of perception, she sees but through a glass, darkly, barely.

It is, as poet Joan Kenyon says, "otherwise." And it is, for Marilyn and Joan Didion, a tale still unfolding, one which, God willing, may yet surprise.

 


Why Stuff Matters: A Review

StuffFor most of us, the materials that make up the stuff of life — things like steel, concrete, wood, paper, and plastic — are part of the backdrop of our existence, barely noticed, if at all, except for their utility. We place our hand on the door of our car and take for granted the complex types of materials of which it is made. Or we toss a chocolate in our mouth fully unaware of the material properties of which it is made, of the processes that turned an unpromising nut into a pleasure-inducing food. Much less do we appreciate the complex interior structure of the tables at which we sit, the plastics that mold our environment, or the ubiquitous concrete that is responsible for the shape and texture of our urban environments. We pass through, unaware.

Not so with Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist who has written a love letter to materials. Called Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Miodownik writes personally and winsomely, even poetically, about paper, chocolate, silica aerogel, concrete, and other materials we take for granted. (Well, maybe not silica aerogel, but that is its own story.) Sit across from him on the roof of his flat in London as he proclaims the wonders of materials. He is obsessed. He is in love. As just one example, take paper.

Listen to his description of the unfolding of a paper shopping bag, a critical yet barely noticed part of the thrill of buying something we desire:

“It comes out first in its flat-pack condition, but then its bottom is pushed out and it makes that glorious sound of thunder as the concertinaed paper sides are deployed into their upright positions. There it sits on the shop counter, like a butterfly recently emerged from its chrysalis: perfect, elegant and poised. Suddenly my purchase seems right, now that the clothes have been allocated this special receptacle to chaperone them back home.”

It’s enough to make me want to buy something now, to place a shiny Apple product in a draw-stringed recyclable bag. Paper, like all materials, carries meanings that we project on it, even meanings sellers hope we adopt.

But there’s more: The back of an envelope becomes a “theater of ideas.” Handwritten letters carry the very ball-point pen impressions of a friend: “The paper itself becomes a simulacrum of the loved one’s skin, it smells of their scent, and their writing is as much an expression of their unique nature as a fingerprint.” Yellowed paper carries the patina of history, of authenticity. Books on shelves and tables define who we are and who we want others to think we are, “a kind of internal marketing exercise.” Paper is everywhere, and yet lost on us, and when it is gone, as has nearly happened with newspapers, we feel a vague and often inarticulable loss:

“The rustle of the paper will no longer be a part of the ritual of Sunday afternoons; newspaper will no longer sit underneath muddy boots, or lounge folded up on train station benches; it will no longer be crumpled into a ball, to light a fire, or be thrown cheekily at an unsuspecting sibling. None of these uses of newspaper are essential in and of themselves, but taken as a whole they paint a picture of a very domestic, useful, and much loved material. A material that will be missed.”

But there’s more to it than just a discussion of paper. Read his illuminating chapter on concrete and never think of it in the same way. In the author’s descriptions, concrete comes alive, continues to develop and strengthen even after it is poured, expand and contract as if it were breathing. His ode to chocolate is, well, delicious, and his love affair with silica aerogel, the lightest solid in the world (an ephemeral, mesmerizing material that is 99.8 percent air), downright giddy: “Aerogels seem to have the ability to compel you to be involved with them. Like an enigmatic party guest, you just want to be near them, even if you can’t think of anything to say.” And then there’s plastic, carbon, porcelain, and biomaterials. Along the way, there is science, yes, but any slog one faces as you delve into it is likely not the author’s fault but due (as in my case) to a lazy brain. Attentiveness pays off.

For Christians, Miodownik's passion is a welcome if unexpected stimulus to a love of Creation. The Church has grown in its appreciation of the natural environment, from the late Sixties publication of Francis Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man to Loren Wilkinson's Earthkeeping. In the last decade its has even come to a theology of place, with books like Eric Jacobsen’s recent The Space Between: Christian Engagement With the Built Environment. Yet, the Church has yet to develop a theology of things, of the inanimate. This is not that book, as Miodownik's religious convictions are not evident. And yet it is a welcome pre-theology of the inanimate stuff of Creation, a warm-up for wonder.

Stuff matters, says Miodownik. Christians agree. The Creator called forth the atoms that make up our world. And into the brokenness of that world, Christ comes, giving importance to every animate and inanimate thing in the unfolding of a cosmic salvation. Books like this re-enchant the world around us, one made invisible by the speed of life, by the flattening of distances and homogenization of place. The author reminds us that all is not what it seems, that materials embedded in our everyday lives hold deep meaning for us, that they are a part of our identity and not just a backdrop for the human drama.

Scripture mysteriously says of Christ that “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17b, ESV). We may not be able to reduce that to scientific observation, and yet Miodownik’s passion for materials allows us to look, if “through a glass dimly,” at the wonder of that belief.

 


Tiny Points of Light

The world was not perfect — it never had been and never would be; it was full of pitfalls and problems, of fear, of regrets and of bitter tears. Here and there, though, there were tiny points of light, hard to see at times, but there nonetheless, like the welcoming lights of home in the darkness. The flames that made these lights were hard to ignite, but occasionally, very occasionally, we found that we had in our hands the match that could be struck to start one of these little fires.

(Mma Ramotswe, in The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe, by Alexander McCall Smith)

I couldn’t sleep last night. It had something to do with the fact that the world is not perfect. After realizing that I had been staring wide-eyed at the ceiling for several minutes, I got up. I told my wife “I can’t sleep, so I’m going to go read for a while,” waking her of course, for no reason really. I suspect that’s a holdover from 50 years ago when, as a child, waking up in the middle of the night, I would walk down the hall to my parent’s bedroom and let my Mom know that I couldn’t sleep: “Mom, I can’t sleep.” She’d say “Just lay down, and be real still, and you’ll go back to sleep.” Profound. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me. I did that and, eventually, though I might have to get up and tell her that again, have her take me back to bed and tuck me in, I went to sleep. Well, I grew out of that coddling practice though not the need to announce my insomnia. (Thankfully, my wife usually doesn’t remember me telling her and is always gentle in her unconscious response.)

In college there was a variation of this. I’d be having a difficult time at school, academically or relationally, and I’d get in my car and drive home, pull in the driveway and see the light in the kitchen window. I knew my Mom would be in there sitting at the kitchen table drinking black coffee. Opening the door and letting the screen slap behind me, I stepped into yesterday. Nothing had changed. By the time I was fed and watered and bedded down, all was well. I was anchored by normality, and I went to sleep in my teenage year’s bed, surrounded by all that I had left behind, home.

I don’t have that home anymore. And my mother is, as Mma Ramotswe says, “late.” I do have a green chair, warm blanket, a sleeping wife, a candle in the window, and a book of big truths wrapped in modest garments — tiny points of light.

And the welcoming light of home. And the Light of lights.

And that’s enough.


He Climbed Up in a Sycamore Tree

We all know that Zaccheus was a wee little man. Anyone who has come up through Sunday school and vacation Bible school has that song indelibly stamped in memory, so much so that the truth of the story lacks its punch, becomes trite and worn. It need not be.

He climbed a sycamore tree. Ever wonder, why a sycamore tree?

Scripture is so very particular when it could easily not have been, and all the sermons that I have heard have focused on the important but general principles of Zaccheus’s curiosity, his sin, his repentance, and the fruit of that repentance. The tree appears in the backdrop as a mere prop to boost a diminutive man into the sight of Jesus. No matter that it is a sycamore. And yet when we are told that “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16), it made me wonder if there is a reason that we are told that it was a sycamore.

The sycamore tree was a common tree grown for its edible figs. It was often planted along walks because it had low-hanging branches. and large palm-sized leaves. So it was a tree in the right place for Zaccheus — convenient, easy to climb, and able to conceal a wealthy tax collector.

In her book, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History, Diana Wells notes the legend that the leaves of the sycamore tree (a tree which actually derives from the oriental plane tree brought home to Britain by early crusaders), were believed to have been Adam and Eves’ first garments. This is not scriptural, of course, as it appears Adam and Eve were unashamedly naked until the Fall, when they were covered in animal skins and not leaves by God. No doubt the leaves came about in Britain because prevailing mores dictated some covering for the actors playing Adam and Eve in medieval religious mystery plays. And yet this large-leaved tree might have been chosen to remind us that though we may seek to hide our sin, there is, in the end, no place that Jesus cannot see and no one that he cannot reach — even a derided outcast like Zaccheus. And no one to cover sin but Jesus.

Wells also notes that Muslim poets said that in Islamic gardens the plane tree’s broad leaves, “fluttering like prayerful hands, led the other trees in praising God.” While metaphorical, the image does resonate with Isaiah’s vision of trees of the field clapping their hands (Isa. 55:12) and the Psalmist’s expression of Creation’s joy, with the rivers clapping and hills singing (Ps. 98:8). And so, in the end, what for Zaccheus was a place of covering for sin from which he could peer out in security at the latest Hebrew prophet, became a place of praise. Indeed, many commentators believe that because Zaccheus came down from the tree and received Jesus “joyfully” (Lk. 19:6), he believed while he was yet in the sycamore, even before Jesus’s request to lodge with him.

We’re not told, but perhaps as the smallish man descended, a wind stirred in that tree, and the hand-shaped leaves fluttered, and 2000 years later, the story of the wee little man still ripples across our lives. And the leaves of sycamores still softly lead in praise.

Whenever I hear that story now, I hear it fresh, and enfleshed. . . with a sycamore tree.

 


Can You See the Real Me?

When I was in college anomie was a big word. In Sociology 101 we talked about the reduction of people to numbers, the depersonalization of the arena-sized classroom, the sense that you were nothing but a cog in a gigantic wheel going nowhere. That was the Seventies, and we were reeling from Watergate, gas shortages, the Vietnam war, and the advent of disco (particularly the latter).

Honestly, as a freshman, I was not thinking such lofty thoughts. As I sat in the back of the biology classroom with one million other students, a mere speck in the eye of the academy, squinting to make out the professor down front, I was thinking about my girlfriend who broke up with me. Or my next move, as in girl move. In retrospect, I was preoccupied with my own concerns but not thinking much about my image, my tribe, my brand. I didn’t have an IPhone (the Dark Ages, people), watch particular TV shows, or identify myself by what car I drove, food I ate (Vegan, locally-sourced, gluten-free), or brand clothes I wore. I may have been self-centered (no, I was self-centered), but I do not recall making decisions based solely on how I would be perceived but by what I wanted. I wanted to figure out who I was, but I wasn't consciously trying to build an image. I was just. . . me. . . whoever "me" was. The court of public opinion of me was really, really small.

The world has changed. In the latest volume of The Mockingbird, in an article entitled “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind the Who,” David Zahl notes that it “used to be that only museums and boutiques were curated. Today, people are curated, lives are curated.” Even as I say this, I’m tempted to think of how you perceive me. Intelligent? A little hip? (I wish.) Bookish? Thoughtful? I try not to think about such things, and yet they creep in. Honestly, can you blame me? We’re swimming in a tidal wave of identity-preoccupation. It’s not so much the question of who I am but who I want you to perceive me to be. And that’s a particular kind of self-absorption that we need a way out of.

I only know one way. And Zahl nails it. He says the moment of grace comes when we stop asking "Who am I?" and start asking "Who are you?" That Godward focus leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, the kind where, as Tim Keller says, we not only do not care what others think, we do not even care what we think of ourselves. As Keller says in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, "True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself." Because all that matters is what Jesus thinks of me, and He declares me holy (because of Him) and beloved. No condemnation. Case closed. Love alone that will not let me go.

There's no direct path to humility, to a God-shaped identity, because when you get there, you won't be thinking about getting there, because I suspect you will have already forgotten yourself. But for most of us, issues of identity rear their head every day, and we have to confront them by doing what Keller says: we have to re-live the Gospel every day, every moment. And if you catch yourself obsessing over perceptions, laugh at the foolish project you have embarked on and live in the love of Jesus. Stop staring in the reflecting pool of self, and meditate on the Source out of Whom our identity flows.

Once I was carrying one of my favorite singer-songwriters to his hotel after a gig. I blathered on about one of his songs and how much it had spoken to me. I expected him to be grateful, to respond warmly. He said nothing. I was looking for appreciation. But now I know. He had forgotten himself, and he did not want to be reminded, did not want to begin to think he was a gift to the world, that he was who I thought he was. He was performing for an audience of One, and it wasn't me.

I want to be like that.


Sunday Reading (Part Two)

Wizrd“I am Oz, the great and terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?”

When I was in Kansas in October last year, spending Fall Break with my daughter, I found a beautiful Penguin Threads edition of The Wizard of Oz in a bookstore, softbound yet housed in a multicolor, textured cover, with a long introduction about the author, L. Frank Baum, and annotations throughout. Never having read the story, I decided to spring for it. I didn’t like the movie — scary as a child, creepy now — and yet I knew the story was a bit different and, besides, the tactile pleasure of holding a book with a great cover is a pleasure.

Yet Baum’s words are even better. I was hooked from the first page with his description of the spartan homestead “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies,” the “great gray prairie on every side,” where the “sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass,” and a house that “was dull and gray as everything else,” and Uncle Henry who never laughed and Aunt Em who covered her ears and screamed when Dorothy would laugh. There’s a theme here. Not enticing. And not accurate, really, as the Kansas prairie glows golden in the sun, and even in the Flint Hills rises and falls, beautiful in its own way. But Baum is interested in contrast, his opinions of the harshness of rural life coloring his perceptions.

I’ll read that book. It’s a keeper, even if a tad dark. At least there are no singing munchkins.

While I have had great use for books on Christianity and the Arts, Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden is one I will store for reference. It’s an elucidation of themes more succinctly stated in Francis Schaeffer’s classic Art and the Bible, from the late Sixties, still a valuable guide. Barrs was a long-time L’Abri worker and associate of Schaeffer and now heads the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary, so it’s no surprise he echoes his mentor. However, his chapters on Tolkien, Lewis, Harry Potter, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen may appeal to those who are looking for fresh insight into those authors and/or books. No munchkins here, thank goodness.

Another book on art and faith, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, is a great collection of essays you can dip into without wholly committing to the whole read. Essayists include Lauren Winner, Eugene Peterson, and Jeremy Begbie. I read Peterson’s “The Pastor: How Artists Shape Pastoral Identity,” and Barbara Nicolosi’s “The Artist: What Exactly Is an Artist, and How Do We Shepherd Them,” as I know a lot of artists and realize they have the capacity to provoke and disturb and bless all at the same time, and yet we don’t always receive them well. I’m saving this one, at least to read Lauren Winner, one day. And maybe, one day, in toto. Maybe on my way to Kansas.

My wife went to The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, from which I was excluded, even though I grew up with three sisters, talk to women better than men (well, women talk more and about more things), and wanted to go to Orlando. (Really, I wanted her to go, and I watched online, so went anyway and didn’t have to worry about having the right clothes or hair.) She brought me the book, Crazy Busy, by Kevin DeYoung, which, thankfully, is mercifully short (as its subtitle says). The cover has a person running with an exclamation mark for his head. I feel that way sometimes. One chapter is entitled “A Cruel Kindergarchy - Diagnosis #3: You Need to Stop Freaking Out Over Your Kids.” I better read that. In fact I better read the whole book. It’s only 118 pages long. I can do this. I detect in its pages heart, courage, and brains, and I need more of those in the whirling of my days.

That dastardly devil, Screwtape, has been annotated as well. The annotated edition of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters has red lettered annotations in the side column of each page, so you need not keep flipping to the endnotes. I like that, because when I have to flip to the endnotes, I get irritated eventually, like Oz, like “Ain’t nobody got time for this.” This hardbound edition of letters from Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood, the lesser devil, has beautifully large type (it’s kind of like a large print edition without being saddled with that moniker). His comment in Letter 13, that “It seems to me that you take a great many pages to tell a very simple story,” is what most people might say about lawyers, those henchmen of the Devil, stacking word on word to obfuscate. But I digress. I love this book, will read it again, and may even write a few more of my own such letters. Screwtape, like Oz, is terrible but cowardly, all smoke and lights behind his curtain. An impostor.

Nepal may as well be over the rainbow given how far away and remote it is. At the Foot of the Snows is an account of the late David E. Watters and family, who lived among the unknown Khami Magar of that mountain country, translating the Scripture into the Kham language. Never heard of this family, but I’m glad for however this book came to my attention, as it is engaging and inspiring, in even its first few pages shining with honesty and God’s providential care. I was on board after the Forward by Pastor Mike Jones, where he says that “the account of David and Nancy’s walk of faith encouraged me to embrace the story God is seeking to write in and through my life.” That’s not an original thought, but it continues to excite me — the idea of God as Author not just of life but of my life. I have 56 years of story, and yet I have an eternity of character development and plot ahead of me. There are amazing quotes here that preface each not-too-long chapter, like this one by Kenneth Hale: “Every language is a unique and collective human genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism.” Makes you think, doesn’t it? And yet it’s not just language that is wonderfully mysterious but literally everything, inscrutable.

If nothing else books like this remind me that life is not, as Baum said, just a different shade of gray, an endless prairie of the mundane, drab and unchanging. It’s an adventure, full of color and mystique. Full of books, and companionship, and a yellow brick road and a real Oz that one day will take us Home where we’ll have all the heart and brain and courage we need. And looks. And better songs.

And that is a good place to end on a Sunday afternoon. “Oh, Aunt Em, I’m so glad to be home again!”

 

 


Sunday Reading (Part One)

The most notable feature of Carl Sandburg's preserved home at Flat Rock, North Carolina is its 11,076 books. There are books in bedrooms, hallways, dining rooms, and the kitchen, and a second home full of books he did not deem worthy of including in the main home. Little slips of paper marked pages in each book that had something worth coming back to. He worked his collection, mined it's combined insights, treasured its wisdom. I'm still working on that.

On the table behind my office desk, there is a teetering stack of about 18 books that I have intended to read. Some have been waiting a few years, gathering dust. I keep adding to the stack, and the ones on bottom are slowly sinking, compressed, to be dug out by some future archaeologist who will draw gross and silly conclusions about American culture from my books. (I have imagination.) In my bedroom nightstand, there are something like 25 more books. I mean to read them, I really do. But you begin to lose consciousness of them; they melt into the paint, lay dormant. Then, when I add to it the sample books I have added on my IPad, there must be 60 books or so I mean to get at. I'm getting behind. Guilt nips at me as I imagine what their authors might say to me.

So, Sunday afternoon I decided to do something about it. I drew out ten books and decided I would at least skim the contents of each, read the preface and first chapter, and then decide if I really needed to read the book. Books not worth having around I would put in the disposal pile; books worth keeping but not to further read, in another pile; and, in what I hoped would be a very small pile, I would place books that I really wanted to read and felt would be profitable. . . now.

So, I read one short story out of John Grisham's Ford County, a collection of short stories. I had never read Grisham, figuring him not literary enough, but he is an entertaining and capable writer. The story, entitled "Blood Drive," a rollicking late night journey to Memphis by three good old boys to give blood for a friend, one sidetracked by a strip joint, gang shooting, and other antics, was hilarious. That book's a keeper.

Then it was on to Algebra: The X and Y of Everyday Math. I know. . . what was I thinking? (It was on sale.) I appreciated the philosophical way it started, with a quote from Augustine of Hippo about how "mathematicians had made a covenant with the Devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell," the clarity and playfulness of its prose, and the mini-bios of mathematicians inserted throughout, but it doubt I'll continue. I will save it for when I retire.

Next up: The New Media Frontier: Blogging, Vlogging, and Podcasting for Christ, a collection of essays on such matters. I'll save this as a good resource and a book to loan out. It has, for example, an essay on blogging for pastors and attempts to address how such tools might be used as a help for pastoral care, as well as an essay on theological blogging and one on youth ministry in the Facebook age. While generally upbeat, it sounds plenty of cautionary notes along the way. Given the rapid way media use changes, I give this one little shelf life and plan to hand it off to pastors pretty quickly.

My sister loaned me The Pleasure Was Mine, by Tommy Hays, a local North Carolina writer. It's a story of Prate Marshbanks, a man losing his wife of 50 years to Alzheimer's. It's moving, and yet the sadness is lightened by the humor and the relationship Prate develops with his grandson (well, not much yet in one chapter). Hays' characters are believable, and so I plan to return to this book. . . in the future.

A friend suggested Daniel Taylor's Letters to My Children: A Father Passes On His Values, years ago, I am ashamed to say. Taylor tells good and true stories to his children, answering questions he imagines them having, as if (or in the event) he's not around to answer them. And yet, serendipitously, he is also answering his own questions, like "What Price Popularity," where we all get a sense of what people-pleasers we can be, of how conscious we are of appearances. I'll keep it, and even recommend it, and yet I feel like I have already been writing about such things for years and so doubt I'll read more. It's signed: "To Steve: Blessings in all your stories." Yes. "Calvin, '08." Thank you for the in person prompt, Daniel Taylor, all those years ago.

Oh my goodness. The Gospel According to Lost, by Chris Seay, really takes me back. Our family watched all nine seasons on Netflix in six months and, in the end, turned to each other and said "huh?" Seay teases out the questions and tries to shine the light of Scripture on them. I'll keep it, but I have lost so much of the story that I don't think it profitable reading until I can watch it again, if ever. His statement that "the Lost narrative is uniquely intertwined with the Judeo-Christian and the beauty of Christianity found in its unyielding proclamation that no one is beyond redemption," is provocative. Maybe in a long cold winter I'll take the plunge again.

[Title deleted], a self-published title by a good friend, is, sad to say, not good. This one I need to move out. I barely made it past the first page. Friend yes, good writing no.

Christian Aid Mission publishes the thin volume, Finishing the Task: How Indigenous Missionaries Are Reaching the Unreached in the 21st Century. Reading these amazing stories of healings, answers to prayer, escapes from danger, preservation during imprisonment, and the such I vacillate between near cynicism (a product of a smallish faith) and a hunger for a fuller reality of Christ's life in me. Are these stories embellished, containing elements of legend? I might have thought so until I met Pastor George in Uganda last year. Thank you, whoever gave me this, or sent it, like God-mail. This is the real thing, an antidote for unexercised belief. (Get the book free here.)

Choosing Your Faith (In a World of Spiritual Options), by Mark Mittleberg, is much better than I thought, a bit easier to read than Tim Keller's Reason to Believe. Good for skeptical yet inquiring friends, it makes the case that faith is inevitable --- the question is faith in what or in who? I don't know that I'll read more, but I definitely want it as a resource and as a giveaway.

Finally, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Churches, and Charities, sounds an alarm for how we individually and corporately can stay true to our commitments, to our mission. It documents how some have gone astray (YMCA becoming simply Y) and others stayed true (Compassion International). It doesn't encourages stasis necessarily, but helps us own up to and examine carefully how we change and if we should change. As I serve on a church Session and several non-profit boards, and sense the pull of circumstance on my own priorities, I think this book will be a valuable resource, one I will read and loan out.

The stack is getting smaller. Sandburg would smile at my pittance of books.

 


Here is New York

Here-is-new-yorkWhenever I visit New York, I think of E.B. White’s 1949 essay, “Here is New York.” As you might expect, it’s evocative of the sights and sounds and even smells of the great city, a walking description of its streets and public places and architecture. Some things don’t change: throngs of shoppers in Midtown, the sometimes pungent mix of exhaust fumes, food, and garbage, the movement and anonymity. And yet some things do change, like the Bowery then is not the Bowery now:

Walk the Bowery under the El [the Third Avenue Elevated] at night and all you feel is a sort of cold guilt. Touched for a dime, you try to drop the coin and not touch the hand, because the hand is dirty; you try to avoid the glance, because the glance accuses. This is not so much personal menace as universal — the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and the advance stages of the disease alcoholism.

The poverty of the Bowery has now pushed on to pockets of North Harlem, or the Bronx. Or in the ostensibly blind man who moves through my subway car: “God bless you, have a good day,” he says. Places change but, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” And the huckster.

But it’s a week ago and we’re not walking the Bowery but over a great bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, upward through a crisp blue sky, behind us an island of skyscrapers. On every suspension line accessible from the walkway, pedestrians have attached locks, some engraved, leaving behind their own personal “I was here, I exist,” as if to prove it to themselves, to reach for one moment of fame. Turning to look at the city, I realize that no one must truly understand its dogma — the labyrinth of tunnels underlying it, the water and sewer pipes, the electrical conduits, the subway tubes, the myriad conversations, wi-fi signals, habitations and office cubicles, and the hopes and dreams both realized and blunted by despair. And yet, God knows its frame, the name of the least of its sparrows.

Walking on the Lower East Side, not far from the rise of the bridge, White encountered not the flophouses of The Bowery but the more “reassuring sobriety and safety of family life.” Heading east long Rivington, “[a]ll is cheerful and filthy and crowded,” he says,

Small shops overflow onto the sidewalk, leaving only half the normal width for passers-by. In the candid light from unshaded bulbs gleam watermelons and lingerie. Families have fled the hot rooms upstairs and found relief on the pavement. They sit on orange crates, smoking, relaxed, congenial. This is the nightly garden party of the vast Lower East Side. . . . folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and squashed fruit and fly-bitten filth in the gutter, and cooking.

Next day, Sunday, we attended church in the Upper West Side. Walking out, revived, we passed firemen washing their fire truck, a father with his young son, watching. To the firemen, the father said, “Thank you.” I know what he meant. I know he meant thank you for keeping on when so many of your fellow firemen died in the towers burning. Thank you for not giving up.

Rounding the corner of 83rd and Columbia Avenue, it seemed all families - mothers and fathers, and children on scooters, and in the sun-washed pavement I saw reflected something ricer than an atomized urban life — a community, people who greeted one another. Cafe tables lapped over the sidewalks, and families had brunch. Shopkeepers' doors were flung over to the breezes and some stood by their doors, beckoning. I began to think “I could live here.” We walked 25 blocks until, just past Lincoln Center, the Midtown bustle of upper Times Square began, and we tired, hailed a cab, and went to Langan’s, a favorite Irish pub where we passed the bar and sat in the back, where it was quieter, next to a table of ladies from the red hat club, their chatter muted by the piano and upright bass behind me.

Perhaps it was our pedestrian pace, but sitting there among the familiar wood-grained walls and white tablecloths I felt as if I had been in New York for a long time. Two days ago, I remembered, I was was walking in Central Park, all the way from the south entrance near the Children’s Zoo, past the Carnival of the Mall and Bethesda Terrace, through the nearly wild and relatively unpeopled Rambles, to Belvedere castle, where we climbed to see the Great Lawn and Reservoir and the north park beyond, and Harlem. The outer landscape gave way to the inner, and I remembered that almost 32 years ago, we were sitting in our hotel on our one-year anniversary, eating wedding cake left and saved for that day, and I had that sense, as you do at times, as God must at all times, that all times are present now. We were here, I think to myself, and New York is still here.

“At the corner of Lewis,” says White, “in the playground behind the wire fence, an open-air dance is going on — some kind of neighborhood affair, probably designed to combat delinquency.” It goes on still. Walking back through The Mall,stopping at the terrace, three African-American males, shirtless, have attracted an audience with their dance. Some white girls dance on the sidelines, egged on. On a park bench, we stop and pose for a picture, just across front he band shell. White: “Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative.” Today, Shakespeare is being read.

“To an outlander, White says, “a stay in New York can be and often is a series of small embarrassments and discomforts and disappointments: not understanding the waiter, not being able to distinguish between a sucker joint and a friendly saloon, riding the wrong subway, being slapped down by a bus driver for asking an innocent question, enduring sleepless nights when the street noises fill the bedroom.” Sucker joints? Saloons? Some things change (air conditioning), some don’t (riding the wrong subway). And yet people long to be with people, else why would you live in New York?

The night we arrived we went to a concert at a club in Greenwich Village, just down from the fabled Bitter End, and we walked along streets where a youthful Bob Dylan was just a pedestrian, freewheeling, a nobody, while Woody Guthrie lay dying in a New Jersey hospital. I put out of hand to touch the building, something solid to root my dreams. After the concert, we sat talking with an old friend, a New York transplant from the Deep South. Until 1:00 AM. Until 1:00 AM. And that’s just the kind of thing you can do in New York, until 1:00, or 3:00, or all night if you like. Because you can. Because something is always open. And that’s the best kind of talking, late, when you can say what is on your heart, when you can drop the workday reticence. When you can be real.

I could live here, I say. I could forgive the man who cursed at me for getting in his way earlier that day. I could be gracious to another sparrow, falling. I could worship and work and listen to music and sit up and talk to all hours. I could walk 25 blocks at a time. I could greet people. I could smile. I could be disappointed and be enlightened and even change.

But I can do that anywhere, can't I?

 


The Weight of a Poem: The Almost Forgotten Poetry of Myra Scovel

WordsMost people have never heard of medical missionary, author, and poet Myra Scovel. Chalk that up to books long since out of print and the presentism that has hold of culture. I’d like you to know her.

My used copy of Scovel’s 1970 collection of poetry, The Weight of a Leaf, bears her autograph and the words “For Helen, in memory of David, all God’s best for her, as He has given David. Purdue, 1970.” Nothing like place and time and signature to root a book of poems in reality, 44 years ago. So long. I was twelve when she etched those words.

Myra Scovel and her husband, medical doctor Frederick Scovel, met when he was a medical student at Cornell and she a nurse, marrying after his graduation in 1929. The next year they and their newborn son sailed for China as missionaries. After language training in then Peking (Beijing), they were assigned to a hospital in the Shantung province. Pre-war, pre-communist takeover, they were treating opium addicts and every kind of illness until internment for six months by the invading Japanese in 1943. Deported by the Japanese, Myra had her sixth child within hours after their ship docked in he United States. In 1946, after the war, they and their six children returned to China, remaining there until 1951 when, like many other missionaries, they were forced out by the Chinese Communists. After six years service in India, they returned to the United States for good in 1959.

That story you can read in The Chinese Ginger Jars, Scovel’s memoir published in 1962. The narrative moves at a quick clip, like a nurse on duty, and yet her descriptive powers are on display, as in this line about Peking: “The whole city seemed steeped in the culture of its people, mellow as the smooth cream ivory of its curio shops, wise with a wisdom drawn from the deep pools of its clearest jade, relaxed as the curve of a temple roof against the sky.” Oh, how the world has changed. But all of this, interesting as it is, is just the soil for the flowering of Scovel’s poetry which, though faith-rich, is rarely sentimental, preachy, or limited to religious themes. That sets it apart from much other “Christian” poetry of that time, and that’s what makes it so human and readable. That and its economy.

The Weight of a Leaf leads off with a poetic dedication “To Li Po, Poet,” with Scovel dwelling on the timelessness of Li Po’s words 1200 years prior:

Yellow the willow by your mountain pool,
one golden leaf following your skiff
as you painted brush strokes for these words
twelve hundred years ago.
    “Shall goodwill ever be secure?
    I watch the long road
    of the River of Stars.”

As she finds herself in Li Po’s poem, on the eve of yet another world war, so we can find ourselves in Scovel’s careful words.

In the title poem Scovel writes of the bending inward of wills in human love: “We have bent to love/ as a twig bends/ to the weight of a leaf.” In some poems there is naked honesty before God, as in “For You, Lying There,” when she gives voice to her anger at the humiliations of old age, when, being told that “God must have his reasons” she blurts out “Do not speak of such a God to me./ Unless spring comes for you, what blasphemy!/ If seed-break-sod for you has no relation,/ death is but one vast humiliation.” Or there is the fear of a life being laid bare, as in “Why Am I So Afraid”:

Why am I so afraid
to let God speak?
He will want to throw out
the rubbish of my life,
all the dear, accumulated rubbish.

He will clean me out,
down to the bare essentials of my being.
I am afraid,
afraid of that nakedness.

And yet it’s not all so heavy. One of my favorite poems to read out loud is “How Did the World Get So Clean, Mother?” She answers the child-question with

God washed the day
and hung it out to dry,
dripping with dew.

Sun shone,
wind blew.

When evening came,
the cherubs,
pink from play,
folded it with lavender
to put away.

She doesn’t wholly escape sentiment, particularly when writing of family, but neither does the award-winning Mary Oliver when writing of her beloved dogs (in her Dog-Poems). Even a fine poet can lose the universal that makes a poem timeless, that makes it matter to readers she does not know, when writing about those things they hold dearest.  We can forgive.

Myra Scovel’s poems are light. Spare. Full of space. And yet, even a frail and hardly noticed leaf of a poem has weight. In a world of brash narratives and self-important posts, a little poem can shine, quietly whispering Truth.

Find the poetry of Myra Scovel. Whether in the dust and ink of the used bookstore or the low-ranking pages of Amazon, dig it out, take up, and read.

 

 


My Shadowed Self

“Dear Lord, please make me want you. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want you when I think about you but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be fulfillment.”

(Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)

Even in her prayers, Flannery O’Connor used the grotesque (cancer) to illuminate grace — here, the grace of being possessed by God, of being filled with a desire to know Him. In her recently published prayer journal, kept by a youthful O’Connor from 1946-47, she gives us insight into a person desperately seeking God and yet aware of her shortcomings: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing the moon. . . . [W]hat I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” She was throughout her life keenly aware of the shadowlands of which C.S. Lewis wrote.

I would like to reduce the footprint of my self-shadow, and yet it’s a difficult thing to do. Even as I write this, the shadow looms, as I wonder what you will think of it or of me, or if you will read it. Like humility, there is no straight line to selflessness, to becoming so opaque, so self-emptying, that the moon of Christ shines through. Yet if, as Picasso said, “art is the lie that tells the truth,” then deliberate indirection may be the key to a good and artful life. We become more transparent by focusing not on what we do, as there are all kinds of ways to call attention to self and congratulate ourself, but on Who we see. Here are a few suggestions for reducing your shadow by repositioning Who you see.

Meditate. On Scripture. On a verse or a phrase. Forget about memorizing it. You’d only congratulate yourself for doing so. Forget the commentary. The point is not knowledge. Just let the verse or phrase roll around in your mind for a day or week or more and see what happens. I have taken to copying out a verse on a 3x5 card and carrying it with me, in my shirt pocket, enjoying the tactile sense of its presence with me, stiffly provoking me. (You could also write it on your palm or, to use an Old Testament example, tie strips of it around your wrists.) Let it seep into you. Let it touch you.

Take a walk. Not a power walk. Sans music. Just consider the largeness of what is around you. When I walk, I like to touch things - an oak tree rough, a signpost smooth and cool, leaves brittle and crumbling. Strange, I know, but again the tactile brings home the fact that I am a bit player in a much larger story being told. And yet, the verse in my pocket is elevating, proclaiming "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come."

Pray wildly. Follow every detour and tangent the mind takes. Bring no agenda to prayer but simply pray where you are, where your mind takes you. It may not be the way to always pray, and yet it has the salutary goal of helping to liberate us of a self-congratulatory discipline. I assume the pathways of my mind are superintended by God, so this kind of prayer is a way of remaining in conversation with Him, on his agenda. Or even if they are distractions placed there by the devil, they are repurposed by being swept up into the conversation with God.

So, there you have it. You thought about a verse. You took a walk. You prayed a distracted kind of prayer. Brother Lawrence you may not be. You can't escape the self shadow, as you can even congratulate yourself on these small things. And yet, over time, you may become a little more transparent and your shadow a little less long.

Me? I'm congratulating myself on the great advice I just rendered you. I can only laugh at Grace that has to do it all, that, ultimately, must save me from myself. There is no technique to gain humility but staring at (fixing our eyes on) Christ, praying O'Connor's prayer: "Dear God, please make me want you." Indeed, save me from my shadowed self.

 


Through a Mirror Dimly: A Review of The First Thanksgiving, By Robert Tracy MacKenzie

TFTOne of the ways I tend to approach the various holidays we are given is to try to invest them with greater meaning, to establish and celebrate traditions, to discover their roots and nurture their fruit. At Thanksgiving, our least commercialized holiday, we gather with family for a meal, watch the Macy's Day parade, think about the Pilgrims and Squanto, and consider, albeit briefly, that for which we are thankful.

I didn't read Robert MacKenzie's The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning From History to dispel such efforts, but to enlarge them. I had been schooled sufficiently in a post-modern skepticism to doubt that we had much of the original story correct, and yet I wanted to know what that first thanksgiving was all about, if we had any of it right or had manufactured it out of whole cloth. I received all that and more from MacKenzie's well-documented, widely accessible book.

The author, a Professor of History at Wheaton College, while documenting his work carefully, has not written an academic tome. The style is engaging and warm, and if he occasionally lapses into the first-person, it is only to demonstrate the profound impact that these ancestors of the past have for him. He disciples us both historically and spiritually, providing not only historical information but schooling us in a Christian view of the past, of how we have misused the past and yet how our reflection on it may be redeemed.  In a time that suffers from "presentism," when history is dismissed as irrelevant or suffers Chesterton's "chronological snobbery," he reminds us of how important is its study, particularly for Christians, reminding us that

[h]istory is utterly central to Christianity, for its core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events, such as creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross and the resurrection. (Go back to the Apostles’ Creed and note just how many of its statements are historical claims.) Through eyes of faith we recognize all of human history as “a story with a divine plot”—not cyclical, as many of the ancients believed, but linear, with God at its beginning, the cross at its center and the return of Christ to mark its culmination. And because God is the author and Lord of human history, we should see it as a sphere that he has created—and thus a form of natural revelation—every bit as much as the physical world around us.

So as the author looks at the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving, don't think of it as history, if that hurts too much.  Think of it as a primer on how we are to remember and speak of fellow human beings. . . in this case those who just happened to have died before any of us or anyone we ever knew were born.

What we learn, of course, is that our limited knowledge of that first Thanksgiving in the Fall of 1621 is really derived from all of 115 words written by Edward Winslow, assistant to William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Plantation.  Ready? Here goes:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

That's it.  What we know is that there was a celebration, that Indians came, and that there was a meal. What we don't know is whether the Indians were invited or just, as Winslow puts it, "came up among them." What is now billed as a multi-cultural love-fest likely would have been tense, given that all of two years later the Pilgrims' fort was adorned with a severed Indian head and in light of the misconceptions that they had about each other. We also know that the meal bore little resemblance to what we eat today (and likely did not include turkey), and nowhere did it receive a billing as a Thanksgiving (though undoubtedly the devout Pilgrims did offer thanks, glad as they were not to face starvation as they did the previous Winter, their ranks thinned by 50% in that time.)

While such autumn harvest festivals appear to have continued, the Pilgrims reserved Thanksgiving Days for a special event, not a yearly celebration, as they would have regarded it as presumptuous to designate a special day for thanksgiving before its time. Rather, thanksgiving days arose from special proclamations and were solemn days of prayer, not festivals.

That brief summary does not do justice to the evidence-check that the author does, one that tempers our belief in the traditional story of Thanksgiving,  yet Professor MacKenzie is not out to burst our holiday bubble or set aside our celebrations. Rather, he goes on to tell us how he finds the Pilgrims inspirational, encouraging, challenging, and convicting.  In doing so he offers us a primer on Christian moral reflection and displays a gracious if unsentimental view of those who have come before us, counseling humility when drawing conclusions. As he reminds us:

To say that we see the past “as through a glass, darkly” only begins to capture the magnitude of our inadequacy. But there is One, the architect and Lord of history, who comprehends that incalculable expanse perfectly and exhaustively. When we realize this, it should cause us to drop to our knees and declare with the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6). In this sense, gazing into the past is like gazing into the night sky. Our natural response should be one of wonder and awe and a humbling awareness of our own limitations. Authentically Christian education always promotes such awareness. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge is humility,” as Flannery O’Connor reminded us.

He is interested not in making idols of our ancestors but in seeing them as heroic and yet very human people.  He is interested in honesty, accuracy, and in how study of the past reveals God's glory --- and the latter, in his view, comes from seeing the power of God manifested in the weakness and frailty of humanity.

While the actual details and educated speculations about the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving are interesting, I found myself more drawn to their legacy, to what they bequeathed us.   Here the author's reflection on what we know of the Pilgrims is rich.  He finds that the Pilgrims inspire by their communal perseverance in the face of trials more arduous than most of us will ever face.  He is encouraged by the fact that these "plain men" of "moderate abilities" (using their own words), though flawed and weak by worldly standards, were used by God in powerful ways.  Finally, he is challenged and convicted by their implicit indictment of the radical individualism of our American lives as well as the worldliness of the church, our preoccupation with this world and its ways as opposed to the one to come.  

The Pilgrims remind us that we are all of us pilgrims, "strangers and aliens" in the world.  As the author says, "It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven." His extended reflection on our history ends with humility and doxology, on our "littleness" and His "bigness" --- the only right place for the Christian to stand after reflection on both Word and World.

I highly recommend The First Thanksgiving.  Read it to learn more of our history.  Read it to learn how to think about history.  Better yet, let it school you in humilty and awe before the mystery of what has been and what will come.  Let it free you from yourself. In the end, the book became for me a work of devotional literature, a meditation on God's providence, a school of humility, and an aid to worship.  Finished, something like this prayer drifted upward frome a heart unsprung from what my mind absorbed: "Come Lord Jesus, come, and deliver me from my hellish preoccupation with myself, from the petty, puckish, and paltry preoccupations of my days, from the ill-formed judgments of others past and present, from presumption and pride.  Teach me what it means to be a pilgrim.  Keep before me the hope of Another Country.  Yes, "come Lord Jesus, come."


The Weight We Share

Blue skyOne of the benefits of essaying (the writing of essays) is the freedom to sashay from one topic to another, like some sort of word association game.  Thus, it was with some ease that I moved from writing a review of D.J. Waldie's memoir of Lakewood, California, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, to a scholarly book of essays about the impact of the aerospace industry on Southern California. Blue Sky Metropolis is saved from a pedantic tone, however, by its narratives --- memoirs by D.J. Waldie and M.G. Lord, a biography of Lockheed's Robert E. Gross, details of the alt-space titans like Elon Musk and Burt Rutan, and, of course, by all those Okies in khakis that built the planes and missiles for WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.  It is, in the end, a story of people, and people never bore.

You can touch down at LAX and drive your rental car down the freeways and byways of Los Angeles County and never give a second thought to why people live where they do and like they do, but I have never been able to do that.  As Wade Graham's essay makes clear, the sheer volume of housing required by workers at the wartime aircraft manufacturing plants (Lockheed's plant in Burbank, for example, had over 18,000 employees in 1941) required assembly line methods that resulted in tract suburbs built around manufacturing nodes. Waldie's hometown, Lakewood, was virtually built in 90 days, a carefully planned grid of tract housing for workers employed by Douglas Aircraft Corporations's WWII manufacturing plants.  As Waldie notes here, the Douglas assembly buildings are nearly gone, and "The City of Tomorrow, Today," is still there, that tomorrow now yesterday.  As Waldie concludes, "None of my neighbors asked in the 1950s what their "city of tomorrow" would be fit for if tomorrow's assumptions were falsified.  Perhaps the persistent ordinariness of places like Lakewood is the only answer." Indeed, the quotidian of most folk is cleaning house, paying bills, going to work, and making ends meet.  Peopled as they are by the ordinary, these essays manage to speak to us of something beyond an aerospace industry, of hearts and souls alive in the rattle and hum of industry.

Convair staircaseNot that they are all about people.  One fascinating essay by Stuart Leslie, "Spaces for the Space Age,"  profiles the aerospace modernism of architect William Pereira.  Many of his lavishly landscaped corporate campuses, his structures of steel and glass that blurred the distinction between interior and exterior space, have already been demolished.  And yet consider the optimism carried by such structures, the impact they must have had on the very real people who worked in them.   To sit in the glass-encased lobby of the Convair Astronautics lobby, with its signature suspended and serpentine ramp to the second floor, must have imbued one with a sense of the future, of optimism, of a belief that the sky was the limit for what could be accomplished.  Behind Pereira's space-age structures lay blue-collar factories, and yet for a worker to arrive each day must have been a reminder that he (and occasionally, she) was involved in something crucial.  The code of secrecy that  governed such projects only reinforced the gravity of the endeavour.

Diminished though it is, the aerospace industry continues to leave its footprint on Southern California. Another essay by Patrick McCray, "From L5 to X Prize," documents the rise of an alternative space movement, one heralded by the 2004 24-minute flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, who claimed the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million dollar purse offered to the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks.  Billionaire Elon Musk, who made his money in PayPal and software development, sited his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, California, a first-ring post-WWII suburb of Los Angeles.  Hawthorne was founded in  the early 1900s, but its growth was moribund until Northrop Aviation moved to town in 1939.  The town boomed with dust bowl emigrants who flocked to blue-collar Northrop and subcontractor jobs, becoming known as the Cradle of Aviation.  (It's also the once site of the childhood home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys, now demolished for a freeway ramp.)  How fitting that Musk would locate SpaceX in this historic place, and how auspicious a beginning was that of last year's launching of the Falcon rocket to the space station.

Elsewhere, these essays explore the environmental effects of the aerospace industry, Chinese-Americans in the industry, labor relations, and that other aerospace mecca, the Silicon Valley. Strangely absent, however, is virtually any mention of the religious beliefs of the aerospace workers and how those beliefs shaped their experience of work or how their work impacted their beliefs.  Is that because most of academia regards religion as a minor player in cultural change?  A more generous assessment may be simply that these essays are only a beginning point in this project (though the Afterword does nothing to suggest that religion may be a topic in future studies).

In the end, I am brought back to Waldie's comment about the "persistent ordinariness" of places like Lakewood or Hawthorne or Inglewood.  In the midst of the boom and bust of the aerospace industry, in wartime and peacetime, in the spectre of then futuristic corporate centers, most workers came back to the quotidian.  The mundane.  That's the place where people live.  Whether driving down the 405, Sepulveda, or I-5, I don't think about great factories or great men of industry and commerce but of my Dad, or Waldie's father, men who got up every day and went to work, of women who raised families in 1100 square foot tract homes, and of a God who providentially and mysteriously weaves our lives together.  It's their dreams and hopes and burdens and woes that are all part of the weight we share, the weight of "persistent ordinariness" that just may be redeemed, little by little, day by day.

 

 


On Our Way Home: A Review of "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming," by Rod Dreher

Little WayWhile I rarely have the luxury of reading a book in one sitting, last Sunday afternoon was an exception. I settled myself in my wife's green "ladies' chair" and cracked open Rod Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. Five hours and 268 pages later, I stood up, finished, and walked out the door to the far corner of a wooded back yard. I turned to face my home of 28 years, trying to see it as a stranger might, wondering about the life of the family inside, about what joys and trials they may have had, the dynamics of relationships.  Mostly, those are matters I keep close. But Rod Dreher did write about the inner life of his extended family, and we can all be glad he did.

The Little Way has as its heart the loving but conflicted relationship between Dreher and his younger sister Ruthie, all as set against the backdrop of the small-town community of Starhill, Louisiana. Ruthie stayed home, married, and had children, taught school, and embraced the small community in which she lived. Dreher, on the other hand, ached to escape its suffocating smallness, much of its bucolic charm lost on him. After college at LSU, he left both home and faith, working as a journalist in Washington, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia - in short, anywhere unlike the town in which he was reared. "You were our dreamer," his mother said. "Ruthie wasn't. She was satisfied with what she had in front of her. You had your head in books all the time. She loved nature, and being outside."

Ruthie shot deer, skinning a buck herself. Dreher gagged, retreated to books and to worldly spinster aunts, and once having his intellectual interests piqued by the academic atmosphere of LSU, never turned back. All this was a mystery to Ruthie. Listening to a philosophical discussion between her brother and a friend once at LSU, where they were both in college, Ruthie, exasperated, said "What is wrong with ya'll? Listen to you. You sit her for hours talking about this crap, and it doesn't mean anything. You're just talking; you're not doing anything!" Over time, a wall grew between Ruthie and her brother. And yet Ruthie was one of the most loved people in Starhill and West Francisville Parish, never giving up on difficult kids, believing the best about all, and accepting her last illness without anger at God, at peace with God and man, except, perhaps, her brother who, inexplicably, left, while she stayed.

In writing this memoir, Dreher throws  open the door on life in his family, exposing the hearts and minds of many family members and friends who still live in the small town of Starhill, revealing his own struggles with his father, the smallness of his world compared to the "little way" of Ruthie. While the author found his way back to faith, albeit Catholicism and then Orthodoxy, he also quite surprisingly found his way back to Louisiana, recognizing the value of place, of home, when Ruthie contracted lung cancer just shy of her 40th birthday.  In watching her gracefully deal with that awful reality and seeing a community that rallied around her, he realized that there was much to gain from staying put or, failing that, from going home, from the ties that bind. In leaving, he was able, finally, to come home for the first time.

Dreher reflects on why we leave our communities, on why so many live an unrooted life: 

Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you - and it will - you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want - no, you need - to be able to say, as Mike [Ruthie's husband] did, "We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other."

Dreher acknowledges that we can't all go home, that we can't (indeed, shouldn't) all stay, even that the places from which we come are, for all their goodness warped by sin. Even selfless Ruthie could not quite, in the end, forgive her brother for leaving. But the lesson, perhaps, is that we shouldn't be so quick to leave home or whatever place in which we find ourselves, that we should do the hard work of building relationships and binding ourselves to the streets and buildings and landcapes in which we providentially find ourselves. We should, in other words, go out for walk, make a mental map, build up a reservoir of sounds and sights, of a place and its people. Much as God did in the Incarnation, we should move into the neighborhood, living fully embodied lives in the places assigned to us, so that one day, we may say, with the Psalmist, "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance" (Ps. 16:6, ESV).

If Dreher had not written this book, few of us would know Ruthie Leming. Her "little way" would be unknown, a story remembered by a few hundred people in Starhill, Louisiana. And yet, because he did tell it, we see now in that little story a much grander story, one universal in scope, a modern (true) myth of what it means to live unto God in a world that swirls around us. The message: Stay. Go home. Or make a home. But for God's sake, settle down.

Standing there in my backyard, looking at our home, I'm full of questions: Could it really have been 28 years? Can my children really be grown and off on their own? Looking down at the stones marking the graves of a beloved dog and cat, I shake my head, incredulous that they have been dead over 12 years. Is it really possible in a culture of shifting allegiances that I still work and worship and walk in the same places and am wed to the same one after all this time?

I'm very, very glad I stayed. I'm very glad to be home.  In this holy land, I see Home. 


Thieves Like Me

In Rod Dreher's memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, he begins with a story of his sister Ruthie, seven at the time, and himself, five.  He had done something particularly awful, he recalls, and his father had told him to go lie down on his bed, a precursor to one of his "rare but highly effective spankings."  He knew he deserved it.  He knew that it would be perfectly just for his father to spank him.  But then, just as his father entered the room, Ruthie ran into the room, sobbing, and threw herself across him: "'Whip me,' she cried, 'whip me!'"  He recalls his father turned away, and Ruthie left, and he remained, wondering what had just happened.  And he says, "Forty years later, I still do."

All the elements conducive to a life of crime were present in me from an early age.  Marry opportunity and rationalization and it becomes easy to break the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."  Or any commandment for that matter.  As the elements were being passed at Holy Communion this past Sunday, I was meditating on my sin, as I suppose it best to do, a breviary of sin, in fact, and yet this one sin occurred to me: I was a thief.

At 12 my friend and I were hired to deliver a free weekly newspaper in our neighborhood.  On a good day it took maybe two hours to cover our route.  This thin weekend chronicle we bundled up and were supposed to place on each doorstep.  In the beginning, we did just that: we rode our bikes up driveways, disembarked, and carefully placed the paper on the doorstep, tucking the corner under the doormat to keep it from blowing away.  For this we were paid, as I recall, about two dollars each, a not insubtantial sum for a 12-year old in 1970.

One of the first things we discovered was that not everyone was excited about getting this weekend guide.  One overweight man in a wife-beater t-shirt, sporting a five-o'clock shadow, threw it back at us.  "Get that damn paper out of my yard."  Dogs nipped at us.  People asked us not to ride our bikes in their yard.  We'd find the paper, unfurled, careening and flapping down the sidewalks of streets with names like Fernwood,  Robinhood, and Cornwallis, like literary tumbleweeds.  "Hey, isn't that our paper?"  Yes, of course.  Of course it was.  There was little positive reinforcement from the recipients.  Pretty soon we had to face it: no one wanted our little paper.  It was a blight on our corner of suburbia.  A rag.

From there it was a slippery slope.  We deleted a few houses.  Didn't want it anyway.  Then we knocked off a whole quadrant of the neighborhood.  Too many dogs.  We got sloppy, lobbing papers into yards, driveways, side porches, in shrubs.  Hey, it's in the yard, and they can get it.  Pretty soon we're burning through the entire route in less than 30 minutes, stuffing a few excess papers here and there in trashcans.  Surplus.  Before you know it we're only doing the street we live on, as far as the creek that winds under our street, and one day at the creek we find ourselves toting pretty much the whole load of the papers down to a sandbar, digging a hole, and burying them, thinking we were doing everybody a favor, after all, cleaning up the neighborhood of trash, taking care of it in an unsightly and biodegradable manner.

That's how I became a thief.

We were caught, of course, our livid employer giving us a tongue-lashing and requiring immediate repayment of a day's wages.  "I trusted you.  You let me down."  Only a day?  I broke into my coin collection, wrested free the two dollar bill from its special holder, as well as a few collectible quarters, and paid the woman.  And the guilt settled in. And at that point in my life I had no where to go with my guilt.

That one sin is indicative of how tainted I am and have been, how bent toward wrong I am, and how easily I can go wrong.  But Sunday, at Holy Communion, when that youthful indiscretion rears its head, I realize again that I have a place to go with that guilt, guilt not assuaged by repayment of some of what I stole.  The defect is far deeper than that.  Total depravity.  Every single thing I do is touched somewhere by impure motive.  More wrongdoing was to come.  But in the body and the blood, my guilt is paid for, Christ substituting Himself for me, getting the just deserts for my thievery (which goes far deeper than a few newspapers).

Substitutionary atonement is one of those awesome and awful tenets of Christian faith.  God's perfect love and perfect justice meet at the Cross.  We like to quote the Apostle John's well-known maxim that "God so loved the world that he sent his son. . . (John 3:16), and yet God also ordained for Christ a suffering and death that we really can't fully comprehend in its horror.  As Michael Horton summarizes, "[H]is love had to comply with his justice.  The punishment that Christ bore was not an arbitrary act of revenge, but a fulfillment of the standard that God had established in creation: namely, life for obedience, death for disobedience.  The cross was a satisfaction of the claim of justice, not of dignity or irrational anger."  And justice is fundamental to the nature of God.  He cannot act unjustly.  What kind of God would not uphold justice?

Ruthie's Dad, confronted by the sacrificial love of his daughter,  turned away.  I understand why he chose not to uphold justice.  I suspect I would do the same and for less an appeal than Ruthie made. And yet God did not turn away from his own son.  He upheld justice through Christ's substitution for His people.  That's awesome and awful, a justice fully swallowed up in love.  Ruthie's Dad, perhaps, turned away because he knew, in the end, that Christ died for his son, that justice would be upheld, that the little death his son died that day would be swallowed up in the victory of the Cross.  

All to say, there is great hope for thieves like me.

 

 


A Theology for the Ruins: A Response to "Detroit City Is the Place to Be," by Mark Binelli

166367894While there are certainly cities and towns in the United States that have experienced decline, no major city has experienced such rapid decline as that seen  in the last decades by the once prosperous city of Detroit. With a large land area of nearly 140 square miles, its blight is stultifying in its immensity: 30 percent of the city is vacant land, there are 90,000 abandoned buildings, including massive automotive plants, 25 percent of the population has left in just one decade, it's the most violent city in the United States. And the tragic list of statistics goes on.

Many come to gawk, to tour the ruins, taking a morbid curiosity or attaching a certain weird sense of hipness to the decline. Not so with Mark Binelli, the author of the recently released Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.  Having grown up in Detroit, his is a more sympathetic telling of its woes.  In 2009 he moved into the city and settled in to walk, bike, talk, and gawk --- to, in his words, ask "what happens to a once-great place, after it has been used up and discarded?" More than that, he says "I wanted to know if my hometown could be saved," and, if Detroit could be saved (though he might not put it this way), if we all can be saved. Binelli is a good writer, powerfully sustaining a narrative of ruin yet ultimately failing in finding a sustaining basis for hope.

There are several mini-narratives at play in Binelli's book, all well-known to those who have studied the city and its decline, and the author does a good job of bringing these stories home by recounting the particulars of people and place. For example, to give us a sense of the kind of violence that is routine, he recounts the story of the gruesome murder of David Morgan, Jr., 61, murdered and dismembered by two twenty-something cocaine dealers as a message to other drug dealers eager to move in on their turf. He finds plenty to write about under the heading of political corruption and mismanagement, from the bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement, cronyism, and sex scandals of Kwame Kilpatrick to the financially-challenged city council President Charles Pugh. And weird art? He ventures into the ruins of the old Packard plant to see an installation by artist Scott Hocking, which consisted of empty television boxes (found on site) on top of exposed columns.  Scrappers (scavengers of old buildings), firefighters, arsonists, and washed-up auto union workers are just some of the characters that people the rest of his tale --- to the extent you begin to ask where the "normal" people live (if they do) or where there is a real community, intact neighborhoods.  Detroit seems to bear not only physical ruin but a human ruin with very little in the way of hope.  The lingering question is whether it is but a harbinger of Ameircan decline.

But perhaps the author just didn't know where to look. He could have talked to Lisa Johansen, Executive Director of the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC2), an organization staffed by Christians who live and work in the community, who work on bringing resources for housing, job skills, education, and community-building back into the neighborhood where they all live. Surely there are other churches, non-profits, and volunteer organizations making a difference.  But they're not recounted here.  Where in fact are the people of faith in Binelli's tale? Did he deem them irrelevant? It is curious to read such a powerfully descriptive story that entirely omits any reference to the spiritual temperature of the city. Binelli evinces no hostility toward religion or the church, but its absence makes incomplete his telling.

Underlying the mini-narratives of the author's book is an unspoken, underlying non-narrative: one of meaninglessness, of a decline and despair which is only temporarily relieved by an existential glimmer of hope, one he finds difficult to sustain. In fact, in a book of 288 pages, that glimmer of hope he allows himself bleeds out, finally, in only the last nine pages, a telling indicator of its ephemeral quality.

In another continent, in another time, another people saw decline.  Some of that story is told in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. At the heart of Jerusalem's ruin was a people who were spiritually bankrupt. Casting off God, they were abandoned, for a time, to captivity in Babylon, taken from their lands, their city destroyed. And yet not finally abandoned. A broken man, Nehemiah repented of both his sin and that of a nation and cried out to God for help. In the end, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 52 days, much to the surprise and chagrin of the surrounding peoples, and a people came home.

None of this is to suggest a particular judgment of Detroit or that Detroiters or Americans are God's chosen people. It is, however, to suggest that the narrative that underlies all others is a spiritual one, a theology of ruin from a people who have abandoned God and forsaken what is good, true, and beautiful, a fallenness that manifests itself in violence, corrupt politicians, unbridled greed, racism, and moral degeneracy. Deeper still, though, is a narrative of grace, of a God who can heal and rebuild a city and its people, who can even rebuild a nation committed to Him.

Neither the Government nor capitalists can save Detroit. God can. Detroit doesn't need post-modern artists who have no basis for a sustaining hope, who have no answer for hopelessness. It needs a  city on its knees.  It needs people committed to living, praying, and working alongside its people, building communities that look upward for hope and move outward in love. Now that would be a story. That's a theology for the ruins.  That's the place to be.


How to Build a Booth

The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, was intended as a reminder of the Jewish nation's 40-year pilgrimage in the wilderness and, to a larger extent, to their very pilgrimage on the earth, to their status as aliens and strangers.  When Nehemiah mentions this feast after leading the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem (Neh. 8:13-18), surely he remembered the estrangement of his exile --- his and that of his people.  The feast had a visible, very tangible symbol: the Jews built fragile booths from tree boughs and such, and lived in them for a period of time.  Reading about this I sometimes wonder what visible reminder God's people can now construct to remind us of our exile, to help us hold lightly to the world while still putting down roots and building houses and living among Babylon.

In Craig Bartholomew's Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, one of the things he argues is that the Christian's obligation is to image heaven (our place of lasting, perfect placement) by working to build a home here that not only points to, but in some mysterious way is already a part of, the greater home to be realized in the fullness of time.  This doesn't conflict with our sense of estrangement, our exile.  Rather, to build a home, literally and figuratively, prefigures our heavenly home.  It posits hope --- some significant continuity between this world and the one to come.  The tension we feel between place-making and exile is a good one: we hold lightly to what the world offers, yet we take all that is good, true and beautiful and adopt it and build upon it.  We seek to make our homes, our cities, and our country prefigure the one to come, and yet we come to the task humbly, realizing that we cannot erect heaven on earth.

How does my home prefigure Heaven's home?  For one thing, it is bounded.  It is protected from the elements and yet lets in light.  For another, in and of itself it has differentiation: special corners, a favorite chair, a stairwell, a study.  It's not all the same, or shouldn't be, but fits the contour of the land and of the lives of the people who dwell in it.  And it has a spiritual and physical foundation: it is literally rooted in earth, built on Christ. Bartholomew says more and, if you have a mind for it, you can take it up, but I have to get on with life, and place, and loving the world the way Christ loves it.

Jesus said he would prepare a place for us.  I, for one, look forward to that.  In the meantime, I attend to my own place-making by listening to what is around me and taking up all that is virtuous. The first step is learning to see and listen --- and that's a good part of what Outwalking is all about.

Oh --- if I start building a booth in the backyard, don't judge me.  Join me.


Journey of the Heart: A Review of "The Father's Tale," by Michael D. O' Brien

Father TaleOne is probably right to approach a 1072 page novel with fear and trepidation, as it is difficult to imagine that there are many books that can sustain one's interest for that long.  Like his previous novel, Island of the WorldCanadian Michael O' Brien's The Father's Tale is an epic story that richly rewards the reader with its reach across continents as well as deep into the human heart, plumbing the depths of human and divine love, the tension between good and evil, human fallibility and God's providence: a father goes looking for a missing son and is reborn, his character refined by the fire of experience.

Alexander Graham is a bookseller in a small town in Ontario.  A widower with two grown sons, he lives alone, consigning himself to living out the remainder of his days quietly if joylessly, bearing the loss of his wife and not knowing how to get on with life.  He is a religious man, Catholic, and yet one has the sense that the rituals of his religion have become somewhat lifeless; though believing, he has stopped living but merely waits out his days.  All this comes to an abrupt halt when one of his two sons, away at college in Oxford, goes missing, under the sway of some cultic organization.  Graham closes the bookshop, borrows the funds needed, and leaves for Oxford, intent on finding answers and locating his son.  Unbeknown to him, his journey would extend from Oxford to Finland to Russia and even China and subject him to deprivations he could never imagine.

Along the way there are rich descriptions of the locales in which he finds himself and an array of characters from all walks of life whom he meets, from a Moscow prostitute to Orthodox and Catholic monks of Siberia, to a widow and her two sons and Chinese believers.  O' Brien succeeds in opening up the Russian experience in a way that perhaps only Tolstoy or Dostoevsky might have in another time.  The protagonist suffers much.  Yet it seems God puts His people in his path and offers hope in places where he least expects it.

What O' Brien describes best however is the inner workings of the soul, of a man who reaches the point of despair more than once, confronts doubt, and yet who learns to love and trust once again.  To peer into his thinking, into his soul, illuminates our own hearts.

Though the fear of what was coming returned to him a little, he looked upward to a presence and spoke with it and listened to the answering silence.  He knew now that this silence was not absence or negation.  It was the language transcending all language, and it crossed the void that man's will had made between himself and God.

In no other novel that I have recently read is there such such elucidation of the doubt, questioning, and resulting growth of the spiritual life.  Graham comes to the end of himself more than once, realizing that all he has is God.  Summing up his experience for his son, Graham says that "It's true that I died a little, maybe more than I know, but my life was given back to me again, and God has brought a great good out of it, out of everything."  It's a fitting near end to a book rooted in the providence of God, one all about matters of the spiritual life yet without cliche or formula.

To say more about this magnum opus would be to tell too much.  Take this hefty volume (the hardbound volume is nearly three inches thick), prop it up (your hands will soon grow tired), and begin.  You could read it on a Kindle more conveniently, but the very weight of this book (nearly three pounds) has a sobering effect.  You respect it.  And in the end, I believe it will rank as one of the best books ever read, one that I glimpse on my shelf and remember, with love and awe for its economy of excess in words.

 


Roads Well Taken: A Review of "The Big Roads," by Earl Swift

165516735One of the most delightful things about Earl Swift's history of the American interstate highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, is the deeply human story that courses beneath the miles of concrete and asphalt that makes up what is still the best highway system in the world.  Far from a dry account of how we got from dirt and mud to ribbon-smooth freeway, Swift's book is one about the fascinating people that dreamed it up, fought for and against it, and made it happen.  Never will I take the road for granted again.

He begins in dirt and mud, at the advent of the automobile, when driving literally meant taking your life in your hands.  He recounts the story of Carl Fisher, the man who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and led the push for better roads. He tells of Thomas McDonald, an engineer who actually conceived of the interstates years before Eisenhower gave thought to them.  I became reacquainted with Lewis Mumford, a critic of the highway system, familiar to some from sociology or urban planning studies.  Joe Wiles, an African-American neighborhood activist in Baltimore, figures in as well, as Swift recounts the over-decade long battle over siting and construction of an urban section of interstate highway in Baltimore.

But the story that I found most endearing was that of a bureaucrat, Frank Turner, a public works engineer who rose to the top of the Bureau of Public Works due to his dedication and hard work.  It is easy to caricature government employees as overpaid pencil-pushers.  Turner was neither.  He was truly a public servant, doing grunt work, rising through the ranks, all the while apparently humble, irenic, and though painfully shy growing in statecraft and respectability.  We owe our highways in large part to his dedicated work.

And yet as wonderful as a good road may be, this is also a story of the the problems which their building. Sprawl,  displacement of homes, and the sidelining and decline of small-town business districts are just some of the results.  A sameness permeates the experience.  And while the highways, bridges, and interchanges are a thing of beauty at times, much good was lost in their wake.  Swift quotes Steinbeck, from 1962's Travels with Charley: In Search of America: "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."  Mumford picks up the critique, and Swift recounts it well, but the book is benevolent, acknowledging the benefits of the highways without overlooking the damage done.

Swift brings the story down to ground at times in a way that makes me want to be there.  He recounts visiting the remnants of the test rack built for the planned interstate highways near Ottawa, Illinois, and I too wanted to be there, to touch that history.  Or walk the streets of a vibrant Rosemont neighborhood in Baltimore, before a stop and start again highway planning process slowly nibbled away at the patience of homeowners and let to the decline of a once vibrant neighborhood.  Real people, real places.

As Swift concludes, the highways "turned out to be more than just fancy roads. . . [but], often in ways unanticipated by their creators, they had been agents of far-reaching change and had reordered the American landscape."  It's literally a 47,000 mile world of its own, where you can visit any one of numerous chain restaurants at interchanges in state after state and not meet locals but fellow travelers, much like airports.  A predictable yet stupefying sameness permeates the experience.  Drive a few miles off interstate, and you're in a different world.  That world goes unnoticed.

His concluding remarks offer a sobering assessment of the state of our highways and bridges.  They are aging.  Like homes, they must be maintained, and the funds to do so have diminished.  Over time, the cracks will show, tarnishing the luster of what was a jewel of a system.  It still retains that splendor (if that's the right word) over much of its passage, yet the fault-lines are there.  Its neglect may in fact be symptomatic of the cracks in our national fiber: it took wealth creation to enable this massive public works program, and it will take an economic resurgence from a productive and far-sighted workforce --- one willing to sacrifice now for a legacy to come --- to fund the taxes that will maintain it.  That kind of concern for posterity takes a generational selflessness that we may no longer have.

Next time I accelerate on the on-ramp to I-40, I'll roll the windows down, feel the road, marvel at the speed and ease with which I drive. . . and thank Frank Turner and those who labored hard to give us what we have.  Perhaps Swift's recounting of that story will engender a gratefulness that bears the fruit of attention to its decline.

 


Shelter Me

The second intimation of deep, cosmic joy. . . is really a variation of the first: the sensation of shelter, of being out of the rain, but just out.  I would lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side; I would huddle under bushes until the rain penetrated; I loved doorways in a shower.  On our side porch, it was my humble job, when it rained, to turn the wicker furniture with its seats to the wall, and in these porous caves I would crouch, happy almost to tears, as the rain drummed on the porch rail and rattled the grape leaves of the arbor and touched my wicker shelter with a mist like the vain assault of an atomic army.

(John Updike, in Of the Farm)

Lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side. . . .  How appropriate to read this today, as a steady rain falls, as I lean in, prompted by Updike's words, to hear the rain but, not only that, to be reminded of the thin membrane that divides the interior of my warm and dry home from the elements without.  Shelter.

I am not alone, Updike says, and I say the experience is not singular even to me.  Many times as a child I lay curled on the floor of my parents' station wagon savoring the shelter and heat at my mother's feet. Many was the fort my sister and I built from a card table covered by a blanket, a light within, darkness without.  Many was the tent I lay in at night, reaching my hand out to touch the almost paper thin canvas that kept out the night.

In restaurants, I seek out corners, booths, places out of the open, hemmed in, protected.  I gravitate to corners, relish a window from which I can see without but be within.  An automobile seems impregnable, a mobile extension of home; a good book, order out of chaos; a lamp, a divider of night and day, of good from evil; a friend's face, assurance among strangers.

Shelter from the storm.  A temporal assurance.  A fallible yet real metaphor for the only true shelter, that "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ will abide in the shadow of the/ Almighty" (Ps. 91:1).

Press your fingers to the inside of the old tent canvas, and rain may seep through.  SUVs crinkle in pileups. Houses sometimes leak, and windows crack. Like Updike, you can catch the deep, cosmic joy of being out in the elements, out in the world, and yet not of the world, of being sheltered.  You sense the deep shelter of the God in whose shadow you dwell, in whose house you live.  Outside that, it's cold and wet and dark.  Why would anyone want to live out there?

My sister said there were goblins out there, monsters that eat children.  I lifted the blanket corner, saw the spooky silhouettes of them, heard the groanings of the furnace, spied the flicker of the pilot light.  I dropped the blanket, felt something like joy from the fragile refuge we enjoyed, happy almost to tears. Even now that room in the darkness testifies to me of the shelter to come, becomes a prayer I summon every day: Shelter me, I say.  Draw the flaps around me.  Make me happy --- beyond tears.

[Do not think me so literate as to read John Updike.  The quote is from an essay on Updike by Larry Woiwode, collected in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (Crossway, 2011).  You can be impressed by my reading that book, at least a little, though my comprehension of it is like that of seeing through a glass dimly.  Woiwode's book is the source of many a rumination, some which may find their way here, others of which may be inarticulable.]

 


From Saint to Saint to Saint

"The colored sunsets and starry heavens, the beautiful mountains and the shining seas, the frgrant woods and painted flowers, are not half so beautiful as a soul that is serving Jesus out of love, in the wear and tear of common, unpoetic life."  (Frederick William Faber, in All for Jesus)

Of the nearly 400 books and notebooks which I cleaned out of my mother's house before she died, I found very few that yielded any personal reflections, any key to who she was and what she was thinking.  Perhaps it was characteristic of her generation not to speak about themselves.  But in additon to her well-marked Bible, one book that stands out (and which I have) is one I have seen on her nightstand or table by her chair for many years.  Streams in the Desert, by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman, is a book I never once looked at though it is one that my mother obviously read and re-read many times.  The cover of this 1992 large print edition (which, I confess, is nice for my eyes now), is well-worn from hands that carried it, opened it, and closed it, many of its pages falling from the binding.  It's not that she made notes in the book, as she did not, but she placed bookmarks in various places.  I can only guess at why the words on the marked pages meant something to her, and yet it gives me pleasure to follow her path, to look on pages that made her pause and reflect.

I didn't know anything about the author, Lettie Cowman, but I found out that she and her husband were missionaries to Japan and China during the early years of the Twentieth Century until they were forced to return home because of her husband's health.  She nursed him for six years.  Other than that, little more is to be found in her bio, and perhaps that is as it should be.  And yet her book, first published in 1925, has sold more than two million copies.  Like my mother's library and her bookmarks, it reveals the path she walked, the quotes and writings that meant something to her.  As such, it is a great source of encouragement to anyone struggling with a trial or difficulty.

One page marked by my mother had the quote from Faber in it.  Though the text does not make it clear, Faber was a Catholic priest in London who wrote, among other works, a book called All for Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Love Divine.  The fourth edition, the only one I found on Google Books, was published in 1854.  Reading just a little bit of it shows a man consumed with love for Jesus and for the common life he shared with his parishioners.  For example, he begins the book like this:

Jesus belongs to us.  He vouchsafes to put himself at our disposal.  He communicates to us everything of His which we are capable of receiving.  He loves us with a love that no words can tell, nay, above all our thought and imagination.  And He condescends to desire, with a longing that is equally indescribable, that we should love Him, with a fervent and entire love.    

And so it goes.  And then the quote that forms the epigraph for this short post has a beautiful phrase that demonstrates his celebration of the common life --- "the wear and tear of common, unpoetic life."  I love that sense that it is not the sainted who are to be revered so much as are the common, faithful Christians, those in the mud and muck of life, in the unpoetic trenches of daily obedience.  There is my mother who no doubt had her share of tribulation; Lettie Cowman, who cared for an ailing husband for six long years; and William Faber, parish priest faithfully serving his people --- the communion of saints, all now together in the presence of Jesus.

Don't discount the the paths taken by the aged and the long-dead.  They have tread where we shall go.  Follow the bookmarks of their lives.  Go from saint to saint to saint.

 


Swimming in the Greatness of the Ordinary: A Review of Michael O'Briens's "Island of the World"

51oysBy0seL._AA115_ Michael O'Brien's over 800 page novel, Island of the World, is daunting in an era of short attention spans, and yet the reader's commitment to it will bear fruit in a renewed sense of God's providence, in the dignity of human life, and in Christian virtue.  As with all great novels, I did not want it to end and continue to carry its protagonist, Josip Lasta, into the day with me, informing my sense of who I am and should be.

The novel is epic in more ways than one.  Set in the unsettled pre-World War II Balkans of 1933, it follows the life of Josip, then 12, as the world around him unwinds.  Yugoslavia is wracked by civil war, as facsists, communists, and nationalists resist German and Italian occupiers.  A hellish scenario unwinds, turning Josip's idyllic village world upside down and wrenching him from the deep Catholic faith of his childhood.  The remainder of the novel, played out in Yugoslavia, Italy, and the United States, is a record of his life-long odyssey to recover that faith, as well as live it, to reckon with the demons of his path and accept the life he is given.

Although the novel has a destination, like any good novel, the journey is what truly matters.  Particularly enjoyable along the way are the poetic and theological insights gained.  For example, when talking with Miriam, his friend's wife, about St. Augustine's teachings about word and sign, Josip is beside himself with excitement:

"Miriam, Miriam," he exclaims, do you understand what this means!?"

"I think I do, Josip."

"It means that the world is radiant with signs.  Heaven is pouring out continual messages, but we can hardly read them, you see, because we are blind and deaf and do not know who we really are.  The signs in th earth, inanimate and organic, living and dead, are not divine in themselves, but they are creations of the divine. . . ."

Josip goes on to lament the fact that much of humanity misses these signs, how "we live and move and have our being within a vast masterpiece" of which we are often unaware.  That sense permeates the book.  As Josip says near the end of his life, his great freedom is that everyday "he can swim in the greatness of the ordinary."  Following his life, you are inspired by his courage, perseverance, honesty, and humility.  For all the tragedy that unfolds in the life of Josip Lasta, the novel imparts great hope, a deep and unsentimental awareness of God's providential ordering of all the details of our lives, even its sufferings bound up with meaning.  Our own sense of what life can and should be is enlarged, and a deep thankfulness settles in.  At least that's what I was left with.

Canadian Catholic Michael O'Brien's narrative brims with poetic sensibility and, indeed, his poetry finds expression in Josip, a mathematician turned poet.  You'll find many full-length poems, rich with natural imagery and theological insight.  Not a word in this word-full book is wasted, and yet the prose is neither dense nor daunting but flows naturally and richly.

After completing the book, I went back and read the short Prologue.  I realize now how little I understood of it then:

"We are born, we eat, we learn, and die.  We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind.  I was here, each of us declare.  I was here."

Josip Lasta says this is ordinary life, life for all of us, and yet in the "island of the world" everything points outside itself to God, to eternity.  Everything means something.  The real foundations of the world are not in brick and mortar but above.

I recommend Island of the World if you have some time.  It just might be one of my favorite books of all time.

 


Why Old Words Matter

One of the values of old, even archaic words is that their very strangeness helps us hear them.  If, as Pablo Picasso said, "art is the lie that tells the truth," then the indirection of those strange old words has a way of telling the truth even more fully than the ones with which we are so familiar.  In fact, the very familiarity of so-called modern words can render them cliche and render us numb to their meaning.

I noticed this recently when I had opportunity to compare both the updated modern and classic language editions of Oswald Chambers' classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.  In the selection for August 20th in the classic edition, for example, Chambers contrasts the self-conscious life with the Christ-conscious life, noting that "Jesus says 'Come unto Me. . . and I will give you rest,' that is, Christ-consciousness will take the place of self-consciousness."  In the hands of the updater, self-consciousness  turns into "self-awareness," a word that may have a similar denotation but has an unfortunate (and distracting) pop psychology connotation.  For me, to say "Christ-awareness will take the place of self-awareness" doesn't quite carry the full meaning.

Or take the entry from June 2nd.  Chambers repeatedly uses the word "haunted" to refer to a life completely taken up in God, and yet, as the updater renders it, we are merely "obsessed" with God.  First of all, to say we are obsessed with God gets it backwards: What Chambers is saying is that it is God who is obsessed with us.  And to say He haunts us is thrilling, really, as it makes me think of the mystery of His continual presence and the relentless way in which He pursues us, that "hound of Heaven."  Spooky, and good, isn't it?  It's not that old is always better.  But the burden should be on the updater to justify a change.

Older words require more of us.  And yet these elder words are ripe for reflection.  Winston Churchill said that "short words are best and the old words when short are best of all."  He may have been focusing on the simplicity and not the fullsomeness of old words, but I imagine he would agree that an older word is often better than a newer one.

So forget the updated editions.  Stick to classics. Wade in and stop on an old word.  Ponder it until it gives up its full meaning.  Let it speak across time to you.


From a Distance: A Review of "Lives Other Than My Own," by Emmanuel Carrere

119942496 Few who experience death on a personal scale, as in the death of a friend or relative, or on a mass scale, like that from a terrorist killing or natural disaster, are unaffected.  In addition to the immediate, visceral emotions that can overwhelm, there is often a deep wrestling with the theodicies of the events, questions such as "how could a good God allow such pain and suffering and death?" or "how can such evil exist?"  Such trauma has both led to faith and been the end of faith, and yet seldom does one pass through such events without brushing up against such issues.  French novelist, biographer, filmaker, and journalist Emmanuel Carrere may be an exception.

Lives Other Than My Own is Carrere's 2009 French memoir, recently translated and forthcoming in English by Metropolitan Books (September 2011).  The memoir is actually two stories, unrelated except for the fact that the author experienced both.  The shorter is his telling of the effect of the 2004 Asian tsunami on a family with whom he became acquainted while vacationing in Sri Lanka.  The couple, Jerome and Delphine, lost their young daughter, Juliette, in the ensuing waves.  More observer than one intimately involved  in assisting the couple (in contrast to his partner, Helene), his description of the tragic events and the effect of Juliette's death on this family is oddly dispassionate, like it is viewed from a distance.  Carrere himself describes his detachment this way: as he watches Helene spring into action to assist the family, he says "I look at Helene and feel clumsy, helpless, useless.  I almost resent her for being so caught up in the task at hand that she's paying no attention to me. It's almost as if I no longer exist."  And yet this event draws him closer to Helene at a time when they were considering separating. 

Perhaps his detachment is a symptom of his self-described "inability to love" that he blames for drawing them apart.  Elsewhere, he describes himself as one who live[s] in disatisfaction, constant tension, running after dreams of glory and laying waste to my loves because I always imagine that one day, somewhere else, I'll find something better."  Yet his refreshingly honest appraisal of himself, even to the extent of portraying himself in unflattering ways, never seems to cause him to ask ultimate questions that may call for transcendent answers, even for God.  Perhaps it is symptomatic of a largely secular European environment, a closed, naturalistic system where God is consigned to wishful thinking, the province of the old or uneducated.

Returning to Paris with Helene, they are once again touched by tragedy.  Helene learns that her sister, also named Juliette, had cancer again.  The remainder and by far larger part of the book concerns this other story, the sickness and ultimate death of Helene's cancer-ridden sister, as well as its effect on her husband Patrice and her friend and co-worker, Etienne.  Along the way, we are treated to richly descriptive biographies of Etienne, Juliette's fellow judge who suffered the amputation of his leg at an early age, as well as Juliette's left-leaning cartoon-drawing husband, Patrice.  Many of the intimate details of their lives are laid bare under Carrere's journalist's eye.  Sometimes it seems embarrassingly voyeuristic to be looking into their personal lives in such a way.

Carrere is adept at describing people, settings, and events, and yet while a party to much of what surrounds Juliette's dying, he is at the same time emotionally distant, an observer who rarely professes to how the emotions of the events weigh on him, whether describing Juliette's decline or the impact on her three children left without a mother.  Perhaps this is just an experienced journalist's posture, allowing him to remain objective.  Or perhaps it is an emotional detachment the author struggles with.  Maybe it is both.  And yet his account is an insightful window into the lives of two ordinary people who grapple with handicaps, illness, and death.

While the book generally sustained my interest, the section which details the attempt by Etienne and Juliette, both judges, to secure some favorable law for debtors in a debtor-creditor case, is a bit arcane.  To non-lawyer types, this would likely not be of interest, and even for me, a lawyer, it detracted from the more universal appeal of the events and personalities described in the rest of the book.  I think Carrere would have done well to leave much of this section out or significantly revise it.

In the end, I was unsatisfied with the effect all these events had on Carrere.  Summing it up, he concludes: "I love my life now (no great achievement, since it's so pleasant), and my philosophy can be summed up in the remark made on the evening of her son's coronation by Madame Letizia, the mother of Napolean, who murmered, 'Let's hope it lasts.'"  Really?  Is that all?  Better yet to walk out under the stars, the same stars the Psalmist beheld, and say, "When I look at your heavens, the work/ of your fingers,/ the moon and the stars, which you/ have set in place,/ what is man that you are mindful of him,/ and the son of man that you care for/ him?" (Ps. 8:3-4, ESV).  Better to say, simply, thank you.

I recommend Lives Other Than My Own for the writing, for the nuanced insight into lives not our own.  Set in the context of a universe "charged with the grandeur of God" (to use Hopkins' phrase), you may find a plentiful hope, faith, and love and go back to your own life, renewed, from a distance no more.


Where Have All the Writers Gone? A Review of "Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life," by Evan Hughes

Brooklyn Where have all the writers gone?  To Brooklyn, no doubt.  At least a convincing case for the literary magnetism of that New York borough is made by journalist and critic Evan Hughes.  He should know too: he lives in Brooklyn.

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life (Henry Holt & Company, releasing Aug. 16, 2011), is part literary history --- a series of insightful profiles of writers who made their homes both literally and lyrically in the Brooklyn Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and other neighborhoods of the borough --- part urban history, and part literary analysis.  Reading it is a bit like having an engrossing (if mostly one-sided) conversation with a neighbor steeped in the history of a place and its literary people, well-known writers like Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and Truman capote, and lesser known figures such as Marianne Moore, Richard Wright, and Paul Auster, spanning a time period from the mid-nineteenth century to the current day, from Leaves of Grass to Sophies Choice to the contemporary novel Great House, and from a Brooklyn which was a quiet village of 5000 in Whitman's early years to a city in urban decline in the Sixties to the mixed and often gentrified brownstones and Starbucks of today.  The author moves through much time and space in the course of some 284 pages, and yet the pacing seems appropriate, slow enough to take in the sights and sounds that inhabit the pages and yet quick enough not to bog down in minutia.  The author's thesis --- that the literature of Brooklyn's writers has a special ability to offer an intimate view of a time and place --- is well taken.  He ably shows how these writers brought this place to life.

While it may be quite a time-span to cover, the details are not glossed over but often recorded.  For example, imagine Walt Whitman humming arias as he walked down the street, or shouting out lines from Shakespeare or Homer from a stagecoach or at the seashore.  We're given a list of streets on which he lived, one with an actual address where the home stills stands, and we begin to put a literary giant on the ground, a human being not a god, after all (regardless of what he thought of himself).  Hughes has a way of always rooting the authors he discusses in houses and on streets with names, some of which still resound.  That's just what these writers would do, what all good writers do.

In addition to watching a village grow into a city, there are many authors to discover about whom I have had little to no knowledge.  Take Richard Wright, the author of the 1945 memoir, Black Boy.  Amazingly enough, at publication of Wright's landmark book, Brooklyn was only 4% black, something that came to change over the ensuing years as blacks migrated north from the South.  Few people at that time (and virtually none of them black) had recounted the racism and poverty of the South with such raw emotion as did Wright.  Because of Hughes, I'll read Wright's book, even if I'm coming to it a bit late.

It's impossible to read about the lives of writers, or any artists for that matter, without an overpowering sense of the hardship, tragedy, and excesses that overshadow their lives, much of it their own doing, and much of it reflected in and influenced by the state of the city around them.  A bohemian lifestyle and often fascination with radical causes is common.  Good writers, yes, but one suspects they may not all have been good neighbors, angst-ridden as they often are.  Perhaps Thomas Wolfe summed up their longing well when he spoke of the search for a "father," not just literally but also metaphorically in a longing for "the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger."  Were one to approach these writers from a theological viewpoint, perhaps all of what they did and wrote is about the longing for meaning, for a father-god around whom to orient their lives.  Alfred Kazin may have said that "[s]alvation would come by the word, the long-awaited and fatefully exact word that only the true writer would speak," and yet reading of the unhappiness that many of these writers experienced, one may have to conclude that salvation must be by some other means, some other Word.  Art may illuminate, but it does not save.  Perhaps as Hughes concludes, "in the end we comprehend just a little bit better the whole incomprehensible whirl of American life," or perhaps these writers only draw attention to its emptiness.  It's a beginning.

I recommend Literary Brooklyn both for its attentiveness to writers and to place, to the words that open up life in one very American city and thereby illuminate them all.  You may not have been to Brooklyn.  Nor may you have read many of the writers told of here.  Yet if you read this book you'll better be able to see the house, street, and neighborhood outside your door and be challenged to both read and write of your own unique place.  You may even better know what questions to ask about your own life and how to look for answers.


Lost in the Swamp: A Review of "Swamplandia!," by Karen Russell

67888821 At times reading author Karen Russell's first book-length work of fiction, Swamplandia!, is like a Stephen King inspired naturalist's guide to the flora and fauna of southwest Florida --- swampy, spooky, and full of shadowy demons both real and imagined.  Steeped as it is, however, in a sense of place, particularly a place so few of us have visited or even desire to visit, its strangeness becomes almost exotic and arresting.  We want to go there, if only in our mind.  Russell is our willing tour guide.

The Bigtree family is the owner-operator of Swamplandia!, a once popular gator wrestling theme park on an island off the gulf shore of southwest Florida.  I say once because we come on the scene when the star of the show, mother Hilola Bigtree, has died of cancer and the world of the Bigtrees is coming unhinged by both the external and internal fallout of her death.  The tourists stop coming, leaving the park on the brink of foreclosure.  The father, Samuel ("Chief") Bigtree, leaves the island for the mainland, for some mysterious "business."  The three children, Kiwi, Osceola (Ossie), and Ava, who are to remain together, spin off in different directions.  The oldest, Kiwi, a realist who seems to grasp their dire situation, leaves for the mainland, for a job and education, carrying with him unresolved anger at his father, at his mother's death, and at a place he has rejected.  Sixteen year-old Ossie, on the other hand, has left reality, imagining the existence of spirits and ultimately leaving to marry  a ghost.  Yes, a ghost.  And there's 13-year old Ava, our narrator, left alone, unsure whether to believe her sister or the internal voice of her mother.  Lacking a father at the moment, vulnerable, she takes up with the eccentric, mysterious, and ultimately sinister "Birdman" on a quest to rescue her sister from the Underworld, poling their way through the swamps and canals to find her.

The strangeness of the setting and circumstances notwithstanding, the reader still finds much to identify with here:  loss, misguided hope, and even family (albeit a dysfunctional one).  This is a traumatized family dealing with their loss in some well-known ways: anger, denial, and even dementia.  They lack faith, family, or friends from which to gain sustenance, no one to turn to except each other, lost but not alone, ultimately, in their lostness.    As such, it is an appropriate novel for the post-modern.  When their personal and family narrative collapses, when who they thought they were is no longer the case, they have no meta-narrative within which to anchor themselves, no story within which to find meaning.  It is a story played out in the more normal suburban setting of everyday life around us.  And yet by rooting this story in the unfamiliar and foreboding setting of the once wilderness of southwest Florida, in Swamplandia! Russell makes good if not great art, de-familiarizing the familiar and thereby bringing it home to us.

I do have quibbles.  First, while allowing 13 year-old Ava to narrate much of the story allows a more intimate, personal telling, the fact is that Ava's voice too often sounds more like a twenty or thirty year old woman. (Perhaps more like the voice of the author?)  Ava often provides helpful history or descriptions of place, helpful information but like nothing most 13 year-olds would come out with.  About one escape from danger, she says of her mother that "[s]he was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs."  Winsome, metaphorical prose but not what I would expect a 13-year old barely teenage girl to say.  Other times Ava sounds very much like a teenager, and her actions evince that as well.  Admittedly, keeping an appropriate voice and telling a good story, particularly in the first-person, is a challenge.  As a reader you can adapt, but you have to be able to suspend disbelief or even treat the voice as that of a third-person narrator.  It doesn't quite work.

My other quibble isn't so much with Russell as it is with contemporary fiction in general.  Books about loss, books which major in the underbelly (if not Underworld) of life abound, many much darker than this one.  While such minor themes cannot and should not be ignored, it takes a gifted author to navigate the Swamplandias of life and write non-sentimentally about truth, goodness, and beauty, manifest even in the muck and mire of life's swamplands.  Where can I find those books? And yet I can't hold Karen Russell to account for this.  We are all guilty of a fascination with the dark, all too easily blow by the good.

Even with these reservations, I can recommend Swamplandia! for adult readers.  In the end, Russell serves as a good tour guide both to a wild place of crocodiles and saw grass as well as the personal anguish of loss.  To a greater or lesser degree, most of us will find ourselves in these wild places at one time or the other.  Reading of it is a whole lot more enjoyable.


The Other China: A Review of "Kosher Chinese," by Michael Levy

112950661 Given the ascendancy of China in the global economy, many Americans picture a China of booming cities, awash in money, a  kind of capitalism where the nouveau rich shop as families in their pajamas, sip lattes at Starbucks, and eat at McDonald's.  In other words, they look a little different, have to deal with a government that permits less freedom, but they're moving in on us as a society.

Michael Levy's memoir of of his life in China as a Peace Corp volunteer in 2005-2006, Kosher Chinese (Holt & Company, available July 5, 2011)is a helpful corrective to this media-fed impression.  Subtitled "Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion," Levy's personal, informative, and sometimes irreverently humorous story ably records his impressions of life in the mountainous and largely rural province of Guizhou, in the city of Guiyang, the dead center of China and a long ways geographically, economically, and culturally from the Westernized coastal cities of Beijing and Shanghai.  Assigned to teach English at Guizhou University, Levy allows his story to develop around his relationships with his students, a coach who drafts him to play basketball, and some Bouyei (or Hmong) children he meets on one of his walks in the city.

Although Levy's descriptions of the people and life of Guiyang are sensually rich, it is his recordation of conversations with his students and others that lends his account a deeper authenticity.  Once his students warm to him, they ask him for advice on all types of matters, from romance to jobs to buying a home.  Taken as a whole these conversations reveal a society in flux, cut loose from the traditions of the past, the Communist Party, and family ties, uncertain of what if anything to believe in.  Take Vivian, for example, whose life is improving in terms of her income and access to consumer commodities, and yet who is still unhappy: "'I am drifting,' Vivian once told me.  'All of China is drifting.'  Without religion, without honest history, without tradition, without even an open possibility of motherhood (thanks to the one Child Policy), she felt unmoored."

This observation or diagnosis becomes an understated theme in the book.  Shopping in Walmart with Jennifer, she too opens up to him: "'Recently, I have begun to hate Walmart.  I realize that just as Chairman Mao cannot inspire me or teach me, neither can capitalism.  There is no value in anything.'" Liu Xing tells him "I really don't know who to follow, but I do not trust myself to be my own guide."  No meaning.  Lost.  Drifting.   A creeping nihilism has come to China.

Levy, a Jew who follows Jewish tradition because, in his words, "it makes him happy," not because he necessarily believes in God, diagnoses the malaise affecting his students and friends, and yet offers no prescription.  Indeed his own embrace of the hollowed-out traditions of Judaism (the outward practices without the beliefs) is evidence that like his students he needs something to give meaning to his life.  But it's evident he did offer his students and new friends something: his friendship.  And that's no small thing.  He also helped them articulate --- perhaps for the first time --- some of their questions.  That too is a beginning, a self-consciousness that is an open door for change.

For those considering short-term cross cultural missions or service opportunities, or for those seeking a window into life in the other China, I recommend Kosher Chinese.  It's engaging, walk-through-life style, rich descriptions of Chinese life, and personal reflections by the author will transport you to the streets of Guiyang and introduce you to a part of China not featured in the press.  For Christians it's an opportunity to gain an inside look at at the emptiness of both ideology and materialism in a society that sorely needs the anchor provided by the Gospel.  Not only that, but it can be a mirror in which we see our own clutching materialism and our need for something to worship that transcends tradition, party, tribe, or money --- for a God who is the end of all our yearnings.


Saturday Afternoon, Review.

While I don't expect you to be interested in how I spent my Saturday afternoon, sometimes we write ("we" may sound expansive, as most people do not write) about things as a form of inner dialogue.  In this case, it's my way of deciding if the time reading the Review Section of the Wall Street Journal for two hours was worthwhile or merely an escape from other more mundane and taxing needs which beckon, like cleaning the attic, organizing the garage, or paying the bills, none of which excite me and all of which require endless difficult decisions, like what to keep, what to throw out, and how to organize what is kept, or, in the case of bills, remind me how distressingly quickly money earned becomes money spent, my pocket a mere conduit, an overflowing Mississippi for interstate commerce.  I tire even to speak of these tasks.

So, let me tell you about what I read.  This caveat first: While I am not stupid, I am lacking in genius and not particularly well-schooled in literature or books, for all my supposed learning.  I'm not telling you of what I read to impress you.  I read because I am (a) lazy (I don't want to do menial work), (b) can sit down while I am doing it, (c) like to associate with smarter people in print, though I doubt I would be able to carry on a satisfying conversation with any of them in person, and (d) will likely never read most of the books reviewed but can act like I have as I have read them by virtue of having read the Cliffnote version of them (the review, that is).

Seriously, while all the above is true, there are good reasons for spending two hours with a review of books, particularly one as good as the WSJ Review.  Here are a few:

Diversity.  
Diversity is a hot topic in workplaces, in politics, and on college campuses.  But that's a shadow of the kind of intellectual diversity represented here in different topic, tone, and style, all in a concentrated two hours.  It's stimulating, like spending 10 minutes listening to 12 different speakers, each an expert on their topic. I moved from how temperature influences behavior to a book on the passing of the WWII generation to Davy Crockett to Berlin in 1961 to the historic MGM movie studios to liberal David Mamet's explanation of his conversion to conservatism.  Dazzled, I wonder at the breadth and depth of what there is to know, the thimble-sized grip I have on reality, and the reassuring knowledge of and hold on God has of me.

Humanity.  Reading is also deeply humanizing.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, narrative history or fantasy, books are primarily about people.  Even when describing the history of water ("Any Drop to Drink"), the story still revolves around humans and water, their personalities and decisions, both bad and good.  Even the Berlin Wall may have come about because John F. Kennedy had a bad day (seriously) ("When Kennedy Blinked").  And the personal stories of some the last WWII veterans recounted by author James Hornfischer let me peer into a world of which I know nothing.  They make me ask "what would I do in such circumstances," or "would I have made a better decision?"  They make me appreciate the deeply human nature of life and remind me that every generalization or objectification of reality will inevitably obscure the individual.  Sometimes we see better when we focus on one life, on one person made in the image of God.

Sound.  I don't read with any music on, even instrumental background music, as I do not want to mask the sound of the words I am reading.  Not that I read aloud.  I once read the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy aloud to my then seven-year old son, 30 minutes at a time, and while there are definite benefits to hearing the spoken words, I want to hear the words internally.  Every good writer (and there are many in the WSJ Review) has an inimitable style, and I enjoy hearing all these voices end-to-end like an IPod on shuffle (to use a crude analogy).  In fact, it's interesting just to compare the way in which different writers end their essays, from Andrew Klaven's quip that conservative convert David Mamet's book "might make an amusingly irritating present for a liberal friend," to Joe Queenan's closer to a humorous article about cheapskates ("We are puzzled by these people.  We are chagrined by these people.  We'd like to stick a stamp on their butts and ship them to Timbuktu or the South Pole or Hell. . . I'll cover the postage.")  Don't you like the way that sounds?  Quite beyond or in spite of content, reading can simply be pleasurable, and the great thing about a review, like the World Book Encyclopedia I perused as a kid, is that if a topic grows tedious or tiresome (which I confess is rarely the case), there's always another voice in the room.  Move on.

Touch.  Oh, the tactile pull of newsprint!  I won't belabor the book/e-reader argument, but undoubtedly there is something lost in not having newsprint.  Someone actually thought enough of these writers to PRINT them.  Holding it in my hands, it seems more substantial than anything on internet or e-reader.  After all, anyone (even me) can write on the internet.  And where can you find an e-reader as large as newspaper?  Nowhere, of course.  The world of print is getting smaller and less substantial, a picture of a book rather than a book (literally and metaphorically).  Also, think of what you can do with newsprint, like wash windows, wrap presents, start fires, and beat fearsome dogs over the head.  Try any of that with an e-reader!

Well, so much for another Saturday afternoon.  I just walked downstairs and threw my copy of the WSJ Review in the recycle bin.  I feel a tad bad about that, like I have dishonored the authors.  And yet they can feel good about the fact that my carbon footprint is a little smaller by this act, I'm told.

Maybe I should have cleaned the attic.


 


The Woman Behind HeLa: A Review of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot

Lscks Though she may be a science writer, author Rebecca Skloot has a gift for taking esoteric topics over which non-scientists' eyes may glaze and writing about them in a winsome, broadly accessible, and humanizing way.  Her first full-length book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is no exception. Part science, history, biography, and race relations study, Skloots' meticulously researched topic --- the medical and human legacy of a cancerous cell line taken from a poor African-American woman without her knowledge or consent --- is put in the context of its time, illuminating the issues and lives swirling around this seemingly inconsequential event that had enormous positive ramifications for medicine, and yet one which caused such difficulties for the family of Henrietta Lacks.

For those who don't know (which likely includes most of us), the cancerous tissue taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins led to the famous and ubiquitous HeLa cell line.  From that cell line  --- which, unlike most normal cells, continues to thrive and divide and multiply even to this day (hence, its "immortality") --- mind-blowing medical advances have been made, including cancer treatments, breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning, and fertility, and yet the world until recently knew next to nothing about the woman who gave us these cells.  Worse yet, her own family --- tobacco sharecroppers and then Baltimore factory workers --- had little idea of what their mother gave the world.  To the extent they did, their knowledge was incomplete, mired in confusion, and eclipsed by their own difficulties.  And when multi-billion dollar businesses began to profit off the HeLa cell line, they wondered why they had so little and struggled so much as well as why their mother, sister, and grandmother was so unknown to the world when so much money was being made off her.

According to Skloot, she became intrigued by Henrietta Lacks when she heard her name in a college-level biology class she took when she was 16.  She wanted the back-story, one no one seemed able to provide.  After college she picked up the story in a decade-long study that reads almost like an anthropological participant-observer study.  Skloot herself becomes a character in the story, writing about how she researched the book, how she met the Lacks family, and all her many interactions with them, both good and bad.  It truly is an anthropological study, in that the background and culture from which Skloot came --- educated, white, and nonreligious --- is far removed from that of the Lacks --- poor, undereducated, and religious.  Part of the beauty of the book is watching the two peoples interact and begin to trust and, in a real sense, grow to love each other.

For writers, other pleasures abound.  First, there is simply the evident work ethic embraced by the author.  The time, personal involvement, and attention to detail over the better part of a decade evidence her commitment.  Writing is not easy, but it can be rewarding.  We can better savor the meal when we appreciate the ingredients and labor that went into it.  Another pleasure is hearing the Lacks family members speak in their own words, in their dialect, something they requested and a request the author adhered to, all to the good as it lends the book credibility in its honesty and human warmth.  Science is one thing.  These are real people.  As was Henrietta Lacks.  And while Skloot provides plenty of detail about her sources, enough to serve as a primer on how to go about researching such a book, it's tucked away in an endnote, not cluttering up a flowing, almost novel-like tale.

Christians may find particular delight in watching the author, a self-described nonreligious person who never prayed, interact with a sin-wracked and struggling and yet often deeply religious family.  The strangeness of religious experience is never more evident than in this passage, when one of Henrietta's sons, Gary, ministers to his overwrought and hysterical sister, Deborah, while Skloot is watching the loud preaching, praying, singing, and weeping:

I'd been watching all this from a recliner a few feet away, dumbfounded, terrified to move or make noise, frantically scribbling notes.  In any other circumstance I might have thought the whole thing crazy.  But what was happening between Gary and Deborah at that moment was the furthest thing from crazy I'd seen all day.  As I watched, all I could think was, Oh my god. . . I did this to her.

And then Gary came for Rebecca Skloot.

This story moves you, educates you, and humanizes you, like all great stories should.  And while the policy issues surrounding use of tissues, both the nature of consent and who should profit, are important, at the heart of this book is the story of its people.  For that reason alone, you should read it.


Why You Should Read "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" (Or Any Fiction, For That Matter)

A77693316bout halfway through Helen Simonson's first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I felt the tug of a voice I thought I had silenced long ago.  "Why are you wasting your time on a story," it said, and "Fiction is a waste of precious time" --- old questions that continue to taunt.  After all, I should be learning something, right?  I should be reading my Bible, right?  Right. . . and wrong.

I pulled Leland Ryken's The Liberated Imagination off the bookshelf, a dogeared book worth every cent I spent on it and one that excels at answering these questions.  There it is: "The function of the arts is to heighten our awareness and perception of life by making us vicariously live it."  Ryken goes on to say that art partly functions as revelation, giving us a heightened "awareness of ourselves, of people, of the world, of God."  It gives shape to our experiences.  It posits universals of human experience in particulars of time and place that may not be familiar to us.  Yes, I need to read my Bible but even more I need to read life through the lens of my Bible, its light refracted through the panes of stories told by others, stories in which I find myself and sometimes more powerfully by His hiddenness, God.

That's what happens in a good, true, and beautiful story like Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.  A contemporary novel set in a small village in the south of England, it masterfully portrays the sights, sounds, and manners of an English village.  The first unusual thing is that this is a novel that tells of a growing friendship and love between two elderly people. Not only that, they are from different social groups.  Major Pettigrew is a retired military officer, widowed, a man with a sense of duty and obligation, and yet one wounded and left lonely by the deaths of his only brother and his wife, as well as by a son who seems to care only for money and status.  Jasmina Ali is a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper, an outsider in a community that tolerates her and yet is increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship that threatens to test the social conventions of the community.

It's a slow build, as you might expect, and yet a rewarding one.  In the process, we see the Major confront prejudice, his own and that of the community, and we watch him change, dropping a petty grudge he held against his father, learning to forgive his son, and reaching out to those in need.  In what he learns, we learn too.  We see ourselves.  And that's what a good story can do.

The only unrealistic part of the story is the apparent ease with which Mrs. Ali and Major Pettigrew dispense with their significantly different religious backgrounds.  They do not even have one significant discussion of the very different religious traditions they apparently hold to --- I say apparently because the depths of their convictions are unclear.  There is mention of God and serious conversation about meaning that would seem to lead to discussion of the competing claims of Christianity and Islam.  And yet it doesn't.  This could reflect a naivety on the part of the author, a hope or belief that there's really not too much difference between the two religions at the end of the day.  Or it could be that religion just isn't very important to the author and so she can't posit a story where it's important to the characters (unless you are an extreme believer, like Mrs. Ali's son.)  For me, this the one unrealistic chord in an otherwise very believable story.

In the end, though, this doesn't mar a story that shows that no matter what deep-rooted prejudices you may have, no matter how you think your life is laid out for you, and no matter how set in your ways you may be, there is always hope.  There can always be a "last stand."  So when that voice begins to taunt again and argue the frivolity of reading fiction, I have an answer: It's helping me better understand myself, God, and others.  It's building a better me.  That's enough for me.


To Abide

41398498 Where I sit there is an arc of sunlight that stretches across my left side ending in a trapezoid of warmth on the cherry wood of my desk.  Like my somnolent cat who lounges across another patch of light on the carpet, I could abide here for a long time.  Gravity already draws my eyelids shut.  Warmth, rest, time --- they all pull me in, at least until I remember why I'm here.

There are some scripture phrases you hear all your life if you are, as I have been, blessed to have heard the Bible read all you life, and yet how quickly they become cliche or invisible if unused.  Like the box of miscellany at the corner of my office, the one I mean to sort through and dispose of, the one I now walk by countless times each day and do not notice, so I often do not notice the oddity or the profundity of a word of scripture, the richness of its meaning or application.  Like an onion, scripture is multi-layered: peel back one layer of meaning and you find another, even another question.  Walk around it, look at it from different angles, and you may begin to wonder whether you had it wrong all along.  You have a sense of its "roundness," its multi-dimensionality.  Like the box in my office, to get to the bottom of it you need to spend time with it, to abide with it.

This abiding is what Joshua Choonmin Kang is encouraging in the recently published Scripture By Heart: Devotional Practices for Memorizing God's Word.  I have to confess that the subtitle's word, "memorizing," instigated a knee-jerk reaction in me, a rebellion against anything that smacks of rote and ritual.  Images of elementary-age Sunday School where the matron of the class asked us to recite scripture by memory (aloud, here, now, in front of everyone?) flashed in my mind.  And yet there was also the positive memory of a small group Navigators 2:7 series from my college days that continues to bear fruit in scriptures I can still call to mind.  There must be something to it.  Kang's book is helping.

To "abide in Christ" is to live in, dwell in, and exist in Christ, to, in essence, move in with Him.  When my wife and I moved in this house and to this small patch of suburbia 25 years ago, it was new and unknown.  We grew into it.  We learned its dimensions, its creaks, its smells, and we made it our own.  It is our abode.  We dwell here.  We know this place.  And yet, I'm often aware of how we take it for granted.  Like right now, I appreciate anew its orientation, one that permits sunlight to splash across my desk at just the right angle.

Knowing scripture is something like knowing what you have in Christ, the furniture of our abode, our orientation, our space and light, the roominess of our habitation.  The metaphors may be mixed and imperfect, but the point is that knowing the words of God in scripture are part of what it is to know Him.  Waking in the night, in darkness, I see the shapes of the furniture around me and know I am home.  Waking in the darkness of the soul, I can see and hear the words of scripture spoken, giving comfort, telling me that all is well.

So I'm trying not to think of it so much as memorizing scripture but as better knowing and appreciating where I live --- in Christ. Like a blind person, I want to be able to navigate in the dark, to know where I live so well that I can live and move in it from memory.

One verse I remember clinging to during a trying first year of college was Phillipians 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."  I have no difficulty summoning that verse to mind.  Like a well worn recliner, I reclined on its promise a lot that year, sometimes even doubting if it would hold me.  Now I see the verse less as one of hoped for accomplishment as one of perseverance, not "I will succeed" but "I will persevere."  Having lived longer, I realize that the to be true the verse has to be true not only for me but for everyone who believes --- a man trapped far below the ground in Chile, a Ugandan orphan, or an aged parent who can no longer always summon my name.  It has to be true for them as well.

So, Scripture By Heart is a welcome encouragement to abide in Christ, to live well among the furniture of His words, so that one day, when we see Him face to face, we'll realize He has dwelt here all along.  We know Him by knowing His words.

 

 


Another Time, Another Place: A Review of Bo Caldwell's "City of Tranquil Light"

City-of-tranquil-light So often when we think of the lives of missionaries, we either rhapsodize over the exotic places they serve and the selfless lives they lead or we critique the patronizing or paternalistic attitudes exhibited by some of their worst examples.  It just shows how little we understand about the reality of their lives. In her new book, City of Tranquil Light, Bo Caldwell remedies our stereotypes.

This is a quiet, reflective, extended meditation on the lives of a man and woman who devote their entire lives to serving a village in North China in the early pre-WWII decades of the 20th century. Based on the lives of her maternal grandparents, Caldwell crafts a work of historical fiction that is rich with poetic descriptions of the Chinese landscape and people, warm with love of place and people, and uplifting and yet non-sentimental in the telling.  Alternating between first-person narration by Will Kiehn and letters by wife Katherine, the story develops thoughtfully and slowly.  We trace the challenges and joys of their love for one another and the blessings of ministry as well as the hardships of drought, famine, disease, and loss --- all against the backdrop of a nation changing, a nation on the brink of civil war.  Will and Katherine loved a place and a people, and the insight given through this story helped me better understand how a life of such privations can be preferred over one of relative luxury.

It is an honest story.  Will and Katherine have to deal with a deep personal loss, one that left them estranged for a time and filled with doubt of and anger towards God.  And yet the overcoming of these difficulties is not a facile one but one gradual, even partial, the loss never understood, the wound never completely healing.  Somehow, that is encouraging.  As Will says near the end of the story and of his life, "To search for a reason. . . seems futile.  I have come to accept that at present I have only a partial view of reality; there are answers I will not be given until I leave this life.  I know that my God is the Lord of wheat fields and oak trees, of mountains and valleys, and that His answers, like His works, often require time."

It is also a deeply encouraging story.  It oozes with hope that imperfect human beings who seek after God and falter, doubt, and even disobey at times can be used for great things in the lives of the few or many.  It even demonstrates the purpose God has for the aged, as Will, knowing that he can no longer serve in China and will live out his days in a senior citizens' facility, reflects on how "[m]y days and nights are uncomplicated now.  I rise early and follow a schedule of prayer, for I believe that is how I am best able to serve at this time in my life."  What great works have come of the prayers of the aged, those now consigned to the fringe of society?  And just when I thought that the great "message" of the book was complete, the author deals so tenderly with the loss of a spouse that Will has served with all his life, the grieving that follows, and the life rejoined.  This too is encouraging.

In the end, however, it is not enough to tell an honest and encouraging story.  It must be told well.  Caldwell manages that with aplomb.  Her relatively spare prose gives the narrative a spaciousness like that of a poem, allowing plenty of room for the reader's mind to imagine and reflect, slowing the rush to climax and allowing us to "live" the book.  In other words, it's not a page-turner but a page-holder: you want to pause and dwell on a phrase or an image as you read, holding it just a while longer before moving on.  It is also told well because of the extensive research Calwell put into it, something she describes as slow but thorough.  She is able to merge much of what she read about the lives of missionaries in Will and Katherine and yet bring it into sharp focus by eliminating the multitude of tangents and distractions that crop up in real life.  It is a work of subtle beauty.

I highly recommend this book.  It will inspire and encourage and maybe provoke some to a life of service among another people in another land, to be a real missionary.  And yet it will make us all better human beings.  Isn't that one of the reasons we read fiction?


First Chapters

That I am considering a digital reader for e-books is proof that I am not a Luddite.  In the last week, I have previewed Borders's Kobo Reader, Amazon's Kindle, Barnes and Nobles's Nook, and even the more versatile IPad.  This has made me a readin' beast, folks!  I read at stoplights, at lunch, while waiting at the doctor's office, or in any other interstice of life!  So my conclusion is that I will actually read more books if I have one of these gizmos.  But this is not about the device but, rather, what I have read. 

Since I didn't want to buy any of these e-books yet, I sampled the free first chapters from a number of them.  In the past week I have read the first chapters of A.E. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh (for its wonderful sound), William Stryon's Sophie's Choice (well-written if wrenching story, at least the movie was), John Piper's Think (haven't read much Piper, actually), George W. Bush's Decision Points (mildly interesting, but certainly not captivating or in one chpater terribly illuminating), John Powell's How Music Works (fun and informative and accessible), Beth Kephart's The Heart is Not a Size (previewed for my 16-year old daughter, and I liked it), Spencer Quinn's Dog On It (a detective novel told from the standpoint of the detective's dog, and that right there is enough to say about this funny book), and Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (wonderfully written WWII story by the author of Seabisquit)And I'm still at it.  However, it has led to some curious, shall we say, propinquities.

For example, I never knew that George W. Bush and Winnie-the-Pooh had so much in common: a perchant for the simple (and I mean it as a compliment).  I'll keep reading about Winnie-the-Pooh but will likely not continue reading George Bush's memories.  (I'll also pass on Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.)  Memoirs must be compelling to draw you in, and these don't seem to be.  Now Pooh --- you have to love him and his friends.

But when it comes to writing, by far the best here is Hillenbrand's Unbroken, as I was drawn in immediately in this first chapter as she tells about the coming of age of Louis Zamperini.  Who, you might ask?  A runner who grew up in Torrance, California during the Great Depression.  More than that I can't say (that's the problem with first chapters), but I want to read on.  That matters.

One good thing about reading so many books at virtually the same time is to get a sense of the different voice used in each.  In Unbroken, it's that of a sympathetic narrator; in Think, that of a kindly but thoughtful pastor; in Dog On It, that of a wiseacre dog (and it sounds so doggish you have to believe it); and in How Music Works, that of an entertaining college professor (part of a minority) who loves to teach.  And to hear the voice of a teenager, as in The Heart Is Not a Size, is to be drawn back to my own teenage years and remember, however vaguely, the not always pleasant intensity of everything that happened to me back then.

I never realized, or at least didn't remember, that one of the main characters in Sophie's Choice, Stingo, was a young editor at a book publisher, and his sometimes funny encounters make up a good part of the first chapter of the book.  That seemed overlooked or downplayed in the wrenching movie version about a Holocaust survivor's stark choice (played so well by Meryl Streep).  The comedy, believability, and emotion of this book also drew me in.

I hadn't sung "Ba, Ba, Black Sheep" in quite some time, and yet John Powell had me doing it, under my breath, in a restaurant while reading How Music Works, wondering later how effective that technique was.  Piper might say that the purpose of reading such a book about music is "to study [its] reality as a manifestation of God's glory."  Powell may not have that perspective, but I sense a wonder in his prose.

First chapters, even first paragraphs, tell you a lot about a book.  It's important to start well, particularly in this era of impatience.  It's good to have these different voices and perspectives.  I like this dipping in and out of books, for a while at least, though I wonder about the long-term effects of such hop-scotch, of not finishing what I have started.

No matter.  I think I'll buy one of these things.  I'll wander in this land of literature for a spell, settling when I find a suitable resting place, surrounding myself with words that seem three-dimensional.  I just hope you're not behind me at the stoplight.  Be gentle on the horn.  I'm reading. 

 


Now What? David Platt's "Radical"

Radical Dear Pastor Platt,

I wish that I had never read your little book.  I like books that take me someplace else --- a new country, perhaps, or an imagined setting, or a new area of knowledge --- and then let me return to all that is comfortable and familiar, a good time had by all and glad to be home you might say.  I found your book unsettling, to say the least.  I'm only glad I didn't buy it but checked it out of the local library where for some reason there is a waiting list for all the copies.  I don't know why.  Wait a minute --- in a moment of lunacy, I actually went on Amazon and ordered a flippin' copy!  Oh well.

You have the gall to suggest that the words of the Bible are meant to be taken seriously, that the way of faith is in many respects antithetical to the American dream.  When you say radical, you do mean radical, don't you? Let me see if I have this straight.  You say:

  • Following Jesus really does means a radical abandonment to Him, just as it was for the disciples.  We may have to give up our possessions, our family, our way of life, and yes, even our lives, and yet you say the cost of not doing so is much greater;
  • Believing in Jesus is not just assent to His truth but a radical reshaping of life around Him and His glory;
  • God is exalted in our weakness and inability; He uses ordinary people for extraordinary purposes;
  • God has designed a radically global purpose for my life, for the sake of His glory, and I need to stop making excuses for my inactivity; 
  • Stop simply being a receiver and start being a reproducer, as in what part of "go, and make disciples. . ." do you not understand?
  • Wealth is a gift to be used for God's glory, not something to be protected, hoarded, and used for myself; 
  • There is no Plan B: people are going to heaven or hell, and we better start understanding and acting on the truth of that realization; and
  • The Christian life, if lived rightly, will entail sacrifice, danger, and risk but, concomitantly, great joy and satisfaction.

To top it off, you have asked me to take part in a one-year "radical experiment" where I'm supposed to pray for the whole world, read through the entire Bible (that'd be a first, if I make it), sacrifice my money for a specific purpose (and you DO mean sacrifice), spend my life in another context (I went to Uganda, for crying out loud, and you're saying I need to do something like that again!), and commit to a multiplying community (church, right?).

You're asking a lot, Pastor Platt.  You may have duped those other folks at Brook Hills Baptist Church, all 4000 of them, but I have to think about this.  I don't want to be accused of being a lunatic, of going overboard.  And there's the kids to think of, you know.  And I'm. . . well I'm a little nervous that what you're saying could entail great risk to not just me but my family as well.  What about that?

I know why your book is orange.  It's scary, like Halloween.  And I'm spooked by its challenge.

Are you happy now?

Indigestibly yours,

Steve

[The desperate folks at Amazon are practically giving Platt's book away, at $5.50. If you really want it, you can get it here.]

 


The (Almost) Perfect Poet: A Review of "Swan," by Mary Oliver

Awan In his inimical way, G.K. Chesterton once said that "the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."  Perhaps what he was saying was that there aren't many topics that poets haven't spoken to except for cheese, yet who knows what he meant?  I don't care.  It's fun to hear even if I don't understand it.  That's true of poetry too.  Even when you don't understand it on the first or second reading, or at all, it should still be fun to read, to hear the music of the words, to see in your mind's eye the images it provokes.  And yet sometimes a poetry comes along that is both accessible (if still a little mysterious) and fun to read and listen to.  That would be Mary Oliver.

In her latest book of poetry, Swan, Oliver, now in her mid-seventies, does not disappoint.  This book of 47 poems and much white space simply blesses the reader.  She doesn't stray from the familiar places and themes she has explored in other books --- nature (that of the marshes and beaches of her home at Cape Cod), faith (albeit non-specific), aging (with grace), and her faithful companion dog, Percy.  Reading these short poems I find welling up in me a deep thankfulness for all that God has made, for life itself, and a wonder at a Creation that continues to supply a poet's inspiration, even in her 75th year.  That alone is reason enough to purchase the book.

Oliver simply has not lost her wonder.  Take this first poem, "What Can I Say," which gently nudges the reader to listen, to be still, to wait (on God?):

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I'll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
     and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
     chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
     were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

Reading this, how can you ever look at a stone or a leaf or a river in the same way? Oliver has the ability to look at Creation and see humanity, like "On the beach, at dawn:/ four small stones clearly/ hugging each other."  Or in the short, almost not there, "Today":

Today is a day of
dark clouds and slow rain.
The little blades of corn
are so happy.

The rest of the page is blank, white.  I think to myself how absurd it is to spend good money on mostly blank pages, and yet if you think like that you won't read poetry much less buy it.  In this world where information stretches from edge to edge of monitors and videos beckon and text splashes, flashes, and scrolls across the screen, poetry reminds us of how thin and shallow all that information can be, and yet how four short lines can be ridden to deep wonder.  If you stop, that is, before you press on.

I mentioned faith, and it is true, there is a kind of faith here, though more mystic than Christian. Oliver is forever provoking us to consider the sacredness of life, as in this poem, "In Your Hands":

The dog, the donkey, surely they know
           they are alive.
Who would argue otherwise?

But now, after years of consideration,
          I am getting beyond that.
What about the sunflowers? What about
          the tulips, and the pines?

Listen, all you have to do is start and
          there'll be no stopping.
What about mountains? What about water
          slipping over the rocks?

And, speaking of stones, what about
          the little ones you can
hold in your hands, their heartbeats
          so secret, so hidden it may take years

before, finally, you hear them?

Reading these poems, I find it appropriate that the poet quotes Emerson in her epigram at the beginning of the book: "'Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live."

In one poem, there is this wonderful line --- "Joy is not a crumb" --- and I think, how could it be?  To look deeply at Creation, to see the world God made in all its richness, how could one be anything but awestruck, almost wordless, and Oliver is, like the good poets, economical in words but liberal in heart and spirit.  She writes on and on about swans, foxes, pines, squirrels, turtles, woodchucks, the sun and moon, a lark, the herons, beans green and yellow, the pepper tree, morning and night --- a lexicon of praise, almost --- almost, that is, if she could but plainly acknowledge the Maker of all this life. (In all this particularity, one poetic misstep: the word "Obama," jarringly out of place!) Still, she is more profitable to read than many so-called Christian poets in that her poems are rooted in the particular, in a natural revelation, not in religious abstractions.  They incite praise, intended or not.

In the end, Mary Oliver, who in the first poem of the book wondered what she had left to say, reacts to the real or imagined prodding of an editor who told her to fill up more pages with this: "So, this is all I can give you,/ not being the maker of what I do,/ but only the one that holds the pencil."  So that's it: a gospel superintended, and Mary Oliver a faithful apostle of that truth.  That's enough for me.  If as Robert Browning said, "God is the perfect poet," then Mary Oliver is "the almost perfect poet."

If you want your money's worth of words, don't buy this book.  But for those of you who treasure an apt word and can take a mostly empty page as a room in which to wander and wonder, buy this book. Read every poem at least three times.  Read some aloud. And then wander and wonder around outside and make your own.