Friday, April 30, 2010

Asparagus, Just When the Soul's Night is Darkest

I can now definitively confirm that spring has officially arrived.  Yesterday I picked up our first bunch of asparagus from the farm of which we are members.  Lifting it from the cooler, I raised it to the sun like the thank-offering that it is -- a tubular green holy grail the luring anticipation of which led, indeed pulled, us successfully through a winter for the record books.  Thanking the benevolent gardener whose ministrations had given rise to such a blessing, I lovingly placed the bundle on the passenger seat, concluding that the seat belt might be taking my salivary caution too far.  Already I am lamenting that it will be days before we have an evening free enough to turn the kitchen loose on it; nonetheless allowing my culinary imagination to gather its wind.  Shall we steam or saute?  Bake or grill?  Roast or simply throw up our hands in greedy impatience and indulgently eat it raw?

And can there be any doubt that Kohlrabi can be far behind?  And radishes and nettles and strawberries shortly thereafter.  All of a sudden my breathing is deeper and my pulse is slower and life, itself, begins to seem -- I don't know -- more hopeful.

At least more delicious.

Perhaps asparagus was designed by the Creator as a kind of referential call to prayer, rising out of the ground each year and pointing heavenward at almost exactly the time that we have all but given up any hope of surviving:  an emergent green finger reminding us of the source of all mercy and grace.

Butterflies may be beautiful symbols of regeneration, and an empty tomb certainly a biblical image of new life.  But it could turn out to be that asparagus spears are the real emblem of Easter. 

Hang on, then.  If asparagus now, then the days of tomatoes and peppers will surely come.  Ah!  Heavenly bliss

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Questionable Reputation

“I know you are good for it,” she attested, affixing the unearned stamp to my coffee card. It’s a promotion underway at the coffee shop nearby that invites the accumulation of weekly stamps – obtained with a purchase – certifying a broad sampling of their various offerings. The incentive is a free pound of coffee at the end of these patiently imbibed weeks – no trivial matter for a guy who consumes as much fruit of the bean as I – and out of town last week I had missed a box. The next-to-last. Perilously close to a caffeinated stillbirth after a virtual trimester of progress. “I know you are good for it,” she said without so much as a second thought.

Sipping now in my office, I am pondering the implications of earning credit in the neighborhood coffee shop. Admittedly, it’s not a terrible risk on their part. This isn’t, after all, Goldman Sachs and I’m not buying derivatives. It’s a $2 cup ‘a Jo. And they know my name. They feel comfortable enough in our familiarity to offer routine commentary on my bowtie of the day. They know where to find me. And they are right: having assiduously cultivated my addiction, they know I’ll be back. There is precious little chance I’ll suddenly go cold turkey. I am, indeed, “good for it.”

Still, it is with a profound mixture of relational satisfaction at knowing and being known in the neighborhood, and discomfort at having such a blatant extravagance so nakedly exposed that I take another sip; savoring the ambivalence.

It could be worse, I suppose.  At least it's not the good folks at Krispy Kreme extending me credit.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Prodigal Cat and a Word to the Wise

In a sort of feline parody of the parable of the prodigal son, first the cat was lost and then it was found.  In this story, however, the father was a mother, there wasn't really a grumpy older brother -- unless it was me -- and the resulting emotion was less about amazing grace and more about relief.  But the "lostness" was no less traumatic.

Late Saturday morning, to start at the beginning, we gradually became aware of a stirring stillness.  After calling out his name, looking in every room and closet and cupboard and finally the garage without results, we were left with no alternative but to conclude that Lori's mother's cat (would that make him my "cat-in-law"?) was missing.  Despite there having been only the thinnest of opportunities for him to escape that morning, we could conceive of no other explanation.  Henry the cat was gone.  No collar.  No tag.  No microchip.  No real prospects of finding him.

Though we continued to reexamine the nooks and crannies of the house, we widened the search -- walks around the cul-de-sac, emails to neighbors, and eventually into ever-expanding sorties through the nearby streets and neighborhoods, knocking on doors, talking to whomever might be out and about, and peering over fences.  Lori and her mother consulted the experts at the police department and the Animal Rescue League -- even Craig's List -- and finally started the hopeful (some might say "wishful") process of creating a "Lost Cat" flyer we could post around the area.

More driving through the neighborhoods, more calling out his name, more searching through the house -- this time descending to such extreme possibilities as the oven and the microwave.  Nothing.  Eventually and mercilessly the hour arrived when the in-laws would have to begin the journey back home -- empty-handed.  Choking back anticipatory grief and fighting off despair, hugs were exchanged, car doors were shut, and the car backed out of the drive.

Later in the evening, one of Lori's sisters emailed pictures of the missing for us to add to the flyer.  The cat had now been missing 12 long and tiresome hours.  Past our bedtime, we were hovered over the computer, Photoshopping cat pictures into cropped portraits we hoped might catch the eye of someone who had seen something.  Studying the most recent printout, Lori casually looked over to Barrington lounging nearby...

...and froze.  Next to Barrington was a cat.  Turning to me with widened eyes and hushed voice, she said, "I think I'm seeing a mirage."  After a careful approach and a literal pinch, she concluded that this was not a figment of her imagination but the actual AWOL cat who had apparently been somewhere in this house all along.

Now a day or so after the fact, I've been reflecting on the lessons I might constructively learn from this experience.  I can think of lessons I might commend to others involved, but that's not my place.  "Believe" was the word ornament the cat had knocked off the tree downstairs before his disappearance, and I suppose that could be one lesson to take to heart.  I had certainly lost all hope of finding anything more than pancaked fur on some nearby roadway, and there is, I suppose, something to be said for not losing hope.

But perhaps the best I can take from all this harrowing afternoon, however, is the simple admonition to value and pay attention as best you can to every minute you can.  They are numbered, after all, and you never know what might be slipping out without your notice, potentially never to return.

And on those rare occasions when you get a second chance, offer a prayer of thankful praise...

...and then drop whatever you were doing and as fast you can go get a collar and a tag.

Friday, April 16, 2010

An Evening on Musical Mt. Olympus

Everyone, I suppose, has their personal Mt. Olympus where the musical gods live and perform, and every now and then, growing up, we caught a few of the breezes drifting down from that lofty peak.  After all, it's not like we were musically deprived.  Abilene may not have been on the "A" tour list in those days, but every now and then the Taylor County Coliseum was rockin' -- The Grass Roots in their day, and Three Dog Night, The Doobie Brothers and earlier on, The Carpenters.  Why, even Kiss played a date there once upon a time.

But I never got to climb all the way up the mountain, and there were those higher up that I only dreamed of seeing live in concert.  I remember Craig going to Dallas with friends to hear Led Zeppelin, but I never got that close.  Neil Diamond once, but that isn't even in the same mountain range.  And while I managed to hear Eric Clapton and Jackson Browne in college, it has only been in recent years that I finally got to hear The Eagles, my all-time favorites, and James Taylor, and only last summer Kenny Loggins.  I had better work a little harder to hear any of The Beatles given their diminishing numbers; and there are a few others from "the day" I would still love to see.

Tonight, though, was a rarefied evening on the mountain.  Elton John.  Sir Elton.  I think the first pop song I ever played on the piano was Your Song -- tonight's encore selection.  My guess is that he has played it a few million times over the past 40 years or so, but it sounded fresh as far as I was concerned.  There were others my fingers remembered banging out on the keys, even if the rest of me had long since forgotten the words.  Lori commented that she might have expected zanier glasses and at least one change of outlandish clothes, but the near three-hours of non-stop singing was Olympian enough for me.

There were a couple of original bandmates with him on the stage tonight -- the guitarist and the drummer -- and they are all looking a little older, which of course could similarly be said about me.   But they played as though they were teenagers, and my ears are still ringing with delight.  I sort of feel like a kid again myself -- Crocodile rockin' and all.

The Joy of a Simple Shine

I suppose I have never paid too much attention to the elevated chairs in airports and shopping malls and hotel lobbies and busy sidewalks attended by some lank and laconic man willing -- if not always eager -- to shine my shoes.  Perhaps I have always been in a hurry, or at least convinced myself that I was far too pressed to afford the time; perhaps it simply seemed like an extravagance I should forego. 

Or perhaps it was that I didn't want to deprive myself of the pleasure. 

There is, after all, something inherently satisfying about the process of smearing dense color onto the scars of life's careless or hazardous encounters as borne by my shoes, and buffing all evidence into newness.  The pasty polish, the gentle rubbing, the vigorous brushing, the finishing buff, the instant validation of a job well done.

I don't know why I don't seize the opportunity more routinely.  In fact, it rarely happens.  Perhaps it is the inevitably stained fingers or the risk of ruining the carpet; perhaps I rarely look down and recognize the need.  But this time something somehow called my name.  It could have been that, choked by an avalanche of open-ended projects and tasks, it was the need for something I could actually complete; perhaps in this world of infinite brokenness it was a hunger for something I could handily make right; perhaps I simply needed something mindless with which I could occupy my hands.  Whatever the impetus,  last night I dug out the appropriate tools of the trade -- the bag with the brush and the dabbers and the buffing cloth stained black on one side and brown on the other -- laid out the obligatory newspapers, and set up a couple pairs of shoes -- one black, one brown.  The brown ones had carried me to Italy and back and had more than earned some tender coloring care.  The toes looked as though I had used them to chip concrete and were hardly fit for business attire.  The black ones were less scuffed than simply stained and disfigured from winter's slushy abuse.  Both, then, and for different reasons were desperate for a laying on of hands.  And I could use some manual therapy.

And so it went for the next half hour -- dabbing, rubbing and inspecting in gentle, circular motion; brushing, buffing, and beaming.  When finished, I proudly left them there -- ostensibly to "dry", though it likely had more to do with pride -- a child at "show and tell."  They sat there atop the ottoman like ornaments; trophies of good accomplished work.  And today I rather hate to put them on.  There are scrapes, after all, out there just waiting to strike; scuffs lurking at the door.

But all in all, it occurs to me, that is rather fine.  It will just give me an excuse to go through it all again.  Who knows, maybe there is a retirement job in all of this -- a little pocket change, a platform from which to observe the passersby...

...and the simple pleasure of making something shine. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chipotles for the Day

The recipe, itself, has always been a work in progress.  I no longer recall how it came about -- or how long ago -- but long ago we hit upon the idea of adding olives to burgers.  Not on them, but in them.  Minced fine and liberally stirred into the meat.  A few other things go in as well -- one kind of seasoning powder or another, Worcester sauce, perhaps a little barbecue sauce and/or liquid smoke.  Proportions have always been subjective, and from time to time the results have been as mixed as the ingredients. 

But more recently the "recipe" has plateaued.  We've gotten comfortable -- or satisfied, or perhaps just lazy.  So, when Merryl suggested earlier in the week that we find a date for olive burgers I looked forward to the usual fare.  Then, yesterday on the way to the store for the evening's grilling I felt a twitch toward innovation.  Perhaps it was just one of those occasional flashes of creativity, or perhaps a culinary push against the larger boredom I seem to be feeling of late; whatever, I began to brainstorm the possibilities.  Whatever it was, it would need to contribute rather than take over.  It wouldn't be another sprinkle.  Both onion and garlic sounded like roads too well-traveled. The answer, of course, was jalapeno.  Well, sort of.

Chipotles are smoked jalapenos that, canned, come basted in adobo sauce.  To the uninitiated, chipotles can be a deceptive experience, particularly in adobo.  Initially smoky with almost a hint of sweetness, there is a rather arresting surprise on the back side of each bite.  Arresting, and quite often quite literally breathtaking with a distinctively aromatic oral conflagration.  In the right proportion, it is wonderful.  Ah!  But how to know that "right" proportion?

After otherwise seasoning the meat with the usual and sundry, I minced the olives and then dumped the can of peppers and their sauce into the food processor to puree.  Beautifully smooth and thickly brown, I reached for a spoon...and hesitated.  How much?  A couple of anticipatory dollops and intercessory prayers later, the patties were smoking on the grill, and before long we were pushing our chairs back from the table with satisfied grins on our faces.  My private critique was that we could have used a spoon or two more.  A little fire, after all, is useful to light the way home.  All in all I would pronounce the experiment to be a success.

The lingering question for me is not a culinary one but rather a psychological one.  The burgers, themselves, were certainly good, but the best part of the experience was the curiosity, the imagination, and the consideration of all the possibilities and implications.  There was pulse in that planning; spark in that deliberation -- starting with what was already good and risking it for something potentially better.  Or, admittedly, incendiary.  Starting this day, then, in barely more than neutral, I've begun to wonder just what the chipotles might be for these hours at hand -- moments already fine, and even good; but gliding on plateau. 

Hmmm.  Good question.   And it's good to feel my pulse quicken in pursuit of an answer.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Love Leads Down the Paths it Chooses

I suppose allergies might account for some of the blue fog choking recent days, but chances are this particular tint has more to do with Barrington, our Welsh Corgi companion.  Funny that we still call him -- and still think of him as -- a puppy.  In reality he is eleven-and-a-half years old -- one year younger than our marriage.  Since that first stinky ride home from the northern-Iowa farm where he was born, he has steadily woven his way deeper and deeper into the very fabric of our souls.  Even Lori -- or perhaps especially Lori -- who, in the beginning, was not too keen on adding a canine contribution to our household has had her heart unalterably bent in his direction.  He has been cuddle and curl and tummy rub and tug-of-war; he has been the smiling greeter, quick to forgive despite the hours we've been away; he has been the herding shortstop of a playmate whose stubby legs belie his speed.  He has been watch dog (at least when he feels like it is safe), and bedside companion when we are ill. 

But now he is the one who is ill.  Seeing the vet for an eye problem and yet another broken tooth, she was distracted by a different growth, drew some cells, and a few days later we got the report:  lymphatic cancer.  It's been a sobering reality to accommodate.  We have read, we have learned, we have cried, and yesterday we started him on chemotherapy.  I know, I know.  Chemotherapy for a dog?  We have already been privy to chuckles of amusement from some and eyes rolled in disapproval by others.  To put it simply, not everyone agrees that this is a good use of time, energy, or money, of which the process will require quite a lot of all three.   And I understand.  On another day, regarding someone else's family pet I might very likely roll my own eyes.  I make no claim that this is rational.  I only know that we two otherwise careful, prudent, and occasionally frugal people never really considered the alternative of doing nothing.  Our only real hesitation was concern for how treatments might make him feel.  We were already sick enough; we didn't want to add to his. 

Unable, then, to parse the syntax of life's relative value -- or perhaps unwilling to even try -- we set off down this pitted and winding road of injections, pills, temperature taking, special foods and altered plans; freshly reminded of the precious gift of everyday when those days are animated by those we love... 

...even those who leave hair on the couch -- when they have the strength to jump up there.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Gift of Being Part of the Cloud

The plane was late getting home, but for once the delay was almost a positive.  In a strange sort of way it served to sustain the glow of the day.  I traveled on Saturday back to the "fatherland" -- not simply Texas, but my hometown of Abilene, Texas -- on the occasion of my home church's 125th anniversary celebration.  I would be filling the pulpit during the worship service.  It wasn't without some trepidation.  After reading my sermon to Lori on Saturday morning she hesitantly asked, "are you going to be able to get through it?"  Emotional poignancy, after all, is rarely lost on me.  I speculated, by way of reply, that I didn't anticipate much likelihood that I would.  Laura, our longtime family friend -- informal "daughter" to my mother and "sister" to me -- was so certain that I would be a bundle of nerves that she presented me with a pocket cross just before the service began for added strength to hold onto. 

For the record, I only experienced one major knot in my throat.  On the phone from the airport I could proudly report home that I had, indeed, "gotten through it,"  although I wouldn't call it my most effective delivery.  Which is not to take anything away from the occasion.  Homecomings necessarily take on almost surreal qualities -- echoing memories that can almost be louder than the voices actually present; phantom faces of beloved pillars no longer alive, but present in the same way that amputees experience phantom feelings of limbs no longer there.  So many things have changed -- the carpet, the furnishings, the arrangement of the rooms, the staff, the town; but mysteriously and inexplicably almost nothing has changed.  Such is the power of nostalgic projection.

Notwithstanding visits through the years, I have now been away from Abilene much longer than I actually lived there, but in immutable ways it is nonetheless still home.  Perhaps that sense is further confirmation of the oft-cited conclusion that the character of certain times, however brief, will always trump the quantity of other times less formative.  Whoever I might have become had other cities, other congregations shaped my world, and whatever role genetics no doubt play, the fact remains that I am who I have become in large measure because of the fingerprints of those people and that community on my very soul.  I can no longer find my way to very many places around town -- whole neighborhoods have emerged since I've been gone -- but the primary arteries of the city are stamped on the inside of my eyelids.  I no longer know the ins and outs of congregational life there; no longer could tell you what is behind every door in the building, but the fact that for many years throughout my childhood and youth I could has left an indelible mark on the way I look at faith and discipleship and the very nature of the Body of Christ.

Before and after the service, people were gracious -- perhaps even proud.  I might more honestly describe them as "charitable."  But that, I now realize, was beside the point.  What I in my bundle of nerves and apprehension had lost sight of is the fact that it never was a matter of how well I might or might not "do" in the midst of their celebration.  It wasn't about performance, but presence.  Like the family they genuinely are, they were present to love me no matter what -- happy simply to welcome me home.

I, of course, was only part of the day.  While I might have been narcissistically focused on me and the contribution I might make, all of us present were simply emblematic of the hundreds or thousands of others who have animated congregational life in that place over the course of a century and a quarter.

It was wonderful to see old and familiar faces.  It was a delight to wander those halls and look at the pictures on the walls and to laugh at old stories and remembered experiences.  It was humbling to reconnect with many who had driven some distance to gather there once again.  And it was certainly an honor to preach for the gathering -- to be invited to bring something of the Way and the Word.  But the comprehension that ultimately filled and redeemed the extra airport hours at the end of the day was the inspiring sense of being one moist and airy molecule in that great cloud of witnesses.  That is gift, indeed.