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January 2015

The Glory in Things

Everything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stones, they are all hieroglyphics. When you see them you do not understand them. You think they are men, animals, trees, stars. It's only years later that you understand. (Pablo Neruda)

I walked today. It was 27 degrees. I was not the only one chilled. Cars huddled near curbs, leaned in. One compact snuggled close to an SUV, as if to fit under its bumper. Telephone poles hunched their limbs, contracting. A mist seeped out of pavement cracks and drainage holes as I swished through the early morning dark, my footsteps muted by the fog.

During two and a half miles, I saw no one. No dog confronted me, no cat prowled through lawns or peeked from beneath shrubbery, and no tweeting bird questioned my intrusion. Not one single animate thing was apparent to me. Just asphalt, rocks, leaves, trees, a trickling stream, the cold steel of the bridge rails, the quickening air, and the streetlights' refracted beams laying in circles on sidewalks.

Until this morning I had not noticed how peopled my neighborhood was by green boxes, tall telephone boxes and traditionally built forest green cable boxes, squatting on their haunches. I lost count at 47.

Rounding one corner and turning up the hill, I noticed that the telephone poles each had a number, like LC4839. A name. I walked up to LC4839, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and laid hands on it. It resisted. I spoke to it. Still, it pressed hard against my hands, cold and unyielding. I remembered as a boy how we used to kick one particular streetlight in our neighborhood, making its light go out temporarily. I reminded LC4839 that I had reformed and would not kick it. Still, it resisted.

In the early morning, categories blur. I begin to think that the inanimate is not so insentient at all, that the rock I just kicked, scrambling down the road, might just. . . might just. . . cry out. At least in some way. I may be guilty of anthropomorphism, or worse, sentimentalism, and yet perhaps in some way poles and telephone boxes and rocks and other inanimate objects "live." Hmm.

Materials scientist Mark Miodownik (let's just call him "M"), a Brit who authored Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our man-Made World, may be responsible for my pre-dawn mysticism. In his hands, things like paper and concrete become characters in an unfolding, living collection of everyday objects. Talking about old paper, which yellows, he concludes that "the sensual impressions of old paper allow you to enter the past more readily, providing a portal to that world." And so perhaps the "things" I see and touch along my walk transport me somewhere else, to some other time or place. Stir in half-light and mist and the suburban landscape of my neighborhood engages and converses, whispering quiet truths.

Crossing a bridge, I let my hand run along concrete supports, kneel and touch a rounded curb, and I recall M's animated description of the many tons of concrete poured into the building of The Shard, a new tower near his London flat. After all the pouring of concrete into forms, floor upon floor, he notes that

What was left was a concrete tower seventy-two stories high: it was gray, raw, and wrinkly like a newborn. . . . But it was not idle. Inside the material, fibrils of calcium silicate hydrate were growing, meshing together and bonding with the stones and steel. The tower, in doing so, was getting stronger . . . . [T]he process by which this artificial rock develops its internal architecture and so its full strength takes years.

Remembering that description, as well as his elegant and poetic discussion of the chemical process underlying what he described, confirms that there is a sense in which everything is telling us something. "The heavens declare the glory of God," yes, and so do things here, on earth, in my neighborhood, on my street. In fact, this morning the concrete becomes a metaphor for the Christian's new life: God pours His life into us, making us new creations, re-forming us, and yet it is over a lifetime or eternity that our internal architecture develops, that through a mysterious unseen process we are made strong.

But the sun is rising, and the people emerge. A dog ambles down the sidewalk, tugging at its tender. The fog lifts and I exhale, as if to place a period at the end of my reverie. I greet the man with the dog, exchange pleasantries, and then wonder: Does he know?

The Grid

The grid is the plan above the earth. It is a compass of possibilities. . . . Seen from above, the grid is beautiful and terrible.

(D.J. Waldie, in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir)

Recently I received a letter from a developer. Attached to it was a black and white copy of a subdivision plan for a small residential development on two tracts of largely forested land behind our home. It has a certain beauty. I imagine the draftsman laying out the lines of the cookie-cutter 10,500 square foot (1/4 acre) lots and marveling at the beauty of measurement, the consistency of the lines, the imposition of order on the disorder of woodlands and the efficiency of land being used for its highest and best use. Seventeen lots and 17 families, with dogs and cats and fences and children and streetlights and asphalt and backyard cookouts and adolescent angst. And school buses and dogs yapping and garage doors opening and shutting.

One modest brick home lay empty for a while, the man bought out. They carried it away, hoisted and hijacked. They left an old well house and a ramshackle outbuilding that was visited by my gray and white-chested cat. Soon they will be gone too, and my cat will prowl their absence.

And what of the owl whose "who" I sometimes heard even from inside our home? Or the deer who lay in the sun leaking through the tree canopy just beyond our slight fence?

Just now, looking out my window, I remembered an “adventure” walk with my then four-year old daughter through the undivided woods and grasses, nearly up to my chest and over her head. We collected “treasure,” like sticks and rocks and pinecones and special leaves, carrying them all back home as mementos, as a travelogue. I wish I still had them, saw them in that four-year old hand. She has flown, but I still have memories and rocks and trees and land, for now.

Looking at the map again, at the grid that snakes through the oddly sized tract, I smile at the sliver of land one owner refused to sell, the one that causes perturbations in two lots, making them trapezoids, not rectangles. Oh inconsistency! I imagine a grimace on the draftsman’s face, if slight, as he bends over his drawing or leans into his computer screen, annoyed by the inconsistency, at the disturbance to his omnipotence.

I don’t begrudge the families their homes. But the deer will eat their flowers too, the raccoons raid their garbage, paint fade and peel and roofs wear and downspouts rust. Cracks will appear in sidewalks and driveways, floors creak and ceilings drop. And the children will grow up and leave, as do they all.

And the beautiful and terrible grid will be unwound by the entropy of time, the irrepressible curse laid on the ground.

But that is not the end of the story. There is another grid. That one comes from God and is full of grace.

Tiny Points of Light

The world was not perfect — it never had been and never would be; it was full of pitfalls and problems, of fear, of regrets and of bitter tears. Here and there, though, there were tiny points of light, hard to see at times, but there nonetheless, like the welcoming lights of home in the darkness. The flames that made these lights were hard to ignite, but occasionally, very occasionally, we found that we had in our hands the match that could be struck to start one of these little fires.

(Mma Ramotswe, in The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe, by Alexander McCall Smith)

I couldn’t sleep last night. It had something to do with the fact that the world is not perfect. After realizing that I had been staring wide-eyed at the ceiling for several minutes, I got up. I told my wife “I can’t sleep, so I’m going to go read for a while,” waking her of course, for no reason really. I suspect that’s a holdover from 50 years ago when, as a child, waking up in the middle of the night, I would walk down the hall to my parent’s bedroom and let my Mom know that I couldn’t sleep: “Mom, I can’t sleep.” She’d say “Just lay down, and be real still, and you’ll go back to sleep.” Profound. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me. I did that and, eventually, though I might have to get up and tell her that again, have her take me back to bed and tuck me in, I went to sleep. Well, I grew out of that coddling practice though not the need to announce my insomnia. (Thankfully, my wife usually doesn’t remember me telling her and is always gentle in her unconscious response.)

In college there was a variation of this. I’d be having a difficult time at school, academically or relationally, and I’d get in my car and drive home, pull in the driveway and see the light in the kitchen window. I knew my Mom would be in there sitting at the kitchen table drinking black coffee. Opening the door and letting the screen slap behind me, I stepped into yesterday. Nothing had changed. By the time I was fed and watered and bedded down, all was well. I was anchored by normality, and I went to sleep in my teenage year’s bed, surrounded by all that I had left behind, home.

I don’t have that home anymore. And my mother is, as Mma Ramotswe says, “late.” I do have a green chair, warm blanket, a sleeping wife, a candle in the window, and a book of big truths wrapped in modest garments — tiny points of light.

And the welcoming light of home. And the Light of lights.

And that’s enough.

A Christmas Song For All Year

OITFSome Christmas songs are really suitable for listening year round.  One from this season that I recommend is Jason Harrod's "Out In the Fields," from his Christmas EP of the same title.  As the EP dropped December 18th and is an digital only, indie release, you may have missed it unless you are a Harrod fan.  While the EP is an enjoyable and fresh mix of hymns and  carols, such as "Angels From the Realms of Glory" featuring some buoyant trombone playing, and this one original tune, it's worth picking up just for latter, which will join my Christmas play list for years to come.

"Out of the Fields" has several memorable lines, built around questions by a faith-challenged, melancholic narrator, but the bit that seems at its center is this:

O Lord Invisible where are you hiding?
Where do you burn and whose way do you light?
Out in the fields we are watching and waiting
We need a Redeemer to come make us right

Or even this earlier re-phrasing of it:

Light inaccessible where are you shining?
Where do you burn and whose face do you warm?
Out in the fields we are ready for finding ---
smoldering stars waiting to be reborn

The song contains a longing not for just the coming of a Jesus who can remake us and make all things right.  I like the questions, which are not unlike those the Psalmist asked.  I like the honesty of the narrator, riven by doubt and faithlessness.  And I like the hope, driven home by a driving electric end where the instruments cry the inarticulable.  I'll play it all year.

You'll find it here.


Back of the Top 100

Returning on a family trip this New Years Day, I asked my son to play the Top Billboard charting song for the year of each of our graduations from high school. It was insightful and fun, as it led to other listening and forced us all to listen to songs we might not otherwise have chosen.

My daughter graduated in 2013. We declined to play the lyrically nasty Number One of that year, “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke, featuring T.I. and Pharrell, on my son’s recommendation. I looked up the lyrics later. I can’t repeat most of the them here, except to say the mildest part of it was “you're an animal, baby it's in your nature/ Just let me liberate you,” and it goes downhill from there. My son fared little better, with Ke$ha’s (and how do you pronounce a name with a dollar sign in it?) “Tik Tok,” which is a girls-go-dance-and-party song. Turning to 1976, the year of my graduation, I felt like things had to be better, though I was concerned about the incursion of disco into the playlist. The number one song in 1976 was “Silly Love Songs,” by Paul McCartney and Wings. The lyrics are, in fact, light and silly, but they are not profane. The melody, unfortunately, sticks in your head.

Finally, my wife’s year of graduation, 1973, produced “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. While I’m not particularly fond of the song (though it is infectious, as are most pop tunes), it apparently had a storied tradition rooted in folklore. A convict is returning home after three years imprisonment, and he tells his love to tie a yellow ribbon around the oak tree if she welcomes his return. There are, to his surprise, 100 ribbons around the tree on his return. Variants of the story date back even as far as the civil war, when a woman’s tying a yellow ribbon in her hair was a sign of welcome to a returning soldier. So you have to respect the writers for re-working the story and putting it in song, particularly at a time when many soldiers were returning from an unpopular Vietnam War. The yellow ribbon was a symbol for a welcome homecoming which resonated in a culture not particularly welcoming to returning vets.

As a mark of how the culture has shifted — from the meaningful to the silly to the nasty — just compare these songs. It’s quite a shift. And then go listen somewhere else, because there is still a lot that is true, good, and beautiful --- somewhere back of the Top 100.  Start here or here.