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July 2007

On the Way Home (A Story)

Without a doubt my third-grade best friend, Brian Kirkman, was a bit of a whiner.  On the way home from school everyday, as we were walking down the grassy side of Freeman Parkway, he'd be going on about some new grievance, whether something his mother said he had to do, Mrs. Teague's homework assignment that day, or some kid in class he didn't like.  Looking back I think I should have said something like give it a rest Brian, or changed the subject, but I was eight and, lacking discernment, I simply said yeah, I know, which only encouraged the whining.

Kids could be cruel in third-grade, and Brian's whining and physical demeanor encouraged them.  Given his crew-cut that accentuated his oversize head and too large ears, they called him Pencil-Head, or The Eraser.  I could see why.  I didn't call him those names, but I often thought them.  To be honest, he did look like a #2 pencil with his skinny body and squared off head and shirt with the top button always buttoned, pinching his neck.  Brian just sucked it up when they called him names, except for one time when he totally lost it and pounded Jeffrey Meadows.  It was one of those Jekyll and Hyde moments.  I mean Brian was a peaceful if nerdy guy at all other times.  I guess he'd just had enough of it.  The name-calling died out after that, said under the breath if at all.  But they still didn't call him Brian; they just said hey. . . followed by a sort of unspoken identifier, and he accepted that.

Well he was my friend, anyway, even if the endless complaining grated on me.  He had imagination.  He could turn a normal walk home into something, well, special, where unseen realities began to impinge on our eight-year old world.  Like the day we dropped into Underworld.

Instead of crossing Freeman Parkway that day, we kept to the right side, the side by the creek, figuring we'd catch tadpoles in the slow-flowing murky water, picking up cold mossy stones on the creek bed and seeing what came out.  But no, Brian had other ideas.  About halfway home, a round drainage pipe which runs under the parkway dumps its liquid froth into the creek.  Brian said come on let's get in there and explore, but I wasn't sure.  Besides, it smelled bad and I figured whenever Mr. Monroe up on Ferndale flushed the john it all flowed downhill through that pipe.  (I realize now I was wrong about that, but it concerned me then.)  But Brian was already in, his voice echoing in the pipe, beckoning me in.

Now this was a big pipe, big enough for an eight-year old to stand up in, and I walked right in, following Brian's voice.  After a few feet, it became quite dark.  All I could hear was the slow trickle of the water beneath me.  I was beginning to enjoy the quiet, and I imagined how Brian and I could explore the pipes, popping up in different areas of the neighborhood, traversing the city surreptitiously underground, lifting manhole covers and dropping in on friends up on Elam Avenue.

And then I heard Brian yelling get out of the way, move it, there's a rat, and he brushed by me making for the entrance.  I ran too, until we both stood outside the drainage pipe, gasping for air.  When we could talk again, I asked Brian what he saw.  He said it was a rat about a foot high and two feet long.  That was our first and last trip into the Underworld.

We lived off that story for a while, the rat growing in our imagination, and I even began to believe I had seen the rat as well, that it had brushed up against me or nibbled at my leg.  It was particularly fun to tell girls this story just to hear them squeal.  Impressive.

Generally the walk home was good.  An adventure perhaps, like the Great Rat of Underworld story.  Or maybe the time we were lost in the Netherwoods and shot at by the hobo that lived there.  Or maybe it was just a story we made up to kill the time on the way home, where Brian was a superhero (say Elastic Man) and I was a very capable sidekick (say The Inferno) as we spread terror in the hearts of villains everywhere, rescued Moms, and impressed girls.  Stories are funny --- talk about them enough and you begin to believe they are true.

But one day the walk home took a turn for the Dark.  We're walking, Brian's talking, and for the first time in all these times of walking I notice the flashing school sign that hangs over the middle of the parkway.  Time for target practice.  I'm not sure who had the idea, but Brian and I began to pitch rocks at the sign, seeing who could score a direct hit, not thinking at all what might happen should our rock land on a car passing under the light.  It was fun, throwing rocks, and I could have done it for a long time, maybe even a half hour or so, but it was cut short that day.

A large brown sedan pulled over to the side of the road.  Two men were in the front seat and the one on the driver's side motioned for us to come over.  He asked what are you boys doing?  Brian said he didn't talk to strangers, and I nodded, remembering I'd been given similar instructions.  He said he was a police officer and opened the door to the back seat and asked us to get in.  Brian said he didn't look like any police officer, and he didn't believe him.  The man reached in his coat and pulled out a black wallet, flipping it open to reveal a very shiny and important looking badge.

I looked at Brian.  Brian looked at me and burst out crying.  I don't mean that tears were streaming down his cheeks.  I mean he literally burst out crying, tears popping out of his eyes, sprinkling his whole face instantly, which was a red, slobbery mess in no time.  We got in the car, were taken home, and received justice at home.  Well, Brian got justice.  I received mercy.  I learned that day that ignorance of the law is not a defense, and the shame of being branded a criminal was enough punishment for me.

On the way home the next day we didn't throw rocks.  We didn't explore the drainage pipes.  We walked straight to Brian's house, plopped down in the family room, and turned on Gilligan's Island.  Brian's Mom fixed us a fried bologna sandwich, and we ate silently as we watched the hapless castaways.

When the show ended, I said Brian why don't we go out in the back yard and pretend to be spies.  He said pretending's for babies, and that it was time to grow up.

Brian moved away later that year.  I didn't miss him --- not much, anyway.  He wasn't any fun anymore. Now I walk home on my own, and I make up my own stories.  Besides, I don't have to listen to that whiner anymore.

The Emotionally Complex Music of John Vanderslice


It's not that I've been a huge fan of John Vanderslice, as I have not heard too much of his work.  However, the current release from his new Emerald City recording on Barsuk, "White Dove" (video here), is both incredible and scary.  Musically, "White Dove" is both melodic and noisy, a perfect vehicle for the song's emotional catapult from a pleasant conversation with a new neighbor to anger, rage, and sadness.  It's a song that lays bare the emotion felt when we witness some unspeakable crime or atrocity and a desire for justice rises in us, and then we wonder what to do with the emotion.White_dove

On "White Dove", Vanderslice sets up a contrast between that symbol for peace and the troubled, violent content of the verses. Vanderslice's narrator meets his new neighbor and sitting on her veranda asks a simple question-- "Do you have any children?"   This is the precipice of change in the song.  Grief streams over the neighbor's face. She tells the story of her daughter, who disappeared and was brutally murdered. "It's not about mercy/ It's not about tears anymore," the neighbor says, and Vanderslice must grapple with both her desire for righteous vengeance and the human capacity to commit such unspeakable acts. "What are you thinking of?" he concludes, unable to find resolution. Emerald_city

It's an emotion that Christians are familiar with and should not suppress or ignore.  Reading the Psalms we know the anger, righteous indignation, and borderline despair of the writer at times.  And yet justice is for God to mete out, and we lay our anger and desire for justice before Him, not taking it into our own hands.  I don't know the neighbor's grief.  I don't know whether or how I could forgive such an act.  But I hope and trust I would take the anger and grief to the One who says "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."  And I hope, like the Psalmist, I wouldn't hold back but would lay bare how I feel to the only One who can help me.

Emerald City is the most emotionally-charged record I have heard since Rosanne Cash's Black CadillacIt hurts to listen sometimes.  And yet the beautiful pop music takes some of the sting out of the lyrics.  Give it a listen.  And then read the Psalms for a light to guide you out of the emotional quandary in which Vanderslice leaves you.

Bye, Bye Tactile Pleasure (Part 3): Records As Artifact and Memory

51tmxknq3wl__aa240_As you will surmise from the title, this is the third in a series of laments over the digitization of our music, the movement from sound associated with something tangible, the vinyl record or compact disc, to the intangible, mere sounds captured in a digital and portable format. Today I'm sad over the loss of tangible objects --- sound recordings --- which embody and hold particular and rich memories.

Lately my listening has focused on a favorite singer-songwriter of the Seventies, Jackson Browne. I need not remind you of Browne's talent. Listen to The Pretender, a record that qualifies for my Essential Listening roster (check out the sidebar). I can go on about Browne's talent some other time, but today I'm interested in the record as an object, or artifact, something which embodies and holds cultural memories. Now some memories are more important than others, meaning some artifacts are more culturally important than others, but for each of us our own private artifacts serve an important role in preserving memories and, with memory, a sense of God's providence, His outworking of a good plan in our lives.

But on to the memory. It's 1976 and I'm enrolled in an institution of higher learning here in the South. Since ninth grade I've been collecting records, trading records, and listening to records (the vinyl ones). And so this freshman, though without much in the way of other possessions, lugged a record collection of around 300 albums with me to college, one of which was Jackson Browne's The Pretender. I shared the record with a girl I met that year, and she asked if she could borrow it to listen to with her roommates --- four other freshmen girls. Reluctant as I was to part with it, I did, as I would have done anything to endear myself to these women. Two weeks later I'm invited for a meal. The record is playing, and Karen advises that it has been playing non-stop for two weeks and "thank youe SO much for loaning it to us." When the record stops, I lift it to turn it to the other side, and I swear I could see through the record it was so badly worn! I restored it to the turntable, left it, dated one of the women for a few months, had a hot date with two of them after which they lectured me on the proper way to treat women, and have never, never seen any of them ever again. That goes for my Jackson Browne record as well. I replaced the vinyl with CD, and every time I pick up that jewelcase and look at that cover, I'm reminded of all that and more, not just events, but people, feelings, even conversations. And my then poor, sad love life.

But that's not the end of my experience with Jackson Browne records. Fast forward to law school. I'm a first year student living with a first year medical student and first year MBA student. One day I'm devastated to learn that Hold Out, a later Jackson Browne record, is badly warped and unplayable. (Well, you can play it, but Browne sounds like he's yodeling on it.) I have an idea. I take the record into the kitchen. I heat the oven to 250. I figure I'll warm it up and bend it back to shape. By the way, this probably ranks up there with one of the stupidest things I have ever, ever done. (But then, I'm a lawyer, not a rocket scientist.) I fried my Jackson Browne record that day. I had a mess to clean up in the oven. And it seemed like such a brillant plan. So, every time I see Hold Out (#2), I have to smile, and all the embarrassment of that moment (can you be embarassed when no one is around to see it?) comes back. I remember my roommates, studying for the Bar exam, my smallish room, and my fishbowl of a world, all because I have a tangible artifact that carries those memories. I can still smell that cooking record.

In one of his last memoirs, entitled The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, Frederick Buechner takes us into his library, the place where he writes, the place that holds his memories. Using the books, photographs, and memorabilia of the room, he takes us on a journey through his life, inviting long-dead family members and friends in for discussions, ruminating on the meaning of life, and relishing the grace God has shown to him. He calls his memory room The Magic Kingdom, his haven and sanctuary:

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 adorned 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.

I guess that's what I'm doing now, building a Magic Kingdom of artifacts brimming with memories, reminders of a time and place I once inhabited, and promises of a future Kingdom. And I need more than an IPod full of disembodied sounds to do that. I need the real thing.

Mirror of the Bizarre: A Review of John Leax's "Tabloid News"


A new volume of poetry or, for that matter, any writing by John Leax is always a treat, and his latest, Tabloid News, does not disappoint.  The fifteen poems included in this slim volume had their genesis in a great "what if" question, the kind good writers ask.  Finding himself in front of the tabloids that line the supermarket checkout lines everywhere, Leax asked "what if the stories under the headlines were true?"  What if, to quote one headline, "leaping turtles" did invade the United States?

The resulting poems --- meditations (if you will) on the fear and longing that likely lurk beneath the radar of the stories --- are often funny, as you might expect, but also quite thoughtful, probing the reasons why some of us are, to one degree or another, are attracted to such outrageous stories.  Reading poems with titles like "Bat Boy is Missing" or "I Want to Have a Space Alien's Baby," I had the same sense one has in seeing the oddities or freaks on the midway at the fair --- curiosity, disbelief, shock, repulsion, and pity.  Do we read because we desire to know if there is something beyond our mundane existence?  Or maybe because the loneliness or strangeness the characters that people these stories feel may reflect some of our own sense of alienation, our own sense of being alone in our own peculiarities.  Whatever the reason, such stories of the strange and bizarre never seem to leave us, and Leax does good work by helping us see them from the inside out.

One of my favorite of these poems is entitled "Bizarre Creature Spotted in Louisiana Bayou," about a half-human half-alligator creature:

He has no memory of birth.
He does not know if his mother
clawed away the steaming vegetation
of her nest when he began to squeal
and peck his fingernails against
a shell or if she cried at a sudden,
gripping pain and labored
through a night to push him
headlong into life.

The poem goes on to recount his discovery of his bodily oddity and the lonely existence he was consigned to and yet not altogether unhappy with:

Some afternoons, when he is sure
of his hiddenness, he heaves himself
upright, a tripod, balanced on hind legs
and tail, and sings.  Around him the birds
grow still, their silence an underscore
to the breaking joy of his risen hope.

However good some of the poems are, however, others make we wonder if their incarnation as poems is entirely apt.  Some, like "Duck Hunters Shoot Angel," seem to beg for a short story format --- short shorts perhaps.  I think what is missing in some, as I read them aloud, is a certain cadence, a music, one of the ingredients that, for me, typifies a poem as opposed to a bit of prose.  Missing too is the economy of language, the compression of meaning into few words that typifies a poem.  Thus, in a handful of these stories, I sense that Leax chose the wrong vehicle to tell a great story.  Still, this is an inventive package, right down to the tabloid-spoofing cover with the quip "As Seen in Books and Culture!"  Kudos to publisher Wordfarm for risking precious time and funds on poetry and good packaging.

Read Tabloid News.  After doing so, you won't need the real tabloids.  You might even find yourself mirrored in the bizarre characters Leax brings to life.  All because a writer asked "what if."

Leepike Ridge: A Review


Occasionally I will read a recommended children's book, both because I relish a simply told story and because I may have had enough of deep and thought-provoking literature with complex and conflicted characters.  I want to read  a well-told yarn --- exciting, colorful, and inspiring --- without having to dash through sex scenes and gratuitous obscenity.  (Yes, there are books still worth reading even though they may have both.)  Leepike Ridge, N.D. Wilson's first novel for the youth market, manages to avoid the sex and obscenity in an adventure involving lost caves, treasure, murder, and family, and teaching us about loyalty, courage, perseverance, and greed.  It's a great story for most pre-teen boys, or even girls, and at 49 I must still have enough yearning for adventure that I enjoyed it as well.

Thomas Hammond lives with his mother in a house on a ridge by a stream, his house chained to the rock for some inexplicable reason.  Tom is still suffering the loss of his father in an apparent airplane crash, and though his mother Elizabeth is good to him she is lately being wooed by Jeffrey Veatch, whose last name (which rhymes with leech) is some indication of his nature.  When it becomes clear that Veatch is intent on marrying his mother, Tom runs away, unintentionally losing himself in the caves lying under the ridge, caves rumored to have hidden treasure. 

And that's where the real adventure begins.  Enter the greedy treasure seekers, a dog named Argus, a flashlight, and other cave-dwellers, dead and alive.  In the course of trying to get home Tom deals with his fears, learns to survive, and exercises hope --- learning a great deal about himself in the process.

Wilson, who teaches classical rhetoric to freshmen at New Saint Andrews College, writes adeptly, conveying lessons about virtue and vice without any moralizing.  Rather, he focuses on telling a good story --- one just fantastic enough to be fun.  He's obviously lived in the worlds of Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, and King Solomon's Mines enough to spin his story out of the same fiber.  And perhaps he's listened well to his own four children, as all children can tell a good story from a bad one.

Have some fun.  Read this story.  Share it with your children.  There's a bit of blood, a dead body, and some bad characters (portrayed as such), but older children will appreciate an exciting story and learn something in the process.

How I'm Spending My Summer: An Update on Pending Projects

Though you well know that I have had a vacation this Summer (one that seems a distant memory now), I have been working on some other projects as well.  Here's an update on what is happening:

Ruth_graham_jacket_frontRuth Bell Graham: Celebrating An Extraordinary Life --- With the recent death of Ruth Bell Graham (wife of Billy Graham), publisher Thomas Nelson has decided to reissue a project that my partner and I in Stone Table Media developed and released three years ago as A Pilgrim Journey.  This is a three-CD audio biography of Ruth, including interviews with Ruth, family members, close friends (like writers Patricia Cornwall and Jan Karon), and others.  It includes music, sound effects, readings of poetry written by Ruth, and narration by veteran newscaster and longtime Graham friend Walter Cronkite.  The product should be in stores (including Barnes and Noble) sometime in the next two weeks, but for now the original project is still available here or on Amazon.  Truly Ruth had an amazing life and is an extraordinary woman

AtcotumainbAdmiral Twin: The Center of the Universe --- The Pop Collective, the record label my partners and I founded, will release it's second full-length recording on September 18th.  Here's what the press copy says about these boys: "Admiral Twin is an alternative pop-rock trio that hails from Tulsa, OK and is well known for their harmony-infused, three-minute rock explosions and eccentric pop experimentation. The band has built a large and loyal following with four previous independent releases. The Center of the Universe is their first release with The Pop Collective and features the singles “In My Veins” and “Good as Gold,” with a sound that ranges from Fountains of Wayne to The Beatles to Cheap Trick."  OK, so that's a little hype but, honestly, these Oklahoma boys are good.  You can read the promo one-sheet Admiral Twin Hype, visit the band's website here, or watch the website of The Pop Collective for further details.  But just to tease you, here's a full-length MP3 of "In My Veins" from the upcoming release: In My Veins.

Scaheffer_2Tapestry: Edith and Francis Schaeffer & the Ministry of L'Abri --- After concluding the Ruth Bell Graham project, my partner and I launched another audio biography telling the story of Edith and Francis Schaeffer, influential founder of the L'Abri Ministry in Switzerland and now worldwide.  Last summer we conducted interviews of the Schaeffer family and L'Abri workers in Cambridge, Oxford, and Huemoz (Switzerland), and we tentatively plan to return to these places for further interviews and the gathering of photos, audio, and memorabilia in September.  Our goal is to marry a short book to the audio version of this production.  There is much to do.  You can learn more on our blog for the project here (though it sorely needs updating soon.)

And that's how I'm spending my Summer thus far.

Waking Up to Life


"God could, had he pleased, have been incarnate in a man of iron nerves, the Stoic sort who lets no sigh escape him.  Of His great humility He chose to be incarnate in a man of delicate sensibilities, who wept at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane.  Otherwise we should have missed . . . the all-important help of knowing that He has faced all that the weakest of us face, has shared not only the strength of our nature but every weakness of it except sin.  If He had been incarnate in a man of immense natural courage, that would have been for many of us the same as His not being incarnate at all."  (C.S. Lewis, in Letters of C.S. Lewis, Feb. 23, 1947)

How easy it is to forget or fail to appreciate that God became man.  As well as I know the Gospel accounts, I cannot seem to fully grasp and keep hold of what it is to live the reality that God became man. that he (I'm deliberately not capitalizing that "h" to remind myself that God became fully human) felt the extremes of temperature, felt pain, had body odor and was dirty, was hungry, was afraid (why was he sweating blood?), and on one dark occasion, felt utterly alone and abandoned.  No doubt he knew his humanity more so than any of us, was alive to what it meant to be a living, sensual being.  He was a very particular person living in a very particular place and time, much like us, only more human, living more fully than any of us.

I'm rarely alive to life, but I'm trying.

I left the frigid and dry air of work this evening only to be bombarded by the oppressive humidity and heat of the South.  Praise God I'm human.  For a moment instead of silently complaining of the heat I reveled in it, let it soak in, breathed deeply and knew that this is what it is to be human in this place (just as Jesus knew the heat of a desert road in Galilee).  The sun is hot on my head and neck, and I'm sweating.  So this is what it is to be human, here.  This is life in the South.

I wake up to life, sometimes.

This evening I walked out in my yard for just a few moments, touching leaves of rhododendron, magnolia, maple, and holly, enjoying their different texture and shape.  And I'm glad Jesus knew what it was to feel something.  I wonder if it was a new experience for God the Father (who is spirit) to feel something via God Incarnate, not abstractly but with real hands and feet, not to know wine but taste it on His tongue. 

I'm glad I believe not just in a Spirit in the sky but in a real man with flesh and blood --- one of us.  Walking around my neighborhood, or lying in bed examining the outlines of my room in the half-light of morning, I can see with Jesus-eyes, walk with Jesus-feet, hold things and people with Jesus-hands.

He's real.  I'm real.  I'm waking up to life.

A Dark Beauty: A Review of Stacy Barton's "Surviving Nashville"


If the challenge of a novelist is to engage and retain the reader's interest over the many words of the novel, then the challenge of the writer of short fiction must be to make us feel something for characters who live on the pages for only moments but who, hopefully, will live on in our minds for some time thereafter.  In Surviving Nashville, Stacy Barton is able to meet this challenge in sixteen short-shorts of life in the South, giving us authentic if dark glimpses into the landscapes of lives scarred by tragedy.

Barton's setting is the South of NASCAR, trailer-living, gossiping do-gooders, sweet tea, funeral food, legalistic religion, oppressive heat, and lemonade, where girls have names like Lida, Sammie, Lizzie, Kitty, or Opal and men are known by initials like JD and JP, where Catholics are oddities or (worse yet) are going to hell, where a veneer of gentility covers over dark family secrets.  Topically, her stories are almost uniformly in a minor key, opening windows into lives shadowed by sexual abuse, sickness and death, the indignities of old age, authoritarian religion, intractable sadness, murder, death, incest, suicide, eating disorders, miscarriage, and depression.  From the opening story, "Periwinkles," --- a remembrance by Elaine of her her younger sister's suicide after her rape --- to the closing story from which the collection title is taken --- about a outwardly happy mother struggling with severe depression and thoughts of suicide --- the sense you have is that Barton looks at life and sees nothing but survivors haunted by tragedy. 

There is little if anything to smile about here, and when faith enters in it is of the Christ-haunted and not Christ-hallowed kind (with the possible exception of "The Summer of My Tenth Birthday," a story of faith restored).  Where a novelist like Clyde Edgerton might see delicious humor and irony, Barton sees little but sadness and dysfunctionality.  In the end, taken as a whole, the stories do not offer a fully true picture of life in the South, as one would hope to find moments of lightness and joy amidst the tragedy.  But that's probably too much to expect from one collection of short stories.

But all this is to quibble with choice of topic, and I would read these stories simply for the beauty of the words.  In her writing, Barton has the economy of a poet, using spare but resonant words,  Her dialog is wondrously authentic and would sound real to anyone who has lived in the South.  As most of the stories are written in the first-person, they come across as authentic and deeply personal.  One suspects that Barton is not unfamiliar with the dark places of which she writes.  It is, simply, good writing.

If you love good writing and have a tolerance for the darkly tragic, I recommend Surviving Nashville.  Only balance it with a deeply funny novel like Edgerton's Rainey, please.  Life isn't just about surviving but about living.

The "Greatest" Show On Earth: A Review of "Water for Elephants," by Sara Gruen


A well-told story almost always captivates, and Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, published by Chapel Hill's Algonquin Books, is no exception.  That it is a New York Times bestseller is confirmation of this.  However, its status on the Times list is also indicative of where we are as a culture --- loving stories but numb to their moral content.

The story focuses on Jacob Jankowski who, after the tragic death of his parents, left his studies in veterinary medicine at Cornell just short of his final exams and joined a traveling circus.  However, the telling of the story alternates between Jacob as a ninety-year old man in a nursing home and Jacob as a twenty-something young man, an unusual technique that Gruen pulls off with aplomb. 

In the circus of the 1930s, Jacob finds a living hell, with little or no pay, poor living conditions, tyrannical bosses, and mistreatment capped off by the practice of "redlighting," a form of letting someone go by simply pushing them off a moving train.  Yet he also finds love with Marlena and becomes caretaker of an intelligent elephant named Rosie.  You might say it's a love triangle.  Predictably, Marlena is already married to a man who is alternately charming and cruel.  This love triangle sets up a crisis that you'll have to read the book to see resolved.

There is nothing terribly novel about the plot here:  Boy meets girl.  Girl is married.  After much dancing around each other, girl and boy fall into each other's arms.  Husband finds out and. . . well, that's the age-old crisis of course.  I did not find the telling of how this romance occurred particularly convincing.  Rather, it seemed formulaic and strained.  But what does captivate is the amount of detail that Gruen provides about the traveling circus of the 1930s.  Her attention to the often sordid facts of circus life shows her careful research, and while it's not particularly savory, it does paint a realistic picture of that life.

In the end, however, I was left unfulfilled by the book.  There's not a lot of grace here, except for the nurse caring for old Jankowski, Jacob and his bunkmate's care for the ailing Camel (a worker), and Jacob's concern for the care of Rosie and the other animals.  There's plenty of profanity and enough illicit sex to make it "real" and ensure an "R" rating when it goes to film.  Unlike after reading a great story, when I finished reading this book I did not miss the characters.  And that makes it one to forget and one I cannot recommend.

The Thing About Home

There's certainly nothing new about coming home from vacations.  There is the long list of emails, the voice messages, the grocery bag of mail and unpaid bills, the shocking reality of the heat, the resumption of duty (work) and the fading remembrance of leisure.  I wish I was better at re-entry.

But there's also the joy of home, of familiar things, of seeing friends again, of the regularity of routine, and the love of a place --- this place.  I think Mary Oliver says it best in her poem, and so I'll leave it at that:

Musical Notation: 2

Everything is His.
The door, the door jamb.
The wood stacked near the door.
The leaves blown upon the path
     that leads to the door.
The trees that are dropping their leaves
     the wind that is tripping them this way and that way,
the clouds that are high above them,
the stars that are sleeping now beyond the clouds

and, simply said, all the rest.

When I open the door I am so sure so sure
     all this will be there, and it is.
I look around.
I fill my arms with firewood.
I turn and enter His house, and close the door.

Well, of course it's just home, that's all, just a place, and yet it's suffused with eternal significance.  It's His.  I'm glad to be here where my daughter flops on her bed and stares out her window, where my son walks the back yard deep in thought, where my wife picks up where she left off with laundry, meals, and more.  I'll find a favorite chair, just for a moment, and savor just being here, before life begins again.

Day 15: The Pull of Home


It's difficult to escape the pull of home on your last day of vacation.  We're looking out the window, trying to pay attention to what we see --- the orchards and rolling farmlands of the Annapolis Valley, the bay in the distance, the forested hills, the history of a place we are speeding through --- but it's too difficult.  Walking the quaint main street of Digby, I take it in, and yet I don't.  It's not home.  I'm going home.  And so I just give in to it, allowing the conversation to turn to the week ahead, the plans we have, our hopes for the rest of the Summer.  Normalcy will return.  I'll be able to remember what day of the week it is.  Mealtime will be regular (and less!). 

I'm riding the ferry now from Digby to St. John, a three-hour crossing of the Bay of Fundy, a place that has the highest tides in the world and home of fifteen different whale species.  Every now and then I go out on the deck with binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of our largest mammal.  Nova Scotia is behind us, and after a brief sojourn through southwest New Brunswick, with a stop in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea for dinner, we'll cross the border at St. Stephens (home of Ganong Chocolates) and be in Maine, on our way to Bangor and a flight home in the morning.

When I consider where we've been, I realize how much we have seen and experienced.  We've learned a great deal about Canada and Canadians, and have been treated so well and graciously by everyone.  On the whole it's a cleaner and more environmentally-conscious place than the United States.  And yet it's a place that by and large treats Christianity and its churches as a matter for historical preservation.  I have a sense that very few people attend church.  Is this what is in store for us in the United States?

I'm looking forward to being home --- home to heat, humidity, and summer haze.  It's part of what makes home be home.


There were some pleasant surprises on our way to Bangor from St. John.  St. Andrews-by-the-Sea was a delightful waterfront town, with nice shops, accommodations, and restaurants.  It was like Bar Harbor without all the people and tourist traps.  We ate at The Gables, a place with a great view of the harbor and seating on a porch over the water, and decent seafood and pub fare.  Two miles across the water lay Maine.  It was a fitting way to end our time in Canada.

We drove on to St. Stephen, not stopping at the chocolate store, and proceeded through the relatively unbusy border crossing with no difficulty.  I simply answered a few questions, showed the agent our passports, and passed on through.  A customs declaration (which I had taken the time to fill out) was not required.

Leaving Calais, Maine, we passed through the Moosehead Wildlife Refuge.  There were large expanses of marsh and grassland, bordered by a river.  Seeing a viewing platform, we stopped to take a look through the binoculars set up there.  No moose were sighted, but we did see three bald eagles on their nests and enjoyed listening to the various birds in the area.

Proceeding down Maine Highway 9 (which is a nice broad two-lane and relatively untraveled, we enjoyed the approximately 80 miles of forest and low mountains.  It's a very unpopulated area.  We occasionally stopped just to get out and savor the cool air and vistas.  We'll miss it.

Tomorrow at home?  97 degrees and humid.

Day 14: Behind the Veil


"It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, that amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to the kingdom of ideal beauty.  Between it and me hung only a thin veil.  I could never quite draw it aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond --- only a glimpse --- but those glimpses have always made life worth while"  (Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Alpine Path)

Without a doubt it is a mystical statement.  And yet Montgomery's observation, her sense of something perfect and pure that lay beyond the commonplace, is something known to most of us.  God has fixed a chasm between the old heavens and old earth and new heavens and new earth that we cannot now cross, and yet he treats us to glimpses of what it must be like, moments that we don't forget.

I'm by an open window in a bed and breakfast in the small town of Canning, Nova Scotia, on the West coast (the bay of Fundy side), listening to the sounds of the night.  There's not much to hear.  An occasional car passes by.  A muffled voice from a nearby room.  A horn, perhaps from a boat far away on the Bay, sounds.  Cattle graze and the breeze ruffles the grain growing in the dikeland fields east of here.  It's all very commonplace, and yet I can imagine that in all of what I know and see and hear now there is something of the new earth in it, the promise of more, better, soon.

Leaving Cape Breton today, we stopped for an hour at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddock.  What a great place!  I did not realize the expansiveness of this inventor's mind.  Not only did he invent the telephone, but he also worked on perfecting something called "Visible Speech" for the deaf, built and flew airplanes, developed hydrofoils, worked with X-rays and perfected the phonograph (invented by Edison), and much, much more.  He had a passion to invent and was relentless in it, never giving up after failure after failure.  I could glimpse even in that the kind of passion for learning that must persist and be perfected in a new earth.

It was a long drive today, and yet it made me appreciate the rich beauty and diversity of Nova Scotia, and it made me long for a new earth --- not by glimpses but full on.

Day 13: A Whale of a Time


Eddie, a man who undoubtedly figures himself something of a Crocodile Dundee of whale sightings, took us out on the ocean today just outside of Ingonish Habour to look for whales.  I've been on such excursions before, but never on a inflatable zodiac.  I was uncertain what to expect.  I didn't have long to find out.

The zodiac is basically a 24 foot inflatable raft with a center console and two 100 horsepower motors.  It carries up to 12 passengers, but today we had only ten.  A few seconds after we pulled away from the dock in the South Harbour, Eddie floored it.  We headed straight out to sea going approximately 40 mph, with Eddie whooping and hollering all the way, as he immediately spotted whales, minke whales like we had seen in Maine.

It turns out there was only one whale, but the view we had was amazing.  We came within a few hundred feet, watching it spray, surface and actually breach (rare for a minke whale).  The whale literally leaped out of the water!  It did this several times as we chased it north, occasionally breaching and often surfacing and exposing its fin.  What a thrill to see!  I have never been so close to a whale.  They are majestic creatures that are difficult to describe as such unless you experience them up close.

We also went in search of the elusive moose today.  Just north of here is a freshwater lake, Lake Warren.  We hiked the 2.5 mile hike around the perimeter, a mostly low-lying trail which at time climbed briefly onto the banks around the lake.  It was just the four of us.  We never passed anyone.  Though we never saw the moose, on the far side of the lake we did see an area of pressed down grass where a moose had either slept or rested, and in several places we found moose tracks in mud or soft earth.  After dinner at the lodge we went out via car in search of more moose, driving down some gravel roads into the forest, but we came up empty. 


As evening fell, it grew more windy and a slight rain began to fall, a rare sight these last two weeks!  When we planned the trip, I was certain we'd be seeing a great deal of rain and fog.  Surprisingly, we've seen very little.

As the end of our trip nears, I have to remind myself that vacations are not over until they're over, that God will present new things each day just like in life in general, if we have eyes to see.  Like most, I tend to live too much in tomorrow and not enough in the present.  If Jesus warned that each day's trouble is enough for that day (an admonition not to worry about tomorrow), then surely each day's pleasures are enough for that day too and are to be savored and not passed over.  Home is in my sights, but there's still much to see on the way home.

Days 11 and 12: From PEI to Cape Breton


It is with some sadness that I'm looking back at Prince Edward Island from the deck of the Wood Island - Caribou ferry.  Today I remember driving through the bucolic landscape toward the ferry, still relishing the contrasts --- the red roads and cliffs, green meadows and fields, and blue skies and sea.  Dscf0030I also enjoyed our stopover at the historic Orwell Farm, a restored home place and farm en route to the ferry.  Visiting the barn, my daughter discovered two timid kittens who poked their heads out from behind a weathered red door, mewing.  We toured the general store, home place, church, and one-room schoolhouse which functioned until 1969.  Our guide spent at least two years there herself.  You have to use your imagination a bit to see it as it was earlier in the twentieth century, before or not long after the advent of cars, before the drone of airplanes overhead, and before, perhaps, the tidiness bred of a more leisurely era.  (For example, the well-tended flower beds would certainly not have ranked high on the original farm family's list of priorities.)  It's easy to think of such a time with nostalgia, but while the loss can be lamented some there are gains as well (better healthcare, less grueling labor).  

After a 75 minute ferry ride, we were in for a bit of driving through the Nova Scotia countryside --- more than I had counted on!  The landscape was markedly different than that of PEI --- much more forested and less agrarian.  After a couple hours, we crossed over to Cape Breton, a peninsula in northern Nova Scotia.  We spent our first night in the very small town of Mabou (pop. 300), home of the Rankin family, one of the best known musical Cape Breton families.  (They are sort of like the Carter family in the bluegrass world, yet they are Celtic.)  The best treat of the evening was a "ceilidh", which is basically a hoedown, held in the community hall.  We heard three local fiddlers, accompanied by a pianist, play Celtic reels, jigs, and waltzes.  They even had two step-dancers take the stage with dancing reminiscent of Irish dance in Riverdance.  It was a crowd of approximately 100, most of whom appeared to be locals.  We felt right at home.  It could have been the Blue Ridge Mountains, only with different accents.


There is an oddity located right next door to our motel --- Our Lady of Sorrows Shrine, a white clapboard church with a lit cross atop it.  We walked right into it at 10:00.  Numerous candles were lit, and in the front of the church was the painting of the suffering Jesus held by Mary.  At first I thought it might be a good place for prayer.  After visiting, I think not; the focus on the continued suffering of Jesus, the candles lit for those presumably in purgatory, and the explicit Mary worship truly distract from worship in spirit and truth.  Better the woods and sky and ocean.

The next day, making our way up the western side of the peninsula, we stopped in Cheitcamp for a meal.  At the nondescript Acadian Restaurant (recommended by Frommers), I had meat pie, an Acadian favorite, which was excellent.  Dscf0065_editedProceeding on, we entered Cape Breton National Park, a beautiful drive that hugs the coastline of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Cabot Trail.  This is a dramatic country, much like that of our Western parks, with mountains meeting sea in a jumble of rocks and boulders, the gulf glittering for as far as you could see.  Stopping at one sand beach just north of Inverness, we discovered tons of sea glass, something which made my wife very, very happy, as she had been looking for it ever since we left home.  We all loaded our pockets full of the tumbled smooth green, white, brown, and, on occasion, blue glass.  Never have I seen so much sea glass.  Looking for sea glass is like fishing for me: great if they're to be found, but boring if not.


Making our way around the park we ended up on the east side, in Ingonish, where we have stopped for two nights at the Keltic Lodge, the former summer home of a  friend of Alexander Graham Bell.  The lodge sits on a slender peninsula that juts out into the ocean between North and South Ingonish Harbours.  The views are incredible.  I'm already thinking about home, yet a bit of the wanderlust remains, enough for another couple days, at least!

Days 8, 9, & 10: Knowing a Place


"For lands have personalities just as well as human beings; and to know that personality you must live in a place and companion it, and draw sustenance of body and spirit from it; so only can you really know a land and be known of it."  (Lucy Maud Montgomery, in The Alpine Path)

One of my enduring memories of being here on Prince Edward Island will be spending time with my almost 13-year old daughter in all the Anne of Green Gables oriented attractions --- like a restored Green Gables or the author's actual homeplace, or in viewing the most popular Canadian musical, Anne: The Musical.  There are so few things that really engage her emotionally that I loved seeing her smile, laugh, and at one point in the musical, even cry so touched she was by what was happening.  I think she identifies with the imaginative and precocious Anne.

But it's not just my daughter who is affected, it's also me.  You can't really know PEI without knowing Anne of Green Gables, and she is everywhere in the center of the island, in Queens County.  I always regarded the book as one for children, particularly young girls, and thus I have not read it, but I plan on doing so.  Montgomery was a good writer, and Anne engages the imagination.  It's part of knowing this place.

Walking through the birthplace of Montgomery, there were plaques with quotes from her short autobiography, The Alpine Life, and I was drawn in by the insightfulness of her thinking.  So I also bought her autobiography.  It's part of knowing the place.

The last three days have also been filled with other ways of knowing this place --- walking the grounds of the historic and beautiful hotel where we stayed, Dalvay-by-the-Sea, originally the summer home of Alexander McDonald, exploring the trails through the dunes and forests of Prince Edward Island National Park, riding bikes for a 26 -mile trek on the island wide Confederation Trail through wetlands, meadows, and farmlands, and  meandering in our car down backroads.  It's difficult to describe the subtle pleasure the landscape gives. Perhaps Montgomery does it best: Dscf0013

"Much of the beauty of the Island is due to the vivid colour contrasts --- the rich red of the winding roads, the brilliant emerald of the uplands and meadows, the glowing sapphire of the encircling sea.  It is the sea which makes Prince Edward Island in more senses than the geographical.  You cannot get away from the sea down there.  Save for a few places in the interior, it is ever visible somewhere, if only in a tiny blue gap between distant hills, or a turquoise gleam through the dark boughs of spruce fringing an estuary."Dscf0015

That's true.  The contrast of blue and green and red is something I never tire of.

Here are some things we noted about PEI:

  • They like gravy on their fries.
  • They serve sweet iced tea.  You have to ask for unsweetened tea.
  • They rarely serve ice with drinks.
  • They have no deer or moose or bear on the island.
  • They have more forested land now than they did in 1900.
  • They have mosquitos.  We felt at home.
  • They have very few Canadian geese.  They have emigrated to the United States.
  • They say "Eh" (pronounced with an "a")
  • They have red dirt and many red sand beaches, some of which smell!  (It's the natural litter of mussels and other sea creatures.)
  • Their motorists are extremely polite.
  • They do not usually give free refills on drinks (to the chagrin of my well hydrated son, whose favorite question is "Do you have free refills?")

Life on the island is unhurried and almost genteel.  If you're looking for excitement, you wouldn't like it.  If you want to slow down, you'd love it.  I can see why Anne loved it.  And I'm loving it too -- as best I can.