Tuesday, December 10, 2013

And How Do You Go Back?

From time to time, I turn to the novels of Wendell Berry.  It's habit of pleasure, but also of guidance - an opportunity to measure my life against a vision of America Mr. Berry presents that seems both entirely foreign to me and entirely attractive.  

Yesterday, I turned to Hannah Coulter.  The title itself is fairly misleading.  It has to do with a fictional girl turned woman in the made up small town of Port William, Kentucy in those years before and after World War II.  However, as Mr. Berry is like to say, the story is of all of one piece with a whole host of stories.  Hannah Coulter's story is inevitably tied to the Feltner family, the Catlett family and a dozen other families that make up the small town.  He cannot tell hers without touching a strand of an intricate and beautiful web that is moved in whole.

Those of you who have read Wendell Berry know his dominant theme in all of his stories is community:  both the strength of the fabric prevalent throughout America in small towns once upon a time and now as threadbare as quilts from a lost generation.  You know the strength of his novels are in his ability to make this world come alive, and his weakness as an author is when he idealizes this whole and tightly knit world too strongly, making it seem too much an Eden born again.  Surely, I can't help but argue, things were never that perfect, that whole, that seemingly good.  And if there was a time when communal life existed in such a way, it only increases my melancholy.

My dad tells me about his childhood in little Amboy, Indiana.  I get the sense from his memories there truly was a wholeness there.  Surely, if you were to visit Amboy today, you would see it as a dead town, an isolated desert, one of hundreds lying off some road in an Indiana county.  But it allowed my dad to have an identity through relationship, through family.  It allowed him to be the boy in the "Kendall & Son" service station.  It allowed him to play basketball with the neighbor boys under the park lights.  It held him within a fabric, and I know his heart is still drawn to those memories.

I understand, then, why Wendell Berry writes his Port William stories - resurrecting the older ways when home and economy were not enemies at war but faithful and necessary partners.  

We are so far, though, from that land of Port William imagined by Wendell Berry, about as far now as my dad is from the Amboy, Indiana of his youth.  

Yesterday, I made my way back up to my own hometown that I eventually left.  As I did, I stopped at a Dick's Sporting Goods store just south of the place I grew up, one of the large commercial centers built solely to house the products of a goods & services economy.  There was, of course, nothing communal or local or domestic about the place, and could just as easily have been found near our old apartment in Pasadena, California as it was near Zionsville.  Not ten miles from where I grew up, I entered a vacuous building filled with more goods and items any small town would ever need in its lifetime, and there I stood roaming through it feeling both vacant and alone.  When I finally found what I was looking for - gloves for my kids - and found my way back again to the check-out registers, I found fifteen or so perfect strangers, all of us alike in our motivations as consumers and yet completely unknown from one another.  I made eye contact accidentally with a woman, and then turned my gaze quickly downward, intuiting that I had broken some unspoken rule of this new world.  It is a world of technology, mechanization and accessibility, and it seems the strangest at those points when we are forced into some type of relational act:  the awkward waiting in line behind or beside someone, the point when the exchange has to take place between the employee and the customer.  It is no secret that plans are already being put into place to eliminate this last bit of humanity in the whole exchange.  We can already get pretty much anything we need or want without any real sort of community.  For some things we don't need any at all, and the only question is whether this is at all healthy or sustainable environmentally, let alone what God has decreed.

But, this is my problem:  I have no clue how to return to that world Mr. Berry paints for us.  It seems a reality too much squandered and abused.  It seems a way of life that has vanished, a native language dead without any ancestors.  I don't even know if it ever was a reality, and that increases my melancholy.

How do you build community when you are - after all - a child of this autonomous world?  How do you begin to forge a life of "membership" unto one another and unto the whole of a place?  What does that look like?  And will my wife and I truly be partners in our home and life together unless we truly share some common work?  

Finally, I am left to wonder what is worse.  To be held, even choked perhaps, by the closeness of the small town America of yesteryear, a place plagued by buried secrets and systems of inequality like the Jim Crow South of Wendell Berry novels?  Or, is it better to live and be so able to freely move in this new modern, global world that we must face these new enemies that are so clearly the ills of independence:  isolation, anxiety, fear?

Mr. Berry, of course, can't answer that question for us.  He suggests many times that Port William and little Amboy, Indiana, never will be the same.  And that if they do appear again, it will be when God's Kingdom itself comes in full, or - as he says - Port William descends out of the heavens as the new creation, and we are waiting for it like a bride awaits the bridegroom.  That, I suppose, is why I lean in that direction myself with faith and with hope.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Early Fall

I remember when we painted these walls.  Going on four plus years now.  The room was littered with dry wall mud that had been carelessly splattered upon the old wooden floor boards.  The old trim around the windows was dark and archaic.  It seemed a relic from a distant era:  the time of horse-drawn carriages and grand oil paintings brought over from the old world.  

I really didn't want to spend my evenings painting this old house.  I was just getting settled in at the church, and after spending the days in town I wanted to be able to be home with my family.  The trouble was my family was living in the basement of my in-laws, a situation that was not sustainable for any of us.  And through some strange means of transference, it was made known to me that I would go in the evening to finish whatever needed to be done in order for my wife and two kids to move in with me come the spring time of 2009.  

I wore old Columbia hiking paints and thermal long-sleeve shirts as I worked, the bright lights of spotlights shining upon the walls.  To those passing by my nocturnal work, I surely must have seemed a deranged loner, or perhaps an eccentric artistic type.  I could care less what I looked like, though.  I worked in the audio isolation of my iPod, kept company by the great American voices rock and blues.  I fell in love with BB King during those nights, learning something of persistence and effort as I painstakingly first scrubbed the woodwork down with TSP, applied a primer coat of Killz and eventually went back with two coats of Graceful Willow.  Semi-gloss, of course, for the trim, and flat for the walls.

I'm ashamed to admit it now, but it was the first time in my life where I was truly having to work for something.  This house, whatever it was, would have to be made better by my work, my effort.  Some men seem born for such work, and embrace it wholly.  Not me.  From the first it seemed a burden, even a type of cursedness, as though God had relegated me to this new situation on account of my earlier failures and laziness.  But, I came to enjoy it and discovered in it some lessons about myself as well.

I learned, for one thing, the sense of honor a man can have in working for his family, I mean actually doing something practical and tangible that can house and benefit his spouse and children.  I remember many nights when the hours stretched on and on and my annoyance started to grow that I would focus on the quality of my work as a discipline of love.  I would paint the beautiful trim work with their hand-hewn accents and grooves with delicate care, and as I did so, I imagined doing my work with a chivalrous mind and devoted heart.  This hour I spent on the trim, I told myself, would be done for my wife, so that she could have and appreciate a bedroom that was carefully cut when it was painted.  Thankfully, I can look at the trim even now and see the care that was taken.  I am fairly surprised that I found calm enough within myself to do the job that well.

But, maybe more importantly, I learned that a man must work hard enough some times that he reaches a point of exhaustion and failure because that same exhaustion and failure can lead him beyond himself.  It was an unending task to paint this house, and even after I finished a room, it was clear that decades of use and deterioration were not going to be overcome by a few weeks of washing and painting.  No amount of effort would bring completion.  As I wrestled with the enormity of the task, I was driven to plead with God.  And I was humbled enough to ask for help from members of the church.  Sometimes help appeared even without my request, which always seemed like such obvious grace that I fought to hold back tears.

A friend of mine that I know speaks often of the value of work, how it gives a person self-confidence and worth.  Looking at the trim still shining from the lamp's light, I know he is right.  There is something of me in that work.  But, I'm aware enough to know that whatever improvements have been made to this home have come by more than just my American can-do attitude.  In the end, I was blessed with the awareness of family and community there to support me.  I can see it very tangibly in the bookshelves John Anderson masterfully built and installed in the corner of the room where I type.  And I can think of the folks who showed up when I had the sense to finally ask.  


Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Elephant in the African Brush

With various stories floating around the last few weeks regarding President Obama's trip to South Africa, I've been reminiscing about our Wabash trip last fall.  I also discovered a poem I wrote on the plane ride back from South Africa.  I doubt much of it will translate, but hopefully the theme will come through.  I was inspired by the awesome experience of this elephant above appearing out of the brush in a wild game preserve.  This formidable animal came striding towards our open-top transport vehicle, stood in front of us a moment - just long enough to define our place.  Then the elephant moved on.  I was immediately struck by its silent determination and subtle yet profound strength.  It immediately became a symbol of the King and the Kingdom of God to me, something that would not be "denied or dismissed."  I was also impressed by the liquid sorrow of the elephant's eyes and the thousand-creased skin.  It's face seemed a representation of all the tragedy I had witnessed and heard of in the heart of South Africa.

The Bull Elephant in the African Brush

Out of the bush it strides,
     in mass and alone;
It twinges and stretches,
           its tusks turned and tilted,
           its almond eyes crying inside its
                 leather-patched, hardened hide.
The bull alerts itself and its predicament,
            fanning and fronting to its onward course,
    not to be deterred.

It strides past the seven-mile cesspool,
           walks its way through the saffron and dust
               of the stricken-street,
    Walks across the squalor and shambles,
        of zinc and tender dry
            sticks stacked as refuse and refuge,
    Across the further lands of Cape Town's mall,
      past the merriment and morbidity of the system
            the Xhosa serve,
      Of spinning wheel and
            hanging indulgence,
      of Waterfront and white.

It walks beyond the unspoken, unseen borders
      of every shantytown
          that mars and marks the African veld,
    Past the teeming tarnish,
The troubled and troubling
       Gehenna of Khayelitcha,

It sniffs the poisoned, polluted air -
      surveying, assessing.
         at its expanding and expansive tenement, baking
         in the valley beneath the dialectic
  of Stellenbosch,
    and soteriology, and sin,

Then turns its head
     towards its beckoning point,
     to its home-bound boundary
    Of which the whole creation waits and groans,

And strides again. 


It marches on past the tourists and the tribal troubadours,
    Past Zuma's cronies and capitalists,
    Past the Afrikaaners turned aristocrats.
    Past the twenty Rand trick,
         The sex-inducing blonde,
         The soul-worn umfundizi,
         The medicine man who stares out
              his Rustenburg shack
                  with his ailing eyes,
           Enchanting his inadequate summons of salve
     While his daughters' daughters wither and die.

It marches past the bishop holding his
    creamy, careful hands
     palm flat upon the screaming, scalding
       skin of another shanty girl -
     Riven and riddled by men and disease, raped by father
         and gold and market and
               the million greeds that yawn across the never closing market
           from corner to continent,
           from godless domains
               of powers and principalities
    Entrenched as postmodernism's modern gods.

Its eyes cry in silence - probing to the depths
    the degraded humiliation,
      the deplorable degrees of devastation,
And marches somehow onwards still. 

It pulses and pushes its Herculean
   not to be denied or dismissed,
     but persistent and proud.

So goes its will; its might,
    under the African sun and
     across the
         aching, ailing earth,
crying silently its
Groaning for creation's renewal,
     which has been promised
        and foreseen.  

Saturday, July 06, 2013


Anna is in the kitchen this lazy afternoon, and the sound of vegetables hissing in hot sesame oil just began.  She is dead-set on making an Asian dish she's had targeted for over a week now.  "Bound and determined" is how she described her intentions.

Through the open windows of our bedroom window, I can hear Wyatt and Elise running around the neighbor's yard, likely playing "guns" or "sneak game" with the two neighbor's grandchildren.  It has only been in the last few weeks that our kids have begun playing with the two boys when they come out to visit grandma and grandpa.  Anna and I have been grateful two new playmates have been found, especially as it affords us personal time.  It is no less satisfying for Wyatt and Elise, and they come home to dinner after an hour or so full of stories and flush faces.

We've celebrated our nation's independence largely with a relaxation in our individual scheduled activities.  Anna is done with swim lessons and practice, at least for this week anyhow.  The kids too are done with their weekday trips to the pool.  And, I have emerged from a week as a camp director for 32 Junior High kids down at Camp Pyoca in southern Indiana.  We were therefore more than grateful for two extra days off this week, and we've spent them mostly ordering our home as well as our rhythms in our home.  

I don't know how many times we've rearranged rooms and furniture in this old farmhouse, but it is up to at least a dozen times now as we try to find the perfect balance between our growing possessions and our finite space.  Ever the optimists, though, we feel we've finally found the best arrangement to date with the kids back in the room just off the living room.  We are also working to turn their old bedroom into a schoolroom for the coming year.  We don't know why we didn't try this layout earlier, but improvements only come by mistakes and many attempts.

Without the demands of coaching, church, and extracurricular activities for the kids, our days have been more stable, and we've been able to actually sit down to dinner several times in recent days.  We've also managed to get back to some good, although challenging rhythms of bed time routines.  Add that to our new "manner list" on the fridge, and we're slowly eeking out some order and normalcy in our home.  Well, as much order as one can expect for a family of four living in a century-old house with a huge dog, chickens, and eleven acres of lush, vibrant woods, lawn and garden.  Much of our efforts in this place go towards stemming the tide of chaos.  But, what else are our 30's supposed to look like?

Thankfully, our extended family chipped in on the Fourth of July, part of an agreement to band together once a month at one of our homes to check off old projects and tackle new ones.  Our list for the day included taking down a Locust tree near our garage, painting up some trim on the inside, and odds and ends that never got checked off my "honey-do" list.  Per usual, I decided to jump right into a job without applying much critical thinking, which nearly resulted in me dropping a fifty foot Locust tree on our house.  Thanks to Grandpa Joe, one Bobcat, and one steel cable the crisis was averted, and we ended the evening in good humor eating hamburgs, coconut cream cake, and watching modest fireworks exploding in the late day air.

Hopefully, the next couple weekends will give us the chance to get up and see my extended family.  It has been awhile since I've been able to see my mom & step-dad, my sister and her girls, as well as my step-mom and dad, and I'm excited to catch up with them.  It seems like these summer days are endless with darkness staying away until late in the evening, and yet the days themselves are just not numerous enough.


Friday, May 31, 2013

Fur Elise

Somewhere between Wyatt's birthday and today, Elise has grown.  I know this as fact.

On the other side of our garage, out near the old concrete pad that we use for composting and yard waste, I set up a zip-line about a year ago.  It starts about six feet up in one of the two remaining Chestnut trees and runs about twenty yards down to a lesser tree.  I built it in my typical fashion - hastily and in a moment of foolish determination.  I salvaged the runner chain we had used for Ada at one point in time, a thick, metal cable about the width of a drinking straw.  Then, in the late afternoon, I hacked away a few branches, pulled out a drill and bits and began burrowing holes into the meat of Chestnut flesh.  About fifteen minutes after Anna said dinner was on the table and about five minutes before the day lost the last of its light, I had managed to sink two hooks into the opposing trees and had made the metal cable a tight string of tension balancing above the ground.

The kids love the zip-line, and return to it fairly often - often enough to renew my sense of pride and fatherly satisfaction every other week or so.  When Elise made her first maiden voyage across the airy-expanse, she dangled and zipped the whole way, her feet never coming anywhere near the ground.  We had to improvise and arranged for a bucket to be placed on the other end, so that when she finally came to rest, she could tip-toe her way back down to earth, releasing the handles with a snap.  For the most part this worked, well enough at least.

Today, though, she didn't need the bucket.  Now that I think about it, she hasn't needed it for some time.  Not since Wyatt's birthday at least.  That's the last time I can remember her pointing her toes to the top of the bucket turned upside down - searching for a landing pad with her arms still stretched vertically, her body a dangling ornament.  Now, her legs float down to the ground and land softly on the grass near the other end.

But it's not just the zip-line that proves her growing.  For the last few days, Gramma Lis has been working on a nightgown for Elise, a garment she was constructing in her basement.  I knew of this project, but thought little of it.  It is not unusual for Gramma Lis to arrive late in the day with her own projects, although hers are better planned and not as hard on the body - typically new pajamas or dresses or shorts for the summer.  I thought this nightgown would be like the old pajamas, simple pieces sewn together from Anna's old t-shirts.  It was hardly that.

From her neck to the tops of her toes, Elise came out of her room dressed for bed in a soft, white gown with braided cuffs just past her shoulder, a braid of her pinned back to the right side of her head.  To top it off, she had put on a string of fake pearls around her neck.

She approached me in a manner that I can only describe as beloved and sure - walking towards me without saying a word and then standing assuredly as I lay on the couch, her chin just slightly turned up, her hands at her side, waiting to receive a gift.  It was a gift I freely gave.  "You look beautiful, sweetie.  Do you like your new nightgown?"

Still silent, she stood looking at me directly and smiled and nodded a yes.  I said, "Let me give you a hug before you go to bed."

Now, when she knows that she is lovable and feels special, she welcomes my offer and allows herself to be held much longer than is normal.  She is normally too busy or too distracted by some insect or drawing to sit long with me.  So, I treasured this hug - holding her in my arms and knowing that she was content to be held the same, knowing that life only gives such gifts for only the shortest season.

How many more years until I am a nuisance in her life?  How many more years until I become painfully human?  I care not.  That is for another time.  Today.  Well, today she knows that I love her, that she is loved by me not for her appearance but for being Elise.  She knows that she is lovable.  And it stabs me with joy and pain to know she knows that.  Don't we all want to know that?

What manner of man am I that my God is this good to me, that I might see blessedness sweep into the room and stand before me as I lay upon a couch?  Ah, I tremble.  I tremble.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Early Summer Vacation

My vacation ends today, a wonderful and much needed period of refreshment - including a great three day trip to Brown County, IN.  We spent most of it at home, though, working on little side projects and tending to the yard and garden.  We ate lots of ice cream; We enjoyed lots of fresh strawberries coming on strong in our garden.  Wyatt caught a few fish.  I put another 150 miles or so on my bike.  We spent about five cumulative hours in the indoor water park at Abe Martin Lodge located in Brown County State Park.  We bought both edible and inedible keepsakes from the tiny stores in Nashville:  peanut butter and Jack Daniels fudge; a double espresso and mocha creation known as the Sledgehammer; new belts and wristbands and barrettes of leather.  Anna and I built a see-saw for Elise's seventh birthday.  And we had two large family meals.  The first for Elise's birthday consisting of steaks marinated in rosemary and garlic as well as broccoli salad and completed by a white cake and white sugar frosting topped with more of those fresh strawberries.  The second on Memorial Day consisting of a full ham brined along with roasted cauliflower and fresh salad with pineapple, crystallized ginger and shaved almonds.  In other words, we lived bountifully and heartily.

Our trip to Brown County began on Wednesday, as we packed up Cooper's big suburban and wound our way down into the first hills and hollers of southern Indiana.  Last year, we made a similar trip around the same time of year: near the close of the school year but before the intensity of summer swim lessons and summer church programming picks up.  But last year we tried the hero's route:  camping the first two nights and finishing off the trip in a rustic cabin where we could finally shower and enjoy at least marginal air conditioning from a window unit that buzzed and hammered its meager production.  We learned our lesson from that experience, having arrived home even more exhausted than when we left and certainly at the point of getting on each other's nerves.  This year we choose the assurance of fixed accommodations and the easy entertainment of the water park in the lodge.  How much does peace of mind cost?  About $100 dollars more a night than tent camping is about where I would put it.

And so, even though the days were full, they were also tremendously enjoyable - giving ourselves over to only one thing at a time, moving from rest to recreation to work to feasting to rest again.  It is how I imagine life should be much of the time, and I am left wondering why mine is not more so.  The secret o' life, as Mr. Taylor says, "is in enjoying the passing of time," and that's what the greatest gift of this vacation was ... enjoying the gift of each day, singularly and simply.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Late May

Late May.  This is when life begins to feel like the initial plunge upon a roller-coaster.  You know, the one after the gears methodically pulled you up the steep incline - seemingly never finding its way to the top only to find yourself cresting the summit and immediately jerked along, ready or not.  Not too long ago, we were pulling ourselves through the last stages of winter, hoping for some return of green and life.  The cycle of school and jobs was becoming monotonous, and Anna and I were looking forward to being outside:  riding my bike, working in the garden, spreading mulch, beginning new crafts.  But now it has all hit us full force, and our hopes and the land's required tasks are only outpaced by the wild exuberance of our yard, the grass refusing to be tamed, the garden now filling out with food and weeds.  Today, Wyatt and Elise picked three handfuls of strawberries, and there will be at least a few buckets worth this year.

We are trying our best to stay ahead of nature's relentless encroachment this year.  We've already laid down five or six bucket-loads of mulch in various places, aiming to keep some of the weeds at bay.  A few weeks back, I finally dug out the rest of the old fence line in the blackberry bushes, pulled out all the dead canes, and tried to eliminate the wild rose bushes creeping in at the eastern end of the row.  Joe and Lisa seized upon the chance to further tame the madness and have mulched the area with load after load of grass clippings - a resource in abundance after the long and very wet spring.

Even earlier than that, back when the trees were still naked in winter, Anna had me trim some of our fruit trees, hoping to force more of its energy and nutrition into a smaller, yet hopefully healthier crop of pears and apples.  We've put mulch down around some of those trees, planted a new Bing cherry tree for Mother's Day, and marveled at the few small peaches already coming on Elise's tree in only its second season.  I would say we are cautiously optimistic we may actually have made positive steps with the orchard this year.

Anna just finished her first year of homeschooling Wyatt, as well as occasional instruction for Elise throughout the year.  They spent the last few weeks exploring the Roman Empire, including playing dress-up and play-acting in a toga.  Wyatt has been fascinated with Roman history, although perhaps not near as much as he has been with firearms and more modern weapons.  He has entered the stage where he is bound and determined to rid our property of all invaders, or to sneak around our place, running from tree to tree only to take aim at one of us or an unseen danger with whatever instrument of justice he is carrying in his hand.

For her own part, Elise is walking the yard carrying a stick - having decided it is a necessary deterrent to our last remaining rooster, a small black and white bird the kids call Zebra.  I guess a stick will do the job.  It wasn't my first choice.  Last Sunday when we came home from pizza up at the Cooper's, I handed Elise her plastic Lightsaber to fend off the rooster's aggression.  I watched with delight as she repeatedly chased the bird back into the black raspberry bushes - swinging the Jedi weapon wildly and free.

I begin a week of vacation today.  We have plans to travel to Brown County State Park on Wednesday and to spend at least two days there, perhaps three.  We've bypassed the heroism and ruffian ways of camping this year, having booked a room in the lodge with comfortable sleeping arrangements and immediate leisure with an indoor water park.  

I'm feeling a deep desire to get away and so am excited for the trip ahead.  I'm also looking forward to reconnecting more with Anna and the kids knowing there are large parts of them I've missed in recent months. 

On the other hand, I'm mindful of about twenty-five projects that I have not yet finished around this house, and another fifteen that need to be started.  That's the part that feels like I'm on the downward descent of what is sizing up to be a wild ride this summer.

And somewhere in the clutter of the garage is my bike ... okay, bikes:  the two machines of liberation I continue to exhume from the clutter - pushing away out onto the open road.  I have some hope to ride in RAIN (Ride Across Indiana) again this summer, and if I am to do that, I will need to increase the amount of time I'm already spending on a bike, which - frankly - sounds both too strenuous and selfish.


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Modern Parable

Rosa was sitting two seats to my left, a beautiful Latina woman whose face glowed with a smile.  She was the outsider in more ways than one.  There were about forty of us huddled together in the basement of United Presbyterian Church.  Forty Protestants slumped into folded plastic chairs around small, circular tables.  Every other person in the room was caucasian.  Most were of retirement age and sported thin grey beards meant to connote dignity and wisdom.  The women wore a lot of make-up; the brave ones with brighter shades of lipstick - tiny flashes of the more risque.  A few had on colorful scarfs, worn in protest to the last dead days of winter.

In the middle of the table sat a small plate of chocolates, which most at the table had denied in order to maintain a Lenten discipline or their blood-sugar levels.  The chocolates seemed a bit extravagant.  I guessed that Rosa put them there, that they were her gift to this cadre of servants of the Word.  I took a small rectangle of milk chocolate and bit into the heart of the candy.  Then I took another wrapped in gold foil, unwrapped it quickly and indulged myself before the telling silences of those sitting around the table.  Then I turned to Claire.

Claire was sandwiched between Rosa and myself.  For ten minutes I had sat next to her and had heard not a single word or noise.  Turning to her, I could see she had the sanguine look of the gracefully aged, or it could just as easily have been the first sign of Alzheimer's.

"That's a great shirt you have there, Claire," I said pointing to the Wabash College t-shirt partly hidden beneath her knitted sweater.

Claire's face came alive.  "You know of Wabash."

"Oh yes.  I have just finished participating in a program at Wabash that lasted the two years.  It's a great school."

"My son goes there.  He's a junior."  Invigorated by attention, she shot back her own question, "And where do you live?"

"Oh, I'm from Zionsville, on the northside of Indianapolis.  But, now I live in Greencastle ..."  I paused to see if she would make the connection.  "That's where DePauw University is, just down the road from Crawfordsville," I continued, fully expecting the acrimony of rivalry to creep into the conversation.  But Claire's eyes remained light and warm.

"Do you like it there?"

"Yeah.  I do.  It's a sort of home-coming for me.  I went to school there.  What about you?  Have you grown up here in Bloomington?"

"Yes, I have.  Been a member of this church here for thirty-two."

"That's great."

"I like it."  As she says this, I notice Rosa leaning into our conversation.

"Hi, I'm Wes," I say, stretching my hand across Claire's plate, offering a distinctly American gesture.

"I'm Rosa."  She rolls her 'r', letting it fall into my ear in pieces.

"And are you from here," I ask her in my own form of Hoosier hospitality, inviting her to step forward with her history in her own way at her own pace.  If nothing else, we know how to be considerate, painfully so.  But before she can answer, Claire interrupts.

"She drives me around.  Gives me rides."

Rosa blushes, a warm blush of gratitude and love, not humiliation.  It is clear she considers it an honor to be a part of Claire's life.  And her community.

"I make the bean dip for today," she says motioning to a round tray conspicuously vibrant at the end of two long tables.

"Oh, that was good."  I am eager to make her feel welcome, eager to let her know that I know what it is like to be an outsider in this room.  "Is that a family recipe?"  The moment the question leaves my lips, I realize how quickly I've begun to jump to stereotypes, and my eyes fall to the ball of tinfoil I'm rolling between my thumb and forefinger.  But, thankfully, stereotypes are also lost in translation.

"No.  It's just refried beans ... two types.  I mix them together.  You know?"  She is searching to see if we are indeed communicating.  "I mix them together and put them on the platter.  Then, I make guacamole.  Then I put sour cream and taco seasoning."

I smile and take the next step.  "That's your secret ingredient, huh?"

"That's why it's orange.  Do you notice?"

Even if I didn't (and I didn't), I am compelled to agree, certain now that she has offered this food as a gesture of her love and respect.

"Then, I put cheese.  And also green and red peppers."

And I tell Rosa that I especially like the peppers.  This is not a lie, and I look over again at the beautiful, bright, crisp red and green, the red as red as the t-shirt under Claire's sweater.

"Did you make the guacamole?"

"Yes.  Do you like?"

"It's great.  I love guacamole.  In fact, I was thinking that I would just go ahead and take home the rest of that guacamole with the rest of those chips."

For a moment, this immigrant mother from Queretaro, Mexico and this replanted Hoosier from the suburbs of Indianapolis actually begin to find common ground.  I ask Rosa to tell me what she puts into her guacamole, assuming that in their culture there is still that close distinction between love and food and gifting that once was part of my own family's German heritage - a heritage that we have steadily been unbound from much to our own detriment.  We agree that it must begin with fresh avocados.  And, I tell her about the guacamole I used to order at El Cholo on Fair Oaks Avenue.  I list the ingredients as they appear in my mind - recalling the Latina women there working in their white blouses and flowing dresses:  avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.  She is surprised I like cilantro ("Some people don't like").  Rosa tells me that it must have a bit of garlic, and I nod my head in total agreement.  And sometimes - she tells me - she adds serrano pepper.

"Something to turn up the heat?"

She smiles.  "Yes."

And in this room of Euro-Americans who have now successfully made the transition from poverty to wealth and from to exclusion to comfortable power, Rosa begins to tell me her family's story - of how she and her husband met in Mexico City, of how they traveled north some ten years ago in hopes of finding a better life for their four children, of how two of her boys have done very well here in America  and how one is even a 4.0 student here at Indiana University.  Pre-medicine she tells me, and proudly lifts a newspaper from her purse that tells the story of her two eldest children - a sophomore and freshman.

Sure enough, there they are:  Chuy Vidaurri-Rodriguez and his brother, Lalo.  They are smiling with their arms around one another, and at the top of the page the headline reads:  "Second Chances."  Rosa is just a proud mother, but she also has a cause.  By act of the Indiana House (Bill 1402) and Senate (Bill 590), Chuy and Lalo will no longer be considered state citizens.  Anxious to limit the resources provided for the "Undocumented," Chuy and Lalo will soon be paying over $30,000 a year to attend IU instead of just over $8,000.  And Rosa does not want her sons to lose their opportunity.

So she is ready to share with me or anyone else who will listen to this family plight and struggle.  This country has meant hope and life for her.  It has meant precisely what it meant to the Scottish and German and Irish and English peoples whose descendants now sit around Rosa quietly chatting about the common lamentations and minor joys of ministry.  This country has become both her vexation and her deepest comfort; her home of opportunities her old country could never afford even as she wistfully remembers the countryside south of Mexico City that clearly has such power over her heart, stealing her away to her childhood.  America has become - by act of complete abandonment - her home, for better and for worse, and she is as much concerned about this nation's future as the Presbyterian octogenarians who quibble over the "direction of our country."  Perhaps even more so.  She too is now part of its story and its relatively young history, of wave after wave of the dejected, the persecuted, the exploited, and the tired who have faced down their fears, counted their losses and made a bold leap of faith - entrusting their very families to a dream and to a nation that could just as easily turn on them as it might embrace them.

As I say my goodbye, I take one last look at the joy hidden in Rosa's face, and I wonder at the difference between those who dream and taste of rights beyond anything their forefathers and mothers could have imagined ... and those who have grown certain that such rights are something we determine and decide and dispense - choosing whom we shall or shall not include as neighbor.  And I consider the gift she has offered to us.  Unequivocal generosity, I would call it.  Kindness of which Christ spoke.


Monday, March 04, 2013


Wyatt's face grew tight, and I could see him trying to hold his bottom lip steady.  An impossible task for him as he began to shed his first tears of the evening.  

"I left my remote control on," he sputtered as his chest began to convulse as well.

"Hold on, Wyatt ... It's okay," I said in hopes of stemming the coming breakdown.  "Let's talk about it.  What did you leave on?"

"My remote control for my heli-" Helicopter he was going to say.  But, he never got there.  The mere utterance brought on a rush of convulsions.  My son's emotional state was quickly devolving.  We had been here before.  Many times.  Some small instance in his day, some matter that did not fit the perfect script in his mind, that came back ten-fold at the end of the day.  And off he went.  Like a helicopter off kilter and spinning wildly towards the ground.

"It's okay.  It's okay."  I offered up the assurance mostly for myself, preparing for the journey through this descent, knowing I'd be picking up the pieces the rest of the night.  This would not be a quiet evening.

Forty minutes earlier I had reached into the makeshift closet in the kids' bedroom - pulling out a cardboard copier paper box.  It was full of our family's history captured before the era of digital photographs.  Nine albums of 4x6 photos dating back to college and through our first two years in Pasadena.  

I returned to the living room intending to prove to Wyatt and Elise that their mother and me once drove from Indiana to California in a rent-a-truck.  And those pictures were there.  But, before we found them, we were flipping through staged pictures from fraternity parties and memories from the old lake house up on Wawasee.  I had unearthed a trove of mysteries and stories, unleashing questions and quandaries for Wyatt:  every picture filled with new information, new landscapes, new possibilities, which - in turn - ignited Wyatt's avaricious mind.  Unwittingly, I was setting the stage for the later meltdown, navigating my son away from his nightly rhythms and routines and into space that would be too spacious for him to begin a steady march towards quietness of spirit and mind, and - eventually - sleep.  Instead, I descended into the photographs myself - pulled into the names gone by, unlocking memories buried deep.  So I flipped through page after page.

It's funny how our mind re-imagines and re-shapes our past, building its own narrative of joy or frustration depending on what images and memories we hold onto.  My mind grows content when I thumb through pictures of our days in California, as if the golden rays of sunset in Los Angeles stand as a permanent filter for those days.  There was a lot of freedom in those days, and my future was beautifully undetermined.  That is why I was ambivalent towards Wyatt as he began to ask me questions.  He desired information about the large float dominating Colorado Avenue with its ridiculously bright colors.  I, meanwhile, began to enter back into that scene - recalling the fresh air and warm sun on my skin even on the first day of January.  He wanted names for faces.  I found myself recalling conversations and meals and long hikes in the scrub-brush canyons of Ojai.  Memories don't mean anything if they aren't yours.  So we gravitated apart.  I began to drift further into the past while Wyatt came back to events closer and connected to his own life and experience.  At some point, he must have remembered the fluorescent orange helicopter lying on the television room floor; it's power mostly drained and only sufficient to spin its blades for a few seconds before ceasing.  There was not even enough juice to lift it off the floor.

The synapses and connections in his own mind made the dramatic conclusion that the helicopter's failure was his own failure - having already learned at too young of an age how to lay too heavy of a burden of blame and guilt upon his tiny shoulders.  

"I forgot to turn it off," he cried softly.  It would grow into a lament that would last another hour.

What is it in our nature that gravitates towards our shortcomings, seizing upon them and refusing to let them go even at the urgings of those who love us?  Is this our fate?  What it means to be bound to our depraved nature?  Surely, we cannot help but descend at times.

Thankfully, though, time tempers the harsher critic within us.  As an old friend told me, the sharpness of the day is dulled by time and years, the corners of particular disappointments wear down and we are left with memories where we can laugh where we once cried and relax where we once felt impossibly constrained.  And we pick up the pictures of our past and remember - for the first time - that life is so wonderfully rich and blessed.  Even the failures.  Even the rough nights that I will one day remember with an ache of joy in my heart.



Monday, January 07, 2013

back to school

We started back to school today. After a much enjoyed holiday week during which we did very, very little, this first week of January will be a doozy!