Paying Attention

AC476616-2E83-4694-B0E4-F908CC423C99It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

(“Praying,” by Mary Oliver, in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, 2017)

At lunch a few days ago, a friend said, “Look, you have four hours in a car. What do you do? You don’t want it to be dead time. You want it to matter.”

He’s right. I want to pay attention.

When I pull back the curtain on the single window in our hotel room, a rectangle of cool blackness fills in. There’s a sheen of water painted on blacktop, tree limbs shellacked with ice, a dusting of powdered snow on car tops. On the ridge above me the lit squares of apartment windows tell me someone’s home. Dreams flicker in the night.

I want to pay attention.

A man leans against a car, huddled against the cold, smoking a cigarette. A lonely car passes on an elevated road, taillights winking. A light pole leans in over the car park as if to say, all is well, light dispels the darkness, and then straightens, dutiful and mum.

All is not well, I know. Sidewalks are broken, paint peels. Walls crack and cars rust. Weeds push up through cracks. Light wanes. Houses sit abandoned by roadsides. Rooms sit empty during long days, waiting for their people to return. And a million pines and oaks and maples stand in the chill air, waiting, Spring deep in their veins. Sometimes I think you can hear even the inanimate groan for redemption.

Yesterday, in a moment of weakness, we bought doughnuts and while eating too many sat and watched a conveyer carry the unglazed holy ovals through the waterfall of sugar, yet a bearded worker plucked a few off the line and without emotion threw them away. My wife, who is tenderhearted toward even the inanimate, said, “Why is he doing that? What’s wrong with them?” What’s wrong with everything, I thought, a decidedly true yet too sober thought I did not share. Malformed and misshapen, I continued, following my rumination, born in sin and broken. All of which is a lot for a doughnut to carry, too much metaphor for dough.

I want to pay attention. I’m not beyond making much of a few small stones or weeds in a field. Or lights in a window. Or a doughnut.

On my desk: a leather wallet, fitted to me, made by Toyo, a leather worker, now 20 years old and rich with the memory of his Arizona shop; a collection of essays by E.B. (Andy) White, on the cover of which he sits on a hard bench tapping loudly away on a typewriter before a window open on the Atlantic, salt in the air and licking his keys; a small folded card with the handwritten name of Amber “It was my pleasure to tidy up the place,” the letters full and round and leaning back on their heels as if to say “do you have a problem with that?;” a coupon for one dollar off at a local restaurant, at the thought of which I feel my son who is 2000 miles away nodding behind me, knowing me and my ways. Reading glasses staring at me. A black rectangle I have just put to bed. Virgil Wander, a book that carries the scent of Lake Superior and rusting factories and a musty theater. Car keys splayed out, my house key inviting. A keyboard missing the number two button. And an index card bearing a verse that ends with “the upright shall see His face.”

And so we shall, at the thought of which my melancholy lifts as light dispels darkness. I rise and look out the window again. New, unblemished snow covers the ground, and the light pole leans in and says “behold His face” - a promise which holds my attention.


By a Thread

IMG_0350Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread so thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.



*

I do nothing. I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me

minute by minute
from falling.

Lord, You provide.

(Denise Levertov, excerpt from “ Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio),” in The Stream & the Sapphire)

While I have downed a Lake Superior of iced tea in my six decades of life, the amount of hot tea I have consumed would, I estimate, barely fill a bathtub. Mostly I drink hot tea when in Africa, where ice is as scarce as gold. Everybody’s doing it there, one of the better legacies of colonialism. Here, not so.

But today I awoke with a scratchy throat and, after a nap, told my wife I would take some hot tea on the veranda. Well, we don’t actually have a veranda, but I liked the sound of that word, “veranda,” which I read is not of European but Hindi descent. That’s exotic and makes up for the fact that I am drinking hot and not iced tea. Besides, piazza is a stretch; patio, too pedestrian.

My wife brightened at the thought that I would be drinking hot tea and were he here my son would join her in her gladness. Somewhere, a trumpet sounded. She began to educate me on the finer things involving tea: the cupboard with its many kinds of tea, including Russian tea (“heartier,” I think she may have said), Five Roses (South African), and so on. She bid me smell that Russian tea, and I did, unscrewing the lid of its container and dipping low for pass, a sniff.

“I’ll just have this,” I said, reaching for the English Tea. Black. Pekoe. (I need to look up “pekoe.”) I need to start somewhere. On the blue packaging it said “good anytime of the day,” which is a surprisingly optimistic statement for the English. I can’t really believe them, yet I’m in.

On the veranda where I write, a single leaf just sashayed its way from twig to earth. Why did it decide at this very moment to let go? What wooden thread snapped? Then another, yellow; another, red. The backyard is like a brilliantly trashed urban back alley, overflowing in color.

“This is a big lemon slice, so we can share it. If you like lemon in iced tea, you’ll probably like it in hot tea.” And yes, I allow as I probably will. If I like tea, that is, which I don’t much like, hot that is. I watch the teapot. The cat watches me. I don’t look at her. I know what is on her mind.

Our copper teapot has long lost its whistle. Now, it just makes an airish sound, like me trying to unsuccessfully whistle through my fingers. Or a novice trying to play a saxophone. It’s lost its music. It soldiers on.

“I think I’ll have it without sugar,” I say bravely.

“You won’t like it. Try some honey.”

I agree honey sounds good. Besides, it may be good for my throat, which is the only reason I’m drinking hot tea. That, and the veranda, just the thought of which makes me smile.

The honey is reluctant. I tip the bottle up and squeeze, harder than I think I should have to. A drop appears, stretching slowly toward my waiting spoon. It’s taking its time, I think, and yet I fill two teaspoons, dive them under the tan-colored liquid, stir, and turn toward my wife. I tell her I am going out on the veranda, tea in hand. To write, I say. Something will come to me. I take a few books for inspiration. It feels very righteous, even if I haven’t even written a word. She reminds me to put the honey back in the ziplock plastic bag, and I do, cautioning me that I should make sure it is completely sealed because “if even a tiny corner is left unsealed, an ant will find it.” And I imagine a scout ant not believing his good fortune when he sniffs the stout honey smell wafting from that corner, the message he will bear for his queen. Yet not this time.

The cat is still watching me, trying to catch my eye. I see what she’s about.

The sun just dropped below a cloud, rooflines outlined against a graying sky. Red maple leaves are piling up. The window opens, and my wife’s head pops out.

“Are you praying?”

“No.” Well, maybe I am. Or want to be. Or should be.

“Can I ask you a question?” Please ask me a question to take my mind off the blank page staring back at me.

It’s our inexpensive intercom system, floor to veranda. I crane my neck up to meet her smiling face. We talk. We don’t resolve a thing, really, but I enjoyed the talk and think she did too.

The sky darkens. I think of all that lies in front of me this week and all that drags behind me, and I begin to feel the weigh of left undone and still to come.

The window opens again. “I have another question,” she says, smiling. And I think, so do I. I like questions.

Someone is blowing leaves, with no regard for their kaleidoscope display. The cicadas have begun. The temperature drops. The gossamer hammock invites. So, here at dusk, I give in, rock in its grip, do nothing but be held by a heavenward thread that will not break.


Call to Worship

A042C3F3-0C29-4146-A229-8F20D658A5ACThis morning, while my wife went off to a heathen art class (her words), my son and I attended church. While it is not an unfamiliar church, we visit only once a year . . .if for 37 years. That makes us regular attenders, sort of, or at least something other than just visitors. We were early. My son said, “Oh no, we’re early. I don’t like to be early. We may have to talk with someone.” I said, “It’s OK, maybe we’ll see Winston.” Winston is a pastor here who once impiously yet innocently used the word “HELL” in a conversation in the narthex of the church. I have admired him ever since. I even wrote him a letter after that.

After glad handing with the doorman (and door-woman), I strode into the sanctuary and made my way to the front of the 500-seat room, to the second row, and sat. It’s a holdover of an old, somewhat contrarian habit dating from my children’s childhood - contrary, that is, to the observation that new people sit in the back of the church and will leave if there are no open seats. Not us! Plenty of room up front, particularly in the penumbra of the pastor. If we sit up front in a new church, the reasoning also went, they (and we) would pay better attention and they would better behave (the children, that is). Mostly, it worked. I was better behaved.

I sat, yet my son informed me that I was sitting on the wrong side, motioning for me to move. Heavens. How could I forget? I did move. He was right. We sat down behind a man I did not recognize, with a balding head and a microphone attached to him. Oh, the new pastor. We didn’t speak. I don’t make it a habit of speaking to pastors prior to the sermon. I might distract them. They might forget the tightly coiled script in their heads and somewhere in the sermon forget an apropos anecdote, the punch line of a joke, or commit some Freudian slip. I don’t want to be a cause of expositional error. We sat mum.

The music was. . . Well, never mind about the music. I took leave and rewound the clock to this morning. When I could sleep no more and could count the bedsprings so insistent were their jabs, I arose. It was 5:30. Based on what I was told by another occupant of the room, my electric razor, zinging behind the closed door of the lavatory, sounded like a lawn mower, and the quarter inch crack of light that beamed blindingly from the finger-high space beneath the shut door was much too much light, too too soon, on vacation time. So I left. Taking care with the door, I stepped out under a sky lit by a waxing 5/8 moon, turning right down the brittle asphalt path that encircles the property.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus. . .

I’m mindful of rattlesnakes, though I’ve never seen one on this walk. The lead landscaper, a reticent man named Jeff, took down all of the Beware of Rattlesnakes signs because, as he was told, they “made people nervous.” He gave them to us, depositing them on our balcony with a plastic vase of purple flowers, a small kindness from a shy man. Occasionally we see him out on the property, in a rare idle moment, meandering along the path, a hand behind his back. He’s holding a cigarette but is embarrassed by it. My wife let’s him know that we’ll keep his secret.

To the east there’s the faintest light behind the peaks of the Catalinas, highlighting a few brooding clouds, outlining the jagged peaks. Rabbits scatter as I walk, their white tails flashing. I planned to listen to music but unplug so as to hear the birds wake, the doves cooing, two spaced 15 feet apart on the telephone line, staring straight ahead, as if they had a spat during the night. Surely it will be repaired. Or, perhaps, they await the rising sun, like me, to see the colors of the mountains change, the cacti swathed in new light, the desert floor coming into sharp relief.

And, can it be, that I should gain and interest in the Savior’s blood?

Wondrous love, desert love. Somehow when I come here I am interested in everything - every tree, bush, and flower, every rabbit, range and river, dry or running wet - when at home the life in the world so often passes unnoticed. A runner overtakes me and passes. I turn up the road to the horse corral and stop. A coyote emerging from the corral path walks away from me, a hundred feet away, his body and head outlined against the mountain. He turns to look at me, his province invaded, and then moves away. Twenty feet more and he turns again to check my progress, before moving away into the wash.

I round the east side of the property, muscle up the incline, pass the vacant tennis courts, pass out onto the road. At the patch of grass around the fountain, the sprinklers wet my ankles. Back on the sidewalk, the black of the night sky melds to indigo. A couple walk ahead, and I’m gaining on them, so I circle back to give them room, turn, and then they disappear down the sidewalk. I press on. Meeting an smiling older woman walking toward me, cane in hand, I tell her about the coyote. She wants to know how many there were. One, I say. She waves her stick, says “I’m not worried about one, but I keep the stick for if there’s more than one.”

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart.

“A disciple is someone who has been captivated,” says the pastor, “by the most beautiful person of all, Jesus.”

The moon blinks off. The sun peaks the corner of the Catalina’s. I turn for home, remembering all I have seen.

Rejoice, the Lord is King.


Trees, Unforgotten

C3098F86-A1C0-4F6A-AD46-824C4B4A5165“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” (John Muir)

Over 34 years ago, our patch of land was hewed from a mostly loblolly pine forest, a relatively young stand which grew up after the mature hardwoods that originally grew here were painstakeningly cut and the land farmed. The red clay dirt proved unsuitable for farming and was abandoned, and the pines, the eager first comers, grew their lanky trunks and green crowns, such as they were, until profit was in sight and the cutting began. I wasn’t here, of course, for the cutting, digging, and plowing and surmise this only from the relative youth of the trees and knowledge of the area. This wasn’t always suburbia; out on the edge of my memory, it was country, a land of red dirt roads and farm houses, clapboard churches and volunteer fire departments, fields of tobacco and woodlots.

To his credit, the developer of this land cut as little as was needed. Some homeowners cut more. We didn’t, preferring forest to sunlight. Sometimes in strong winds the pines bend and wave and creak, aged denizens as they are. One fell after an ice storm, dropping parallel to our house, breaking our fence yet sparing our roof; it lay there like an apology, welcomed. No tree has ever hit our home. I like to think there is a collective gratitude, a wooden pact to spare their guests that indignity, all of which makes me think carefully about whether to take any down.

In our front yard three of those pines lean slightly toward our neighbor’s home, threatening. They’re not much to look at, as what branches and green they have are near sky and all on one side, the side facing my neighbor’s home, like awkward, cock-eyed giants reaching for the West. A couple of weeks ago I called a tree man to discuss my problem. I expected a sympathetic knower of trees, a dispenser of palliative care, but he was matter of fact, all business. He never even touched the trees.

Later I lay in the hammock under the trees. A hammock is a wonderful place to think. And I must think. I lay there thankful for tree-shade, for green against blue, for the aged trunks, for pine cones and tree pollen which is the dust of life, and the sap of the sage - for life so abundant in the trees.

In Lives of the Trees, Diana Wells spends all of five pages on the ignoble pines - all variety of pines. Pines can grow in poor soils and adapt to very different climates. Their cones hang down and not up like firs. And those pinecones that littered my driveway after Hurricane Michael? They are the female reproductive organs of the trees. That explains why some cultures regarded them as symbols of fertility. Pine needles can be eaten and provide some nourishment, though, having tried some, I cannot recommend it. Pine bark can be used to make a kind of tea, though I haven’t tried that and won’t. Wells writes of Li-Li Weng, a seventeenth century Chinese artist and gardener who wrote “When one sits in a garden with peach trees, flowers and willows, without a single pine in sight, it is like sitting among children and women without any venerable men in the vicinity to whom one may look up.” Some respect is accorded age, even the age of a tree.

In reassuring his people through the prophet Isaiah, God says “I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isa. ‭41:19-20‬ ‭ESV‬‬). So in God’s redemptive history, even the often misshapen, wopsided pine is exalted, made part of the greening of the desert, part of the comfort of a God who says “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you’” (Isaiah‬ ‭41:13‬ ‭ESV‬‬). Knowing that, I can never look at a pine again without assurance that I need not fear, that the God who made the pines and held them up for all their years will hold me up too.

“I believe the Bible has a forest of trees because trees teach us about the nature of God, says Matthew Sleeth. “Just like a tree, God is constantly giving. Trees have been giving life long before human beings had a clue oxygen existed. Trees give life, beauty, food, and shade. . . . No wonder God uses trees to instruct us about life, death, and resurrection. Trees, like God, give life even after death.” Sleeth says that trees are the most mentioned non-human living thing in scripture, a number that says “pay attention.”

For love of neighbor, the trees may need to go. I’m neither a tree-hugger nor overly sentimental and recognize the utility of trees and the God-allowed natural calamities that fell many thousands of trees each year if not month. Yet it would be wrong not to pause before ending the long lives of these trees and recognize that they too are a kind of neighbor entitled to neighbor-love. The felling of a tree is not earth-shattering, and certainly will not register in human history nor, for long, in my personal history. Yet it is no small thing. It matters as much as a sparrow that falls from a tree. “[N]ot one is forgotten before God” (Lk. 12:6).

I think I’ll call an arborist. An arborist may understand.


My Interlocutors, My Dance

Images“Thank you for meeting with me today. After 34 years of work at the same place, I felt like I needed to explain a few things about my leaving” I looked up. To a one, the men and women who peered at me were aged, unsmiling, and slightly bemused. The one in the middle shuffled some papers.

“Well, go on.”

“On August 30th, I retired.”

“Have you filed a proper motion? You can’t have a new trial without a proper motion and hardly ever then.”


“Oh no, no, perhaps I misspoke [I didn’t]. I said retired, not retried.”

“Hmmf. That’s not allowed.”

“Your honor, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I have changed jobs. . .


“Well, do say what you mean.”

“If I may. . .”

“You may.”

“As I was saying, on August 30th I left my job. The next day my wife and went to the coast. We had a great day on the beach. Sunny skies, ocean breezes, the waves breaking. Late in the day we swam in the ocean, splashed around until we tired, and then lay facedown on the beach, directly on the sand, our feet trailing in the water, promptly falling asleep. When I woke up, I felt a great peace. I said to myself, ‘This must be what its like to be retired.’”

“Only you said try were not retired.”

“Right, right. I’m getting to that. But first. . . That word, ‘retired,’ is actually related to a French word. . .

“Well, that’s the first thing you said that makes sense. French people are good at not working.”


“Your honor, please.”

“Go on, go on.”

“The word, 'retire,' refers to a movement in ballet. So, you see, to retire is really to engage in a kind of dance, a different movement.”

“Nonsense.”

“Oh no, it makes perfect sense. Life is like a dance, you see, and this withdrawal from my former work is simply a new movement, one part of the great dance, the dance of life.”

“I thought you were a lawyer.”

“In my former life, yes.”

“And now you’re dancing to a different beat?”

“You might say that.”

“Well what is it you do now?”

“I’m a writer.” Loud guffaws issued. They looked knowingly at one another, nodding their heads, and then turned to stare at me. I said, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Well because writers don’t really work, do they? They just do a lot of navel-gazing and then spew out a bunch of rubbish, blabbering on about the meaning of a rock, for example, making something out of nothing. It certainly can’t be as important as your work as a lawyer.”

“Perhaps not.”


“Have you made any money at it?”


“Not much.”


“I thought not. Then why do it?”


“I think I am called to do it.”

“Who called?”

“Well. . . Him.” I pointed up.

“Oh, him. Well, far be it from me to argue with him. Higher court, and all that. . .Tell me about some of your scribblings. . . I mean, writings.”

“Well, I recently wrote about a water fountain.”


“Oh really. . .”


“And a fence around my backyard. . .”

“Thrilling.”


“”The first car I owned.”

“I know the world is richer for it.”

“And I am at work on a book about an American missionary to Europe, Francis Schaeffer.”

“Who? Never heard of him.”

“Well, that’s the point. By writing about him, I might introduce him to a new audience.”

“Well why don’t you tell us about a typical day at this writing.”


“I’d love to. I get up at 5:45 and my wife and I walk for about an hour. Sometimes I see things I want to write about as I walk, like a telephone pole, a fox chasing a cat, the brook that passes under street before the rise of Kill Devil Hill. We often pray, but we get distracted. We follow the distraction. We pray about the distraction. Or maybe we forget to pray. Maybe we just talk. Maybe we’re just silent, deep in our own thoughts.”

“Exercise is fortifying. I commend you.”

“Well, not too quick. Sometimes we sleep in. But even then I’m thinking. I wake up and listen to the house, the sounds it makes, the whirring of the heat pump, the rain slapping the window, the purr of the cat, the birds waking just before dawn, a truck on the highway. . .”

“Yes, yes, I get the point. What do you do next?”

“After the walk, or after rising, I shower, dress for work (no pajamas or shorts, shirt tucked in), eat breakfast, and have a personal worship time. I read my Bible. I pray.”

“Pray again?”

“Of course. Only sometimes I miss.”

“That’s bad, right? God doesn’t like that, does he?”

“God loves me just the same. I missed out on time with Him, that’s all. Anyway, after that I go to work. I have an office on the third floor devoted to nothing but writing. I read a bit, do my research. Then I sit in my chair and stare out the window. I try to take myself back to the village of Huemoz, Switzerland, in 1957. As all the pictures I have are black and white, I have to add the color -- the wildflowers in the fields, or the white on the snow-capped Alps, or the yellow of the post bus that passes periodically on its way to Villars. I hear cowbells, laughter, and conversation - always conversation. Then I go back to my desk and write a line, or two, on my way to a page. A page a day, page on page, until its done. Bird by bird, as Anne Lammott says.”

“That’s it, a page a day? That doesn’t seem very productive.”

“Well, you forget about the rest of the page, the empty white space of the page, all that’s left unsaid. I have to make choices, you see, about what to include and what to leave out. People have to fill in the white with their own images, helped by the words I do include on the page. I guess it does look like a lot of nothing, but it’s not. John McPhee, who has done a lot of writing, said once he did his research for an article, on oranges I think, and then lay on the picnic table in his backyard for two weeks trying to figure out how to organize his material. It looked like he was doing nothing. But he wasn’t.”

“I'll bet he took a few naps. Anyway, is that it?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“What do you hope to get out of all this? Not money, I presume.”

“Peace, I guess. Peace at being in the place where God would have me be, I suppose. Money if he gives it; the satisfaction of being in the right place, if not. I don’t write because it’s fun; it’s generally not. I don’t write because it’s lucrative; it’s seldom that. There are a lot of easier things to do - like being a lawyer. Or painting houses. I don’t love writing. John McPhee says that people who say that they love to write aren’t writers at all. If they were they wouldn’t say such ridiculous things.”

“For God’s sake, man, you’re an attorney. Why waste your time and what talent you have on writing about trees or some obscure American pastor?”

“Do you like music?”

“Of course. Beethoven. Bach. Even the Gershwins.”

“Well that’s why I write. When it all comes together, when the right words fall in place, it’s like a song. I read it aloud and there’s melody to it, a rhythm, a beat, some truly tiny distant echo of the song the stars made at Creation. It doesn’t happen much, but I live for those rare moments when I've done the best I can, and I stand back and say with all humility, how could I have written that? And then it has its own life and begins to talk to me and teach me.”

“Well, you’re either delusional or on to something.”

"I appreciate you hearing me out about this.”

“It seems a foolish course to us, a huge waste of time and one with little money-making potential.”

“I see how it appears.”

“But we’ll consider what you said and let you know what we think. For now, carry on. Or should we say, dance on. And God help you.




The Eyes of the Heart

Fullsizeoutput_7f72A few weeks ago my wife and I were cleaning out some closets or files (at the moment I’ve forgotten which) and discovered the pellet-pocked National Rifle Association 5 Meter BB Gun target saved from her happy years at Camp Yonalossee. Not a sentimentalist, she threw it away. I retrieved it and retained it, a reminder of her aptitude. It’s in a manilla folder marked “resources,” a place where I file clippings and salvaged memorabilia of uncertain use, items that portend meaning if as yet unknown. I pull it out of the folder and examine it again. Some shots went wide, clipping the edges of the target, yet a number hit their mark, I note, sobered by her eye, her resolute fire.

She’s always had a good eye. In 1987 when we were in Kenya and Tanzania on safari, she spotted a serval cat at a distance of over a thousand feet without the aid of binoculars, identifying it for our guide, Elvis, who was impressed if initially doubtful. “Good eyes, Madam,” he said, after confirming her sighting with binoculars. Servals are shy cats, with overly long legs, small heads, and demure faces. They catch their prey by leaping up to ten feet high and pouncing with both front paws, and often play with their prey before eating it. I look sideways at my large cat, with her overly short legs, laconic eyes, and domestic demeanor, and I can’t quite make the connection.

My eyes are not so good. I have been severely near-sighted since third grade, and now I have “floaters.” In the terminology of the retina specialists, they are caused by posterior vitreous detachment, something which happens as you age. The white matter of the eye tends to pull away from the back of the eye. The result is like looking through spidery webs, particularly noticeable when looking at a bright sky or light-filled windows. There’s no recommended treatment. They annoy but don’t impact my already-compromised vision. Remarkably, the brain has a way of filtering them out of consciousness, like the items heaped at the bottom of the stairs for weeks that you’ve meant to carry upstairs, yet haven’t. You eventually don’t notice them. Much.

"Did you find her?, she said, referring to the fluid waif-like cat, sister to the large one. "I've looked everywhere," I say, and I did. At least I thought I did. First floor. Second floor. Under the beds, behind chairs, in all the usual hiding places into which only she can slither. I can't find her! But of course, she finds her, her lugubrious fur-covered gelato stuffed in a crack behind the bed. Eyes do not fail my wife. With effort, the cat is retrieved, pried from the carpet. Perhaps I could have seen her, but my eyes have been trained to inattention, it seems, lazy and impatient.

In one of his memoirs, Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner lets us peer into his Magic Kingdom, his palace of memory. Looking around the various photos and other memorabilia of his study, he summons up voices from the past, let’s them speak to him and he to them. It’s as if he pulls out his file called “resources” and examines an item at a time, letting it speak and give up meaning. He concludes it this way:

What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The one who sits upon its throne says, “Behold, I make all things new,” and the streets of it are of gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl.

So that's it. If we have the eyes to see, Buechner is saying, then everything points beyond itself to something greater. Yet when I train a BB gun on life, I don't always fare so well. Things are not quite in focus. The spidery webs of brokenness born of detachment occlude my vision. I often miss the mark and go wide. Yet with the graces of Word and prayer, I begin to see more of the Kingdom. I glimpse the heaven in and beyond the world. What is it that the Apostle says? Having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you. That’s my target. That’s the serval cat in my sights. That’s the Reality beyond my occlusion. I just need the eyes to see.


Cleaning the Fountain

Fullsizeoutput_7f09I love cleaning the fountain, I said, which if not precisely true, is not false. I do it for her. I am under her spell. We are doing it together.

The fountain has three copper pieces: a bowl circular yet fashioned in waves; a centerpiece of four cattails surrounded by leafy fronds; and a motor covered by a hand-sized cup. Oxidation has blued the copper, giving color. Water presses upward and drops to the pool below, spare music for the afternoon.

She is directing me, and I am trying to keep my mind on what I am doing, which is no small thing, as the sound of the water is dream-inducing. First, she says, you lift the centerpiece with cattails and fronds directly up out of the water, taking care to lift by two fronds so as not to bend the piece. And stay upright, she cautions, and take care, as one of the fronds might put your eye out. I lift it, eyes averted from its nakedness, and place it flatly on the walk, lifeless and inanimate.

Returning, I help her scoop water out of the bowl, using the cup that covered the motor. She pulls up pine straw, baring earth, and shows me how she pours the water just so and then covers it, so it all looks undisturbed. (I make a note that this is more complicated than I first imagined.) After many scoop-scoop-scoops, copper on copper, splashing of water, I scrap bottom. To remove the rest of the water, she says, you gently cup your hands under the sides of the bowl and tip it forward, like this she says, demonstrating, so as not to crack it. A healer, she shows me the thin lines of adhesive applied to previous cracks, copper-love. I cup and tip it, tenderly, as holding a baby.

She hands me a brush. She demonstrates how to brush the sides and bottom of the bowl carefully, removing the slime. I take over. She sits on the steps at our door, coaching. I like the rhythm of the brushing, the ease of the cleaning, the new clarity of the copper beneath. My mind wanders, as it is wont to, while she watches.

We are wandering the dusty streets of Tubac, in southern Arizona, walking by the many artisans, just above the oft-dry Santa Cruz River. The fountain was born in Tubac, fashioned by a metalworker named Lee Blackwell, we later recall, the copper mined in the mountains nearby. Sometimes, rather than shop the artisans, I give her space to shop at ease, without the company of my impatience, and I walk the nearly six miles of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which is a mighty name for a dirt walk beside a river that mostly hides beneath the desert.

When you finish that, she says, we’ll rinse it. I finished. I rinsed.

I walk the trail from Tubac, just below the Presidio, the site of the original Spanish garrison, winding through the cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite, watching for rattlesnakes that love the heat of the day. Once, she came too. I took her hand and helped her over downed trees and between the slats of a fence. Sometimes, I just took her hand.

Once we rinsed the bowl, we moved to the centerpiece, pulling pine straw and debris from its innards, taking care, of course, for our eyes. As we could, we scrubbed, lightly. Then, carefully clasping two fronds in hands, I set it back down into the bowl, seated it. She cleaned the motor. She is nothing if not thorough. She instructed. I listened and nodded, imagining the calls of the birds along the Santa Cruz, the crunch of the compacted desert sand underfoot, the solitude of the walk. I cross the river, which trickles in the Spring, and make my way to the mission at Tumacacori where the Holy stills ghosts its ruins, where she will drive and pick me up.

Now we fill it, she says, and we sit down side by side on the few steps that lead to our door. We are quiet. I feed the hose around the handrails, and we listen to its filling, so full together.


A Bird Nest & A Little Broken Glass

F9030A5F-1B08-41CC-9797-2CF93656F546“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

(‭‭Colossians‬ ‭1:19-20‬ ‭ESV)‬‬

Two boys are playing catch in the newly shorn forest behind my house. I hear the slap of ball on mitt, an indecipherable exclamation here and there. From the periphery of my vision, movement: arms waving, gesticulations, sighs. Then, laughter. The ball arcs high.

Poet Ted Kooser writes about such common things, yet under his pen the ordinary becomes luminous. An inhabitant of the Great Plains - a region that coastal elites often contemptuously regard as flyover country - his poetry shines a flashlight down into the people and places of the region.

It might be a fence that garners his attention:

The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.

And reading that brief observation or, better yet, sounding it out with an out-loud reading, you hear the tension of unburdened freedom and yet aloneness, a person striking out into the cold solitary and yet resolute, even defiant.

Or it could be a change in the weather, read by animals, as in

You will know that the weather is changing
when your sheep leave the pasture
too slowly, and your dogs lie about
and look tired; when the cat
turns her back to the fire,
washing her face, and the pigs
wallow in litter.

And so on, and so on. The geese are too noisy, says Kooser, and swallows fly low, skimming the earth, and the swan flies at the wind. They know. Kooser is saying watch the animals and they will tell us.

And that’s mostly what he does in these poems: he watches the human and nonhuman creation. Reads the clues. Catches glimpses of underlying meaning.

A siren. Two female cardinals sit side by side in a nearby tree, the bright red male nearby. Wife and concubine? Cicadas interject. Birds twitter. A jet descends, followed by the sound of a single-engine prop plane. Traffic hums in the background. The wind stirs.

In “In An Old Apple Orchard,” the wind is personified:

The wind’s an old man
to this orchard; these trees
have been feeling
the soft tug of his gloves
for a hundred years.
Now it’s April again,
and again that old fool
thinks he’s young.

This afternoon, the wind barely lifts his finger to rustle the branches above my head. He naps on the forest floor, like a cat splayed out and dreamy, his periodic twitching and restlessness moving the tree bough ever so slightly, his soft hand the lightest brush against my skin.

Or maybe Kooser animates an ironing board, as in “Song of the Ironing Board,” letting it speak in its steamy, heated used-up voice:

So many hands lay hot on my belly
over the years, and oh, how many ghosts
I held, their bodies damp and slack,
their long arms fallen to either side.
I gave till my legs shook, but then
they were up and away. Thus the lovely
soft nap of my youth was worn down.
But I gave myself and was proud.

And with that, the wind he stirred, like he heard in the iron’s song some longing for more, and brushed more boldly across my neck, threw a puff even in my face. For a moment, he thought himself young, and it April, and the earth new.

On two facing pages of Kindest Regards, Kooser’s latest collection of poetry, the titles juxtapose the epitome of the mundane: Dishwater. Applesauce. There’s more on the following pages: A Jar of Buttons. Sparklers. Old Dog in March. Shoes. Laundry. Ladder.

There’s poetry in titles, even in just naming. A blower interrupts my reverie, modulating with its fanning motion, with its reminder of work undone. Traffic hums constant beneath the twitter of the aviary. An empty, unoccupied house is a vacant stare into my backyard. The wind wakes, exhales.

Why poetry? Why something so small, so obscure, and so useless? Because, says Kooser, were he to comment on his observations of the ordinary, “the good works of the Lord are all around,” and the “cross is only God knows where.” The poet goes looking. We can look over the shoulder of the God-conscious poet and see hints of the divine in the stuff of life. Says Kooser, in “The Red Wing Church,”

There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church
in Red Wing, Nebraska, in a coat of mud
and straw that drags the floor. A broken plow
sprawls beggar-like behind it on some planks
that make a sort of roadway up the steps.
The steeple’s gone. A black tar-paper scar
that lightning might have made replaces it.
They’ve taken it down to change the house of God
to Homer Johnson’s barn, but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger-lilies in the grass
and one of those boxlike, glassed-in signs
that give the sermon’s topic (reading now
a bird nest and a little broken glass).
The good works of the Lord are all around:
the steeple top is standing in a garden
just up the alley; it’s a henhouse now:
fat leghorns gossip at its crowded door.
Pews stretch on porches up and down the street,
the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house,
and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square.
The cross is only God know where.

Kooser looks at the works of God dispersed, at the steeples and pews and bells displayed in Creation. It’s still a church. God knows where the cross is. It cuts across His good works. It stands over all things.

That’s why I am here, outside, in the humidity and heat of the day, listening to the slap, slap of a ball on mitt, to the planes overhead, to the cicada-cries, to the wind tapping on my bare knees, saying did you see, did you hear? Did you hear the sermon in the wind?


Oh, Mercy

EA62F4D4-ABFA-4FF2-8217-A216AB7044E7“The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”

(Ps.‬ ‭145:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Last night there was a wind off the Atlantic that hummed and whistled through the balcony doors. Then, a gust brought a flapping of the unsecured storm shutters where they had been hastily opened in a driving rain that greeted us midway down the coastal plain and endured well after our coming. I put down the book that I had taken to bed, opened the whistling door, and secured the shutter. Rain-chastened, I returned to bed.

Earlier in the afternoon we had watched a woman come to the ocean edge in a steady downpour, try unsuccessfully to open an umbrella, and finally settle into a chair wrapped in a towel to watch the waves slap the shore. Another couple were doing the same, both presumably drawn by something elemental, nameless, their thoughts ebbing and flowing like the tide, first expansive, then contracting, their eyes searching the frothing waters. Other than these, there were no others. The beach lay fallow.

In the book I lay reading, Draft No. 4, writer John McPhee’s memoir on the writing process, he says that a “lead” for a nonfiction article “should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring.” I had to get over that he did not bother to put “and” after the last comma in that series, something William Strunk would not allow. He is John McPhee, after all. I also had to look up meretricious, an annoyance. (It means “apparently attractive but having no value or integrity.”) He says the lead “should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.” That makes me think of the Psalmist who said ““Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps.‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭ESV‬‬). God’s Word, a flashlight to eternity.

The wind whistles eternity. Out in the dark the Gulf Stream swirls. Sand, the broken down and weathered granular fragments of quartz and other rocks and minerals, moves while we sleep, creeping toward the mainland, accreting on the sound side, eroding on the ocean side. Ocean dark meets the dark of sky at an eternally receding horizon. Out on the ocean a light marks a fishing vessel alone at sea.

A flashlight that shines down into the story? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” is about the most promising lead imaginable. Questions form. Who is God? Other than God, what else was there before the beginning? Did God always exist? How did he create? What did he create? To what end did he create? The lead shines down into the great story that follows.

Under the dunes blanketed with cordgrass, there are warrens of rabbits sleeping, emerging just before dawn to nibble at the grass, flopping easily, silently until the sun rises. A mockingbird lets go songs in the night. The rain stops, but the air is sopped with water.

McPhee, on interviewing: “You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit.” To some, I would add, this comes natural; others, it takes practice. One law enforcement agent I once knew presented as Mayberry’s Goober in uniform, yet wasn’t: criminals talked freely with him and were helped on their way to jail. I look around for a handy interviewee, yet all slumber. Slow of wit, I interview the night.

A feral cat plies the moonless night. Mice, wary, retire early. A lone beachcomber meanders in and out of the tide, drunk in thought. The light on the ocean blinks against the night. Where dark meets dark at the horizon, the dim outline of thunderheads lean in. Eternity whistles in the wind.

McPhee again: “Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.” But you’re not a writer, you think, thank God, and yet every person faces block in the often small and yet sometimes incessant demon that says “you can’t do it” can’t get up can’t talk with that person can’t change one more diaper wash one more pile of clothes listen to one more unhappy client. Can’t. His advice? Write your mother.

Dear Mom, I write, scrawling my thoughts into the night, there’s a brawl in the sandy lane of the beach access road, and I can’t sleep due to the beat beat beat of the party next door, and did I mention that I took up surfing for my 60th (catch a wave) birthday and that I’m sitting on top of the world? And that the sand of barrier islands is a great metaphor for the of the temporal ever-shifting circumstances of life and the seagrass-planted dunes a hedge against the feral? I didn’t think so.

“Is it wrong to alter a fact in order to improve the rhythm of your prose ?,” says McPhee. And then, “I know so, and so do you.” Oh mercy. Chastened, I withdraw the light on the sea, feral cat and retiring mice, rabbits in their warren, and beachcomber that I conjured from the night. And the drunken brawl and party next door and surfin’ safari prevarication. I apologize yet add, “they could have been.” Part of me wants to rise out of bed and on a midnight walk fact-check this bit of prose before withdrawing it. Even ring up the local surf shop (hey dude) and reserve a lesson. Because it could have been and maybe is or maybe will all come true. Sigh.

I turn off the light. The other shutter flaps. I leave it. Yet sleep hesitates. I continue my letter to the night. I think about a light on the ocean, tiny in the darkness of sea, about a man on the sand casting great hopes against the flood of night, about the resoluteness of the few perched on the ever-shifting sand, arrayed against the fury of the waves and wind, about the near-silent footfalls of the feral cat and the shushed quiet of the dune mice, about the mockingbird’s operetta, about the great mercy of a God who shines a searchlight into our eternity, who is kind in all His works.

I omit the “and” before the final comma in that series, McPhee-like in my rebellion, before sleep comes.


Behind the Fence

IMG_1949“So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under.”

(Laura Ingall Wilders)

When we moved into our home over 33 years ago, there was no fence enclosing our back yard. The forest from which our subdivision was hewed lapped up to nearly our back door and, there being only woods and a country lane behind us, our existence and identity dribbled out into the world that preceded us, a world of forest life and piney woods that before that were likely a cutover or timbered woodlot that became farmland. In one place the land still bore the marks of its furrows. Our claim was staked, literally, by orange-tasseled wooden posts in the corners of our lot; an invisible and imaginary line ran between them and then from each of them on to the street in front of our home, a trapezoid imposed on an unruly Creation. With that, our lives were bounded.

We erected a fence only because of the arrival of our faithful German Shepherd, to contain her. We needn’t have bothered. Given her interest in what was going on in the home and not out, she lingered near the portals, her longing face windowed in the doors. But she died 21 years ago, and our children who, but for the fence, may have wandered off into the dark woods, red riding hood like, have crossed the imaginary lines and live outside the lines --- and yet, surely, they remain tethered here.

There’s not much need for a fence now. The deer easily vault the four feet, bed down in our pine straw, purloin our bird seed from the feeders, and peer curiously and cautiously into our windows. Our modest, malleable near liquid cat it gives no pause; in the morning she glides through its rungs effortlessly, melting into the leafy ether of the diminished woodland, unfailingly returning under cover of darkness, admitting nothing. (She learns things we cannot fathom. That, or nothing.) Squirrels chatter right over its heights. And birds, they have another universe, a sky unbounded.

This bounded land is ours, right down to its subterranean depths, to the center of the earth, and up to navigable airspace. If I wanted to, I could begin digging through the topsoil and, with effort, through red clay, down to bedrock. People may wonder about my large hole, but no matter. It’s mine. All mine. But I won’t do that. The most I have dug is about two feet into unyielding earth. Thus, my inheritance must remain largely untapped and unknown. That’s grace: I have been given much more than I can know or appropriate.

I’ve walked outside the fence. A neighbor, at some point prior to our residency here, placed an old bathtub in the narrow strip near the corner of our lot. Why, I don’t know, whether to water the animals or through mere neglect. Once, a gentleman who lived in the brick house on the country road behind us hiked to our fence and, inexplicably, cast something over the fence into our yard. My wife was on it. They had a discussion over the fence, one polite enough, after which he retreated, admonished. He didn’t do that again. We also had an ice storm once, and a tree fell across the fence. It still bears its wound but has sprung back, resilient.

Walking along the fence today, I run a stick across its wire mesh. It makes its own music, a bit dull but resonant. Just like people, all fences make different sounds. The one I occasionally slammed into playing dodge ball on the elementary school court clanged, a prickly schoolchildren minder; the oversize bars around the zoo elephant went thunk-thunk-thunk as in don’t-even-think-about-it; the plastic fence around my child-size barnyard animal set barely made any sound; the tapping of my wedding ring on the fence behind which we waited more than once is the sound of bliss, bounded by vow.

Some people don’t like fences, preferring a world of untrammeled unboundedness, much like the backyards I ran through as a child. Not me. Fences define. Behind them we refine who we are. Rarely are they impermeable: the immigrant deer and squirrels come, and visitors are let in. Sun and rain and wind touch us all. Yet without a fence we may forget who we are; with a fence we are free to become more of who we are.

“The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” says the Psalmist, and “indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Turning, looking back from the line of my lot, leaning against the fence, I see our place, our lives, our memories, our home. My children played in the shade of the trees that grow here, explored, pretended, and imagined. The fence reminds me that it’s here and not over there where life is lived. Life grows in a place, a bounded place, and is freer and more defined by its boundaries. It becomes home. And “home,” said Laura Ingall Wilders, “is the nicest word there is.” Life flourishes behind the fence. “Jesus, be a fence around me,” sings Fred Hammond in the old Sam Cooke song. “This is my prayer Lord that I pray each and every day/ That you would guide my footsteps lest I stumble and stray/ Lord, I need you to direct me all the way long/ Oh Lord be a fence all around me everyday.”

I let go the fence. I go inside. I look out the unshuttered windows of my home at the piney woods and pray, “Lord, be a fence around me everyday, Lord be a fence today.”


Rain, Delight

A53DAAB5-83F8-438B-9788-4A58BAAB79BD“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” (‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭62:4‬ , ESV‬‬)

We were nearly a mile and a half into the canyon when we saw the first sign of life. A Western tanager, a brilliant yellow bird with a red head and black wings, alighted on a tree branch jutting up from the canyon bank, hundreds of feet above his normal riparian habitat. He flew higher and, being an avid singer, chirped a plaintive song marking territory, before darting away up canyon.

It is the first day of our time here, and we began late, so the sun is high in the New Mexico sky and we feel it sap our energy. We’ve walked down into Frijoles Canyon of Bandolier National Monument, meeting no one on the way, down to see the Upper Falls, only there is no falling water. Drought lays heavy on the land, and the creek that the guidebook says runs year round has vanished, gone covert, snaking slowly underground, until the rains swell, until the summer monsoons come and the creek re-emerges, transformed. I look down to where the canyon drops away into woodland and see the muddy-brown flow of the Rio Grande, the trees a bosky ribbon of green along its bank, and yet here it is only dry, the green defiant but tired.

Fire is an ever-present danger, so the backcountry of Bandolier and campgrounds are closed. Just north, in the long inactive caldera of the Valle Caldera Preserve that we visited yesterday, the green observed from the lip of the caldera is deceptive: the grasses are desiccated, and the wind that sweeps across the plain could whip a spark into a hellish fire that would consume all in its path. The ranger in the caldera, a woman from Jemez Springs, reminded us of the nineteen firefighters who lost their lives there in 2013, overtaken by flames while battling the Thompson Ridge Fire, an inferno that at its height burned an acre a minute.

But the tanager is waiting for water, as are the towering, stolid Pondera pines that anchor the canyon floor, their reddish bark brilliant against a blue sky, resilient even in the parched landscape. As are the grasses of the caldera and its herds of elk and coteries of prairie dogs darting here and there, dropping down a hole here and popping out of a hole there, comic. And yet the land and its life, though conditioned to drought, are beginning to suffer under the effects of this drought’s desolations, a tragic reminder of both the fragility and resilience of life in the desert. We drink water and turn to go back.

“Take small steps,” she says, “as it’ll conserve your energy.” I do. I let her lead, as her eyes are sharp and concentration better than mine. I have been accused of daydreaming.

I have in fact been daydreaming, my feet moving but my head walking elsewhere. I confess I have been thinking of those great scientists of nearby Los Alamos, like physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, or Ernest Lawrence, who back in the mid-Forties, at the founding of the secret city, escaped the confines of the closely guarded community, part of The Manhattan Project, and came here, on horseback or on a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, for solace from the conflicted thoughts that sometimes haunted their building of an atomic bomb, a horrible weapon to kill many to save many more. And so while I am here, the trail dust stirred by my every footfall, my thoughts are in 1943, stirred by those men riding horses through the canyon, comforted by the seemingly stable and only slowly changing nature of the canyon. “Science is not everything,” said the often poetic Oppenheimer, but science is very beautiful,” and so too is nature --- not everything, far from everything, and yet beautiful if fraught, riven by sin.

There were once people who lived in Frijoles Canyon --- Anasazi, ancestral people, native Americans --- who dug caves in the canyon walls out of the “tuff,” a soft rock made from compacted volcanic ash. We visited their leavings. On the second day we rose very early and entered the canyon just after dawn, walked two miles in, and climbed ladders reaching 120 feet up the canyon walls, entering some of the caves and alcoves of these ancestors. In the cool of the morning we saw life we did not see in yesterday’s mid-day heat --- a bright-eyed rock squirrel foraging for food not more than five feet from us, coyotes flanking a lone mule deer, hoping for a meal, lizards scurrying across our trail. A nuthatch on a tree branch. A flicker (or woodpecker), heard but not seen. We heard the distinctive, plummeting call of the red-tailed hawk. Even the creek in places bubbled up life, evidence that all is not lost and the promise of more to come.

Two days later, the rains do come. From my window on Santa Fe, miles from Bandolier, I imagine the tanager drinking from a pool, the pines drawing deep draughts through their roots, the coyotes lapping life-giving water from a now coursing Frijoles Creek, the waterfall now living up to its name, a trickle giving way to a torrent cast down the rock wall. Periodically thunder peals, like God’s voice announcing his delight. His rain, his delight.


Strange Cases, Found

IMG_0334“Wanna sit at the bar?”

Hosts assume that persons dining alone want to sit at a bar, presumably where they won’t feel so alone. They’re often wrong.

“Nope. Booth, please.”

I slide into a cavernous coop made for six people, back to the kitchen, face to the door. Plenty of room for me and my friends, the ghosts of past conversations, the phantoms of a long memory, or for worlds conjured up by words.

I dine alone once each week, an introvert’s allowance, a pittance for my sanity. I need time to process. I need time to observe and reflect. I need to do a little life summary, take my pulse, make sure I am still living and not just existing. I need to get away from the phone, the screens, the. . .well. . .people. I recognize that it would be problematic to do this every day. But I don’t.

“Hi, I’m Penny.”

Penny is the server. She calls me honey. But here in this corner of the South, in this particular restaurant that doesn’t cater to transplants or the hip, there’s no romance in that sweetness, just hospitality.

“Is Penny short for Penelope?” I can’t hear Penny without hearing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” its “in my ears and in my eyes/ Here beneath the blue suburban skies.”

“Yep, but that’s a mouthful.”

Sure is. Penny is probably in her Forties but looks like she’s in her Sixties, aged by smoking and life’s burdens. Penelope seems too fussy; Penny, too girlish. I give her my order. She whisks away yet continues to supply copious amounts of ice tea to fuel my meditations.

I’m reading an article in the New York Times Magazine, a lengthy feature by Jack Hitt entitled “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar.” Hitt is chasing down what became of a renowned Boston University professor, John Kidd, a James Joyce scholar who two decades ago simply disappeared. I have never heard of the man. Never read Joyce’s Ulysses either, and certainly never knew of the insane obsession that the novel is for certain folks. None of these people would deign dine with a denizen like me. The author ultimately locates the Gandalf-ish looking Kidd in Rio de Janeiro (of course) still very much alive and obsessed with yet another novel.

While I read Hitt’s article mostly for the journalistic chase, his dogged pursuit of the facts, the heart of it was found in what was to Hitt perhaps just an aside, a tangential observation. Hitt is commenting on Kidd’s compulsiveness, such as his obsession over the size of a period at the end of a paragraph of Ulysses, a giant black dot on the page at the end of the last chapter featuring the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. Essays have been written on the dot which, according to Hitt, “ends a long, hilarious chapter that parodies the kind of crisp, cold tone associated with scientific discourse,” as if Joyce is saying, “Just shut up.” Essayists opine otherwise, of course. As Hitt summarizes, “Some see the big dot as Earth, viewed from the heavenly throne of God, who is often understood to be the annoyingly precise narrator of this chapter. Some think it’s a black hole or maybe Bloom’s open mouth, finally collapsing into sleep at the interrogator’s moronic questions.” I won’t even mention some of the more lively (or profane) interpretations. What I can say is that reading about such tripe in a place frequented by blue collar workers, to people who deal in the brick and mortar of life, is a surreal experience.

“You need anything else?”

“Thanks Penny. I don’t. I’m just reading.”

“Stay as long as you like. We’re open until eight.”

“I won’t make it quite that long.” It’s only noon.

Hitt gets to the point later in the article, as he addresses Kidd’s compulsion for completeness:

“Theorists who study folk art sometimes describe those crowded, image-packed creations, like Howard Finster’s ‘Paradise Garden’ or Grandma Moses’ ‘Country Fair,’ not merely as a prominent theme but as a kind of mental illness common to the form. They argue that these artists’ works are expressions of a compulsion to fill an existential emptiness. This anxiety has its own Latin name, horror vacui, fear of the void — and Kidd brings this intensity to his understanding of every book he reads.”

Horror vacui. People like Kidd and other “artists of completion” help us see in sharp relief the void in a human life lived apart from God, even if that void is hidden beneath a veneer of distraction or steady soliloquy of self-love . Considering why people commit suicide, Walker Percy said “We do not know where we came from, why we are here, or what comes at the end. We do not know what it means to have a good life or a good death.” Kidd’s compulsion masks the fear of the void; obsession hides emptiness. All of which is tragic of course, part of the brokenness of a God-denying yet Christ-haunted world.

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man, said Blaise Pascal, “which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” God gives us someone like John Kidd to show us the extreme, to bring to the surface what lies at the soul of every person. For Christians, Christ is our holy obsession. Completeness is found only in Him. The Apostle Paul says “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Meaning can’t be made up. We can’t self-define. Meaning is part of the givenness of life, a gift.

Penny is back, this time a bit awkwardly (for me, anyway) she sits across from me, refilling the sweeteners and jellies at the table. For a moment I wonder if she is aware of the void in her life and how she fills it.

“Don’t mind me,” she says, as if she were non-existent, a non-entity. I know better. Everyone is to be minded. Everyone matters.

As for John Kidd? Pray for him, that his void might be filled to overflowing with the death and life of Christ. God takes strange cases. He gets to the bottom of our empty. Then, He fills us up.

I left Penny a good tip, but I should have offered her more. Next time, I just might.

[The photo of present-day John Kidd was taken by Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times.]


Courage, Heart

53763B0A-F25D-4D6B-869A-1460964E5744“Life may be uncertain, our neighbors may be afraid, and we may be disappointed by all that is unfolding. But these things, though significant, are not the ultimate realities. The tomb remains empty, God’s promises remain certain, and Christ remains King.”

(Dennis Haack, in Critique: A Magazine of Ransom Fellowship, 2017:4)

Maria is buoyant, radiant.

“I won’t be working here as much,” she offers. “I have an internship.” She says it like it’s the best job in the world. “I get to work outside and meet people.” She smiles broadly, her eyes bright.

“You’ll be good at that,” I say. Or maybe I just thought that. I envy her energy, the zest in the face of life. It’s doubtful I would have remembered Maria’s name, given my self-absorption at times. My wife is far better. She types the names of servers into her smartphone with some clue about their appearance (short, brown hair, smile) and then reviews them before we enter a restaurant as an aid to memory. But I have gotten modestly better at valuing people, particularly servers and other service people: I look up, catch their eyes, smile. Sometimes.

I took the day off. We parked single-wide (our slight, feline waif) at the spa a/k/a vet, ordering up all the first-class accoutrements of her stay, and headed east, toward the coastal plain. Somehow, just east of the Piedmont, the city in my exhaust, stress falls away. “I wanna live on a boat and sail away with my children,” sings Steven Delopoulos, and I nod. My wife says, “so do I,” and yet the children are now too big for the boat, and we don’t have a boat anyway, but we’re thinking about kayaks. We are. We say that all the time.

“Can I refill your drink,” asks Maria.

“I think I’m OK for now,” I say. I peer over the edge of my cup. It’s nearly full. Yet she’s so excited about refilling my drink. “But thanks.” Maria springs away. She returns, repeatedly, until I down four cups of iced tea and accumulate a stack of used artificial sweetener packets which, I know, I know, cause all kinds of terrible things, according to the internet. But I can only work on one problem at a time. First I need to remember peoples’ names.

Things are looking up. I just got a full house and took the lead by four points in our game of Yahtzee. I hand the smartphone back to my wife so she can have a turn. “I want you to win,” I say. And she does. She’s highly competitive; I’m such a loser that I’ve gotten to where I have learned to enjoy it, like I’ve signed a non-compete clause with life. Plus, she smiles when she wins. But she smiles when she loses as well. I can’t go wrong.

On the drive down I thought of the call from my friend yesterday and the consequences of bad decisions he labors under, things Maria likely hasn’t lived long enough to see. I gave him the strongest thing I could give him, a prayerful coda to our talk, and driving down I thought of what a small thing a prayer can be and yet how the scrap of it, rewritten by the Spirit, a prayer Post-It, sits even now before the Father, handed up by the Son.

“Those flowers are beautiful, a yellow that’s unusual,” says my wife. I look out the window, see the rows of flowers in bloom by the road, planted by workers with the Department of Transportation. Behind that are the ubiquitous pines in the right-of-way, and then the fields tilled by those who still farm, and up beyond that, a cobalt sky softened by building cumulous clouds and lit by a sun that comes up, unfailingly, every single day - life rolling out moment by moment, just plain goodness and beauty and truth breaking out all over.

I don’t know what animates Maria’s good cheer, whether a repository of common grace, natural predisposition to optimism, or Christ indwelling. There’s a lot wrong in the world. Underneath the happy veneer of distraction, many are afraid. As writer Denis Haack suggests, “[i]t might be wise to resurrect a biblical greeting that was used when God’s people faced uncertain times - ‘Be of good courage.’” Or, because “courage” actually derives from the Latin word “cor,” which means “heart,” I want to say to my friend, and you, and even myself, “Take heart. Sin casts a long shadow over your life and that of others, and not everything can be mended here. Yet all is not lost. Like a flower pushing up through the earth, if you stay rooted, you too will rise up and bear fruit - insignificant, perhaps, but still beautiful and noticed by the only One who matters.” If not yet, then soon.

Our meal finished, we stand to leave. I let the screen door fall slap-slap-slap behind me, deliberately, because it reminds me of the door on my childhood home which I hear echoing through the years, a little root snaking back into the good soil of those years. I reach out and take her hand, my heart really, and I feel a little more courage that one day all disappointment will end.

Let the door slap behind you. Be of good courage. Take heart. Christ is King.


Watch This

Fullsizeoutput_7d27“I don’t want eco. I want a car that leaps forward like a caged circus animal with a grievance, not one that lumbers into the intersection like a polar bear trying to step off an ice floe.”

(James Lileks, “Driver’s Id,” in National Review, April 30, 2018)

A couple months short of my 16th birthday in 1974, I bought a 1972 gold in color Camaro. With a 350 cc engine and eight cylinders, it chugged gas like it was Gatorade; it averaged a pathetic nine miles per gallon. With no jockey, it sat tethered at the base of the driveway, a smoldering powerhouse of internal combustion, straining at its ropes, longing for the white line out of town, to anywhere.

At midnight on that fateful birthday, zero hour, my friend John came over to my house, scratching noisily on my ground-floor window screen. John was three months older, so he had somehow sleepwalked through and passed a 7:00 AM drivers’ training class and waltzed through a driving test conducted by a somnolent DMV examiner. He had his license. At that time armed with a learner’s permit you could drive anywhere with any licensed driver, even a novice like John still percolating in adolescent angst and fervor. (I at least had been driving with my aunt since I was six. But that’s another story.) So, provisioned with a full tank of gas, John and I proceeded to drive all night, on a school night, rolling over the darkened roads of four counties. To that point, our wanderlust had been circumscribed by the distance to which our feet could carry us, whether walking or bicycling. This was new. This smelled like freedom.

We barreled through lonely crossroads with four-way stops, and through the blinking red light of some hamlet’s intersection. Hounds sleeping on farm house porches raised their heads as we passed, curious at the insomniac vehicle rolling by. Cats paused in their nightly rounds, initially startled but then returning to their forays. Cows munched silently, unperturbed, their great heads following our lights. A full moon lit our way, our headlights searching for the next hill, the next curve, reaching for the horizon.

“Open your window, John,” I said, as I rolled mine down and let my hand drag the wind. The humid night air rushed in, heated by an earth not yet cooled from the hot mid-July day, still oppressive, weighing on us. And yet we were buoyed by a crescendo of cicadas, enchanted by fireflies in the meadows like stars come to earth, blinking on and off. “Jesus is just all right with me” sang the Doobie Brothers on the eight-track. “Turn it up,” said John, straining forward at the wheel, and I obliged, the words sermoned out into the landscape. Mapless, venturing out of town for the first time, we navigated by the white line and full moon, which is to say, not at all. We wandered.

In the early darkness of morning, we stopped at a curb market at some unknown crossroads and stocked up on junk food, and that fueled our adventure until shortly before dawn as we munched our way across county line after county line. We shared the driving. We just took it all in, like Kerouac and Nichols burning down the highways, on the road. I don’t even remember talking, each of us lost in free-fall thought. The music, the white line, the curves in the road, the rumbling power of the motor underneath the hood - our thoughts were inarticulable, inchoate.

On the way back into town, John driving, he decided to visit his girlfriend Mary. Never mind that it was 4:00 AM. The sugar and the ecstasy of the road had staged a coup de tat on what meager brains we possessed. Barreling down a four-lane road, blocks before its intersection at a traffic light with another four lane road, John looked at me, his eyes popping, barely tethered, as they were wont to do at such moments of high risk, and said, “Watch this.” He put the accelerator to the floor and we quickly accelerated to 90 miles per hour as we rocketed through the intersection. On the other side of the crossing, the road dipped. The car didn’t. For a few brief, exhilarating seconds, we were airborne, until we bottomed out on the other side, the undercarriage whopping the pavement.

I loved that Camaro. I liked looking out over the football-field length of the hood, admiring all that muscle underneath. I liked its low-slung posture, just inches above asphalt, where you were assaulted by every speed bump. I liked the roomy front bucket seats that made up for the chihuahua-sized second row. Better, I appreciated the slight bump it gave to my poor social standing at my high school. When you only had 25 minutes for lunch, speed mattered. I could whisk a carload of ravenous teenagers to the golden arches for a whistle-stop and make it back with time to spare (though, admittedly, there was always a proposal that we not return to school, usually made by one of the more reprobate delinquents in the back seat).

Long about 1977, at the height of the gas crisis, tiring of exorbitant gas prices (37 cents) and long lines, I traded the Camaro for a Datsun 210, one of the last vehicles to use regular, leaded (and cheaper) gas. The Datsun promised gas mileage four times that of the Camaro. It lacked the substantiality of the Camaro, the machismo. When you opened the car door, if you weren’t careful it felt as if it might come unhinged, featherweight, and go flying into he air. It was eco before there was eco. And it was a time-saver: when the red light turned green and you pressed the accelerator, you had enough time to search for and load another cassette tape before combustion, before anything actually happened and you had to look up at the road.

“What’s a cassette tape,” you ask? And wait, “what in the world is an 8-track tape?” Well. [Shaking head.] Go ask your parents. Go ask them about their first car. Ask them what it felt like to be free to go anywhere --- not on the internet, which is nowhere --- but in their God-given flesh to some real place in the dirt beyond their neighborhood. Ask them about the night air wafting through open windows, about an uncaged adventure with their best friend, about how freedom --- at least the freedom they thought they tasted --- is not what it’s cracked up to be, but is just a foretaste of the freedom to be who you were intended to be. Ask them if they are free. Ask them if the love of Christ has set them free.

I don’t recommend muscling cars too fast through busy intersections. But at least it was real. The road, the speed, the fear --- at least those solid realities told me I was living and asked me what for.

John became a weatherman, faithful husband, good father, and kind son to his now 90-something mother. I became a lawyer, and everyday I see or hear of men and women who are still "driving too fast" and suffering the shattering reality of their freedom, like circus animals who have burst their bonds in search of life outside the bounds, yet chained once again. To them --- to me, to you --- Christ says, “Watch this. Take my yoke upon you. It’s easy. My burden is light. In me you will find freedom."


Listening in the Dark


BCC5F60B-618C-4D76-AB2D-F6218E087928“The end of all things is at hand.”

(1 Pet. 4:7a)

In the middle of the night I awoke to hear the lullaby rhythm of a freight train passing by our hotel, its clickety-clack like a poem’s iambic pentameter. A long, epic poem, its lyric carriages filed slowly by. I imagined the poet-engineer atop its pulsing diesel heart, staring into the void of night, the darkened houses and wooded bluffs east; the dark, coursing river west. He must love its rhyme and rhythm, I thought, even if inarticulable, the aloneness of its journey. I lay still listening for its end, sad to hear its strains fade. On rising, I found out that my wife had heard the same train, had been listening in the dark, each of us unaware that the other was awake.

The trains pass regularly beneath our window, no more than a couple hundred feet away and perhaps 40 feet below our balcony. At first I thought the rumble and occasional soundings might disturb me, a light sleeper, but I found the racket mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. Watching the passenger trains pass, my mind ran to the people whose profiles filled each window -- their unknown names like words made flesh, stretched out in a line, common yet different. And then there’s the water. Beyond the tracks lies the Hudson, perhaps a half mile wide at this point, flowing south yet, given the wind, appearing to flow north, an inland sea of space in which the poem slides. An occasional fishing boat passes, lost in the couplets’ deluge, a speck on the poem’s page. An even more occasional tug bullies a barge upstream, pushing a noun, resilient against the flow.

Farther on, west of the Hudson, the Catskill Mountains rise, mist hanging over their summits. In the evenings after dinner I sit and watch the sun set behind them until the wind chills and drives me inside to watch from the window which I crack slightly so as to better hear the trains, smell the Catskill air, and catch snippets of conversation from the bar below, indecipherable yet reassuring: we are not entirely alone.

The reclaimed wood floors of The Rhinecliff Inn creak. The walls lack soundproofing. The air conditioning vent blows right onto your head as you lie in bed. We slept not with our heads on pillows but under pillows so as to allay the draft. The cold water is actually warm, the rainfall shower novel but annoying, and the service in the single restaurant excruciatingly slow, which is conducive to ruminating and conversing and, yes, listening to the trains.

The corner of the aged Amtrak station next door can be glimpsed from our balcony, airy and unkempt. The shiniest things in town are the vehicles, the Mercedes and BMWs, peppered with pickup trucks, the holdouts to the gentrifying of the river’s shore. The few brick and frame buildings at the center of this hamlet are vacant, commerce gone elsewhere. A private residence fills what once was a small brick church. The cemetery surrounding the small Catholic Church spreads out around the chapel, a meadow of silent witnesses to the finitude of life.

“The end of all things is near,” says Peter. That phrase sounds like death, not life, and yet he means it as an ending that resonates with hope. Speaking to a people who are suffering under the iron hand of a conquering nation and the religious people of the day, he gives instructions for the last days: Be sober. Watch yourself. Keep loving. Forgive each other. Show hospitality. Don’t grumble. Use your gift to serve. Speak, he says, “as one who speaks the very oracles of God.” (I Pet. 4:11a). By all means, speak.

Though my balcony is atop the bar, I am sober, and I am speaking. The dead speak from the hill above the town. The nameless people train north and south, their silence speaking. The freight of life moves in the night. Yet if you listen in the dark, you might hear the percolating life beneath: birdsong at dawn, a cross around a woman’s neck shouting death to death, a meadow whispering dandelions, the laughter of a child waiting for a school bus, waiting for something more. Waiting.

“You know what my favorite thing is about that picture,” I asked my wife, holding up a just snapped photo of my hand holding a dandelion just blown in a meadow north of town, its seeds scattered to the wind. “The ring. The wedding band.”

And the green field, and flowers. The meandering poets’ walk south of Red Hook. The buzzing bee held still in the air, evaluating us. The breeze, meadowland’s fall and rise, the Bassett hound lumbering through the life of Rhinebeck, and the glimpse of what once was and what will yet be.

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,” she reads from Psalm 25. “I like to think of the paths we walked these days with signs on them saying ‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness,’” she says. She smiles behind her tea cup, and I think of the trails and country lanes we walked with all those unseen signs speaking steadfast love and faithfulness, reassurances for pilgrim-travelers.

The end is near. For all those listening in the dark, take heart. Christ moves in the shadows. The light and sound of his train will never end.


All Things New

IMG_1596“That’s the one. J-4. Pull that one out.” I gave the canoe a tug. Nothing.

“I think I need a hand,” I confessed. We were used to pulling kayaks, not canoes, and J-4 was wedged in its berth three feet off the ground. Together, we slid it out, carried it to the pond’s edge, and moved it gently into the water.

“Whatever you do, don’t stand up in it,” she said. That part I remember from camp. There may have been some unpleasantness associated with the memory, an image of teetering pre-teens and overturned crafts bottom-side up, yet I dispel the thought, as unlike the camp lake which was foreboding but relatively safe, the woman at the visitors center said this pond had alligators. But we pushed off, navigated decently, and glided over the still water, the only locomotion provided by our oars and a gentle breeze.

I was beset by unarticulated questions. Can alligators jump over the side of the canoe? What do we do if one does? Grab its jaws and hold them shut? (I had heard that they had little muscle strength to open the jaws, just close them, but I did not want to test the theory.) And what then do we do with the writhing, tale-slapping reptile, even if we manage to stay upright?

But I don’t see an alligator. A queue of turtles line a tree branch jutting from the water. One by one, as we moved closer, they dove in. Plop. One lagged behind, the rear guard, until he too took to the drink, droping in behind his kin.

“Are you rowing back there?” She turns her head, looks back at me.

“Oops. No. Sorry.” In the midst of rumination, I had stopped rowing, and our vessel was listing starboard, if you can say starboard about a canoe, heading straight for a gargantuan bald cypress looming over us, its trunk likely five feet in diameter, with appendages snaking out into the water. “Back in business,” I say, placing my oar back in the black water, back stroking, moving us away from the tree.

We moved in and out of the cypress trees for better than an hour, with no method. When we looked up, we had lost sight of the visitors’ center. We had no company on the pond. In solitude, we navigated our way back by following buoys, like bread crumbs, placed in the pond to allow errant travelers to make their way home.

I put my hand up and felt the breeze. Here (I mean here, as in here on earth) when I put my hand into the air, into a tiny bit of atmosphere that wraps the planet, I know something of what I am touching. The atmosphere, or air that the eastern Carolina breeze moves, is some thing - protons, neutrons, and electrons bundled together into atoms - just like the Earth and stars, moon, and sun. Things. But as far as we know, these visible things make up only five percent of the universe or, at least, the tiny bit of the universe that we can observe. That means 95% of the universe is made up of what scientists have coined dark matter and dark energy, and it is expanding. The thought that we do not know the nature of dark matter or dark energy, and know relatively little about the visible universe we have observed, is humbling. Which means that relative to God, who knows all things, there’s not much difference between the scientifically-challenged person like me and Stephen Hawking. Well, maybe there’s a little.

I rest my case.

“Are you rowing back there?”

I plunge the oar back in, and we steam ahead.

Merchant’s Millpond State Park is not a place you would just happen upon on a cross-country jaunt. Finding it requires intention. The “pond” label seems a misnomer, as it conjures up an image of a small pool of water, yet this pond is a large, meandering snake of black water punctuated by bald cypress and swamp. Come here to get away from things, for quiet, so you can glide across the water and think.

Which brings me to the realm of speculative theology. It’s not speculative at all to say that God is love or that God is the creator, that loving and creating are intrinsic to who He is. And if that’s so, then He cannot not love, He cannot not create. And here’s the speculative part: If this is so, perhaps the reason the universe is expanding is because God is continuing to create, continuing to lovingly make worlds and suns and more because He cannot help himself. It is who He is. All of which makes dark matter and dark energy more light than dark; it’s the stuff of creation.

But I’m making my head hurt.

“Do you think we should head back?”

“Yes, I guess so,” I say. “Which way is back?”

“Ahead. Follow the buoys.”

Sometimes, I confess, sitting behind her, I did not row. Content, I rested the oar on my lap, raised my hands in the air, and let the atmosphere slide over them. I looked up. In the azure sky, a bit of leftover moon still shone. Ancient bald cypress trees towered over us, here long before we were born. Later, I read that there is a cypress tree in Bladen County, North Carolina that is over 1,620 years old, making it one of the oldest living plants in North America, over 60 times older than me. These trees are not so old, but they are much older than me, all of which makes me feel small and insignificant in the presence of my elders, under a sky that runs to infinity, moving through a soup of unknown matter and energy that is ever growing because God’s loving and making are everlasting.

The water swirls behind my oar. Stroke by stroke, we head for shore, our canoe a tiny microbe in infinity.

I’m not small. I’m not insignificant. I’m not unknown and not unloved. The Love that makes the universe made me and can’t stop remaking me or anything else until all things become new, until we reach the farthest shore.


He Giveth

FBC869BB-A34A-4C96-92DD-1A9D5ED3D633“You want biscuits or cornbread with that?”

Sheila on your name tag, I want biscuits. I want cornbread too. I want it all.

“No, thank you,” I say, shaking my head, resignedly.

“How ‘bout banana puddin’?”

Oh yes, I want that too. Lots of it. Room temperature. With homemade meringue, and real bananas. In fact, forget the vegetables. Just bring a heaping dinner plate of that.

“Nope. I’m no fun today. I’m in training.”

“What are you training for?”

“A marathon.” Life, actually.

Weight Watchers (hereafter referred to lovingly, as “WW”), while seemingly benevolent, insisting that you can eat whatever you want, is in the end a parsimonious sovereign.

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” I say to my laconic cat sitting at the edge of my desk as I write, paws draped fetchingly over its edge. I imagine her saying, “alright, so how about you giveth me some food?,” not a bit concerned at her rotundity, her spreading mass, her lapping largesse.

Each morning I drive by Krispy Kreme. WW says I can have that doughnut, that hot dough slathered by a waterfall of liquid sugar. The HOT sign toys with me and a tantalizing smell wafts through my cracked window. I roll it up. Let’s see, a doughnut - no, two doughnuts, as I have never eaten only one - is only eight points. I’ll have two. . . oh, who am I kidding, I’ll have three, and three times eight is twenty-four, which is how many points I get in the day. So, WW says, you can eat those three doughnuts, but that’s it, buddy, nothing else for the day, and part of me says I can handle that, I can make it the rest of the day, as I won’t be thinking about it at work, and then pretty soon thereafter I’ll be asleep, and that time will pass quickly. I should be able to do that, right? Or if I’m weak, I’ll just eat celery and lettuce and fruit the rest of the day. Zero points. I got this.

I drive on by. In the rear view mirror the red light of waywardness fades.

The problem with WW is that after a season of assigning numbers to foods, you can forget to appreciate the food for what it is. Take your average salad bar. They’re populated by a lot of self-righteous zeros, yet sprinkled among them you’ll find fours (seven croutons) and twos (bacon bits, two tablespoons, two points), and sixes (ranch dressing, one serving). Well, there goes the farm.

Dan Doriani, professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, says that “food and drink are a blessed part of the holistic life.” Amen. Pass the rolls. A holistic life, he says, “keeps us from hyper-spirituality [and] neglect of the body, and it promotes community.” Exactly what I was thinking, though maybe not with such precision.

Food is not just sustenance but one of the blessings of life, something full-bodied, with color, taste, texture, and smell, a sensory experience that roots us in reality, a little incarnation of a grander feast to come. Peter Leithart says:

Food is a central theme in the Bible. As the Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, God created man a hungry being and invited him to eat ‘every seed-bearing plant ... and every tree that has fruit with seed in it’ (Gen 1:29). It’s notable that the menu comes immediately after the command to fill, rule, and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). We need food in order to rule, but the text points in the other direction: We rule so we can eat; we subdue the earth in order to enjoy its fruits. Food is more than fuel. Food is for feasting.

In other words, our feasting now foreshadows a greater feast to come, the wedding feast of the Lamb. I am a hungry man.

A week ago, my wife and I were meandering our way home from Norfolk and took a detour through Warrenton. I was hungry again, a fact not so remarkable. We stumbled over Mazatlan, a Mexican restaurant in a converted gas station, ringed by fields and farms. There, two brothers, owners Jose and Alfredo, served me the best chicken mole I had ever had. In its savory light, everything shimmered like shook foil. The field out the window was golden, the 4 x 4s tucked under the eaves glittering chariots, the overheard conversations liquid and luminous, like rough-hewn poetry. Jose, Alfredo, I was hungry and you took me in. I was so overcome I knocked over a full glass of ice tea. But even that couldn’t spoil the feast.

“You sure you won’t have some banana puddin’?”

“Bring it.” Bring it, Sheila. God wants me to have it. I need it. It’s a down payment on the wedding feast to come. The Lord giveth. Now get behind me WW.


What I Need

99aa21a857262b856420fa765eed3472“What do you need, Stephen?”

My grandmother is standing over me where I sit at the table, hands on her hips, waiting. I had just downed two pieces of her fresh-baked pumpkin pie and was ready to push back from the vinyl-clothed table.

“Nothing, Grandma. I can’t eat any more.”

“Eat some more. It’ll just go to waste.” She stood there.

I ate another piece. I ate the entire pie. I was eight.

For my grandma, eating large portions of her cooking was a sign of good health, of thriving, at least when it came to others. She and grandpa ate much less, perhaps a Depression-borne habit from making sure children had enough to eat first. She sifted flower from a wooden flour bin that my grandpa made and rolled out lard-laden dough and shaped biscuits, pressing each with her knuckles. She snapped garden-grown green beans and cooked them in a pot with a slab of fatback. She shucked corn and cooked the ears in boiling water. She baked sweet potatoes and served them whole, their wrinkled and slightly charred skins loose over the orange interior. She sliced fresh, brilliant red tomatoes and laid them on a plate, ready to add to a sliced, buttered biscuit.

Much of the food she prepared came fresh from her garden. By the time I came along, she and grandpa had graduated from an ox and plow to a gas-powered plow, but I remember standing at the fence enclosing the garden watching her walk behind the rocking plow, her bonnet tight, readying the field for planting. I was told stories of her hitching herself to the ox, the black compacted soil giving way to her dogged persistence, yet I never saw it.

Once the table was laid, she’d go to the living room, to the chair where my grandpa often sat when in the house, lean over, and say, loudly, “DAD, SUPPER’S READY.”

“Hmmf?

“SUPPER.”

My grandpa worked in a mill for many years and could not hear well. He got up and shuffled and clomped into the dining room, where he set down in his chair and commenced eating. He did not make conversation. She’d pour a glass of buttermilk for him and he’d crumble a biscuit and mix it into the nasty concoction, eating it with a spoon. After, he’d have coffee, tipping the cup to spill it black into the saucer, sopping it with a biscuit.

All done eating, my grandfather would push back his chair, grab his hat and coat if necessary, and go out the back door to, presumably, his woodshed, a wooden building behind the house where he had various tools and woodworking equipment. He made things, like a rudely fashioned if sturdy table that my wife and I used for our dinner table the first year of our marriage. He made a Rubic’s cube sort of wood puzzle that I could never work but he did not tire of working, emitting a child’s chuckle when he completed it. I don’t ever remember having a conversation with him, but sometimes I’d accidentally cross his path and he’d stop, make google eyes at me, and say “Boo,” or something to that effect, unintelligible, laughing, and I’d clear out.

Sometimes we visited people. Old people. Armed with pie and pocketbook, my grandmother would walk, my sister and I skipping ahead, down the road, through the drained and revegetated remains of a lake bed, even down trails through the woods. We’d sit and stare at the furnishings and implements of their homes, all of which had a musty, old smell, cut by the aroma of a wood and coal fire. Once, in route to an old person’s home, I was in some unremembered way picking on my sister, or she claimed as much, and my grandma, having warned me, stopped and “cut a switch” from a vine growing by the road. She didn’t need to use it. I was persuaded by its length and her stern look.

Grandma and grandpa had a television. Mostly it sat cold and dark in the living room. I never touched it. We watched Lassie on occasion, my grandpa laughing at the canine’s exploits, and a black and white Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evenings. And at least once, The Wizard of Oz, after which, spooked, I curled at the feet of my mother in the footwell of the car for the dark ride home. Otherwise, we were busy doing nothing - messing with the barn cats, playing hide and seek, watching grandma cook, sipping coke poured from a bottle kept in the Kelvinater (which, until I was older, I thought was the name of all refrigerators), running around an oak-filled side yard, and visiting with whatever family was there, including an uncle who pinched your knee for fun and an aunt who took you to the fair and rode the rides with you, screaming all the time. I have no idea what they talked about. I was operating on a different plane, flying low, staying out from underfoot.

Writer Matthew Loftus addresses the task of parenting in our time, with the goal being that “we want to form human beings who will choose to love particular places and embrace their particular callings. This task of postliberal parenting,” says Loftus, “will require discipline of all sorts, but most necessary now are the values of solidarity, discernment, and rootedness.” Solidarity is the sense that “we are all dependent on one another and that it is good to fulfill our obligations to one another,” that we are not autonomous human beings. Neither my parents nor my grandma would have articulated it that way, but by actions they showed me that caring for other people, for neighbors, was part of what it meant to be a Christian, which is just another way of saying that it is part what it meant to be a human being.

And there’s discernment, which Loftus says means helping children to make real moral choices, not dictating their choices. Watching both my parents and grandparents gave me a innate, generally unspoken moral compass. An outsider watching either my parents or grandparents may have thought them permissive; we often ran at large, unbridled by their rules or words. Yet while far from obedient to it, I possessed an internal governor, an amalgam of Bible stories, folk wisdom, and observations that is growing clearer all the time, and still is, much like those scratch art crayon drawings from kindergarten where you scrape away the black crayon to reveal the “beautiful” and colorful drawing underneath. The picture my parents and grandma drew of a faithful life was not perfect, but it was faithful; they drew it as best they could.

But rootedness, says Loftus, is perhaps the most important of the triad of qualities needed for post-liberal parenting. Rootedness means long and faithful attention to one place and one work. It means staying put. He says it is “a necessity in a world where freedom allows people to flit from one place to another whenever things get difficult.” My grandparents and parents were rooted by necessity; we are rooted by choice. Their rootedness was encouraged by an economy and social structure that then encouraged staying put and discouraged high mobility, that is, flitting about, which was generally frowned upon and not understood. Ours is often, and necessarily, by choice, a choice more of us should make.

What do you need, Stephen? Well, deep down, even if inarticulable, my grandma and parents knew that what I needed was solidarity, discernment, and rootedness. Or put another way, I needed to be a good neighbor, to make wise choices, and to stick to my work and place as best I could. And maybe I needed some pumpkin pie, a whole pie, which becomes, in retrospect, a wish for a more whole, more abundant life.

“Grandma, can I go outdoors?”

“I ‘spect so.”

I’m still outdoors. I’m still running around the fields of my little world trying to figure out how to be a neighbor, how to make wise choices, and how to stick to my calling and place. I’m still falling down and failing. But I’m not alone. As I till, as I lean into the plow, He gives me hope.

(Quotations are from “Raising a Molecular Family in an Atomic Age,” by Matthew Loftus, in Fare Forward, Issue 8, December 2017)


Holy Saturday (A Poem)

Holy Saturday

I paid the bills.
He descended into hell.
I remembered that tax is due
in weeks, and more than that
will be required of me, eventually.
He descended into hell.
The lawnmower hummed,
cutting down the green shoots
tending heavenward.
He descended into hell.
A robin foraged, unaware, her
life one long, innate obedience.
He descended into hell.
We struggled, breathless,
up hills, perplexed at our
weariness.
He descended into hell.
I made breakfast, put away dishes,
opened a window, rearranged
my desk, made plans for the day.
He descended into hell.
I daydreamed, then watched a square of
sunlight advance across my desk.
He descended into hell.
I prayed come, Lord Jesus.
He descended into hell.


Something New

4309EBD6-A38F-4140-8C24-AF0803471597I thank you for that secret praise
Which burns in every creature,
And I ask you to bring us to life
Out of every sort of death

And teach us mercy.

(Anne Porter, “Leavetaking,” in Living Things)

In the dim hours of dawn, on awakening, I said to myself, “Lord, show me something.” Waking twice in the night, summoned out of impossible dreams, I said to the shadows as well, “Show me something, show me something new.” Lying in the dark, I traced the steps and feel and smell of our earlier walk that morning to see if there was something I missed, something unnoticed.

I unlocked and then let latch the gate behind us. Footfalls sounded across a quiet street, the rhythmic beat, the swish of fabric, the unwillingness to speak at first, to interrupt the quiet. The walk rises, leaves earth on a bridge through the air across the channel. I run my hand lightly along a cold handrail, rusted and warped from incident. The wind puffs lightly, northward up the channel, cold on my face. A few sailboats anchor in the placid water. Falling to ground again, feet slapping concrete, the car park of a harbor inn is empty. Vacancy. I leave off there, turn back, sleep overtaking my reverie.

Rising after dawn, I try again for real. Out the gate we go, past a congregation of crows cawing over a dumpster of lunch-leavings. They scatter. On the bridge this time she calls me back, breaks my pace, in my crossing. We lean over the aluminum rails, peer down into the brackish water. “Dolphins, six of them,” she says. I watch them surface, side by side, gray on gray, turning and rolling back below, praise burning in the deep. A neighbor-walker stops, says, “yes, they’re beautiful, aren’t they?,” and we give assent, smile.

In the marsh the tide is out, the mud flats dark against the green of sea grass. Praise burns in its varied grasses - smooth cordgrass mostly, though I learn that low, black needlerush, salt grass, or saltmeadow grass stake out areas that are slightly higher in elevation. Sometimes, though not today, the white-stemmed head of an egret rises above the grasses, aloof. But there are others unseen or unknown to me: the loons and grebes, cormorant, sandpiper, herons, terns, and sparrows, the ones about whom I am mostly ignorant, bookish and inexperienced. Today, the black sands bubble in hope, suggesting a muckish life between the reeds, a secret praise. We walk on.

On the far side of the loop, in the midst of spoken prayers, I consider my reading that day, Paul’s letter to the church in Philipi, when he roots his every hope to see his friends again “in the Lord,” in the certainty of God’s purposes. He makes no wish, no mere precation, but trusts in God to bring it about. And I think: I have been clouded about such things, laboring under wishes and not trusting in the Lord. And here is Paul sending Timothy, his son in faith, when all others “seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:21), speaking life to his friends out of those sorts of deaths, out of seeing self-interest triumph. And still he will “hope in the Lord.” Still, he is faithful in hope.

The north bridge over the channel bears a date, 1955, making it our contemporary. Over half a century it has borne the weight of traffic and storm, the relentless movement of the tides, and yet it holds. Adding yet another burden to it in my tread, adding to over a half century of wear, I think: Lord, have mercy. Carry my burdens. Let life come out of every little death. When cicadas sing, give me ears for secret praise. When the sun rises over the water, let me burn with praise. Teach me mercy under the concrete and traffic of life, in the rattle and rub of the day. Give me an unclouded love like that of parent for child, an untempered hope, a praise not secret but regular and new. Show me something new. Everyday, show me something new.


Moon-Glory

IMG_1582From my perch atop the Hanger Cafe, I overhear the passionate talk of pilots below, passing the time before having breakfast. “Man, all I do,” says one animated forty-ish man, his voice rising like that of an excited child, “is watch YouTube videos of takeoffs and landings.” Another is recounting stories of flying his plane back and forth to California. And the woman sitting near me on the observation deck, cradling a baby, is talking about her plane. This goes on for some time. I look out at the runway, take in the line of planes and hangers to my right. Should I join the conversation, mention that Beach Boy Brian Wilson once wrote a quirky song about an airplane? Probably not.

My wife is a passenger in a Super Cub single-engine plane piloted by my son. “Watch for us,” she texts. “Just getting ready to do a touch and go. Landing now.” The white and red vintage high-wing slides in, touches the runway, and soars upward, the propeller buzzing happily. If I had binoculars, I suspect I would see my son’s slight smile and determined gaze in the cockpit window, like an ancient Kaboutermanneke,* warding off evil. . . well, the troubles of the day, anyway. Flying is his respite and refuge, an antidote for the faux-urgency that life can pretend to have. I suspect many pilots would concur.

Oops. They’re back, the plane taxiing slowly into the line reserved for it, next to an open cockpit Great Lakes. My turn. I descend the stairs and walk across the tarmac.

Entering the back seat of a Super Cub is not the most graceful of maneuvers. You put your foot here but not there, contort your body as you hoist yourself in, then attempt to untangle yourself, assuming you’ve managed to avoid sitting on the stick which protrudes from the floor of the cabin and has such range of movement that it requires you to sit bow legged, as if astride a horse. Thankfully the wing hid me from the other patrons of the cafe. I made it without injury, intact.

The plane I am sitting in has some age, as Piper Aircraft stopped manufacturing the Super Cub in 1994. It started making them in 1949. The plane is prized for its ability to take off and land on short runways and laughs a sputtering laugh (my word) at dirt. It’s a bush plane, a former working plane - trainer, crop duster, border patroller, and military liaison aircraft - now the beloved province of plane aficionados, prized for their nostalgic value but also for their utility as recreational back country transport, enabling you to fly into remote places, pitch a tent, watch the stars in a dark sky, and consider as you lay in your tent the paper-thin fabric separating you from mountain lions. It’s a plane for adventure. And as my son says calmly, “If you lose an engine on this plane out here in the desert, you can land anywhere. You’re basically idling when you land anyway.” It’s a thought both comforting and disturbing at the same time. A grand adventure.

“You doing OK back there, Dad?”

“I’m doing great.” I watch the landscape spread below us, the subdivisions, golf course greens, lagoons, canals, and highways of greater Phoenix; the oddly circular-green irrigated fields; and all around the seemingly desolate desert sands and jagged mountains pressed up against a cerulean sky. I think about the hike my wife and I had near Oracle a few days ago, south of the mountains to my left, where we caught a glimpse of a coyote near a waterhole stalked by what we think was a bobcat, reminding us that the desert is alive with life, albeit mostly nocturnal. I remember the copper mines of Hayden and Kearney, the miners’ houses perched on the hills that we passed en route from Tucson to Phoenix. I remember the wonderful hot dog I had at the Circle K in Monmouth, the best the town could offer, what some might have disdained but which I accepted gratefully.

“They don’t make it easy, do they?” said the weathered man next to me applying condiments to twin and bunless wieners.

“They sure don’t,” I said. I settled for mustard and the catsup my wife suggested. In the car, I ate it quickly, watching the crinkled desert-dwellers entering and exiting the store.

Leaving my reverie, I say to my son, “Can you see Picacho Peak from here?” We look left, Southwest, scanning the horizon for the mountain’s singular peak.

“Not today. Too hazy.” He paused and offered, “Do you want to fly some?”

I look out the window, considering. “I guess so,” I say tentatively. Is he really suggesting that his daydreaming, distracted father take the stick?

“Just put your thumb and one finger on it. I’ll have my hand on it.” I’m behind him, tandem, slightly anxious.

Writing is all about experience, I recall, so I take the wheel, so to speak, for the sake of art. I found the responsiveness of the Super Cub both exhilarating and frightening. I move the stick only slightly away from me, and the plane dips noticeably; I move it slightly to the left, and we bank left; to the right, and we bank right. Hair-trigger, I think. One impulsive, jerky, ill-considered move, I reflect, and. . .

“You can take it now.” The human-plane connection, the immediacy of it, was unsettling, and yet it gave me a sense of how this plane was the real thing, about why pilots must love its tactility, the sense that it is a mere extension of your body.

He banks right, turns the plane for Chandler. The airport in sight, he radios the tower, using his radio voice - an assured, professional, pilot voice that rolls off his tongue. We circle, are cleared for landing, and touch down lightly, taxiing back to our place near the Hangar Cafe. Lunch awaits.

Exiting the Cub is no easier than entering it. I attempted to reverse the steps I took to enter the plane. Advice was offered, but my exit was already in progress.

“Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way, but it worked,” said my son, as my feet reached the tarmac.

On the ground again, I righted myself. Klunk. I hit my head on the wing. They are laughing at me. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt. The plane is “rag and tube,” that is, fabric stretched over a steel frame, so the wing is relatively lightweight, and soft. My head is harder. They are still laughing at me, my head-banging preserved on video. They replay it, waiting for the klunk.

The point of it all? Nothing, really, and yet everything. We were together, the three of us. I rode in a plane over the desert. I remembered days with my wife in this landscape of life. I flew, barely. I listened to my son talk about all manner of things with passion that is contagious. We talked over lunch with a view of planes and mountains. We spent our days together. We laughed. We prayed. In the twilight of our vacation, we redeemed our time, eking out the minutes, wasting time extravagantly with each other, lavishly if imperfectly, a tiny reflection of a Greater Love, basking in our slight but sure moon-glory.
______________

* Right. I did not know what a Kaboutermanneke was either but ran across it when searching for the name of the decorative figurehead on the bow of a some ships. It is of German origin, referring to a spirit that wards off evil.


From the Desert

8486E08C-8292-4523-99D3-8C7C7AE2D950“yet always rejoicing”

(2 Cor. 6:10a)

“I didn’t have a single melancholy thought on that hike,” I said.

“I’ll bet you did,” said my son. “Think about it.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m feeling melancholy now about not having a melancholy thought.”

We had just completed a trek in Catalina Foothills State Park, the desert greened after the rains last week, sahuaro cacti waterlogged, the stream with water and even small trickling waterfalls. Beautiful. Yet you can never fully relax on a desert hike. Hikes in the desert Southwest are fraught with danger. Miss your footing and it can be a sheer drop not into a relatively soft, fuzzy shrub or pine tree but into a prickly pear cactus or a teddy bear cholla, barbed and bristly.

Just tonight, returning from dinner, I heard a stern mother warning her child: “Genesis, stop warmin’ up to that cactus and get over here. That’s a cactus, boy, and you get up against that and you gonna know something. Now get in that car.”

I never met anyone named Genesis. That’s a lot to bear, to be the beginning. I want to meet Genesis’s brothers and sisters and see how far his parents went. I want to meet Revelation. I want to see the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega.

But back to danger. Yesterday, we were hiking the four miles of the Phoneline Trail, high above the Sabino Canyon. Fall off the trail, my wife reminded me cheerily (she insists that this is her favorite trail), and you may be “impaled by a cactus.” Beautiful danger is all around. I nearly lost my balance once and reached out for a handhold - on a cactus which, thankfully, I only touched tentatively and let go quickly. And a few years ago, in the heat of a mid-day sun on the same trail, I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake that slithered across the trail. Now, my wife or son goes in front, as my son informs me that I may be daydreaming or writing a poem in my head. Or having a melancholy thought, a regular and unfounded indictment that makes me. . . well. . . sad.

“Are you writing another blog post, Dad?”

“Yes. I’m stealing your experiences, exaggerating and prevaricating and making up words. It’s what writers do.”

I love the desert. Yesterday, flying over the washboard roads of the Ironwood National Monument, we saw one rancher in a truck and a dusty couple in a fatally low of clearance car, all in two hours. We stopped in the splintered shade of a mesquite once, turned the ignition off, as we are wont to do when on such rovings, and listened. The wind lapped gently on the palo verde, mesquite, and ironwood trees. An occasional quail or cactus wren called. The motor ticked. As we sat in the shadow of Ragged Top Mountain, these ironwood trees, which can live as long as 800 years, surrounded us, like a platoon of elders, their gnarled trunks and evergreen providing a nursery shade for sahuaro and other baby plants, homes for desert mice and birds, and, until protected here, for firewood. I motored on.

“Dad, can you slow down?”

“I can’t figure out if it’s better to slow down for the ruts and rocks or just speed through and levitate over them.”

“I don’t think that works.”

Which, according to the brilliant stars of that formerly BBC show, Top Gear, is incorrect. Just last night, in a show filmed ten years ago, which I am just getting round to, the short chap of the threesome, Hamilton, said otherwise, and demonstrated. Of course, he lost much of his car in the demonstration, including, in this show, doors, bumpers, and side mirrors.

I didn’t. To my knowledge anyway. Dollar Rental can be glad.

Yet on the western border of Ironwood, the greatest discovery of all was had: El Tiro Gliderport, home of the Tucson Soaring Club. My tech-savvy wife, who was navigating from the rear seat using her sharp eyes and Google World, located first a sail plane and then, via World, an airport of sorts. We turned down another gravel-topped road off Pump Station Road and pulled up to a double wide, preceded by an open hanger full of sail planes. For over an hour we watched the tow plane hitch sailplanes to it, take them aloft, and release them to free-fall back to the earth, to a soft landing, after riding thermals around and around, looking down, silently, on the ironwood forest. A crusty sailplane veteran, with patched jeans and a grizzly face, told us one pilot had once stayed aloft nearly seven hours, traveling all the way to the Mexican border and back - with no engine. That’s like no engine.

I had a melancholy thought, then. But it didn’t last long. The sun is warming, the air is cool, my son is out on the line talking to a pilot about one of his great loves, and my wife is basking in the desert air and sun, an almost permanent and beautiful smile on her face.

She’s still smiling. She loves the desert, as do I. This one, the Sonoran, is not barren but full of life.

In a hour or so, just before dusk, the birds will come to the tree off our patio, squawking and jostling for position before settling in for the night. From our balcony perch we’ll look out over the desert wash and then up to the Catalinas and let the cooing of the doves and the golden color of the slanted light dispel every melancholy thought that may intrude. And as the sun descends and the shadows lengthen, we’ll remember what another desert traveler said, that “in this world you will have trouble,” and yet, as He bid, we will take heart, because He has overcome the world and become the light and song in our every desert, rejoicing over us with singing (Zephaniah 3:17). Maybe that’s why you’d name a little boy Genesis, to bear great hope.


A Speech Without Words

71099659-CE3E-4004-BAC0-F3388E677BEAYou are the one who made us
You silver all the minnows in all the rivers
You wait in the deep woods
To find the newborn fox cubs
And unseal their eyes
You shower the sky with stars

(Anne Porter, from “The Bird of Passage,” in Living Things)

At 4:00 AM this morning, a full moon shone so brightly that the windows in my room were lit as if a spotlight shone through them. After rising, I went out on my back patio to shepherd closed an umbrella, anticipating wind, and the cold warmth of the moon bathed me. In its brilliance I could not even see its dry and cratered seas. I turned away, moonstruck, moons still in my sight.

“We are like the moon,” said singer Barry McGuire once in introducing a song. “He is the light, the sun, and we can only reflect his glory.”

Moonlight on airplanes. William is driving us to our flight, moving through the nearly empty roads. In a soft voice, this large man is telling us of his daughter, how she loves gymnastics, how well she is doing. He’s been awake since yesterday morning, driving a cab. “The wind,” he says, has been blowing all night.” I make a mental note to find out why the wind blows, as I am ignorant; I can only think of Who has been blowing, the Who behind the moon.

“Why,” I ask my scientist son later, “does the wind blow,” feeling like a curious child asking his father yet another “why” question.

“It has to do with different air pressures, which are affected by temperature, and the turning of the earth, and other things.” Of course it does. I must have learned that somewhere.

When we opened the squawking door of our garage to load our oversized luggage in William’s cab, we were met by our nocturnal neighbor, the unofficial constable of our street, a friendly if not quite huggable black cat who lives at large, using our neighbor’s yard and driveway as a base of operation but conducting reconnaissance throughout the area. I’ve never seen him sleep. Somehow it gives me comfort, a sense of security, to know that he is about, up all night, yet now he is a pest, wanting in our garage. “Skat, says my wife, “skat.” He moves on, continuing his rounds.

“I guess you have to work all these long hours to pay for those gymnastics lessons,” I say to William, “and then you can go see her competitions.”

“I can’t go see her,” he says, “but I can send her.” And underneath his voice I can hear a whisper of longing, glory, and regret, and an appreciable measure of love, reflected, like the moon on the lake we motor past.

Our plane takes off to the northwest, lumbering into the air, held aloft by air and thrust, by Bernoulli’s principle, by some kind of power unseen. Clouds glow in moonlight, and the subdivisions and streets and sleeping people meld into humanity and civilization and ultimately just earth. William drives away, his daughter in his sights; a black cat is checking doors and watching for marauders; the first birds are waking with chipper blessings; and houses hum and yawn with a new day. Underneath it all, something courses, something animates.

Ann Porter, who died a few years ago a childlike and very articulate 99, finished her poem with these words:

When the Canada geese
Are coming down from the north
When the storks of Europe
Stretch out their necks toward Egypt
From their nests on the chimney tops
When shaking their big wings open
And trailing their long legs after them

They rise up heavily
To begin their autumn flight

You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers

To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey.

This week a friend reminded me that “the Kingdom of God has come” to his workplace, that he doesn’t have to “make something happen.” I often forget that, I say. I often forget that God in Christ is up all night, at work 24-7 reconciling the universe - every atom of it - to himself, setting all things right, and He has made us all ambassadors of that reconciliation. We are qualified not by our abilities but by our lack, a diplomatic corp of brokenness trumpeting the glory of the Son. We are the moon, the voice of liberty. And He inhabits our work, is hiding in our wings.

I appreciate His delicate certainty underneath, His speech without words, the poetry of His presence.

Because the journey can be long, and fraught with danger, yet full of light.


It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

79CA8974-337B-4E9B-912E-6C8362A10ED8The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day,
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

(“Travel”, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Favorite Poems: Old and New, Selected by Helen Farris)

From my home it is nearly seven miles to the nearest train tracks. Between me and that crossing, there are busy highways, a suburban mall, residential neighborhoods, and even a gain in elevation - hill and valley, wood and field, concrete and condo. I rarely hear a train pass. Yet, on a clear night, when the wind blows from the south or southwest, I hear its plaintive whistle - even, unless my mind deceives, hear its wheels on the tracks, a low rumble, an undercurrent to the hum of traffic. Last night, about 11:00, I cracked the window slightly to the night air, pressed my ear into its opening, leaning on the windowsill, and heard the faint clickety-clack and rumble of the wheels. It takes a train to cry, I thought.

Train whistles provoke longings. They make me want to leave, to go, to travel no matter where. The very idea of movement and compelling visions of mountain gorges and lonely prairies and desolate, moonlit deserts stirs the wanderlust. “Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,” concludes Millay in her poem, “no matter where it’s going.” Reading that, I nod my assent back across time.

Once our family took an overnight train from Jasper, Alberta through the fir trees and mountains of British Columbia. We slept in comfortable bunk beds, lulled to sleep by the wheels on track and the rare and lonely station light. Another time we traveled cross the high plains of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota from Glacier National Park to Minneapolis. Though not nearly as comfortable as the Canadian train, our consolation was that we could rest, walk around, and eat in the dining car, not worrying at all about driving. And when, after all, would I next be in Minot, North Dakota? Never, I thought, smiling. Unless I came by train, wandering across an endless landscape.

The length of some trains is beguiling. Once, we sat at a railway crossing outside Vail, Arizona, while a seemingly mile-long freight train snaked across the desert. Another time, I stood feet away from another freight passing through Fargo, North Dakota, enjoying the snapshots of main street between the passing cars, the power of locomotion, the clanging of the crossing bells and lights, and the endless linkage of cars trailing off into the horizon. And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone, the last car rounding a curve and leaving sight.

I understand why some have hopped aboard freight cars, like Dustbowl refugees, Okies, and Woody Guthries. It makes me wonder if I have hobo kin, restless travelers bound for glory or, at least, adventure. And maybe that’s what beckons - that desire to experience something other, something new, something unknown. When as a child I watched the Southern Railway trains pass, I knew someone was going somewhere far away, and I wasn’t. But I wanted to. I wanted to go and see what could be seen, to get loose of my little world. There was that ineffable if incomprehensible sadness when the caboose and waving conductor faded from my view.

“Trains, says writer Dana Frank, “tap into some deep American collective memory.” So it’s not just our own personal history that trains conjure up but something deeper, something about expansion and movement and hope, about grass that is greener elsewhere, about dreams, about moving on. Trains seem timeless, throwbacks to an earlier age, reminders that we are always moving.

It takes a train to cry, says Bob Dylan, in that world-weary song from 1965. Dylan returned to the imagery of a train over decades later with “Slow Train Coming,” an apocalyptic vision of a reckoning to come. In one verse, he snarls:

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Next time you hear a train, consider where you are and where you’ve been, as well as where you need to be. The whistle you hear is longing. The power rushing past is reckoning. Yet the gleam in your eye as the last car rounds the bend is hope that you too, with grace, will soon reach your hobo home, where longing meets laughter, where all our wandering leads us home.


A Bridge's Promise


IMG_2809“A bridge is a promise that a broken world can be whole.”

(D.J. Waldie, in “A Traveler Comes to a Bridge:
An Encounter With the 4th Street Viaduct”)

For most of us bridges, like the other parts of the urban landscape, pass largely unnoticed. Even iconic bridges, like the Golden Gate, may, after many passes by a commuter, move into the background, a blur. Awe accommodates itself to repetition, like floaters in the eye, unnoticed after a time. "Bridges," says Bruce Jackson, "are perhaps the most invisible form of public architecture." What is common and ordinary becomes invisible.

The first bridge I recall was one from my early childhood. My bonneted grandmother, hands on her hips, let us wade and play in the stream which pooled beneath the trestled bridge of the Southern Railway tracks. As the train passed overhead, the conductor waved and the trestles seemed to shake.

Later, friends and I waded through the stream flowing through the twin tunnels of the bridge over the creek that flowed through our neighborhood. We caught tadpoles, skipped rocks across the water's surface, and let our voices reverberate off the walls.

There are great and even tragic stories behind some bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge, or the iconic Charles Bridge, in Prague, and very tiny stories behind many other bridges that are largely unrecounted and forgotten. Most embodied very pedestrian hopes, like that of better traffic flow or safer passage or, maybe, just a way to get home. Some, like those connecting a barrier island with the mainland, bore the hope of profit. And some, like the one over the stream in my neighborhood, an etching on a developer's plan or, for many a parent, a place to pause with a stroller and let a child hear the gurgling water and dream of all the places to which that water may travel.

And then, there's another kind of bridge altogether, like the one a friend heard about in his college years. While ambling about a mountain music festival in the early Seventies, a bearded man stopped him and said, simply and only, "Jesus is the bridge, man." After dropping that metaphor, the bridge-tender walked on, yet that one bridge reverberated in my friend's mind the rest of the day and on into the early hours of the morning, when, full of hope and in trust, he walked across it into another country.

“A traveler comes to a bridge," muses essayist D.L. Waldie. "As the traveler starts to cross, one foot is still earth bound. Empty space is beneath the other. The next step requires trust. The traveler is uplifted less by concrete or masonry and more by forces kept in balance with the void waiting below. The bridge seems static, but every footfall must be absorbed, its effects distributed by tension or resisted by compression. The bridge responds. Its span springs to the traveler’s step in order to seem unmoved."

I try not to take any bridge for granted. The bridge holds me up. It gives me a perspective on the flow below. It carries me to where I need to go. It absorbs my weight, carries my burdens and, finally, takes me Home.