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September 2013

My Magic Kingdom

What is magic about the Magic Kingdom is that if you look at it through the right pair of eyes it points to a kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  The one who sits on the throne says, "Behold, I make all things new," and the streets of it are of gold like unto clear glass, and each of its gates is a single pearl.

(Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart)

In yet another chapter of his memoirs, The Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner throws open wide the door to his library, office, and writing space, offering us a glimpse into the ordinary miscellany of his life, summoning the extraordinary and, indeed, magic to which the tangible items found there point.  Beloved books, framed autographs, a stone from a pilgrimage to the island of Outer Farne in the North Sea in honor of Godric, the bronze head of his childhood friend, poet James Merrill, and other relics and reminders testify to and summon recollections of the long dead and the long past.  And yet all is not memory, as all point to the past as well as beyond and to the future.  For Buechner, the tactile is luminous with meaning, two- or three-dimensional items summoning up a fourth dimension of time.  For him, the physical is bound up with meaning, even spiritual meaning.

Having lived mostly in one place for 33 years, I can't go anywhere without summoning up my past and receiving intimations of my future.  They come randomly.  That median dividing that busy four lane road is the same one I accidently drove over with a college years date some 36 years ago, the Mexican retaurant where I sometimes eat resides in the former theater where I took that same date that night to see George Burns in "Oh God," a movie we argued over on the way back to campus.  A median, a re-purposed theater --- they remind me that I was 19, that I had hopes for love, that I was awkward and undiplomatic, and yet, perhaps, just maybe, Janet Morgan remembers me differently.  I love the reassuring sensation that I was here all those years ago, that I am still here, and that somehow I will carry those memories and these places with me into the "all things new" of which Buechner speaks.

In the Incarnation God affirms the value of physical reality as something worthy of study and love.  And yet so many of us spend our time moving, surfing reality, breathing in a virtual reality, that we forget to see, touch, and taste what is right in front of us.  When I walk into my church of 33 years, layer upon layer of memories well up, of deep conversations, of hard and painful news, of leaving and comings, of new life and cold hard death.  I look aside and see people that I have known for all those years and realize that their lives point back to our beginnings and forward to an eternity.  That, I realize, is some kind of magic, some kind of transcendant reality.  When we Christians see reality as charged with that kind of grandeur, it might truly be said, as did Francis Schaeffer, that we have one foot on the ground and one firmely planted in midair.  There must be a bit of the mystic in all of us.

 My little home office is not as grand as Buechner's room, my library not so large.  And yet it also testifies.  A framed photo of a church in the village of Huemoz, Switzerland reminds me of my visit there with Edith Schaeffer before she died, the cowbells in the meadow, the church bell ringing, the feel of the grass on my back as I lay in the field and watched clouds race across the alpine skies.  It sends me plummeting through 90 years of life for her, from China to Philadelphia, to St. Louis to Huemoz to Rochester where she now rests.  All that and more from one photograph.

I could tell you about every good book on my shelves, speak to you about the music I have collected, the songs that reach deep into my past and point far into my future, but I kept you long enough.  That's my spiritual cartography, a map of my life.  And yet one book that rumbles at the edge of my desk must be heard:  Buechner's The Longing for Home.  This 1996 book is a large part of what set in motion eight years of my attempting to produce and distribute music that was acoustically-grounded, lyrically intelligent, and spiritually provocative.  Opening the flyleaf to this book recently, I found my handwritten notes for what became the liner notes to the Silent Planet Record compilation entitled Aliens and Strangers:

We live in discontent.  We ache at the brokenness of life.  For in our good moments, we sense our exile, our longing for a place called home.  We are aliens and strangers.

The music on this compilation is not your typical radio fare.  It is honest: true to the tragic brokenness of life and yet bearing the seeds of light and hope. Traverse it, and you'll find the signs point to a place called Home.

While there is more to it than that, and revisions made, it is deeply pleasurable to see that handwriting from 27 years ago, in a book that greatly mentored me, in an album whose music lives on, and, believe it or not, written on a coupon for the restaurant in the re-purposed theater to which I took Janet Morgan some 36 years ago.

"Oh God" was the movie.  "Oh God," life is rich.  "Oh God," I'm saying, with Buechner, "You are seeing everything for the last time, and everything you see is gilded with goodbyes. . . . For the last time you are hearing this house come alive because you who are part of its life have come alive. . . . Be alive if you can all through this day today of your life."

So, before I rise from this table, I promise God once again that I will do my level best to pay attention, to see what's in front of me, to reach out and touch things, to remember, dream, eschew the virtual for the real, to see in all these physical things, in my Magic Kingdom the "kingdom more magic still that comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" --- signs that point me Home.


The Weight We Share

Blue skyOne of the benefits of essaying (the writing of essays) is the freedom to sashay from one topic to another, like some sort of word association game.  Thus, it was with some ease that I moved from writing a review of D.J. Waldie's memoir of Lakewood, California, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, to a scholarly book of essays about the impact of the aerospace industry on Southern California. Blue Sky Metropolis is saved from a pedantic tone, however, by its narratives --- memoirs by D.J. Waldie and M.G. Lord, a biography of Lockheed's Robert E. Gross, details of the alt-space titans like Elon Musk and Burt Rutan, and, of course, by all those Okies in khakis that built the planes and missiles for WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.  It is, in the end, a story of people, and people never bore.

You can touch down at LAX and drive your rental car down the freeways and byways of Los Angeles County and never give a second thought to why people live where they do and like they do, but I have never been able to do that.  As Wade Graham's essay makes clear, the sheer volume of housing required by workers at the wartime aircraft manufacturing plants (Lockheed's plant in Burbank, for example, had over 18,000 employees in 1941) required assembly line methods that resulted in tract suburbs built around manufacturing nodes. Waldie's hometown, Lakewood, was virtually built in 90 days, a carefully planned grid of tract housing for workers employed by Douglas Aircraft Corporations's WWII manufacturing plants.  As Waldie notes here, the Douglas assembly buildings are nearly gone, and "The City of Tomorrow, Today," is still there, that tomorrow now yesterday.  As Waldie concludes, "None of my neighbors asked in the 1950s what their "city of tomorrow" would be fit for if tomorrow's assumptions were falsified.  Perhaps the persistent ordinariness of places like Lakewood is the only answer." Indeed, the quotidian of most folk is cleaning house, paying bills, going to work, and making ends meet.  Peopled as they are by the ordinary, these essays manage to speak to us of something beyond an aerospace industry, of hearts and souls alive in the rattle and hum of industry.

Convair staircaseNot that they are all about people.  One fascinating essay by Stuart Leslie, "Spaces for the Space Age,"  profiles the aerospace modernism of architect William Pereira.  Many of his lavishly landscaped corporate campuses, his structures of steel and glass that blurred the distinction between interior and exterior space, have already been demolished.  And yet consider the optimism carried by such structures, the impact they must have had on the very real people who worked in them.   To sit in the glass-encased lobby of the Convair Astronautics lobby, with its signature suspended and serpentine ramp to the second floor, must have imbued one with a sense of the future, of optimism, of a belief that the sky was the limit for what could be accomplished.  Behind Pereira's space-age structures lay blue-collar factories, and yet for a worker to arrive each day must have been a reminder that he (and occasionally, she) was involved in something crucial.  The code of secrecy that  governed such projects only reinforced the gravity of the endeavour.

Diminished though it is, the aerospace industry continues to leave its footprint on Southern California. Another essay by Patrick McCray, "From L5 to X Prize," documents the rise of an alternative space movement, one heralded by the 2004 24-minute flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, who claimed the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million dollar purse offered to the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks.  Billionaire Elon Musk, who made his money in PayPal and software development, sited his Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, California, a first-ring post-WWII suburb of Los Angeles.  Hawthorne was founded in  the early 1900s, but its growth was moribund until Northrop Aviation moved to town in 1939.  The town boomed with dust bowl emigrants who flocked to blue-collar Northrop and subcontractor jobs, becoming known as the Cradle of Aviation.  (It's also the once site of the childhood home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys, now demolished for a freeway ramp.)  How fitting that Musk would locate SpaceX in this historic place, and how auspicious a beginning was that of last year's launching of the Falcon rocket to the space station.

Elsewhere, these essays explore the environmental effects of the aerospace industry, Chinese-Americans in the industry, labor relations, and that other aerospace mecca, the Silicon Valley. Strangely absent, however, is virtually any mention of the religious beliefs of the aerospace workers and how those beliefs shaped their experience of work or how their work impacted their beliefs.  Is that because most of academia regards religion as a minor player in cultural change?  A more generous assessment may be simply that these essays are only a beginning point in this project (though the Afterword does nothing to suggest that religion may be a topic in future studies).

In the end, I am brought back to Waldie's comment about the "persistent ordinariness" of places like Lakewood or Hawthorne or Inglewood.  In the midst of the boom and bust of the aerospace industry, in wartime and peacetime, in the spectre of then futuristic corporate centers, most workers came back to the quotidian.  The mundane.  That's the place where people live.  Whether driving down the 405, Sepulveda, or I-5, I don't think about great factories or great men of industry and commerce but of my Dad, or Waldie's father, men who got up every day and went to work, of women who raised families in 1100 square foot tract homes, and of a God who providentially and mysteriously weaves our lives together.  It's their dreams and hopes and burdens and woes that are all part of the weight we share, the weight of "persistent ordinariness" that just may be redeemed, little by little, day by day.