Saturday, December 6, 2008

December Nights

Cold weather is on the march. We’ve had snow twice in the past week and for Saint Louis, that isn’t the ordinary case this early in December. More snow is forecast for Tuesday. It promises to be a real winter. Oddly enough, for some it means coming out of hibernation.

Silence doesn’t always mean absence. Sometimes it can also mean insecurity, uncertainty, shyness or perhaps despondency, or maybe caring too much whether anyone cares what one thinks. It strikes us all sooner or later.

Snow is more noisy when it falls onto dried leaves, and with it comes the compulsion to be heard above the noise. Winter solitude can be healthy.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Hosea of Beeri, Oracles
Harold Best, Creative Diversity
Chopin, Preludes
Handel, Messiah
Bon Iver, for Emma, forever ago

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Hope of Home

Home, Sweet Home. After a full and hard weekend, it’s so nice to be here. But now I know this is a matter of one’s circumstances. And those of yesterday shape today’s.

Nine of us stood on the doorstep, clad in a sort of recovery armor: baseball caps, goggles, gloves, mud boots, and fiber masks. In our hands, the weapons of healing: utility knives, wrecking bars, hammers, floor scrapers and shovels; we were ready for action. We were part of a reclamation team assigned to a house in the river district of Cedar Rapids and our sole purpose was to tear out the guts of what was once someone’s home.

The river overflowed its banks in June and the residents of 15,000 homes were forced to evacuate, leaving behind their lives. As soon as the floodwaters receded, the houses were sealed up until they could be assessed for livability. The residents were left to cast about in search of some other place to dwell while the status of their house was suspended in bureaucratic limbo. Finally the rebuild permit was issued, which is where we came in.

We learned about the owner a day after we had started. Judy is 65 and still disoriented from the disaster. Her husband died of cancer in November. She was diagnosed with cancer in February and is undergoing chemo. Because of the medical costs, she stopped paying her home insurance. Her son was divorced in March and moved in with her. Her world was a dizzying cloud of hard circumstances. Then the flood came. She scrambled to get pictures and keepsakes from life with a husband who loved her off the walls and up to the second floor. Then she drove away, the floodwaters rushing down the street as she looked out the back window. Her father had built the house and had given it to her, and now it was about to be swallowed by the Cedar River.

When the door opened, the house wheezed out the sickly breath of mold. This was no longer a home; it was a dank incubator, a terrarium for e.coli and every kind of fungus that finds delight in dark, warm, moist spaces. Literally, everything was food for the mold. THIS was as diseased an environment as I’ve ever been in. I was grateful for my mask and my gloves.

We moved from room to suffocated room opening every available window, setting up fans, pulling fresh air into the stagnant space. Air and light – the first time in three months.

Because the water had completely filled the first floor to the ceiling, it all had to be ripped out, layer by layer: carpet, flooring, trim, plaster, cabinets, fixtures, appliances, walls. Everything but the studs. All that had been part of the comfortable interior of Judy’s world, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, dining room, parlor, all of it now was destined for a discard pile on the sidewalk. House vomit.

But now, with the flood of air and light, there was hope. Hope that once again, Judy might be able to live in the house her father built. The hope of a sweet home again.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Augustine of Hippo, On Teaching
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Conni Ellisor, Blackberry Winter
Michael Hedges, Aerial Boundaries

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Sigh … I look at the clock again … the fifth time in ten minutes. Could time creep along any slower? Only two days ago, the minute hand swept along the edge of the clock face the way a pelican cruises the foam edged surf of the gulf. But I was sitting on the dock then, the salt air uncombing my hair, and unknotting my mind, and carrying my kite and my heart into a sky ready to break open into vast blue, and enabling the frigate birds to sail up and down the shore higher than the ibis as they come in morning formation from the rookeries. I close my eyes and taste the sea. sigh. How could two days be so different? I want to hear the tide rolling onto the beach, the leaves of the foxtail palm rattling in the breeze, the gulls berating one another over a piece of crab, the dolphins catching their breath for the next dive…. instead, the weak voice across the room recounts for the eighth time how the neighbor works at night and never mows his grass and collects junk in his yard and lets his kid run wild and …. I smile politely, woodenly and glance at the clock ... the sixth time in twelve minutes …

Friday, June 27, 2008


My wife and I were recently on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Being subtropical, Hawaii has a fair number natural curiosities to observe (curious at least for someone who was trained only in the eastern deciduous forests.) Among these is Banyan.

A Ficus in taxonomic relations (an older brother of the Weeping Fig found in many homes), Banyan has an unusual growth form. The branches develop adventitious roots that hang down and blow freely in the breeze. That is, until they touch soil. When that takes place, the root anchors, gets woody, and forms a prop that eventually becomes a new, or I should say, another stem. This will take place many times over such that the tree is composed of multiple entangled stems and branches. One gets the impression that this species isn't certain if it is a tree or a vine. Some individuals can attain heights of 60 feet and cover nearly half an acre of land because they have spread out and sprawled with each branch and dangling root. I’ve seen some Banyans that have grafted with others and become so intertwined that you cannot tell if you are looking at one, two or three trees.

The Banyan fascinates and disturbs me. In my understanding, trees are noble giants that stretch to the sky. When I think of “tree” I envision the towering primeval sentries of Longfellow’s Arcadia, or the ancient cedars and noble oaks of Isaiah’s visions, or Muir’s Sequoia giants that populate the Pacific coasts. I look forward to the day when I can hug a tree that ascends 32 stories into the sky. There is something inspiring and lofty and wondrous about that. I can barely envision it. But the Banyan is a Titan bound. As much as it would stretch to lofty stature, by its own nature it is repeatedly anchored to the earth, unable to pull itself loose and lift its mighty branches. With each new branch that fills with leaves, there are half a dozen appendages that more firmly tie it down to the earth and make it unable to soar like others of its kind.

I think what appalls me is that this tree more than all others becomes a symbol of my own failings and weaknesses and limitations. I am made to soar, to fly, to tower. I should stand tall and noble and inspire all who see me and know me. But each time I spread my wings, there is something, something about my own nature that further pulls me earthward, anchoring me in the dust of which I am made. All of that which should produce greatness in me has the potential to bind me to lesser, ignoble things.

I love Banyan. I hate Banyan. I don’t want to be Banyan. I am Banyan.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel
Esais of Amoz, Oracles
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline
Saul of Tarsus, Letter to the Romans
Samuel Barber, Essays for Orchestra
Josh Groban, Awake
Dakota Moon, A Place To Land

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Harbor of Tears

Wai momi. Water of Pearl. The harbor received its name from the Hawaiians for the abundance of pearl producing oysters found there.

The pearl is produced when a grain of sand gets into the oyster and causes irritation to the mollusk. The creature “weeps” nacre to relieve the irritation resulting in an accretion of lustrous layers yielding a precious gem. So the pearl is born through tears. Pearl Harbor could easily be named Harbor of Tears

It was here on a Sunday morning that the United States was drawn into war in the Pacific when the Japanese Imperial Navy sent two waves of bombers to destroy the American fleet. Half the fleet was crippled, and more than 2300 people were killed. The attack was unprovoked and politically charged. The USS Arizona was filled with sailors still in their bunks that morning. The battleship was destroyed and sunk in its berth, going down as a mass of smoking, twisted steel in nine minutes. There was no chance of escape for those inside.

The Arizona is not a National Park, or a National Monument, or a National Historic Site. The Arizona is a National Memorial. It is a tomb. Still buried in the waters are 1177 men whose bodies were never recovered because the wreckage was so massive and twisted. Of those who did escape on that fateful morning, upon their later death, 32 have chosen burial at sea with their fallen comrades here in the remains of the ship.

We spent a total of 13 minutes on the Arizona memorial, staring at the steel in the water, watching the oil seep up from the tanks below. There is a solemnity about the place. Not like Gettysburg, but still notable. It stands as a testimony of the heartbreak and the horror of what transpired between Japan and the US from 1941 and 1945. What began with an air raid, ended with atomic bombs.

Harbor of tears. Hopefully the pearl that results is wisdom.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality
Arthur Bennett, Valley of Vision
Michael Hedges, Aerial Boundaries
Bob James, Restless

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The page lay on my desk, beckoning me to consider carefully the nature of affection and trust. Twelve lines. Twelve lines borrowed from a modern. Twelve lines hand-copied and hand-delivered with a slight flush of the cheek and a furtive look of the eye. Twelve lines, three clusters of thought which together become one window thrown wide open to offer a glimpse of the heart which holds on to the hope that you are trustworthy.

The poem wasn’t even about love. It was about the late afternoon shadows of autumn and the clatter of leaves being spun along the pavement and the revealing of hidden fruit. But it was filled with romance.

I wonder how many of us miss getting a glimpse of romance because we have scales on our eyes and are really looking for something else? Our day and age equates romance with something sexual because that’s how Hollywood has defined it since the 1950’s. The Internet has amplified that association by becoming a channel for peddling it. I cannot even log onto my email home page without being daily assaulted by half a dozen irritating headlines telling me how I can have better, longer, more satisfying sex, or what scantily clad star was caught by the camera yesterday. Such a definition is so sad because it settles for so very little.

Real romance is so much bigger and all encompassing. Real romance is catching the flash of white sails on the horizon while standing on the beach with your wife and smelling the salt sea air. It is candlelight reflected in a glass of port while the fireplace crackles in the background and your daughter hums a peaceful tune. It is the chickadees flicking around the feeder or hummingbirds scrabbling over a blossom, and hearing your granddaughter shout “Yook!” in surprise and delight. It is a mother and daughter, hand in hand, walking a quiet lane, discussing children. It is a couple of friends walking through a field, laughing and carrying six ducks apiece at the end of a blustery day’s hunt. It is autumn shadows, clattering leaves and open-hearted trust. Real romance is every grace-blessed thing we could taste in this life received as a token of more for the next. Friendship, children, sharing good books or music or poetry, walking in the woods, feeling autumn’s shadows. It’s all romance. Anyone who would reduce romance to mere sex wanders aimlessly in a terrible poverty of soul.

That single page, hand-delivered with the cautious expression of delight and trust and hope was romance of the finest kind. The only appropriate response is to be found tender-hearted and trustworthy.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
John Donne, Batter My Heart
George Herbert, Love Bade Me Welcome
Wendell Berry, The Country of Marriage
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Edward Elgar, Enigma Variations
Pat Metheny Group, Something Left Unsaid (compilation)
This Day and Age, The Bell and the Hammer

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Really Fast Rats

When I was in college, we learned of the behaviorism experiments that were performed in psychology departments by those studying the stimulus-response mechanism. You probably know the ones I’m talking about.

In most cases, there was a box. In the box was a maze of walls that formed corridors with twists and turns and dead-ends that could be changed by the experimenter whenever he pleased. At one end of the maze was a little door. At the other end was a push-bar that, when pressed, released a spoonful of grain or something. The experimenter would send a rat through the entrance door and observe as he worked his way through the corridors, in and out of the dead-ends, back and forth through the twists and turns until he got to the push-bar. When he pressed the push-bar, of course, he got his reward.

The rat got better at this with each successive run. He figured out how to get to the push-bar without the deviations of the dead-ends or the confusion of the twists and turns. In fact, he would even run straight to the push-bar past the dead-ends even when they were opened into new corridors. The objective, after all, was the reward, the munchies at the end. No point in looking into new corridors … learning is not the objective, it was only here for the food.

I often wondered when they would try this stuff on people. What would they use as reward? Money? Sex? A “Rocky”-style celebration? I dreaded to think how little it would take to get me to respond properly.

Last night on the news, there was an intriguing little blurb about medical conditions associated with some video game involving guitars. My wife was interested in the medical conditions. I was interested in the film clips of the young people playing the game, since I had only heard about it before. The “guitar” is little more than five colored buttons on a fret bar, an up-down switch where one would strum the strings and a “waa-waa” lever on the body. Pretty simple actually. Apparently the player presses the buttons, flips the up-down switch, and jiggles the “waa-waa” bar in response to the video-music sequence displayed on a screen. The medical conditions were associated with hours of play as the participant tried to keep up with a faster and faster stream of programmed “notes” and actions.

My wife’s first reaction was “too bad that there are medical conditions associated with this.” My first reaction was, “Hmm. Really fast rats.”

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth
George MacDonald, Phantastes
Michael Hedges, Aerial Boundaries
Jan Hammer, Themes From Miami Vice
Beethoven, Piano Sonatas

Friday, February 8, 2008

No Continuing City

Ephemeral. Fleeting.

All last week was spent with about 50 teens as we worked on a play. On Monday, there was an empty stage, a group of about 16 who barely knew their parts, had no idea where to stand or what the movements were, and a collection of vague ideas as to what we wanted. During the week we built a set, practiced entrances and exits, shouted out lines, sewed costumes, adjusted lights and sound, modified dialogue, sweated the deadline and put together a play. On Friday and Saturday we performed the play before about 450 people.

We laughed, followed a crazy plot line, watched the display of some superb gifts, panicked over mistakes, believed we were in three different parts of Italy, and were exhorted about peace in marriage. And for a while we created an illusion that entertained and instructed.

On Saturday, immediately following final curtain call, we spent two hours and completely disassembled the set, stored the costumes, reset the lights, put away the props and cleaned all the floors. When we walked out of the building Saturday evening we left behind what we started with … an empty stage.

It was fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. For a week we worked hard, really hard, and had an absolute blast. But it was as lasting as the morning fog. It all passed swiftly into nothingness. All that remains is a few photos, a couple crinkled playbills and some great memories. Like a rainbow that can never be held on to, it faded from view. The only thing we could take away with us were the oh-so-valuable lessons of cooperative work, patience deliberately exercised, the good company of faithful companions, encouragement that led to excellence and the satisfaction of a job well done.

It is said somewhere that the glory of man is like the flower of grass. In the morning it is beautiful and fresh, and by evening it is dried and falling off the stalk. The illusion of this play and, interestingly enough, the events of life are like that. Like the lone and level sands to which Ozymandias points, our best works as well as our worst, shift and fade with the changing light. They are ephemeral, fleeting. Here we have no continuing city. What we really carry away is the wisdom that comes from having lived and worked with others, having loved our fellows, having encouraged unto excellence, and having gained the satisfaction of tasks well done.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias
David Hicks, Norms and Nobility
G. K . Chesterton, The Ball and The Cross
The Cinematics, A Strange Education
Hem, Rabbit Songs
Hem, Funnel Cloud
Vaughan Williams, Norfolk Rhapsody 1 & 2
Beethoven, Egmont Overture

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mingled providences

I cannot help but chuckle at the peculiarity of providence. What in this life isn’t some mingling of joy and sorrow? What in our puzzling existence isn’t some blend of the delightful and the grievous?

Marriage, for instance, is an interesting mixed bag. What an adventure. On the one hand, there is the delight of having the companionship of someone who complements you physically and emotionally and intellectually, and at nearly the same moment that person drives you crazy because they don’t think like you, react the way you do, or have the same pleasures you do. In another instance, work gives the satisfaction of having something to do that is worthwhile, fulfilling, (which is especially the case with me … I love my work) but is frequently laced with aggravations and frustrations that make me long for a permanent vacation in a tropical paradise … or maybe just a gardening job. But even then, vacation, however fun or entertaining or stress-free, generates a wan listlessness if there isn’t something useful to look forward to … and even gardens produce some tenacious weeds.

I could multiply examples, but just fill in the blanks from your own experience.

The circumstances that gave rise to my previous post haven’t gone away, and if I have any insights into life, won’t go away for quite a while. When they do go away, what will be left in their wake, good or ill, won’t look at all like what they started out to be; and nobody who is close to this will remain untouched. I certainly won’t be the same.

But the fragrance of Lilac is in these turbulent winter winds. In nearly the same week the upheaval came in, a new grandchild was born into my family, who is a delight to us all; and I will be so stupidly bold as to say I am the most thrilled. There is a fresh experience of wonder watching a child become conscious of the wide mystery of the world; and it’s an especially fresh and delightful experience when it’s your grandchild and you live close enough to be regularly involved.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Douglas TenNapel, Earthboy Jacobus
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism
Al di Meola, Elegant Gypsy and Casino
Doug Trowbridge, Songs Unspoken
Montreux, Sign Language

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fierce Winters and Sidestriking Winds

Turbulence and driving winds. That’s how this New Year has arrived.

This first week comes accompanied by turmoil, stress, pain and the threat of alienation. My family is in upheaval. Loved ones are hurt, becoming estranged and looking around for someone’s feet where they can lay the responsibility. People are talking about but not to one another.

I’ve been stretched emotionally like never before. Each day’s end brings the exhaustion of having to navigate narrow relational channels filled with rocks and the prospect of sudden shipwreck. Each night is mingled with ten thousand what-if’s that keep one awake with the unsatisfied hopes of a predictable outcome or some kind of resolution.

And it all comes through no obvious fault of my own. So much is outside of my control, and outside of my influence. All I can do is wait and sigh, and talk and listen, and catch up on sleep I miss at night trying to solve what is not mine to solve.

But since my nights are filled with a tangle of thoughts and emotions, here are a few:

1. What you have can disintegrate in a minute through pride and selfishness. And it can happen before your very eyes, even if you are scrambling to prevent it.

2. There is a principle called “dying to oneself.” It’s required of families. If you don’t die to yourself, you expect others to die for you, and that can only result in alienation. When you choose to lay down your own prerogatives and give yourself away so that others can be benefited, you remove alienation in most cases. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but more often than not, it does. But families have to do this, because each person is so different.

3. It is agony to watch someone you love receive the consequences of their choices. But if you don’t let them go through it, you might not love them quite properly or fully enough. Thus love frequently involves agony.

4. Through it all, you have to keep your eye on the compass. You cannot avoid being buffeted and driven and slowed to a stop and spun around and driven again. You cannot stop the turbulence and driving winds. But you can keep your eye on the compass and stay oriented and make course corrections as soon as the opportunity presents itself. This works best if you have a clear star beyond the horizon by which you set your course.

5. It sure helps to have a good crew at your side. You’ll likely never make it alone.

6. Oddly enough, ‘tis the turbulence that can make you. “An acorn is not an oak tree when it is sprouted. It must go through long summers and fierce winters; it has to endure all that frost and snow and side-striking winds can bring before it is a full grown oak. These are rough teachers; but rugged schoolmasters make rugged pupils.” Henry Ward Beecher.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring
Samuel Barber, Essays for Orchestra, including Adagio for Strings.
Cambridge Singers, Brother Sun, Sister Moon