Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Topography of Love

While we sat at breakfast, I surreptitiously studied her face the way I would the ridges and rills of a wind-carved land. Each line, each wrinkle that etched her skin told its own tale of love and prayer and toil and perseverance. They ran together into a network of stories, one long story, composed of the joys, sorrows, trials, worry, laughter, and love of life. It was a face I had seen my whole life and a face I still don’t know very well. Strangely enough, with all those wrinkles, it looked anything but worn out. This was not the personality of someone who is just hanging on, waiting for the end, but a cheerful soul who enjoys the life that is given this day.

She’s 92 and still full of spunk. (She thinks BINGO is for “old people” [whoever does that refer to, … the hundred-somethings??], preferring shopping and line-dancing when she can get out.) She’s buried her husband, her sister, her brother, her son-in-law, nephews, nieces, cousins, and probably long-lost lovers. She’s held in her arms and laughed with her great-great-granddaughter. And if I have her genes and I get to be that old, I think this is how I want my face to look. Cheerful, grave, filled with story … lived in. A topography of love.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Anonymous, The Chronicles of Israel
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5
Eric Hayford Rhodes, Shout!
Lyle Mays, Street Dreams
Gordon Lightfoot, Sundown

Monday, November 19, 2007

For Peculiar Reasons

Today was a really good day. But it was good for all kinds of peculiar reasons.

I got about 6 hours of sleep last night which is an hour more than normal, so I felt rested.
I had a cup of well-made coffee of the proper strength while reading before first light.
I had a nice hot shower which seemed luxurious …. but that happens every day. I once went a month without being able to get cleaned up, so a shower every morning is a luxury anyway.
I wore a new pair of socks that were bulked up on the bottom and my feet were comfortable.
The front seat of my Jeep felt right.
The trees are nearly barren with only remnants of leaves decorating the branches. I love this time of year “… before the coming of the snow.”
The air smelled wonderful, the weather was improperly warm, and the sunshine on my head felt like a soul massage.
There was a hawk against blue sky and a Flicker was laughing at me from a nearby sapling.
A friend of mine wore a new bow-tie.
Another friend laughed at my faux pas and it made me feel significant.
There were leaves being carried on the breeze which made me wish I could fly.
The office staff spent 15 minutes laughing at silly stuff.
I finished a little project that was dogging my steps for the last few weeks.
I was surprised by butterflies on November 19.
Someone fixed us a delicious meal, just because …
The moon has risen and is splashing light all over my front lawn.
I am glad for the dog down the street barking at who knows what.
The day ends with a glass of delicious 2005 Cabernet.

I feel like the king, sitting in his counting house, counting all his treasure…

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny
Arthur Bennett, Valley of Vision
Alexander McCall Smith, The Kalahari Typing School for Men
Hubert Parry, Lady Radnor Suite
Pat Metheny Group, Something Left Unsaid (compilation)
Charles Tournemire, L’Orgue Mystique Suite No 24

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Banner Where It Counts

I was paging through a study guide for Ken Burns’ “The War” this afternoon, casually looking at photos, when suddenly, my attention was riveted on a black and white of a banner strung across a merchant’s store front. It announced to all in capital letters “I AM AN AMERICAN”.

At first I puzzled wondering if this was a disclaimer because of his ethnic background. Was he German or Japanese and needed to assure his neighbors and clientele that he was a good guy during troubled days? America was nacreous with peoples from all around the world. Was he receiving suspicious glances from his neighbors because his accent was guttural or his eyes heavy-lidded? Was business dropping off and he needed to invigorate it by stirring patriotism?

But then I got to thinking … whatever happened to the plain declaration, “I am an American”? The banner took on new life to me. What would happen if I put something like this across the front of my house? How many special interest groups would slobber all over themselves to get me to take it down because it made non-citizens (and, heaven forbid, people in other countries) feel bad?

Two years ago, while being interviewed for jury duty, I got to know a fellow from Lafayette Square. During our conversation, he referred to me as his European-American brother (he’s black). I laughed out loud because it sounded so absurd. I told him that I was no more European-American than he was African-American; we were Americans and that should be sufficient. That the whole point of becoming American was to not be European or African. America was something distinct, desirable, liberating. Europe was a place with rulership that was too old, and laws that were too entrenched, and traditions that were too stuffy and lifeless. Europe was a place where boredom pushed the thinkers to embrace enlightened philosophy which then tolerated Nazism and Stalinism.

America was freedom, America was opportunity, America was possibilities and innovation, America was shedding those old alignments and starting fresh. Between 1870 and 1920, more than 20 million people did whatever they could to get here so they could have a new life. When they came, many Anglicized their names so they could be a part of this new world, this country. America, as G. K. Chesterton states, was founded on a creed, and those who came here believed that creed enough to become a part of it. They weren’t “Other-American” anything.

But even more than that, there were some who were so convinced it was the right thing, that they pledged their lives, and their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish it. And others who were so convinced it was the right thing that they gave the last full measure of devotion to preserve it. And still others who were so convinced it was the right thing that they poured out their life on a foreign shore to push back the long dark night of villainy that threatened to swallow up the deeply-rooted liberties it offered. Tell them that they are “European-Americans”. Each one of them had a banner on his heart in bold letters that read, “I AM AN AMERICAN.” And so must we if we hope to keep what we have.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Alexander McCall Smith, The Kalahari Typing School For Men
John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership
Will Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew
Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dulcinea
Lyle Mays, Lyles Mays
Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Norwegian Rhapsody No. 1 and No. 2
J.S. Bach, The Goldberg Variations

Friday, October 5, 2007

Full Throttle

A life oriented toward leisure is in the end a life oriented toward death – the greatest leisure of all.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird.

I have a friend who is perhaps 15 years older than myself. I’m afraid to ask her age, mostly out of respect, but also because of self-preservation. The weight of the obligation in knowing may prove to be too great for me. You see, she is a silver-haired, full-throttle, start-a-holic. She is always beginning some new project that will have lasting significance in some part of the city. Really. I don’t think she does anything that doesn’t contain future blessing for others. Thus I view her as an inspiring role-model.

Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) once commented that “Forty is the old age of youth and fifty is the youth of old age”, in which case, I’m a few strides into my youth. Which makes me ashamed when I think about my friend. I’m looking for ways to settle in to my culture and she is busy shaping one. I listen wistfully to acquaintances who are enjoying retirement, diverting my mind and heart with desires of daily rounds of golf, afternoon hours with a trash novel, and evening chats on the deck while sipping Pinot Grigio. She is off to a meeting about how to start a college or where to confront the next social issue threatening the family or who should head up a neighborhood renewal program. I’ve a growing suspicion that when her body finally gives up the ghost, we will come to the visitation and discover a petition of some kind pinned to her blouse, which she will expect us to sign as we go by.

My friend lives as though Lamott's quote is her launch point. Retirement isn’t part of her vocabulary and it really shouldn’t be part of mine. Leisure and rest will come soon enough. Until then the best use of my time is labor that contains future blessing for others.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Paul of Tarsus, Letters
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating For Shalom
Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head
Pat Metheny, American Garage
Charles Butterworth, English Idylls

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Far-sighted Idiots

To be able to see evil before it begins to act takes clear distance vision. Most of us hardly see it after it has begun to have its effect. But to be able to stand against it before it acts, or before it has its effect requires a special commitment to that which is good and always has been good. It requires a resolve of character and life that knows no compromise, knows no dilution, brooks no counterfeits to what is timelessly right.

The one who lives by such resolve and acts upon such resolve is considered an idiot, a lunatic, a nuisance, a demon, until the real demons bare their teeth. And it isn’t until much later, when everyone’s hindsight has been clarified through suffering, that they feel comfortable enough to say that the lunatic was right after all.

The throngs are blind with pop culture, reveling in foolish ways, and taking up a foolish mantra. And they pretend to be wise afterward when they can see what eventually had to be explained to them and they should have seen earlier. And without the far-seeing idiot, they would have been turned into slaves or unwitting henchmen or fertilizer because of their tardy efforts at resistance.

I’m beginning to suspect we need a good lunatic right about now

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Stephen Mansfield, Never Give In
Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 3
Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 2
Mark Isham, Film Music
Pat Metheny, Still Life Talking

Monday, September 10, 2007


The larger portion of my life is a kind of whirlwind, often because I haven’t learned how to say, “No!” But mostly it’s just because there is so much to do and so little time by which to accomplish it. The nuance here is that the limitation of time is not the mere imposition of a deadline, rather it is the comprehension that our days are numbered, thus time is valuable and we are to maximize our positive impact. The story is related of Cotton Mather’s father that as he lay on his death bed, he reached up to his son to get his attention and said, “I can’t die yet. I have so many books to finish.” Yeah … it’s kind of like that.

Periodically, I get away, which happened within the last few weeks when I went fishing with my son and some friends. I escaped to the Ozark Plateau Province without my computer, day-planner, address book, and paperwork, meaning I had little intention of doing anything more than fish, sit in front of the campfire and stare into the starlit expanse. Actually, I was the cook for this little excursion (…… everyone survived.)

The best part was our evening fly-fishing in the headwaters of the Current River where people don’t usually go. Evening on the river away from the madding crowds is good for the soul. Especially when the river puts on its primeval mantle at day-end. The gentle conversation of bubbling water, the soft promenade of evening mist and the chance to be lost in thought while pretending to angle for trout has got to be one of life’s little therapies.

More than therapy, however, is an instructive whisper to the spirit that this is a token of what has been lost. There is something paradise-ish about riverfog in the early evening. A reminder of the pristine days of the world’s youth, when man was not so much an agent of consumption as a husbandman of beauty and order. Not like the new-agers might declare it, where the untouched places of the world send forth vibrations that allow us to contact the ancient and ubiquitous all-pervasive non-conscious spirit. Rather like an old love-letter saved and cherished and ever speaking of unswerving eternal devotion.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
David, The Thirty-fifth Psalm
Kaki King, Legs To Make Us Longer
Leo Kottke, One Man, One Guitar, No Vocals
Chip Davis, Sunday Morning Coffee
Hubert Parry, Lady Radnor Suite

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Good morning, Moon

Early morning. Four-forty-five ante meridian and the moon hung like a smudged basketball over the western horizon, looking more spherical than I had ever seen it. Fascinating.

How weird and entertaining is it that there is a sphere that orbits the earth? Ordinarily, the moon is just a silver disk that sits above the world lighting the night, the bright circular end of a halogen flashlight. But this morning it was more three-dimensional, more intriguing, and more alive, that’s it, more alive than at any other time. It made the distance between ball and ball seem so much shorter, and space behind it seem so much deeper, further away.

It got me to thinking about the other eclipsing arrangement. Here the earth was the perpetrator casting cold shadow on cold orb. But there are those times when the moon slips between sun and earth, choking off heat, blotting the light, exposing just how vulnerable we really are, and standing ever so briefly in a position of veiling power that reveals an ordinarily hidden glory, the solar crown. How unbelievable that we live in such a place, in such a world!! It’s a wonder that we can even sleep at night.

Today’s Influences and Soundtrack:
John of Patmos, Letters
Christopher Parkening, In the Spanish Style
Gioacchino Rossini, String Sonatas

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Go For A Walk

I recently sent a few hand-written notes out to some students just to greet them and tell them I appreciate them. A trickle-through report has one student who knows me fairly well, turning to his mom upon receiving the mail (snail mail …. remember that?) and saying, “Whose handwriting is this?”

Have you ever noticed with email, especially corporate email, how some people expect you to be sitting in front of your computer and ready to respond instantly? This is one of the irritations with Blackberry’s. Instantly on call through the Internet. I know one fellow who lives in a steady-state of low-level panic and jumps nervously when his Blackberry vibrates. He is instantly compelled to read it and answer whatever message came in. It actually reminded me of a Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. story set in the future (which is probably here by now) where people were equalized mentally, physically and soulishly through a governmental agency and electronic devices they had to have with them at all times. The Blackberry thing is an insidious form of slavery. So is email when people expect always-on attention and instant responses. The only instant response that makes sense to me is the automatic one that returns an email stating, “I’m on vacation for the next 3 weeks. Suck it up and live without me.”

I still have dial-up and that’s not likely to change anytime in the next 5 years given my location. You can imagine what an irritation I am to the corporate digitizers. I check my email 4 times a day whether I need to or not, and I respond within another 4 to 6 hours to those that seem sort of important.

Ultimately, the choices we make about technology shape and sometimes direct our lives. When we accept a new technology, we either control it, or it controls us. We never really remain neutral. I’ll no doubt touch on this with regard to iPods, cell phones, automobiles, gameboys, etc. But this much I must say now. I am not a materialist. By that, I mean that I don’t have to act a certain way because a new process, new gadget, new technology comes to the market. I don’t have to accept all the changes it brings. I prefer to drive my automobile and not have my automobile drive me. We should prefer to consciously use our technology as a tool and not have our technology turn us into something a bit less human or turn our world into something a bit less humane. And really, to do that, we need to shut it all off and go for a walk in the real world.

Today's Influences and Soundtrack:
Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny
Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War
Michael W. Smith, This Is Your Time
Roy Whelden, Galax
Felix Mendelssohn, Choral Pieces

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Long Pause

With a sort of solemn fascination, I’ve observed a tree in a nearby park all summer. In mid-spring, after everything had recovered from the frozen hammer that hit us, this strong specimen of oak was healthy, vigorous, and well-placed for growth during the stressful drought of a St. Louis summer. At more than 50 years old, it had everything going for it. Right now, it is nearly dead. Two living branches remain sticking out from its scarred trunk; hopeful, etiolated but unpromising. Everything else in its 45-foot crown is withered. And its been a long, slow, instructive demise.

I first noticed it while bike riding. The bark had been blasted off the north side; a telltale sign of super-heated cambium. This was lightning death. As a spring cold front swept through, electrons in the field collected on the bark, turning the living tissues into a giant capacitor. When they became hyper-active and discharged to the sky, they turned the blood of the tree into steam, expanded, and took the living cells with it. BLAM! From a distance, we heard thunder. No one, probably, and certainly I hadn’t, heard the sigh of an insentient creature giving up its life-force in the struggle against futility.

The weird part about this, and what has captivated me, is that this wasn’t the tallest tree in the area. Within 20 feet on both sides, there are taller trees, more susceptible I would think, to being struck. They weren’t touched. And it makes me ask by what criteria this one was singled out.

It’s the not knowing, not seeing, that draws me and troubles me. Because this happens to people, too.

It was said of Jonathan Edwards that from the age of 17 on he contemplated is own death every day. This wasn’t morbid. If anything, it was intensely realistic. He did this to make certain that he would be able to say, each day, he lived as he thought he should have in the face of eternity. I’ve watched that tree with the same sort of temper.

My brandy is finished. Time for bed.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny
Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings
Gabriel Faure, Requiem
Imogen Heap, Speak For Yourself
Jake Armerding, Caged Bird

Friday, July 27, 2007

Missing Ingredient

I’m broken-hearted tonite.

While I’m an introvert, I work, like most of us, with people. By that I mean I work with them as souls and spirits, not just as bio-machines that are little more than extensions of the copier or workstation. So … I get to know who they are in the core of their being. I get glimpses of their central convictions and the things that offer them hope. I get to share a little bit in their burdens and their disappointments. I also get to see, sometimes, the demons that plague them and the longings of their heart and the dreams that put wings on their feet. It is a curse. It is a blessing.

For three years I have invested in a very gifted someone who has been lingering on the edge of hope. This has included prayers and pleadings and conversations and challenges and encouragements. Today I learned that it has produced no hopeful fruit. That someone walked away and proclaimed it all to be meaningless.

My broken-heartedness does not come from my time and effort being wasted, because I don’t believe it was a waste. It doesn’t come from the dissatisfaction of no return on investment. It comes from watching someone turn away from light and peace and promise and hope, and choose a path filled with quiet, appealing, smiling deceit and progressive blindness.

This can only lead to being lost in the wilderness. And it breaks my heart.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sound and Smells

“Now divine air! Now is his soul ravished! Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?”

Much Ado, Act II, scene 3.

I think Benedick speaks for me here. I love Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Such a stalwart bachelor who is secretly, slowly caving to his affection for Beatrice. When he makes the statement above, Benedick is listening dispassionately to a love song which several of his friends were swooning over. In his quizzical comment on the poor resistance that we display against the emotional power of music, I think he surreptitiously touches on something mysterious and mystical in the world. It IS strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies. It is a curious thing that certain forms of music move us profoundly in the spirit.

This is a powerful mystery. A physical action at one location can have and often has an emotional and spiritual response in the soul of rational creatures. Really, how DOES the plucking of a string, which results in a vibration of “sheep’s guts” and air, and triggers a vibration response in our ear, evoke from us longings and joys and remembrances and unseen pleasures, and even fears? Ever hear the tones in a well-crafted air-horn? Frightful. They are only sounds, … but frightful, fear-generating nevertheless.

There is something mysterious about these things. And quantification only goes so far. Vigen Guroian, orthodox theologian and avid gardener, finds the same thing in fragrances. He likens them to the viewing of colors. How can you describe a color to someone who hasn’t “experienced” it. How do you describe aromas to someone who hasn’t had the privilege of smell? But its more than that. It’s not just being able to describe the fragrance of something. Fragrances and odors move us. What does the fragrance of lilac or lavender or gardenia or alyssum do for you, or to you? How about coffee or a good wine? Ahh, yes. Tokens of paradise.

There is a plethora of things that we moderns easily lump into a mere physics category; the physical action of vibrations or organic molecules or light waves, when in reality they are so much more. Each seems to be a portal into something of the mystery in the Universe. Frankly, it IS strange, however true, that sheep’s guts hale the souls out of men’s bodies. But no stranger than the beckoning fragrance of a rose making us long for something eternal.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Vigen Guroian, Inheriting Paradise
John Mark, Gospel
John Barry, Out of Africa
Coldplay, X & Y

Monday, July 9, 2007

With a Twist

Labyrinthine. This is what makes for a good story. It must be labyrinthine. There must be twists and turns and dead-ends and switchbacks and a destination; and perhaps there may need to be a string that one can follow to find one’s way out or back. Umberto Eco* asserts that three labyrinths are needed. A spatial labyrinth, whether it be a city, a building, a cave, or something Minos created to confound his enemies. The hero and the reader must run the risk of getting lost and having to fight his way through. Secondly there must be a relational labyrinth. People are a puzzle anyway, but a good story involves several personalities whose lives are intertwined and one risks getting lost in the matter of who affects who and who is the culprit and who is the anchor and who is the stooge and so on. Thirdly, there must be a psychological labyrinth. The hero must be sorting himself out as he sorts out where he is, where he is going, who he is dealing with and what difference it makes. Who he becomes is more important than where he is getting.

Labyrinthine. This is what life is. We would like life to be straightforward and simple with the destination clearly in view and all the pathmarkers printed in reflective silver. But it’s not. Even for those who know without doubt the final destination, the labyrinth must be walked through. And it is probably a good thing. How boring and dangerous is the predictable life with no sudden turns, no startling obstacles, no exhausting uphills. Without these things we wouldn’t have surprising vistas, satisfying solutions, or victorious summits. Nor would we have the call to courage, the labor of creativity or the demand of endurance. Without the labyrinth, would we become anything? Merely having a map and compass does not get you to where you are going. They only give direction. You still must walk. Who you become is more important than where you are getting.

With all of its switchbacks, dead-ends and unexpected twists, involving the multiplicity of personalities and the discovery of oneself, life is a wondrous story.

*notes – Umberto Eco. 2001. The Name of the Rose. Harcourt, Brace, Janovich. Pp. 528-530.

Today’s influences and soundtrack:
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Alexander McCall Smith, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
John Mark, Gospel
Nightnoise, compilation including Hugh, Hourglass, Bridges

Friday, July 6, 2007

Stouts and Starts

The half-finished stout on my desk is a local brew that doesn't quite match up to the Irish products I've had in the past. For the moment it will do, as it provides a kind of distraction while I mull through this post.

The reason I'm starting this is because of a suggestion that "it builds community where most people are living." I doubt that actually. I live next to a redneck who doesn't care a lick about the Internet, and across the street from a guy who is a year away from retirement and doesn't care about the Internet, and behind a couple that who are never home to use it even if they had the Internet, and I suspect they are all pretty typical of most of the folks within a fair radius of this keyboard. The community I know chit-chats in the evening at the property line about tomatoes and burned out front lawns and the improvements they're making to the kitchen floor.

My dread, of course, is that this will simply be one more thing that takes time and requires regular management.

My computer requires more time of me than I wish to give it. Sadly, it is a useful tool.... so I use it. Tragically, it threatens to control my mind and my time and my life and my finances. Between viruses, spyware, software that gets zapped by static electricity, security filters, firewalls, and who knows whatever else, many of my daily resourses are consumed by this thing. I don't even want to go into how much time it cost me yesterday while I adjusted a database just so I could get an accurate report from it. Just to set this blog up tonite cost me an hour and a half. Tell me ... do you really have that kind of time to throw away? If today was your last day on earth, would you have wanted to waste an hour and a half schmoozing with your computer? This thing is a toaster for heaven's sake. Who in their right mind spends their evening with a toaster?

But since I believe there is some benefit to come from this, then let the games begin....

The stout is finished, its last bitter aftertaste lingering on the tongue. A good end to a good day.