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December 2007

Wide Angle Radio (Episode Four)

WideAngle3_thumb Singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, embellishing the hallways, rooms, and doorways of the folk conventions, guitars in hand or strapped to their backs, eking out a subsistence living at times, living out of their cars.  Why do they do it?  Some because they can't do anything else, I guess. As Pierce Pettis once told me about himself, he did what he did "because he couldn't do anything else."  Pierce said he'd rather do something else, because he could make a better living, and he never counseled anyone to take up the "profession," and yet it's what he did.

So when I was in the music business, why, among the legion of troubadours out there, did I partner with the ones I did?  I'm not sure I can point to one factor.  Sovereign luck, deliberate choice, fortuitous circumstances, poor judgment --- all may have played a factor in my choices.  But I know why I chose Matt Auten:  because of his literary nature, because listening to his lyrically rich songs is trip through countless metaphors, and because Matt himself is articulate, poetic, and a good guitar player to boot.  Listening to his songs on this episode of Wide Angle Radio, I look for more instrumentation, a richer musical palette, but Matt wouldn't have it.  He likes it mellow.  And that's OK --- he's the one who dreamed up the songs in the first place.

Matt Auten, now by day a Black Mountain, North Carolina trim carpenter (he can do something else and, by all accounts, do it very well) is featured on this January 2000 episode of Wide Angle Radio.  You'll enjoy the sounds, the interview, as well as other music by Bruce Cockburn, Matt Jones, Rick Unruh, and Jane Kelly Williams.  Give it a listen here.

The Zookeeper's Wife: A Review

zookeepers This is a story that has waited over 60 years to be told.  Drawing on personal diaries, journals and other historical sources, Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife recreates the story of Polish Christian zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski's efforts to save over 300 people during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Warsaw.  She ably forms a narrative around this courageous couple, melding it with background historical material to create a captivating story.

Antonina and Jan operated the Warsaw zoo.  When the animals were moved by the Nazis, or killed in the bombings, the Zabinskis, who lived in a modernist-looking villa on the premises, began hiding Jews in empty cages, in their villa, and in underground rooms, often naming the refugees for the animals whose cages they occupied.  While her husband was more active in the Resistance, sabotaging Nazi installations and smuggling food to refugees, Antonina looked after the guests with aplomb, narrowly averting detection by her calm demeanor in tense situations and her seeming ability to bring out the best in those she dealt with, whether a Nazi officer who walked through her residence or a Polish policeman.  By Ackerman's account, she had the same calming manner with people as she did with animals.  And she needed to.  Not only did her villa house six to ten refugees on any one occasion, it also held several animals as well, the antics of which provided humor in an otherwise dark time.

I found the telling of this story engaging.  It's not written as a biography but as if it is historical fiction.  Conversations are recounted.  Feelings and emotion are ascribed to Antonina (around whom the story focuses).  And yet, as the author recounts in the Author's Note, she made every attempt never to ascribe feelings to the Zabinskis that they do not document in their memoirs.  The result is an accurate account of one family's compassion and courage in horrific circumstances.  They simply did the right thing.

One thing that puzzled me, however, was that while the Zabinskis were noted to be Christians, there was little to no discussion of what, if any, bearing this had upon the decision they made to assist the Jews, or how their faith helped them persevere in such difficult times.  Either it was not a significant factor in their motivation, or else the author chose to overlook it.  It is also possible that Antonina kept her religion to herself, as Jan himself was an atheist.  So, as much as her diary gives, it may also hold back.

That shortcoming aside, I recommend the book.  It's an interesting bit of history, and Antonina is quite an inspiration for what selfless love of neighbor looks like.

Top 10 Favorite Albums of 2007

mavis Though it's certainly not a "best of" list (which is a bit presumptuous), the following list of ten albums released in 2007 does include the 2007 releases that I listened to the most during the year and expect to listen to in the years ahead.  Given a Rhapsody to Go subscription which allows me to listen to whole albums without buying them for only $14.95 a month, I listened to a lot of music, and I'd have to say that most of what I tried out was just not good or was very inconsistent in quality.  When you stack most of them up to the following records (some by veteran artists), the contrast is remarkable.  In addition, while occasionally an album will have an initial appeal, it may not endure.  These albums endured, and repeated listening to them is rewarding.  So, for what it's worth, this is the best I heard last year (in no particular order, as I could not possibly rank them):

1.  Memory Almost Full --- Paul McCartney.  I'm a sucker for a pop tune, and while this ex-Beatle can't quite write a tune as memorable as, say, "Yesterday," he still has the touch.  MY favorite is the lead off track: "Dance Tonight."

2.  We Walked In Song --- The Innocence Mission.  I'm sorry if some folks find this trio boring, but I find them moving in the simplicity of their songs.  It's mellow alt-folk, uncluttered and spiritually refreshing.  While this album isn't quite as memorable as Befriended, I still love it.  Karen Peris has a beautiful voice.

3.  Live On Sunset Strip --- The Raspberries.  The quintessential power-pop band of the Seventies reunites for an amazing, energetic concert.  Eric Carmen and the boys looked and sounded a bit bubblegum back then; I think I like them even better now.  They were second to Badfinger in my book.  It makes me miss album covers: their cover had a scratch off scent of (what else) raspberries!

4.  We'll Never Turn Back --- Mavis Staples.  This is a phenomenal album by the veteran Staples Singers vocalist, one of the few that manages to bring social activism, the Gospel, and music together without stridency or propaganda.  Producer Ry Cooder really brings it together musically, giving it a rootsy, modern feel.  Powerful lyrically and musically.  I particularly like "My Own Eyes." Maybe, just maybe, this is my #1.

5.  Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems --- Emmylou Harris.  This is one of those rare box sets that is worth it, full of true musical gems that you likely have not heard and do not own.  78 tracks from a 40 year career, genre-jumping from country (which predominates) to rock and folk, with a wonderfully designed package as well, includiong a hardcover book.  Four CDs and a DVD of concert recordings.  I paid $52 for this and  feel like I got a bargain.

6.  Traffic and Weather --- Fountains of Wayne.  I suppose this fits in the power-pop category, but these guys write songs of sufficient diversity to keep it interesting.  On top of that, the lyrics are clever --- each song is like a mini-short story.  It never grows old!  I particularly like "Yolanda Hayes," who I think I have met.

7.  Eisenhower --- The Slip.  Again, I like the melodies and cool arrangements of songs in this alternative rock band.  I actually saw them in concert locally and their moody set played well.

8.  Challengers --- The New Pornographers.  If you can get past the inexplicable name (they are not pornographic), you'll love the interesting songs.  Alt-rock, I love their voices --- good melody and harmony.  (If you haven't guessed it, I must have melody!)  I just find the songs here consistently listenable.

9.  Magic --- Bruce Springsteen.   This is the best from Springsteen for some time, a return to a rock band sound.  There's not much here I don't like, and I can't say that about his last.

10.  Everyone --- Grand Drive.  They're not well known on this side of the pond, but these Brits know how to make good alt-country- pop.  Nothing brash here, just nice strumming, a little Hammond B3 organ, occasional keyboards, little love songs.  It grows on you.

And that's it.  Of course I didn't listen to all the music out there, and I have to give a nod to an artist like Josh Ritter, who I simply need to listen to more and would probably put in my list had I done so (or so some friends tell me), but maybe you'll find something here that you will enjoy.  I'm thankful for the gifts represented here, even if the Giver is not always acknowledged. Here's to a New Year full of good music!

For Emily, Whenever She May Find Him (A Christmas Story)

woman spirit What a dream Emily had.  She was wandering the deserted streets around Times Square, strangely dark , the marquees blackened, the streets empty of the ubiquitous yellow cabs and traffic, an eerie silence ruling the night.  She was walking quickly, as if pursued, her heels echoing on the pavement, ringing off the shuttered shops and empty alleyways.  She began to run, sensing a dark presence behind her, a foreboding sensation.  Up 7th, right on 51st, on to Rockefeller Center.  Turning the corner at 5th, she saw it: the tree, brightly decorated, shining in the darkness, the only brightness in an otherwise starlit but dark city.  At the bottom of the tree stood a man, his hand outstretched and beckoning, and though she could not hear it, she knew what he was saying.  Come.  Just come.  And she wanted to come, even though she was afraid.  She wanted to, but she could not move.

When she awoke, she found herself alone, the bedcovers twisted around her as if she had been wrestling someone the whole night.  He had gone, sometime in the night.  But it didn't matter, she said to herself.  None of them matter.  Her clothes lay crumpled on the floor where, in some passion now a distant memory, she had dropped them.  Stepping over them, she walked to the bathroom, looking in the mirror as she did every morning, staring into her green eyes as if seeking something there.  She ran her hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face.  She was aging, and she knew it, little fault lines creeping outward from the corners of her eyes, her neck showing the first wrinkles and excess skin.  It doesn't matter, she thought.  I'm healthy, I have a good job, and I'm smart.  I'll be OK.

One cup of coffee later, she sat on the sofa in her living room considering how to spend her day.  Ashley was on a cruise with her boyfriend in the Caribbean.  Kara was with her family in Connecticut. And that about exhausted her list of friends.  It was Christmas Eve, and she was alone.  She picked up the three Christmas cards she had received --- one from her stockbroker, thick and expensive, with an innocuous happy holidays greeting and a single machine-inscribed signature; another from a client, a local restaurant corporation she had saved from bankruptcy; and the last nothing more than a postcard, a simple manger scene with a handwritten "God bless you" scrawled across the back, signed by the doorman, Jake.

And with that, Emily began to sob, quietly at first, and then, like something deep came unhinged, loudly, because she could, because she was alone and no one could hear her.  She wept for all the lovers come and gone, for the empty praise of co-workers, for the purposelessness of work for nothing more than nice things --- a new dress, weekend in the Hamptons --- and for the abiding sense that nothing really mattered, nothing at all. 

She couldn't remember a time when she had last wept.  Perhaps it was when her father had died, when her mother failed to even show for her own husband's funeral.  Sometimes she felt a sense of despair so overwhelming that she wanted to cry, but couldn't.  Like at the crosswalk at 39th and Broadway, the sign broadcasting "walk" and her mind saying "why." Or sometimes when she'd awake in the night, darkness settled around her, and she'd remember ice skating with her Dad, or just driving listening to his voice, and she missed him.  But she didn't cry.

Remembering, she went to the closet, dragged a box from the corner, and began tossing books out of it onto the floor, old fluff novels, lawbooks, and bar journals, until she found it --- a small New Testament.  She opened the front jacket to the inscription: "To Emily, From Dad, Christmas 1987." Since her Dad died in 1992, she had not looked at the Bible, having pitched it in the bottom of her closet, and yet she carried it with her wherever she lived --- to law school, to her clerkship in Albany, and then on her job for the firm here in New York.

She opened it to Psalms, wiping her face on her sleeve and pushing her hair out of her eyes, her eyes falling to several verses in Psalm 102, underlined in the shaking highlights  of her father's hand: "For my days vanish like smoke. . . . My heart is blighted. . . . I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof."  Like a bird alone.  And Emily wept some more, remembering how alone she had felt after her Dad died, how abandoned, and how utterly alone she felt at this moment.

She dressed quickly, threw on her coat, stuffing the Bible in her pocket.  She took the elevator to the lobby, walking quickly by Jake, her eyes red and puffy from her crying.

He caught her arm.  "Ms. Parker, are you alright?"

"Yes, yes.  I'm fine, thank you, Jake."

"How are you spending Christmas?"

"I don't have any plans."

"Then you need to come to our home.  My wife and kids would enjoy having you."

Emily was about to say she couldn't, that she needed to work, that she might take a trip, anything not to admit that she would be alone.

"I couldn't impose."

"Emily, come.  Just come."

"I guess I could." 

And in that moment, Emily felt a little less alone, and a little less angry.  She didn't know if that was blessing, or if God did in fact bless, or if there was a God, but she conceded the possibility of that kindness, of grace itself, of Someone that walked the frosted world in lamplight, His touch softer than rain, of Someone that would be there when she awoke with grateful tears, of One who could hold all her sorrows.

She walked on, past brightly lit shop displays, streets teeming with shoppers, and like a dream she heard music and cathedral bells and a voice that echoed "Come."  Just come. 

[Emily is a composite of a woman dreamed of by the narrator in Paul Simon's song, "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, which appeared on the 1966 album by Simon and Garfunkel entitled Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, and a young woman I saw on the sidewalk this Christmas Eve who was weeping while the man walking with her offered her no comfort.  Emily had a different dream than Simon's narrator, and a different life.  Some phrases are culled from the song, as if Emily's and the narrator's dream and life intersected. Listen to "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her," below]

The Bleak Midwinter

One of the reasons that I am enjoying some of Christina Rosetti's poetry is her melancholy disposition.  While the word "melancholy" can mean gloomy or depressed, it also means a sober thoughtfulness, or pensiveness, and as I understand it that is a more traditional and perhaps biblical way to approach Advent.  Rosetti seems to capture that in two of my favorite of her poems, the two set to music and sung by everyone from The Kings College Choir to Julie Andrews to Sara McLachlan.

church window In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

(Rosetti, In the Bleak Midwinter)

That "snow on snow, snow on snow" bit of repetition has a way of driving home the bitter cold and hardness of the world, not just the frozen ground but the layer upon layer hardness of life into which Christ was born.  And it is hard sometimes.  I could even now rattle off a litany of ripple effects of sin --- drought, disease, war, broken families --- abnormalities likely far worse in the 19th Century time in which Rosetti lived.  And yet she can still write

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.

(Rosetti, Love Came Down)

Christina_Rossetti_3 It's not surprising that Rosetti was "soberly thoughtful."  While she was born into a well-off London family in 1830, when she was about twelve or so, her family suffered severe financial difficulties because of her father's debilitating physical and emotional illness.  At 14 she had a nervous breakdown, and thereafter she suffered from bouts of depression.  She came to faith in the Anglican church, perhaps as a result of all her trials, and she was devoted to Christ the remainder of her life.  In fact, though she became serious about two men, she married neither, both for religious reasons.  She remained unmarried the rest of her life.  So, she lived with her mother , and after her mother died, alone.  She's not unlike some other hymnwriters or poets whose best work seems to proceed from their most difficult trials.

In the midst of all those cheery Christmas songs, I continue to gravitate to the sobering songs, the ones that acknowledge the reality of sin and the difficulty of waiting.  Advent is all about waiting, and it's not over with with the birth.  We wait for the promised death of death, for the setting right of all things --- including me.

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

(Rosetti, A Bettter Resurrection, 1879)

That's what we are: fallen leaves, faded leaves, broken bowls.  And yet He comes to make us whole, dying so we might live.

Rosetti was serious about faith.  It's said that she gave up playing chess because she thought that her wish to win the game had become too strong. She believed that this would be a chance to become a more humble believer.  When I read that, I thought it sounded crazy, but then it made me realize how inattentive to my sin I am, how little I think about the passions and motives that drive me.

I don't play chess.  But I need more sober attentiveness to my life.  I need to make a move.

Noting Providence (A Story)

Look_2"He who notes providences, will have providences to note." (Matthew Henry)

When you're a kid, you know things.  You know things your parents are never going to know. 

Like, for example, the kind of things that can happen on the way to the Handy Mart by foot.  Now parents, they take the Chevy down Elam, up Ferndale, left on Elm, and then, right past the Morrison's big oak tree, they hang a right into the lot of the store.  They buy milk and eggs, exchange greetings with the clerk, get back in the car, and whip the wheel out of the lot and head for home.  It's purely practical.

But they miss a lot that way.  They miss the point, really.

You see, a walk to the store was a nighttime ritual for John and I.  If John was here right now and feeling poetic, he'd tell you that that walk was a metaphor for life.  (We learned that word in Mrs. Harrigan's Humanities class.)  A walk like that held peril and promise, ecstasy and agony, riches and poverty, villains and vamps.

Now get this.  One time we were walking down Elm, shuffling along, bemoaning some new indignity suffered in our junior high school, when I spied a crumpled up twenty dollar bill not two inches from the sidewalk, technically in Bridget Hanson's front yard but effectively within the curtilage of public property, where it likely landed on the sidewalk and was blown by the wind into Bridget's yard.  And even if it was in Bridget's yard, she didn't deserve it because she was a nasty chic with an attitude.  Well, John fell on it like he was protecting his platoon from a soon-to-explode grenade.  We debated whether to tell Bridget about our discovery, but not much, really.  We kept it.  Split it 50/50.  You see, that made up for the time the three neighborhood thugs (well, senior highs) made us turn our pockets inside out, spilling all our nickels and dimes and quarters on the street and then made us pick it up and then took all our money.  God gave it back to us.  Equilibrium was restored.

We talked about that particularly embarrassing moment all the time, we did.  John said next time he'd get his Dad's gun (unloaded, of course), stuff it in his pocket, and if we met up with the three delinquents, he'd brandish that revolver at them and say something like "beat it, or you're toast," or "make my day," something Clint Eastwood-like, and we'd watch them fall all over themselves trying to run away.  That kind of thing sort of jump started our imaginations, and so for several nights we'd imagine ourselves superheroes, being able to pick up a car or breathe fire and just basically scare the beejesus out of those idiots.  I think we almost talked ourselves into it.

Well, like I said, things happen when you walk.  Like you might just meet up with Angel Simms.  She lived on Ferndale, right next to Scotty something or other, the guy who fixed lawn mowers for a living and walked around half the time in his front yard in bib overalls with two miniature Chihuahuas hanging out of the front pockets.   The guy that always wanted to talk about our sorry good for nothing high school football team about which John and I couldn't give a flip and he'd just yak, yak, yak on about the team and its pitiful coach while we were making every excuse we could think of to move on.  But, back to Angel. . . . We'd walk extra slow past her house, hoping she'd be out, you know, maybe taking the garbage to the street or checking the mailbox or something.  Angel was pretty hot, and we were hopeless, or nearly so.  But we had our dreams.  We'd consider what we'd say to Angel should she be outside and should she notice us and should she talk to us.  Something like "how's it going, Angel," or maybe more nonchalantly, "hey Angel, didn't know you lived around here," and after that, we'd say. . . we'd say. . . well, we weren't sure what we'd say but maybe we'd claim that scripture verse then about "not worrying about what to say because at that time you will be given what to say" and something intelligent would just pop out, you know, and it'd be so beautiful Angel Simms would just reach over and kiss me and say "see you tomorrow at school" and that'd just be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.   Just the beginning.  That's not exactly how John dreamed it, where I appeared as a more tangential bit actor.  But it doesn't matter now anyway, since Angel never did come out and she moved away that Summer, quashing all our dreams.

Our favorite way to walk was to cut through the various backyards, beginning with Mr. Highfill's backyard which, though enclosed by an eight-foot redwood fence, was surmountable, given that a board in the fence was loose.  We'd have to be careful though, as Highfill's bald head would occasionally pop up out of nowhere and he'd say something like "what are you boys up to?" and you just had to believe there was an accusation in that question, an insinuation, and I don't think I'm imagining things. I think he suspects it was me who shot the bottle rocket up the drainage pipe under his house that night about midnight.  He'd be right.

Anyway, if we made it past Highfill we'd find ourselves in the backyard of the Rabinoffs, people my Mom warned us to steer clear of because they were Jews and were peculiar, like they had four heads or something.  Whenever reference was made to the Rabinoffs their Jewishness came up, as in "Mr.  Rabinoff bought a new Cadillac yesterday.  Those Jewish people, you know. . . ." It'd usually trail off like that, like you'd know what they were talking about, that enough had been said.  But actually, the Rabinoffs were pretty cool Jews.  Their dog, Igor or something, was a terror, however.  I think he didn't like Christians.  He'd growl and lunge at John and I if he were out, gnawing on the mesh fence that contained him, foaming at the mouth, until Mr. Rabinoff came out and yelled something like "Shalom, Igor, shalom," and Igor'd collapse in a puddle of spittle, spent.

If we made it, and we usually did, we'd traverse the edge of the Rabinoff's driveway dropping out of the underbrush onto Ferndale where, one night, to our dismay, we ran right into Roxanne Anders sitting on the curb, a cigarette in one hand, a Budweiser in the other.  Thirteen year old Roxanne put the fear of God into John and I, so we tended to avoid her.  The best way I can put it is that she was interesting but scary, the kind of girl that if you got mixed up with would mess you up real good, like a teenage version of the sirens of waywardness mentioned in Proverbs.   So there she is, striking a pose in her short shorts and halter top, and John and I instinctively sped up and kind of grunted at her as we passed hoping she'd leave us alone.  But it was too late.

"Hey Purcell, Maddry, where're you going so quick?"

"Hey Rox," I said.

"How about a beer?"

"Nah, I gotta get to the store."

"Come on.  Sit down right here, both of you.  I need to talk to you."

I felt my defenses crumble.  I sat down on one side, John on the other, and for the next 45 minutes Roxanne recited a litany of troubles with her parents, all the time leaning in close to me, putting her hand on my knee, blowing smoke in my face, some musky perfume enveloping me.  I couldn't even say anything much.  Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt feverish.  I knew I had to leave.  If we stayed we'd be playing spin the bottle with Roxanne before you knew it and with our luck we'd be standing in the middle of the street in our undershorts, Roxanne fully clothed, and her old man would come out with a shotgun.  And that'd be that. Dead kids in underwear.

"Holy cow, I gotta run!"  I jumped up and took off up the street, John in tow, Roxanne yelling for us to come back, that she wasn't finished.  Sure she wasn't.

But that's what I mean.  Anything can happen.  Peril mixed up with promise. Sin and salvation. That walk was full of implications for life, missed opportunities, wondrous providences.  It's all right there, if you just looked for it.

John moved, you know.  He's a weatherman.  Last I heard he was living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, living in a pup tent in a KOA campground.

Angel Simms works at Target and is still hot. Roxanne Anders went to pharmacy school, putting better use to her knowledge of controlled substances. And Scotty's been dead ten years now, buried in his overalls as he wanted, right next to those Chihuahuas. The Koreans took over the Handy Mart. They're planting a Korean Presbyterian Church in the old Harris Teeter building.

When my Mom died, Carla and I and our three kids moved into the old house in the neighborhood. I'm the mailman here. On good days, I still like to walk the route past familiar landmarks and be thankful for my blessings, that "behind a frowning providence," as the hymn says, "He hides a smiling face," that somehow all that stuff that happened back then was a part of a great big mysterious plan God has for us all. That doesn't explain why John's living in pup tent or why a chic with looks and brains like Angel ended up in a dead end job in Target or why those guys took our money, but I can live with all that mystery. I don't require an explanation for Acts of God. That's providence. We just have to look where we're going. That's our job.

When you're eleven, you don't always know these things. When you're a kid, you just can't know some things that parents know.

Fearing Well

child “When I was five, growing up in Pittsburgh in 1950, I would not go to bed willingly because something came into my room. This was a private matter between me and it. If I spoke of it, it would kill me. . . . I lay alone and was almost asleep when the damned thing entered the room by flattening itself against the open door and sliding in. . . . The light stripe slipped in the door, ran searching over Amy’s wall, stopped, stretched lunatic at the first corner, raced wailing toward my wall, and vanished into the second corner with a cry. So I wouldn’t go to bed.” (Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood)

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” (Lk. 12:4)

Though I have forgotten much of childhood’s events and even more of the depth of its emotions, I will never forget the sense of fear that darkness could bring on. One of my earliest memories is of a hysterical conviction that the burning red face of Satan resided in the window air conditioner in the dining room of my first childhood home. I would not enter that room willingly or alone. I tell you, it was real. And I was two.

We moved, trading suburb for suburb, and yet the darkness was still populated with shadowy child-eating goblins that I could see just out of the corner of my eye, just on the edge of vision, bogeymen that sprung up when my back was turned only to disappear when I turned around (if I dared). If I was in the basement coming up the stairs, I ran. I could feel the heat of its hand on my backside, just inches from grasping me before I emerged in the light at the top of the stairs, the kitchen, where the settled warmth of lamplights and the smell of evening coffee dispelled the fear. I quickly closed the door, composed myself, and took my place at the table, another narrow encounter with the Underworld avoided. I was safe, for now.

It wasn’t just the basement. My bedroom, shared with my younger sister, lay off the hallway between my parent’s and sister’s bedrooms. The back of the room was a bank of windows, barely curtained from the dark, cold thin panes of glass all that separated me from the devils of the outside. I made a game of it. If I ran as quickly as I could, toward my parent’s bedroom, I could avoid his gaze, his prying eyes, the glare of the creature who looked in my windows at night, who saw me lying in my bed, asleep, who but for the window panes’ thin veneer of security would have me, would spirit me away.

There was another problem. I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, long after the stirrings of my sister had ceased, the rise and fall of her breathing taking on a quiet regularity, and long after my father began to snore, lightly. I lay awake, my head covered by the sheets, listening to a house alive, the structural and mechanical murmurings and whisperings of the day now rising to lively conversation in the dark --- the hum of the refrigerator motor answering the intermittent call of the air conditioner fan, pipes groaning like some inexplicable digestive mystery, and then a creaking, just now and then, like the house was settling back on its haunches, its vigilance giving way, cracks appearing in its armor, mice and ants and other nocturnal animals and insects entering in. I lay wake for a long, long time, for what felt like all night, convinced that my mother would enter the room at any time, telling us to get up for breakfast, asking us how we slept, and then comforted by the first rays of daylight I would spring to my feet and insist that I had not slept at all and felt just fine. That never actually happened.

At one point, my insistence that there were creatures outside became tiresome. I moved to a cot in my parent’s room. I know that they tried many things I cannot now remember before resorting to this, telling me I’m sure that God was with me watching over me. I wouldn’t have disbelieved this, but I needed something I could see. I lay awake watching my Dad sleep. I lay awake long after everyone had gone to sleep.

I lived. I grew up. Like most kids, I shed those monsters somewhere along the way. Some kids have those fears, some don’t. Maybe it’s that we thought about things more, analyzed life more and didn’t just live it. Maybe we had well-endowed imaginations. Maybe some event, real or imagined, provided the explicable or inexplicable reason for our insecurity. Maybe it’s genetic, a “chicken-heart” gene. But I know it is not unusual for some kids to have fears of the dark, to see monsters in the shadows.

We grow up. But we trade fears of bogeymen for new fears --- fears of death, perhaps, or losing our job and being destitute, of being embarrassed or of failing miserably, or of being alone.  These are the phantoms of adulthood, the ones we may laugh at, distract ourselves from, or suffer under.  Just like the creature in the cellar, the monster outside the window, they are real.

Jesus says time and time again, "do not be afraid."  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body.  But wait a minute.  That hurts, and I don't want to die, yet anyway.  I'm sure my mother told me something like this.  And I'm sure I wanted something with skin on to calm my fears. 

In the end, it's impossible not to feel fear, not to realize that bad things can happen, that life won't be a holiday tomorrow, or the next day, even if it is today.  But I've come to a new understanding of these admonitions to not be afraid.  Jo Kadlecek says that in addition to warning us of danger and keeping us safe, "fear was also meant to push us overboard --- arms flailing, legs kicking, eyes stinging --- so that we could be, have to be, rescued."  Saved, she means.  Saved by a story, the story, by the One who we can trust to be with us in our fear and uphold us.  That doesn't mean I'm not afraid at times, but it does mean I don't live there in fear, I'm not debilitated by fear, when I leap into Jesus's arms, when I rest on him alone.  I move my bed into his room.  I lie awake looking at the placid calm of His rest, while storms rage around him and phantoms move in the dark, keeping my eyes on Him when everything around me may look mighty scary.  I rest in Him alone.

One day, though I don't remember when, I got up from my cot in my parents room and looked at that dark pane of glass in my room, and then got in my bed again.  I didn't live in fear.

And Annie Dillard figured out that the light stripe that came in her room was just the reflection of the car headlights on the road outside.  Then she slept.

All I know is the deliberativeness of resting on Jesus alone, of casting myself into His arms.  Fear may not be dispelled immediately, but like melting ice cubes in the hot sun of His care, they will depart.  We'll live, in Him.

The Christ-Haunted Life of Frank Schaeffer: A Review of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take It All (or Almost All) of It Back, by Frank Schaeffer

crazy Frank Schaeffer, only son of the late Francis and Edith Schaeffer, can't seem to shake God.  Early on in his recent memoir, Crazy for God, he puts it this way: "Every action, every thought, every moment I stumble into is judged by some inner voice.  Everything seems to have a moral component: eating --- because there are hungry people; sex --- don't even start.  What I write, don't write, who I talk to, don't talk to, and how I raised my children, their characters, accomplishments, failures, whether they 'love the Lord' or not, everything points to my relationship with God, real or imagined."  Raised in a home and larger social community where Christianity was taken seriously as having implications for all of life, he has spent most of his life alternatively embracing, questioning, and castigating that faith.  In Crazy for God he continues this tortured ambivalence, using memoir as his form rather than the veiled and semi-autobiographical fiction of his trilogy of Calvin Becker novels --- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

Frank Schaeffer grew up as the fourth child and only son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of a ministry known as L'Abri.  Though both were Americans, they relocated to Switzerland in the late 1940s, shortly after WWII, with a two-fold charge from their mission board: to help strengthen the church from the tide of theological liberalism sweeping Europe, and to continue a ministry to children, called Children for Christ, a teaching ministry actually begun in the United States when Schaeffer was a pastor of Bible Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.  Tiring of the rancor and divisive arguments in his denomination, the Schaeffers left the mission in 1955 and founded L'Abri (French for "shelter").  They began opening their home to whoever came, offering discussions of art, social problems, and politics, all from the standpoint of biblical Christianity.  Eventually, both Francis and Edith published bestseller books which grew out of the L'Abri discussions.  Frank lived in the midst of this budding community of discussion, with upwards of  20 to 30 people staying in his home, Chalet le Melezes, at any one time, with regular late-night discussions--- a constant milieu of faith expressed in word and deed, 24/7, punctuated only by their annual family vacations to Italy.

Frank's memoir is roughly chronological, though there are flashbacks and more polemical asides (which are sometimes lengthy) along the way.  By Frank's account, his father had a "vicious temper," was sometimes verbally (and on occasion, physically) abusive toward his mother, and was chronically depressed and occasionally suicidal.  He describes his mother as a "high-powered nut" and control freak who portrayed his father as an "ogre" and herself as a "long-suffering heroine." He spends a significant amount of time detailing his own sexual exploits and the various forms his rebellion took, but along the way, he not only tells his story but that of his sisters, brothers-in-law, and parents as well, portraying his family as dysfunctional, L'Abri as riven by disputes (such as that surrounding the allegedly unorthodox teaching of his brother-in-law, John Sandri), and family reunions as usually ending in arguments.  There is an acerbic tone to much of what is said, manifesting itself in mockery ("When Mom met people, then told her children about her encounters, the story line was always the same: They were lost, and Mom saved them"),  anger (railing against a "Reformed Calvinist God" who struck down people for "not believing right"), and ridicule of evangelical personalities (describing Billy Graham as "just plain bizarre" and "a very weird man indeed," James Dobson as "the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met," and Jerry Falwell as an unreconstructed bigot reactionar[y]").  Neither the tone of the book nor the revelations are  shocking by today's low standards, when tell-all memoirs are ubiquitous.  However, these assertions will likely come as a surprise to many admirers of the Schaeffers and, presumably, to many of the workers at L'Abri as well, and have already evoked an understandable emotional response. 

To be fair to Frank, it must be noted that, while likely understated given his propensity to be critical, he does express admiration for his parents even while criticizing them, noting that "Mom was often on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors, rising at four in the morning to pray and then to type up the dictation she'd taken from Dad as his secretary of the day before, or spending hours talking to and counseling the guests and students."  He regarded his "parents' compassion [as] sincere and consistent," noting his mother's consistent treatment of everyone the same, from a hotel chambermaid to the President of the United States and the selfless way in which they opened their home.  Furthermore, Frank recognizes his own complicity in his difficulties --- his rebellious attitude, promiscuity, stealing, and poor treatment of his own wife and children.  In fact, perhaps he takes on too much blame, crediting himself with contributing significantly to the rise of the Religious Right and steering his father, in his later years, into their influence, something he now deeply regrets.  He's often funny as well.  For example, his description of life in the chalet occupied by Jane Stuart Smith (a former opera singer) and Betty Carlson (Chapter 8) is hilarious, true or not.  Thus, reading the memoir is a wild and passionate ride, because Frank has a tendency never to understate but often overstate his case, with gross generalizations and hyperbole, and contradictory images of his parents that either betray his own ambivalence or their complexity, or both.

Frank's memoir, though sure to incite controversy and an emotional response with the claims he makes, has to be evaluated as would any work of art or literature:  First, is it technically excellent, that is, does it meet the standards of the genre?  In other words, is it good writing?  Second, is it true, that is, does it substantially correspond to reality?  Memoirs have been written that are technically excellent and yet untrue, as in James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a bestseller memoir that was ultimately determined to be a complete fabrication.  Even though a memoir is, by its nature, a story that unfolds from a person's subjective experience, incomplete and biased, we expect it to be rooted in an objective reality.  After we experience it as a well-told story, we want to know if it's true --- not a perfect recollection but, at least, not substantially inconsistent with what others would confirm as basically true.  Sadly, on neither count does Frank's memoir fully hold up.

In his introduction to Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser says that a good memoir requires two elements: integrity of intention, that is, a serious quest by an author to understand his life, and carpentry, that is, a successful imposition of a narrative structure (or framework) onto a jumble of half-remembered events.  Frank Schaeffer is at his best when he is writing about his memories of events he witnessed, that he experienced.  At least facially, he seems intent at understanding himself, and though his style is rambling, it has a narrative structure that is not difficult to follow.  So, in this respect, it functions as a good memoir, representative of the genre.  However, the difficulty with concluding that this is a good memoir is the inclusion of material critiquing the Religious Right, where he lapses into sermonizing and unfounded generalizations tangential to his story.  Is he playing to a target audience of disaffected evangelicals and secularists who would group Christians together with Islamic terrorists?  It's difficult to say, but the odd inclusion of this material detracts from the memoir and raises some doubt as to the integrity of his intention.  At the very least, this material should have been left for another book where he could maintain a more sustained (and perhaps supported) argument against the Christian right.  It's almost as if he added the material in order to make the book fit its extended subtitle, which itself may have been added to stoke the interest of critics of Christianity.  So, this is a memoir which simply veers off course, diminishing its credibility and impact.

The second standard of judgment, whether the memoir is true, is even more problematic.  The Prologue to the book contains a telling qualification when Frank states that his book is not "objective history," and "[w]hat I've written comes from a memory deformed by time, prejudice, flawed recall, and emotion."  Of course.  And yet why say this unless you lack the confidence to say "this is the objective truth, as best I can discern it?"  And why include letters from his sisters when it's his memoir, not theirs', unless he is seeking to buttress his own assertions about his parents, that is, to assert that what he says is in fact objective history?  And finally, if some of his more outrageous assertions are true (like his claim that his father physically abused his mother, or that his father talked about hanging himself), where are the other witnesses?  Hundreds of workers and guests passed through L'Abri over its many years when the Schaeffers were in residence, many living in the same home with Francis and Edith.  It was an open community, not a cult, and there was no fear of reprisal for breaking any implied code of silence.  That the Schaeffers were imperfect is well-documented in Edith's own biography of their life, entitled Tapestry, though given the reserve of her generation, family matters were not aired publicly.  Yet to my knowledge, no one has supported some of the more lurid allegations made by Frank.

In addition, the objective truthfulness of the memoir is called into question by the patently false conclusion Frank draws about the marriage of Gigi Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, to a man twenty years her elder.  Frank states that "Billy --- like some Middle Eastern potentate --- arranged for his seventeen-year-old daughter's marriage to the son of a particularly wealthy donor who lived up the road from us in the ski resort of Villars," and that "he'd plucked [her] out of her first semester at Wheaton College to marry a man almost twenty years older than her whom she had never met until Billy introduced them?"  That unsupported allegation is patently false, the daughter, Gigi Graham Tchividjian, having asserted in interviews that it was she who insisted on getting married, over her parents' objections!  Such careless accusations and demeaning language cast a shadow over the other assertions made by Frank, some unverifiable (like private conversations with his mother or father), others disputable.

In the end, however, it's impossible to come to any final conclusions about Frank's truthfulness.  The difficulty is evident in the contrast between two different recent statements about the book.  In a carefully-crafted statement in the August edition of the newsletter of the Francis Schaeffer Foundation, Udo Middleman notes that he (and presumably Debbie, Frank's sister) enjoyed Franks book, noting that "[a]s a memoir of an imperfect childhood, it has a personal perspective and will forever be incomplete" and is "very honest, touching, at times funny, and always passionate."  (Note that he didn't say it was true or that he agreed with it!)  On the other hand, Os Guinness, who lived with the Schaeffers for five years in the late 1960s, calls what Frank has written a "tissue of falseness, distortion, and unchecked allegations," and notes that "Francis Schaeffer had his flaws, and he certainly had his enemies. But no one has done more damage to Schaeffer's reputation, and to the things for which he stood and fought, than his own son whom he adored."  Frank accentuates the imperfections of his family life, giving you an overall negative impression of the family and ministry, when in actuality, his perspective is an inverted one, quite in contrast to what most who knew the Schaeffers would say.

In the end, of course, this imperfect memoir will not dissuade anyone who knew and loved the Schaeffers from continuing in their admiration of them.  It may even serve as a helpful reminder of their humanity, if we even need it, and further endear them to us.  I know it only strengthened my admiration for them.  Frank himself, even if bitter at times, cannot help but love and admire his parents, and he cannot escape their impact on him.  In the end, the real story is more about Frank Schaeffer's lifelong struggle with God than about his parents and L'Abri.  That story is not yet over.

A Courageous Innocent: A Review of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall

mint At the age of seven, Edgar Mint’s head is run over by a mailman. Given up for dead, Edgar subsequently recovers and lives on to tell his story --- from the substandard hospital to a horrific Indian reservation boarding school, to the almost sunny home of an outwardly devout (but inwardly troubled) Mormon family, to adulthood. Edgar is a half breed, the product of a drunken Apache mother and white cowboy wannabee, with a half-crazy grandmother. The miracle is not only his survival of the accident, but his persevering through every difficulty that comes his way.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is a sufficiently long first novel by Brady Udall to draw you in, though it never becomes tedious. Udall allows Edgar to narrate the story, though at times he addresses himself in the third-person, a curious twist that you quickly become used to and one, perhaps, not unusual for someone who has suffered brain damage.

Despite all the difficulties Edgar experiences --- the being alone in the world, the taunts and bullying at the boarding school, the sense of aloneness even in the midst of life with his foster family --- he comes to faith in God, and though it is in a Mormon context, the language used makes it sound like the experience of any convert to evangelical Christianity. I like the genuineness of it, the plain-spoken description:

Before they [the Mormon missionaries] left, they asked if they could give me a blessing. . . . [T]hey came up behind me and put their hands on my head, their fingertips lightly touching my scalp. . . . In a near shout Elder Stafford called on the name of God and immediately I felt a warmth at the crown of my head, a light, liquid tingling that slowly moved down into my head and chest. . . . In a daze I headed out across the parade grounds toward the dormitory, feeling like the top of my head had been shot off.  I started to climb the steps and it hit me right there, there was no doubt: Edgar had been touched by God.

Part of the novel is about Edgar's grappling with the reality of that faith and the essential goodness of God in a world where so many things go wrong.  The honest, non-patronizing or caricatured approach to faith is refreshing and believable, and as crazy as life gets Edgar never stops believing in God.

But don't draw the conclusion that you will find this book in a Christian bookstore.  While the description of faith is more real and believable than that which you sometimes find in Christian novels, it is in a Mormon context.  Furthermore, there are gritty descriptions of the kind of Lord of the Flies milieu of the boarding school and the wondering (and wanderings) of a typical adolescent coming of age.

You'll love Edgar.  You'll find yourself rooting for him.  He's funny, tragic, and mostly an optimist.  And in the end, after all his troubles, he can say "I am not too jaded or proud to thank God for small favors, to count my blessings."  Now that's a miracle.

[I found out about this book and several others I have read and enjoyed from Calvin College's Faith and Writing project.  Take a look at their recommendations here.]


light "[A]t twenty-four he smoked his first joint and came to believe he understood with perfect clarity the purpose and configuration of the universe and his place in it, until he woke up the next morning with somebody else's shoes on."  (Edgar Mint, in The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall)

It is not a profound or original thought that we humans are prone to think highly of ourselves, to consider the product of our hands or the words we speak as important, perhaps novel at times.  I'm well acquainted with this attitude.  Occasionally (ok, several times), I have written something late at night, the words scrolling down the page, seeming golden nuggets of prose guaranteed to wow my handful of readers.  While I've never ingested or smoked illegal controlled substances, occasionally the sensation I experience then is a little like what I understand to be the epitome of a "good trip" on LSD: enlightenment, new revelations, a sense of amazing productivity.  I go to bed satisfied that, while it's only a start, I'm well on my way to writing something truly profound. . . until I wake up the next morning with, figuratively speaking, "somebody else's shoes on."  The enlightened verse, the flourishing prose, the grand idea shaped in my drunken word-binge sounds like mimicry, is unoriginal or forced, or is impotent because I cannot find a way to sustain the effort, to continue the thought.  I may have been deluded, but the writing was worth it, wasn't it?

In the end, writing, like everything else worth doing, is just plain hard work, not simply the product of inspiration or an episode of enlightenment, and I do not like hard work. But it's not just writing, but life itself, that is hard work, and yet Jesus promises that our "yoke is easy, our burden light."  What does this mean?

Jesus never promises us an easy time of it.  At the center of all our creative activity (which is everything we do that is not destructive), is the paradox of Philippians 2:12-13: "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed --- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence --- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose."  Matthew Henry says the language used, "work out your salvation," "signifies working thoroughly at a thing, and taking true pains."  So then, this creative activity is not easy, in fact is painful at times.  And yet the promise of grace is that God is the One working, ultimately, enabling us and bringing to fruition his will through our labors.  That's a relief. It’s also humbling. I work, but He is really the one who’ll make something profound of it. I can go to bed knowing that when I think I’ve written something deep and evocative, I probably haven’t, and yet the effort I offer up to God is nonetheless worth it.

Annie Dillard says that "[w]hen you write, you lay out a line of words.  The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe.  You wield it, and it digs a path you will follow.  Soon you find yourself deep in new territory.  Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject?  You will know tomorrow, or this time next year."  Or perhaps, I would add, you will not know in this life.  I would say that if we are doing the work God talks about, yielding up our labor to Him, giving it to Him, then there are no dead ends.  Just as all writing is useful if offered up to God, so all living is useful if done in the knowledge that God is really the one at work in it.  Even that graduate degree you worked and slaved for and received and now can't figure out why you subjected yourself to, because it has nothing to do with what you find yourself doing now, is valuable.  You laid out a line of words.  You dug a path.  You got to the end and wondered why you did what you did.  And yet it mattered.  Sometimes you're blessed to know why.  You might call that enlightenment.  Sometimes you think you know why, and then wake up with someone else's shoes on.  You're humbled. You thought too much of it, of yourself, and yet it’s still valuable. You might not have been enlightened, but there’s light in it somewhere. You may know tomorrow, or not.

In her short book, The Quotidian Mysteries, poet Kathleen Norris opines that in giving us repetitive, uninspired, or tedious tasks to do --- whether writing when you feel you have nothing to say or fear as much the morning after, washing dishes that will only return dirty the next day, or painting a room --- God is really inviting us to play. What is mundane to us is delightful to children precisely because they know how to play. So that’s it: I get to play with words. And while I find it difficult at times, I understand that even in times that I write drivel, I can play by enjoying the shape of the words on the page, or the sound of a word. Washing dishes, my daughter and I noticed recently the different shapes of our drinking glasses and speculated as to what each one was “saying” --- one fragile and thin glass decidedly feminine, another thick goblet for a sturdy drink. And why shouldn’t I enjoy playing in the water with shiny things that make lots of noise? Kids do.

In these almost mindless or uninspired moments, something happens. God is present, entreating us to consider what we are doing and not listlessly drift somewhere else in our minds. Pay attention to the task before you. Read the Bible. Pray. Write. Wash dishes. Paint the room. Do the laundry. Cook dinner. Then do it again, and again. By God’s grace, in the midst of it all, there will be enlightenment. You may not understand “with perfect clarity the purpose and configuration of the universe and [your] place in it,” but you will glimpse His purposes, His delight, if ever so dimly.

And tomorrow you’ll be wearing your own shoes.