Tuesday, December 29, 2009

One More Blessing to Count

I still cry -- or perhaps tears have only recently come. It isn't so much the story line of the movie as it is its part in the story line of my life. At least that's all I can guess. I don't know how many times I have watched White Christmas, but knowing that it was released in 1954 and I was born in 1956, suffice it to say that I have been watching it forever. I'm not sure my brother was ever that enthralled by it, but I remember watching it with my parents year after year back in those days when it aired during prime time. Later, during a span when broadcasters apparently saw it as more quaint than relevant, I crept out of bed to watch it during the wee hours of the night long after my parents had gone to bed. I can remember stoking the still-red coals in the fireplace into fresh flame and adding a new log or two, and nestling down in front of the hearth with a pillow and a blanket, humming along while Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney sang about their lives as Sisters, Danny Kaye observed how The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing, Rosemary lamented how Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me, and Bing Crosby evoked snow almost by magic out of a dry Vermont Christmas Eve singing White Christmas.

I'm sure there have been years when I somehow managed to miss it -- or inexplicably neglected to make time for it -- but those years have been few. Indeed, it was the allure of this movie that that sowed the seeds of intrigue leading to my choice of Vermont for the destination of our honeymoon some 12 years ago. By now we have even managed to watch the movie in Vermont more times than one. "Snow, snow, snow, snow...it won't be long until we'll all be there with snow..."

And so it was that we set aside the time yesterday to slide in the DVD and settle in for the annual experience. It felt like a double delight since we opted to stay home this holiday season. Our own private cinematic taste of Vermont -- the holiday holy land for us far moreso than the North Pole. And true to form, as soon as the General -- against his will -- descended the steps in his uniform for the grand finale of the show, tears starting streaming down my face.

As I say, it's not so much because the show is that touching. Sure, it's warm and tender and touching in many ways, but by now I know most of the lines and the songs by heart. There is even one less desirable one that, through the gift of digital tracking, I now choose to skip right over. If it were the movie alone, its capacity to "touch" surely would have long since worn off.

No, I think the tears have more to do with the thread this single movie weaves throughout the entirety of my life. I can't think of much else -- if anything -- that has endured with me from my very beginning. Year after year, in one location or another; broadcast, videotape, and now DVD; always and reliably there, since I myself was a child on through the time when I had children of my own and now that they are grown. Bing and Danny and Vera and Rosemary have become almost family -- no, more like organs of my body --and this song something like the beat of my heart.

It is, I suppose, simple nostalgia, but it feels like more than that -- a touchstone, perhaps, somehow recalling everywhere I've been, how I peculiarly dream, and who I uniquely am. And I am grateful for it...

...One more blessing to count, in those worrisome nights when I can't sleep, instead of sheep.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter

As soon as she tentatively pulled open the door, stuck her head inside and asked if we were still having a Christmas Eve service I knew I was glad we hadn't canceled. Many churches -- maybe even most -- had assessed the assembling storm and with a nod to precaution opted to remain dark. It isn't an easy choice, and my decision to move ahead had less to do with machismo than sentimental stubbornness. It's certainly true that a candlelight Christmas Eve service isn't required to celebrate Christmas, it was hard for me to imagine not having one. Moreover, I tend to rely on an individual's innate sense of self-preservation in these things. If you don't feel safe venturing out, don't. If your streets are not passable, nestle in at home without apology. Meanwhile, I hate to think that someone who has gone to the trouble to attend arrives to find the door locked. And so it was that the lights were on on Christmas Eve -- along with the heater -- the story was retold, and the candles were lit.

In reality, the 5:30 service was not a problem. Temperatures remained above freezing, and the streets were slushy but little else. A sizable crowd gathered, worshiped, and returned home with only minor challenge. It was the 11 pm service that was the issue. Snow, by early evening, was falling steadily, and temperatures were falling. How much and how low were anybody's guess, but suffice it to say that we would not have to merely dream of a "white Christmas;" we were having one. Whether, though, because of foolhardiness or tenacity or simple inertia that never made the call, the service would not be canceled.

And so it was that by 10:30 pm the staff had assembled in the narthex, preparations made, bulletins and candles readied, wondering if anyone would appear. That's when the car pulled under the portico and waited while the young woman in the passenger seat stepped inside to inquire of our plans. She was eventually joined by her husband who, upon confirmation, went on to park the car, and a handful of others -- virtually all of them strangers -- who drifted in with
the same hopeful query. "Are you still having a service?"

We were only a few who listened, then, to the scriptures and sung again the carols -- a dozen or so at most in addition to those of us obligated to be there; an intimate circle who clustered around the communion table and, with the taste of bread and wine fresh on our lips, marveled again at the wonder of the Christly light shining on inextinguishably in the darkness through the glow of our own flickering little candles, and sang -- lustily, I might say, for such a tiny little group -- of that "silent night" when all was calm, all was bright. And when the last of the verses was sung, and the closing words were spoken, we hung there in almost suspended animation -- a circle of strangers somehow bonded by the intimacy of this transfixing moment; hushed, held, warmed, awed.

"Merry Christmas," I whispered.
"Merry Christmas," they replied in an equally breathless voice.

And finally, silently, the circle slowly melted and the tiny congregation dispersed; down the aisle and out, once more, into the snowy cold. Changed. Awakened in a way that, in some profound sense, was itself incarnational.

Unplugging the Christmas trees and the balcony garlands, gathering up the offering , turning off the lights and locking the door, I crunched my way across the parking lot to the car, changed in a way myself.

And snowstorm notwithstanding, profoundly glad we hadn't called it off.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

With Monitor Lights for Candles

It's Christmas Eve, complete with holiday tunes on the iPod docked with the Bose. It's been running through the playlist I created throughout the darkened hours. Outside, the weather is blustery winter with more snow forecast for tonight. Presumably the malls will be busy today with last minute rushes; but that kind of activity is still hours away. It's early yet, though we have been stirring for hours -- all through the night in fact. Hardly an environment for restful sleep, the hospital room is a cacophonic symphony of beeps and alarms sensitive to every twist, turn, and empty bag. And the traffic! Those mall parking lots have nothing on this bedside intersection. Blood pressure, temperature, meds and lab techs. Blood has already been drawn this morning -- a visitation that doesn't invite restful sleep.

That said, it has all been something close to angel visitation. Kindnesses extended; calming voices; gentle touches, helpful responses; reassuring encouragements -- from volunteers, nurses, chaplain, nursing assistants, friends and even those dreaded lab techs. And doctors, of course. Gentle, kind, affirmational and informational; indulgent but firm. The words may not have literally been "fear not" but the implication has been the same. And if "tidings of great joy" might be stretching things a bit, "tidings of great promise" surely describe the hope for days ahead as a result of Lori's new hip.

And so it isn't the typical Christmas Eve whose sun will be rising in the next couple of hours, but one filled appreciatively with "good news". And if titanium and ceramic and plastic are not the common gifts beneath the tree, they are certainly welcomed ones this year, accompanied by dreams of hikes around the lake and through the woods -- and simply an easier time getting in and out of chairs.

"Angels We Have Heard On High" drifts out of the stereo, and as if on cue, one has returned to the bedside, keeping watch; checking monitors and tubes. Lori has drifted back to sleep. Despite the morning traffic picking up in the hallway beyond the door, I think I'll drift back that way myself.

"Sleep in heavenly peace."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Whatever is boxed and wrapped

"Somehow, we've allowed the success or failure of the Christmas season to be judged by the volume of retail sales, and this looks to be another down year. We've allowed our whole economy to become 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, of which Christmas sales are the make-or-break component. Not good. An economy that is over-reliant on consumer spending is a sick economy" (Richard Doak, retired Editor of the Des Moines Register).
He said other things, of course, in his guest editorial printed in yesterday's paper, but something about those particular lines made an impact on me. Our assessment criteria
have become skewed. I understand that stores need such comparisons and calibrations. They are in business to make a profit, not make sentiment -- not that their means to making a profit can't coincide with someone else's path to creating sentiment. Someone, after all, sold the cloth that became the quilt that became the family heirloom. Someone, after all, sold the
birthstones that were set into a ring that was sold by someone else that was subsequently sold by still another to a couple of kids and their father that became the mother's prized possession.

No, the two are not mutually exclusive; it's just that neither are they necessarily synonymous in the way we have fallen into behaving. "Christmas spirit" has always had more to do with the reasons behind and
associations around a gift, than with the gift itself.

Perhaps this is all self-
protection -- inoculating myself against any possible disappointment on the part of recipients opening gifts that I have been a part of giving. It is that week, after all -- and in our family's case, it is "that night." Tonight the chairs will be
crowded around
our tree, one of the several iPod Christmas playlists will be offering background soundtrack to the festivities, and before long, the floor will be littered with paper and ribbons. And we will all, I suspect, be feeling the pressure. "Will it all
be special enough?"

If I have an ounce of sense and mental presence during all these festivities, I'll remember to look up into the tree. Amidst the miniature lights hang an enormous diversity of ornaments -- some whimsical, like the miniature jug of Vermont maple syrup, the tiny replica of Barrington and the miniature sock monkey that
reminds me of my Grandmother; some quite expensive, like the hand-blown Italian glass balls and the sterling silver reindeer. And while Lori would no doubt make a different selection, the most valuable of them all, as far as I'm concerned, is the scissored and folded Santa made out of construction paper and glued-on cotton balls that I made as a child and presented to my parents. All these years it
has hung on their Christmas tree until making its way back into my hands a Christmas or two ago. From an economic stand point it would hardly register on any scale. A penny it might be worth -- if that; which is to put in negative terms what just as well could be positive: it is priceless. Who, after all, could assess the value of their knowing how much I had labored over the cutting and the folding and the gluing
and drawing with only them in mind? And who could possibly calculate the value to me -- and according to what conceivable currency -- all these decades later to receive it back in the knowledge that they had kept it, displayed it, preserved it, and enjoyed the memories attached to it? To be sure, the Santa is a little worse for all the years and all the wire ornament hangers that have
tried to keep it on a branch; but as far as I'm concerned it could hardly be more perfect.

If I am paying attention at all tonight amidst the laughter and the chatter and the expressions of appreciation -- if I feel even a nano-second of apprehension -- I'll think to look for construction paper Santa up
among our branches and remember that what is going on right that very moment -- our very presence in each other's keeping, those voices, the memories we are making, the intentional choice to be together in the face of countless alternatives, and the implied desire to please as a reflection of deep fondness and profound love -- is the most important measure of Christmas this year.

The retailers, without doubt, will have played some part in it, and if we have helped to make their Christmas brighter, good. I'm glad we could help. But their's will be the smallest part -- akin to the part that a match plays in a 4th of July grand finale. Whatever winds up in the boxes and bags, we will be enjoying the smiles and the affections and the circumstances and the ties that bond us all together, and the mystic, perhaps inarticulate sense that it all finds its context in a love infinitely larger than our own -- the real colors and fireworks of Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Dangerous, Yet Twinkling Affirmation

Make no mistake, the wind made it dangerous. With single-digit temperatures and 50-mile-per-hour winds beating those down into the sub-zero range while sending the 15-inches of snow airborne, the day was unarguably treacherous. The air in front of your eyes was almost as white as the ground beneath your feet. I haven’t been in many blizzards since living in Iowa, but this storm surely qualified. Even Barrington, who usually loves cold temperatures and dolphining his way across snow covered lawns, was reticent to go out. We left the house only once and even then merely to walk him a bit up the cul-de-sac. Layered and bundled unrecognizably beneath polypropylene and cotton and goose-down, booted and hooded and gloved, we ventured out mid-afternoon for what turned out to be a very short expedition. Neither we nor Barrington found the effort sustainable. We retreated back indoors to the sofa in front of the fire. We weren’t alone. No newspaper was delivered, nor any mail despite the historic promise that "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." No one could blame them – nor were they alone. The roads were utterly abandoned as even the most intrepid sought refuge indoors. Make no mistake, then, the wind made it dangerous and treacherous.

But the winds also made it beautiful. The sidewalk leading to our front door looked, for all the world, like an albino Arizona – gentle layers of wind-swept desert, albeit snow instead of sand. All that was missing was a white saguaro cactus for accent. By contrast, outside our dining room window in the courtyard between townhomes, the snow was whipped up into shoulder high peaks of firm meringue. Somehow, and in apparent disregard for the laws of physics, snow accumulated atop the deck railing despite the wind, sliced into oversized muffins by the warmth of the rope lights wrapped around the wood.

And the trees. We thought all day of December in Vermont. How can evergreen boughs support such loads? How is it possible, as was true of the small potted tree on the sidewalk, for snow to completely encase the branches to the extent that branches are no longer in evidence, leaving only a general pyramidal shape perched on a pot? And how is it possible that, despite the frosty and complete coverage; despite the thick and obscuring veil, when evening came and the timer switched on, the lights on those trees still twinkled...





Perhaps it was simply to confirm to us who had huddled inside that despite the treacherous wind, despite the bitter cold, despite the blanketing snow, “the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ready and Waiting from the 8th Row

You could, I suppose, trace the story back to my mother. There was a time, back in the pre-history of my life, when I was required to take piano lessons. I recognize that I was not alone in that duress. Countless piano teachers through the years have tapped out rhythms beside and corrected notes on behalf of countless disinterested children who begrudgingly pounded out notes at their weekly lesson while a football that desperately needed throwing or a tennis racket that desperately needed swinging sat idly by in the closet. I'm told that scientific studies have revealed a microscopic, statistically insignificant number of kids who actually enjoyed the metronomic sadism, but I think that's probably an anomaly.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my teachers -- Mrs. Newman, who was a far too delightful of a woman to be subjected to the disinterest of people like me; Mr. Petty, who was nice enough to pick me up at some terrible hour of the morning before school and drive me to the studio. I won't hold it against him that he invariably expected me to actually practice in-between lessons, especially when the assignment was some "sonata" or "concertina" (you should have heard the sneer with which I could say those words!). Mrs. Newman, at least, had assigned me peppy little things like "Aqua Caliente."

No, it wasn't dislike of my teachers; nor was it, I suppose, any particular or focused distaste on the instrument, itself. Piano was abhorred more for the preferable alternatives it displaced than for its intrinsic revulsion. I'll never forget -- and indeed I make this claim quite literally -- the weekly experience of leaving track workouts early in order to get to a piano lesson. I could feel the derisive stares of my teammates burning a piano shaped hole in the back of my head.

So it was in the context of this resistance that my Mother, hoping to mitigate the damage, offered to buy me whatever music I wanted, in the prescient hope that if I liked what I was playing...I would actually play. Caldwell Music Company downtown had a great pop music section, and every now and then I would find a way to get there -- of my own free will -- and browse the racks.

I was recalling these experiences again last night as we enjoyed our way through the Jackson Browne solo acoustic concert at the Civic Center -- because Jackson Browne music was a frequent purchase. I have by now lost count of how many times I have heard him in concert -- with a band numerous times; by himself, now, a couple. He has been at it so long, and has written so many memorable songs, that who can blame him that, as he mentioned at one point early in the show, that he doesn't really make a set list; he just plays what he feels like and what people want to hear. So, he would study his rack of 16 guitars and pull out one that apparently represented a given song and pick his way into the music; or discern a single title from the assault of requests shouted out from the audience and move in that direction; or sit down at the keyboard and plunk his way into another.

And as if it were yesterday I remember pounding out most of these same songs -- actually practicing them -- in the fantasy that one day, just maybe, Jackson Browne would be passing through the area and something like a guitar case would slam on his hands rendering him unable to play, and a cry would go up to the masses, "Is there anybody out there who can possibly perform these songs." And I would be ready. I always pictured it something like the Prophet Isaiah's response to the call in the Bible: "Here I am, send me."

And I was ready last night. Sure, I would have been a little rusty, but I could have pulled it off had the need arisen. Like riding a bicycle, you never quite lose the feel of Doctor My Eyes, Running on Empty, and The Pretender. And the audience -- virtually a full house of cheering, adoring and appreciative fans -- would have had my Mother to thank.

Me, too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Already Missing Monk

It feels a little like a close friend has died -- except that he actually lived. Friday night aired the final episode of the television series Monk, a show we have watched more or less reliably since its first obsessive episode; earlier, in fact, since watching the pilot episode after the fact on video. We have chuckled at his idiosyncrasies and and marveled at his Sherlock Holmes-like powers of discernment. Over the seasons -- 8 now, if I am counting correctly -- we have fallen in love with this tragically wounded, deeply flawed, and wonderfully endearing character, perhaps because those adjectives so honestly describe and remind us, to a lessor or greater extent, of just about everyone we have ever met. There is something to be said for a guy who can annoy, amuse, amaze, endear, intrigue and entertain all at the same time.

And suddenly, Friday night, in the second of a two-part final episode, and after successfully surviving yet another close brush with death that, before it was all over, managed to resolve all the unanswered mysteries that had provided much of the animating tension of the show through the years, the series faded to black. It's not, of course, like the show will actually go away. Monk will no doubt live on in perpetuity through syndication -- and in the videos of the seasons we have purchased and pop into the player from time to time. But somehow it's not the same. A bit like thumbing through old photo albums of trips you once took, it's nice but not quite the same as taking new ones.

Under the circumstances, it will have to do -- that, and noticing and enjoying the "inner Monk" coming out in friends and family, each other...

...and ourselves.

In the meantime,
"You better pay attention
Or this world we love so much
might just kill you

I could be wrong now,
but I don't think so

It's a jungle out there."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Considering the Great Beyond

It wasn't the first time I had received such a call, and though something tells me I should take it as a compliment, it nonetheless always makes me flinch. "I'm working with a family who doesn't want anything real religious," the funeral director said; "I thought of you." While it may not be the noblest epitaph for a minister -- "Clergyman to the Non-believers" -- I do believe that everyone deserves a send-off, so I suppose I am a sucker for such requests. I wrote down the name and number and promised to be in touch.

As I mentioned, it wasn't the first time I had worked with a family with these presenting issues. In those other cases, however, all the cautionary prerequisite has really turned out to mean is that the family didn't want something crammed down their throats -- an altar call or hellfire and brimstone or some similar assault of religion at its most intrusive. "But sure," they would eventually suggest, and after I had apparently alleviated their concerns, "a prayer and some scripture would be nice."

Not this time. They were hardly militant about it -- excruciatingly kind, and almost apologetic, they were simply trying to be authentic to their life perspective and experience. Religion had played no significant part in their life together thus far; it seemed to them artificial to tack on a prayer here at the end. As I say, it was a choice born not out of animosity toward religion, but out of integrity with themselves, and since I, too, have some interest in integrity, I acquiescently -- if slowly -- set myself to work.

It was, however, precisely that matter of mutual integrity that created for me some problems. What, after all, is a preacher to say in a funeral that honors theirs while not abrogating mine? There is, after all, already too much syrupy inanity dished out in the name of comfort, and I had no interest in adding to such abundance. Precious little even of that, moreover, has any relevance in a context devoid of theological referents. Exactly what, for example, would the old chestnut, "she has gone to a better place", mean to a person without a concept of heaven? What, I wondered, is the secular equivalent of "God be with you?" And then beyond the funeral, itself, what is there to say at the graveside? How does one speak comfort and completion and ultimately farewell outside the promises of faith? Even the familiar benediction -- "The Lord bless you and keep you..." -- suddenly sounded like a party crasher.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how theologically ordered I am -- how many of the framing 2 X 4's in my interpretive structure of reality are religious principle and tenet and belief. Withdrawing each one discovered in the process of writing the funeral felt, in a way, like the old game of "Pick Up Sticks" -- wondering, with every one, which would send the whole structure crashing.

An interesting and stretching challenge, then. And so it was that with no small measure of relief and apprehension I finally pressed "Print" and nervously gathered up the papers before hustling over to the funeral home where the family and a full house of guests were waiting.

Since funerals, at least by my calculation, are highly personal, very much in the present, and therefore not particularly portable, I'll spare you the details -- except to report that the family seemed happy, satisfied and appreciative that their wishes were honored and their loved one appropriately feted. One who had been less directly involved in the planning even pulled me aside afterward to clarify that in his own life he had come to a different place in his beliefs, and that he had appreciated the couple of places I had "slipped in" some references to the Divine. While it hadn't been my intent to be surreptitious, I'm glad that he, too, heard something that was helpful.

For my part, I drove away from the graveside grateful that I had been privileged to connect with another interesting family, humbled that I had managed in some way to serve them in a breathtakingly poignant moment, and appreciative of this opportunity that had stretched both them and me into more deliberate reflection and consideration on what is true in a way that is larger than ourselves; what is comforting and grounding and orienting for any circumstances, but especially such as these; and the many places where people of differing views can stand compassionately and supportively together.

For the record, though, when the time comes to plan my service, feel free to say whatever you need to say about me, but then move quickly on to read some scriptures -- maybe even sing a hymn or two -- and above all, pray, knowing that the practice would mean something to me and, more importantly according to my belief system, to the one who first sent me out and is even at that moment welcoming me home.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Readying the Wait

So, on the way out of Minneapolis Friday -- "Black Friday" -- we made a quick stop by the "Mega-Mall" -- the Taj Mahal of merchandise, the St. Peter's of purchasing. Of course, a "quick trip" to the Mall of America on Black Friday is relative. It took us awhile to park, finally sliding into a berth on the seventh floor of the west parking ramp -- not to be confused, of course, with the north or south or east or "remote" ramps (again, "remote" being a relative term, essentially meaning "still within the state of Minnesota"). We were only headed to one store, in search of one thing, so apart from threading our way through the throngs and dodging clerks carrying boxes stacked too high to see over, it was a fairly simple excursion.

Arriving home a few hours and several dozen Christmas tunes later and, among other obligations, dragging out boxes of decorations and accomplishing a few more shopping errands, the lights are now strung, the tree is up, the knick knacks of the season are finding their way around the house and the Christmas letter is conceived, if not quite composed. I can't quite say that the "stockings are hung by the chimney with care," but by nightfall it all should be accomplished.

Then what?

Then, I suppose -- as the season of Advent suggests -- we wait. Wait, to be sure, but perhaps more accurately we watch...for glimpses of the holy we might happen to see. Unlike previous years our calendars anticipate a season reasonably paced, with an appealing handful of holiday events -- a party here, some concerts there -- seasoning a surprising number of quieter, breathable days.

The iPod holiday playlists are ready with a mix of quiet, boisterous, new, traditional, and even a handful of funny songs. The lights are twinkling. The temperatures are dropping. Scents of cinnamon and cider and nutmegged nog and evergreen are wafting. And the Story is beginning to evoke again deeper hopes; more poignant longings.

Who knows, then, what we may see in the coming days; and hear?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Feel A Poem Coming On

Somewhere deep in a memorabilia box is a chin strap -- from a player whose name was something like Lynsey Cole. I think he was a wide receiver, but that was a long time ago when I bummed it off the sweaty player after the game was over. I don't know if kids do that anymore, but it used to be a big deal -- conning a chin strap from a football hero. And Cole -- or whatever his name was -- was the closest thing I had at the time to a hero on the TCU football team. I have been a TCU fan for as long as I can remember. The only thing I can't remember is ever having much reason to be. I grew up hearing stories about the Hornfrogs' storied past -- "Slingin'" Sammi Baugh, Davey O'Brien, a Heisman Trophy and a National Championship -- but by the time I was conscious of such things those photographs had yellowed. By the time I was a student there, the football team was terrible. We used to count it a moral victory every time "we" kept our opponent below triple digits.

Nonetheless, I was a fan. As a kid I would even be inspired -- in the occasional victory and certainly in their frequent defeats -- to write adoring, even passionate poetry. It was terrible, of course -- predictable lines with wincing rhymes the likes of Edgar A Guest -- but it was heartfelt. Even in the sewer seasons -- decades -- I have been loyal, if less and less attentive, fan. I haven't written a poem in years.

All of which makes the Hornfrogs' national attention this season all the sweeter. To be sure, they have improved in recent years, becoming almost regular post-season bowl contestants. If some of those appearances have been at such celebrated venues as the Scranton Sauerkraut Bowl, well, at least they have been televised. Somewhere. At some hour.

But this year! Wow! Undefeated. Ranked #4 behind such storied teams as Florida, Alabama and Texas and touted not only as a major bowl candidate but even as conceivable, albeit unlikely, national champions. It all seems unreal -- surreal. We long-time fans have become so proficient at keeping stiff upper lips that we have to remind ourselves -- and give ourselves conscious permission -- to smile. Sure, there are two games left in the season, both against doormat teams; but of course those are the most dangerous kind. It's easy, as my old junior high tennis coach used to say, to "slip in your drool." The clock could still strike twelve and turn it all back into a pumpkin, but it is awfully fun for the moment.

Actually, it's more than fun -- it's exciting. Euphorically, passionately so. If I lived near enough to get close to the field, I would elbow my way through the fans and try to bum a chin strap. But here, 1000 miles away, the best I can do is cheer...

...for the Frogs I hold so dear. Victory is oh so sweet, it makes me jump to my feet.

Well, you get the idea.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Senseless in Every Sense

"What happened?" his neighbor phoned to ask after hearing what sounded like gun shots.
"I shot a cop," he calmly replied. "I just blew my wife’s brains out. Should I turn myself in or kill myself?"
"Turn yourself in," the neighbor answered. And then the line went dead.
Unfortunately, it was all true -- the shots, the wounded officer outside, and the dead wife inside. It all happened Wednesday afternoon and the disconcerting questions have distracted me ever since. How could a bright, apparently winsome young woman, a 3-time veteran of Iraqi deployments, get herself entangled with, pregnant by, and finally married to this man with a blaring history of abuse, assault and restraining orders requested by numerous women?
8-months after the birth of their baby boy.
4-months after their wedding.
How does a relationship that begins in euphoric love find its end in a kidnapping in a Target parking lot and a murder, less than an hour later, in the apartment they had, until a month ago, shared?

I suppose one answer is that few of us do background checks on the people with whom we fall in love. After all, since we are good and decent people, there's no possible way that we could be drawn to someone who isn't. Besides, wouldn't such a past eventually creep out into the open -- in the whispers of friends; in anonymous tips or newspaper clippings slipped surreptitiously under the door? OK, probably not that last one, but surely somehow. Right?

But then perhaps she knew. Perhaps she was fully aware, and believed that somehow she was different -- that those other women were really to blame, or maddeningly brought the worst out in him; or perhaps she naively thought she could change him; or perhaps refusing to think about such things, stuck a finger in each ear and began to sing The Flintstones theme song loud enough to block out the sound of the whispers.

In the end, she couldn't finally block out the sound of the gunshots.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean for a second to blow blame in her direction. She may have been uninformed, she may have been naive, she may even have been in denial -- she may have been all of these or none of these -- but none of these is a capital offense. He is the criminal. He is the one who stalked her, forced her into his car, and then killed her with a gun he was prohibited by law to possess.

No, it's just that I can't fathom any underlying story. I can't get my mind around the immensity of it.

And I can't imagine what the preacher will manage to croak out of his throat in the course of her funeral that will make anyone feel any better. I'm guessing that pointing out how "all things work together for good for those who love the Lord..." will be a tough sell. In some abstract or over-arching sense we can believe it as a tenet of our faith, but it is hard to hear while the sound of gun blast still echoes in the air.

Perhaps what I'm running up against in my inability to understand this terrible story is the fact that some things just make no sense. Senseless from every angle.

As her military friends observed with dismay, she survived daily threats from the enemy in Iraq, only to die in her own apartment at the hands of her husband. Senseless indeed.

May the Lord bless and keep her, be gracious to her, look upon her with a smile, and give her...
...and all concerned...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Where Does this Belong?

We have become cluttered again. The dresser surface in the bedroom is littered with miscellaneous receipts and Post-it notes and pocket change; the table between our living room chairs has become a repository of plastic newspaper wrappers, rubber bands, books, cords associated with this or that piece of technology, and CD's that need to be returned to the library. The wicker tray on the ottoman where we keep recent magazines is mounded and spilling its now well out of date displays. The dining room table is strewn with mail, crowded on one corner by a revolving string of one delivered shipping box or another.

In our defense, some of this disorder represents the usual flora and fauna that flourish in the wake of travels out of town. The piles of mail are inordinately deeper, and the necessarily focused attention on all the backlogged work-related responsibilities leaves little time or energy for the backlogged ones at home. We have stored the suitcases back in the basement, but subtler residue of recent travel isn't hard to find.

But the deeper truth is that every now and then we have to do a "gut check." Time goes by. Hours roll end over end. Days dawn and then darken. Calendars fill. Before we know it we are moving through our days rather than actually occupying them with any adequate degree of attention or appreciation or grounding. And then stuff stacks up. "I'll get to that tonight" becomes "have you recently seen...?" -- fill in the blank with the bill or note or button or book of your choice. After awhile we hardly even notice the disarrayed accumulations.

Until one of us -- OK, until Lori -- calls a halt to our self-induced blindness, insists that we remove the mental cataracts and actually look around us, and invites us into the Divine work of bringing order out of chaos. To be sure, our chaos isn't primordial, and the ordering won't likely take six days, but it will be interesting to see what new creatures emerge from the process.

And we will enjoy the glorious -- and decidedly neater -- sabbath that follows.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Still Tasting It

Typically when we are visiting the Inn, life for the staff is too busy for much casual conversation. Always professional and gracious, interaction is nonetheless measured. There simply isn't the luxury of more. This time, however, the autumn crowds had diminished by the time we arrived and life in the Inn was winding down for the November break. Tableside conversation with the waitstaff could be more relaxed. The Innkeepers were unhurried. And we got to have conversations with Chef Jason.

We had met the chef before in glancing encounters in the hallway, but like all the other staff members in previous visits, he had no time to stand around. There were meats to braise and sauces to prepare and fennel to shave. But this year we bumped into him in the entry area just as we were checking in. To our surprise, he recognized us and chatted for a moment. It happened again a day or two later. And then again that afternoon as we returned from our cooking classes at King Arthur Flour. He asked about our experience and I chuckled about the fresh pasta I had made and carried back without any real use since we wouldn't be cooking for awhile. Chef Jason volunteered to do something with it and took it off my hands. That night, the server presented as our appetizers "Tim's Pasta Two Ways." Two different pastas. Two different recipes. Two fabulous dishes. When the Chef came out to see what we thought, our praise led into an extended conversation -- about cooking, to be sure, but more broadly about farming and nutrition and sustainability and a passion for authenticity. Surely there were dirty pots that needed scrubbing -- or no doubt more important things to be doing in the kitchen -- but the conversation prevailed and this wonderful, powerful interaction was as nourishing as the food.

Despite our best efforts to slow down time, our last evening arrived and we found our table in the dining room. First the server appeared, and then Chef Jason, who asked if it would be all right if he cooked for us that evening. It seemed impolite to wonder who had been doing the cooking on previous occasions; besides, we were too flummoxed to say much but a croaking "sure." What followed was a harbor of food with undulating waves of courses that bore no resemblance the menu from which other diners in the room were selecting. A Latin theme -- the Chef had picked up on my Texas roots and culinary leanings -- each course presented a familiar concept elevated to grandeur: a chilled avocado soup with echoes of guacamole; a chile relleno stuffed not simply with cheese but silky sweet potato as well. And on and on until the delectable denouement of flan for dessert. The Chef, himself, presented each course with a description of the preparation, before slipping back into the kitchen to continue his work. Five courses in all, each leaving us more speechless than the course before. By the time we savored our final bite we had no words to offer proper thanks; the food, to be sure, but moreso the gift itself was far beyond words.

At breakfast the next morning we expressed our humility and puzzlement and gratitude to Innkeepers Dave and Jane. "What was that all about," we queried, "and how were we privileged to receive such an indescribable gift?" "It's simply Chef's way of expressing appreciation," they responded.

"Simply." That hardly seems an adequate word. And if appreciation was merited, it flowed that night in the wrong direction. It was the Chef who better deserves it: a young man of extraordinary talent, extraordinary vision, deep culinary integrity, a passion for honoring the good earth and those farmers who steward it, and an humble spirit that understands himself to be part of a larger cycle of sun and soil and seed and harvest and hunger and the delightful blessing of food, joined with the privilege of receiving it as an artist of sorts with the holy purpose of preparing and presenting it in such a way as to honor and celebrate the gift that it is.

That, I think, is what it means to be a Chef; and we are still tasting the joy of being fed by a great one -- fed in more ways than one.

Thanks Chef Jason. It was a dinner -- and a kind generosity -- that we will never forget.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Facts in Isolation

I have always felt a little nervous when people start quoting scripture. More often than not, the quotes are fragments that have been surgically removed from whatever gave rise to them and presented as every word in the Bible carried equal weight. Scripture as a string of pearls. As often as not, the result is more abusive of the words than honoring; holy wisdom recklessly eviscerated. I think of the sermon I heard years ago, drawn from the passage in the book of Ruth that describes how "Ruth clung to Naomi, saying 'Entreat me not to leave thee...for whither thou goest I will go...'" to talk about the importance of touch. Please. I'm all for touching, but is that really what this passage is working on? Most arguments on morality I hear condemning this or that behavior are appliqued with these kinds of snippets -- tacky decorations more than structural foundations.

Perhaps that's why one particular sentence in Wendell Berry's essay, "Going to Work" caught my attention. In the essay Berry, a farmer, author and agrarian activist from Kentucky, builds a progressing sequence of 49 propositions on the relationship between working and living. Each of them was worth thinking about, but it was #47 that hooked me.
XLVII. Facts in isolation are false. The more isolated a fact or a set of facts is, the more false it is. A fact is true in the absolute sense only in association with all facts. This is why the departmentalization of knowledge in our colleges and universities is fundamentally wrong.
Reading #47, of course, made me flip back to a couple of earlier propositions -- #'s 30 and 31 -- which suddenly made clearer sense. There, Berry had talked about the "scientific need for predictability or replicability" that "forces perception into abstraction" -- the test plot, for example, that is perceived not as itself but as representative of all plots everywhere; a new machine or chemical or technique that is proved workable in one situation that is assumed to be representative of all places where it might work.

One might say that Berry's examples are scientific "proof texting" -- taking an insight out of context and forcing it to mean more than it really does. But as in science and technology and education, so it is in scripture: context is everything.

Berry, I think, is pretty close to having it right: facts in isolation are false.

I suppose that means I'll need to scrap tomorrow's sermon on the value of touch.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Enlarging Vacation's Perspective

"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What's water?'"
(from This is Water by David Foster Wallace)

Vacations at their best have something of that quality -- immersed in their own encompassing world so present and complete that every other reality, while not quite disappearing, at least recedes to the murky shadows and shapes moving distantly on the surface above.

That's something of how it has been these last several days away -- the creation of another world whose water we swam around in created its own kind of "new normal." It's not that we ceased to notice the blessing -- every day we noted our smiles and virtually absorbed the beauty and grace around us through our pores. Rather, the blessing became somehow enveloping and all encompassing, developing its own orienting rhythm and familiarities -- the quirky personality of the Inn room that became our miniature home; the coffee miraculously ready in the morning, the chipper "Is there anything else I can get for you" of the server as she set down our breakfast, the barest skeletal shape of plans for the day that we fleshed out with Dave and Jane while finishing off the scrambled eggs or French Toast, the cookie waiting in the afternoon, the fireplace at dinner and the winsome companionship of the servers we have come to know by name; the special kindnesses and generosities given and received. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to visit a cider mill or a cheese farm or simply drive or hike around for hours at a time.

"What's water?" we, too, might well have responded had someone asked about this experience in which we were swimming.

It is, I recognize, all about the power of perspective -- tilted and shifted yet again by a day in airports schlepping bags and fumbling with now foreign feeling keys in the door lock of a darkened front porch that only awkwardly, reticently makes room again for us within.

And now, after a night in my own bed, with suitcases disgorged and the laundry room humming and the requirements of catching up already scratching at my consciousness, the perspective broadens even more. What only yesterday morning had seemed like the very world, itself -- the entire ocean of our reality -- gradually reveals its more authentic truth:

It hasn't been the ocean, after all, in which we have been living these past several days, but only one small, incredibly beautiful and blessed drop gracing one tiny branch of a very much larger world...
...that now welcomes us home.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Views Above the Surface

I once heard William Sloane Coffin (then Senior Minister of New York's Riverside Church) get off a cheap, but incredibly clever shot at TV preacher and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell: "Deep down, he's shallow."

I thought of that line in a completely different and unrelated context yesterday. We had set off on a sweeping drive to explore at least a part of what Yankee Magazine had dubbed "New England's Most Scenic Drive" -- Vermont Route 100. Because we arrived in Vermont at the tail end of the foliage season, Innkeepers Dave and Jane recommended the southern portion of the route as having a higher likelihood of color. Setting off, then, about mid-morning, we headed west, picking up 100 near Ludlow and turning south. Passing through Weston and later Jamaica, we eventually came upon Mount Snow, one of the major snow skiing areas in the state. We escaped the highway for a while and explored the area -- a ghost town of sorts this time of year; the empty lodge, the frozen chair lifts. Back on the road, we headed as far down as Wilmington before cutting east toward Brattleboro.

I hardly feel qualified to argue with Yankee Magazine -- and who knows what Route 100 might have looked like a few weeks earlier -- but the second half of the trip was what made the excursion worthwhile, beginning with Brattleboro. Our hosts had described it as a "hippie" kind of town, and walking around the quaint village it did, indeed, offer its share of hemp clothing stores, quirky shops selling all manner of pipes, and artist enclaves. Time for lunch, we hunted down the recommended option: The Riverview Cafe, located on the banks of the Connecticut River. Warmer temperatures and a mostly sunny sky made it possible to eat outside, on the deck looking out over the water. It was breathtaking.

And it was then we noticed how low the bridge hung over the water, and how limiting that would be for any water-borne traffic. Looking more closely, then, we observed how shallow was the crystal clear water -- at least a third of the way across from our side of the river. It struck me as odd: this spectacular river, scenic in every way; broad and long, it looked at this point like an eastern version of the Mighty Mississippi, which is surely why our minds had drifted to barges navigating up and down the way. But the comparison, it turns out -- at least along this portion of the river -- is veneer; all appearance, all on the surface.

Or to say it that other way, "deep down, it's shallow."

I don't want to be too judgmental; we did, after all, see only a tiny portion of a long and significant river. And it was beautiful. Take none of that away from it. And maybe at its absolute center the river floor drops to the earth's core. But I'm guessing there is a reason why no one hesitated to span it with a low slung bridge.

And I couldn't help but think of the various people I have met through the years about whom the same things could be said. Wide. Long. Good reputation. Scenically beautiful and picturesque. And deceptively shallow.

Driving north out of town, we headed back toward the Inn, through Newfane where all the buildings are painted black and white, through Grafton where we walked in the woods and once again bought some award winning cheese, into Chester where we gratefully found a gas station, and soon thereafter, home.

Scenically richer, and in my own way deeper than when we had started out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Among the Leaves and Spray

"So, where are you headed today," Jane asked at breakfast. We were tired of buildings, we told her. We want to get out in the woods, walk around some; perhaps see a waterfall or two. "No problem," she responded. "We've got those."

We ate, we returned to our room to gather up a few things; and when we descended the stairs Jane had printouts all ready -- "Your day all planned for you," she said with a grin. And, indeed, there was a hike and a waterfall. And, again, a GPS.

We set off in the designated direction, and six hours later returned home, having gotten spray-close to falls and walked a couple of miles up and over and down a mountain and back again. So what did we see?

Sometimes, though a word guy like me hates to admit it, a picture really is worth a thousand dimensions of vocabulary.

Just as an example.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Farm Tour into Artisanal Obscurity

I'm remembering years ago, attending a church men's event in Nashville, hearing a bluegrass band called "The Clusterpluckers." Despite their name, they were fantastic; and I kept thinking how nobody knew who they were. Here were these fabulous musicians, working away in relative obscurity -- like goodness knows how many other equally talented artists that, for lack of a gimmick or an eager agent, toiled away well-beneath the radar; plying their craft and, I have to imagine, enjoying and finding life amidst the plucking.

Today at breakfast, Dave the Innkeeper handed us a pre-programmed GPS unit that would lead us to all the farms whose produce routinely shows up on the menus of the Inn. We could have spent days moving from one to another, but we settled on 4 and hit the road. Chef Jason, last night, had enthusiastically encouraged us to visit Woodcock Farm that makes award winning artisanal cheese -- mostly sheep's milk, but some cow's milk as well. Dave reinforced the recommendation, and after receiving a phone call that cheese making was underway, we hit the road -- first the highway, then the lane, then the dirt road, then the pocked farm road that led to the tiny operation. Mark Fischer, the owner and cheese maker left his work long enough to give us an explanation of the process and invite us to watch through the window, before darting back to the work space to join his wife Gari draining the whey that later would become excitement for the farm hogs to drink; scooping the curds and forming the loafs of nascent cheese; lifting the cheesecloth to turn the forms, one by one by one.

While he was at work I noticed taped to the wall handwritten notes listing the addresses of cheese shops in New York and Boston -- hints of the quality underway. And we lingered, watching, tasting...and eventually purchasing from this craftsman/farmer and his wife almost invisibly, in this out of the way farm, creating excellence.

Another cheese farm followed; then to visit an herbalist who grows organic vegetables and herbs, the latter of which she compounds into creams and oils for various uses -- and teas. She showed us the varieties, one tea of which was specially formulated for people recovering from hip surgery. We passed on the tea, for now, but kept her phone number and address just in case.

The cider mill was next -- a farm and operation that has been in the family for over 100 years, using equipment every bit that old. We studied the apple press, watched the juice boiling, the steam rising, the careful hands stirring, and followed the process from the boiler to the reducer and ultimately into the jelly jars. Willis Wood -- of Wood Cider Mill -- has recently been part of an experience with Chef Jason filming an upcoming television show with Emeril, and though he could have been cocky about the splash of attention, guessed instead that his part would probably wind up on the editing room floor.

We could have continued on, with other similar experiences, but already we were full -- nourished by these wonderful artisans, toiling away in relative anonymity. On out of the way roads that need a GPS to find, are these incredibly gifted families routinely creating masterworks of their particular art.

Each time we pulled back out on the highway I found myself thinking back on those Clusterpluckers, and how -- for lack of the right publicity -- these folks could be really famous; only to realize that they are already making all they can. Making more would require fundamentally changing how they work, and they prefer the hands-on approach. Quality, in other words, is preferable to quantity.

My guess is that people pressed Rembrandt to produce more paintings faster, as well. The fact that his works aren't hanging in Holiday Inns suggests that he, too, chose art over rank abundance.

Chances are we won't be finding these cheeses or these ciders and jellies and syrups there (or their grocery store equivalents) either. Thanks be to God. We'll have to go to them -- or, in a pinch, rely on Federal Express.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Warm and Soulful and Filling

There is that spewing, almost electrically sputtering moment, just after a kitchen match is struck, when the flame quite literally leaps out of and off the stick, erupting in a frizzle of splashing yellow that almost immediately mellows into its more balanced blaze. I've been thinking about that erupting instant in recent days driving around the country roads of southeastern Vermont. It's as though the white-skinned birches have all been struck at once, their yellow leaves erupting in precisely that luminescent splash; struck into flame and then scattered throughout the mountainsides as though candles on a dappled birthday cake. There aren't as many reds as one might like -- perhaps we arrived just past their prime, or perhaps they never matured into that rich sugary hue -- but the yellows and coppers and bronzes and greens are ample autumnal blessing. There is a warmth to the colors -- not as riotously celebratory, perhaps, as in other years, but richer somehow; even soulful. The foliage may not evoke giddy "ooh's" and "ah's" this time around, but it is nonetheless a "deep breath" kind of landscape. And we have needed a few deep breaths.

Today, we used the driving to get us to the King Arthur Flour Factory, Store, and Educational Center in Norwich, Vermont -- a half-hour or so to the north. We were signed up for simultaneous baking classes -- Pizza Making for Lori; Autumn Pasta for me. For four hours we went our separate ways, both up to our elbows in various flours and doughs and shapes and ends. For me it was a refresher course for skills learned last year in Italy, though here we used table top pasta machines. I was interested in honing my more mechanical skills with the dough. Mid-afternoon, Lori emerged with two pizza boxes full of her work which we sampled on the drive back to the Inn, and I carried the satisfaction of two pasta recipes successfully accomplished, plus a box full of two different types and two different shapes that I hadn't a clue what to do with -- until Chef Jason met us at the door of the Inn, gathered up my box and headed off into the kitchen with the promise of something special for our dinner. That may well be the definition of "value added lodging."

Deep breaths, then, born of both sight and taste. And company, of course. My beautiful bride is sitting across the room in front of the fire, reading, taking a few deep breaths of her own, unaware for the moment of how grateful I am to be sharing these precious yellows, muted reds, vibrant greens, and warm, mellowing coppers, bronzes, pastas and pizzas. And the promise of tomorrow. If this very moment and all that it savors weren't so filling -- and the thought of it ending weren't so forbidding -- I don't think I could wait. But wait I will, preferring to make of every moment a deep breath of its own.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Foliage, Ziplines, and Trust

We drove eastward until reaching the freeway -- an almost obligatory part of the trip if we were to arrive at a reasonable time; but even then the views were spectacular. After a quick and scenic half-hour, we exited into New Hampshire and followed highway 10 up to the Kancamagus Highway -- a limited access road through the White Mountains National Park. From there, the road hugged the mountain streams up the mountains, across the Appalachian Trail and down into Lincoln where we met up with our fellow adventurers at Alpine Adventures for scheduled zipline canopy tour. I had been looking forward to this day since we booked the excursion almost 2 months ago. Lori has been more circumspect. The videos at the office didn't help much. Looking back, I perhaps should have suggested we wait outside. The release we had to sign didn't offer much encouragement either. Both pages, each detailing possible decapitation, maiming, bites by wild animals, collisions with trees, and catastrophic and painful death. I casually compared the waiver of liability to the inserts routinely accompanying prescription drugs. That seemed to be persuasive. For the moment.

Shortly, the 12 of us were huddled into a side room where we were assigned our nylon harness and helmet and a few chatty warnings about the possible loss of limbs should we not listen to our guides or fiddle with our lifelines. One last survey of the troops to cinch up our harnesses and we were shuffled into the waiting bus for the trip up the mountain. Arriving at the trailhead, we were transferred to an old six-wheel drive Swiss-made troop transport vehicle that had been used in the 1960's by the Austrian army, the ride in which should have sobered anyone who still had teeth and a spine by the time we reached the drop-off point. A few more draconian instructions, and we were ready to begin -- one at a time, harnessed to the zip line, followed by the casual reminder that "this is completely voluntary" -- and the suggestion that we simply step into...

...oblivion. The first zipline wasn't bad: we were standing on the ground, on a rock, and we could essentially just step off and begin to fly. The end of that line, however, landed us on a narrow platform about the size of a milking stool on the top of a tree at least 36,000 feet in the air where we were instructed to just "hang there for moment" while the guide made several clicking maneuvers. Shifting over our apparatus to the next line, the guide once again casually suggested that we just squat down and step off. Step off, this time, literally into...

...oblivion. For what I trust was not the first time it had happened, the harness held, the trolly wheels gripping the line above continued to roll, and somewhat miraculously we reached the next stratospheric platform at an elevation where only nosebleeds dwell.

And it went like this for six lines -- interrupted only by a suspension bridge that was only missing alligators in a lagoon below.

The final line they told us not to bother even trying to control our direction. We were going to drop too fast, travel too far, and gain too much velocity for it to matter.

Did I mention the issue of trust? Afterwards, Lori and I talked about it: her near inability to trust the employee guides -- every one of which looked to be about 8-years old -- who held our lives in their hands; and my almost nonchalant willingness to be putty in their hands; trust in the people; trust in the equipment; trust in the cables stretched between Venus and Mars and chasmic universe in-between; trust that all those disclaimers and waivers we had signed were just lawyer talk to cover everyone's rear end.

Back at the inn for dinner, our waiter, Paul, asked us how it had been. "Great," I responded. "Grateful to be back alive," countered Lori. Paul had been the one the previous night who, upon hearing of our plans to go ziplining through the foliage, had shaken his head and proclaimed, "Not me. I'm all about 'terra firma.'" Tonight, after hearing our stories, he recalled how he was told in the military that the only things falling from the skies were fools and bird poop. I'm guessing it might have been a little more colorful in the military, but his point was made.

I loved it. It was exhilarating. I would do it again. But I wouldn't be surprised if I don't. I won't be at all surprised, however, if Lori, should the opportunity happen to arise again, quietly shakes her head, tells me to enjoy the ride, and boldly makes other plans. And I wouldn't be surprised if I joined her.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Indulging ourselves until the next famine befalls

We have been winning, to our inestimable loss, a competition against our own land and our own people. At present, what we have to show for this "victory" is a surplus of food. But this is a surplus achieved by the ruin of its sources. (Wendell Berry, Nature as Measure, 1989)
Every seminarian sooner or later learns that the Greek word for "sin" is an archery term, literally meaning "missing the mark." Shooting for the bulls-eye, you hit instead the nearby bull in the eye. The cure, of course, is to refine one's aim -- to shoot with more precision. Spiritually speaking, it means to "repent," which in that same Greek simply means to "go in a different," presumably better aimed, "direction."

As Berry suggests in the opening observation, our cross-hairs could use some recalibration. Agriculturally speaking, we are essentially eating the geese that lay our nutritional golden eggs. We are, in other words, proudly succeeding at our own self-destruction. Or to recall a quote from Thomas Friedman, "We are getting better and better at that which shouldn't be done at all."

Short-term gain and long-term cost. If ever there were evidence of what the ancient theologians described as "Original Sin," it would be this recurring pattern. We witnessed it again in recent years in Wall Street's (read: investor's) insatiable hunger for greater returns, which maximized quarterly reports over sustained vitality and gentler growth, which drove business practices -- and created investment instruments -- that looked good on paper but were ultimately suicidal.

We never seem quite able to comprehend that "how we do things" really does matter as much as -- and perhaps more than -- "what we do."

Agriculturally we measure per acre output, without considering the larger impact of all that goes into achieving it -- the financial, chemical, environmental and even medical price that is paid. Economically we similarly care only about the most superficial "bottom line." Spiritually -- well, we find all manner of ways to be titillated in the moment but not really grounded and nourished throughout the landscape of human experience.

Berry, I think, has put his finger on the essential nature of sin: setting our sights on, and investing our creative energies into, accomplishing more voluminously, more cheaply, and more quickly those things we believe are most important for keeping us alive -- and succeeding; only to die because our very pursuit obliterated that which actually had the capacity to sustain us.

But none of that looks very promising to the shareholders, reading the quarterly reports, so we will just keep doing what we are doing -- and feeling proud and successful -- until the next famine of some sort befalls us.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Catching Up On the Interesting Things Behind

Perhaps I am becoming a more discriminating reader. On the other hand, perhaps my attention span is simply diminishing to the point that precious little holds it for long. Whatever the explanation, I find myself skipping over much.

Camped out in a hotel – in a much-appreciated retreat of sorts – while Lori attends a professional conference, I have turned myself to the stack of Christian Century magazines I unloaded from my desk drawer in preparation for the trip. It is a great magazine to which I faithfully subscribe, routinely full of articles both important and interesting. The issues, however, arrive twice each month and I get behind. Ummm, I stay behind. So, I have been looking forward to catching up – starting with the oldest in the stack (June 16) and working my way forward to the current October 20 edition that arrived just before we left.

Over the religious news summaries now months old I find myself agilely skipping. Articles begun with interest frequently lose their hold and I turn a page...or two. June, in this pattern, was dispatched in only slightly more time than had been required to change the calendar page earlier in the summer. I’m sure it didn’t have anything to do with the feature story on the pastor’s struggle with the criticism that inevitably comes her or his way. Now halfway through July I have read with interest stories on the unique dynamics within clergy families, plus Luci Shaw’s poem reflecting on relative merits of burial versus cremation. Looking ahead, the table of contents for the latter half of the month frankly doesn’t look like it will take me very long to make it into August.

There is, however, something profligate about this progress long overdue. I think about the care with which the writers crafted their essays and reflections. I imagine the editors arranging and rearranging, paring stories and deciding how much of what to go where. I imagine the sermons now committed to files that were nourished by the Bible Studies on the texts assigned for days already forgotten. And I am turning pages as though they were popcorn grabbed and swallowed by the handfuls. As though considerations of deeper questions had a shelf life. I should, I know, slow down and savor the words, the thoughts, and the efforts of those who proffered them.

But for reasons I can’t find I am driven to get current, which means pages to go and words to sift before I sleep. September, after all – despite this October date – is still before me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gone by Afternoon

October Snow. It isn't unprecedented. I remember one year Jack-o-lanterns wearing snowy crowns. But I don't recall ever seeing snow on October 10. In fact, no one remembers. The paper said that hadn't happened since records have been kept -- sometime in the 1800's. Nonetheless, there it was on Saturday morning -- falling in tufts as though it were December. In fact, I was tempted to break out the Bing Crosby; but I don't think even WalMart has its Christmas displays up yet.

Though it snowed all morning -- an inch or more according to reports -- it was gone by mid-afternoon. The air was chilly, but not cold enough to hang onto the blanket. Still, it was persuasive reminder of how suddenly the seasons can change -- outside, to be sure, but elsewhere too. Sunday evening the phone rang with news from a friend of problems in their extended family -- an unconscious spouse, a 911 call, an ambulance ride and now intensive care. Just that morning it had still been autumn at that house, and all of a sudden it was winter.

I have a new book -- a "Field Guide to Snowflakes" -- that notes the influences of such things as temperature and humidity on the ultimate design of a snow crystal. As to the common axiom that "no two are alike," the author draws the analogy of arranging books on a shelf. With just 15 books, he calculates, there are over a trillion ways to arrange them on the shelf. "With 100 books, the number of possible arrangements is vastly greater than the total number of atoms in the entire universe" (p. 13).

In a complex snowflake specimen, "you might count a hundred or more individual features, each of which could go in a different place. The math is like that with the books, so the number of possible ways to make a snowflake is absurdly large. Thus, the probability of finding two identical specimens is essentially zero..." (ibid).

And to think that each of these utterly original, completely unique creations was extinct within hours of its formation.

Seasons change quickly. And life is short -- each utterly original, completely unique specimen of it. It sort of gives new urgency to the importance of living each day to the fullest, and treasuring the precious and intricately complex creations with and around whom we get to live -- every second that we can.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Practicing the Watery Presence

In his devotional classic, The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence reflects on the spiritual discipline of finding and praising God in the ordinary acts of daily living -- peeling the potatoes, washing the dishes. I was, I suppose, talking to God last night, but more after the fashion of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof than Brother Lawrence in the kitchen.

The drain pipe into which the washing machine evacuates was misbehaving, puddling the floor with each load like a happy-to-see-you puppy, so I withdrew the rubber hose from the washer in order to make a run through the pipe with the drain snake. Finishing -- or at least tiring of -- that work, I retracted the yards of cable, set aside the snake, began another load of laundry and went back upstairs to help Lori process the fresh produce she had brought home from the farm. Time passed, and I estimated that the laundry was ready to shift over to the dryer, so I trotted back downstairs...

...to find Lake Kenmore. Of course I had neglected to return the rubber drain hose to the freshly cleared drain pipe. Towels were employed. A sponge mop. Frequent squeezing into the drain. Eventually -- and after animated and colorful conversation with the Divine -- I remembered that several years ago, in the wake of a similar misadventure, I had bought a shop vac now, I discovered, secreted in the deepest recess of the narrowing space beneath the stairs. Beyond a book case and two clothes racks. Sloshing back, I retrieved the appliance (neglecting to gather up the extension pipe) rearranged some plugs and fired it up. Two tankfulls later the floor was merely damp. I left two fans in motion to finish up the recovery and slogged my way upstairs toward bed, the clock a few ticks into the new day.

A night's rest and a cup of coffee later, I'm thinking about this whole "practicing the presence" idea. Since it is entirely likely -- probable in fact -- that I will wreak this kind of havoc again, I'm sure God would appreciate it if grew more proficient in this active form of praying.

That, and finding a readier place to store the shop vac.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What Are You Reading?

OK, I don't pretend to understand the whole diary concept. I'm not knocking it -- goodness knows that the practice has had a long and storied history. After all, without diaries, what would the market be for all those very tiny keys heretofore used to secure them? Think of how bereft would be our understanding of the holocaust without the diary of Anne Frank.

But then we aren't talking these days about the diary of Anne Frank. The diary currently on everyone's mind is the one detailing her romantic escapades with David Letterman by a former Late Show staffer. Apparently, she accidentally left it behind when she moved out on her now-ex-boyfriend who no doubt enjoyed the intimate read until coming across the section on Letterman.

So, here's the thing: for whom, exactly, was this woman writing all these things down? Maybe the volume has been misconstrued. Maybe the book was more "journal" than "diary". "Journal," after all, connotes a kind of reflective process -- writing as a discipline of the soul intended to help one sift through the clods of general experience for the gems of meaning buried within. Maybe, then, the former staffer was simply writing as a way of making sense out of what was happening -- kinesthetic therapy or prayer, as it were.

But "diary" -- the simple chronicling of daily activity -- I suppose I just don't get.

"Dear Diary: today I got up, had breakfast, went to work, slipped off during the break and had a romantic liaison with a famous TV star, made another pot of coffee in the staff lounge, took care of a few more odds and ends at the office, picked up take-out Chinese and headed home to spend the evening with my boyfriend..."

For whom is such a narrative intended -- except an ex-boyfriend you might enjoy making mad by "forgetting" the notes in a conveniently discoverable location? I can't seem to push away the suspicion that diaries are generally kept in the secret hope that, despite the writer's best efforts, they fall into public hands and make the author a household name...at least for that enviable 15 minutes of fame.

I know, that's cynical. Lovers never really do that sort of thing to each other. It was all an unfortunate, albeit titillating accident. That sort of deviousness only happens on TV, in twisted episodes involving famous people.

On late night talk shows.

I have decided to start taking better notes on the interesting and more salacious details of my daily life on the off-chance that nobody will accidentally find and read them. The project will have to wait, however, until I am able to locate a notebook small enough to match the key.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Finally, after all these years, I received a small measure of satisfaction.

Yesterday, we farmed vicariously. Seven farms about an hour south of Des Moines were featured in "the Farm Crawl" sponsored by the Practical Farmers of Iowa and Marion County Farm Bureau. Each farm, located by an extensive network of roadside signs, put their best foot forward for the visitors who flocked from the city for a visit. Apples, pumpkins, goats, poultry, vegetables, pottery and yarn spinning were all on display -- with more than a few for sale. We, for example, brought home some honey complete with comb, and some rhubarb preserves. We tried to bring home some eggs but they were long gone by the time we arrived. Likewise the borscht, but I have mixed thoughts about my disappointment over this missed opportunity.

The strangest experience came at the very beginning, as we were pulling into the goat farm, featuring "Quality Artisanal Goat Cheese". The farm, itself, turned out to be well off the main road, on the other end of a one-lane drive that cars alternated to navigate with the help of a staffer at either end with a walkie-talkie. Misunderstanding the signal, we pulled over to the side of the entrance behind two or three other cars and started to get out and walk. Captain walkie-talkie shouted over that this was merely the pull-off spot, not the parking spot, so at his signal we drove further up the one-lane path where, sure enough, dozens of other cars were already parked. Several helpful youth -- one with the companion walkie-talkie and another on a four-wheeler motioned toward the open field for parking. We obliged, navigating our way along the ruts and into an open space. Once more starting to exit the car, we were yet again brought up short by the loud voice of one of those helpful youth apparently having way too much fun with his afternoon authority, asking us if we could move to yet another parking space.

Who knew it would be this much trouble to park on a farm?

Well, me as it turns out. About 11 years ago, making plans to visit a dog breeder in northern Iowa about a puppy that Lori adamantly didn't want, I called the breeder over her objections and asked about directions. As the conversation was wrapping up, I heard Lori instruct me to "ask about the parking." At least I thought that's what she said. As soon as I posed the question to the farmer on the other end of the telephone call, I was vigorously corrected by my beloved sitting nearby: "I said barking, not parking. You can park anywhere at a farm!"

Except, apparently, at a goat farm where parking turns out to be a highly specialized endeavor. Remembering, yesterday afternoon, that conversation 11 years earlier, my momentary aggravation at the idiocy of the goat farm's parking requirements melted quickly into a vindicated smile. Satisfaction, indeed.

No word yet on the barking of the goats.