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March 2010

Checking Out, Checking In

Being on vacation is in some ways like inhabiting another dimension.  Thoughts of work and the concerns of home impinge.  Emails remind me that life goes on, that bills await payment, work rests in my inbox, and people still have problems, of course.  

I delete emails. 

I absentmindedly can't remember to return calls.  Given that it's three hours later at home, I always seem to have the excuse that it's not a good time.  Really, though, I resent the intrusion, am guarding the space I have.  After all, I'm checking out.

I quit checking Facebook.

I give Twitter a rest.

I am here, not there, and all the problems and concerns of that world will remain for when I return.  I have to remember that.

But it's not such a different world after all.  Sitting on my patio this morning, looking past the wash that I walk in, I can see 50 miles, clear across a city of over one million people, and I read this: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people" (Lam. 1:1).  I know the writer is lamenting a Jerusalem emptied out in exile, and yet looking out across the city I cannot help but feel the writer pointing out toward the city here, feel a tinge of exile myself.  We are not where we belong.  I can vacate my own city but no matter where I am, people are by and large living in exile, emptied out of life with the One who made them.

There are those who say that the desert, mountains, and air here are spiritual. They worship place in a kind of neo-paganism.  Walk a little while in the evening air, stare long enough at the mountains, watch the wildlife around you, and you are tempted to say the same.  And yet the strangeness of the place, its vivid nature, is really a window to the God who made us, holy ground only in the sense that it bears His mark.

It's like the full moon in the sky tonight.  It has no light of its own but simply reflects the light of the sun that it's given. Everything is full of His light.  Everything, even in exile, points to Him.

Rocks really do cry out. The heavens do declare the glory of God.  They pour out speech.  Thy never stop talking, never stop proclaiming that God is great, and good, and will bring all the exiles Home.

A vacation can give you space to have thoughts like that, give you time to check in.

Letting Time Go

8:45     Went to breakfast
10:00   Went back to room

My daughter is tweeting her vacation.  Well, not really.  She's just writing things such as this down in a one by two inch memo pad she carries in her pocket.  She's not publishing it, at least not yet.  I asked her why she is doing this.  She says she doesn't know.  It's just fun, she says.  I asked her if I could see her list. She said no.


This afternoon I walked out of our ground level hotel room door, crunched across the gravel between our room and the path that circles the property, navigated the cacti on the hill and started walking.  It was like being among old friends.  I suppose it is the starkly different surroundings of the desert that make me hyper-attuned to the plant life and wildlife around me.  I see pine trees around 355 days a year.  I take them for granted. Here, it's not so.

I decide to get off the gravel path, which is a bit too cultivated, and I take to an adjacent wash that is just dirt.  Maybe in the Summer the wash may be full of water, during a monsoon rain, but now it's bone-dry. Imagine the sound of the birds which are everywhere here.  Two desert hares skitter across the wash, two of the eight to ten I see in the 40 minutes while I walk.  I've seen javelinas (wild pigs) here on occasion, rooting in earth and snorting.  None today.  I've even seen a coyote, warily watching me from a distance.  In the heat of the day they are likely farther up in the hills that are shadowed by the Santa Catalina Mountains.  I look up at them.  It's difficult to believe that 11,000 feet up, where I see green, there is a birch and fir tree forest, maybe even snow.  The browns and greens are in such sharp contrast to an azure sky, the blue so piercing it almost hurts.  I look down and ahead.  Last time I was here I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.  Not everyone here is friendly.

Let me introduce you.  Here is the palo verde tree, and there, and there. They're all around. The word means green stick, a tree with green branches that photosynthesize in the place of leaves which are difficult to maintain in the desert.  There is the jumping cholla, a cactus so named because its needles ended up (that is jumped) into the hindquarters of many a cowboy.  They don't really jump.  There's the staghorn cholla, which is severe looking and has a tinge of red its green branches, and the barrel cactus, a fat squatting type.  Yucca.  Brittle-bush with yellow blooms.  Prickly pear cactus, with its Mickey Mouse ears.  And towering over them all the saguaro cactus, many of which were germinated in the last century. I mean the 1800s. Because the arms on each of them all have a different shape, I even recognize some.  After all, I have been coming here for 25 years.  They haven't changed much.  Maybe they grew a foot in all that time.  Maybe not.  They will outlive me and my children and grandchildren will visit them.

I said old friends.  Maybe what I really mean to say is that I am among my elders.  Walking here I have the sense of timelessness.  I see mountains that were here long before the first settlers came West.  Most of those here preceded me.  They may be inanimate, but if rocks cry out and trees clap their hands (as Scripture says), then perhaps these elders say something too.


11:00    Went to pool
12:00    Tired. Bored.  Went back to room.

What is it with this hyper-attentiveness to time? I'm not sure what possesses her.  It's not a journal. Nothing profound in what she writes down.  Maybe it's just documentation, validation that she is here.

I could have told her that.

Maybe, just maybe, she'll take to the wash and find something there to really write about, something that will make her stop counting time, stop measuring it at all.  Maybe she'll discover things that are timeless.

Like the cactus wren poking his head from his nest in the saguaro.  At 1:22.

On Vacation Eve

I woke up yesterday morning with the sensation that something was over.  Oh, my vacation.  Only thing is, I hadn’t even left town.

I booked the airline tickets last September, on the cusp of Fall, thinking and dreaming of what a warming excursion our annual trip to Arizona over Spring Break would be after a long Winter.  That hope and dream lay dormant through holiday diversions, pleasant as they can be, through a a wet and cold January and February, through the sometimes tedium of work, the lingering curse of the three flights up/ three flights down.  And so here I am --- trip planned, hotel booked, itinerary in draft with appropriate white space for spontaneous and unplanned hikes, sunset walks, undiscovered eateries, and long conversations --- and I find myself haunted by a sense of melancholy, of déjà vu.  I can see the end of my vacation, the very last day, when we shake the last desert dust from our shoes and board the prison bus back to Life, with all its responsibilities and duties, with all its unpleasantries and disagreeable people, with all its sameness. How bleak!

I am a sad little man.

(from the son): Yes, you are. . .

What would Freud say?

(from the son): Dead white men don’t say anything.

I love traveling with my family.  Little epiphanies occur all the time, punctuated by an occasional horrific arguments.  At home we argue in brief.  We’re too busy to really get wound up.  I have to go to work. They have to go to school.  There are bills to pay.  On vacation you can. . . well. . . follow the thought, see what happens, crank up the volume (it’s only rock and roll), get to the heart of the matter, find out after all what an unsanctified lout you really are, discover the wonder of forgiveness, how soon enough no matter what is said, it’ll be time for dinner and a night out and whatever you argued about falls way way back there in history, as insignificant as what you learned in 9th grade Logic class. And you think how wonderful all these people are that you travel with. And they really are.

(from the son): Dad, aren’t you supposed to pay taxes around this time of year?  How’s that going anyway?


(from the son): Where did you come from anyway?  Are we really related?

But I digress.  I was talking about vacations, their joys, their opportunities to get to know your family better, discover new things, new places, and new foods.  All so true.  I hear anew some new expression one of my children have had for some time, only I’ve been too busy to listen, or hear about some plan or dream or see how they have matured, only in Life, as it whizzes by, I cannot slow down enough to notice that new tree-ring of growth on my offspring.  Or the ever wondrous smile on my wife’s face or the pearls of wisdom that fall from her lips.

(from the son):  This is getting sappy.

OK.  Back to melancholy, a state of mind that has its enjoyments, its temporal pleasures.  I guess part of the reason I find vacation-eve bittersweet is the sense that I am leaving home, and I enjoy this place, this Life, even with its burdens, because most of what I know is here, most of who I know reside here.  Indeed, part of who I am resides here.  So, leaving here means leaving part of me, and I like me well enough not to want to leave me.  Well, that makes me sad.

(from the son):  That’s pitiful.  Do you just sit around thinking up such stuff?

I love these conversations.  He’s reading over my shoulder, chomping away on his chips and cheese, like a prisoner at his first meal after being sprung from the penitentiary.  Oh, Education, what have you done to him?

(from the son): More than it did for you.

See, it’s beginning already.  That glorious sharpening of iron upon iron.  The verbal arm-wrestling.  The privilege of insult.  I love the boy, his head filling the airplane window, him going forth into all the world and taking dominion.

Did I say my daughter was beautiful?  She is.  Like a picture, her profile outlined by the airplane window.  I love that girl.

(from the son):  What kind of picture is that?  America’s most wanted?  A mug shot?

That’s part of the joy of it, you see?  The love of brother and sister, the mutual affection, their deep depreciation of one another.  Which brings me back to. . .

Melancholy.  Ahh.  A vacation nearly over before it begins.  I see the end of it now, the returning, and when we deplane I'll see it in the faces of the people walking to their gates while we walk out into the warm Tucson son.  So sad.

(from the son): Can we change the topic?


Actually, I think it'll be fun, this vacation, even if it must end.  It makes me appreciate home.

An Open Letter About Why I Am Going Image-Free (or, Why I Wanted to be Like Wade Gillam)

Thanks for the kind comments about the writing, Andy.  I will add portions of what you have said to my "I love Steve" file which, seriously, does exist.  I know you love me.

You don't like the clipart, the images I use? Point well-taken.  Such thievery and picture poop must end. They are henceforth banished.  Of course they belong to someone, who I don't know, so it's like accepting "hot" property and passing it on.  Hadn't thought much about that until you spoke.  Don't wait "several years" next time.  For heaven's sake man! Show me the error of my ways sooner rather than later!  Only original artwork from now on.  Promise, in the sight of all these witnesses. Ah, where sin abounds, grace abound even more.

Wait'll you see my artwork, man.  Scribbles on a page.  Underwhelming.  Scary.  You've dredged up a thought-lost memory.  It's like this: In 9th grade we were asked to use oil paints to capture some aspect of nature, and I painted my paper black (all black) and handed it in.  Called it "dark matter."  Nowadays, I might be accused of being Goth.  Nothing so glamorous.  I was just stupid and intimidated by art and lazy. We were passing record albums around when Miss Myers wasn't looking.  Important stuff like that.  None of that sissy art.

That's the one class I skipped.  I got caught too, and sent to the principal, who chased me around his desk with a ping pong paddle.  They believed in Corporal Punishment back then.  (Who the heck is that guy anyway and who make him a corporal?  Or do they mean corporeal?  The latter is what a whuppin' felt like anyway, bodily that is.)

That little miscalculation nearly got me suspended and it was all because of Wade Gillam, a wannabe hippie kid with bellbottom jeans, a laconic style, slurred speech and a slender reed of a frame that was almost translucent, a kid who always seemed to be in the halls --- anywhere but class.  I admired Wade. He was reading Das Capital in 9th grade and I couldn't even spell it.  Under our desk we had a place to store books.  One day I see him kneeling beside his desk, bowed over, like he was praying.  I say "what's up Wade?" and he says "I'm expanding the cosmic consciousness of this box." He said intelligent stuff like that all the time.  Very cool.  Very, very cool.  I decided I wanted to be like Wade.  I nearly got suspended for my admiration.  I was an amateur at lying and playing hookey, and Wade was a pro.

And that, Andy, is why I am getting rid of images.  Who needs images anyway?  Let me count the ways I can rant about this image-laden culture.  Let me recite chapter and verse of Neil Postman.

Send me your images and I will use them, liberally and with full and flowing attribution.  Give me your Kodachromatic 4 x 6 multitudes and I will give them a Home.  I freely accept your offer. I will even make you a co-blogger: you make pictures, I make words.  New blog name: Outwalking with Archiandy.  No. . . Outwalking with Archiandy Outside the Last Homely House if we include someone with smarts like Andy J. Let's expand the cabel: I nominate Teri for book reviews 'cause she reads faster than anybody I know.  I nominate Jared for webmaster 'cause he likes html whatever that is and for food editor 'cause in twitter world he is always eating somewhere so it's like seven hobbit meals a day.  Besides, I'm gonna crash his little date party to see The New Pornographers which he didn't tell me they were going to be in town and which sound like some people Christians probably should not go see but he can explain all that in sunday school class and deacons meeting unless Andy J. goes and then we don't have to explain anything to nobody but just nod in his direction so they get the point.  Just nod and rock back in our chairs and cross our arms all smug-like and think "deal with that."  Leah, you can do anything you want to do, because I know you call the shots, anyway.

But now hold on a minute. . . aren't we supposed to be critiquing someone's blog?  Am I in the wrong place? Forgive me.  I'm looking for the High School in the Seventies Memories Newsgroup.  You know, for old people. I mean, they still have a newsgroup, don't they?

And you people out there --- my huge audience of fans -- who are reading this and wondering what the heck is going on here. . . well, this is a letter that works on many levels.  Like a parable. Find a level.  Make it your own.  Make pretty pictures in your head.  You'l like them better than mine.



P.S.  Thank you also, Andy, for giving me material for a blog post.  It's like one of those "found" poems. You can't make this stuff up, either.  Memoir.  I love it.

(Get Me Out of This) House of Mirrors


The last 24 hours has been a trip through a house of mirrors. Everywhere I turn, I see myself, only it's not the carefully cultivated self of my imagination, the person I think I am or hope I am in my best moments. Rather, these mirrors are mirrors of the true, showing me the grotesque, the sinner that I am.

Ha, ha.  It's just a fun house, some would tell me.  That's not really you.  But it is.

No one likes to come face to face with who they really are.  You're perking along, half a decade old, figuring you've got a few things mostly licked, that you're really mostly OK, not perfect, not substantially perfect in fact, but hey you're not all that bad --- God's working on you and making progress.  Not so fast. It only takes a few incidents to peel back the curtain and show you what you're really made of, how far you have to go, how much you are in need of grace.

Yes, it's true.  I'm a clutching, selfish materialist, in love with my stuff.  I always like to think of myself as someone who "lives life with hands open," and yet it only takes a couple of requests and I begin to put the nails in the coffers.  I have all kinds of reasons, sensible reasons, to deny these requests of me.  But the real reason is fear, fear that if I open the door any wider the Mac Truck of need will drive right through and take all I have.  Oh, I despise that image in a mirror.

I sat in my chair a full 10 minutes and looked out the window today, mourning this face in the mirror, useless to my employer.  If anyone had seen me, they would have thought that I was studying some object out the window, but really I was peering in, not out.  Would that it were out.

Where's the exit?  I turn the corner on one sorry image only to confront another.  Is that me?  Angry?  I'm an even-keel person, always pretty calm, rarely losing my temper.  And yet the face in the mirror is one of anger.  Funny thing about anger.  You talk to yourself.  You make up little conversations you might have with the offender, and rehearse little digs you'll make, rack up points.  You think about their demise, how their pride will go before a fall (and how you can help them down that path).  You catch a glimpse of that image out of your eye, the one you are avoiding, and it scares you a little.

I sat in my chair a full 15 minutes on that one.  Stewing.  Stirring the ashes of vengeance which is mine says the Lord, and yet maybe the Lord needs a little help I think.


I went to lunch.  Alone.  I sat at an outdoor cafe, at a table in the sun, the wind almost uncomfortable it was so brisk.  I watched people walk past me.  Could they see it? Could they see how ugly I was?Someway, halfway through my salad, two pieces of bread downed, I was done, or undone at least.  I began to smile, inside anyway, at the humor of it all.  Sometimes the best response to sin is to laugh at its absurdity, at the ways it toys with us.  

It really is a fun house, a house of the absurd.  Or maybe it's the house of truth.  Or maybe it's both.

But I know one thing: I'm just glad to be out of there.

To Get Good and Old

410aRJ0oBOL._SL500_AA300_  "My project, then.  To get good and old.  Spiritually to approach my losses with the same craft and talent and devotion which I bring to the writing of a novel, a poem, a sermon."

(Walter Wangerin, writing to his family and friends, in Letters from the Land of Cancer)

Walter Wangerin is dying.  Ever so conscious of his losses, the things he can no longer do, he is still able to write a line like the above, to not fall on bitterness and self-pity, a morbid introspection that makes him of no account to anyone.

I know nothing about such dying.  Yet the smaller health issues I have faced along the way, even the flu or common cold which I share with the rest of the world, provide glimpses of what I might be like in such circumstances. Maybe God gives me --- gives us all --- these small challenges in order to build our faith, to tell us who we are when sickness makes us focus on our ailment to the exclusion of others.  I can tell you I don't like what I see.

That's why I'm reading Wangerin's book, a collection of letters he sent to family and friends during his treatment for lung cancer.  I want to see how he approached these circumstances with grace, what he struggled with, how he persevered, and how he was able to get both good and old at the same time.  Mind you, Wangerin's no ordinary letter writer.  He's a masterful wordsmith, even in his letters, even in pain, and yet in all respects he is like his readers, subject to the same irritability and pettiness as all of us.

How do you get good and old?  Old is easy; I'm working on the good part.

Wangerin says his sickness --- indeed all sicknesses --- are "as creative a passage as any writer ever wrote.  And that grants it the possibility of depth, gravitas and fulfillments and joy."  His journey is one we will all make.  What better a time than now to get advice on how to walk that path.

I recommend this book as a kind of Hitchiker's Guide to the Rest of Life."  And death.


Glasses I have a pretty good memory.  I came about it in an unusual way.

In second grade I began having some trouble in school. I was not doing well.  My teacher moved me to the front of the class.  Still, my grades did not improve. You see, I couldn't see the blackboard.  I figured I was going blind or, worse, that I would have to get glasses --- big, ugly, horn-rimmed things that would ruin my reputation.  Some kids actually wanted glasses.  I couldn't understand this.  If Carolin Asher wanted glasses to make her the object of attention, good for her, but I relished obscurity.  I did not want to stand out.

The most terrifying part of the school year was that time twice a year when the school nurse administered the eye test.  She posted the eye chart in the hall and kids were dismissed, about ten at a time, to take the test, covering one eye at a time with what looked like a big, flat black spoon.  I had a plan, though.  Before the line formed, I asked to be excused to go to the restroom, the door of which was right beside where the chart was posted.  I studied the chart.  A - O - P - X - T.  I tried to memorize the last two or three lines of letters, the really small ones.  Going back into class, I repeated them in my head: A - O - P - X - T.  And again: A - O - P - X - T.  When I was dismissed to take the test. I must have done OK, as I was not called back.

But somewhere along the line, about third grade, the teacher, Miss Morris I think, figured it out.  I asked to be excused, only to discover that the eye chart had been moved!  I failed the test, I guess, with a crowd of onlookers snickering under their breath, or so I thought.

Next I knew, I had glasses.  When I saw what Miss Morris actually looked like, I figured wearing glasses wasn't so bad after all.  On the other hand, Franky Setzer was as ugly as he sounded.  Mr. Pendleton, our principal, had an unsettling single, bushy eyebrow that filled his face.  And the school janitor, Mickey, had bug eyes that nearly popped out of his head when he talked to you.  For a while, it was like living in a surreal, almost too real world of painful clarity.

My grades did improve, however.  That was about the time Trina Payne asked me to marry her.  But that's another story.

Oh, the Places We Could Go

57colonypark I love planning vacations, perhaps even more than being on vacation, particularly road trips.  I pull out the large orange Rand McNally road atlas or, better yet, go buy an up to date one for the year, all the time dreaming about where and when and how and what, thinking about all the places we could go, things we could see, history we could soak up.  I bring it home and open it up on the table and spread it out before me.  Then I add to it the brochures I have received by mail, or Fodors and Frommers Guides I have bought, and I settle in for spell of dreaming.  I study pictures in the travel brochures, trace the snaking lines of red and black and blue highways in the atlas, tick off the names of towns, and visualize the look and feel and smell of all the places we will go.  Oh, the places we will go.

No one else is much excited about this planning.  One is concerned about what we will eat.  One is concerned about who we will meet.  And another is concerned about where we will sleep and shop.  Mostly, I just want it to be local.  I want it to be something unique to the places we visit, something I cannot find here.  I want to eat local, meet local, and shop local.  We have Outback and Taco Bell at home.  We don't have a place like "Butts by the Creek" (a barbecue lodge), Lil' Abner's (a desert steakhouse with a two-pound steak cooked outdoors on mesquite), a beach filled with multi-colored sea glass (somewhere in Cape Breton), or the confluence of weirdness and hipness (Venice Beach).  I want an out-of-place experience, to walk in someone else's backyard for awhile, to feel what it would be like to be someplace else, to, in a sense, not be me.

This is a time for imagination, not reality.  I call it the dream stage of vacations.  For a time, reality is suspended and you assume that you give sin a couple weeks off, kicking its dust off your feet as you pull out of the driveway in your station wagon, windows down, luggage rack laden with suitcases, lawn chairs, bikes, and most of the garage, afraid to look back lest you change into a pillar of salt.  Goodbye suburbia.  Good riddance cookie-cutter houses.  Goodbye tired routine.  Goodbye cats, faces pressed to window glass.  It's dream time.  Oh, the places we could go.

But.  And that's a big, big but.  Road trips ain't tidy.  One car, four people. miles to go, the inevitable mis-steps along the way (motels that look like crack houses, jarring road construction, a big stretch of ugly landscape, an encounter with plain folks who are just teensy bit too plain spoken, and local diner food that isn't like Grandma's cookin' at all), and by golly when I checked the rear view mirror sin reared its ugly head setting right smack between my young'uns who done commenced to picking on each other.  Wait a minute.  I'm somewhere in the Ozarks in my vacation dreaming!  I'm sounding a bit too colloquial. 

But the guidebook I'm reading said it'd be this way.  "Of course it isn't all pretty," it says on page one.  And I appreciate the candor, because when the dreaming stage is over, reality sets in.  The fact is, vacations bring out the best and worst in us.  Sad to say, you can't take a vacation from yourself.  We have to bring ourselves with ourselves.  Sometimes, out there in Eureka, Arkansas, after a little (huge) family spat, you may wonder why you did this, what happened to the dream.  But look at it this way.  You get to find out how bad you are, what a selfish pig-headed brute you remain, while you're surrounded by the people you love and who love you in spite of you.  They are merciful.  You can go to bed and wake up and the slate will be clean, all forgiven, and you'll look out the door of the Holiday Inn at the highway ahead and realize it doesn't get much better than this, catch a glimpse of the road twisting out of town and believe in second, third, and even fourth chances, that over every hill and around every curve is something new and some one new.  Even you can change.  Oh, the people we can be.

But I'm not there yet.  I realize that vacations are like that, reality writ large, but right now I'm dreaming. Let me enjoy it.  I want to turn my wheels into the Great River Road, follow Route 66, trace the path of Lewis and Clark, criss-cross the Big Muddy, eat all kinds of barbecue and local specialties, tick off towns like Hannibal, Vicksburg, Crosby, Kaskaskia, eat at the Front Street Cafe, West Side Cafe, and East Bend Diner, dip my toes in the mighty Mississippi, and sleep where famous and infamous people slept, hang with locals, and walk their streets. Oh, the places we will go!

When I was three I used up on the car seat between my Mom and Dad, seat belt-less, and watch the road, giving directions to my Dad, looking at the map even before I could read it.  I'm still doing it.

"Savor, and enjoy," says the guidebook.  So true.  So right.  I think I will do just that.

The Benefits of Cold Air

Joni+Mitchell "If you breathe the cold in deeply enough, it'll make you warm inside."

(Laura Ingalls Wilder, in Little House on the Prairie, the Musical)

Jane lived in a house across from the university, next to the house in which my high school girlfriend lived. In the early days of our budding romance, my girlfriend's father would yell and shout at me and threaten to call the police on me, red-faced and cursing.  That is, until he became better accustomed to me.  We were getting to know each other.  Anyway, the first time he did this, I didn't want to call his bluff.  I was afraid.  I ran next door.  I didn't know Jane but had seen her outside.  I figured she'd offer a hiding place to me, and she did.

Jane's parents, one of whom was a college professor, lived a somewhat bohemian existence, though I did not know that word then.  The yard was unkempt, vines grew up and over the wide front porch, tattered rugs covered the floors, and mismatched furniture filled the rooms.  There was air of cultivated neglect, I think, as if material things weren't meant to matter that much.  A heaviness, even sadness, seemed to hang over that home, and it's disorderliness only accentuated it.

That day Jane was playing a Joni Mitchell record, one with a  particularly sad chorus.  (Wait, I think that's every Joni Mitchell song!)  I don't remember what it was.  Maybe it was "A Case of You," with its "Oh I am a lonely painter/ I live in a box of paints," or maybe it was "The Circle Song," which carries her classic melancholy sound and lyric, with its 

And the seasons they go round and round 
And the painted ponies go up and down 
We're captive on the carousel of time 
We can't return, we can only look behind 
From where we came 
And go round and round and round 
In the circle game 

Life's a game, she says, and all we can do is go round and round and round.  Well, Jane breathed deep of that sense of frustration, of lostness.  And yet, cold though the wind might blow in that house, Jane seemed strangely warmed by it, as if she drank it in and let the blues roll over her until it lit a fire in her, like she was living some dark night of the soul knowing that it was good for her.  I liked it as an antidote to my effervescent girlfriend who brimmed with life.  On occasion, her happinness could be unbearable, perhaps because it was only part of reality, like an album of songs all in major keys.  Jane played the minor keys.  When I ran to her house, I traded G-C-D for Am-Bm-Em.  I learned that God made minor keys too and meant us to listen to them at times, to drink them in.  She'd play her guitar and sing her repertoire of Joni songs.  Bent over the guitar, stringy brown hair falling round her, she even looked like the singer-songwriter.

She taught me how to play "Blackbird" on the guitar.  I still play it, for myself, anyway.  I like that image of a "blackbird singing in the dead of night," encouraged to "take these broken wings and learn to fly."

And when I play it, I sometimes think of Jane, a shelter from the storm, a friend if briefly but one who taught me that there's more to life than happiness or sadness, that breathing the air of sadness can lead to a greater joy.  She didn't know all that then, and God knows I didn't, and yet I can trace His hand in Jane, and Joni, and even in the brimming spirit of a girlfriend who loved life and people in a way I found difficult. It all matters.  It all means something, even now, after all these years. I still breathe it in, and I'm still warmed by it.

Cultivating a Dazed Ignorance

Medium.52.263269 One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.

(G.K. Chesterton, in Robert Browning)

If you add up what we really know about the universe, or even, more locally, what we know about our own backyards, it doesn't amount to a grain of sand in the shoreline of what is to be known.  Once, determined to be more knowledgeable about the piece of dirt and vegetation on which I live, I secured tree, bird, and flower guides, walked through my yard collecting leaves, noting the texture of tree bark, picking flowers, watching and registering the color of birds, their song, and their manner --- all of this in order to gain some mastery over my domain, I presume, via knowledge.  (I must have had more time then.)  And yet whatever I gained by such knowledge, it was not mastery but a sense of ignorance of what I don't know, of what, perhaps, no one knows.  Isn't it the case that the more you learn the more you realize how much you do not know?  Ignorance may be bliss to some, but a knowledgeable ignorance is something else altogether, maybe a precursor to humility, to a recognition that we are finite.

But there's the beauty of it, says Chesterton.  Put you hand on a rock and you've touched something timeless, something that undoubtedly predates you, and something which will (dare I say it?) "outlive" you. A pine tree sways and creaks in the wind as it inches upward year to year.  If you stop a minute and walk among the trees, listening to their sound, resting on the texture of their trunks, there will come a moment when you sense in your poorly tuned heart and mind, inattentive to the voice of creation, that something is going on, something unseen, something transcendant.  The twitter of a cicada may stop you short.  You may think, "What did you say?"

I just cracked the window by my desk and a cool breeze wafted in, carrying the sound of one lone bird, grasping the opportunity afforded by a one inch opening.  I don't know why I did that.  Was someone tapping?  Something is going on out there, and I have, as Chesterton (one not prone to modesty) said, "by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it."  That is, in my feebleness or incapacity, I simply cannot hear it.

I'm not going mystic.  I'm not making this up.  The Psalmist says "[t]he heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1).  Speech pours out, he says, and the "voice goes out," the "words to the end of the world" (Ps. 19:4).  You wonder whether, if we could hear it, it'd be like everyone talking at once.  And when he speaks of rivers clapping their hands, and hills singing for joy, and the earth breaking into song (Ps. 98:4-8) --- what I've been taught is a poetic device at work, an anthropomorphism --- I wonder if, rather, it is a description to be taken literally.  Maybe the problem is not the text, but us.

Though you may not read Annie Dillard for theology, I suggest you read her for a new attentiveness to creation, to remedy our "prodigy of imbecility."  Listen to her self-description:

I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I've come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them. . . .

What a great goal, to be "wondering awed," to live, as Chesterton said, in "dazed and dramatic ignorance."

Somewhere a dog is barking.  A mockingbird beds down for the night, quieting its mimicking tongue. Rocks rest deeply, breathing the deep content of their rock-ish-ness, bedded down in earth and clay, while trees sway and hum a quiet song of praise, a woody gospel choir  just down below the register of my hearing.  I think I'll walk outside, stand under the moonless sky, and listen. Something "stupendously direct and important" might be said. Songs might be sung.  Rocks may cry out. I don't want to miss it, do you?

His Aim is Me

Tpt-child-front-coversmall The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

(The Trumpet Child, from Over the Rhine)

The last chapters of the book of Daniel are so confusing.  Kings rise and fall and merge together like a swirling pallet of colors.  Angels appear.  Strange visions are given of a surreal being like a man, "with a face like the appearance of lightening, his eyes like flaming torches. . ., the sound of his words like a multitude" (Dan. 10:6). There are terrible visions of great battles, allusions to even greater spiritual conflicts. There is deception and intrigue and murder, persecution of God's people, and an inexplicable "abomination that makes desolate" (Dan. 11:29, 12:11).  There are numbers too, like "1,290 days" and "1,335 days," hints of timing and appointed times still veiled in mystery. Stumbling out of a large Bible study tonight, my head was ringing with the historical corroboration, the fulfilled prophecies, the meanings given these verses by the one teaching.

But I don't know about all that. I find easy answers suspect. I am a man of words and this is what I heard: 

"man greatly loved" 

"O man greatly loved" 

"a hand touched me" 

"one in the likeness of the children of men touched my lips"  

"one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me." 

Whoever it is speaking, angel or pre-incarnate Christ, it is personal, and Daniel is treated with high regard, as a dear friend. He is the object of affection and physically touched in a way that confirms that concern and renews him physically.  Daniel is loved.  And if he is loved then I am loved.  God is reaching out from beyond the stars, falling in beside me, putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, "man greatly loved." In all our study, in all the parsing of Bible verses and peering down the corridors of time and church history and even fascination with apocalyptic literature, we can lose the fact that God is not the great abstraction, the amorphous intellect, the Bible not a book of code or a jigsaw puzzle but a lovers tale.  And we're in it. It's like we're looking at a letter from our long-distance girlfriend, reading and re-reading her words, trying to figure out what she meant by this or that, when we could just hold it to our nose and get a whiff of love.

The church is emptying out.  Men are scattering. I find myself alone by my car, fumbling for my key, already carrying the weight of the next day's concerns, even the weight of life itself, and I hear it again, "man greatly loved, man greatly loved." I straighten up and take a breath.  Something like joy is coming on, nibbling at the edges, giving me strength.

I Did It for Love

SCAN0002 I don't much like old things.  I was hoping for a new attitude about them, a new sense of awe and wonder and curiosity, but when my wife and I went to the antiques extravaganza today, I hadn't changed,  I still don't old things.

"Honey, I'll make you a deal on that right there.  I don't wanna wrap it and take it home.  We'll even pay the sales tax."

I don't need to bring another thing in the house, and I sure don't need more kitsch. I know, I know. It's not all like that.  There's silver, china, furniture, ornaments, baby spoons, lamps, pottery, jewelry, and so on.  I just don't need it.

"Ma'am, I need that like I need another hole in the head, deal or not.  Thanks anyway."

I'm surrounded by useless inanimate objects. Once they had utility, once they meant something to someone, but now they are just for collecting, invested with no value, no utility.  Prim and proper elderly ladies sit behind counters, surrounded by cases and cases of memorabilia, only these things are now separated from their original owners, the value they once had, sentimental or otherwise, divorced from them. Customers peer over glasses at prices, examining buttons, old keys, charms, and so on, negotiating prices.

I did find a few books.  Moll Flanders.  Alice in Wonderland.  Madame Bovary.  The History of the United Netherlands.  The Poems of Francis Thompson. ("I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;/ I fled Him, down the arches of the years;/ I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways/ Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears/ I hid from Him, and under running laughter.")  "I pleaded, outlaw-wise, please free me from this antique extravaganza." I left the Hound with Madame Bovary, who may need the Hound of Heaven given her ways, and kept walking through the aisles.  In ten minutes, I had seen all I needed to see.

Just a bunch of old stuff.  These are not, after all, the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and which Cyrus sent back with the Israelites when he allowed the exiles to return (Ezra 1).  They are not revered historical documents, the Book of Kells, or some other antiquity. They are ordinary things that are old, that's all --- things which people like to collect.  Like some record collectors I have known, some of these people likely have a problem, are even obsessed with collecting. Imagine what their homes look like --- cluttered dens of useless antiquities.  What neuroses lurk in these aisles.  What hidden madness.

"Alice: But I don't want to go among mad people.

The Cat: Oh, you can't help that.  We're all mad here.  I'm mad.  You're mad.

Alice: How do you know I'm mad?

The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn't have come here.

Alice: And how do you know that you're mad?

The Cat: To begin with, a dog's not mad. You grant that?

Alice: I suppose so.

The Cat: Well, then, you see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. No I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry.  Therefore I'm mad."

You follow that?  I think I'll put Alice back on the  shelf in Stall # 24, right next to Moll Flanders.  

The snack concession just closed.  Curses.

I could read the first chapter of Madame Bovary.  I might blush, so I decline.  I lean back in my chair at the table just catty-cornered from Stall #14. 

I could just watch people.  Old people and old things.  And write, all over the program, the only paper I have, blue ink against pink paper, winding verse around the stalls and down the aisles.

I paid $7 for this.  Why you ask?  

I did it for love.  I'm mad about the girl.

On the 405: A Review of Jeff Larson's "Heart of the Valley"

41UKb3eNqtL._SL160_AA115_ For all the glitter and ridiculous excess of Southern California, there remains something alluring about its films, it sunshine, its beaches, and its music.  More than anything, though, it is the sound of the place, its music, that evokes its sense of place, at least for an outsider like me. The first chords of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," off the great Pet Sounds, will take me there, as will the Seventies-soft-rock vibe of "Ventura Highway, America's hit 1972 single.  Now, Jeff Larson transports me with the effervescent pop of his new release, Heart of the Valley --- eleven songs that are pure joy to hear and which unabashedly draw on the mid-Seventies sound of America and groups of similar ilk.  I'm smitten.

Nary a twit of angst, world-weariness, or political rant will you find on this selection of songs.  While the melodies, Larson's silky voice, and writing, production, and playing of collaborator Garry Beckley are what immediately summon you, folkster that I am, it's the lyrics --- many penned by Beckley, but some standouts co-written or written by Larson --- that take me deeper and hold me. The "beloved" 405, the San Diego Freeway that snakes through the West LA area, one of the most-traveled and congested freeways in the world, an impressionistic picture of which adorns the cover of the CD, serves as an apt metaphor for the life swirling around the songs here.  The 405 is an experience common to those in Southern California, no matter what the background or socio-economic status.  In its shadow are blighted commercial areas as well as luxurious residential enclaves.  So it forms a common experience of movement and travel informed by hopes and dreams, all keywords to the songs found here.

Begin with the title cut, "Heart of the Valley," which tells us that "right through the middle/ on the 405/ you start to believe it/ as you come alive."  It's  song that calls us to "remember" a time when "time didn't matter" and asks us to "dream" and "hope" and "imagine."  It's a ballad that really is the heart of the record, a kind of wistful nostalgia intertwined with hopeful expectancy.  (It also has a beautiful vocal outro by Jeffrey Foskett.) The theme of movement and travel is carried on through "Sudden Soldier," where the narrator is in an airport watching soldiers en route to war, "the same old story/ for hope and glory," and in the hymn-like interlude, "Airport Smiles." It pops up later in "Calling" ("Time is a commodity/ that always gets away from me/ the counting off the days with nothing left to say") and "One Way Ticket" ("I've got no way to reach her/ and I'm out of time").

In spite of the wistfulness of some of the songs, the lyrics evince a hopefulness, a sense of promise, buoyed by jangly guitars, major chords, and percussion, as in the delightful "Minus Marci, with the belief that "loves been here all along/ smiling from the wings" or the faith and sense of commitment contained in "every drop of faith/ is part of the plan/ every step I take/ on every grain of sand/ there's no doubt/ we'll work it out."  The closer, "One Lit Window," co-penned by Larson and Beckley, is my favorite, embodying a longing and sense of loss, something we can all identify with ("One lit window on the street tonight - is anyone home?") with hope and forward-looking commitment ("I'm hoping to mend the tear. . . . at least I'm trying.")  That light in the window becomes an image of hope, and just as the image of the lit window lies under the disc in the CD case, so hope underlies all these songs, whether in their lyrics or in their summery sound.  It makes the album a standout, given that there's so precious little of that quality in most music today.

I recommend Heart of the Valley.  Its shimmering sound and buoyant hope will lift you out of the dark and cold and right onto the 405, smack in the metaphoric heart of where dreams and hopes can come true. That's not, by the way, Southern California.



"[T]ake comfort: as it was with Jesus, so it is with us today.  Trust and trustworthiness surround our lives. That which in the beginning granted us an infant peace is here yet again --- when we have been returned to helplessness. . . . If all my life, like Jesus's, is protected by the left hand and the right hand of God, why wouldn't I be able to speak peacefully of this terminal disease?" 

(Walter Wangerin, in Letters from the Land of Cancer)

I visited my mother in a nursing home last Friday.  When I arrived, the physical therapist was taking her to a group activity.  She and various other residents, all by all appearances over 85, were making smoothies --- you know, fruit drinks.  I listened in.

"Ms. Wilson, do you want to make a smoothie?"

"I can't swim."

"Ms. Wilson, we're not swimming, we're making a drink, a smoothie."

"I never touch the stuff."  She looked put out, shocked that someone would offer her a mixed drink.

What I enjoyed about the whole process was the way the women assisting the elderly folks asked them to do whatever they could do, assisting them where necessary but not trying to simply do it for them while they watched.  I had more than one laugh, not at their expense but in much the same way as we laugh at young children.

"What kind of fruit you want, Ms. Wilson?  You like strawberries?"


"Strawberries.  You like strawberries?"

"They'll do."

"How about blueberries?"

"Nope."  She pursed her lips.

The aide handed her a spoon and required her to pick up the strawberries, one by one, an excruciatingly slow process, as she dropped them about half the time or missed the cup.  And yet the aide was unfailingly patient.  

"Now, you want milk or orange juice?"

"Not milk."

"OK then, let's go over to the refrigerator and get the orange juice."  She helped Ms. Wilson stand up and, with her walker, slowly shuffle over to the refrigerator about ten feet away, open the door, and, with assistance, pick up the orange juice container.

"That don't look like orange juice."

"You're right."  It was a squarish container unlike any I had seen.

They helped her shuffle back to her chair.  Sitting down heavily, she exhaled loudly and closed her eyes.

"Let's let her rest.  Too much excitement."

Another elderly woman, who I was not introduced to, was sitting behind one of the aides.  She had a mischievous smile on her face.  Leaning forward she slapped one of the younger girls on the behind as she bent over the table.

"Too much hanging out there, Ms. Jones?

"Yeah, you needed that."

"I better keep my eye on you."

The aide roused Ms. Wilson and, with some difficulty, had her stand.

"We're gonna put our fruit in the blender now, Ms. Wilson.  Let's walk over there.  Come on."  After untangling her feet, Ms. Wilson moved toward the counter. "Now, take that cup of fruit and dump it in the blender."

"The what?"

"That thing right there.  We're gonna mix it all up."  Ms. Wilson dumped it in the blender.  "Now, push that button."  She guided her hand to the right button and Ms. Wilson pushed.  Nothing.  "Push it hard, now."  Ms. Wilson pushed again.

When the blender kicked in, it made a loud whirring noise.  It startled Ms. Jones.  She literally jumped out of her seat about three or four inches at the sound.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone actually elevate like that, like a startled cat.  Everyone laughed.

On the whole, being with these residents of the nursing home was much like being in a preschool class.  They enjoy the activities, some more than others.  They are asked to do whatever they can do but, just like toddlers, need assitance, get distracted, and tire easily.  They work and play alongside each other but mostly exist in their own world, not interacting much with each other.  They cannot live independently any longer and suffer the indignity of minds and bodies that won't function as they once did.

Yet what I sense in this home at least is that my mother and the other residents are treated as human beings, are valued and accorded dignity.  Though they do so, not many may still know why it is right to do so, but in essence we value the aged because of the Jewish and Christian belief, still to some extent embedded in our culture, that they are made in God's image and thus are to be valued in spite of their lack of utility.  Except for their need for health care, they are not important to our economy.  They do not consume much, so they are outside the market economy.  They cannot work, given failing bodies and minds.  There may come a time here when their caregivers and family have to fight for their right to treatment, when the attitude of doctors may be to just "let them die peacefully."  (That time has come in Europe.)  But not yet, and hopefully never.

Whenever I have seen my mother, she is dressed well, has makeup on, and is involved in something or has someone nearby attentive to her.  She is valued.  How we treat the aged is a measure of the character of our society.  If they become expendable because they cannot produce or consume, because they embarrass us or inconvenience us, then we will all lose our dignity.

As they are valued, I want to remind them --- remind my mother --- that the same Jesus who gave her peace as an infant (which, in a way, she is again), will give her peace now, when she has been returned to helplessness.  Away from their childhood and adult homes, in a place not of their choosing, a "rest" home, may they rest in Jesus.  And may we not forget.  After all, they are who we will be.