It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self- conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations are in a conspiracy to under-value them.
Henry James
author (1843 - 1916)


These Two Books

These two books.

As different as two books can be, in some ways.

But if I do not purchase any other book for the rest of this year, I will have done well in the book purchasing department.

Because of these two books, I scrubbed the shower today. There's some serious avoidance and procrastination going on when scrubbing seems like a good idea. But I recognize the signs. It's these two books - they're getting to me. And as I fall asleep at night, the story I am writing begins to play in my head again.

Father Brown has died

On Sunday morning, we drive to Portland (about an hour) and we go to church at a traditionalist Anglican parish. Now ... "traditionalist" for Anglicans can mean anything from Morning Prayer on most Sundays, to Holy Communion every Sunday, to Holy Communion done as a Sung Mass. All of these worshiping ways, though, use the Book of Common Prayer, and in America, the traditionalists use the 1928 version. (And where we go to church, there is a chanter, and all the minor propers, and incense, and bells. Here is a picture of the inside of the building.)

Now, I wasn't raised to go to church like this. The only thing we did "together" (as in, saying the words together) was the singing. Even the praying was extemporaneous - although, as any good and faithful evangelical knows, this sort of prayer becomes quite stylized, and you can tell what flavor evangelical you're listening to if you listen to the praying. They just don't call it "liturgy" and they don't believe in anything "formal" -- in fact, you can even hear them say things like "it's not a religion, it's a relationship." So all in all, praying together, saying the same words at the same time, that's something I had to learn.

And I did learn it. I have learned it. And what I learned about this practice is that C.S. Lewis was right. Once you have learned it, you can use it to get to God. Instead of spending Sunday morning listening to others talk about God, or listening to others talk to God, or talking to God quietly inside one's self in words one searches for in the moment, the people who pray corporately can use the service in which the words remain the same. They can get to a place wherein the meaning of the words (and not their order, pronunciation or rhythm) is the focus. Instead of listening to a prayer or saying a prayer, the people can finally just pray!

This isn't all that foreign of a concept, after all. When you have a surprise party, and the guest of honor walks in, everyone yells the same word at the same time, and they all mean it, right? We don't have a surprise party and have every one hide, and then jump out and come up with their own words for "you didn't expect this, did you?" and say them all at the same time. And we don't generally sit around in plain sight, and then when the guest walks in, have one person stand up and explain (in his own words, saying whatever seems most true to him at the time) to the guest why we're all there waiting for him. We all jump out and say surprise together - and we all mean it.

Over time, I have figured out that corporate prayer is to religion as orchestrated instruments are to a symphony, and as cooperating voices are to choirs. I have played and sung music with others, and I can tell you. These things are the same. Once you learn the notes of the "music" off the page, you can really begin to be in the music, and be part of the music - you begin to really play the music. Together, the parts in concert with each other makes a thing not possible for any one person alone to make. The sounds all come at once of course, but when music is being made in its most full and living sense, it's not just the sounds. The individual energies and emotions and the relationships between all the players and all that each one brings to the corporate activity, and the lives and energies and attentions of the audience, all gather together for the "live music" experience. If you have ever been an audience to this or participant in it, you know that it is not like any other thing. It is its own thing. The corporate experience of music is its own thing.

I do not say that individuals cannot communicate with God - I say that the corporate act of doing so together - of coming as a Body to offer the One Body, and kneeling in confession, and thanking in unison, and accepting the Gift together - doing this worship as a corporate group teaches the Christian the deepest meaning of The Church. We are not each on our own - we are all part of each other. That is what is it to be in The Church. And knowing this and doing this are two vastly different apprehensions of it.

There is as much difference between feeling and attempting to think along with someone who is praying extemporaneously, following the conversation that person is having with God (or thinks himself to be having ... sometimes the listener does wonder if this is a conversation or a monologue), and praying the same thing together with other people, as there is between the practice room on Thursday and the orchestra pit at the Friday concert. And sometimes joining an orchestra, for a short time only, a Master makes the music as part of the group, and because of this the music is changed.

At our parish, we didn't know Father Brown for very long, but we loved him very well. On the Sundays he has been with us, he has walked in the procession of altar party and Sacred Ministers, leaning heavily on the arm of one of the younger men. He has been carefully deposited each week "in choir" - which is to say, he sat in the benches between the rood screen and the altar rail. He didn't serve at the altar. His service was of another kind in the time we had with him. His service was the kind that does not have words, or place, or obvious role in time. He struggled to his feet for the Gloria and sang in concert with the rest of us, and he bowed his head to receive the blessing of God from the hands of the priest at the altar. Father Brown was the priest at the end of his life and ministry, now witness to, example for, and in an odd way, the strength well-loved by the younger men who will bury him this next week.

They could talk to him about a life in service to God and God's people. He could talk to them about the many things he loved in his music and his books. They had the communion men in a vocation have, and together, they processed up the aisle and together they left again at the end of the Sunday's service, the older, bent, much more frail man leaning on the arm of the younger ones. At least, that is what we could see with our mortal eyes. I think, though, that if we had but a little of our immortal sight, we would be seeing things quite the other way round. And I know that now the music of our prayers has been changed. He prays better now - we will have to wait awhile to pray with him again.

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace,
and may light perpetual shine upon them.


Pretty smart guy

I've never heard of deChateaubriand before ... but I think he must have known some things. I have just found these quotations:

You are not superior just because
you see the world
in an odious light.

One does not learn how to die by killing others.

Vicomte de Chateaubriand


Hushing my inner Squirming Toddler

You've seen them, right? The little kids with the round, active little bodies ... big enough to run and climb (and search and destroy) ... big enough to give hugs and blow kisses and stomp while saying a most adamant "no" to someone? And you've seen them struggling to get free from the lap of a parent while the parent is struggling mightily to thread the child into a sweater or keep the child from harm in some way?

Well, I've decided that we never grow out of it.

Every new phase of life - every fresh challenge and renewed call to vocation and incoming set of disciplines that will make greater or deeper things come into our hands - it causes the same reaction it did when we were three years old. We stomp our feet and refuse to admit to necessity. We pretend to be deaf. We pretend to be stupid. And when the new call finally grabs hold of us, and takes us onto its lap and begins to thread us into our new lives, we squirm like crazy to get free.

Lately, my inner squirming toddler has heard a calming "hush" and felt a firm and loving hand. There is a call - I can hear it. I am being asked to face it - stop trying to get away - calm down - hush. But oh, the distractions grown people can find!


Regarding Listening

“When you listen to somebody else,
whether you like it or not,
what they say becomes part of you.”
-- David Bohm

"To talk to someone who does not listen
is enough to tense the devil." -- Pearl Bailey

All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language,
until it finds a willing and prepared listener.
Robert Louis Stevenson

“Everything has been said before,

but since nobody listens

we have to keep going back

and beginning all over again.”

Andre Gide

The following is not an Onstar conversation ... but it's close

Have you heard the commercials? Someone has locked their keys in the car, or they've had a collision "with airbag deployment," or they're in labor by the side of the road ... and they call Onstar - and someone gets them out of their various predicaments. (I'm not sure I want to live in a world where there is no possible thing I can do that will ultimately have a consequence ... where all I have to do is press a blue button and all will be well, no matter what kind of a knuckle head I've been ... but I digress.)

Well, there's no Onstar operator here, but I think there's an Onstar Parent. Two of 'em actually. It has occurred to me that when the kids talk to us now, they're asking for Onstar help. (Well, not every time they talk to us -- I mean, when they're asking for help, it's this kind. They do talk to us otherwise -- not quite sure where some of that razor sharp wit came from either!) See, with the service the operator doesn't come to fix anything. And the parents here don't generally "go" or "do" anything either anymore. And we can't (and wouldn't) unlock the car doors for the person who is peering at the keys in there -- but while we don't call the emergency personnel (or anyone else), we do seem to have the role of saying, "Yes, I know you can get from where you are to where you want to go. I've driven there before."

It's very interesting, that's for sure! You never know what the question's going to be. (When they're little, you can usually tell - but now it's a surprise a good percentage of the time.) And you discover things you didn't know you knew. It turns out that midlife has some distinct compensations - a bit of experience (should you choose to accept it) turns out to have been a good teacher. So you know things like - why the response is perceived as anger, when it's really embarrassment - or yes, it's worth it to keep your integrity intact, no matter who else isn't. Stuff like that.

One thing I think would wreck our Phonehome Service (a service provided currently both on the phone and in person) is some sort of presumption that we were the ones who needed to drive their vehicles. They'd never figure anything out if we did that. But fortunately, we have three kids, and there are only two of us. So over the years, we've learned to give them as much of their own lives as they could possible handle - all the time - at each age. They've chosen their own vehicles, and we don't even know how to drive them.

All in all, even the horrors of the 3 in the morning heeby-jeebies of worry and what if? and all the rest of it that comes at that awful hour, it's still mostly very enjoyable to be at this phase. It's kind of a way to have lots of adventures without having to go anywhere - like getting a travel journal written by someone you'd really like to travel with. I can recommend it.

Ezekiel's Bones, Part II

(Don't go looking for Part I of Ezekiel's Bones. I didn't write Part I. I lived it.)

Here - from the King James version of the Holy Scripture - is one of my favorite, most deeply satisfying, and reassuring passages. It's from the thirty-seventh chapter of the book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.

I love this passage. I have always loved this passage. And back in the days of my sojourn with the extreme-right-wing-conservative-Baptist-Bible belt-southern folk of my college years, I experienced this passage in a way never found before or since. See, those folks in the south - they have a social custom of recitations, and recitals, and performance art that is closely linked to their revivalist mentality. So, at the end of every year, we heard contests for music students, and we saw contests for art students, and we sat for the sermons of the "preacher boys" (ministerial students). It was generally pretty lively stuff.

And then, every once in awhile, we'd get a traveling Evangelist coming through. Now, I was raised in the West. The extreme West. We don't do Evangelists. (I've just realized that that could be taken in a couple of ways, and you can feel free to take it in any way that seems fitting to you.) So all of this parade of "Revival Meetings" and "Altar Calls" and men who "had to" sacrifice their lives with their families in order to follow "God's call" to travel around and yell and weep and plead and stomp at people ... it was all novelty to me. I had no context for it. For me, it was like stepping through the pages of a Mark Twain novel and getting trapped in the story. For four long years (because I'm not a quitter!), I stayed in that waking dream, and I saw the panoply of people who called themselves Evangelists.

Some of these guys had their families with them - and they all traveled together in what was, for that day and time, a large motor-home, fully loaded with tracts and booklets, the patient, supportive, helpmeet of a wife with the hair that never moved in the breeze, and an assortment of oddly skinny children. They would pull up to the college, and they'd be the speakers at chapel that week, and we would have the pleasure of their presentation for Sunday morning church and Sunday evening church that weekend. Sometimes, the long-suffering wife would appear in a fantastically wrought skirt suit, with her immovable hair piled up as usual, and she would sing for us. (I had a friend once who wondered why the woman kept singing about a "bomb" in Gilead.)

We didn't see the likes of Mr. Graham among the Evangelists who passed through our college - that man held consort with the Lib'rals! He was not propuhly sepahrated frum the world - so we did not see him. But this poster is a pretty good rendition of the enthusiastic fervor that surrounds the Suth'n Revahvuhl Meeting, with the very "dynamic preaching" - which dynamism increases incrementally each day, if you get a whole week of it, as we did every spring. That was my college's idea of Spring Break.

One year, one of these roving families answering God's call to go forth and preach came with kids who Recited. So, at chapel that week, the kids got onto the stage at the front, and they Recited. Now, did I mention that I grew up in the wild, lawless, live and let live, laid back West Coast? We have a few earnest redneck types out here, but we think they're kind of funny - especially if they talk like southerners. I never thought anyone anywhere took such people seriously - but I found out that down in the Bible Belt, the people really do talk like that! While I was in college, everyday speech patterns often made me want to laugh out loud -- but the day I heard Ezekiel 37 Recited by a skinny kid wearing black suit, white shirt, and skinny black tie, was a day it did not occur to me to laugh. I was riveted. I never saw a kid so intensely earnest (or earnestly rehearsed) doing ... well, doing anything! And this wasn't anything. This was my passage. Those bones of Ezekiel's - I knew those bones.

So I sat and listened to the son of the Evangelist as he declared most mightily the question of God. "Sun of mayun, can these bones leeuv?" That kid was full of the power of something that day. That's for sure. It was beautiful. And a little scary. And wonderful - he Recited the entire chapter! Top to bottom. He was utterly spent at the end. The drama of the story had consumed him as with fire from the mountain top. I'd never seen anything so ... so ... well, so.

And now here we are, a quarter of a century later, and whenever I think of that chapter, I think of that kid. That moment. The breathlessness of it. The drama of it. The consuming fire I could almost see. And until this time in my life - now - here - when I have thought of that chapter, I have thought as far as "Oh Lord God, thou knowest." For me, this vision of Ezekiel's has been a kind of metaphorical language - a mental image to use to get to a place where it was safe and peaceful to just rest in the fact that God knows. God knows. But now something has shifted.

Part II is commencing.

After Ezekiel says, "You know, God," the next thing that happens is the story of Ezekiel's Bones, Part II.

Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.

Do you see it? After the question (any question) is answered with "God only knows," the next thing is the story of what happens to the bones. They came together. Bone to bone, sinew to sinew ... and the prophet could HEAR it! (Man, I love this story.)

And then Ezekiel notices that "there is no breath in them." There they stand. They look like people. He's actually HEARD the building of all these people - they were put together right in front of him, and there they stand. But they do not live. And the God who knows tells the prophet who is listening to do something about it.

Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

Of course, I know that this is a prophecy about the nation of Israel. I know Ezekiel did not see a vision of a prophecy of my life. But all life is life. And for the first time in my life I see something I did not see before. I hear something my ears could not hear before. I am becoming more and more ready to quickly reply "God knows," and have that be my normal, ordinary, and peaceful response.

But now, now I think that I am ready to say something to the wind.


Mr. Mosley's Book

When this book, by the author of Fortunate Son and Devil in a Blue Dress (and a lot of other titles) came out in early April, I heard a radio interview with him. Mr. Mosley is a bit ... well, he's scary! But, he's scary in the way that your best teachers and your most inspiring role models have been scary - he's scary in the "I really want to measure up for him" kind of scary. Motivating scary. "'Potential' just means you ain't done it yet" scary. Stop whining and get busy scary.

So yesterday I bought this slim volume of his. I'm not supposed to be telling you, though. I'm supposed to be working. So don't tell him I said anything. I don't want him to know.


Political Action Call (from me! of all people!)

Go to that site. Do your part to make sure that in the realm of MUSIC at least, it's possible for people to give people what the people want without someone somewhere somehow getting a financial bite out of it for the sake of control. Sheesh! SOME things just ought to be left free to flourish! You know? Spread the word! Tell your pals! You have until July 15. Go!

Pavarotti, and now Paul Potts

If you have a sound card, make it the best thing you ever purchased for your computer by going to this site, and watching this video. I have tearing streaming down my face after watching it, and I wonder what on earth is in the water in Wales.

Paul Potts sings!

Narrative Therapy

I need some grant money for starting a business - anyone else want a piece of this? I'm going to call it Narrative Therapy, Inc., and the service I will offer is this. Have a conference with me about your life and your troubles ... the issues you can't resolve ... the crap that keeps making you slip and fall because you just never know when you're about to step in it ... the parts of life you don't get ... and I'll begin a course of therapy with you. This therapy will consist of only about 10% talk, and the rest will be spent in watching movies, attending plays, and reading books. We will talk about what you saw in the assigned narrative, but the point of it is the narrative itself, and the ability of the imagination to enter into it. How's that sound? Want in?

See, I think that the world of imagination has gotten a bum rap in our modern times - our "sordidly materialistic" times, to use the words I read in an article once. Novels were scorned and forbidden by Victorian Era Presbyterians, and "romantic" continues to be a word of dismissive rejection. It means "not realistic" - or ... "not practical."

Then there's the "actor" thing. All the way back in the days of Shakespeare, nobody of any social standing would admit to having a relative in the theater! Actors weren't very socially acceptable folk -- and heaven knows, there is plenty of reason to decry the personal morality of our current set of "Hollywood" celebrities. (I always think this is a bit silly, by the way. Ordinary people usually do act like idiots when a whole bunch of people are watching them all the time, and actors are just ordinary people being watched all the time. And what kind of news is there in "Joe Actor is a good man who is faithful to his wife and loves his kids" - who's going to report that?)

And fiction of any kind is just "lies," after all. Right? I have even heard some people - the kind of people who need to "believe the Bible" in the most odiously block-headed and simplistic sense of that phrase - declare that the parables Jesus told were all "true stories" about real people everyone would have known. Nonsense! Why the whole reason for the Bible in the first place is for the keeping of the record of The Story! It's a story - it's about God's interaction with people in time on earth, and it is a story, ultimately, of Betrayal and Redemption. It's a story - the whole thing together is, I mean. It's not a series of stories having nothing to do with each other.

But I digress. All of this stuff is stacked together by some people, and then the pile of "impractical" and "lies" and "silly" is what they point to when they say, "I don't have time." There are those who say that the imagination is a "fallen" and "sinful" thing. Or, others who seem to think that fiction of any kind is at best an occasionally interesting waste of time. It's a mere leisure activity to engage in a willful suspension of disbelief. It's not how a person gets his work done. It doesn't produce anything if you sit and read a book - or if you watch a movie. That's goofing off.

And that is where living, breathing, feeling people begin to turn into wooden puppets. That's my Observation du Jour. If we will not lose our souls every once in awhile in the realm of the imagination (because God is the maker of all things - visible and invisible), we will lose them for sure. I'm not talking about ultimately - that's a topic for a different discussion. I'm talking about here. Now. Humans are supposed to be able to learn and grow and expand and take root through stories. We ignore the invisible parts of creation to our own peril. It's bad for us to pretend that the seen is all there is.

Folk tales and faerie tales -- stories for the imagination to work on. Feel the edges of your own most base and shameful assumptions about people begin to crack and crumble a bit when you watch or read To Kill a Mockingbird. Understand the nobility of personal sacrifice and the ignobility of personal grasping when you enter Tolkein's world of Ideas given life as Characters. View deepest evil in Kevin Spacey's portrayal of a media mogul in Swimming With Sharks, or get a grip on personal relationships and the connection we can find if we'll just give up self-aggrandizement for a moment while you enter the story of Family Man or Groundhog Day. Begin to allow yourself to let go of the weight of a thousand ancestors and learn the meaning and context of Pleasure as you watch the exquisite Juliette Binoche in Chocolat.

And if ever you find yourself unable to feel a connection to the world around you, do not ignore the symptom. Try Narrative Therapy - get a grip on your own imagination again - it is your inner eye, and if you're blind in one eye, you lose perspective.


Banana Cream Twinkies!

Morning Edition, June 13, 2007 · Legend says that Twinkies have an infinite shelf life. Not quite. You would taste a difference if you bit into a Twinkie that was on the shelf since 1930. The snack used to have banana-cream filling. Vanilla replaced it during the World War II banana shortage. Now, Hostess has brought it back. After eating one, a New York woman says, "It almost makes it seem like it's a little bit healthier."


Never Complain, Never Explain

... and if you Google that pithy little saying, you'll find it attributed to the following people:

Benjamin Disraeli
Wallis Simpson
Henry Ford, II
Katharine Hepburn
... and a whole lot of other people who have been heard to use it.

I heard it first from Mae Bell ("first name Mae, last name Bell"), a woman who has now entered the next life, and because of this we here in this life are all much the poorer. She was amazing. She was an artist and quite the self-educated theologian, and when she opened conversations with the Rector of our parish with her words, "I have a question," he always knew he was about to dig into his library for an answer. She always asked hard questions. She was the epitome of dignity, always pleasant, and although she was nearly blind, she walked everywhere until very nearly the end of her life. And I never heard her complain. Never. Not once.

I noticed something about Mae Bell. This habit of hers - "never complain, never explain" - it was part and parcel of the rest of her. She did not complain, and so she also did not cultivate worry. Or doom-saying. Or fretfulness. She was old, she could not see clearly enough to identify you before you spoke, and she was sensitive to certain foods. But I don't even know which foods they were because I never heard her say! She just didn't complain or moan or worry or fret or make a spectacle of herself in that way. She graciously accepted help when she needed it, and just as graciously declined when she did not need it. She was perhaps a bit too intently interested (in everything) to be called "serene," but there was not a scrap of complaint in her.

And as to never explaining ... well, in the sense of "teaching" she did as much explaining as anyone could ever want. Or in the sense of elaborating a point of view - she could do that with few words and precise thought. But she never offered any kind of "excuse" for herself or her behavior or her past or her circumstances. That is what is meant by "never explain." It means "don't make excuses." And it means, "do not focus the conversation on yourself under the guise of explaining something about yourself." And it means, "own - and rightfully dispose of - your own crap instead of handing it to someone else."

Into what did it make her? What did she become by living a complaint-free and explanation-free life? It made her into a person who did not think enough of herself for such excuses to occur to her, as far as I could tell. She made her life about things large, cosmically and eternally large. She knew where she fit in the context of the Whole. She knew (even if she didn't know the song - but I wouldn't have put it past her to know the song) the truth of the Monty Python "Expanding Galaxy" song.

... remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth...

I think that, because she was not casting about for justifications and reasons and explanations that might get her off any hook
(real or perceived) with other people, she turned into a person who saw the rest of creation, "visible and invisible," from inside herself, past herself, and beyond herself. She saw...



the communion of saints



her God

There is a part of the canon of the Mass in which the priest says, "And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom."

When he says this part, I list in my prayers the now-departed people who have been good examples to me, and I pray God's grace for the "sweet repose and holy progress" of their souls and for my own following of them through this life and into the next. Mae Bell is always in that list. From her I am trying to learn that my life will be deepened and broadened and made more beautiful if I will never complain and never explain. Thank you, Mae.


So ... a toad walked into a bank ...

A very fancy toad went into a bank to get a loan. He was all dressed up like a dandy, and his taste was impeccable. He was, in fact, dressed for success.

He walked like he meant it. He strode into the bank, and up to the desk of one of the loan officers, and without being asked, he climbed up into the chair and planted himself in its cushy depths as if he owned the place. With a glance at her name plate, and ignoring the startled look on her pretty face, he said, "I would like a loan, Ms. ... uh ... Ms. Patricia Wrack. May I call you Patty? I need some money for a good cause - and I'm good for it. You can trust me. I need three million dollars."

It took a moment or two, but the pretty, young loan officer recovered herself, and finally sputtered, "I'm sorry ... but ... are you a toad?"

"Young woman, you can see quite clearly what I am. And I need a loan."

"I'm sorry, sir, but we do not loan money to animals - of any kind." (She didn't want him to think she was unfairly discriminating or prejudiced or anything.)

"Ms. Wrack, I am not unaware of bank policies. I am rather well connected - my father is, in fact, the famous Mick Jagger. I'm sure you have heard of him. But I can't expect you to believe me on that score. Here. This will reassure you. I have brought collateral." And at this, the toad dug a small figurine from his coat pocket and set it on her desk. "There. You see? That is a priceless statue, and you may hold it until I repay you."

She gaped at the piece of tacky plastic on her desk - and decided she needed help.

"Just a moment, sir. I need to talk to my manager. Would it be okay with you if I took this -- uh, this statue with me to show him?"

"Certainly, certainly. I know the man. Tell him I said hello."

Cursing the day she decided on a career in finance, the young loan officer took the plastic figurine into her manager's office and shut the glass door behind her. He looked up from his desk, and when he saw her face, he stopped what he was doing and paid attention.

"Sir, I am sorry to barge in like this, but I have no idea what to do. See this?" She put the figurine on his desk. "That toad - yes, a toad! - out there says that this is his collateral. He wants a loan - in the amount of three million dollars! For this! This plastic do-dad. I have no idea what to do."

The bank manager looked out through the glass of his office door and saw the toad sitting in the chair, nodding to the people in the bank, behaving as if he were a most important client. He relaxed a little, and turned back to the younger woman.

"Do you know who that is?" he asked her.

"No, of course not. He told me he's the son of Mick Jagger, for crying out loud. He's obviously crazy. What should I do? I mean ... look at what he thinks collateral is!"

And the bank manager said ...

"It's a knick-knack, Patty Wrack. Give the frog a loan. His old man's a Rolling Stone."


A writer tries

In utter loneliness a writer tries
to explain the inexplicable.

John Steinbeck

We are what we pretend to be,
so we must be careful
what we pretend to be.
Kurt Vonnegut


To tell the story ... to hear it

This was the weekend of The Play. The Doghouse Theater troupe at the high school did a production - a crazy, inventive, imaginative, energetic, slightly off-balance but never falling down, exuberant production - of Robert Fulghum's All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The players put a crazy old man into the clouds on a lawn chair, and played hide and seek as little kids, and waltzed as senior citizens, and danced with the kitchen sink, and very realistically had the bride throw up. Everything that was still being figured out and decided as late as the morning of opening night got figured out, and all the players who seemed as if they'd never learn their lines did learn them, and the whole thing was really quite fascinating. They did a great job.

And it got me thinking about the power of a Good Story. It draws us in - every time - nobody can resist a good story. Very little children will listen (over and over and over) as their favorite stories are told, and will revel (over and over and over) in the anxiety of the baby bird looking for its mother. I haven't yet met the child who didn't care about that bird - for the eighty-seventh time.

Of course, if you know the ending, then "you are not my mother! You are a Snort!" is side-splittingly funny and not horrifying like it was the first time. But the story is just as full of ... as full of ... what is it?

The academics can tell us that a Story is, at its most basic, a situation into which comes some anxiety, which is then followed by resolution. Is that it? Is that the reason all God's chil'n love stories? Is it because we somehow sense that our own situations could include some anxiety at any moment? Is there a sort of underlying insecurity we all feel - some psychological residue of that first "startle reflex" every baby has? Some knowledge that our own situations are precarious somehow and that we do - or that sometime, someday, we surely will - need some kind of resolution in our lives?

The attraction to Story has to be something intrinsically human - it just has to be. It is a universal attraction - all the people from all times in every place have had the Story. Campbell called these stories "myth." We use the words "legend" and "tall tale" when we talk about Paul Bunyan and Casey at the Bat. Young people have categories of stories - ghost stories, for instance. Mid-schoolers will make them up when they run out of them at slumber parties. And babysitters distract and entertain this way, and millions of parents are begged at bedtime to "tell me a story."

Good stories draw us in. They take us to places we have never known, but even when we do not know any place like that, when it's a good story we will always know people like that. We are people like that.

When I started this blog back in January, I wrote about a painting - Between Green and Orange, by Don Dahlke. I began to see that the Land Between was my native land. I can see now that I live between the seen and unseen - between the mortal and immortal - between the theory and the practice - in the land of Why and What About The Other Thing. I think this is why that painting made me cry - it was calling me to come to where I really live. Between.

When I think about that painting it is the same as listening for the Story. I find myself straining to hear -- something. Music, maybe. But "music of the spheres" and a sound made when "the trees of the field clap their hands." Choirs too - I hear choirs - almost. It is Emily of New Moon's "flash" that comes to me.

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside--but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond--only a glimpse--and heard a note of unearthly music.

This moment came rarely--went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it--never summon it--never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. To-night the dark boughs against that far-off sky had given it. It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of "Holy, holy, holy" in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a "description" of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

But that is Emily's flash. For me, it is different. For me, it is a door. I stand in front of a door that is barely open, but is opening. On the other side, I know - I know in a way that is more certain than my awareness of my own existence - I know that when the door opens, what lies on the other side is a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty. All the best stories are, I think, the promise of it. And all the anxieties we feel (all the plot points of all the stories) are the human worry that when that door opens, we might miss it.

Madeleine likes Emily too!

I must say! I am pleased about this.

This is more from the book Madeleine L'Engle, Herself, and it concerns one of my favorite literary characters of all time.

"Journals were not in vogue when I was a child. I kept a journal probably because Emily of New Moon kept a journal, not because I had any encouragement from my teachers or family. I also kept a journal because somebody gave me a pretty notebook. I used to love to go into stationery stores and look at the pretty notebooks, particularly when I was in France and saw the notebooks with marbleized covers and little leather corners. You couldn't see a notebook like that and not want to write in it."

The Emily she speaks of - she is nearly as real to me as any childhood friend I ever had. This passage, from the second chapter of the first of the three Emily books, is a glimpse into why that is. I know this girl. I think, often, that I was this girl.

Emily sat on the sofa with her eyes cast down, a slight, black, indomitable little figure. She folded her hands on her lap and crossed her ankles. They should see she had manners.

Ellen had retreated to the kitchen, thanking her stars that that was over. Emily did not like Ellen but she felt deserted when Ellen had gone. She was alone now before the bar of Murray opinion. She would have given anything to be out of the room. Yet in the back of her mind a design was forming of writing all about it in the old account-book. It would be interesting. She could describe them all--she knew she could. She had the very word for Aunt Ruth's eyes--"stone-grey." They were just like stones--as hard and cold and relentless. Then a pang tore through her heart. Father could never again read what she wrote in the account-book.

Still--she felt that she would rather like to write it all out. How could she best describe Aunt Laura's eyes? They were such beautiful eyes--just to call them "blue" meant nothing--hundreds of people had blue eyes--oh, she had it--"wells of blue"--that was the very thing.

And then the flash came!

It was the first time since the dreadful night when Ellen had met her on the doorstep. She had thought it could never come again--and now in this most unlikely place and time it had come--she had seen, with other eyes than those of sense, the wonderful world behind the veil. Courage and hope flooded her cold little soul like a wave of rosy light. She lifted her head and looked about her undauntedly--"brazenly" Aunt Ruth afterwards declared.

Good News and Bad News

So which do you want first? The good news? Well, there's this saint - he's not in this life anymore, you understand. He died in the year 373AD - he's called Athanasius.

He's a staunch defender of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and he's the Bishop of Alexandria, and he is impervious to pressures to change his teaching. And by "pressure," I mean something a whole heckuva lot closer to persecution. There were Arians, you see. They were convinced that the man who was called Jesus could not possibly have been the very Godhead enfleshed for us. If he was a Man, he was not God. They were sure of it.

So ... here's the bad news. (Bad news for Athanasius, I mean.) He kept getting exiled. He was driving the Arians nuts. I mean, people followed him, and they listened to him, and they believed his teaching, and he wouldn't shut up. Jesus is God. He just kept insisting that this statement was the truly Christian teaching, and had been since the time of Christ himself, and that it's at the center of the Christian Faith. So he had to move. A lot. Often. Frequently. And not down the street ... down the globe. So that was the bad news - for Athanasius.

But it was good news for Christianity. Everywhere this holy (very stubborn) man went, he kept on teaching the Orthodox, Catholic, Faith delivered once for all, and so every time he was ... uh ... well, moved along, the Orthodox teaching spread. And eventually the Church came down on the side of Orthodoxy, and the Arians were declared to be the heretics. (Not that this heresy disappeared. We're in more of a Gnostic phase as a culture at the moment, but Arianism never really goes away.) It was Athanasius's bad news (and serious inconvenience) that he was hounded from town to town, only to be reinstated as Bishop of Alexandria again, and then exiled again. What a life!

But this was our good news. It was good news for the Christian Church that in the age of Heresies (which means: in the age when the very few basic heresies first raised their Hydra Heads of multi-mouthed attack and injury on Christian people everywhere, apparently until the Age to Come), Athanasius went all over the known world, and everywhere he went he fulfilled his office as a Bishop and defender of the Faith. We needed him. We still do.

So what's my point?

My point is this. We have no clue how our own "bad news" looks from the vantage point of Heaven.

None. Not the first clue. We can't know because we can't stand up there and see it while we're in the middle of being hounded from town to town (either literally or metaphorically). We live in our lives - not outside of them. We live in time - not beyond it. From here, where we stand, our only perspective is our own perspective.

But here, where we are, we do know a few important things. We know what we're supposed to do. You don't believe me? Well, here's the list. (hint: It hasn't changed for awhile.) And here's the short-hand for the list. The first four are our duty toward God, the last six are our duty to our neighbors, and they don't change.

They are:

Love, Worship, Reverence, Diligence,

Discipline, Kindness, Self-control, Honesty, Truthfulness, Contentment.

That's it. That's our job. Those are the Ten Commandments, and that's all there is to it. It doesn't matter where we are - at home in Alexandria, or exiled to parts unknown. (Did he take a cook? What about his clothes? His books? Who did his laundry? What if he got sick?)

And this isn't a lesson unique to Christianity either. No matter where we are, if we will just do the work that is in front of us, in our own hands, right now, and stop (for heaven's sake, just stop!) trying to manage the stage set, the direction, the lighting, and the sound, and just play the part we have, living "the dream that will need all the love you can give, every day of your life, for as long as you live," then we will be able to turn around someday and see what it meant. Athanasius didn't know, back then. How could he? And we can't know either. Not yet.

But we will.


Flaming June

Flaming June
c.1895 by Frederick Leighton


George Will is Brilliant

Now, just for the record, I get it. I do. I understand the attraction of "sport" in general, and even American football in particular -- honest. I never know where that danged ball IS at any given time, but I get it, okay? I do. So with sincere apologies to all the Monday Night Football devotees ... this is funny!
Football is a mistake.
It combines the two worst elements of American life -
violence and committee meetings.

George Will