You Get Bigger As You Go

"When one breaks camp in the morning, he turns back again and again to see what he has left. Surely he feels he has forgotten something: what is it? But it is only his sad thoughts and musings he has left, the fragment of his life he has lived there. Where he hung his coat on the tree, where he slept on the boughs, where he made his coffee or broiled his trout over the coals, where he drank again and again at the little brown pool in the spring run, where he looked long and long up into the whispering branches overhead, he has left what he cannot bring with him, - the flame and the ashes of himself."   

(John Burroughs)

Some people seem to have no attachment to place. They float over the crust of the earth, dipping a toe in here and there, and yet when they move on it is as if that other place never existed, is forgotten, and they are free to begin again in the place in which they find themselves. I had a neighbor like that once who, in a brief conversation, said to me that she thought she would just move to this or that town, start over, as if she were deciding where to have dinner out that night, an easy decision when you are unmoored.

I can't do that, wouldn't want to do that. I left a little piece of myself everywhere I lived. And I don't want to lose any of it.

In the first 18 years of my life, I lived in two houses, one in a post-WWII suburb of cookie-cutter frame houses on a street with the Fifties name of Idlewood. The next was on Surry, in a neighborhood of colonial style homes, unfenced backyards, station wagons and Oldsmobiles. In the next seven years, I lived in eight different places - dorms, apartments, condominiums, and even my in-laws, etching memories into the walls of them all. In the last 30 years, I have lived in one house, and its hallways and rooms are deeply furrowed with memories, with conversations, with joys and sorrows.

My workplace has also been full of leavings. In the building where I have always worked, I have had at least 11 different offices in 30 years, on every side of the building, overlooking a courtyard, a heat-soaked roof, the city skyline, and the trees of a residential area. Sometimes I walk past a former office and look in on a younger person there and see myself, hear some almost forgotten conversation I had there, still hanging in the air, remember laughing with a former colleague, praying for a co-worker there. Such memories provoke thankfulness and a sense of fullness.

I confess to a bit of sadness at the loss of these places and times. Yet it's not usually nostalgia I feel when I remember, nor some vague sentimentalism. I don't idealize the past I remember, as remembrance is skewed by the present. But I do miss it like you might miss a distant relative. Sometimes, I try to return: I put my hand on the screen door of my childhood home, open it, and go inside. I walk down the hall and turn into my bedroom. What am I looking for? I'm not sure. I guess I'm looking for me, for the fragments of the me left behind.

In the latest issue of The Mockingbird, Ethan Richardson leads off an issue devoted to identity by noting the difficulty of perceiving ourselves rightly. He addresses what is called the End-of-History Illusion, which is "our tendency to believe, contrary to past evidence, that who we are now is who we will continue to be forever," which is, obviously, false. He points to Henri Nouwen's embrace of the "unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments," a self emptied of self, one perhaps captured in John the Baptist's statement in light of Jesus' coming that "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3.30).

But I think there's more to it than a shrinking of self. When Paul said that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), what he points to is a new identity that we are growing up into, a re-identity, a becoming who were were intended to be all along. In light of Christ, we decrease, yes, but only as we increase and grow more into the people we were intended to be all along. All those fragments of me that I left behind, the sum total of all that I experienced and all that I thought of myself all become a part of the Me that He is re-creating, one just a little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5). Bruce Cockburn said it in a song: "You get bigger as you go/ No one told me - I just know/ Bales of memory like boats in tow."

Underneath the melancholy of remembrance lies joy. One day, the Author of Life will gather up all the fragments I left behind, all the little bits of me, and put me back together again, redeeming and remaking all those bales of memory. When I break camp and turn back on that day, everything will be there, never to be left again. None of it is lost to flame and ashes. Every bit of it will be redeemed and become a part of the Me in Him.

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.



Wandering Aim-fully

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering in large public libraries.  Other than books or records, I am not fond of shopping and after a time can be a nuisance and drag on my wife (though she is too kind to ever say that).  I need something else to do, and she needs me to find something else to do other than dreamily murmuring my way through clothing stores with her.  Libraries afford great relief, at least the traditional ones, great halls like the New York Public Library or Boston Public Library or even the quiet not so dignified stacks of North Carolina State University's D.H. Hill Library, a place where I have spent many hours running my fingers down musty smelling pages, alone with words and yet strangely warmed, one of a long line of perusers or borrowers, a community across time.

The new libraries seem too noisy and media driven.  I prefer perusing the shelves or losing myself deep in the book stacks.  It requires time and suspending the need to accomplish a task, find a certain book even, or entertain oneself.  One question frames my wandering: what here is good, true, and beautiful?  Such times of wandering aim-fully are the precursor to serendipity, the good soil in which words might take root and give new insight.

I like wandering, though much like play it is a preoccupation given over to children and retirees, an idleness viewed as the province of those with little else to do but wake up and wander about, tolerated but only amusing to those with important work to do.  In a society that values time management, productivity, and intensity even in recreation, pure wandering is viewed as akin to idleness, a lazy indulgence.  

Writer Alan Jacobs doesn't think it is.  In his recent collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, he calls such wandering aim-fully "wayfaring," an orientation fundamental to our nature as Christians.  According to Jacobs,

An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator: the human being as wayfarer, as pilgrim.  Wayfarers know in a general way where we are headed: to the City of God, what John Bunyan, that great chronicler of pilgrimage, called the Celestial City --- but we aren't altogether certain of the way.  We can get lost for a time, or lose our focus and nap for too long on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road, or dally a few days at Vanity Fair.  We can even become discouraged --- but we don't, ultimately and finally, give up.  And we don't think we have arrived.

What Jacobs applies to the writing of essays --- those meanderings of the mind --- is equally applicable to life --- part of his point, of course.  Reading essays, like wandering the library, like walking around a town like I have many times with no particular destination in mind, is a meandering pregnant with possibilities and hope.  I still remember the African-American man leaning out of the open window of a brownstone in Milwaukee on one of my walks many years ago now, his face lit up in a smile, just taking in the world.  Or the ravaged inner city of St. Louis, where flowers bloomed amid weeds and rubble --- three-dimensional essays, worlds pleasant and unpleasant and yet not without hope.  As Jacobs says, "Hope comes from knowing that there is a way --- and that we didn't make it.  That is why the road's unexpected turnings need not alarm us; this is why it is possible to enjoy even the unpredictable, whether it comes from without or within."

That observation hints at another virtue to wandering aim-fully: it requires trust in a God who will superintend our wanderings, provided we aim for Him.  Holding lightly to my to-do list, my calendar, and my time requires giving up control --- a control I never really had anyway.  Here's the instructions for such a day, ones I would like to heed more regularly:  Wake up.  Aim for God.  And set out.  Watch what happens.  Keep your eyes open.  Take hold of the unexpected and wrest the good, true, and beautiful from it.

When you wander aim-fully in life as in words, you never know what will happen. But it will make you wonder at a God who is behind every turn in the road, who hems you in at every side, who occupies the interstices of your every lapse in thought --- the Guide for Wayfarers.  May you wander well as you seek Him.

 [After a month off, I am glad to be back to the more regular and aim-ful wandering of this blog.  In the interim, I did redeem the time.  I wandered through various books.  I took walks.  I completed an outline for a book.  I did something.  I also did nothing, you might say, and it was very good. Very good.]

Summer's Promise

IMG_0420 It's finally come.  It's the last minute of the last day of the last period of sixth grade.  While Mrs. Edgerton drones on, we're watching the second hand on the clock, counting down the moments, waiting for the last bell.  When the big hand on the clock is straight up, it happens.  The bell rings.  We run out of the rooms, our teachers' voices of caution ignored, and burst out of the doors of the classroom building.  Free. Summer spreading out in front of us like the Atlantic Ocean.  Full of possibilities, full of promise, and seemingly endless.

But that was then and this is now.  In a do anything anytime all the time kind of world, Summer has lost its distinctiveness.  Heck, some kids go to school most of the Summer.  A full palette of activities await most of them, programming to take the place of school, someone else guiding your imagination.  All those years ago we decided what our day would be.  We dreamed it, and if we could make it happen, we did it.  We woke up with hope, with the promise of a new day, living for that day unaware of even the calendar, of the passage of time, marking the passage of time from breakfast to dinner walking the streets and forests, building forts and tree houses out of scrap wood and tree limbs, playing in the creek, riding the buses all over town just to ride, to see where we could go, making "bombs" out of firecrackers that our resident pryomaniac, Billy Burkholter, always seemed to have an abundant supply of (I don't recommend this, kids), trying once again to get the nerve up and praying please God could this be the day to talk to one of the many girls we came across in our neighborhood travels.  We thought it and we did it, or at least talked about doing it, or at least dreamed we did it, and sometimes in fact do actually do it.  When my mother yelled my name from the back door alerting me to dinner, I came home knowing I had lived that day.

But that was then, and things have changed.  But need they?

Sunday morning I woke up with the crazy thought that Summer has endless possibilities.  I had been viewing it as a string of end to end activities punctuating my otherwise year-round routine of 8 to 5 work. And I wasn't excited about that.  I asked God to give me a big vision for Summer, something like my twelve-year old self had on that last day of school.  I want to wake up and think "I wonder what will happen today.  What can I dream up?  Better yet, what will God do?"  I don't have it quite yet, but I'm asking God for a God-sized vision of my Summer, to show me the possibilities.  

One day in third grade my friend Brian and I lost track of time.  We were walking home from school together, taking our time, talking about important stuff like. . . like. . . well heck, I can't remember now what it was but it had to be really important, you know.  And as we were walking we decided to explore one of those drainage pipes that pass under roads and handle runoff, the big kind, the kind little kids like us can stand up in.  We lost tack of time, worried our mothers to death, walked in a couple hours later almost missing dinner gleeful with the adventure we imagined had taken us into uncharted subterranean territory, that had given us stories that would make us the stuff of legend in our neighborhood.  Only our mothers didn't quite get it, didn't sense what this could mean for us.

I want to lose track of time.  I may have to get in trouble.  Someone may not understand.  I may have to do something spontaneous, like get up in the middle of the night and drive to the Atlantic Ocean in a convertible with the top down and put my feet in the water and drive back home just to say I did and just because I want to.

The clock is ticking.  I'm just waiting for the bell to ring.  When it does I hope I'll run as fast as I did when I was 12, that I'll burst from my routine-laden days and see Summer laid out before me, just like the Atlantic Ocean, and there'll be wonder in my soul once again.

Jesus once said we should only "fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Matt. 10:28).  In Hell tormented people must be slaves of routine, devoid of wonder, taking great care to never, never follow a stray thought, a "what if."  Bureaucrats, that is.  People who can look at a day and not see its possibilities, who have forgotten the meaning of wondrous.  I don't want to be one of them.

One time a friend and I were in Southern California, mixing business and pleasure.  Finding ourselves with some time on our hands one day, we struck out down the PCH, heading south, in search of a classic surfboard maker.  It took a while, but we found his small shop in a town north of San Diego.  It was a long way to go to meet him.  Come to find out, he had died nine years earlier.  We enjoyed letting his son, now in charge, talk about his Dad.  Then we got back in the car and headed back to LA.  That was unplanned and a little ridiculous.  But I won't forget that trip down the PCH, talking to my friend, seeing the ocean at times off to the West, talking to the son of a surf-god, eating tacos at a local restaurant.  It's the stuff of Summer's promise.  It's detours like that that help define us, that remind us of what it means to live and not just exist.

An Alternative Thanksgiving

leaves This Thanksgiving our family opted for an alternative celebration.  Usually, Thanksgiving has followed a familiar routine:  Cook (my wife only), drive 90 minutes, gather with lots of extended family, eat lots of food, sit for another hour or two while the men watch a football game, and drive 90 minutes home.  I enjoy seeing family, but we were in a rut with this routine.  So this year, we left.  We are in Tucson, Arizona, enjoying the sunshine and time with each other.  This is a familiar place to us.  My children have grown up coming here once or twice each year since they were infants.  My wife and I have come here for over 25 years.  While my wife’s father used to have a vacation home here, after he died about 10 years ago, we have continued to come to a place with deep and wide associations for us.  We know the streets, have a church we attend, visit favorite restaurants, take familiar hikes in canyons and on mountains, lament changes, and soak up a place that is radically different than home and, yet, is so like home in its familiarity.

So, how will I celebrate this day?  I hope to do some of these things that I have tried to do in the past.  Maybe you’d like to try some of them too.

Praise God.  Read a Psalm, alone and/or with the family, and spend a few moments in prayer in thankfulness to God.  Psalm 136 is  a good one.  I like taking it and applying it to my own personal history, not just the history of Israel.

Take a walk.  Be thankful for God’s creation.  That’s easy here in Arizona, where the unusual vegetation and mountain landscapes easily call forth praise, but it can happen at home as well.  Find the beauty and provision that is around you, and thank God for it.

Sing.  As I’ve said, Christmas songs are out on Thanksgiving.  Try something like “Be Thou My Vision,” or “What Wondrous Love Is This,” good hymns to set your heart in praise.

Thank God for trouble.  If God works all things for the good of those who love Him, then even our troubles are ultimately for our good.  I don’t mean enjoy trouble, I mean that we simply adopt the perspective of faith, trusting God to bring good out of bad,

Write letters to people to whom you are thankful.  Sure, you could email them, but somehow an email doesn’t have the same weight as a short letter.  The past several Thanksgivings I have selected three people to send a thank you note to --- some from the distant past.  It’s a good remembrance.

Listen to your children.  Because I’m on vacation, I’ve been able to do some of this already, but I find that at such times as these I learn things about my children that I miss at home amid all the distractions.

Read George Washington’s Original Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.  You can find it here. He was told by Congress to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."  Nowadays, we have a lot of vague thanks being given, but little acknowledgement of the Giver of blessing.

In society at large, there is little left to this special day, other than turkey, a vague sense of thanks, and planning for shopping on Black Friday.  But for Christians, it can be different.   Happy Thanksgiving.

A Return

While I have enjoyed the three weeks I have taken off from regular daily posts, the time has also been good for reading and thinking about the blog. First, I've been able to make a number of serious design changes and added a lot of sidebar content. For one thing, I have added to my list of Essential Reading and Essential Listening -- a tough thing to do. I mean, where do you stop? Suffice it to say that these lists are not exhaustive but are an attempt to reflect records that I listen to regularly and books that I have read more than once (or will) and regularly recommend to others.

In addition, I have added secure online ordering for my now defunct record label, Silent Planet Records. You can order the entire back catalog! Each release has a sample track you can listen to right here on the blog. While I have not finished posting all the artists' records, I'll be regularly updating this area over the next couple of weeks. It's good music, and these artists need your support.

Finally, by virtue of Evoca, if you have a microphone equipped computer, you can actually leave a verbal comment for me online. How easy is that? Very. Regardless, I hope you will regularly check out the site an comment. The "Traveler's Guide" post, which is always at top, will clue you in as to what is new.

Thanks for visiting. And stay tuned for my first new post on February 1st.

A Traveler's Guide to OutWalking


Welcome to OutWalking, a likely over-ambitious source of reflection on the true, the good, and the beautiful in the world.  Here you can read posts on books, music, art, and life in general, from the standpoint of one who believes in the true "myth" as told in biblical account of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.  In addition to periodic reflections on faith, art, and life in this area (scroll down for the most recent posts), you'll also find useful content in the sidebars.  You can buy CDs of artists such as Jan Krist and Brooks Williams who were on my now defunct record label, Silent Planet Records.  Or check out what I'm currently listening to or reading, or what I regard as "Essential Reading" or "Essential Listening."  Finally, check out poetry, prose, or essays which I have written, projects I am currently involved in, or explore helpful links to other websites or blogs. 

You can also subscribe to new posts by email and leave written comments to a post or, if you have a microphone-enabled computer you can leave a voice comment via the Evoca link in the sidebar. If you're looking for something and can't find it, explore the posts by category, as listed in the sidebar, or use the search function in the sidebar. If you like the site, I hope you will let me hear from you. Now, enjoy!

Why I Am Outwalking: Some Thoughts on Purpose

Welcome to OutWalking, a likely over-ambitious source of reflection on the true, the good, and the beautiful in the world. Here you can read posts on books, music, art, and life in general, from the standpoint of one who believes in the true "myth" as told in biblical account of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. You can also check out the regularly updated sidebar content.

Presumably, the title to a new blog should reflect something of its author, and so it does.  I liked the phrase "Out Walking" both for its literal meaning (I am a daily walker) and its metaphorical meanings.  To walk is to have some destination and, without sounding too cliche, I believe life is full of purpose, meaning, and ultimately, destination.  Indeed, as a Christian, I like to keep Home in my sights, both the one I came from and the one for which I am destined.  In walking, I also reflect, and pray, and sometimes (when I return), I write, and so you'll find my ruminations, reviews, poems, and essays in the sidebar here.  I find it helpful.  Perhaps you'll find these reflections helpful as well.  Finally, I should say the title is not original but comes from writer John Leax's wonderful book of poetry and essay of the same name.  Walk among his words sometime.

At bottom, this blog then is an extended meditation on God's common grace to the world. I walk in the world looking for what is true, good, and beautiful -- whatever the source. In fact, my eyes are wide open to it. Along the way I'll see the false, the bad, and the ugly. Discernment will be called for, but I'd rather walk in this way than be clositered away in a ghetto of supposed safety. This is my task: to walk wisely in the book of this world guided by Scripture, with eyes fixed on the Author and Perfecter of my faith and, in fact, of this world. Home is in my sights, a recreated world full of only the true, the good, and the beautiful. [The author of Outwalking is Steve West. Steve is a published poet and essayist, former editor of ProCreation: A Journal of Truthtelling in Poetry and Prose, founder and President of Silent Planet Records and The Pop Collective (a power-pop record label), and a principal in Stone Table Media, which develops audio biographies and incidental radio shows (including, most lately, one on Ruth Bell Graham). To pay the bills, he practices law.]