Saturday, June 28, 2008

Living in Me, Even if I no Longer Live in It...

It is the places that come most sentimentally to mind. Even though it was my third return address, it has nonetheless been "where I'm from." And the landmarks through the years are what surface in my memory. There is the corner display window at the old Thornton's Department Store at 4th and Oak that was a mandatory field trip every Christmas season to see the fabulous holiday display. There is likewise Minter's Department Store downtown with its pneumatic tubes whooshing cash from sales far away somewhere into the recesses of the building and whooshing receipts back to the clerk and the customer. There is "Hombre", the first hair salon I frequented after "graduating" from the common barber shops. There is "Bud's Duds"that carried the cool clothes when I was a young teen, and later "Jeffrey's Village Peddler" that specialized in more sophisticated, gentleman's clothes I loved when I and my tastes matured. It always impressed me that the sales staff remembered my named and my size whenever I returned home throughout college -- until my size kept changing.

I picture the streets and neighborhoods through which I drove the ice cream cart, bell clanging and kids chasing and me grinning with the sales. I think of Old Abilene Town, the recreated historical village on the outskirts of town, and the artificial beach and "ocean" someone created out by the zoo.

I can still feel the rush of jumping off the high diving board at the Abilene Swim Club, and if I listen carefully I can hear the sounds of David and me singing and playing guitars at La Hacienda, the Mexican restaurant owned by the father of a friend where we worked on Friday and Saturday nights for $10 apiece, dinner, and tips (of which there were rarely any).

I remember the drive-in movie theatre on the north side of town where the bell choir friends would go for entertainment in the summer, and Rose Park Tennis Center where I lived most summer afternoons. "Saddle and Sirloin" was the place for a late night burger, and the thought of "Tony's Pizza Cave" still makes me smile.

I picture the walk to Austin Elementary School, and the halls of Madison Junior High, and the choir and drama and speech rooms at Cooper High School, and the auditorium there where the plays were performed and the talent shows were held, and where, in the lobby, my picture now hangs in the "Hall of Fame" for reasons I still don't understand.

There aren't enough words to capture the memories of the church -- the classrooms, the fellowship hall, the choir room, and the silencing, grounding awe I felt slipping into the back row of the empty sanctuary at night with the communion table glowing the only light.

And the house. Of course the house -- the garage where countless pool and ping pong games were played; the big back yard where football games competed with fruit trees; the living room anchored by the piano, and the den that was the intersection of life; my room that always felt like sanctuary, and Craig's room where the various teenaged rock bands always rehearsed.

There are people, of course -- directories full of them; teachers, mentors, neighbors, friends -- but now that my parents are moving from the house and the city that for better than 40 years has been home, it is the places that come to mind. The people, themselves, like me have changed and even moved, and there is a fluidity to relationships I take in stride. But this is the phone number, the address and zip code that for the better part of my life has been "home." These are the fence posts to which my kite string has been tied.

I am happy that my parents are moving -- it is simpler, wiser, more practically sound. I support it -- indeed encouraged it -- and I am proud of them for making the move. It isn't easy to uproot after so many years in the same ground, but they are doing it; and with a lot of hard physical and emotional work, the day is almost at hand. I'm happy for them, and proud of them.

But it's hard to cut the string that connects all of us to home. Not sad so much as sentimental. The city limits of Abilene, Texas have been the crucible of our lives, our memories. How many meals have we eaten there? How many nights' sleep? How many tears have been shed there, and how many lessons learned? How many stories have been lived there -- how many chapters written?

Countless. It has been a good place to call home, and though our visits there will be far more unpredictable now, "home" I'm guessing it will continue to be.

Thank you, Abilene, for grounding me, raising me, sheltering us all, and embracing us; thank you for encouraging us, shaping us, forgiving us, and befriending us. And thank you for coming with me... my soul.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

An Evening Six Months in the Making -- and Worth the Wait

We had been looking forward to the concert since the winter evening in Vermont when, while sitting by the fireplace awaiting the New Year, we emailed our interest in booking a date. Six months later, this past Sunday night, that date finally arrived.

We had heard singer/songwriter Peter Mayer earlier in December at a church in Ames and thought he would be perfect for our setting. As I introduced him to the gathered crowd, I observed that Peter is "a person who looks at the world and sees something as small as a hat and as large as the universe through which the earth sails like a 'blue boat home'; as concrete as a piece of rhubarb and apple pie lovingly baked for a church bazaar and eagerly bought and consumed, and as abstract as a river that is the God who sweeps through all there is, into which swimmers are invited to wade and 'let go'; as old as the buffalo running and as new as "string theory." He is a person who refuses to take life too seriously, and yet -- or perhaps because -- he sees view everything as holy."

And that's the way the evening felt: holy, without being heavy. As one friend described the experience at intermission, "one minute I'm crying; the next I'm laughing; the next I'm just shaking my head." Peter and his music are as expansive as they are hospitable. We left, for example, not having any clear idea how he felt about the war or which political candidate has his vote, but clear about the capacity of his heart and soul. He gave the audience room to be what they are, at the same time inviting us to imagine more -- offering, among other things, the intriguing image of a birthday party attended by Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Abraham and more -- "And they all toasted Jesus, born in a stable. Then Jesus said “hey, let’s not be such strangers.” It was a delight to be enlarged without being being yanked. We dreamed together of spending a day in our pajamas -- Scooby Doo bottoms and Sponge Bob top -- and we stood musically in awe of "a little red-winged bird, shining like a burning bush, singing like a scripture verse."

And then, having indeed laughed and cried and wondered and dreamed, we went home -- smiling, humming, and (though I can only speak for myself) still dreaming and deeply hoping...
...that the human community can be a more hospital lot;
...that earth can be walked "with a more reverent air";
...that instead of clinging so desperately to the rocks, I might let go and swim in the current of God;
...and that more people will start wearing hats.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Both/And of Living High

Capricious. I'm talking about myself, of course. Our townhome sits high on a rise, facing north across the city. Our windows look out into the fullness of surrounding trees -- above more than a few of them. The skyline unfolds across the way, and when the trees are not in full leaf we can look across the way and see the nearby lake. It's beautiful, the view.

But several times each winter, when the freezing rain and compacted snow makes of it a ski run, I curse the altitude and the sloping road that climbs it. After sliding my way back down the hill and claiming a parking space in the church lot a block away, I mutter profanity beneath my breath every slogging footstep up the hill. It inevitably happens just after I have been to the grocery store and I have a car full of sacks to lug up with me. On those nights I loathe our hillside perch. Who thought living here would be a good idea?

But this week the landscape below us is flooding -- that scenic lake and the rivers that feed it have become voracious beasts consuming more and more of the real estate around them. Roads are closed. Downtown has been evacuated. Homes are damaged. Sandbags barricade countless openings. Routes and routines are sorely disrupted. Farms are destroyed.

Meanwhile, we live high above it all; far above the standing water and the currents and the damage. Winter's sliding long forgiven and forgotten, what a wonderful place to live! Who had the brilliance of forethought to live here?

As I say, capricious. Enjoy and appreciate it now. It will offer something to remember next winter.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Cloying Silence of Powerlessness

The news helicopter hung overhead, staring – suspended; paralyzed in mid-air as though hypnotized by the inundation. The major thoroughfare below, threatened and narrowed for days, was finally overtaken. The river had steadily risen and swelled over the past week, creeping inexorably up to and then over its banks, spilling first over the walking path before climbing, Sunday evening, up the rise and over the street. The barricades were assembled, detours directed, and police officers positioned. The water level at the reservoir north of town continues to rise. The rivers into town continue to bloat. The currents, gathering momentum like an urban mob, rage and rip and smother and uproot. Bridges downtown have been closed, and a kind of frenetic stillness settles upon the city, as though we are holding our breath. And overhead, the helicopter – mirroring the rest of us – simply hangs there; staring; filming perhaps, for there is little else to do.

There is a sense of powerlessness that meets the rising river levels. Sure, there are sandbags to fill and lug and stack in prayerfully strategic locations; there are jugs of water to stockpile and pantry staples to gather…just in case. There are basement boxes to elevate and alternate routes to anticipate. But while they are important precautions, they are finally impotent gestures designed to cope. They will not, we know, influence the outcome. The water rises, just as the wind blows, as it wills.

Though we have endured flooding before, we will never get used to its humbling force. Perhaps we are genetically incapable of psychologically accommodating impotence. We are wired to imagine and invent and engineer our way into control, and then lull ourselves into believing we have accomplished it.

Perhaps that is why we now find ourselves simply hovering overhead – staring; mutely and tragically awed by the raging and irrefutable demonstration of the fact that we haven’t. I suspect we will never make peace with our own vulnerability, or our inability to finally and successfully engineer our way out of it.

Mortality, all the sandbags in the world notwithstanding, can be the pits.

The water levels are still rising, it’s raining again, and who knows when the roads may reopen – or what, when they do, what we will drive along them to find.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The End of Life As We Know It

Surely these are signs – if not of The End, at least the end of life as we know it. Two stories reported this week in The Wall Street Journal signal such a shift. One noted the anticipated quiet death of the Men’s Dress Furnishings Association, the trade group representing American tie makers. Why would such a venerable organization limp into an organizational grave? Fewer and fewer people are wearing ties. The article pointed out the dwindling membership – from 120 manufacturers in the 1980’s to a current 25. When even the manufacturers of ties can’t work up enough enthusiasm to attempt promotion, the outlook for this staple of sartorial brilliance seems grim. I haven’t been blind to the changes. Churches, once the reliable show window of neckwear each week, have grown more and more casual. And “business casual” policies have unbuttoned shirt collars in cubicles across the country. Alas, even I – who finds little quite as joyous as ordering a new bowtie from my specialty supplier in Vermont – have come to work today in a knit crew neck shirt.

And if men are abandoning their necks, women are doing the same with their legs. The Wall Street Journal reports today that pantyhose are likewise going the way of the dinosaur. Businesses are relaxing their dress codes for women as well as men, and hose have been the first to go. “Younger women don’t even think about pantyhose,” observes Kathy Garland of the Northern Dallas area for the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Ties, pantyhose, and now garbage. U.S.A. Today recently chronicled the crisis stifling the residents of Naples, Italy where full landfills and inadequate incinerators are resulting in the crushing and suffocating accumulation of garbage in the streets – at a rate of 5 tons a minute. I know that sounds impossible, but I’m looking at the article and that is what it says: five tons a minute. In the weeks since this story first appeared, a German company has seen in Naples’ garbage a potential goldmine, and has entered into an agreement to receive and incinerate massive shipments of this precious Italian refuse…for a price.

So there you have it. Once the world created art and invented technologies and shared precious gems and engaged in worldly conversations with dignity. Now we are producing and exporting and importing garbage – at least some of which no doubt includes discarded ties and pantyhose. Is there a connection? I doubt it. But who knows? To paraphrase that great theologian Forrest Gump, “Pretty is as pretty does.”

Surrounded by garbage and looking, well, “casual,” I’m thinking there still might be time today to go home and put on a tie.

Monday, June 2, 2008

When a Favorite Son Disowns His Spiritual Family

I wish I knew. Perhaps my "not knowing" betrays the scent of cynicism that has come to smother all my objectivity with the political process and mind. Over the weekend it was announced that Presidential candidate Barack Obama had severed his ties with the faith community of which he has been a member for 20 years in the wake of ongoing pulpit "embarrassments." First it was the pastor who has stood in that pulpit all these years. More recently it was a guest preacher who faux pas-ed his way into public dismay. If the former became a political embarrassment, the latter was a political offense. And so, according to the news reports, Obama broke away.

Of course there are several things I wish I knew about the events. I wish I knew how accurately the reasons have been reported. Initially there was some hint that Obama's decision was intended to help protect the church from further distraction. I wish I knew whether the action was respecting the church or himself.

But assuming the latter, I wish I knew if the church and its preachers had become a theological adversary, espousing a viewpoint he could no longer support or want his name associated with, or merely a political liability, a hassle strategically and summarily dispatched. I don't really know what difference the answer would make to me. Leaving, after all, is leaving and generally carries some measure of grief. I would simply like to know where the grief falls -- grief over the loss of church that has philosophically deserted him for a path down which he simply can't follow, or grief over the loss of a church that, for reasons of expedience, he must himself desert.

I admit to a total lack of objectivity on this subject. From a preacher's point of view the loss of a member is always an occasion of grief. A person's relationship with a church is something similar to a marriage, and divorce is never trivial or painless. Never. Heap on top of that the need most preachers have for validation, and "vote against" represented by every such departure.

I'll never likely know the details. Perhaps, then, it is enough to simply grieve along with those most principally involved -- a person and his family suddenly deprived of the faith community that has been the spiritual water in which they have swam, and the congregation that must suddenly feel like an amputee...or worse, like a crestfallen spouse who has just heard the wounding declaration, "I just don't love you anymore."

Grief, indeed, for them all.