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June 2012


"All through our gliding journey, on this day as on so many others, a little song runs through my mind.  I say a song because it passes musically, but it is really just words, a thought that is neither strange nor complex.  In fact, how strange it would be not to think it --- not to have such music inside one's head and body, on such an afternoon.  What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful?  And what shall I do about it?  What is the gift that I should bring to the world?  What is the life that I should live?

(Mary Oliver, in Long Life: Essays and Other Writings)

I don't know what it means that the world today is so hot.  One hundred and seven my car thermostat leaned over and said, gasping.  I imagined how the tires must feel --- rotate, rotate, rotate --- and how the hard plastic of the wheel might simply melt in my hands, leaving me with only a kind of rutter, one with machine.  And the poor air conditioner --- cool it, cool it, cool it --- struggling to keep up.  But I like it, somehow.  I like it.  Leaving work I sat in my car for a minute or two, basking in the sauna of my seat, windows up, maybe 120 degrees, who knows.  People pay good money for this, I mused, and I have it free.  I don't even need a coupon.

I don't know why it is so hot.  It could be global warming.  It could be the accumulated wind of 100,000 political bloggers, the ciphers of The Health Care Opinion, combined with the insubstantial  soundbytes of politicians.  I don't know.  It's too hot even for the modulated and slightly cynical voices of NPR.  To hot even to listen to the Beach Boys (sacrilege!).  Is it my imagination or does the road have a certain elasticity in this heat?  I see it undulating in my windshield, my heat-shield.  I wonder what sunstroke feels like.

Do the trees look exhausted to you, their branches sagging?  Where are the birds?  Did the brook in the dip of my street go undercover?  Did the grass retreat, fall back into the soil?  Is everyone on the street diminished, shorter, wider, wading through the hot breath of the earth? Is the sun closer, larger, glorying in its day?

I don't know why it's so hot.  But I kind of like it.  I like the fact that I have an excuse not to do yard work  (what, cut the grass, in this heat, are you kidding?), not to exercise walk, not to clean out the attic (it's only about 140 degrees in there, but then who's counting, what's a few Fahrenheits).  I don't even have to water the flowers (too flipping HOT!).  may even drive the car down to get the newspaper at the bottom of the driveway (heat exhaustion, you know, sunstroke).  Garbage is piling up in the garage (too HOT!).  The cat ran out the door when I opened it, did a 90 degree turn in mid-air, and returned, never having touched the ground.  Not fit for man or beast out there.

But I like it.  Think I'll bask in the sun, just me and the garden hose.  Grill something.  Shoot some hoops.  Wash the car (no need to dry it).  Dream up a mirage.  A cold, watery mirage.

What kind of a song would Mary Oliver have in her head here, today?  She lives on Cape Cod, for goodness sakes, what does she know about HOT weather?  She did write a poem called Thirst.  That resonates. I can hear her now, whispering in my ear, "What does it mean that the world is so hot? And what shall you do about it?"

I'll tell you what I'm doing about it: I'm going inside, turning the air down to 68, pouring an ice cold drink, reclining in my chair, and unlaxing. (that's the superlative of relaxing). That's the music I hear.  That's the song in my head.

(written really fast, at 102 degrees, slightly deliriously, as our air conditioner on our second floor has resigned)

Being Historically Minded

Frustrated with learning some perhaps arcane details of American history, my daughter once opined that she didn't like history, that history was dumb.  I said sure you like history.  She said no, I don't.  I asked her how, when she left the kitchen table, she would find her way back down the hall, up the stairs, and into her room.  She said because she remembered going there, of course.  I said see, you like history.  That's different, she said.  I said no it's not.  Stop it, she said.  Well, I guess I need to learn to let frustration, irrational as it may be, have its moment in peace, put reason in recess.

We are all historians.  We have to be.

Today, I took off my shoes, walked down the hall from the condo where we are having a short vacation, entered the elevator, pressed G, exited, walked past the pool, pushed open the gate to the beach, and eased into the sand of the dune, and then, cresting the dune, walking right, right on down the beach.  I know this way.  I could probably walk it in my sleep.  I remember.

One writer I read today said that "it's not the places or things themselves that are important; it's the memories they represent."  Nonsense.  This place came long before me and will exist long after me.  It was good before our race was given it.  God said so.  It may be imbued with deeper meaning because of me, because of all who have come here, but it gave God pleasure long before we came on the scene.  It was good.  The meaning of the place is, in the end, a mystery.  God looked and saw it in a way so much deeper than we will ever see it --- every grain of sand, every creature in the swirling deep --- and He knew it as good in a fuller sense than we can ever know.  It doesn't need me in order to mean something.

Consider for a moment the long (indeed infinite) memory of the Creator, if indeed, being timeless he is not in all times at all time.  (Did I just say what I think I said?  I'm not sure I understand what I said.)  That is, when The Psalmist asks God to "remember," when Abraham reminds him of his covenant with Israel, it is an audacious thing for the creature to speak so boldly to the Maker of history.  Sure, He remembers.

Still, God has assigned us all the vocation of remembering --- of cultivating and seeding the living present with the knowledge of a dead past so that we remember who we are, how we got here, and how we get home.  Not only that, we live in a community --- a family, church, region, state, and nation --- that is animated by a collective memory, a myth, if you will.  Better yet, and rightly viewed, a true myth: the myth of creation, fall, redemption, and resurrection --- hallmarks of the Gospel, the end of all time.

Now, do you remember how to get to your room?  Do you remember how to get home?  Do you remember who you are?  That's history, and it's not dumb.  History speaks to us everyday.

Historian Jay Green says that while the historical profession has an important role to play in faithfully (if imperfectly) reconstructing the past, "the calling to think and act in historically minded ways is a more broadly human assignment."  It is for the Christian, he says, an "indispensable category of faithfulness."

We are made for remembering.  I remember I am but dust.  I am a crooked stick.  I have gone wrong and have continually veered off course.  I forget who I am.  But He remembers all that, and lifts me up out of miry clay, and calls me blessed, a little lower than angels.  If he remembers every grain of sand I walk on today, how much more He remembers me.

My daughter actually is a great historian, a master of my personal and family history of sometimes stupid jokes, unfullfilled promises, and little embarassments.  And yet, like the One who made her, she is gracious and chooses to forget my transgressions.  Well, mostly.  (For that matter, my whole family does.)  And yet her anti-history, her forgetfulness, is a reminder of God's perfect forgetfulness of my sin.  He sees past, present, and future through the Cross, and He forgets my wrong.  Perfectly forgets. Deliberately forgets.

Thank God.



Puck's Life

As Puck lay in the sunlight, it wasn't clear if he was wave or particle, but light he was, a prayer recumbent, one paw raised in praise.  In repose, Puck pondered the propinquities of place and purpose, the verisimilitudes of life, before rolling over on his back, purring, consciousness fleeing before the song of sleep.

When Puck dreamed it was not of cat and mouse. In his dream he soared over treetops, fields falling away, a puzzled owl glimpsing his shadow in moon glow. Smoke curled from chimneys, tickling his nose, so he rose higher still, the rooftops receding into a patchwork of winking lights, of windows and streetlights and car lights that snaked across the surface of an orb whose horizon fell away.

It was good.  It was very good, he thought.  A purr of delight bubbled up from deep within.  A little lower than the angels, He had said.  His domain.  Prowl over it, and keep it, He said.  He blinked at the gift of it, the sheer delight of a world to love and shape and watch become what it could and would, malleable and magic.  He rolled onto his back, perfectly maneuvering himself, held by air, by Bernoulli's principle, by an invisible ordinance of a world made for him and his.  With one paw he held a star, turned it off, and on, and off again.

When he awoke, his mouth was dry.  He had been sleeping on his back, paws outstretched, there in all his glory.  Alone.  Lying still he felt the hum of human habitation, knew that the boy was in the house.  Opening his eyes half-way, he was startled to see an over-sized child-face hunched over him, staring into his eyes, silently watching, moving away quietly as if not to wake him.

Puck stretched and rolled to his side, dropped his head to the carpet again, a sigh at the delight of life as himself, as a cat, as one a little lower than the angels.  He wondered just how much lower that was at times, wondered how He had come to such a grand design for the universe.  But then he recalled their exodus, their deliverance, their provision, their service, the great intelligent love that dreamed it all up, that gave him purpose, and once more contentment took root in his soul.

Puck pondered the pluriform nature of reality: human, mouse, cat, tree, water, fire.  What imagination lay behind such creativity, what humor even.

He didn't mind the name they gave him.  Puck.  Sometimes, the Puckster.  It was all he recognized of their language, if language it was.  After all, his real name was unintelligible, unpronounceable, un-writable to humans.  He would answer to Puck.  When he felt like it, that is.  Like the earnest prayer, not all calls to cats were answered; he was not at their beck and call.

He could neither understand their scribblings nor their mutterings nor excited yelps.  Nor the rumblings that erupted when their faces contorted, their mouths uptuned.  Nor the racking of their bodies on odd occasion, water sprinkling from their eyes or rolling down their faces.  But he could read their faces, see what seemed to be joy, sadness, mirth, malice, or even curiosity --- the latter even causing him to smile, inside at least, as he recalled that ancient saying that "Curiosity killed the cat," and he saw his mother's face as she licked him clean, him just finding his way in he world --- a good-natured if tongue-in-cheek warning that hovered in his mind, only to be ignored.

Sometimes, like when the boy looked into his eyes, held his ostensibly indifferent gaze, he thought he saw a flash of intelligence, but then chastised himself for a naive sentimentalism, for projecting feline characteristics onto a dumb humanity.  He meant no disrespect to the lesser creatures.  It was their station in life.

But Puck was given to such imaginings.  Sometimes, wandering through his wood, he brushed against the trees, the maples and pines and sweet gums and oaks, and he thought he heard a whisper of life there, something deep within calling to him.  But no.  No.  Trees were only trees.  They stood, they swayed, they inched upward, sun-bound, but they had no thoughts, knew not their Creator.  But was it not said that at times of joy on earth they clapped their hands, danced, even sang?  He had not heard it.  He had not seen it.  Not yet.

He sat  up.  In the sunlight particles of dust swirled like atoms in flight.  Puck captured one speck in his gaze, held it as long as he could, followed it round and round until it darted off the edge of the sunbeam, lost.

That he had a mind for theology had been evident since childhood.  The questions, the questions, his father said.  Once he set off to look for the City of Light, the hope of all cats, only to turn back when he reached a great river (a mere gully he later found out).  The questions, they said, the questions.

Even now he pondered the mystery of providence, the confluence of feline responsibility and the sovereignty of the Great Cat.  Should he find the boy?  Should he watch the birds from the window?  Did he have any real choice?  If the Great Cat preordained all things, in what sense could he be said to be free?  The warmth of the sun on his gray fur overcame his questions, lulled him back to contentment with the world.  Oh, the questions.

The boy's mother floated through the house, it seemed, the boy clinging to her skirts.  But there was no father, at least not since Puck had come, only the lingering smell of his absence.  Puck had covered the house, sniffing everything, and he knew that while the man was not spoken of, he had been there, traces lingering, the smell of loss.  But the mother, she was the smell of hope.  Sometimes, Puck brushed against hope,  and she reached down and stroked his back, made cooing noises at him, and he found himself, inexplicably, annoyingly, purring.  He was glad for his life.  It was good, very good.





That's Why God Made Brian Wilson: A Review of "That's Why God Made the Radio," by The Beach Boys

BeachBoysDespite the ineptitude and failure of Brian Wilson in many areas of his life, here, on the cusp of 70, he can still make beautiful music.  Don't doubt that That's Why God Made the Radio, the new album by The Beach Boys, sounds as good as it does.  Without Brian Wilson, it could not have been made.

Yes, they are old.  No, they can't quite hit all the notes they made with ease in their twenties.  And no, he hasn't written a rival to the great "Good Vibrations."  But Wilson has largely authored a fine set of summery songs that resonate with all that is good (or that we like to think is good) about summer, the beach, and that Southern California life and yet which bear the mark of mortality, doubt, and longing.  Wisely, he's not singing about hot rods and girls and surfing anymore or indulging in nostalgia but applying those some great vocal harmonies and pop tunes to lyrics about summers nearly gone.  It's as you might expect from a man pushing 70.  He's a grown up, not a kid.

The album is bookended with bittersweet songs.  It leads off with "Think About the Days," a wordless and yet arresting choral introduction that is reminiscent of "Our Prayer," off Smile, the Boys vocalizing to a melody with a minor key, ending with a solitary piano.  It's an invitation to reflection on the meaning of 50 years of being The Beach Boys.  It's also the lead in to the title cut, Wilson giving credit to God for the gift of music in every generation: "That's why God made the radio. . ./ He waved his hand/ Gave us rock and roll. . ./ It's paradise when I/ Lift up my antennae/ Receiving your signal like a prayer/ Like a prayer.

And then, a trio of songs that wrap up the album hearken back to the slightly melancholy note of the introductory prelude.  In "From There to Back Again" Wilson asks "why don't we feel the way we used to anymore" and reflects on how he's been "thinking 'bout when life was still in front of you" and wonders "if we can get from there to back again."  From there the record goes to a short but moving song, "Pacific Coast Highway," which is simply, well, sad.  Listen: "Sometimes I realize/My days are getting on/ Sometimes I realize/ It's time to move along/ And I wanna go home. . . Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, the setting sun/ Goodbye."  Ouch.

And finally, the trio ends with "Summer's Gone," a beautiful if yet additional farewell, Wilson lamenting a summer gone, old friends gone, nights that grow cold,concluding that "we laugh, we cry/we live, then die."  Yet the beauty in the delivery of the music keeps it buoyant, keeps me from sinking to where the lyric might take me.

In between these bookends of reality are some other fine songs, but these are the ones I'll remember.  Three tunes find Wilson wondering at the strangeness of life.  "The Private Life of Bill and Sue" is a jab at reality TV, Wilson concluding that "sometimes life can be so strange."  In "Strange World" you sense his alienation from a world that has changed drastically in 50 years, Wilson watching the "uninvited who've lost their way," gathering on Santa Monica Pier, concluding that "it's a strange world after all."  Its a perspective that rings true, one appropriate to his age.  He can write about the beaches and places of Southern California --- this man who seems to embody the ethos of that culture --- and yet one senses he feels like (to appropriate a biblical phrase) an "alien and stranger" in his own hometown.

I recently saw Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys on their 50th Anniversary Tour.  Most of the time he sat behind a grand piano that he did not play.  When he stood at the show closer and had a bass guitar strapped on to him (his instrument back in the day), I noticed his frailty, how he shuffled across the stage, that lost look in his eyes that I have seen before.  I thought to myself: "This is it.  This is the last.  This is his goodbye.  He may not even make it through the night, much less a grueling tour."  And yet he keeps on.

This could have been a nostalgia record, an aging band reworking their old hits, a caricature of themselves.  They could could have played to sentimentality.  That this album doesn't do any of that is due to Wilson, songwriting partners (like Joe Thomas), and a working band of younger musicians (Jeffrey Foskett, The Wondermints, et al.) who support him and keep him honest.  He's still doing something new.  He's still making good if maybe not great music.

I think that's why God made Brian Wilson.