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April 2010

The Rest of Home

Pasture "This is the true nature of home.  It is the place of Peace, the shelter, not only from injury, but from all terror, doubt, and confusion."

(John Ruskin, 1856)

That so many people cannot believe in Heaven or, believing, cannot envision its nature, may be because the home that they grew up in bore no semblance of peace, was full of fear or confusion or doubt.  In short, it was more like Hell than Heaven, either in the evils perpetrated there or the very lack of which it stank.  There is no shortage of memoirs that tell of such homes, a plethora of films which record their ills.

The home in which I was reared was no such place. Whether as a child escaping neighborhood bullies, teenager on the short end of love, or college student confused and despairing of my options, home was a refuge for me, a place of acceptance no matter that I did not fit elsewhere, of comforting words when I was worn down by the relentless burdens of the world. I could even do wrong and still come home, my prodigal heart drawn to its peace.

At the age of five, I cut my two-year old sister's hair.  I received a sound spanking.  And yet still I  was served dinner that night, given a warm bed to sleep in, and kissed goodnight as if nothing had happened, all my sin covered over by a loving forgetfulness, as far as the east is from the west to my parents.

A year or so later, I set the top bunk bed in my room on fire playing with matches.  With my then three-year old sister on it.  My parents were drinking coffee in the kitchen.  I calmly told them that the bed was on fire.  My mother grabbed a wet dish rag (that's what we called them), beat the fire out, and then "beat the fire out of me."  Ouch.  And yet still I was given a warm bed to sleep in, a bowl of strawberries in sugar and milk, and kissed goodnight as if nothing had happened, though something had. O dish rag, where is your sting?

I grew up, of course, as did my younger sister, by God's grace unscathed, and came early to the conclusion that my home and all homes were imperfect, that my parents had feet of clay --- but still it was a place of peace, in its best moments a shadow of Heaven.  It wasn't just the rooms and halls and smells and furnishings of that place, of course, though they are indelibly imprinted in every memory, but the people tied to me by blood and commitment --- my mother, my father, my sisters.  That place is lost to me now as a place I can visit.  My father has long since gone Home.  My mother remembers me but can't remember what she did this morning or yesterday, still believes her long-departed mother is still in her home.  And when I visit my mother in her rest home (an old word I still prefer), despite her dementia and the institutional surroundings I am still in some sense coming home.  I shed all pretense, drop back to my natural speech, the language of home, and simply am a son with his mother, famous only for that fact, all of what I have and who I am and who I think I am irrelevant with her.

To disciples who believed that they might be left alone in the world, Jesus said "In my father's house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (Jn. 14:3-4a, ESV).  How comforting that he speaks of a home, of a house with rooms --- a tangible, physical reality, where we can enter into His rest, the rest of Home.

We can be thankful for whatever shadow of Heaven is granted us here, whether in the home in which we were reared or the home we now know or one we have brushed up against.  But if we were raised in one of those hellish homes, there is still this: "I go to prepare a place for you."  There may be no perfect home here, no lasting rest, but one day we'll sit down in a chair in our room in Heaven, put our feet up, look out the window, breathe a contented sigh, and survey a world more familiar and real than the one we have lived in and know without a shadow of doubt that we are Home.

A Carpetbag of Jesus: Getting God Sideways

Since my mother has recently gone to live in a nursing home, my sisters and I have been cleaning out her home of the last 20 years, plowing through perhaps 40 years of notebooks, check registers, canceled checks, documents, photos, memorabilia, and so on.  My mother apparently did not believe in throwing much away.  Anything reusable was saved, from envelopes to place mats to candles to. . . well, you get the picture.  All this in a modest 1600 square foot house.

However, betwixt the exclamations of "Can you believe she. . . saved this, kept this, never threw away this, had this many clothes," and so on, what kept emerging was a sense of who my mother was, not just as mother to me but as an individual, as a person with a unique personality, her own hopes and dreams, her own disappointments, and her own routines and habits.  I better knew her by examining the trail of evidence of her life. You might say she came to me sideways, wrapped up in the leavings of her life. Remember that scene in Mary Poppins where she pulls all manner of things, including a lamp, from her carpetbag?  I felt that way when I began pulling things from my mother's closets, as if they had false bottoms or extended beyond the walls.  And yet the yoke is easy, the burden light; every item I encountered told me more about her, gave me circumstantial evidence of her presence and her life.

All this came in the midst of my reading Paul Alms's article, "God Sideways," in the latest Touchstone. Alms writes about how the the real stuff of church is not only or even primarily what is going on up front, what is being said from the pulpit, but rather how that message is mediated through the smells, sounds, and distractions of the pews, among the congregants.  If we came up in a church with no air conditioning (as I did), then the gospel is "hot," its message bound up in sweat, passion, flapping fans with pictures of Jesus on them, and the second hand of the watch tick-tocking away the time on my father's arm, as I waited for the interminable (and yet only 20 minute) sermon to end.

As Alms points out, "the good news of Jesus Christ is not abstract.  It is not like digital data we download. It comes with skin, it comes in minutes and hours we experience concretely.  It comes dressed in things that do not seem to matter.  But these indifferent things can become significant, moments associated with and attached to the presence of Christ."  What he means is that the gospel is incarnational.  That which originally came embodied in flesh and blood keeps coming to us embodied in our sensory perceptions, in what is going on in the pew --- in the noise of children, in the nodding heads, in the green of trees against blue sky ever so slightly stirring.  The peripherals become incomprehensible or unrooted without the words proclaimed from the pulpit, read from scripture, or said in prayer, and yet it all becomes a rich, multi-sensory experience as we let it settle in.  As Alms says, "Getting God sideways is how the church works. The straight-ahead message of the gospel slips out of the preacher's mouth in his idiosyncratic style and travels through the static of the group, through a thousand competing thoughts and sounds, and is received by a listener who understands it in his own limited way, and yet Christ is proclaimed."  God is present, shared, hidden, sideways --- and yet He is there.

My parents came from a quiet generation, one where the gospel was not so much spoken as lived out in the stuff of life.  They talked very little about themselves and to my memory preached few sermons to their children.  I didn't know until recently that there were married on Christmas Eve in 1947.  I still know nothing of how they met and courted.  My father served in WWII under Patton, crossing North Africa, then Sicily, Italy, France and Luxembourg, where he was wounded.  I knew none of that until recently.  He never spoke of it.  And yet the woman whose possessions I am sifting told me about who she was in all the quotidian details of life, in the clothes she washed, the meals she made, the sacrifices she made for me, the quiet letting go of me to college, marriage, and life away from her home.  The evidence is here, not only in their leavings but in history, in all the acts of love she practiced.

She didn't have to say it.  She didn't have to preach it.  In the end, a few words were all that were necessary to tell me the truth about who she was and who I was and what life was about.  I got all the gospel I needed of her --- sideways.

Last time I visited my mother I was strolling her around the halls and she looked up at me and said, "Have you got a girlfriend, Steve?"  I said "Sure do.  I married her."  (I'm 51 and have been married 29 years.) She's still being mother to her young son.  Then we're sitting looking out the window, the sun on our faces, and with her eyes closed she reaches out and makes as if to hang me something.  She says, "Here, take this."  So I reach down and make as if to take it.  (There's nothing there I can see.)  I said, "I got it."  After a minute or two she says, "I don't know what it was I gave you," and I say "I don't either, but I'll take good care of it, whatever it is."  And she says, "I know you will.  I know you will."

I think I know what she gave me.  It all came to me sideways, a carpetbag full of it.  I hope I can take good care of it and pass it on.  In my own idiosyncratic way I hope it slips out of me and passes through those near and far, laps up against the souls of people unknown.  I don't know how to make that happen. There's no direct way to do it.  If it happens, it happens sideways.  Maybe one day, when my kids are cleaning out my closets, they'll get it too.  And whatever it is they get, I know they'll take good care of it with God's help.

Aviation Nation

DSCN1568  It's probably no more than five miles from our hotel to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.  I've made the trip many times.  Mostly it passes by chain restaurants, a highway, curb and gutter, holding ponds catching the runoff of developments, and other indicia of suburbia spreading out from the central Florida city.  But one small stretch of the road is still two lane and passes through old Florida, the Florida of cypress swamps and Spanish moss overhanging the road and small single-story homes.  With our windows down, the evening air floods in and the sounds of the night press in and I can smell and feel it --- the Florida before Disney came, when, as I heard one woman say today, the Orlando airport was just a tiny building, when thousands of acres of orange orchards stretched through central Florida, before even the beaches were walled in with development.  And then the moment is gone and I'm back to today, back to modern Florida, the Florida of retirement communities, the Mouse, highway upon highway, vanishing farmland, and people not from around here who are now all around here.  Hey, and I'm not even from these parts!

Now hold on a minute.  This is not another depressing lament for lost communities, lost ways of life, the destruction of place, the homogenization of culture, and so on.  Just down the road from that bit of old Florida is the annual Sun "n Fun International Fly-In, a one-week gathering of the general aviation community with an incidental (and often spectacular) air show, a virtual Aviation Nation of over 100,000 people brought together because of their love of all things having to do with flying.  We've been coming here annually for nearly a decade.  And I don't even fly (my son does).  I look at a plane from the front and say things like "It looks like a dog with a pug nose and fangs;" he looks at the same plane and tells me make, model, and specs, why he likes it, what's unique about it, and so on.  And I listen, but I don't quite get it.  Some are better looking than others, I think, but they're all planes, right?

But not knowing much about planes does give me time to notice some other things.  First, people here are bound together, whatever their backgrounds, whatever their idiosyncracies, by a single, overriding passion: flying.  And when you have that one passion, the differences over lots of other things recede and don't at the end of the day seem to matter much.  Like I don't think anybody here much cares if I'm Democrat or Republican --- certainly not like they'd care if I mistreated a plane or violated some of the standards of civility and decorum by which pilots treat each other.  Second, when there is a strong, defining passion, things largely work ---- order is maintained, even enforced by the community; people are not only civil to each other but friendly; a basic kind of civil religion prevails, made up of a star spangled banner god bless america basic goodness of all kind of mentality; and people are engaged in conversation about preserving and making better what they have.  There is a string unity in the nation, a pragmatic optimism, a sense of responsibility to each other and to their country.  And seeing all this, you can't help but have hope.  You can't help but believe that people can rise above mere self-interest and act for the good of all.

Maybe there is a sense in which old Florida --- all those very local communities where people knew each other and on the whole took care of each other --- still exist.  Not necessarily in the rural crossroads, the two-lane blacktops shaded by towering trees and Spanish moss, but here, in the Aviation Nation.  If so, maybe I need to learn something about planes after all.

(If you want to read more about Sun 'N Fun, read my son's blog here.)

A Spark in the Night: Brett Harris's "Man of Few Words"

Brettcover copy Perhaps the key to Brett Harris's pop sensibility is found in the photograph in the inside of his latest CD. Amid a room cluttered with musical instruments, amps, and other recording paraphernalia, one item immediately catches the eye: the unmistakable classic album cover of the Beatles' Rubber Soul album. And yet while his latest release pays homage to vintage pop music, it seems more fresh and current than much of the mimicry that plies the airwaves.

Man of Few Words, Harris's April 6th release --- his first full-length recording --- is a paean to the restorative, liberating, and yet sometimes unrequited power of love, a lexicon of feelings, promises, changed perspectives, heartbreaks, and joy. It is, in short, a new pop record with an old soul, its love songs rooted in a musical palette of acoustically-grounded pop melodies, rich harmony, and diverse instrumentation. Listening to it I heard the unmistakable echo of Lennon-McCartney but also the artistic range of veteran popster Elvis Costello, the sunny southern California sound of the Beach Boys (particularly post-Smile), and other AM pop radio sounds, among them (dare I say it) even Mott the Hoople ("All the Young Dudes"). Backed by some veteran area musicians this time around (he played all or most of the instruments on his preceding two EPs), and under the competent hand of co-producer Jeff Crawford, Harris takes a leap up the ladder of musical competence.  There are no fillers here.  Every track clicks.

From the moment the band kicks in on the first cut, "I Found Out," I knew I would like this album.  The buoyant beat is a fine complement to the lyrical focus, the changed perspective on life brought about by new found love.  When Harris sings "you opened my eyes/ to a brand new horizon," or "Honey you've got a spark/ that can light up the darkest night," everything in me wants to say "yes!" in affirmation.  It's a promising overture to an album that, while not shirking the trouble of love, never wallows in angst.  It just keeps moving.  As Harris encourages us in "Mansfield," "Just slow it down and/ take some time to look around and see/ what a lovely, lovely place this world could be."  Maybe so, but the infectious beat and hooky choruses of this album don't have you thinking slow at all.  Leaping and dancing may be more like it.  (And for that Mott the Hoople influence, check out "Drop the Needle."  Am I right?)  And certainly my favorite lyric is this hope-beyond-his-years stanza from "Wish," where Harris imagines that "Me and you should be like old shoes/ never more than a step apart/ Above our chins we'd wear broken-in-grins/ cultivated by happy hearts."  It's a good marital aspiration to have in your Twenties.

While musically there's nary a downer here, there a few songs you can file under the category of "Love Hurts."  The shuffling acoustic beat of "Unspoken" has a lyric that channels a thousand classic love songs: "you swore you'd love me thick and thin/ and I believed in you/ but you broke my heart in two." And yet the music almost paradoxically hints at some greater joy that will come even out of heartbreak.  Or listen to "So Easy," when the narrator asks us to "imagine the sight/ of me watching you walk in the room last night/ dressed to kill on the arm of someone else," and yet musically I hear the classic AM pop sound of "The Association," so fetching a sound that it's difficult to believe that the "broken-hearted boy" in the song won't pick himself and go on and even be better for it.  And maybe that's just it: there's an unspoken undercurrent of something deeper than romantic love in this record of love songs, a gravity of joy and hope that is irrepressible.  But then this "man of few words" need not say much.  He just needs to sing it.

I highly recommend Man of Few Words.  While I might quibble about the lack of lyrics in the CD insert (though they are available online) and hope for a bit more lyrical depth or complexity (the prior because I'm old-school, the latter because I read too much poetry), these are likely my idiosyncrasies, not qualifications on a fine record.  So step up to the plate.  Don't be a passive listener.  Support a local (Durham, NC) artist with a passion for writing and playing new classics.  Like a lot of great music, Harris's record is independently released and, thus, not nationally distributed. . . yet, that is, at least in the brick and mortar stores.  But you can find it at several local record stores and online.  Find out where here.  Buy it local, or buy it direct at a show.  But just buy it, and "let the music take you 'round/ and get lost in the sound with everyone."  That's an order, and a promise.

Framing Reality

Cover-23-02 "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

(G.K. Chesterton)

Sometimes wisdom simply leaps off the page, and that's the case with a relatively short piece by Patrick Henry Reardon, entitled "Framers of the Gospel," featured in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone.  In it, Reardon makes the simple yet profound point that a framed gaze at reality, while imposing a limitation, actually enlarges our view of reality --- that is, we actually see more and, I would argue, are more free by virtue of the limitation of the frame we draw around reality.  Reardon draws a comparison between the episodic quality of the Gospels (their nature as a collection of bite-size stories) and framed art and the stage, arguing that both arise from the same impulse: "the need for a concentrated regard in order to contemplate the whole."  Essentially, we can better contemplate the whole, the meta-narrative (big story), by focusing on one mini-narrative at a time.  Reardon says there is a two-fold advantage in this approach: concentration is drawn to a focus, better helping us digest its truth, and the framing encourages humility, a proper sense that the whole truth is much larger and not fully within our grasp (as it would be for God).

I'd go farther than Reardon is able or willing, in the article at least, in two respects.  First, I would point out that this framing of reality is essential not only as a way of seeing but as a way of being and doing. Consider corporate worship.  If a frame is imposed on it, an order, worship is concentrated and given focus.  Far from being less free, it is actually more free in that concentration on God is focused by the forms used.  Or consider a more mundane reality, that of a toddler's playtime.  During rest time we would require our young son to remain in his room, giving him not an entire room of toys to play with but two or three select toys, like blocks, that had multiple uses.  He was more free and more creative, even happy, with those two or three toys than with a roomful of toys. His reality was framed, his imagination stimulated, and his sense of the possible enlarged.

Second, this focus and contrast supplied by a framing of reality is creational.  It is built into the way we are made by God.  Even the first man, Adam, imposed a frame on reality.  He named the animals. We can imagine that he considered their appearance and behavior and, in some sense, tried to give a name to it. Humans have been doing so ever since, not just in taxonomy but in writing songs and poems or painting pictures to try and frame an experience, to draw a focus on a  part of reality in order to enlarge our sense of the whole.  We not only need this framing or ordering, we inevitably crave it.

And yet our cultural distraction, our information saturation, has made it much more difficult to focus. Given the flood of tweets, status updates, blog posts, and television and internet images, we have difficulty settling on one thing, concentrating on a small piece of the whole when we are bombarded with bits of narrative from all over that usurp our attention, that beckons to us, that even appeals to our sense of pride as being someone who is "connected," "always on," "aware."  I think you'd be better off taking a few hours and studying the kinds of trees in your back yard, or meditating on a poem --- places where the not said of reality becomes more and more evident by virtue of what is said..  Truly there is a sense that you see a greater reality by looking deeply at a tree or poem than by surfing 100 websites or reading tweets from the 50 people you are following.  Poet Nikos Kazantzakis gets at this when he says that "Everything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics.  When you see them you do not understand them.  You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars.  It is only years later that you understand."  You need not get so mystical about to get the point: look deeply at something and it will give up a much larger meaning, or at least point to the unknown, if you are patient enough.  And yet we're moving too fast.  Maybe some of the problems we confront prove so intractable because we have so much difficulty focusing, can gather so much information and yet don't know (or don't have the ability to focus on) what it means and how it should be used.

So how much mulling over or reflecting have you done lately?  How often have you sat in one place and thought about one thing for longer than five minutes?  What's the last time you took one story in the Gospels, or even one verse, and turned it over and over in your mind?  Times like that don't come easy and yet the rewards are great.  We see more of what is and more of what is still left to know.  Deep down that reminds us of our creaturely nature and our dependence on an all-knowing God.  That's a good frame on reality.  That's the life we were made for.

File Under: Vacation Memories and Profundities

No tel I'm back from our annual Southeastern Arizona vacation.  Back to reality, that is.  But I did procure some memories.  Here's a few, in no particular order:

The Grottoes:  Two hours east of Tucson, in the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico border, lies Chiricahua National Monument.  Established by President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s (see, he did do something), it’s a landscape more lush than the desert scrub-land around it, a place that receives enough rainfall to support pine and birch trees, a forest island, really.  But these trees are punctuated by giant boulders stacked precariously one atop another, as if God as an afterthought threw the remainders of the raw material of Creation out, where they landed in piles.  It’s absolutely gorgeous.  In one portion, called the Grottoes, reached by a quarter mile hike, the boulders are so arranged that they form a labyrinth of cave-like openings.  My son and daughter scampered over them, like they were not teenagers but young children.  So did I.  My daughter proclaimed that she would live there and bedded down on a ledge under one ominous looking boulder.  And she probably would if she could, at least until another thought entered her mind.  I told her she’d have no internet access there.  She said she didn’t care.  And she really wouldn’t.  It’s a hopeful thought.

Lil’ Abners Steakhouse:  City slickers may turn their noses up at it and prefer the uppity steak houses, but I still like the roadhouse feel of this desert institution in Marana, on the outskirts of Tucson.  Once, 26 years ago, we traveled out in the desert on a winding two-lane road through darkness to get here, way beyond the city.  Now the suburb of Marana threatens to overtake it, a four-lane road, streetlights, and shopping centers all around.  And yet, step on the property and you step back in time.  Nothing has changed much except prices.  We sat inside at picnic tables and ate steaks cooked outdoors on an open mesquite fire, served up with all you can eat ranch beans and salsa and buttered Texas toast.  It’s one of those meals that’s so good that when you finish you wish you could eat it again.  We ate at Lil’ Abners twice.  Both times we saw the same couple there, a 40-something woman in a halter-top and tight jeans next to a man who was always sitting sideways on the bench --- intertwined in some fashion with each other, just a part of the wildlife here.  From them I got an idea for an anniversary present:  the man had a t-shirt on with a picture of the woman dressed in the very same outfit she had on that night.  Now how cool is that?  Only at Lil’ Abners. 

About 8:00, the band kicked up with guitar, fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin, singing old time country and western music and bluegrass, like the "Orange Blossom Special," "Tonight I Started Loving You Again," "Folsom Prison Blues," and so on.  Here’s the thing:  Not a one of the band members is under 80.  Dean Armstrong, the leader, who I have been seeing for 26 years, looks as if he’s over 100, dressed in a black suit and cowboy hat, looking and sounding no different than he did 26 years ago.  Oh, how I hate to leave this place.

Church:  I love going to Catalina Foothills Presbyterian Church (PCA) when in Tucson, and we were able to go on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday.  The music is riveting, even chilling, and drives me to worship.  The pastor is from Mississippi, and so the voice reminds me of home.  The theology is sound, the worship excellent, and the people friendly.  After the service today, I turned to my wife and said, “Can we move here so we can go to church here?”  Were I impulsive, I would do so.  I love my home church and would not so lightly leave it, but it makes me wonder why I don’t ever leave worship feeling quite so blessed as I do in this church.  It’s not a fair comparison, of course.  This is a church over twice the size of ours, with abundant musical talent, a large staff, and a huge choir, but still it provokes me to think about how we can make our worship more excellent, not for performance or spectacle but to help create better worshipers.  Of course the view is inspiring: the windows behind the choir look out on the peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  I can't bring those home.

No Clock, No Time:  I could get used to waking up with the sun, without an alarm.  For eight days, I woke up, went back to sleep, woke up, went back to sleep, laid around, and generally got up when I felt like it.  That’s usually not a lot later than I normally do, but I can tell you that this is the civilized and decent way to sleep and exist.  You can come up with a lot of profound thoughts in the early morning hours, when things once seemingly impossible seem possible.  Listening to the sounds of others sleeping is also deeply reassuring.  Of what?  Well, maybe just a deep thankfulness that we individuals have been sovereignly thrown together for life as a family, for better or worse.  That’s the kind of thing that can occur to you when you leave time outside and pretend you have all time in the universe at your disposal. 

Clocks intrude and mechanistically shape our existence.  If we aren’t careful (and many aren’t), we end up making time an idol.  And scripture warns that when we worship what we make, we end up becoming like the thing we make: cold, mechanical, and prone to alarm, our hearts tick-ticking our life away.  (Note to self: think about that some more. . . when I have time.)  I was glad to be rid of the clock for a week.  I was glad to be out of routine, acting on impulse at times, just sitting in one place sometimes and thinking a new thought, vacating one life for another once removed.

Can't Stop Dreaming:  Maybe it was the climate, the extra sleep, the out of ordinary cuisine, or the rested mind, but I have never had such imaginative and memorable dreams.  On occasion, I woke up, ready to return to sleep so the dream (like a novella) would continue.  In one humorous episode (which seemed very serious to me in the dream), I was apparently the guest pastor at a church, asked to deliver the sermon.  Before the service, a pastor or someone in church leadership asked what I would preach on.  I said "Its Only Rock 'N Roll."  I even gave him three points that I would make (wish I could recall those, don't you?).  Then, just before I go on, I realize I haven't a single note to speak from.  I woke up, thank God and, I assume, to the relief of the congregation (what kind of dream were they having, I wonder).  Late in the week, as if my brain was running out of material, I began to dream about old girlfriends.  No, that wasn't pleasant at all.

The Spa:  No, you don't have to turn in your man-card if you partake of a spa, men.  But you do have to be wary.  I think the women on steroids who work in these places do not like men.  The first time I had a massage, I came out and asked my wife if it was supposed to hurt, because it did.  The woman masseuse had a vice grip on my neck, drove her elbow into my back, and beat on me for nearly an hour, all to the soothing sounds of Indian flutes and rippling water and wind, while every now and then, in a hushed tone (as if I might be asleep), she kept telling me what next form of abuse might be administered.  This time I said "no elbows", please.  I felt like saying "be nice."  Maybe I'm exxagerating a  little.  So, it's relaxing.  That's about it.  The aromatherapy and all the talk about releasing toxins?  I'm not a believer in any of that.  When it was all said and done, I slid off the table floated back to my room, like jello, putty in their hands, man-card still in my pocket.  Try it.  My son says he will never, never, never, never, never, do any such thing.

So, that's it for another trip to Tucson, Arizona, home of the No-Tel Motel.  (No, we didn't stay there but often passed it on the way downtown.  We prefer the Westward Look Resort.  But the No-Tel has a more interesting name, don't you think?)  Now, it's time to plan another one.

In the Canyon

One of our favorite places here in Tucson is Sabino Canyon, a three mile deep canyon that winds ever deeper into the Santa Catalina Mountains, following the occasionally roaring and usually trickling Sabino Creek.  It begins in the Coronado National Forest, just beyond the easternmost edge of the Tucson suburbs.  The road into the canyon, which passes over nine bridges as it climbs, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.  The stone bridges that were built by hand have endured over all these years, even through damaging floods.

My wife's father, who attended the University of Arizona in the mid- to late- Thirties, used to tell us how he and friends used to drive up the road with their dates in the evenings, when the canyon was well beyond the outskirts of the city.  It has long since been closed to cars.  A tram carries visitors back and forth now, the driver pointing out various kinds of cacti and rock formations to visitors along the way, telling folklore about the valley.  We've heard it all of course, many different times, as we have been visiting Tucson well on 25 years now, so much so that we could fill in the blanks if asked, could recite the names of cacti he fails to mention --- the saguaro, ocotillo, palo verde, prickly pear, cholla, barrel cactus, cottonwood, and so on.  They are all so familiar and yet like distant relatives whose stories we love to hear every time we visit.

Today, at my daughter's wish, we are hiking the Phone Line Trail, which traverses the length of the canyon, only about two thousand feet (or forty stories) higher than the canyon floor.  From the last tram stop, #9, there is a moderately difficult half mile of switchbacks by which most of the elevation is gained, and then the rest of the trail is fairly level and easy to walk, provided, of course, that you watch for rattlesnakes and don't veer off trail (and off mountain).  Today the trail was filled with patches of purple and golden poppies, as the area has had relatively good rain recently.  Sabino Creek is flowing well, filled with rainwater and very cold snowmelt, even lapping over the tops of the bridges by a couple inches --- perfectly passable and yet bracing for wading.

It's a warm 86 today, and yet the breezes keep it from being too hot.  It's not possible to sum up the sweep of the landscape --- the deep and wide blue sky, the contrast with the browns of earth and canyon walls, the green lushness of the desert vegetation, and the splashes of wildflower color on canyon walls and farther up in cliff top meadows.  And then there are the sounds --- birds all around, the wind in our ears, and the crunch of the rocks on the path as we walk.  Down below, the tram passes about every half hour, like an earthworm inching up the road.

Sometimes we're quiet.  Sometimes we talk.  We remember other trips into the canyon, like the time I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.  Both my children were strolled into the canyon before they could walk, my son as early as when he was six weeks old.  They have grown up coming here and likely will bring their own children here.  That is a pleasant thought.

I can't help but think Psalm 107 as I see the lushness of the desert: "He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water."  You often think of deserts as desolate, lifeless places, but it's not so.  This one is alive.  And it's life to us, to our family, a place of solitude, remembrance, and peace.  It's annual strangeness sharpens our senses, our awareness of Creation, and our appreciation of each other.

At the end of the trail, we switchback the half mile down to the creek, our knees feeling the stress by the end.  We find a shallow place to cross the river, which at its deepest is above our knees.  By the time we reach the other side, my feet are numb.  I sit on the rocks in the sun and rest and watch others attempt to cross.  I remember carrying my son across on my back years back, the water raging, losing one shoe to the current.  Today, I won't try it.