December 1, 2010

Ridiculous math from People who take Time Travel seriously

December 1, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on fear, genius, and success

December 1, 2010

New iPhone app grades big-name brands on child and forced labor


February 1, 2009

madison_rainbowI came across a German word-Sehnsucht-that captures what I have often felt, a feeling I can only describe as indescribable. I can, however, name the various experiences and sights and sounds that seem to catch inside of me in a place for that purpose. What is it about the ocean and the rhythmic murmur of breakers and the capacious heavens wheeling above set with the pulsing light of stars that evokes melancholy and a deep yearning? Moonlight floating on the heaving water like mercury, the flashlight beams swooping about like yellow bats of families hunting for sand crabs, and teenagers flocking to the beach to avoid their parents and cruise for fleeting romance?

What is that shaft of emotion piercing the heart, like nostalgia yet different? Nostalgia is that bittersweet longing for a person or a sweet memory tucked away in the folds of the past. We know we often remember a caress as more significant than it was or a drunken evening as funnier than it really could have been. If we learn something from our mistakes, we say, “Hindsight is 20/20.” However, our memories always take on a luster and richness that perhaps speak more to a lack we feel in the present than a more nuanced understanding of the past. We need to remember in golden tones; we need to forget the altercations and swollen, tear-stained faces.

However, Sehnsucht, as I understand it, is a fierce longing for something or someone we have never experienced or met-a longing for fulfillment outside our spheres of experience. I understand nostalgia. For example, bus exhaust on Headington Hill above Oxford, England, brought to mind burnt gunpowder-boyhood days spent in a dove field, sitting but jittery with anticipation, the hay from the bale rough through my camouflage t-shirt, captivated as the birds sashayed and careened through the sunlight. Then, I would burst to my feet, the twelve-gauge over/under finding its nook in my shoulder, deafening explosions, birds stunned in midair and tumbling to the ground, puffs of feathers, pellets raining all around and sometimes stinging the skin. Crunching across the stubble to recover the birds. That boyish jolt of joy with skill and accomplishment and mastery. Feeling like a man for doing something well.

Unless I really dig back into those autumn days, I forget the many shades of my boyish anxiety: What if there are no birds? What if I don’t shoot well? What if I am embarrassed in front of strangers? What if we arrive too late or leave too early? What if I run out of shells? Unless I dig deeply, I don’t remember the inevitable sunburn I had the next day. I forget the make-up homework from skipping school. I forget the missed shots, the lost birds, my best friend’s younger brother who would always shoot too soon, and his mother who would claim birds I thought were mine, not to mention the dirty business of cleaning the birds and the sadness implicit in killing those delicate creatures even if for food, sport, and camaraderie. Or, did we kill out of envy?

We must work to piece together the full picture of a memory because we most often pick the ripest fruits and leave the less palatable. Something will always be left out, forgotten forever. And perhaps this is a gift from our Creator-the grace of remembering the sun-warmed sweetness, the triumphs that become more brilliant than they truly were, the failures without the full taint of humiliation, and the trespasses of others without the deep sting of anger. Perhaps nostalgia humanizes us in that regard. Yet, no matter how hard we struggle, we cannot live in the moment. I cannot fully appreciate her hair blazing at dusk; my father’s hands warm on my neck while he taught me how to tie a single Windsor; the big Rainbow out of Big Creek at the end of our last day of fishing in central Idaho. I was so relieved to land it and have my picture taken that I failed to savor the sensation of my rod straining against its power in the mountain-cold water.

Seeing foxes

January 30, 2009

img_5077_3_21I have an obsession with red foxes. I can’t remember when it began. I think I was surprised that something as impractical as a red fox even exists. What do they do all day? Steal chickens from coops? Where do they find coops in Brentwood, Tennessee, amidst the Starbucks and franchise restaurants?

One evening, my family ate at Saltgrass Grill in Franklin, Tennessee for somebody’s birthday. My dad’s side numbers over thirty now with marriages and babies. I don’t remember the food being much to talk about, but after we finished and walked outside to our cars, my mom pointed and said, “There’s a fox!” I’d seen them before, but only at night and in place with some patches of forest in the midst of suburbs and strip malls. In other words, just the type of place a suburban fox would call home. I’d catch a glimpse of bush tail just as the fox slips out of the reach of my headlights. These sightings happened at night, on Granny White Pike, or Lyon’s Bend in Knoxville, or on the road that takes you out to Mt. Vernon in Washington, D.C. I remember when I’ve seen them because a fox is in my mind a sort of cinnamon-colored, canine unicorn from Aesop’s fables. They’re cunning and sneaky. So what was that one fox doing trotting across a parking lot at sunset, as though it were on an errand, running to the grocery to pick up milk? Trotting is probably the wrong word. The movements of foxes are fluid, closer to a cat than a dog. They’re legs are long for their bodies. They have sweet, almost shy faces. They sometimes carry rabies.

I happened to have my digital SLR in the truck with me, so I drove helter-skelter after this thing as it followed an invisible path through an office park, stopping for a sniff here and there. I parked my truck and followed on foot. The fox looked at me like a cat: “What do you want, you bumbling oaf? I know all your secrets.” Then, it walked off without any sign of alarm. He looked back a few times out of curiosity. He was definitely a he. I didn’t see any tell-tale signs, but I knew. He turned around and stared at me through some fence slats: “Okay, okay, I see you. What do you want?” He finally disappeared through some Bradford Pear trees and a wall of honeysuckle behind a building. Oh, I remember now why he was a he. He lifted up his leg to pee. He didn’t seem to care who was watching. I think I know people like that. I was on a football team with about sixty of them. They also smack each other on the rear and say, “Good Game,” but from what I could tell, that fox couldn’t talk. His larynx was the wrong shape.

I digress. I got home, uploaded the pictures onto my camera, and was pleased to find several worth keeping. I set one of them as the wallpaper on my laptop. However, it wasn’t until I was writing the abstract for my Master’s thesis that I fully understood why foxes hold such significance for me. Yes, they’re mysterious creatures. They provide an apt metaphor for Ted Hughes’s poem, “The Thought-Fox.” Foxes are elusive and sudden like inspiration. “The sharp, hot stink of fox”–what a wonderfully gritty phrase. I love Roald Dahl’s stories. He wrote one called The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I think Mr. Fox was after the hens. Aren’t we all. But sitting down with a sigh to try to summarize my collection of poems in 200 words or less or whatever the count was, I realized that a fox sighting was similar in ways to encounters with the Divine. God shows up in unexpected places. If you blink, you will miss Him. You have to be paying attention, which takes practice. Brother Lawrence wrote a book called Practicing the Presence of God. Apparently, he learned to immerse himself in God’s reality while washing dishes. Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age. God promises never to forsake us. I’ve wasted a lot of time crying and asking God where he is. I often forget that I already know where He is. His Spirit dwells inside of me. I have to practice planting myself in that truth so that by God’s grace I can live in light of it.

Keeping watch–vigilance–requires discipline. You might say that seeing God, and seeing foxes, is a lot like hitting a fastball. You have to train your spiritual eye. Some of us will never learn how to hit a fastball, so here’s the good news: if we seek, we will find. If we watch, we will see.

However, lest someone accidentally read this and misunderstand, I’m not saying seeing is believing. Faith hurts. Faith is hard. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, but when I die, I would like for people to say that I walked with a limp and took the name, “Israel,” because I wrestled with angels and cried out, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

So then, let seeing foxes be the guiding metaphor of this blog, whatever it may become. My prayer is that we all may know God, his son Jesus, and a fox or two.



Swinging a Pickax

January 29, 2009

The last year of my life has been the most difficult. At the end of a ten-month long intentional community, I found unemployment, unrequited love, unhealthy loved ones:  a series of un-‘s, a necklace of lacks.

I suppose I went through textbook stages of emotional tumult, including sadness, grief, frustration, anger, and on occasion, peace.  I wondered what was wrong with me.  Why wasn’t I more resilient?  I must not be trying hard enough.  The problem is you can no more heal by force of will a wound in your heart than you can one in your body. Healing takes time–a truth that brings no comfort.

When I taught high school for a year after finishing my Bachelor’s, I would run into more experienced teachers in the hall and copy room.  They’d ask me how it was going, and I always tried to be honest.  I tried to be funny so as not to alarm them, but said in effect, “Not good. Not good at all.”  It seemed like half my time was spent babysitting high-schoolers who should know better.  I was teaching at my alma mater, and while I was there, I knew better than to ask my junior English teacher if I could take a long-distance call on my cell phone during the Beowulf unit test.  One of my students did that.  I felt like I was failing on all fronts.  In front of the mirror, I found white hairs mixed in with the brown.  Those kids were sucking out my color, my vitality.  As they ran off copies of assignments and hand-outs, my colleagues response to this was, “Well, the first year’s always the worst.”  With this platitude and a Sweet ‘n Low smile, they returned to their Edens of Learning.

Saying the first year is the worst did nothing to carry me through the difficulty of those class sessions.  Saying that time heals all wounds is a lie. It doesn’t. Time deepens some wounds. Even if it were true, such knowledge makes for a poor painkiller.  Show me the man or woman who can sit around feeling wretched and not ask unanswerable questions at the same time.  Job of the Hebrew scriptures certainly suffered more than I have, and when he asked why he must suffer, Yahweh said something along the lines of, “Where were you when I made the world? Who is the clay to question the potter?”  God’s answers weren’t exactly a salve for Job’s boils. As sick as he must have been, something tells me that Job could have mustered enough energy to thrash anyone who came along and said, “Time heals all.”  Yes, but what about how I’m feeling now?

I’ve been looking for ways to pick up the pieces, to gather up my disappointments and take small steps forward.  Most of my efforts felt like swinging a pickax at a rock wall.  I could see chips flying, but was making no dent, certainly not an escape route.  It took me months to realize I was imagining my ideal life, the life I should be living, somewhere on the other side of that wall.  If I could just break through, I’d be living the life I wanted.  The woman I loved would love me back.  The literary press would offer me my dream job. A very clean and respectful roommate would opt to take the smaller room in my duplex in an effort to simplify his life.

I was squandering all my energy dreaming of how my life should be.  My fantasies took me out of the present, out of reality. Then, in a moment of clarity like the first dazzling shaft of sunlight after a rain, I understood:  This is my life.  The only one I have.  There is no other.  If I broke through the stone wall, I would find more of the same.  Not only this realization but more. My life is full of small gifts. An unexpected visit in the hospital from a lifelong friend and his wife. A much-needed check from my grandparents. Lunch at one of my favorite restaurants paid for by a brother.

My failure has been not in finding a job but in practicing gratitude and deepening in trust. Jesus of Nazareth observed how the Father looks after the sparrows.  He will also look after us. However, centering myself in my life, however barren or broken it may seem from day to day, and learning to trust that my desert will become a fragrant garden is often painful work.  I won’t choose to trust if I can choose instead to look after my own prosperity.  Perhaps I can use the shoulder strength from swinging that pick to hold up my hands in praise.

Barking Dogs

January 29, 2009

Every neighborhood has two types of dogs.

There are the quiet, submissive dogs that slink with their tails between their legs along the invisible border of the electric fence.  These are the dogs that gaze at you with wet eyes and look as if the fate of the free world is balanced between their shoulder blades.

There are also the barking dogs.  They cannot help but bark.  They cannot stop.  Their owners yell at them from front porches and back decks–“Shut up, you stupid dog!”  Their owners apologize when they have dinner guests:  “We got her at the shelter and think she might have been abused.” They plead with their dogs and try to soothe them:  “Sophie, be quiet.  Honey, it’s okay.  Please–stop–barking.  You be nice and come over here an say hello to Mommy’s friends.”  

Of course barking dogs could care less about our complicated systems of etiquette and decorum.  The only things that actually concern barking dogs are longer opportunities to bark.  Barking dogs arrange all sorts of growls, whines, woofs, and howls to serve the occasion: cars, oh yes, cars, they get barked; mothers pushing strollers; families riding bikes; and other dogs.  The apex of pleasure for a barking dog is the chance to bark at another dog.  More important than the sex of the victim or even the victim’s proximity to the barking dog is that nothing, especially another dog, gain passage through the barking dog’s dominion without proper abuse.

I have stared at a dog trembling with anger because, well, I don’t know, because I exist?  It would bark at me for standing nearby until one of us was dead.  I stop for a moment to contemplate the situation:  Why does he bark?  Most if not all dogs have the capacity.  A barking dog is a mystery.  Why is he unable to control himself?  He may bark out of fear or protective instinct or doggie joy, but I suspect there’s more to it.  I suspect he barks because he must.  Barking dogs have to bark.  I stand beside my truck or where I stopped my walk and consider this creature as he arranges another masterpiece.

His commitment to barking is beautiful.  That he even look at me while he barks is unnecessary.  He may pace, wearing a rut in the lawn, or he may bark over his shoulder as he walks away.  But he barks.  Why does he bark if the barking is not about me or even about him?

I understand him.  I write because I must.  I cannot help it.  Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to go through life as a person uninterested in writing, a quiet dog.  Of course here the metaphor breaks down, as all metaphors must.  The two categories of dogs do overlap. Sometimes the quiet dog musters a yip or two.  Sometimes the barking dog finds better amusement than harassing every passer-by.  I am not saying that people for whom writing holds no special allure are quiet or submissive.

I used to speculate why I derived from writing such intense and consistent enjoyment.  The operation is simple enough:  stringing together words to form sentences and paragraphs, to ultimately capture and convey an image or idea or coherent thought, to produce a moving piece of writing that bore something of me, of my heart and mind and soul.  But why?

I now feel less compelled to identify my motives, hidden and explicit, as if doing so would matter to anyone but me in the first place.  Even as I use words to capture certain experiences or exercises in contemplation, I feel less inclined to isolate why expressing myself was so important to begin with.

That I am a child of God, reborn in Christ, engaged in acts of imagination and creation is enough, is an end of itself.  When Moses asked God, materially present in a burning bush, who He was, God responded, “I am that I Am.”  He was sufficient unto Himself to explain Himself. Peace comes when we cease seeking to understand layers of hidden motives and agendas for our every action and behavior and instead turn to contemplate God’s love.  When we move past morbid introspection, and instead dwell on God’s divine life within us, we hand over the need to take care of ourselves, fix ourselves, and protect ourselves.  We concern ourselves less with doing and more with simply being.

Barking dogs bark because they must.  I write because I must.  I write because I am.  Somehow as the Father’s love flowed to His Son and is the Holy Spirit, in the first act of love in an infinity of beginnings, and then the Godhead breathed life into us in an act of love and power, we received God’s character and image, Imago Dei.  We all carry a portion of God’s mystery.  We must create  because we are born of and sustained by God’s love and power.  If at first I wrote out of fear or joy, I now understand that I create because I was created.