Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time to Move.

Despite years of faithful blogging service through, I have come to the conclusion that it's time to move and spruce up the ol' write spot a bit. To that end, lifelong fling is making a move across town (after 7 years!) to

Please hop over to and also update your bookmarks and shortcuts accordingly. Thank you for your patience and thank you to the good people at blogger. It's been a good run.

P.S. You will still be able to access most of the previous archived posts (if you should so desire) at the new location.

See you soon!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Seasons of (Re)Turning

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens." 

The end of summer. A hot breath that brings most of us creatures to a standstill. Except for the grasshoppers whose wings click and whir in the blanched crabgrass that grows tall and unruly along the roads that lead to my school from the bus stop. There are crickets too, who bleat rhythmically in the protective shade in the cooler early mornings. Wine-dark bunches of wild grapes appear out of nowhere while their leaves gradually, gravely change their green coats for pale yellow. There are hints of fiery protest appearing along the edges of maples, but they are still stubbornly verdant for the most part. It's not their time - not quite yet.

In this particular season of seeming stasis, schoolteachers and squirrels alike must again pick up speed, scurry, and prepare for what it coming. Lines of migratory birds form patterns across the sky just as my email inbox receives a flurry of black and white schedule grids. Prairies are reddened with changing grasses even as I don my professional dress and welcome a new crowd of uniformed and bright-faced students. The abrupt change is always something of a shock to the system, like the first really brisk day we get somewhere near the beginning of September. But I love it. I relish the change. It whips color back into my cheeks, energy into my limbs, and the mind is cleared for all it must do ahead.

One unfortunate aspect of the upheaval is that whatever I happened to have been in the middle of doing in mid-August- well, those projects are mostly still sitting where they were last touched. One of those has been this blog. However, I would like to signal its return. And come to think of it, this is a logical next step in the change of seasons. It is a fact of life (at least where I live) that when the weather begins to turn chilly, we tend to hunker down, stay in, and turn to our favorite radio programs, books, blogs, and newspapers. I encourage you to join me in this next season of the Lifelong Fling, which will appear about every two weeks and updated mostly on Thursdays. Grab a cup of coffee or a fine autumnal ale this coming weekend, sit down in a cosy spot, and let's relish this many-toned season together.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Lost in the Parisian Woods

Another popular post from the archives this week, and I'll be back to the regularly scheduled program next week. This recounts my experiences while trying to train for the marathon in the city of Paris. Enjoy!

Friday, August 01, 2014

Ceci est une pipe.

I dug through the Lifelong Fling archives to find this little post from several years ago in Paris. It was one of the most popular posts and continues to be an enjoyable memory for me.

I hope you like it.

Stop and Smell the Pipe Smoke [link fixed]

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Miraculous Summer

When it begins, summertime is always a long stretch of haze with perhaps a few peaks barely discernible in the distance, but otherwise undefined. It is the catch-all of the year, where I toss all of the catch-ups, check-offs, check-ins, send-offs. I estimate to read a lifetime of books, write innumerable stories, and finish all of the projects. How does reality hash out, with expectations like these?

It is nothing short of the miraculous, but it is rarely what I planned to happen. Like most real-life miracles, it does not come about when and how I anticipate. There was the week pinpointed in advance by friends for mutual cabin days, for example, when we would come together under the banner of friendship and food a few hours north of the Twin Cities. But instead-

Instead, I spend a week of mornings running around with children in woods closer to home. We stain our tongue with wild black raspberries and try nibbling on sticky milkweed. Yes, you can bring your pocketknife tomorrow. Did you really just put that toad in a bird's nest? Have you ever read My Side of the Mountain? Let's imagine what it would be like to take on a bear with nothing more than your ingenuity and a hatchet. Let's try building a fire on a windy day. Let's try to remember a world before your Xbox and my iPhone. In that world, I am struck by how the lives of all the creatures intertwine in our magnificent universe, and I am one of those threads.

A boy stands in a village in the deserted plains of Gaoua City. His life of survival is no game, no summer camp activity. Today, an airplane flies right over him. He pauses on his way to an errand for his grandmother to admire the huge body of the MD-83, its shining wings. He wants to be a pilot someday. That's what he wrote to his American "godparents" last time. The boy does not know it (no one on the plane does yet), but on July 23, 2014, that mighty machine will crash less than an hour later in neighboring Mali to the north. It will be the third major plane disaster in a week, the second in an area of civil unrest. The boy will continue on his way to the market, wondering if the Americans ever have the luck to go aboard an airplane, whether they will return his letter from February, and if they'll remember his birthday gift.

In a post office somewhere in the United States sits a package with numbers and letters scrawled on the outside that will eventually carry its contents to the eager hands of that same little boy halfway across the world. An airplane will fly it to Ouagadougou - where the failed passenger plane had departed from - and then by truck over bumpy roads to a remote, dusty area with little agricultural promise. And yes, there is a letter inside. It is in French, which means that he'll understand it without the need of translation. And yes, the Americans are going to climb into a magnificent flying contraption very soon. It will take them to a different desert, in Nevada and California - to celebrate ten years of marriage. (Speaking of miracles.)

After the cabin days that I missed came to a close, the entire party moved south en masse to settle upon our little homestead for an afternoon. I counted seven children who chased seven chickens around our overgrown backyard. Their parents just might need a glass of wine. The yard's a bit ragged, but if you look across it, the yellow primroses are lovely. We also have a goldenrod on its way toward the sky. Primroses close so quickly at nightfall, you can almost watch it happen, like those time-lapse photos strung together on public television. Otherwise, the ground is blanketed thick with broadleaf plantain, creeping charlie, wood sorrel and white clover - so-called "weeds." We shrug. Good food for the chickens. Our table is strewn haphazard with good food for humans, too - beans from the garden, huge cherries, cold cuts, wine, local cider. Babies roll on the floor while cabin plans are hotly contested for the next year. I plan to be there.

The run to Cub Foods for ham and turkey was unusual; we actually haven't been to the supermarket much recently. There was over 80 pounds of fruits and vegetables crammed into my refrigerator by the end of last week, with more pouring out of the garden each day. These are the green days, when we must either devour with juice-dripping chins or frantically freeze, can, and save for colder days ahead. Abundance, spontaneity, and always more tomorrow. That should strike me as strange. When it starts seeming commonplace and take-for-granted easy, would you please slap me across the face? Thanks. I might need the wake up call. Something like a fellow traveler in this wonder-filled world describes in the experience of driving a car home through rush hour.

"There are times when it is easy to go numb, when it is easy to forget that you sit in a box of metal, dug from the earth and alloyed, shaped by the men and robots of Detroit. I don't care that I sit three feet above the ground in a machine with the soul and strength of (muffled) explosions. Horses are for recreation; my harnesses are hitched to pounding bursts of fire, and they pull me (gently, please) without complaint, while I collect invisible waves from the air with a magic metal wand and turn them into orchestras, pop stars, and indignant voices complaining about the war...It is easy to be numb to the world's marvels when you've missed lunch and the light is still red." (92, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson).

Thing #46 that makes me less numb: when my summer doesn't turn out the way I plan.

Thing #47: Well-arranged words that make things strange again (e.g., aforementioned Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl).

Thing #47: Statistics. But only when effectively linked to real people's faces.

The little card about the boy from Burkina Faso that we received when we first agreed to sponsor him tells us that it is one of the poorest countries in the world and that most adults are unemployed. The children are largely malnourished. Literacy rate: 22%. But Bienvenu is learning how to read. I wonder. Will this mean he'll have a better diet? Will his children have jobs? He told us that besides being a pilot, he'd like to raise animals. I picture what it will be like for him to open his package, with photos tumbling out - images of a couple of Americans and a flock of chickens from halfway around the world. I hope that it is the beginning of something marvelous for him and for us. Miraculous, even.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Inconveniences...I mean, Adventures!

This week was so jam-packed with adventures 
that I am going to have to simply post a few pictures. 
By adventure, I'm thinking along the lines of G.K. Chesterton's wise words: 
"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.
An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."
There will be more words next week, as usual.

Toad in Bird's Nest.

Lighting a Fire.

Wild Black Raspberries.

Rosé and Willie Meet at the Wine Bar. 

Jazz in a Café.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Leave the Edges Wild

There is a band whose songs and open-hearted life have consistently sustained me with good soul-food: Over the Rhine. I may have mentioned them before. They have faithfully described and inscribed reality onto my mind and heart for some time now. Their song "Lifelong Fling," for example, has flown over this little writing space like a banner from the beginning. Now, another thought from their creative universe comes to fruition in my life, that of "leaving the edges wild." The idea surfaces in their most recent album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Linford Detweiler, who heads up the group with his wife Karin Bergquist, explains the significance of this phrase in a delightful conversation with the good people at Image Journal. He explains that when they first bought their farm in rural Ohio, his father heard birdsongs and saw flora and fauna he hadn't seen in years, and so urged them to "leave the edges wild." The image is a fruitful one and they return to it multiple times on the record.

As do I when I spin the vinyl and hear it again making deep grooves in me, in the quiet summer night, accompanied by ice clinking in my glass. Let go. You don't need to hem in every minute of every day. Leave the edges wild. Or, to use an Old Testament metaphor, don't gather every last bit of grain behind you when you harvest - leave some for the widows and orphans. This is good news to my harried heart, as I tend to the exacting. I sigh deeply, wish I were different, and then hope to learn a new approach to my brief hours and weeks.

Put another way, I am being schooled in spontaneity. A late-night hankering for scotch and live music leads us to gathering around the T Collective. The musicians (usually a grouping of different artists every time) throw out sounds and craft them on the fly. "Did you plan any of this?" I inquire during the set break, gesturing toward the stage. No, she answers, it is improvisation tonight. There are wild edges to the creations - screams and drones and pops streaming out continually, making something new out of nothing. When I try to describe the listening experience, it comes out again in terms of food. It is like eating a good meal made out of raw art: nutritive, homegrown, and satisfying. Like snipping greens out of the garden for breakfast.

Speaking of our little "urban farm," it is "loosely-tended" this year. Plant, uproot, let it go crazy. Wild edibles are a new favorite- purslane, dandelion, wild sorrel, and the like - and my man slyly suggested that maybe it would be better that he not mow the backyard. You know, just in case he destroyed something important. Sure, our chickens decimate everything with their tearing little beaks anyway. Like the hosta. (Oh well. I guess our hens are widows and orphans in their own way.) Plus, after a steady diet of healthy greens, they give back, prodigiously turning out eggs with yolks the color of Valencia orange peel.

Maybe a balance can be struck between the planned and unplanned, the structured and the spontaneous. For me, summer is a lesson in letting things grow outside the boxes in our calendar days and measuring them otherwise. Not in minutes or hours, nor even in coffee spoons. Rather, in thanks for surprise feasts of all kinds found in the margins of need and in the present moment unmeasurable that swells to satisfied fulness. Lord, remind me to leave the edges wild.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

How to Hold a Bird. A Tribute.

Kathlyn Heidel, 1938-2014
I came to Lowry Nature Center in Carver Park Reserve for the first time on a class field trip at age eleven. The outdoors had always been a very natural habitat for me. Do you know that first conscious breath from your cosy sleeping bag on a chilly, fresh morning while camping? Some of us would prefer to stay snuggled up and wait for the coffee to arrive. Myself, I happen to belong to that class of people whose eyes pop open to that situation and get right to zipping the door open to see what the morning sun looks like. I love that thrill of exiting the close quarters of a tent (or house) to let me out to the bright, green-glowing world. That is so often where the adventure always begins - in books and in real life - and that is probably why I love it so much. (Even wardrobes open to a snowy wood.) Plus, somebody has to get out to the fire to make the coffee for the snugglers.

Me, circa 1991, with the Saw-whet Owl
My mother, who is a snuggler, made the remarkable decision to rouse herself blue-morning-light-early a couple of mornings a week and drive me along the winding country roads out to Victoria. I knew that when we turned at the lone Dairy Queen standing in the fields, we were close. A few more miles down the road, I'd get out, binoculars in hand, and head into the center, looking for Kathy in her office. Of course, she was never there. She was almost always outside, hands on her hips, looking at her surroundings. Always looking. And seeing.

"Hi! What are we doin' today, Kathy?"

"Oh, you'll see."She meant it. I would see - really see, my eyes be made to open even wider. Once she taught me that the retina was thicker on the peripheral, so if I could exercise that part of my eye to spot birds and critters, I'd see them more readily and clearly. But before anything magical like this could happen, I knew I had to hold my nose and do the chores.

"Should I go feed-"

"Yes, do that first. Then we'll go for a walk."

The "Wetlands", Carver Park Reserve
Almost the first thing I was taught was to pull dead mice out of the freezer, put them in warm water to soften, give them a couple of snips, and bring them over to the two birds of prey kept on site for educating the visitors. One was a small owl; I think the other was a kestrel, and both were rescued but unable to enter the wild since they were permanently handicapped. I had watched the naturalists hold these dignified little birds on their hands with a leather glove which seemed very akin to the falconry that I had read about in tales of King Arthur. I wanted more than anything to learn how the handlers so deftly wove and tucked the leather strappings through their fingers; they did it perfectly every time so that the birds would be constrained to stay on your hand but still be comfortable. Before I could give that thrilling experience a try, however, I had to learn how to care for them in a daily way, which meant thawing dead mice. That was one way to hold a bird; to take on a regular, messy task for the sake of something greater. In a word, humility.

Certificate for "Developing Sensory Awareness" Course
When Kathy would take us on walks, it was not only the visual senses that were encouraged to open and sharpen. Sounds, smells, tastes, tactile experiences - these were all part of what she called "sensory awareness" which needed constant care for the sake of accurate observation. How many different ways could you hold a bird in your mind so that the next time one came along, you'd be able to identify it? The sound - whether drum or whistle - was essential. You could not quite smell a bird, but you could certainly touch them, especially if you hung out with Kathy long enough. Bird-banding was a favorite activity, and we'd come out early some Saturday mornings to help her. If you hold a bird upside-down, they calm and (sometimes) even fall asleep, giving the bander ample time to disentangle their delicate feet from the threads of the mist nets that caught them, encase their tiny legs with a small, light, metal band, and flip them over to let them fly free. Kathy was so well-choreographed in her movements that she could nonchalantly pick up a bird mid-conversation, apply the band, and release the creature before it even knew what had happened, tossing the number off to the person designated to keep the notebook. That was another way you held a bird - in your memory, faithfully recording sightings year after after, building an understanding of their web of movements over the region. In short, she taught me patient observation.

"Kathy's Prairie", Dedication 2014
About two weeks ago, I drove myself along those same rural highways that wend through the prairies and marveled at the beauty of this country still untouched by the developers. They do slink around the reserve, draining wetlands and putting up cookie-cutter houses where they can, but the protected land still keeps them mostly at bay. An email had arrived from my sister-in-law a few days previous: "did you know about the memorial for Kathy?" No, I hadn't heard. I knew she had been very sick - heard that through the grapevine somehow. Now, we were invited to come together at the nature center, celebrate her life, and dedicate her prairie.

Wild Lupine in the Prairie, 2014 
The prairie. Kathy's dream when I first worked at the park had been to restore this small section of the reserve to native prairielands. Here she had shown me yet another way to hold a bird. If you could bring back the homeland of the bobolinks, orioles, meadowlarks, falcons - they too would return. And it worked. When I was a junior naturalist, I remember squinting up one day at a bright goldfinch who had caught a tall stalk of big bluestem and was swaying back and forth over my head, a brilliant yellow dot moving in the blazing white-blue sky. Sitting back on my heels, I admired him for a moment, and then went to the task at hand, which had been to weed the prairie. Yes, weed the prairie. I spent many hours taking out the non-native sweet clover that tended to crowd out the native grasses and wildflowers.

It had been slow, hot, bee-stinging work, but here I stood -  almost 25 years later -  at the commemoration of "Kathy's Prairie." There were a few words spoken in her remembrance, but soon the crowd was squatting in the grass, comparing diverse leaves, exchanging excited finds. "Did you see this orchid? There's a new book about that!" "Did you guys know there's wild lupine over there?" I stepped back for a moment with a sigh - somewhat sad, fully joyful. At her memorial, here was Kathy's legacy. A whole community touched by her lessons, among them: humility in work, delight in the outdoors, meticulous observation and recording, and the importance of securing a future for the natural world. And in all of these things, how to hold a bird.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Preview: A Person of Influence

In preparation for this week's post on Thursday, I'm thinking about a person of great influence in my life. What sort of qualities have your best mentors possessed? Was your relationship formalized or did it grow organically out of another kind of friendship? Did you choose a different path because of them?

What was so very magical about that person?

Thursday, June 26, 2014


A small stack of unevenly-cut cardstock sits next to the mirror on my dresser where I prepare for the day. I glance down and notice the scrawls for the first time this morning. With a quick movement, I slip them into my pocket, finger the worn edges, and make a mental note to pull them out later, anticipating a probable hour of need.

My soul is a forgetful creature. You would think that out-and-out revelation would have more staying power, those brief but holy flashes when I see life clear and pure. This is good. That is true. This is the way, walk in it. Monumental moments, and yet even half a day later, the glimpse has been forgotten in the swirl and eddy of a million synapses since. We manage to pack a delicious, nourishing lunch most days so we don't end up standing in front of the vending machine with a forlorn dollar bill contemplating candy bars. But when it comes to our heart-hunger, somehow we are not always as purposeful.

Maybe we ought to construct phylacteries, or some other kind of storage unit of reality whereby written language comes to the rescue. The Jewish people understood that you could carry transformative words through memory and other devices. There, on your forehead and on your doorposts, they would remind you of the past, define your actions and your affections, and prepare you for the future. And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt. Bundle up some truth and take it with you today; you're going to need it something desperate. Tell your heart to tell your heart all that it has learned. Learn to talk to yourself.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On Tabernacles

I love the word tabernacle. It is one of those words that trips off the tongue and lips in a very satisfying way. Just try it, nice and slow. Tabernacle. I type out the letters one by one and tag on "etymology" in a search engine eager to help. Did you mean...? When I click my yes, I uncover the word taverna (hut or tavern), and tabernaculum (tent). Well, here's a humble beginning for a word which later came to describe something so exalted; nothing less than the bejeweled house of the God of the Hebrews. It was this, his mishkan (residence), which made it possible for the unseen presence to travel with them seen, all the way through the wilderness.

I've been contemplating for some time how a home might a sort of tabernacle or dwelling place for something other than just us. As in, a presence unseen. People talk about houses being haunted, and even if you think that's bogus, we all seem to be able to agree that spaces have a certain feeling to them. What must one do to create a positive atmosphere (at the very least), or even to invite the presence of the living God (to be a little bit more specific)?

For starters, there's always the original tabernacle-building in Exodus. If we look close, we see a man named Bezalel who peeks out of the shadows of the story and takes the spotlight for just a moment. This master craftsman apparently had his "spirit stirred" to put his hand to metalwork and other skills. He, along with other similar souls, were charged with constructing the tented sanctuary as a total work of art. The combination of strong, learned hands and artistic sensibilities was due to specific "wisdoms" they had been given. Wisdom to wield, weld, and make new worlds.

I am in the middle of re-making my kitchen and I want that wisdom. Right now, it all smells of fresh paint and...spice. A week ago,  I dumped everything into new jars which brought order and beauty but also fragrant, escaped clouds of scent. The madras curry, for example, greets everyday me when I come in to make breakfast. Perhaps a little like incense in a church.

Do you think of your home as a sacred place? How long did it take to make it that way? What are the practices that you engage in to keep it holy? 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

From Garden to City

It is said that we begin in a garden and end in a city.

In these first ten early years as a married couple, we have always been at our best, our most-loving, in gardens. Though we live in the middle of a city, we are oddly compelled to carve, till, and plant the little tenth of an acre around us. We pore over articles about compost, chickens, seeds, and planting dates. We cultivate the soil to bring forth vegetable, flower, and fruit of all kinds. I think of the tensions that ease when I take up a spade and he takes up a rake and we labor as one. At those times, one must let go of any extra weight in order to work for the common good.

Later, after hours in the burning sun, we take up food and drink with tired grins and light hearts. The things we set aside in order to work together now seem unnecessary, even petty. Through this mindful labor perhaps we reverse, in part, the curse. "In pain you will eat of the ground all the days of your the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground." To find happy satisfaction in our work is part of renewing earth - our bodies and our abode. All is from dust, but only we are god-breathed. Because of this, we will rise again the next morning and we will be presented again with the hard but joyful choice to "practice resurrection," as a "mad farmer" once put it. And one day we will awake to the real resurrection, life for keeps.

But before we go there, a brief glance back to the garden. It is written that God planted many things there that were good for food. And for all the infamy of that one particular fruited tree, there must have been hill upon rolling hill of bounty otherwise. When we bought our slice of earth over a year ago, there was nothing. Empty and void, neither shrub nor weed to grace the neutral drop cloth  of dirt. But the spirit hovered over the surface, so to speak, and soon compelled us to act, to re-create this sad, vacant little world.

The landscape slowly took shape as we spoke it into being, mostly during the long winter months. What has emerged so far? Our first tree, a cherry, stands at the ready to be fruitful and multiply. The food scraps we threw in the compost pile after dinners last summer have worked magically into rich, dark, living loam that will feed this year's crop. We have been scattering bright radishes over greens fresh from the garden for months already. And bits of potato gone to sprout are hilled up in a bin, working silently to push tubers out on all sides. So I say, in faith believing. No peeking until fall.

There are also gifts that arrive unplanted. Sprigs of mint from unseen roots deep. A mulberry tree on the property line, and crabapples from the neighbor, which simply breaks down the idea of a property line. Even the forest sometimes creeps onto our modest plot to surprise us. This year, the late spring rains birthed a crop of about two dozen morel mushrooms, which we happily unearthed. Omelettes were awfully special that week.

So here we are, living with a bit of Eden and a bit of the new Jerusalem. (Holy Land deli up on Central helps to re-enforce this impression.) Our chickens escape and run down the alleyway. We harvest wild pears while a city bus zooms past on Johnson Street. We buy bales of hay from Home Depot. And yet there is something that feels right about the colliding of these worlds. We yearn to bring green, pulsing, cyclical life to burst upon the gray concrete grid. And it seems equally good to imagine and build cities that are safe, beautiful and brimming with the intellectual and artistic foment that only comes when scores of people live in close quarters.

It is well-said that we begin in a garden and end in a city. From our mysterious, shadowy and god-breathed genesis, we move toward the greatest of revelations, the unveiling of the holy city and her descent from heaven to earth. Crying will be no more. Death shall be no more. Night will be no more. The city will be lit by God himself, who will make his home with man.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bird By Bird

Months. I have not put pen to paper or finger to key or even voice to tale for weeks end-to-end. I used to feel a leaden weight on top of me when this happened, perhaps guilt that I was not sufficiently pursuing, describing, writing reality. It's daunting enough to take in the universe through one eyes, ears, mouth, nose, fingers; letting it come out again in some kind of semi-coherent form is impossible. These days, I am more like a pregnant woman who feels the need to eat and eat, and let something grow and mature inside of me for a long while before it's ready to be birthed. It still might put a strain on my back, but at least it's pain with a purpose. Bob Dylan describes a period of time in his life when he did virtually nothing but read voraciously in a friend's library. He says: "I stored all those things away...figured I'd send a truck back for it later.

There is a point at which one must sit down and devote actual time to actual writing, to send for at least one of those truck shipments. I am not first one to feel overwhelmed by the pressure of this task, of course. In one of her delightfully meandering accounts of writing and life, Anne Lamott recounts a vivid story from her childhood:

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to years, surrounded by binders and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'." 

So here I am. I will take it bird by bird, and I mean that quite literally.  I find birds perched everywhere in my life, from earliest childhood to just yesterday. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these are the creatures through which God most consistently speaks to me personally. I think of yesterday evening when the declining sun rays blazed through the fingered translucent plumage of a bird fluttering away from me in the wood, and my throat caught on the beauty, as it did for the Provencal poet of old, "Can vei la lauzeta mover...alas contral rei"" ("When I see the lark move...wings against the sun"). Carefree, beautiful, and temporal.

Another image alights in my memory: the minuscule, featherless body that curled up to die on our doorstep a few summers ago. Oliver taught us what mercy demands and how unconditional love simply sprouts in your heart and will compel you to joyfully fulfill those demands, no matter what the cost of time, effort, and heartache.

There is something about the fragility of these creatures. They appear so capable, soaring above the rest of us, singing gorgeously. Who in the animal kingdom wouldn't give an extra leg or a spare gill just to have the ability to fly or weave a sweet song? And yet under that impressive array of feathers are tiny, delicate bodies and the need for constant, almost frenzied nourishment.

Look at the birds of the air. That's what Jesus said to do. I imagine the moment when he first said this. Maybe a flock of sparrows had just swooped over their heads, finding shade from the hot Galilean sun. Maybe the disciples were fussing over how the monthly budget was going to work out, because the math never seemed quite right. (There were catches of gossip here and there that someone might be pilfering from the common purse.) "But we need this much for bread!" "We've got to help so-and-so's mother, too!" "My tunic - absolutely threadbare! I never would have let this happen before, before...Jesus". And just then, while their fragile, burdened shoulders are curved over account books, Jesus points to the chattering birds. Look! He says. The disciples don't all notice right away; some are still absorbed in working out the figures. (They always relied on Matthew for that.) Look! He says, more insistently. What? Heads pop up, wondering whether they are in for another puzzling lesson that will make them ache with desire to understand. Look at the birds of the air. They do not toil or spin, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Easy enough to understand; so hard to learn.

Centuries later, a bishop named Augustine lays the weight of a heavy head and heart under the fig tree and thinks back over his life of toil. What has it all been, but rhetorical spin to promote his own self at all costs? He remembers every detail he can eke out of those miserable, creeping hours and writes God into the story, in-between the pain. It was God who provided him with the ability to speak, an education, with a love for beauty, with books; even with the milk from his mother's breast. God fed him through His mother, and with the physical nourishment he took in a taste for Jesus Christ, a craving which wouldn't be satisfied till many years later. The father in heaven fed him. And why are you anxious about clothing? If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not much more clothe you? Stop hiding behind those fig leaves in shame and let me clothe you. Let me feed you.

There are birds in the house again. Every morning I get up and go first thing to the cage in the window in back. There are four little chickens, each a different color, each with two wings, which makes eight wings all flapping and declaring with one squawk the glory of God and the need for some exercise. They are getting a bit big for their confines, so we let them roam. Only a month ago, they were inside of a shell in Iowa somewhere. Then they were shivering, swaying balls of fluff coming home in a tiny brown cardboard box. Now the "girls" are more like adolescents, tall and gawky.

Just try to sit down and get some writing done. The girls will get you out of your chair. They are compelling, each with her own personality, wit and whims. The black one is small and sweet. The yellow one, a gourmand who rips at her food with relish. The brown-black one is large, crabby and bossy. (She must be disconcerted by the fact that the humans are bigger than her). And then there's Red over here, calm and collected, the peacemaker. It never gets old, to see them enjoying their food, growing and changing, new feathers sprouting each hour.

Why would my all-powerful and loving father in heaven be  any less attentive to me? His care and concern far surpasses the affection we may have for a group of pecking, squawking biddies. There is a reason God looked at His creation and said: this is good! We need all of these sparrows, swallows, warblers, chickadees, cardinals, crows, chickens, ravens, catbirds, hummies and finches. We must experience physical, breathing, winging, singing metaphors to really get it. Abstraction about God's care for us alone won't do. Look at the birds, their wings flapping wildly, the frantic pecking for food, satisfaction from an open hand. Look at them. And thank the father in heaven, bird by bird.

Addendum: I was struck by a very obvious fact upon re-reading this post. Birds are also the central metaphor in my book, Fledgling Song and would give me the opportunity to do a shameless plug for it. : ) You can find my novella here on Electio Publishing and here on Amazon if you've never read it before. If you have read it and have an opinion, please write a review on Amazon and help me tell the world. Spread the word! 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Curious Sound

In C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a young boy named Edmund trudges miserably through the woods which have been frozen in always-winter-yet-never-Christmas by the White Witch's power. He, too, has been under her spell. But as he plods in servitude under the imperious eye of his mistress and her cruel dwarf's whip, he hears something that breaks through the monotony.

"There...seemed to be a curious noise all round them, but the noise of their driving and jolting and the dwarf's shouting at the reindeer prevented Edmund from hearing what it was, until suddenly the sledge stuck so fast that it wouldn't go on at all. When that happened there was a moment's silence. And in that silence Edmund could at last listen to the other noise properly. A strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise - and yet not so strange, for he'd heard it before - if only he could remember where!" Then all at once he did remember. It was the noise of running water. All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realised that the frost was over."

This is one of the first great signs - not only of spring in Narnia, but also of the melting of icy hearts like Edmund's - or, like ours. We may not even recognize the noise of running water if it's been a very long time, but if it sweet to us even in its strangeness - this is the first hint that there's hope. Our heart gives a great leap, though we may not quite know why. Life is awakening from slumber deep down under year-laden layers of snow, and we sense things moving in spite of our still-heavy eyes. 

We were woken early from the literal winter-slumber this year quite suddenly. Several weeks ago, we threw a few things in a suitcase, dragged it laboriously through the snow and ice (this was before Minnesota's spell was broken), and hopped on a bus, a train, a plane - to another place. It was rather Narnia-like, stepping through a door into another world. I have never quite gotten over the magic of plane travel.

Our destination was the sunlit lands of San Diego. We arrived in the cool of evening, but the mere fact of being able to stand outdoors comfortably at the airport and watch palms gently giving in to light breezes - this was a revelation. Our shoulders, long hunched from chilliness, relaxed. Our faces felt the humidity and rejoiced. This was going to be good.

The next day, we were whisked to a little place in southern California called La Jolla,  stunning with its varied sea life, craggy coves, and vistas. The sunset by the end of the day was breathtaking, but the best part was that we spent most of our day inside of that landscape. We learned how to balance a paddle-board and then followed a friend over two miles out to sea into pods of dolphins, whiskery sea lions, bright garibaldi fish, and shadowy groups of leopard sharks shifting below. We decided that Sea World just might be a little bit of a let-down after all of that.

Despite the unfamiliarity of San Diego (what is that thing glinting in the sky - oh! Is that the sun?), we were greeted many times by the familiar faces of old friends. Here we were, in surroundings that were bright and and novel - but we were with dear people who have many times generously hosted us, broke bread with us, shared beauty with us, and provided us with much-needed rest and play. Here was a home where lemons grew in the backyard. Where I laid out silverware on the patio table for lunches. Where one could lay around and read, sleep, talk, cook, or - if so inclined - run out the back door, and straight onto a mountain.

One was so inclined. Winding suburban streets suddenly gave way to a gravel trail, which became "Black Mountain Trail" and I was off, ocean visible far in the distance. As a climbed higher and higher, I ran out of breath more easily, but I felt pushed on by something else - what was it? It was a curious feeling, one I hadn't felt in a while. It was energetic desire, leaping up like Edmund's curiosity, reminding me of beauty and the love of running and how fine God's creation looks when you open your eyes to it.

At that point, since it had been about a day since we'd been to the beach, so it was of course time to return. We basked in the incomparable luxury of time; walking the length of a beach while the sun slipped down, near a little town called Cardiff-on-the-Sea. This was the site of another sweet reunion and renewal of friendship. Good company, good food, good local wine. Just good. So much good. The sands were golden - almost too bright for our eyes.

Speaking of the bright, there is a certain savage beauty to the winter where we live, in the “tundra” as we call it with semi-fond chagrin. (Some of us more fondly than others, I recognize!) Having always been a lover of snow, ski, brisk, bright white-lovely days, I never have had the typical wintertime fly-me-to-a-beach reflex. It always felt a little bit like cheating myself out of seasons. However, this long year's trudge through frozen windshield wipers and frigid strings of subzero weeks wearied me in its sameness. It's always winter and only once Christmas (so long ago!). The monotone days were difficult to surmount.

This is perhaps why our adventure felt almost miraculous. The word that we could not stop using was "blessed." Every single day was a yes, an amen - even the rainy ones near the end were this way, full to the brim of glory, fun, and shimmer. Each experience was an opening of our eyes, ears, mouths, and hearts to another reality - of the warmed side of God's green earth. We may have been in a long season of waiting, but things are beginning to melt here back at home, too. The roar of San Diego's ocean waves still echo in my ears like a seashell, but I'm also starting to hear it underneath Minneapolis' lakes and rivers. I don't think it's my imagination. The spell is beginning to break, and my heart is on the verge of a great big leap...