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June 2006

Habit, Gesture, Rhythm

"Which forms of prayer are best?  There is no rule of thumb, for the reason that every thumbprint is different and distinct.  Some habit of prayer is clearly wise, for all life is built on habit; but the habit should be under frequent scrutiny lest it harden into a confining shell.  Some gesture of prayer is wise.  Here also there can be no general prescription. . . . [A] gesture. . . cuts a physical channel through which the spirit may flow.  Audible speech has the power in unusual measure: words clarify the vague resolve and themselves carry it into the deed.  Again, some rhythm in prayer's forms is wise. . . . Speech and silence should both have place, for one is active and the other receptive.  Repetition gives deeper and deeper imprint to a prayer, but becomes mere rote unless balanced by newness.  So liturgy and 'free prayer' each claim place and bestow a common good. 

(Presbyterian Pastor George Buttrick, in Prayer)

In the recent couple of years, my favorite method of prayer has been to pray about whatever comes to mind as I take a daily walk.  While it took some concentration, some purposeful attention, I enjoyed the newness it put into my prayer life as I put aside trying to cover a list of prayer concerns, or specific topics, or, in fact, to make any intercession at all.  I even enjoined others to such an approach, citing the example of Brother Lawrence, in a talk I gave.

But I'm discovering that with all methods, all approaches to prayer, it is necessary to keep moving.  Now when I walk, I am too distracted.  I find myself going long distances daydreaming.  I repeat myself.  I have a rote beginning to my prayers.  They begin with a bang and go out with a whimper.  I recognize the signs of calcification, the need to move on.

So what I'm doing now is beginning to focus on written prayers, not to the complete exclusion of my "walking prayers," but as an ordering supplement.  Puritan prayers, Celtic prayers, the Psalms, and others, placing myself in the writer's place, inserting my praises or confessions or intercessions and petitions around the forms that the author gives, and learning, as George Buttrick commends, a rhythm of speaking and then listening, reading and reflecting, sometimes speaking aloud that the gesture might incarnate the meaning of the words I read, make them live in my world.

I recognized in what Buttrick said what I had previously said:  Satan loves law.  He will take the freeing thing and make it dry duty so that it becomes dead.  We have to keep moving, holding lightly whatever form or method we use, because he loves habit.  He uses it to his perverse ends.

Cousins From Another Planet

When I think of the 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny, I almost laugh out loud.  It was that funny.  Here's the plot:  While heading for college, teenagers Bill and Stan are arrested in Alabama under circumstances that point to them as having murdered a convenience store clerk. Unable to afford an attorney, they turn to Bill's cousin Vinny (played by Joe Pesci), a brash New Yorker who took six tries to pass his bar exam. Worse, until now he's only taken personal injury cases, none of which have gone to trial.  He has an even more abrasive fiancee Mona Lisa Vito, Vinny will have to straighten up fast, and keep out of jail himself, if he's going to win the case.  Vinny's a cousin, kin, and kin come to the rescue of family, right?  Yes, much to Bill and Stan's chagrin.  Vinny's the cousin from hell, but he redeems himself after all.

I thought of Vinny recently when I read Anthony Esolen's short article, "Dozens of Cousins," in the latest issue of Touchstone magazine.  Esolen laments the loss of extended family, of ties to anyone beyond the immediate family, the nuclear family.  He's talking about "those strange people called cousins, strange and familiar at once, whose blood -- nay, whose noses -- exert a powerful claim on your duty and who, in their numbers and their crazy variety and their blissful being-themselves, place you within a community whether you like it or not and remind you that you are not the most important person in the world."  I'll say.

Growing up I had something like eight cousins that I saw much of, and all of them were on my mother's side.  They all had their disagreeable propensities, were brats at one time or the other, played nice at other times, but regardless of how we got along, we knew we'd see them again and we'd better make up if we fought.  You see, we were family, in some weird way, even though I couldn't imagine that we were in the same bloodline at all.  I suspect Stan wondered that about Vinny, accepted his help (had to) and put up with his outrageous character -- because he was his cousin, he was family.  You don't have a choice.

As Esolen says: "A cousin always has to choose you to play on his team, though he doesn't necessarily have to choose you first; you can waltz into your cousin's house and ask to use the bathroom or get a drink of orange juice; you can just show up unannounced and pester him into a game of rummy.  Some kids find it hard to make friends, but a cousin has to like you even if he doesn't like you, and he comes readymade."  Cousins know stuff, private information, like what a nerd you were as a kid, how you cried all the time when things didn't go your way.  But that's OK, because you have information too.  Thus, we are bound together in our secrets.

We're told life is better when we have more choices, and that even extends to family.  So many people have no extended family ties, having burned those bridges long ago or never even bothered with them.  But expanding choice is not always a social good.  It's good to be plopped down in an extended family that you did not choose and be forced to deal with them.  Grow up to be a dignified attorney, and they'll remember the undignified moment when you got your pants caught on the barb wire fence running from Mr. Crumbie's strawberry patch.

You know, to be honest, I don't have a single cousin that isn't a little strange.  But it's OK -- I'm sure they feel that way about me too.  I like it that way.  You see, they're my cousins: I have to like them.  It's good for me.

Loving Books

Dillard_1 "The written word is weak.  Many people prefer life to it.  Life gets your blood going, and it smells good.  Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.  It appeals only to the subtlest senses -- the imagination's vision, and the imagination's hearing -- and the moral sense, and the intellect.  This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.  The reader's ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word.  An ordinary reader picking up the book can't yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up the writing's modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.  (Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life)

When I was about ten, with the consent of my parents I joined the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Science Fiction Book Club.  I did ordinary boy things then -- backyard capture the flag games, bicycling, camping out, and more -- but my best memories are about being with a book.  For example, I read a book of Robert Heinlein science fiction short stories around that time and to this day remember some of those stories -- like the one about the man who went shopping, entered the down escalator, and never got off.  He kept going down, down, down, and grew more frantic and delirious as he went down.  It did not end well.  I do not like to shop now, and I think about that story and others about elevators when I use them.  That's a good writer -- take something we're a little bit nervous about and exaggerate it and provoke a response in the reader.  Scaring ten year old boys.  They should be ashamed.

But honestly, I read it all -- all my sisters' Nancy Drew books, all of Aesop's Fables and Grimm's Fairy Tales, Barclay's commentaries, a book about a mountain doctor (I still remember what that one felt like), books on prayer, devotionals, Reader's Digests, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal (sans the "racy" ads my mother expunged), Popular Mechanics (the only thing my Dad read), and a huge illustrated Family Bible with pictures I pored over (I remember its musty smell and cool pages when I cracked it open).  I read it all; thus, I started on book clubs. 

I had two best friends.  I don't think they read anything except, unfortunately, Playboy Magazine. (Well, maybe they didn't really read it.)

We weren't a literary family with bookshelves of Faulkner, Yeats, Twain, and Hemingway, but we had books, and we read them.  I'm thankful for that environment.  It taught be something.  It taught me that subtlety is more powerful than in-your-face reality, carefully crafted words more mind-expanding than images.

It's what makes me have a love/hate relationship with film.  I love films.  Their images are in one way so powerful.  And I hate films.  They give me one very sensual picture of the reality of a story and then, for better or worse, I'm stuck with it.  My mind has been spoon fed.  I don't get to allow words to shape my own imagination.  So I feel cheated.

Nevertheless, many people prefer films.  They may even prefer them to life.  I don't.  Give me a book any day.  Give me that chair my Mom had where I spent hours reading, not even coming to supper, preferring words to food (a propensity I wish had lasted).  Give me a book and I'll go anywhere -- even shopping.

Here Come the People in Grey

Kinks One of my pastimes after college was attending an urban design graduate program.  It was a pastime, I say, because I never quite fit in with the nice folks there.  There were anarchists (I kid you not), community organizers, hardcore environmentalists of the EarthFirst kind, and anti-growth advocates.  (And I thought I was an environmentalist when I entered!)  You could do as you pleased there, because it was all pass/fail, and everyone passed and everyone did exactly as they pleased.

But it was there that I began to actually think about cities and the way they are put together, and there that I began to have a healthy fear of the urban planner -- the ones with all good intentions but a severe lack of understanding of communities.  Thankfully, many of them are gone, and there is a sensitivity to communities, in making them human places, but that wasn't always the case back in the 60s.

That's exactly what Ray Davies and his band, The Kinks, are onto in Muswell Hillbillies, a 1971 album that's really a critique, a social commentary laced with wry humor, of heavy- handed British urban planning in the late 60s.  It entertained me in high school and continues to provoke me today.

Why Muswell?  Because that's the North London working class neighborhood where Ray and Dave Davies grew up. The site of heavy bombing in WWII, the Government came in and cleared whole neighborhoods, knocking down perfectly good homes that survived, simply because they did not fit into the "beauty" of the renewal scheme.  As Davies says, "There was just one problem.  They forgot the people."  That's the tone of this concept album -- a critique of urban renewal by planners who really didn't know the community, the people, that they said they were trying to help.

For example, the album opener, "20th Century Man," is the cry of the last man on the block, who doesn't want his house knocked down.  "This is the twentieth century/ but too much aggravation/ it's the age of insanity/ What has become of the green fields of Jerusalem?  Other songs are about family members, like "Uncle Son," or "Holloway Jail," lending an interesting cast of characters to the album, peopling it with rich particulars that provide vivid images.

The album had no hit single, usually the kiss of death at that time in the business, and yet it became a cult favorite.  It's tragi-comedy at its best.  ""Here come the people in grey/ they're gonna take me away to Lord knows where,/ But I'm unprepared, I got no time to pack/ and I got nothing to wear,/ but here come the people in grey/ to take me away."  By the time the album closes with the title track, a full picture is rendered: They're putting us in little boxes,/ No character just uniformity,/ They're trying to build a computerized community,/ But they'll never make a zombie out of me."

Funny, and then it's not.

The Mindless Life of the Mind (or, What Writers Do With Their Time)

Clip_image003"It should surprise no one that the life of the writer -- such as it is -- is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation.  Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.  This explains why so many books describe the author's childhood.  A writer's childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.  Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper."  (Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life)

Well, who needs money when writing can be that attractive, that rewarding?  Everyone knows I'm not a writer like Annie Dillard but, having written a little, and been to a few writers' conferences and workshops, I can understand what she says.  Writers do surround themselves with other writers to remind themselves that they are doing something, that the little room and the pieces of paper or bits of information on the hard drive do have value.

Well, a lot of writing is simply looking around and saying something, noticing something about some particular thing or things that maybe not many people notice or, if they do, they rarely say anything about.  Maybe for good reason.

Like the way my daughter says "good point," just   like    that.  Good point.  Punctuation at the end of an answer, or maybe wherever she wants to say it, just to draw conversation to a close or maybe say "I'm wrong but I can't say it so I'll just say this to let you know that I get it, that I'm not stupid, that I really knew that."  Only it's easier to just say "good point," just     like     that.

Or the creaking board.  Oh, you know what I mean, only no one talks much about it.  You step out of bed in the morning, put your foot on the floor, the foot that feels as if it hasn't held up your body for a few months so it needs to get acclimated to you, put your weight down on the carpet, and there's that big "creaaaak."  That loose board.  The ones you told the builder to be sure were secure, would not creak, never creak, before you had the new carpet put in and it was too late.  And yet, it creaks.  Is that just life, the reminder that nothing will ever be exactly right here, between our coming and our going?  Just "creaaaaaak."  I'll never get used to that. I'll never get used to life here.

But when you get tired of writing about those important things, you can write about. . . about the time you were laying in your bassinet and your mother came in and picked you up and said something barely intelligible that sounded like "howsmibabeetoodayyyy."  Nope.  Just kidding.  I don't really remember that.  See, I was too young.  That's called literary license, folks.

Hey, this room is getting smaller.

I need some air.

Good point.


Something Only I Can Write

Dillard "People Love pretty much the same things best.  A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.  Strange seizures beset us.  Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl's drawers visible when she's up a pear tree. . . . Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands?  Because it is up to you. . . . You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.  (Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life

Well, that's it, then.  That's the challenge for me as a writer.  I need to find the thing that needs to be said, the thing that only I can say, even if no one else is interested in that thing.  No small task.

It's almost a presumptuous thing to think that only I can say a thing, only I can say it in a certain way, with a certain perspective, and yet it makes sense.  It's not, as Annie Dillard says here and later on, that anyone else will care.  That's the challenge too -- making them care, writing in such a way that they too are interested in this idiosyncrasy.

This flows from being made unique, being made in God's image, and being given a particular mix of certain gifts and abilities and particular good works to do that do not perfectly match anyone else's.  It doesn't mean that most have the degree of gift that say a writer like Annie Dillard may have, or more notable, Hemingway or Faulkner, but everyone gets some unique mix that enables them to do that good work or works they were put here to do.

It's just that it can be a perpetual quest to find it, a long quest to find the thing that only I can say.  Frederick Buechner gets at it here, when he says that "the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  Gladness, and hunger.  I'm on the lookout, folks.

Prayer and Unbelief

Clip_image002_29Under the best of circumstances, prayer can be difficult.  Far better is prayer when we are beset by the worst of circumstances, for that is when we truly cry out to God.  A those times, we need help -- badly, and now. But I suspect that how we pray in the best of times is the better indication of how much we believe in prayer and how important it is to us.

Recently, this was once again brought home to me by a summary I read of missionary Helen Roseveare's quite amazing answer to prayer some time ago.  (Roseveare's name caught my eye because I heard her speak 30 years ago at an Urbana Missions Conference, and she made an impression that lasted.)  Roseveare was an English missionary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) from 1953 to 1973, founding hospitals and clinics.  At one point, she felt God leading her to start a new ministry to lepers, but she lacked the money to do so.  She prayed, expecting God to supply.  As the time approached when she would need a specific amount of money to start the work, she began to be concerned, as no money arrived. 

As Betsy Childs summarizes:  "As the first day of the next month dawned, Roseveare went to work discouraged and confused.  At lunch time, Aunzo [a leper she employed] greeted her with a large brown envelope. It had been delivered the previous day to a different missionary by mistake! Inside the envelope was money that came to the sum of 4,800 francs. Roseveare quickly subtracted the tithe [she always tithed 10% of any gifts received] in her head, which left 4,320 francs, the exact amount needed to pay the bill for the supplies. She writes:  'The total was made up of three gifts, from an unknown couple in North America, from two prayer partners in Northern Ireland, and from a Girl Crusaders' Union class in southeast England. The North American gift had been on the way some four months, transferred from our Philadelphia office to the London office, from London to Brussels, Brussels to Leopoldville (Kinshasa), and finally upcountry from Leopoldville to Paulis (Isiro). Every transfer involved a certain percentage cost. At the end, the three gifts had arrived together to make the exact sum needed, and two of the gifts were designated: 'for your leprosy work'—and I did not have a leprosy work when the money was actually given!'"

That's an amazing story and it demonstrates that God certainly can and does answer prayers very specifically.  In fact, the story is very similar to the one Edith Scaheffer tells in her book, L'Abri.  As I recall, the Schaffers, who had a ministry in Switzerland to college students and seekers of truth, were asked to leave the canton in Switzerland where they lived.  They could move to another canton, but they needed a specific amount of money to do so.  They received it, on the last day, because I man in the United States woke in the middle of the night with the sense that he needed to take his contribution to a mailbox and mail it right away -- to the Schaeffers -- who receievd it, the exact amount needed, at the last moment.  Another amazing story.

What I am disturbed by is my reaction to these stories.  Yes, there's the good: I am encouraged.  I am reminded to pray specifically, expecting God to answer, sometimes in very concrete ways.  But another thing I experienced when reading this was skepticism -- can this really be?  Is this an account that has been exxagerated in any way?  I attribute part of that to a culture of unbelief and cynicism, and I recognize that this has effected me as well.  But I can't lay all the blame there.  Part of it, no doubt, is my own struggle with believing God at His word, believing that He answers prayer, that I'm not just talking to myself and attributing good outcomes to His hand.

This is disappointing about me.  But I suspect I am not alone in this.  I suspect others struggle with this doubt at times.  We can only say "Lord increase our faith" as we continue to watch and pray, pray and watch.  I'm thankful for these stories, and more like them, because they remind me to ask and expect, and with God's grace I'll continue to do so.

Paul Simon's Surprise

Surprise_1If you have been writing and singing songs for around 45 years, it's understandable that you might be seeking new sounds, and thus it's no surprise really that veteran singer-songwriter Paul Simon's new record, Surprise, melds his wordcraft (here more stream of consciousness) with the sonic landscapes of Brian Eno, king of elecronica.  It works, sometimes, maybe not as well as the world beat of Graceland, but good enough for this aging musician.

Musically, there's the trademark honey voice (no synthesized voice, at least), and even some songs that hearken back to the "old" rhymning Simon (represented for me, at least, by a song like "An American Tune"), but the influence of Brian Eno is unmistakable.  On three songs he even shares songwriting credits.  As a result, it would difficult to put this record in the folk section at the local record store.  There's a nice diversity of sound, making for an interesting record, although some songs lack a discernible melody line (thus, nothing to sing along with).  But that's just my pop sensibility, my love of big, major chords.

The really interesting part of the record for me is the lyrics and the general theme of the record.  Surprise -- I think the theme is joy.  And that may be a new one for Paul Simon.  For example, in "How Can You Live In the Northeast," after all the "how can you"s about place, circumstance, and religious belief, he sums it up with these lines: "I've been given all I wanted.  Only three generations off the boat.  I have harvested and I've planted.  I'm wearing my father's old coat."  That's humble gratitude.  The first single, "Outrageous," is basicaly a meditation on civilization and its discontents, such as old age, the poor, frustration, and even the food in the public schools.  And yet, even here it ends in hope:  "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?  God will.  Like he waters the flowers on the window sill.  Take me.  I'm an ordinary player in the key of C.  And my will was broken by my pride and vanity."  In wartime prayers (which is not, on its face, at least, thankfully, about the Iraq war, he says that "when the wounds are deep enough, and it's all that we can bear, we wrap ourselves.  In prayer."

There's also the joy of parenthood.  In "Beautiful," he tells of adopting children from Bangladesh, China, and Kosovo.  Beautiful.  And in "Father and Daughter," he broadcasts his hope for his daughter, saying like all fathers would that "there could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you."

This is one of those albums that may not knock you over on first listening.  Yet, with patience, it grows on you.  Patience, a  precious commodity.  No surprise.

Denise Levertov's Poems of Faith

Levertov You do not have to agree with all that Denise Levertov was passionate about to appreciate her poetry, and for Christians that's particularly the case with her "religious" poems.  Religious is in quotes because these poems, as collected in her book, The Stream & the Sapphire, chronicle a passage from agnosticism to Christian belief.  In so doing, they reflect honest searching, some resolution, and yet even more questions.

I love the affirmation of faith and yet the humility in both the followinSapphireg poems:

In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being

Birds afloat in air's current,
sacred breath?  No, not breath of God,
it seems, but God
the air enveloping the whole
globe of being.
It's we who breathe, in, out, in, in the sacred,
leaves astir, our wings
rising, ruffled -- but only the saints
take flight.  We cower
in cliff-crevice or edge out gingerly
on branches close to the nest.  The wind
marks the passage of holy ones riding
that ocean of air.  Slowly their wake
reaches us, rocks us.
But storms or still,
numb or poised in attention,
we inhale, exhale, inhale,
encompassed, encompassed.

Flickering Mind

Lord, not you
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away -- and back,
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop
to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river's purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn.  Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow.
You the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain's heart
the sapphire I know is there?

Born in England, and home-schooled in a very literate household, Levertov began to write poems at the age of five.  She published her first work at the age of 16.  She married and emigrated to the United States after WWII, where she became a citizen eventually.  She taught, published poetry, and, at some point, came to faith.

I like what she says about writing: "When you're really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer."  She talks about prayer being very much about paying attention -- something that requires some discipline and focus.

Levertov died in 1997 -- thank God, in faith.

The Limits of Alt-Ism

HippyAs one who has spent some years at the Cornerstone Festival, what someone has termed Christian Rock's "biggest and baddest rock fest," and as someone who has spent a fair amount of time critiquing Christian music (a la the "lyric test", banality, and mimicry) and listening to the critics and (yes) whiners about Christian music, I'd have to say that there are limits to alt-tism, that is, the attractive belief that the alternative to what exists is always better.

My critique of Christian music led me to folk music in search of honesty and authenticity.  However, while I found some honesty, I also discovered a wide-ranging conformity and an emphasis on angst, a kind of study of the underbelly of life, nothing to lift your sights higher than your circumstances.  An example of the former is a the prevailing anti-Bush-ism of the folk world.  Walk the halls of the annual Folk Alliance convention wearing a Bush button, and you'll definitely feel like an outsider.  Mention Christian beliefs and you will be regarded with suspicion.  Inject too much hope in your music, and you'll be viewed as sentimental and non-authentic.  There's a kind of reverse conformity at work in this alt-music culture, only the minority nature of it makes it worse in that it leads to an elitist mentality and the associated idea that anything popular with the masses cannot be good.  I left that world.  It's tiresome.  The folk subculture is no better than the evangelical subculture.  Nor is the alternative Christian subculture better.

When I listen to music now, read, or see a film, or consider doing so, I simply ask three questions: Is it true?  Is it good?  Is it beautiful?  That really captures what Scripture commends.  In other words, does it fit with objective reality, does it commend what is good or at least prompt me to good behavior, and is it excellent in its aesthetic form?  It's not an all or nothing test, and it may be worth listening to, reading, or seeing something if it does one of these things well and not another.  But these are the questions to ask.

Look at creative offerings this way and labels become meaningless.  If it's true, good, or beautiful, it's God's.  He gets the glory.  And we conform to the image of Christ, not the image of a group that thinks it has a hold on what culture should look like.

By Willoway Brook: A Review

Willoway_2 For most Christians, one of the most confounding spiritual disciplines is prayer.  Who among us has not struggled with its practice?  There's the difficulty of talking to an unseen Person, one who does not generally (or ever) audibly respond, giving you the feeling of a one-sided conversation.  Then there's the sense that you are not really doing anything.  And yet a vital prayer life is crucial to our Christian walk. Indeed, there are few admonitions more prevalent in Scripture than that to pray.

For those who struggle, I can recommend Cindy Crosby's By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer.  In this short book of meditations (which I just finished) Crosby is observing parallels between the natural world (particularly the tallgrass prairie preserved as Schulenberg Prairie in suburban Chicago) and the inner landscape of prayer.  This intrigued me right at the outset, and yet I wasn't sure whether she could pull this off. She does, and does well.

For those seeking some type of formula or process by which to discover a vibrant prayer life, this will be a particularly frustrating book.  There's none of that.  Rather, what Crosby does is take us along on her own journey of discovery -- discovering God in the process of discovering and understanding the life of the prairie, that prairie her theology professor described as "just weeds, Cindy, just weeds."  Perhaps the following quote is a good key to what is going on here:  "There's a skin of the landscape I'm beginning to peel back, and I'm finding a map of sorts in the world around me; a landscape of prayer, creation that cannot help but praise the creator.  Symbols in the landscape beckon me further up and further in.  When I'm on the prairie, the barriers come down."  Yes, there's a touch of mysticism here, and yet it's the healthy kind, that is, meditating on creation, with scripture in mind, to understand what clues it may yield about prayer.

In the process, Crosby serves up some rich and delicious language (did I really say delicious?).  It's almost too much at times.  She also writes honestly.  I had to cringe when I read this confession:  "With age has come a loss of much of the joy I used to have about Christmas.  I'm often depressed rather than anticipatory, stressed rather than excited, and anxious about the money we spend rather than focused on what's worthy of celebration.  The Christmas season invites the blues."  A Christian lacking joy at Christmas?  Yes, it happens, and it's not uncommon.  So, she slips away to the prairie and there, inexplicably, finds joy -- joy enough to carry her through.

One thing that emerges in Crosby's meanderings in the prairie is that prayer is much more about paying attention, about listening, than about speaking.  Paying attention to the rich ecology of the tallgrass, she begins to listen to God, seeing  Him all around her -- in the nighthawks, wind, dragonflies, paths, monarch butterflies, weeds, compass plants, prairie burns, and sandhill cranes.  God is there, instructing, speaking, and pointing to Himself. 

Nevertheless, in the end, she has to confess that much about the prairie and prayer remain a mystery.  The more she plumbs the depths, the more she realizes how little she knows.

Ah, it's just weeds, Cindy.  It's just prayer.  Right?

[Follow this link to purchase a copy of Cindy Crosby's book.  It's a telling indicator of what sells and doesn't sell in the Christian market that you can find a used copy of the book for as low as $.40.  Don't do it.  Support good writing by buying a new hard copy.]

More Questions About Blogging

Clip_image002_30A recent article by Alan Jacobs in Books and Culture, entitled "Goodbye, Blog," is provocatively subtitled "The friend of information, but the enemy of thought."  That about sums it up.

Jacobs, a blogger himself (both a contributor to and reader of blogs), laments the fact that his hope that blogs would revolutionize real discussion of real issues, in his words, that  "blogs could provide an alternative venue where more risky ideas could be offered and debated, where real intellectual progress might take place outside the System," has not been borne out.  That's System, capital "S", like the Establishment, man, the stifling academic or work environment where peer pressure and convention limits discussion of real issues.

Experience has proven otherwise, and Jacobs attributes that mostly to the architecture of blogs, to how the system is set up.  There's both the way commenting occurs, when it occurs, which limits real discussion because threads get lost, or the vitriolic debate and name-calling engendered because those who comment are usually anonymous.  (That's why I avoid commentary on political issues.)  The latter points to the unfortunate fact that blogs are completely public.  Anyone can comment, even idiots and those who are just downright mean.  Bottom line:  Blogs are great for news, but not much good for the development of ideas.  It happens, but not often enough.

His comments made me consider my own blog, but I guess what I have here is a bit different.  I'm open to comment but do not solicit it.  I'm not trying to start a discussion, though I'm open to it.  There's a little bit of information here, but more than that it is an exercise for me in writing about something everyday.  That's everyday.  That's difficult.  It's been a useful discipline for me.  The advantage over a more private journal is that as my thoughts are somewhat public, I have at least the sense of an audience, in theory if not reality.  That makes me think about what I write.  I think about clarity, spelling, and whether what I say might mean anything to someone other than me. 

But there's also a downside.  I hesitate to say some things, due to privacy concerns.  The form limits me from writing a longer essay and does not lend itself to the development of bigger ideas.  I guess the thoughts I express are just the kernels of those larger things which, maybe, just maybe, I'll get to one day.

Bottom line: This is good for now, for me, but whether I keep it up is an open question.  Stay tuned.

Beginnings (The Moviegoer)

Moviegoer "This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch.  I know what this means.  Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can only mean one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks.  It will be extremely grave, either a piece of bad news about her stepdaughter Kate or else a serious talk about me, about the future and what I ought to do.  It is enough to scare the wits out of anyone, yet I confess I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasant." (Walker Percy, in The Moviegoer).

Great introductions portend much, and Walker Percy, being a great writer, manages to provoke curiosity and raise questions right off the bat -- in one simple paragraph.  First, there are three people: the narrator (presumably male, though it is unclear), the aunt, and the aunt's stepdaughter Kate.  There are relationships, and I wonder about the relationship between the aunt and the narrator.  It is a regular relationship, not altogether dutiful (as he says "I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasing").  Is the aunt a busybody, or genuinely concerned about his well-being?  And what about Kate?  Is she a family problem child?  She's certainly been the subject of more than one piece of bad news.  And why no job for the narrator?  Is he a sluggard, or simply confused about what to do with his future?  Does he have any relationship with Kate, or will he?  Where is his life going?  Is that what this is about?

That's a lot from one paragraph, and yet that draws me into the book and the story that unfolds.  I read it some time ago, and I cannot now recall what the story is about.  And yet I'm intrigued enough to read it again, perhaps, all because of one paragraph -- a great beginning.  It matters how you start.

The Wood Between the Worlds (In the Dallas Airport)

Ca_road_trip_14She worked bent over the table, not looking up at the people spilling all round her. Middle-aged, she was resigned to this work, not expecting acknowledgement or kindness. She was a fixture, almost non-human, unseen, and she had long ago accepted that feeling.

That morning before leaving for work, he had cursed at her for waking him, yelling at her from the bed where he lay fully clothed, where he fell last night. He was drunk. He was mean. He had not worked for over six months. As she walked to the bus stop six blocks away, she considered leaving him, but she figured some man was better than no man. He did not lay a hand on her in anger, at least he had not yet done so.

This was the kind of thing that preccupied her thoughts here, where with each wipe of the towel on the table she wished that life could be cleaned so easily, the dirty part simply wiped away, a clean white surface all that remained.

She blamed herelf. She left her family with this man 15 years ago. She was afraid no one would want her, so she went. She defied her parents, and she missed them, was not there to care for them in their old age. She had regrets.

As she watched the people come and go, Rosa felt stuck, unable to leave, unable to believe that life could change. She signed heavily and bent over yet another table, as the people came and went.

The Last Day

Ca_road_trip_13Last days on vacation are usually a mixed bag.  I'm often already in the homeward mode, so I may not enjoy the last day as much as I could.  Today was different.

We began in LA's Chinatown, which is neither as extensive nor as colorful as San Francisco's Chinatown.  When we parked our car, my son said he wasn't getting out, that he felt too strange being there.  Yet he did.  True to his expectation, in our one hour among the shops of Chinatown, we did not encounter a single person who appeared not to be of Chinese descent.  I was surprised!

Union_1 From Chinatown, we walked through Union Station, built in 1939 and billed as "the last of America's great train stations."  It is a beautiful building, and though the architecture is different, it is reminiscent of Union Station in DC or Grand Central Station in New York -- cavernous, with a musty, old smell to it, great chandeliers, and wonderful flower-filled plazas on each side of the building.

From Union Station, we walked across the street to Olvera Street, in an area know as El Pueblo Historic Monument.  The birthplace of Los Angeles, it's home to 27 historic buildings and a Mexican marketplace.  I didn't care much for the marketplace, but the history of the place was interesting.  The restaurant we ate lunch in (the name escapes me) was located in the first brick building in Los Angeles.  It was a good way to spend the day, and we even got out of the city and back to Santa Monica without significant traffic, on Friday afternoon at that!

Immediately on returning, my son and I rented bikes and headed south down the beach bike path toward Venice Beach and Marina De Ray.  The bike path extends 18 miles, but our time was limited.  We only made it halfway around Marina Del Ray, a boat harbor for the wealthy.  Venice beach was as I imagined -- full of every sort of weirdness -- body builders, tattooed and pierced men and women, bong and waterpipe shops, and throngs of people.  Hard to believe what houses cost in this place.  I'm not sure why anyone would want to frequent these tacky shops.  It really looked like it'd be better if they bulldozed the whole place and started over.  But it was a fitting end to a multi-cultural day!

Dscf0028_1 We finished the day with dinner at "The Lobster," a good restaurant on Ocean Avenue at the beginning of the Santa Monica Pier.  I took my daughter for some rides on the midway at the pier, catching a nice sunset as we left.  We then joined my wife and son where they were shopping on Third Street Promenade.  Busy day.  Good day.  Good end to our trip.  Tomorrow, we go home.  I'm just wondering, however, if we can hit In-N-Out once more before we leave.  It's so SoCal.  I leave you  there.

Marketing the Past

Ca_road_trip_12 One of the few studios left in the Los Angeles area where you can still tour the soundstages, backlots, and production facilities is the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank.  On our golf cart tour of the facility, like everyone I was interested in seeing this piece of history, this place where many of the movies and television series I recall watching when I was young were filmed.  I've been in studios before, so I know the power of illusion, the sets empty of the fantasy that film creates.  It's nothing but plaster, and plywood, and lights, rearranged in multiple ways to create an illusion of reality.  I know all this.  That's not new.

Dscf0018 What I realized on the tour were a few a couple of other things that I found disconcerting though not surprising.  First, there is the icon status that these sets, that, in fact, films and TV have become for many.  For example, the set from Friends, an apparently very successful ten-year series that I never even watched, has been preserved.  Entering the locked room where the set was, lighted for our enjoyment, was like entering a sacred place.  People even whispered. There were oohs and aahs.  We stood there, at least some taking in each item, each prop, as if we were looking at icons, as if something might happen to us just by being there. This is a quite sick, though I guess it's not all that new either.

The other thing was how in the process of educating me the tour guides were also selling me on WB shows -- upcoming shows, reissues of old series, and more.  Have we always marketed history?  I was just wondering how much of this is really important.  These are just stupid TV shows, right?  Just as I was being self-righteous about this I realized that I wanted to see the landmark that was erected in Hawthorne, CA to mark the former site of Brian Wilson's childhood home.  Now why would I want to do that?  Why would that matter to me?

These pop icons -- whether musicians, TV shows, movie stars, or whatever -- are ubiquitous.  They seem to be a kind of religion for many.  We all have to remember they're really just flesh like us, or plywood and plaster -- nothing built to last.  And whatever importance they seem to have is illusory, yet even the makers seem to have been deluded by the illusion.  Even they think it's important.

It's like that book we saw at the checkout counter in the WB store: "Hollywood Be Thy Name."  That says it all, doesn't it?

Food Makes a Place

Ca_road_trip_11"Mma Ramotswe leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She knew that there were places where the world was always green and lush, where water meant nothing because it was always there, where the cattle were never thin and listless; she knew that. But she did not want to live in such a place because it would not be Botswana, or at least not her part of Botswana. Up north they had that, near Maun, in the Delta, where the river ran the wrong way, back into the heart of the country. She had been there several times, and the clear streams and wide sweeps of Mopani forest and high grass had filled her with wonder. She had been happy for those people, because they had water all about them, but she had not felt that it was her place, which was in the south, in the dry south." (Alexander McCall Smith, in Blue Shoes and Happiness.)

I felt right at home today, almost, visiting the Farmers Market near downtown Los Angeles.  This is a place not on most tourist’s hotlist, and yet it is a great place to see the locals of LA, a real mix of race and ethnicity.  Here there are still farmers selling fruits and vegetables, as well as other small stores, and about twenty restaurants, that is, small grills.  At noon, we found ourselves in the smallish Kokomo Café, on a tip, eating their specialty, pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon and butter and a bit of maple syrup.  Delicious.  One table over a man is eating some type of Singaporean food, probably a curry dish, and I just passed an elderly couple having corned beef and cabbage, mustard all over the corned beef.  After the pancakes I had a caramel covered marshmallow.  Two firsts in one day.  Does this just mean I’m eating well?  No, I’m saying it because it’s the particulars of this place, part of what makes LA what it is. 

Inandout And before I’m done here, before I leave, I’ll eat at In-N-Out, the original fast food hamburger joint on Gayley Avenue in Westwood, because the burgers are homecooked and not frozen or microwaved, because I can’t eat there anywhere near my home on the East Coast, because Harry and Esther Snyder founded it in 1948 as the first drive-through hamburger stand in the country, and Esther still runs it, and they have scripture verses on the French fry cartons, and by golly some things just must be done.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll make a stop on Olveras Street, a Mexican-American enclave, and eat taquitos, and then move on to Chinatown, past Koreatown, just because it’s all a part of what makes this place unique. 

And then, driving back to the beach at Santa Monica, I’ll realize, as I did today, that as much as this is enjoyable (all but the traffic, which hasn’t been too bad), it’s not my home.  Like Precious Ramotswe, I’m happy they have what they have here, and I can see why some things are attractive to them, why it may be like home to them, but it’s not my home, “not my place.”  It’s too dry.  There are too many people.  It’s too disconnected, sometimes too unreal.  And I can’t find any pork barbecue and sweet tea like we have at home. 

It always comes back to food, doesn’t it?  It can define a place, make it home.  I’m just about ready to go home.  I'm ready for some barbecue.  I'm hungry already -- for home.

Prairie Fire

Ca_road_trip_10 "I shrink from death and all its symbols.  Signs that this life is failing me, as it failed my grandmother and grandfather, as it fails everyone in the end.  Cracks and fissures.  I catch my reflection in the store window and see wrinkles lining the corners of my eyes. My hair falls out as I comb it, strewn all over the bathroom sink.  I pick up a strand and hold it to the light; the brown is draining to pure white."

"Walking out on the prairie after the burn in the early spring, I can only think of purification, loss, death.  Everywhere is charred earth.  There’s a crunching under my hiking boots, and it’s a deer mouse skeleton, scorched.  Willoway Brook is choked with cinders.  What good can possibly come from this?"

Willow When I read Cindy Crosby’s book of mediations – By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer – I am struck by the rawness of her honesty as well as the intensity of her description of life on the tallgrass prairie (which she uses as an extended metaphor for the life of faith and struggle to know God.)  It’s like fine wine, something I need to take in sips.  Sometimes it’s like hard liquor too: it burns on the way down.

I just read her chapter on pain sitting here on a patio at my hotel here in Santa Monica.  I’m not in pain, now.  The sky is a clear and smogless blue, the palm trees bright and swaying, and if I stand and stretch I can just about see the azure blue of the Pacific Ocean. Just about.

Walking in Palisades Park, the strand above the beach at Santa Monica, I see all kinds – kids playing, young couples lolling, tourists taking it in, the elderly out for a walk, and the ubiquitous homeless sorting through the garbage, our castoffs.  I wonder why there are here, what kind of days they have.

I can see why people come here.  Southern California holds the promise of eternal youth, of painless existence, of endless summers – if you have enough money, that is.  And yet talk to someone who has been here for awhile, and they often want to leave this “paradise” for various reasons – for a place with less crime, or traffic, or hype, a place more authentic.  The promise of endless summers and youth rings hollow after a while.

When I come here I cannot help but think of Brian Wilson, that often tortured genius behind the Beach Boys sound, now 64.  His life has not been an endless summer, not been a happy one at all.  When I have met him, each time only briefly, the smile is genuine and yet with his eyes he is afraid.  Maybe he’s wandering what I want from him – just an autograph, or just to say I met him, as I am now, to steal a part of his privacy?  When I see him and hear him in interviews, I don’t know if he’s come to grips with his past or still thinks he can beat it on his own, somehow cheat death and suffering of its sting.

Prairie fire is painful.  It leaves scorched earth in its wake.  That’s how the trials that come in life are.  Scorching, and not pretty.  But prairie fire renews, and the earth comes back greener and healthier as a result.  That’s not always the case with humans.  Some curse their circumstances and their lives end up smaller and more peevish.  Some, however, accept them, and grow from them.  Their lives end up wounded and yet healthier.

I don’t know which it will be for Brian Wilson.  I hope renewal.  I feel like I’ve wasted some of my fires.  I pray I won’t in the future.

I know that the folks strolling the Palisades here in Santa Monica have likely had pain.  I wonder what they have done with it. 

Crosby says “I have been depressed.  I am depressed.”  She is honest.  And yet she is growing in it.  In her book we look in on that growth in process.  It’s not easy.  Prairie fires are painful to watch.

Running On Empty

Ca_road_trip_9I've been with these people for seven days straight now, day in and day out, with hardly a break.  I've loved it.  There have been special moments, and some very, very difficult ones -- times that point out all that's right and good in family life and what can go wrong.  Well, I must admit it: at certain times in vacations, there are those moments that can be downright terrible, when some selfishness or petty argument comes to a head and, just briefly, you consider turning back, leaving the road, going home where, though you are still the same person, at least there is the small comfort of not spending a lot of money to argue and be selfish on vacation when you could do the same more cheaply at home.

I won't name names and I won't give specifics, but tonight was one of those times I considered turning back, when I was reminded of just how deep the sin nature goes in me (as if I could forget).  Vacations are good.  They remind us who we are -- good and bad.  They sharpen our sense of God's grace -- grace in what He has given us in goodness, grace in what he has given us in forgiveness for the sinful people we are.  We find out how good life can be, and how bad we can be.

Tomorrow we head to Santa Monica, where we'll be given plenty of encouragement to be selfish and self-absorbed.  Let's see who we are there. Let's see what kind of people we are in the place where you can have what you want anytime you want it, when there's so many things to distract and entice.  Let's see who we are.

We can't leave the road.  The trip's not over, we're not done, for good or bad we're in it for the long haul.  Eugene Peterson had a name for it when he titled his book "A Long Obedience in the Same Direction."  I'm just trying to keep it in the road but, really, I've made my plans, consulted Fodor, Frommer, and McNally, but God is running things.  Thank God He is.  I'm not much of a tour guide.  I'm running on empty, but God fills me up.

Unearthing "The Ten Commandments"

Ca_road_trip_8One of the best things about a road trip is discovering those off the beaten path places, someplace no one else seems to know much about.  We did that today.

Leaving Pismo Beach on Highway 1, the PCH, we could have taken the four lane, fast route to Santa Barbara, US 101, but I declined.  I had heard that there was an area called the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, an 18 mile stretch of pristine dunes south of Pismo Beach.  Primarily founded to preserve the diverse ecological system of the dunes (dunes are not common on the Pacific Coast), habitat for 200 species of birds, black bear, sea otters, deer, coyote, and bobcats, I had another interest.  I had heard that the entire set used in the 1920s production of "The Ten Commandments" was buried here under the dunes, and that portions of it had been excavated but most remained under the dunes.  This piqued my interest.

This is the first movie production of "The Ten Commandments," the silent movie version by Cecil B. DeMille.  It was an enormous production.  Over 1500 workers built the set on site  -- an Egyptian temple, sphinxes, chariots, and more.  All the local people of Guadalupe were hired as extras.  At a place called The Dunes Center in Guadalupe, there was a short feature with excerpts from the movie.  They interviewed several older men who were in the movie as boys.  It was an amazing piece of history. 

10_commandments We then drove out to the dunes.  I don't why such things hold such interest.  Some folks may feel that it's unimportant, that excavating the site is not really worth it, but I think it's a fantastic piece of history.  Standing near the site (the actual site if not marked and is on private property), I could imagine what it might have been like then.  Apparently DeMille had the site bulldozed over because back then other unscrupulous filmmakers would have stolen the set and made cheap imitations.  So, he left it.  Little did he know that it might be valuable to other over 75 years later.

Leaving the dunes, we kept to the back roads, going through horse and wine country and into the quaint small town of Los Olivos, where we ate in the Los Olivos Cafe (which was featured in the movie "Sideways," which I did not see).  It was apparent that this was a nice Sunday afternoon destination for those looking for an escape from Los Angeles or, even, Santa Barbara.  We then passed through Solvang, a somewhat larger town, founded by Danish educators in the 1920s.  The whole town looks like a small Danish town, with windmills and all, and apparently two-thirds of the residents are still of Danish descent.

Late in the day, we proceeded on to Santa Barbara, a beautiful place on the ocean with a historic and vibrant downtown.  Unfortunately, searching for our hotel, we spent one-half hour on the other side of Santa Barbara.  Not all of the city is affluent.  But even here it is beautiful -- with flowering trees, flowers, and beautiful parks everywhere.  I could live here -- if I could afford it.

On The Road With Eastwood, Keroauc, and Winfrey

Ca_road_trip_7I confess to having a bad attitude, a negative predisposition, toward Carmel.  In my mind, Carmel was the home of snooty rich folks with poodles, specialty boutiques with high-end clothes, and the attitude that tourists are tolerated but not really welcome.  There is some of that, but that's really an injustice to Carmel.  Yes, it has an actor (Clint Eastwood) for mayor, and yet it's difficult to think of Clint as a snooty rich guy, and if you walk the streets of Carmel, there are friendly people, good and moderately priced restaurants with excellent (and non-uppity) food, and a refreshing lack of chain stores and flashy, trendy culture.  It's a mountain village by the sea, and I'll consider coming back.  My attitude changed, we moved on toward Big Sur, down the famous Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. 

Goodness.  The scenery is grand.  Dramatic, breathtaking vistas, bucolic settings, mountains meeting sea around every corner, and yet even I was getting scenery overload after about 30 miles of curve after curve with few guard rails on the highway and 500 foot drops to the (gulp) jagged cliffs and ocean below.  This is Big Sur country, home of the Esalon Institute, a center of new age thought, home of many bohemians (including Jack Kerouac, writer of that bible of the Beat generation, "On the Road"), haunt of not-so-plain folks like Oprah Winfrey and others who frequent The Post House Ranch, where the pool is clothing optional of course (to which my daughter said "Ooh, that's gross!"). 

I grossly underestimated how long it would take us to reach our next stop, Pismo Beach, just south of San Louis Obispo, as with all the curves we averaged only about 30 mph, and so, tired of driving, we pulled over for a stop at the Jagged Edge Inn just north of San Simeon, where publishing magnate William Hearst built his famous castle. Given the welcome lack of commercial establishments along the PCH in Big Sur, Jagged Edge, like the few other establishments along the road here, had a little of everything -- lodging, ice cream, a coffee shop, a gift shop, and, well, a guy who's the spitting image of Jerry Garcia.  In fact, sitting outside one of the shops there was a whole set of guys that looked like The Grateful Dead leader's brothers -- bearded, with long hair, and that make-love-not-war-I'm-stoned demeanor.  There's a lot of tye-dye here, plenty of folk art, and an abundance of do-it-yourself eastern religion/paganism type literature in the bookstore/gift shop.

After Jagged Edge, the road straightened out quite a bit.  We made a stop though to see the hundreds of elephant seals that had come up on the beach south of San Simeon.  They lounged in the sun, threw sand on themselves, bellowed at each other, and generally smelled bad.  It was an interesting sight, that and the seals and otters we could spot in the kelp beds offshore.

By the time we reached Pismo Beach, we were exhausted.  We ended up having dinner at a hopping Italian spot frequented by locals called Giuseppe's, which was excellent, about 9:00.  We would never have dinner at 9:00 at home!  It was great.

Well, it was a long day.  I'm thankful that my family continues to endure my love of movement.  I do love those car trips, curves and all.  And the people and places you see?  Well, they remind me that the world is variegated and colorful, and all the better for it.

It was a good day.  No one got car sick.

Scenery? Seen It. When Do We Eat?

Ca_road_trip_6 After many years now of vacationing with children, it's been my conclusion that they are unable to really appreciate scenery.  After a couple mountains, a couple stunning vistas, they have, as my daughter said, already seen it: "It's just another mountain."  Mostly the conversation in the car is about food, my son (who is 14) continuously asking when we will eat again, where we will eat, when we can stop for a snack, and so on.  I forgot how much a 14-year old boy's life revolves around the next meal. 

But speaking of food, we have eaten well, as well as badly.  At the Ahwahnee, there is nothing bad on the menu.  Every meal is good, from the breakfast buffet to the various dinner offerings.  But in Monterey (our next stop), the food is overpriced and bad -- areas like Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row (a la John Steinbeck's book of the same name), simply gouging poor tourists who don't know any better.  It's awful. 

But I digress.  We left Ahwahnee, not tearfully but reluctantly, and proceeded northeast and then east toward Modesto, in the central valley, and then south of San Jose, and on to the Monterey Peninsula, where we booked a hotel in the adjacent Town of Pacific Grove.  We intended to see the Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite on our way out, but I missed the turn, and so we proceeded down the mountains, through hill after hill of cattle, and down into one of the most fertile areas of the country, California's central valley.  Lots and lots of agriculture here, all irrigated of course with water mostly brought down in aqueducts from the Sierra Nevada mountains.  It's beautiful country, and also hot (almost 97 today), quite different from the cool nights and moderate days of Yosemite (which is, at its lowest in the valley, at 4000 feet above sea level).

Well, it's lunchtime, and after much discussion over what fast food, we chose McDonalds.  The kids were pleased.  Like the elderly, they like the familiar; like the elderly, they are not usually pro-new experience.

Well, I think it was lunch, or was that a snack, and if so, which snack?  I feel like a hobbit, eating seven times a day, which we would, if my son had his way.

We move on.  This is longer than I thought, maybe a 5-6 hour drive from Yosemite to Monterey.  Soon, south of San Jose, we are in the hills again, beautiful pastureland, and then over the hills, fighting a headwind, and into Monterey and then the adjacent Pacific Grove.  This town of mostly B&Bs and a very functional yet not too hip downtown began as a religious retreat center.  It's change reflects the secularization of American society, but mostly the demand for waterfront property.  Average price of a three bedroom home in 2006: $850,000.

Well, the best thing about Pacific Grove is its quiet atmosphere, and its views.  The only good thing about Monterey is the Monterey Aquarium, which is awesome.  The food they serve there is excellent too.  That was of interest to my son, but I was pleasantly surprised by it.  It's the best one of its kind I have been in, and I have been in some very good ones.  I particularly like the views of the bluegill tuna (a huge fish), and the sea bass (almost prehistoric looking), as well as watching the sea otters.  They are a picture of joy and made us laugh.

Tomorrow?  Carmel, and then Big Sur: Eastwood, Kerouac, and Oprah come to mind.  And or course, the scenery, supposedly some of the most spectacular in the country.  My children don't seem to be excited.

Why Are There Mosquitos?

Ca_road_trip_5 One of my favorite things to do in Yosemite is bicycling.  There are twelve miles of off-road, paved bike trails, through areas with facilities and then through more natural areas like forests, meadows, and even over streams.  All flat too.  Biking uphill is a bummer.  If I can’t have it all downhill, I’ll take flat.  Somewhere on the way to Mirror Lake, my son spotted a rattlesnake crossing the trail.  That’s a bit unusual for a heavily trafficked area.  We got within six feet of him in order to get his picture.  Do you think that was dangerous?  I thought of that later. 

One thing we did not count on this year were mosquitoes.  They aren’t usually a problem, as during the Summer there isn’t often much standing water in the valley.  There is this time of the year though.  The Sierra Nevadas had an unusually heavy snow pack this year, and as it is now melting, it enters the valley in streams and creates wetlands and bogs.  That makes for spectacular waterfalls, but getting bit by these blood-suckers is no fun, so we purchased OFF, shed the mosquitoes, and all smell the same now.  I think I can bear the mosquitoes for such amazing waterfalls.  My daughter wants to know why God made these annoying insects, and I told her  had no idea.  I’d rather He hadn’t.  I suppose this mystery will be cleared up one day.  Actually, I don’t care if it’s cleared up or not; I just don’t want them in heaven because they seem better suited for hell. 

As I ride the trail here I realize that what looks so natural around me is, as I have said, deeply impacted by human activity.  For example, there used to be many inns in the valley catering to tourists.  All gone now.  You can walk across a meadow and realize that probably not one square inch of earth in that meadow has not been walked on by someone at some time.  And yet, that’s OK.  In a way it makes it more special.  The whole valley is like an historic home bequeathed to us to preserve and protect, each generation changing it a bit, and yet each generation retaining a preserving it’s special and historic character. 

The water has flooded the trail.  I just ran my bike through 18 inches of water.  I enjoyed it, but my shoes are soaked.  What was I thinking?  Whatever it was, I hope I do it again.

For Queens and 11-Year Old Girls

Ca_road_trip_4 Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park, is truly one of my favorite places in the country, a jewel of a national park.  The valley floor is about 15 miles long, forested, with meadows, great trees, and streams full of snowmelt (at least this time of year).  The sides of the canyon are sheer granite walls, with thundering waterfalls – including Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Staircase Falls (for only about two weeks each year), and Vernal Falls (a great hike along the “Mist Trail”).  If you are into wilderness, this is not that.  The area has been visited by tourists for over a century, and impacted in various ways, and yet it retains a non-commercial charm.

Dscf0086 We stayed at the Ahwahnee Lodge, a picture of which is a part of this post, a rustic and yet elegant park lodge with a huge dining room.  I love it.  One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is its rich history.  Presidents, kings, queens, and other dignataries have slept and dined here.  Tonight, the server at dinner told my daughter that she was sitting in the chair in which Queen Elizabeth always set when she visited in the mid-Eighties.  That’s a bit much for an 11-year old to appreciate.  But it reminds me that everyone at Ahwhnee has to do all the ordinary things and put up with some inconveniences, like periodic (yet brief) power outages.  Even Queens.  Even 11-year old girls.  I walk the rooms of this great lodge and I’m thankful for the folks that have preserved a great and historic place for all to enjoy.  Even those who cannot afford to stay here can still walk its rooms and appreciate its history.

But it’s not just the human structures that have history, it’s also a well-worn trail, like the “Mist Trail” that leads to Vernal Falls, the 700+ steps that you have to climb to scale the walls of the canyon and reach the top of the Falls, the granite walls constructed at some precipitous points along the trail, the breadth of the trail itself, a trail which was blazed at least 100 years ago.  So, so many folks, of all races, classes, and nationalities have been up this trail, and, as I take yet another break to catch my breath and am passed by a couple in their Eighties, yes, even folks of all ages have come this way. 

Walking that trail, passing through the great rooms of the Ahwahnee, seeing the same awesome sights seen by John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Queen Elizabeth --- why, its like singing an historic hymn:  very deep, very settling, very right.

Stuff Happens on Vacation Too

Ca_road_trip_3Yesterday was the first day of a two week vacation with my family in California.  Now, I am always reminded that when we vacation we vacate the place where we were but not the people we are with all our irritating habits and idiosyncracies, many of which are only accentuated when we speak day upon day with each other, nor the problems that beset us at times.  For example, Sunday morning I woke up with a chipped tooth, right in front, that was irritating and needed capping but, of course, could not be dealt with on Sunday.  We flew out Sunday afternoon for Fresno, and I figured I’d deal with it Monday in Fresno.  Of course, how do I know what kind of dentist I will get?  I called a referral service and got an appointment at 9:30 at an office three blocks from my hotel!  Entering the office, it was uncanny how much it looked like my own dentist’s office.  They took me right in.  The hygienist had parents in Asheville, North Carolina, so I felt at home.  The dentist looked like he knew what he was doing, as he was about 60 or so, very distinguished, with perfect teeth of course.  I was in and out in 30 minutes.  That’s actually the fastest trip I’ve ever had to a dentist.  God provided.

For Graduates

This past weekend I attended a high school graduation ceremony.  As usual, there was a commencement speaker, only I cannot recall that he said anything memorable, anything particularly challenging to these students.  Rather than be critical, though, I decided it would be better to think of what I would say to a graduating senior.  I think it would be something like this:

Today is a milestone for you.  Perhaps there is anxiety for some of you, and excitement, and this is a day that will playback in your mind for years to come; perhaps for others, it is a day you have long waited for – to be done with high school, off to college, with no looking back.  But I hope you will take a moment now to consider what you will face in the coming years, in fact, in the rest of your life.  These can be summed up in three “P”s.

First, you will face great promise.  It’s exciting to consider what you will be doing in the next years of your life.  You will choose a vocation, you will likely marry at some point, and you will begin a family.  These things are exciting.  God told Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, to give you a reason and a hope.”  These are good words for you too.  We sometimes think we are in control of events, but we are not.  God is sovereign in our lives.  If times are good, thank God.  If times are not so good, praise Him anyway.  He has you life in His hands.  He is your hope, your life, your all – so don’t put your faith anywhere else, in any other person or thing, because they will fail you.  God will not.  Proverbs 3:5-6 are verses no doubt familiar to you:  “Trust in the Lord with all you heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  Only you can do what God has committed to you.  That doesn’t mean it necessarily will be a big thing, or that you have one special extraordinary talent or gift; it means that only your particular mix of gifts and abilities will perfectly meet the need to which you are called.  Your life is full of promise.  There is good work for you to do.

Second, despite your desire to avoid it, you will face great peril.  Don’t waste it.  There will be trouble – perhaps emotional, physical, or otherwise.  Betrayals.  Sickness.  Temptation.  Workplace stresses.  Innumerable things can and will beset you.  This is life, as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, “under the sun,” under the curse of sin.  In these times, remember that “God works all things for the good of those who love him,” as the Apostle Paul says.  He did not say that you will always know how those things are working for your good, only that they would work for your good.  In these times, cling to God, and if you can’t cling to him with your emotions, cling to him with your mind.  As the Psalmist so often does, remind yourself of God’s promises, preach to yourself the truth of the Word, hold on until easier times come.  Keep the faith.

Third, remember that people matter more than things, more than places, more than anything but God.  Nourish the relationships you now have.  You have some good friends.  Keep them.  It will be difficult.  Some you will lose track of.  Some you may grow apart from.  But there is nothing much better than a long and deep relationship with a good friend.  We live in a changing world.  I cannot anticipate the specific challenges you will face, nor can you.  But you can face them with friends who can encourage you, support you, and challenge you, friends who can call you to account when you stray.  God may be the great anchor of our lives, but our friends are the tangible face of God for us, a tangible incarnation of the Anchor.  I hope some of you will still be dear friends 30 years from now.  That will be steadying influence on your soul, on your life.

So, life is full of promise and peril, but in all of this, there are people.  Embrace them.  They matter because they are made in God’s image and we are made to live in relationship with them, to live for them.  This seems natural for some, and yet for others it is a difficult thing to do.  Do it with God.

So yes, this is a milestone day for you, and yet it is but one more step along a lifelong path illuminated by God’s truth or man’s foolishness.  I pray that it is the prior.  My hope is that it is.

Beginnings (West With the Night)

West    "How is it possible to bring order our of memory?  I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom.  I should like to say,'This is the place to start; there can be no other.'
     But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names -- Mwanza, Serengeti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru.  There are easily a hundred names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them --- not because it is first nor of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense, but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook.  After all, I am no weaver. Weavers create.  This is remembrance -- revisitation; and names are keys that open corridors no longer fresh in the mind, but nonetheless familiar in the heart."
  (Beryl Markham, in West With the Night)

Good beginnings have a way of immediately transporting you to the place described, of immediately giving you some affinity for the character portrayed, and Beryl Markham's books does just that.  I love this book.  Just reading the first couple of paragraphs I almost can't resist reading on in it, the language so poetic, the descriptions so rich.

If you love airplanes, you'll love this book.  (Markham was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, all described in harrowing detail here.)  If you love horse, you'll love this book.  (She was a longtime trainer and breeder of race horses.)  If you love Africa, or the images of foreign places, you'll love this book.  (Markham grew up and lived and worked mostly in East Africa, a contemporary of the more well know Isak Dineson, who wrote Out of Africa.)  But if you care little about any of those things but simply love writing, you'll really love this book.  The prose is luminous.  (Until I looked that word up, I wasn't exactly sure what it meant, but I sure liked it and wanted to use it.  It means clear, and inspiring, as in full of light.)  In fact, this writing is so good that you'll love flying, horses, and Africa when you finish, if you didn't before.

Would that Beryl Markham's own life was as luminous as her prose.  She had four unhappy marriages, in part because of her own selfishness.  She had what C.S. Lewis once described as a "horrible freedom," not being able to say "no" to the passions she had.  She died alone, in her small home on the edge of the Nairobi Airfield, in 1986, still "east of Eden," as far as is known not knowing her Creator.

Beginnings (Beyond the Bedroom Wall)

Beyond_1 "Every night when I'm not able to sleep, when scrolls of words and formulas unfold in my mind and faces of those I love, both living and dead, rise from the dark, accusing me of apathy, ambition, self-indulgence, neglect --- all of the accusations just --- and there's no hope of rest, I try again to retrace the street.  It's an unpaved street and it's the color of my hand.  It's made up mostly of the clayey gumbo from the flat and tilting farmland all around the village so small it can be seen through from all sides, and its ungraded surface is generally overrun with ruts that are slippery and water-filled in spring, ironlike in summer, furred in fall with frost as phosphorescent as mountainy ridges on the moon's crust, and in winter buried beyond all thought except for any thought that clay or gravel or the booted feet of people crossing ice-covered snow above might have.  It's the main street of Hyatt, North Dakota, and it's one block long.  I lived in Hyatt from the time I was born until I was six and returned only once, at the age of eight, wearing a plaid jacket exactly like my brother's, too light for the weather, and ran up and down this street with changed friends, playing hide and seek between buildings that stand deserted, now that time has had its diminishing effects."  (Larry Woiwode, in Beyond the Bedroom Wall)

True, it's a longish first paragraph, but Larry Woiwode is a master of description.  Although it has been a decade since I last read this book, I still remember many of its characters and, more than that, the places it describes -- North Dakota, a place so foreign to me that I could not myself conjure up any description to do it justice.

Deserted buildings.  Streets the color of my hand.  The crunch of booted feet on ice and snow.  It's just the beginning of a rich and colorful style that continues throughout the book.  He writes well, if densely, so it demands attention, but it is well worth it.

Woiwode, an author who reached his zenith in the late Sixties and Seventies, a part of the New York literary establishment, did what many authors considered a surefire career-ender:  he moved to a small town in North Dakota, where he still lives.  He continues to write, albeit not so often.  He is a Christian, an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and yet he has never written for the Christian market.

In Beyond the Bedroom Wall, he writes of the life of the Neumiller family of North Dakota and Illinois, a family that struggles with many challenges, all from the context of faith.  His is not a linear narrative, so the book is more a series of photographs or stopped moments in this family's life, and rich and detailed photos they are.  In just the brief dip into it I made to write this, it's as if my acquaintance with old friends was renewed.  I missed them.

I recommend the book -- from beginning to end.

Beginnings (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter)

Heart_1 "In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.  Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work.  The two friends were very different.  The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek.  In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging out loosely behind.  When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater.  His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile.  The other mute was tall.  His eyes had a quick intelligent expression.  He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed."  (Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter)

I cannot look at this beginning fresh, as you might, of course because I have now read the whole book, but also because I saw the film prior to reading the book, nearly 20 years ago now and its images are indelibly stamped in my memory.

But it's not difficult to see how this beginning paragraph might draw you in, just a little further, you might say, just to see who these odd men are and what their story might be --- and then you're in until the end.  At least I was.

The description of these men, and their contrast, is compelling.  Not riveting, but intriguing.  Carson McCullers was only 23 when she published this novel, her first, and she became an overnight literary sensation.  She makes you feel what her characters feel, and you have compassion on them, and yet it is not a bright story but one of ultimate sadness, of people traveling down dead in roads with no resolution in their lives.  But then, this is not about endings, but beginnings.

180pxcarsonmccullers And about McCullers: She had a sad and tragic life, suffering many strokes, depression, and much angst from she and her husband's homosexuality, and yet through it all she wrote.  Actor John Huston described her well: "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York. Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger."

McCullers could write so well of lonely, isolated people because she herself was lonely.  She said that "I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen."  It makes you wonder what went wrong in her beginnings.

Beginnings (Godric)

Godric The first paragraph of a novel is so terribly important.  The title may be provocative, and the cover may be eye-catching graphically and cause you to pick the book up off the shelf (if you're browsing), but really that first paragraph must be the hook.  For me, if that doesn't work, I have to have other reasons not to jump ship then -- say, that it is one of my favorite authors, or perhaps that a trusted friend and fellow reader implored me to read the book, or maybe (and this is rare) that the summary on the end-flaps makes me think that it will be worth it if I hang on.  Well, I thought I would run a few first paragraphs by you, one at a time, under the heading "Beginnings," so you can see what hooked me.  Here's one now:

"Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.  Tune and Fairweather they were, thick round as a man's arm, my bedmates and playfellows, keepers of my skimped hearth and hermit's heart till in a grim pet I bade them go that day and nevermore to come again, nevermore to hiss their snakelove when they saw me drawing near or coil themselves for warmth around my shaggy legs.  They went.  They never came again." (Godric, by Frederick Buechner)

Snakes with names?  Snakes for playmates?  Snakes to sleep with?  That's a hook, friends, a little weird, but very provocative.  I read on.  You should too.