Saturday, December 29, 2012

Thy Business Without Doors

Prepare your work 
And make it ready 

for yourself 
in the field;
Afterwards, then, 
build your house.

These lines leap off the page of my Bible, as if embossed. Curious, mystery words. There is room for multiple meanings in these phrases, to move around and settle. And even when you dig into the original Hebrew, you only come up with more intriguing ambiguities. "Prepare" can also mean "be established in." Work can mean "occupation" or "business", but is also used for God's creative work in Genesis, which sends my brain in a whole other direction. Not to mention "house," which can mean "family." 

They catch my attention, because I have been so taken lately by the desire for a dwelling; something of permanence and beauty in a very ephemeral and sometimes ugly world. A place where Christ's forever-kingdom can establish a grasping tip-toe hold until the whole thing comes down firm-footed in the new heavens and the new earth. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. But He is also the Son of God, and the earth is his footstool. We watch and wait for the heavy tread  of heaven upon our little clods of earth. 

And till then, we yearn. Oh these weeks of waiting, punctuated by feverish activity, fresh hope, little victories, and disappointments. Why did sign on for this again? The second guesses and self-questioning inherent in those seasons of our lives known as transition times. (Are they all transition times, after all?) Four accepted purchase agreements, and three fall through. Did we hear, reckon things aright? Only the fourth has stood the test of rigorous inspection, appraisal, approval, consent, assent, authorization, green light, go-ahead. The banks can't be too sure these days. 

So, in lieu of "building a house" immediately, we were left for some time to "prepare our work outside." Or, as a commentator rephrases: "diligently attend to thy business without doors, whatever it is." Business without doors. The past two months, all of our life has been without doors. We have been living, working, loving, and learning without doors, walls, windows, or property lines of any sort. The effect, as usual, has been curiously liberating and restful. We have lived happily, richly. Our time has been spent working hard, supporting one another, enjoying people, remembering what is first in our hearts. And in so doing, we have had the opportunity to set aside more than a downpayment.

Afterwards, then, build your house. And we have nearly reached the "afterwards." 

Friday, October 26, 2012

True Home

Last spring, we started to feel restless. We were coming up on the third anniversary of our current apartment, which was the longest stretch of time we'd lived anywhere since being married. And if we were going to bother moving, why not try to get into a modest house? The market was so very appealing. But could we qualify? 

Within a few short weeks, we looked around in surprise at our situation. We were making an offer on a darling bungalow in Minneapolis. A few days later, our offer was accepted! We were thrilled. The next step was the inspection. We scheduled it, I picked up paint chips at Menards and started dreaming.

We showed up – excitedly cautious; cautiously excited. As soon as we exited our car, the inspector approached us with a clipboard and succinctly stated: “You should know ahead of time: it is my job to be negative.” We gulped hard, nodded, and followed him through a nearly-two-hour tour that slowly made it plain that this house had major issues. Not just cosmetic – but structural. It was emotionally exhausting, and by the end we were both spent. We owe Al (our inspector) a great deal more than the inspector's fee – he saved us from a lot of heartache, but it was difficult to let go. A few days later, we retracted our offer.

We had scarcely blinked when another property popped up and we signaled to our realtor that we'd like to see it. She obligingly met us, opened a shiny red door to another bungalow, same neighborhood, more space, and much better shape. Wow! And when the inspection rolled around, our trusty Al found much less to complain about. The house had good bones. We hardly expected to get the house, but we made an offer, beat our at least 8 other people in an auction! Now we just needed financing. After three weeks of agonized waiting, we found out that the bank did not think the house was worth what we offered – but rather much lower. $20,000 lower. Our hearts sank into our boots. We had gotten so far on this one.

These trials and joys surrounding our search for a house have been difficult, but they have been so good. How can the bad be so good? Because with each step – whether the ground holds firm or wobbles and crumbles when we put our weight on it – the Lord holds us near and we depend on Him. In Psalm 37, the poet says: “Trust in the LORD and do good; Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.” Do I believe that? More so now than ever.

Today was to be our closing date on the second home. Instead, we are packing up boxes to put in temporary storage. In a few days, we shall be - as the French delicately put it -“sans domicile fixe” (without a permanent address) and staying with generous family members (we love you!). The past week has been quite the mental and emotional ordeal.  The door has closed...and we're not inside of it!

Nonetheless. We are not truly homeless. 

Our true home is prepared for us continually by our Heavenly Father. He is setting up the rooms, shifting the furniture just so, placing our favorite books on the nearest shelf, starting the kettle for a cup of coffee or tea. He longs for our return to Him, to walk through the door and into the glorious, light-filled relationship with Him that we call home. When we've been away for a while, we tend to fear all kinds of things - that the gardens are overgrown, dust has overtaken our library, ice dams have destroyed the roof, the structure of the house is no longer solid, the door won't open when we knock – but all of this in untrue. He keeps this house in order so that, as St. Augustine writes, “when we are absent, our home falls not to ruins.” How? This home He builds, prepares, maintains – it is eternal.

Regardless of what happens with where we live, I can say without reserve, with the Psalmist: “The LORD is the portion of my inheritance and my cup; You support my lot.The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dry Truth

The days twirl out like a leaf spiraling down - dry, dusty, sweet. The earth is still warm despite the cool of night and each morning renews the odors from the day before, crushed and lovely under feet. It is good to breathe all of this. For the eyes to gulp in the sun's beam. 

We've been laying up gems, treasures of the earth. If they last the winter, we will be happy. With food and clothing we will be content, because He never leaves nor forsakes us.

And then there are those afternoons now which are full-blown soft and sweet. Seeds scatter to the air, to the blue. In a few weeks, their downy wings will be wet and trampled underfoot, but for today they sail triumphant.

And that evening walk last week, when crisp winds straightened the field grasses, combing the landscape, letting her copper, stalky hair wave wild. 

"One reason I so deeply care for the camera is just this...handled cleanly and literally in its own terms, as an ice-cold, some ways limited, some ways more capable, eye, it is, like the phonograph record and like the scientific instruments and unlike any other leverage of art, incapable of recording anything but dry truth." (James Agee)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Late Afternoon Living Room.
Drawer Pull.
Beneath our feet.
Just in case.
Corner Coffee Shop.

Front door.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Fact and Fiction

We are living in a climate in which "fact-checking" and "truth" are increasingly important ideas. It appears as if our drifty, sound-byte society has finally begun to make us nervous. Frankly, it's about time.

However, the media's cure for our predicament might actually be worse than the disease. Meet the official "fact-checker". He or she goes to the-er, Internet - to find the most reliable information to refute or support the claim in question. But wait- what's this? There are fact-checkers checking the fact-checkers. Who is right? How do we know? This is not a brand-new phenomenon, of course. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides takes a healthy jab at his contemporaries, claiming that "the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied on. Assuredly they will not be the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth's expense." And that was well over two thousand years ago.

The return volleys (fact-checkers checking fact-checkers checking fact-checkers...) make it obvious that even things that are supposed to be solid, concrete, and reliable are actually often unnervingly reliant on opinion and context.  I am not trying to be wishy-washy. But the fact of the matter is, truth does not equal fact. And what we humans are hungry for, I propose, is truth.

Truth involves sustained attention and meditation. It means you have to cultivate things over a long period of time. It does not only involve the minute details, but also the overall situation to which those specifics are attached. Facebook, Twitter, ticker tape news, and (gasp!) maybe NPR (and I love NPR) - has efficiently trained us how to ingest our daily information in a piecemeal way. They chop it up into tiny, digestible portions so we can swallow it whole. I'm busy, I tell myself. At least I'm staying informed, I tell myself. Every day, however, I am increasingly of the opinion that being informed, at least in this narrow sense, has very little to do with being wise and living well.

Somehow, we need to slow down. We must chew our own food a bit more, and for longer. News is, of course, about being the first and fastest. It has always been this way, since fleet-footed  messengers bore sealed missives over the mountains of Greece from one city to another. But these days, we are surrounded by a cacophony of a thousand and one messengers, all blurting out at once. It is impossible to catch anything but a phrase here or there. There is quality reporting. Don't get me wrong. But honestly, for much of the time, I just feel buffeted back and forth by windy talk. Perhaps you feel the same. Either way, it is clear that another round of Google News is not bound to be satisfying.

What do we need, then? One possible answer is robust, face-to-face conversations. Direct, eye-to-eye talk, during which we are forced to speak with both truthfulness and respect. This is especially important if we don't see eye-to-eye, in order to remind ourselves of their humanity and our own. It is much easier to spout off unfounded claims or release cruel invective when you cower behind the anonymity of a computer screen. Witness the puerile content of YouTube comments. Blech. I cannot read the comments section of anything now without sinning in my heart. Lead me not into that temptation, thank you very much.

Maybe another crucial part to the process of slowing down is to read more history. And really think of ourselves as a part of that greater story. What is new(s) is better seen in the light of the old. The more I read about what has come before, the more flippant the current media conversation or blogosphere buzz sounds.

Also, to read literature. Good books. The more we have a feel for genre, simile, metaphor, satire, irony, rhetoric, and the like - the better we will be able to sniff out whatever literary territory that an article, speech, or news clip is using (whether purposefully or inadvertently) - and judge it by its own lights. We seem to have lost our sense of literature, and with it our senses of humor, beauty, and story. This is a serious problem. If you can read a novel well, you have a better chance of grasping an argument in a speech, for example.

Finally, may we seek wisdom in all, to see humility walking hand-in-hand with conviction. In a most unlikely season for charitable words, may we remember and hasten the day when we will witness that:

"Lovingkindness and truth have met together
Righteousness and peace have kissed each other."(Psalm 85:10)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Too Good to be True

When it comes to warm, classy images of home in IKEA's catalog, apparently they are often even less real than the showrooms I wrote about a few days ago.

This article shows how this is too good to be true.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Summer, what it is.

As usual, it is mostly music. Like Bob Dylan Chronicles. On decks, on stages, in clubs, in basements, in the vinyl grooves, from the fingers and throats of those we love, stuck in our heads and lodged in our souls. But also... 

Cabins at the end of a dirt road. This is not Walden, we seek the people. And their sticky marshmallow faces, guttural laughs. We weave meals together from fresh and glad yield of the land, Bringing it to the Table with dear old friends.  

Live for days in swimsuit & sundress. Tip a sailboat, get it to skate and skip the wind and wave. Like An American Childhood. What's my story? Wrangle words into something that's been begging to be said. Like that lost baby sparrow in the hollow of a hand. Or the dirt stubborn under the fingernails.

You gotta pull with sweaty neck and all might to get the weeds out by the root.The city folk get a wicked farmer's tan. There are days on end, suspended in the hot, humid impossible, like brassy southern summers in The Help. That's when you lavish indiscriminate amounts of time on books and couch.  Or bike around to create slight wind relief. Stock the freezer with five kinds of ice cream. Slip away for a dip in the lake, oily blues and yellows in the latter part of the day.

Dance without shoes along the river to stars, fireworks, and the sounds of his band. Another time, buy one hundred LPs in one afternoon and discover the magic of a record player. Later, it's smoky wine and sweet cigars twirled 'round  backyard candlelit conversation with friends. Keep it rolling, Till We Have Faces.

Drive miles of sunseted strips for good bluegrass and country music. On the Road, we share red cowboy boots and a tall hat. Weather the storm and rainbow both. Trade faded photos, family stories. Meet my forebears I never knew through their faces and dusty traces left behind.

Back in the bright city, grill a trout to succulent perfection. Giddy jazz trip in a basement club. Old movies in a twilight park. New art in a bright museum. Stark and dark, like Mother Night. These are bits and pieces, just Notes from a Small Island called summer.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Last April, when we were all still wondering over the fact that we in Minnesota hadn't got one good, satisfying snow all winter and everywhere you went, seasoned gardeners who know were pinpointing the flora at about four weeks ahead of schedule, I got a little spring fever. I was hankering for a change in our living space, something to spruce things up and perk me up out of my apartment-rental blues. Changing buses at the Mall of America, I squinted through the rain, across long stretches of pavement and glimpsed...the promised land.


So yellow, so blue, so friendly. I sent a string of suggestions on my phone to the effect that my husband should meet me in the cozy cafeteria for dinner and afterward we could walk through the pretend rooms and...pretend for a while. It just sounded so fun. I could feel the warm coffee mug between my hands already, my eyes alighting over charming arrangements of homes. My phone lit up with an obliging response, though not nearly as excited as I was, which I didn't understand (at the time). I was giddy with the anticipation of how great this whole adventure was going to feel, like going on a trip somewhere else for a while.

By the time we got home, I broke down completely.

The food had been...well, fine. Like IKEA food. The rooms had been...well, fine. Some ideas. Like IKEA usually is. Our trip was...fine. It was IKEA. It was not a trip to another country, or life-changing, or any of those other things. How had I somehow convinced myself that these imitation "homes" were somehow more comforting than our own real home, where "dish of vegetables and love is"?

Well, for one, their marketing is really good and I fall for it - er, fairly often. The main reason for my disappointment, though - I think - is that there is something deep inside of us that knows that yearns for beauty, and for permanence. Home is a perfect marriage of these two things, and stores like this provide movie-set facades. They look the part, but the true elements of home (family, love, sacrifice, privacy, pleasure, others) are all subtracted from the equation.

That night, I ended up sobbing on Karl's shoulder, blubbering out something about how I really want to live in a house and...and....I keep looking at MLS listings on the sly even though I know we can't afford it...and  I thought I would find satisfaction in going to IKEA but that's ridiculous. It was an incoherent mess at the time, but that was the gist. My ever-patient husband calmly rubbed my back, wondered silently at the strange inner workings of this female creature to whom he attached, and (to his credit) just listened and kept rubbing my back.

After that, I had a long talk with the Lord about it, which also straightened out some things. This desire for beauty and permanence was built into us by Him. He means to satisfy it. However, strange things can happen when we take things into our own hands, which we tend to do as humans. Think of Eve reaching for the apple, Abram trying to forge a heir to the promise with his servant Hagar, the disciples suggesting they build habitations on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter cutting off the ear of the soldier. There are countless examples in the Scriptures and life of the misunderstandings or (in some cases) serious consequences that result when we try to fulfill promises by our own means and on our own schedule.

Of course, it is good to dream. The Queen explains to a skeptical Alice that believing takes practice:

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

And IKEA is a fun place to believe things - both possible and impossible. But I know how sometimes I can sicken my heart with desires before their time. In this case, I was attributing too much of a true home's beauty and permanence to the manmade phantasms that exist only to make me spend money in their store. No one lives there. Their doors close every night, lights off on sad scenes empty of all persons. True home is an eternal matter, and like St. Augustine says, it will be a lifelong quest:

We need not fear to find no home again
because we have fallen away from it;
while we are absent our home falls not to ruins,
for our home is your eternity.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Eye on the Sparrow

It was one day early in summer, before the hot haze had settled into the peaks and valleys of the concrete landscape, before we planned our days around the bearable early hours and the windows were still open to breezes that refreshed rather than choked. I approached the back doorstep of our ancient brick-walk-up, and stared at the rubber welcome mat. There was something on the mat. Besides "Welcome".

There was a piece of brown fluff. A murmur of pity came to my lips. Another one of those baby birds that had fallen from the perilous nests that clung desperate to the side of the building, most likely. It had stormed a few days previous, and we'd found a pathetic skeleton or two. His eye is on the sparrow, nonetheless.

When I crouched down to try and figure out what to do with the poor little thing, I found to my shock that he was still alive. Very, very still - but still tremblingly alive. One of his minuscule eyes blinked at me. Could he still move? I poked him gently with my house key, and he tried to inch forward, but tumbled onto his side. Injured. He wouldn't last a few short hours in the cruel city - between car, bold squirrels, and stray cats. Should I let nature take its course, or-?

I glanced around, looking for other birds. They say that they'll take care of an orphan, and that old story about the "human smell" apparently does not hold true. So I kept an eye on him from the nearby window, and scrolled through articles about care for baby birds on my phone. No rescuers came by. I waited. After a time, an orange tabby that I'd  never seen started slinking against the back wall of the garden. He would make quick work of my little friend. I just couldn't watch it happen. Against all I've been told about the survival rate of wild animals babies in well-intentioned but bumbling human hands, the cosy shoebox being the last thing they experience of this wide wide world, I took him in.

And put him in a shoebox.

He was so frightened by whatever total nightmare he had already lived through (also fallen from a  nest during the stormy winds, I figured) and was continuing to live through, that he was completely silent. Not a peep. I read up quickly on food, since he was obviously very weak. Hardboiled eggs, dog food, mealworms - these sufficed. How to get him to take food from me, though? "Tap the beak with tweezers," one site claimed. "The beak will open instinctively, since it mimics the mother." Really. I was a little skeptical, but I gave it a try, and-

Whoosh! His beak flew so wide that the rest of his head disappeared. Everything about his little body was screaming "Feed me!" though he was still mysteriously silent. He gulped down the wet kibble I had hurriedly purchased in a dusty can at the corner grocery. When I paid for it, I eyed the large, mustached proprietor and wondered if he ever imagined why he had stocked that can of dog food, where it was end up.

Well, over the course of about a week, in the stomach of a very hungry baby house sparrow.

A few days later, he began to peep, first a little. Then a lot. Early in the morning, he knew when the sun came up before we humans noticed, and reminded us from the shoebox next to the bed that it was feeding time. Cheeeep. Cheeeep. Cheeeep. We grew fond of his insistence. You would think it would be irritating, but somehow it wasn't. It was just fun. We learned about the crop, the first stomach where they store food, because we noticed a swelling and became worried at first. He was so pre-feather at that point, you could see the color and texture of whatever he ate right through the thin, tightened skin on his neck.

We fed him, on the hour in the daytime. And he grew, in stature and feather. And out of his shoebox into a large shipping box. We called him Oliver. (Please sir, may I have some more?) We brought him to the green grass so he could learn to hop. And eventually, flap his wings. No two parents could be prouder than we to see him flutter for the first time. He came eventually to the habit of perching on our shoulders (or heads), and I think he saw us as some kind of magical combination of his flock and his favorite tree. He did, as they say, imprint on us. Or what it the other way around? We were both, somewhat inexplicably, devoted to this little creature. As I have said, it was downright fun.

A week or two later, we could release him to hop and fly a bit and then he would come back to be fed. We had a special call that he probably thought was hilarious (the other birds surely did), a kissing-sort of sound into the air that he always responded to, cheeped right back. Even in the woods of Wisconsin (we figured we couldn't leave him alone yet, when a family cabin trip came around), he would come back to us after an hour or so of exploring. We bought him his first seeds there, taught him as best as we could to crack them open, the awkward human parents that we were. Our niece christened him "Olive-bird" in lieu of Oliver. It seemed to fit.

One night at the cabin, Olive-bird did not come back before dark. And a storm rolled in. We both paced up and down the wet deck under the eaves, calling for him long after it was clearly futile. I tried not to worry myself sick. We eventually went to bed. In the morning, he appeared on the patio, bedraggled and drenched, but nevertheless alive. And very pushy about his breakfast. Cheeeep! Maybe, we reasoned, if he could learn to feed himself, he would make it as a wild sparrow after all, having weathered such a storm. Goodness knows he probably had all kinds of baby birdie trauma from that fated night he first fell from the nest. 

Here is Oliver, as he rode to and from the cabin on the headrest by Karl. 

A week back in our familiar backyard, and he finally began to make good friends with the other birds. We fed them all seeds, filled a glass pie pan as a makeshift bird bath, and hoped that he would be popular because of his human connections who seemed to make food and water appear out of no where. It seemed to have worked, because one day, about a week ago now, he was no where to be found. This bird had flown.

We're still a little wistful about the fact that he hasn't come back to visit. We wonder if he's okay, or if something in the course of cruel nature eventually got him in the end. But rather than dwell on these things too much, it is good to thank the One who has His eye on the sparrow. All of them, all of us. What a gift to see one of His creatures - the lowly house sparrow, usually reviled for their commonness - up close and so dear.

And sometimes I just pretend that he's away at college, and he'll inevitably show up for handouts every once in a while when he runs out of other options.


Saturday, June 02, 2012

Novel in a Month

National Novel Writing Month (once confined to November) has now begun to spread its fingers into the rest of the calendar year, and I  finally signed up after all these years of telling myself I would. The gist is this: you get 30 days to write 50,000 words. So, by the end of June, I will have one messy, unedited (but completed) novel. Here 'goes nothin'! Or everything. In the words of Annie Dillard: 
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.” (The Writing Life)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Luminous Details

Poet Ezra Pound apparently spent time on the lookout for what he called "luminous details." 

For him, these were "any small fact that casts light on larger realities". 

His poems are esoteric, strange, impenetrable even - but they often turn on the dizzying accumulation of many such particulars. 

These could be objects, words, persons, names, but they must have a certain quality that glows and pulsates with a life all their own.

 I find this to be a mesmerizing and joy-filled understanding of language and our world.

In other words, he could see enormous significance in the tiniest of details. 

Like yesterday, when I went out after the storm.

Cold lilac scents, damp sharp chill of fallen pine.

Bedraggled branches broken off for their unbelief. 
The sun fierce and sharp. 

Confetti petals in the street.

Puddle-mirrors back-illuminating the late afternoon.

Like it does in cities with canals, like Venice or Amsterdam. 

Pure light released on my eyes (almost) unmediated. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Some Things from Spring

An anything-but-comprehensive list of the delights of the past week, which is to say Spring Break.

Sunday. We are the Easter morning people. We expand the dining room table by two leaves to fit in family, then friends. Our first snips of chives spice up spring salads, and we try to figure out how many different meals we'll be able to make from the leftover eggs, ham, and fruit. (It turns out there are quite a few.) The feast moves out later to grilling in Minnetonka, with nieces ferreting out eggs impossibly-hid, blooms and sunshine everywhere, and a leisurely white wine on a sunny deck. 


Monday. In just two hours, Mom, little bro, and I combine our energies with a burly Lacrosse team from St. Thomas and pack up 95 boxes of food to Haiti. That's over 20,000 meals! Pray for the victims of the cholera epidemic; the situation is still quite grave. 

Tuesday. Cookies and cousins for breakfast. Delish.

Later, the art & food date with my mom-in-law, a.k.a. awesome friend.The Russian Art Museum instructs us in the post-Stalin release of artists to greater creativity, and we celebrate craftsmanship of another kind at Patisserie 46 with tasty French morsels. Miam, miam.

Wednesday. I lose my head and an entire morning to wisteria and sunshine. The perfume of blossoms on the trees out front combines with the musty pages of A Room with a View, and I am transported to early 20th-century Italy and the swoopy, swoony advenutres of a tidy young woman brought into contact with real  

Thursday. I bike all over creation on the bright green bikes and end up at the Midtown market to eat holy gyros of heroic proportions with the taller of the bros. What could be more luxurious than to waltz over on a shiny day to be with someone I just love to hang with?

Friday. Husband comes home from work and we take off for a new Belgian-French movie at the Edina Cinema, Le Gamin au vélo (The Boy with the bike). Breaks then warms the heart.

But who ever wants to stop there? 

Followed by a honest-to-golly jug band ("complete" with washboard, donkey jaw, tap dancer, and fife, among other things...) performing the late show at the Dakota. Como Avenue Jug Band, as generous as they are talented, and I get a free album. Sweet.