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June 2019

A River Where Mercy Flows

711005DF-599D-4423-8104-503749867B6CThe photo on the cover of Michael Kolster’s recently released L.A. River-a view upriver of the East Fourth Street Bridge from the concrete bottom of the channelized L.A. River-is not a pretty one. High-tension electrical lines and towers flank the now concrete river, chain-link fences prevent errant children and others from the dangers of sliding down its banks, weeds sprout from cracks in the concrete, and a sheen of runoff tops what appear to be near-stagnant waters confined to the middle of the channel.

In saying “river,” one must smile. As Kolster’s photographs taken along its 51-mile length testify, this is a river long tamed, a changeling he calls it, an outlier which doesn’t fit the mental image archives we may have of rivers. Most of the year, little water flows. Then again, when it rains hard, it carries so much water it threatens at times to top its banks. Before it was rendered concrete, it did.

Kolster’s black and white photographs-some panoramic-were made using a mid-18th century technique called ambrotype, a wet-plate collodion process which requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes. It’s cumbersome, he says, requiring lots of water and a portable darkroom housed in his van, yet the images it produces are unique-ghostlike, even dreamy, bearing the idiosyncrasies of the chemical process used to create it. And given the absence of humans in most of the photos, the contrast between the sterile urban infrastructure of the Fourth Street Bridge area or East First Street Bridge and rail yard and more natural settings like the Glendale Narrows and the Elysian Valley is heightened. Human communities crowd the river, yet we see little of them. Images of concrete seem an alien intrusion on the landscape, the bleak urban landscape like the remains of city emptied of its people. Well-intentioned as the channeling may have been, given the damaging periodic floods, it still leaves an ugly mark on the land, like a clearcut woodland or strip-mined Appalachian mountain.

An essay by Los Angeles historian D.J. Waldie reminds one of the human context of the river, the neighborhoods ravaged by periodic and damaging floods which persuaded the Corp of Engineers to transform it to a concrete lined channel after the flood of 1938. It also serves to militate against a manichean view of the denaturation of the river as simply innocent nature versus ruthless government engineers.

Though it concludes the book, I turned to the essay first to allow Waldie’s prose and command of history to provide context. He provides a narrative of human interaction with the river, beginning with the First People through missionaries, Spanish pueblo, frontier settlement, birth of Los Angeles, and finally, after many damaging floods, its channelization by the Corp of Engineers beginning in the mid-1930s. The end result: “Destitute of greenery, sunk in its depressed bed, unavailable as open space behind chain-link fences, the concrete channel exists primarily as a stage for movie car chases.” And while there is a plan for rehabilitation, Los Angeles is growing denser, and thirstier, so how much water will actually flow is unclear-except in floods. Yet, there is some hope. “A future Los Angeles River could become an anti-freeway,” says Waldie, “not dispersing communities but drawing them together.”

Overall, the emotion stirred by slow examination of the photographs on a Sunday afternoon is sadness, as I contemplate what Waldie calls a “terrible beauty,” as I compare this river to one I know best, the San Pedro of southeastern Arizona, the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest, particularly the stretch between Tubac and Tumacacori. There is no similarity. One is free; the other, bound. One rural, one urban. The essays by Frank Gohlke on “The Lure of Rivers” and Kolster himself on “Changelings and Outliers: Photographing the L.A. River” do little to remedy my melancholia, even as they give some basis for a promise of change, for the prospect that Angelenos may accommodate themselves to the changing river, the “wild child” of rivers, rather than seek to master it.

Yet a ray of hope is subtly offered by Waldie. As an epigram for the last section of his essay, titled “Michael Kolster’s Photographs,” he includes one sentence that looks to the future: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river.” In an America no longer hymn-literate, most will not recognize it as a bit of Robert Lowry’s 1864 hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River;” even less, its roots in the fantastic imagery of the Bible’s apocryphal last book, Revelation. The quote is from the chorus, which anticipates the Christian hope of restoration and reward.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

It would be easy to relegate this historic hymn to 19th century pietism, and yet for those who will believe in a true fairy tale of another time, it also has feet in the present: what will happen when faith is exercised by those who may gather? What kind of substantial healing can occur now by imperfect beings in a bent world?

A lot, said Christian pastor Francis Schaeffer in the late 1960s. “I can say, ‘Yes, the tree is a creation like myself,’ wrote Schaeffer. “But that is not all that is involved. There ought to be a psychological insight as well. Psychologically, I ought to ‘feel’ a relationship to the tree as my fellow-creature.” Thus Schaeffer articulated a kinship with the non-human creation that was, if not radical, one virtually unarticulated in Christianity. Reflecting on his long ocean voyage across the Atlantic to Europe in 1948, he said that “[m]odern man has no real ‘value’ for the ocean. All he has is the most crass form of egoist, pragmatic value of it.”. To think of non-human things as “low,” as having only what value might come from their utility to man, is “an insult to God,” he wrote. “The value of things is not in themselves autonomously, but that God made them - and thus they deserve to be treated with high respect.” He might say the same of this blunted river, shorn of its dignity.

“Yes, we’ll gather at the river.” In the ruined paradise of the L.A. River lies the hope of something new—the already, the soon to be, and the not yet. There might be, as Schaeffer often said, “substantial healing” and the hope of something more.

Junk Mail

Hyg0LSkuSxmeAeNTKZ2GQwI rip up a lot of things that come in the mail. I enjoy the tearing sound and am slightly annoyed at those mailings that anticipate this and try and force me to open the envelope by including plastic or some other material not easily torn. I just work harder.

I do have a slight tinge of guilt that accompanies the tearing. As much as the USPS has been criticized, it does an amazing job. In Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, Devin Leonard reports that 300,000 USPS letter carriers deliver 513 pieces of mail every day. Every day. And somebody had to design this junk that comes my way, print it, sort it, load it on trucks or airplanes, and bring it to me. The letter carrier is the last link in a human chain. I should frame this mail. I should honor it.

But no.

This afternoon’s mail includes a report from the electrical utility that serves me telling me how I stand in regard to my neighbors: not well. Guzzling power here, apparently, which I blame on the cats shed fur clogging the HVAC intakes. Ok, so I opened that one.

Another is a blue newsprint letter from missionaries we do not support but who have been sending us newsletters for 25 years. I ripped it up, but out of guilt I read the half I retrieved, which was in broken sentences, which makes for interesting reading. I did catch the words faith, hope, and. . .well, I think love was on the other half, unretrieved.

“Make the smart stop. Get $70 off,” squealed a tire store flyer. Nope. I tire of slogans, pitch-singing advertisements.

God bless the letter carriers. Leonard reminds me that Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were letter carriers back when they were mailmen. So was Walt Disney and Bing Crosby. So was writer William Faulkner, but he was fired. “I will be damned,” he said, “if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”

I’m invited to a gourmet dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Oops, no, my son is. He’s 27, and the meal comes with a retirement planning pitch. He can wait on that. Then again, he’s been old since he was two. I retire it to the recycle bin.

Oh, here’s the other half of the blue newsletter from the missionaries we do not support. Let’s see, if I put them together I can read the whole thing. It makes sense now. Yet there’s something off kilter here: “When you agree with God’s Word, your success rate grows upward.” What kind of success is that?

Leonard says letter carriers by and large are satisfied with their jobs. “Their mailbags may be much lighter these days, but they still have their junk mail or ‘job security,’ as letter carriers call it,” he says. Well, I’m just glad I can support them. I hope that those who pick up the recycle bin feel likewise.

“Let us take that off your hands!” “20% off.” “#1 Selling Walk-In Tub.” Nope, not yet. 

“Be enchanted, Dazzled, and Smitten!” It’s a collectible crystal kitten with butterfly, “shimmering,” with an “unconditional, 365-day guarantee.” No, though this cat is a lot cheaper than my two living cats have proven to be. But don’t get me started.

There’s a letter from Donald J. Trump. Sorry, it’s marked “Personal and Confidential.” I can’t talk about it. But I can tell you that half the letter was better than the whole.

The NRA has offered me a preprinted membership card. I don’t own a firearm, though, as I have been told I am not responsible enough and too distracted and absent-minded. I don’t disagree.

“Free wine chiller and beach day set. FREE.” I don’t drink wine. “Sun + sand. You + us. It all adds up.” I’m not a math whiz but I don’t think that necessarily adds up: you plus us could be a lot of people.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Postmaster General, Lawrence O’Brien said in a 1966 speech that the United States did not become balkanized because of its mail service, describing it as “a chain of paper that transported the elements of Americanism through thousands of miles, across mountains and desert, from city to frontier, a chain stretching into clearing and valley.” For a moment, I stopped ripping up the mail. That’s a big claim.

“ENTER TO WIN, a Viking Cruise for 2!” I’ve not been on a cruise and don’t plan to, yet near kin feel differently and may yet prevail upon me.

There are more than one “opportunities” to obtain new credit cards, all screaming low promotional rates, bonus points, and various wards. Rip.

I rip them all in half, gather them up, and throw them in the green recycling bin. What I waste, I think.

Except one. It’s an envelope that contained only a form that my daughter sent to me from the Lone Star State, that had no note but had my name and hers in her own distinctive pen with a stamp she licked. It traveled a long way to be here with me. I don’t tear. For a few days at least I’l let that one smile fetchingly across my desk, calling out my name.

Plotting the Resurrection

FOdyOSpvQ3yRVet%bWi2FQ“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.”

(1 Cor. 15: 42-44, ESV)

A friend recently told me that his house of many years had to be “jacked up.” It had begun to settle and sag with time, and cracks had begun to form in the walls at places. I didn’t see them, but he said it was so.

At the age of 34, our house is also showing signs of age. My wife, who is more observant than me, recently noticed the ragged edges of the siding on our third story dormers, evidence of water damage. I called a roofer, and in the matter of a day, it was stripped and replaced. Naked boards are thrust against the sky, as they still need the modesty of paint. But the house must be power washed first, because we also want to have the trim painted while we’re at it, and that can’t be scheduled for another month. Then we (I mean she, of course) saw that water had also rotted the base of the frames around two outside doors. The roofer was more than happy to replace those, for a price.

A week later, while we were out of town, our neighbor texted us to say that water had been streaming down our driveway for a day or more, that our sprinklers in the back yard had been running nonstop. We thanked her. Our lawn service person, Robby, put a stop to that. But the problem remains undiagnosed and the prognosis unclear. Until today, that is, when John, from a company called Under Pressure, came by to tweak and twaddle the various sprinkler heads. And speaking of a lawn service, without the weekly efforts of a crew of landscapers, or failing their help or more concerted effort by me, or if the neighbors didn’t care or the city was dysfunctional in enforcing public nuisance laws, the grass would be waist high in weeks. I knew a house like that, once; it was going back to nature, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

There are other signs of . . . let’s not mince words . . . decay, aging, entropy: cracks in the patio need filling before grass pushes through, rooms need paint, well-tread carpet needs replacement, windows stick and won’t open despite near hernia-producing efforts, and for some reason despite my very limited plumbing skill the toilet gurgles randomly. I took the lid off the tank and stared at it for a while, but it would not perform, and when I put it back and turned to leave, it gurgled. Houses and their accoutrements toy with us, you know. Oh yes: the refrigerator’s fan motor complains (until my wife fixed the seal on the door), the floors creak (meaning there’s no stealthy entry of the refrigerator), the air conditioner fails at an inopportune time, the fireplace needs cleaning by a chimney sweep, bats roost in our attic after the squirrels were enticed to leave, a pipe bursts under our front lawn, listing pines must be removed as they threaten the neighbor’s home, the mailbox badly needs replacing (that was a major project for us), and cracks have appeared in the driveway. That’s for starters. If you are a homeowner, all of this will sound familiar. Mind you, this stuff happens over years, and keeps happening.

Confronted by such entropy, some people just move to a new (or newer) home. But I don’t think I want a new home, at least not now, because it won’t be this one. Some with the money remodel every four years to “freshen up.” I don’t mind a facelift but I still want it to be the same place when the lift is over. Others spend their Saturdays maintaining and fixing every sag and seepage, every crack and crumble. I see them. They make me tired. Still others put their finger in the dike and pray a lot because the swell of the left undone is rising; barbarian elemental forces of nature are at the door.

But me, I’m plotting the resurrection. I don’t want to spend my days keeping up but would rather be with my wife, visit my children, lay in the hammock or sit under this blue umbrella and think and listen to the trees sway and the squirrels chatter and watch the robins and wine and cardinals that visit. We take a few precautions, of course. We did have the siding repaired. We’re cleaning the attic, slowly, in a multi-stage project. Next, perhaps by Fall, we’ll move to cleaning the garage. Some fresh paint may be warranted. The bats took up with the neighbors, and then another. There’s time. It’s unlikely the house will fall down around us. We’ll just kick at the creeping to-do list until it bleeds daylight-which there’s plenty of, of course, because it’s not just house but home.

For now, I want this house and none other, but I want it redeemed and made right and imperishable. I want it to be one in which the paint never fades, the walls never crack, where the memories of life herein are muraled all over its rooms, and where it glows in a golden light of a late afternoon sun that never ends. The house beyond the house. The home it was meant to be, all the good in it perfected. I’m waiting for the day when all things are made new. Even this house, the kernel of what will be.

*I’m indebted to E.B. White for the phrase “plotting the resurrection,” one he coined in an essay on his wife, Katherine. It’s clever.