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September 2018

My Interlocutors, My Dance

Images“Thank you for meeting with me today. After 34 years of work at the same place, I felt like I needed to explain a few things about my leaving” I looked up. To a one, the men and women who peered at me were aged, unsmiling, and slightly bemused. The one in the middle shuffled some papers.

“Well, go on.”

“On August 30th, I retired.”

“Have you filed a proper motion? You can’t have a new trial without a proper motion and hardly ever then.”


“Oh no, no, perhaps I misspoke [I didn’t]. I said retired, not retried.”

“Hmmf. That’s not allowed.”

“Your honor, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I have changed jobs. . .


“Well, do say what you mean.”

“If I may. . .”

“You may.”

“As I was saying, on August 30th I left my job. The next day my wife and went to the coast. We had a great day on the beach. Sunny skies, ocean breezes, the waves breaking. Late in the day we swam in the ocean, splashed around until we tired, and then lay facedown on the beach, directly on the sand, our feet trailing in the water, promptly falling asleep. When I woke up, I felt a great peace. I said to myself, ‘This must be what its like to be retired.’”

“Only you said try were not retired.”

“Right, right. I’m getting to that. But first. . . That word, ‘retired,’ is actually related to a French word. . .

“Well, that’s the first thing you said that makes sense. French people are good at not working.”


“Your honor, please.”

“Go on, go on.”

“The word, 'retire,' refers to a movement in ballet. So, you see, to retire is really to engage in a kind of dance, a different movement.”

“Nonsense.”

“Oh no, it makes perfect sense. Life is like a dance, you see, and this withdrawal from my former work is simply a new movement, one part of the great dance, the dance of life.”

“I thought you were a lawyer.”

“In my former life, yes.”

“And now you’re dancing to a different beat?”

“You might say that.”

“Well what is it you do now?”

“I’m a writer.” Loud guffaws issued. They looked knowingly at one another, nodding their heads, and then turned to stare at me. I said, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Well because writers don’t really work, do they? They just do a lot of navel-gazing and then spew out a bunch of rubbish, blabbering on about the meaning of a rock, for example, making something out of nothing. It certainly can’t be as important as your work as a lawyer.”

“Perhaps not.”


“Have you made any money at it?”


“Not much.”


“I thought not. Then why do it?”


“I think I am called to do it.”

“Who called?”

“Well. . . Him.” I pointed up.

“Oh, him. Well, far be it from me to argue with him. Higher court, and all that. . .Tell me about some of your scribblings. . . I mean, writings.”

“Well, I recently wrote about a water fountain.”


“Oh really. . .”


“And a fence around my backyard. . .”

“Thrilling.”


“”The first car I owned.”

“I know the world is richer for it.”

“And I am at work on a book about an American missionary to Europe, Francis Schaeffer.”

“Who? Never heard of him.”

“Well, that’s the point. By writing about him, I might introduce him to a new audience.”

“Well why don’t you tell us about a typical day at this writing.”


“I’d love to. I get up at 5:45 and my wife and I walk for about an hour. Sometimes I see things I want to write about as I walk, like a telephone pole, a fox chasing a cat, the brook that passes under street before the rise of Kill Devil Hill. We often pray, but we get distracted. We follow the distraction. We pray about the distraction. Or maybe we forget to pray. Maybe we just talk. Maybe we’re just silent, deep in our own thoughts.”

“Exercise is fortifying. I commend you.”

“Well, not too quick. Sometimes we sleep in. But even then I’m thinking. I wake up and listen to the house, the sounds it makes, the whirring of the heat pump, the rain slapping the window, the purr of the cat, the birds waking just before dawn, a truck on the highway. . .”

“Yes, yes, I get the point. What do you do next?”

“After the walk, or after rising, I shower, dress for work (no pajamas or shorts, shirt tucked in), eat breakfast, and have a personal worship time. I read my Bible. I pray.”

“Pray again?”

“Of course. Only sometimes I miss.”

“That’s bad, right? God doesn’t like that, does he?”

“God loves me just the same. I missed out on time with Him, that’s all. Anyway, after that I go to work. I have an office on the third floor devoted to nothing but writing. I read a bit, do my research. Then I sit in my chair and stare out the window. I try to take myself back to the village of Huemoz, Switzerland, in 1957. As all the pictures I have are black and white, I have to add the color -- the wildflowers in the fields, or the white on the snow-capped Alps, or the yellow of the post bus that passes periodically on its way to Villars. I hear cowbells, laughter, and conversation - always conversation. Then I go back to my desk and write a line, or two, on my way to a page. A page a day, page on page, until its done. Bird by bird, as Anne Lammott says.”

“That’s it, a page a day? That doesn’t seem very productive.”

“Well, you forget about the rest of the page, the empty white space of the page, all that’s left unsaid. I have to make choices, you see, about what to include and what to leave out. People have to fill in the white with their own images, helped by the words I do include on the page. I guess it does look like a lot of nothing, but it’s not. John McPhee, who has done a lot of writing, said once he did his research for an article, on oranges I think, and then lay on the picnic table in his backyard for two weeks trying to figure out how to organize his material. It looked like he was doing nothing. But he wasn’t.”

“I'll bet he took a few naps. Anyway, is that it?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“What do you hope to get out of all this? Not money, I presume.”

“Peace, I guess. Peace at being in the place where God would have me be, I suppose. Money if he gives it; the satisfaction of being in the right place, if not. I don’t write because it’s fun; it’s generally not. I don’t write because it’s lucrative; it’s seldom that. There are a lot of easier things to do - like being a lawyer. Or painting houses. I don’t love writing. John McPhee says that people who say that they love to write aren’t writers at all. If they were they wouldn’t say such ridiculous things.”

“For God’s sake, man, you’re an attorney. Why waste your time and what talent you have on writing about trees or some obscure American pastor?”

“Do you like music?”

“Of course. Beethoven. Bach. Even the Gershwins.”

“Well that’s why I write. When it all comes together, when the right words fall in place, it’s like a song. I read it aloud and there’s melody to it, a rhythm, a beat, some truly tiny distant echo of the song the stars made at Creation. It doesn’t happen much, but I live for those rare moments when I've done the best I can, and I stand back and say with all humility, how could I have written that? And then it has its own life and begins to talk to me and teach me.”

“Well, you’re either delusional or on to something.”

"I appreciate you hearing me out about this.”

“It seems a foolish course to us, a huge waste of time and one with little money-making potential.”

“I see how it appears.”

“But we’ll consider what you said and let you know what we think. For now, carry on. Or should we say, dance on. And God help you.




The Eyes of the Heart

Fullsizeoutput_7f72A few weeks ago my wife and I were cleaning out some closets or files (at the moment I’ve forgotten which) and discovered the pellet-pocked National Rifle Association 5 Meter BB Gun target saved from her happy years at Camp Yonalossee. Not a sentimentalist, she threw it away. I retrieved it and retained it, a reminder of her aptitude. It’s in a manilla folder marked “resources,” a place where I file clippings and salvaged memorabilia of uncertain use, items that portend meaning if as yet unknown. I pull it out of the folder and examine it again. Some shots went wide, clipping the edges of the target, yet a number hit their mark, I note, sobered by her eye, her resolute fire.

She’s always had a good eye. In 1987 when we were in Kenya and Tanzania on safari, she spotted a serval cat at a distance of over a thousand feet without the aid of binoculars, identifying it for our guide, Elvis, who was impressed if initially doubtful. “Good eyes, Madam,” he said, after confirming her sighting with binoculars. Servals are shy cats, with overly long legs, small heads, and demure faces. They catch their prey by leaping up to ten feet high and pouncing with both front paws, and often play with their prey before eating it. I look sideways at my large cat, with her overly short legs, laconic eyes, and domestic demeanor, and I can’t quite make the connection.

My eyes are not so good. I have been severely near-sighted since third grade, and now I have “floaters.” In the terminology of the retina specialists, they are caused by posterior vitreous detachment, something which happens as you age. The white matter of the eye tends to pull away from the back of the eye. The result is like looking through spidery webs, particularly noticeable when looking at a bright sky or light-filled windows. There’s no recommended treatment. They annoy but don’t impact my already-compromised vision. Remarkably, the brain has a way of filtering them out of consciousness, like the items heaped at the bottom of the stairs for weeks that you’ve meant to carry upstairs, yet haven’t. You eventually don’t notice them. Much.

"Did you find her?, she said, referring to the fluid waif-like cat, sister to the large one. "I've looked everywhere," I say, and I did. At least I thought I did. First floor. Second floor. Under the beds, behind chairs, in all the usual hiding places into which only she can slither. I can't find her! But of course, she finds her, her lugubrious fur-covered gelato stuffed in a crack behind the bed. Eyes do not fail my wife. With effort, the cat is retrieved, pried from the carpet. Perhaps I could have seen her, but my eyes have been trained to inattention, it seems, lazy and impatient.

In one of his memoirs, Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner lets us peer into his Magic Kingdom, his palace of memory. Looking around the various photos and other memorabilia of his study, he summons up voices from the past, let’s them speak to him and he to them. It’s as if he pulls out his file called “resources” and examines an item at a time, letting it speak and give up meaning. He concludes it this way:

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 upon its 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.

So that's it. If we have the eyes to see, Buechner is saying, then everything points beyond itself to something greater. Yet when I train a BB gun on life, I don't always fare so well. Things are not quite in focus. The spidery webs of brokenness born of detachment occlude my vision. I often miss the mark and go wide. Yet with the graces of Word and prayer, I begin to see more of the Kingdom. I glimpse the heaven in and beyond the world. What is it that the Apostle says? Having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you. That’s my target. That’s the serval cat in my sights. That’s the Reality beyond my occlusion. I just need the eyes to see.