Thursday, August 30, 2007

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

When I was small, mom would frequently take me to The Library. I would skip over the glazed, patterned bricks lining the patio-like courtyard entry, smell the scent of aging pages and high school art displays as I entered, and frolic to the children's section, my own domain, til I went in search of Mom, who browsed as I sat on the round stepping stool and studied the dewey decimal lables on the spines of mysteries and fiction.
In the children's section, there was a large rug with patterns for hop scotch and other games. There were tapes of books in plastic bags hanging like my shirts did in my closet back home. There was a computer where I could play children's Jeopardy. There were fanciful murals beckoning from the walls. And there were books.
Some of the books had an emblem I immediately recognized. Lavar Burton's own personal stamp of approval, it seemed to me - the Reading Rainbow recommendation. An avid conneusseur of Reading Rainbow, with a goal of being one of the child reviewers who closed up an episode, I always took this with the seriousness of a NY Times bestseller label. One of these books that traveled home with me in my handstitched book bag that I haven't been able to find since about 1993 was, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch." I highly recommend it, as Lavar did so kindly to me so many library due dates ago. It's about an old couple living on a ranch; the man goes into town and watches a turtle cross the street with his cronies, and other "big" events, while the wife stays home and accidentally wins the lotto, finds a diamond ring in crackerjack, and so on.
Anyway, after traveling to the ranches and gulleys of Texas, I am now back at the bluegrass ranch, the living room having been repainted during my travels. A few notes on the ranch-covered Lone Star state:
A) It's big. Real big. I'm sure no one has ever mentioned size and Texas before, so I'll make sure you know now: It's the size of the midwest. Maybe that accounts for more executions. I also think Texas should have more votes when it comes to immigration policy. They actually live with immigration realities. There were billboards in Spanish. Welcome to the future, everyone else. Wierdly, Texas is where it's going on, and I don't just mean Cindy Sheehan demonstrations.
B) It's hot. Real hot. People say the humidity is lower. I don't buy it. I felt like I was being a Christmas cookie baked in an oven most the time. And that was northern Texas.
C)It has lizards. Yay! A novelty for a corn and soybean girl. There was a small gecko in the bathroom sink one morning. Extremely fast. Cute, in a "I wouldn't want this thing running up my leg during the night" kind of a way.
D) It's full of Texas stereotypes, except for geysers of oil. I was disappointed not to see a single geyser of oil. Or a single cowboy. Still, Texas is full of Texas-sized stereotypes. And the barbecue really is good.
E) Dallas/Ft. Worth is surprisingly diverse. Like, wow, it's not just cowboys and latino immigrants. It was like being in NYC or Chicago. I found it refreshing and a strange relief.
There were Indian food grocers not far from Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters.
F) Oh yeah, TBN is located in Dallas/Ft.Worth/Irving. Hmmm....I'm going to say No Comment there.
So, I'm back in the bluegrass, happy, refreshed, relieved that we're finally getting rain.
Angsty that friends are back in classrooms. Someone hand me a syllabus!!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Rustlin' cattle

The thing is, I really wished to type something profound and nuanced for you, the equivalent of preparing a chocolate souffle for the soul. (Not that all chocolate souffle doesn't grace the soul with sublimity.) At any rate, I considered composing a sweet sonnet on the virtues of the ordinary. Ordinary days, ordinary people, ordinariness and the beauty thereof. Ironically, I can't concentrate on such a project because I'm too busy anticipating a break from the ordinary. Yep, a vacation. The first real one in a long time. 14 hour road trip to Don't Mess with Texas. And while I'd love to be able to tell all you non-vacationers to be happy at home, the truth is, I am relishing the prospect of getting out of town. So, instead of souffle, here's some macaroni and cheese, emergency numbers are by the phone, the babysitter will be over at six, you know the rules. I rented a movie for you, you can stay up an hour later than usual. She Will tell me if you misbehave. Time to paint The Road red.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Fishwrap. Newsprint. Spilled ink. The Daily.
Newspapers never go out of style.
If you'd like to see the headlines that have caught my eye lately,
check out my new "Extra, Extra, Read All About It!" links on the
righthand side of the page. Tucked between the couch and the baked goods
- right where newspapers usually reside.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Picture Picture: lego imprints on the bottom of my feet

My little six year old heart gleefully soaked up Mr. Rogers, as I sat on the floor, feet out in front of me, eating raisins and watching my favorite neighbor steer me through factories. Want to know how crayons are made? You can watch brightly hued wax pour through molds. Ever wonder where sneakers came from? He'd feed the fish, take me to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, and then Mr. McFeely would deliver a tin of film and Picture Picture would show us shoelaces and rubber soles come together.
It is Lego's Birthday, and, as an accomplished Lego Professional/Conneisseur, I celebrate the milestone of one of my favorite playthings. Not that they're that distant in my past - living down the hall from a six year old boy, I still get occasional lego imprints on the bottom of my bare feet from time to time. Lately, legos have been multiplying in the shower.
Here's a tour of the process of the birth of a lego: now go play.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Mulching discernment

The art of discernment evokes long-term images. Mulching. Steeping. Brewing. Soaking. Infusing. All are sensory. All involve long-term good. All demand time. As Chesterton remarked, "one cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." Some things take time. How is it that knowledge and wisdom become something different tomorrow than they are today? We are in a continual sorting process of absorbing new ideas and experiences, discarding old theories, and flushing them out in practice. When one breaks down, another is found to replace it that works in life and logarithm.
But the wisdom writers of yore also spoke of action. A contemplative that gazes inwardly for too long becomes a stump. When a man working in a field found treasure, he quickly covered it up and went and bought the field. He didn't wait for the assessor to show up - he couldn't afford to. A word spoken in due season is lauded in Proverbs. One might note that action is involved in that advice. When the season comes, speak. But know the season, so that you might know when to speak. A youngster wanted to follow Jesus but said, "wait, there's something I have to take care of first." Jesus demanded immediate action.
It's interesting to see Christ himself displaying the both/and nature of knowing and doing. The disciples probably had an inside joke going by the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. "Where is he NOW? I just saw him and now he's gone again." They were constantly on the search for him - why? Because he had retreated to pray. To discern. To contemplate. To talk to his Father. The result of these sessions - their flip side, and sometimes, perhaps, their cause - were his moments of fast-foward action, where he trips over one miracle after another, confronts, heals, restores, chases, and travels.
In 'discerning' discernment, I have realized that there are three things that I should take into account: timing, technique, and telos.
Timing involves knowing oneself and knowing others. It means employing wisdom as to the consequences of future actions, and recognizing the seasons and contexts in which one finds
oneself. I have found that I am listened to more when I gauge when to speak something. A good piece of advice given at a bad time makes it bad advice. Not because the content is skewed, but because the speaker is. Testing seasons recognizes one's place in communal time. Timing in working with others is just as valuable as wise timing in your life individually. I remember sitting across the desk from a pastor I was working with, expressing profound frustration with some dynamics in the church lay leadership. Everything I was saying was true. But whereas I
wished it to be dealt with immediately, he had the perspective to grasp the importance of the community timetable. Sometimes timing involves correctly guessing the outcome of your actions. Do you have a realistic picture of what the results may be? Courage also meshes with timing. Lenny Skudnik was awarded a medal by Ronald Reagan because, standing on shore beside motionless firefighters watching people drown in a frozen river, he threw off his coat and dashed in.
Discernment requires technique, too. What are the sources from which you draw your guidance and information? Bad sources - poor theology, immature comrades, etc. - will yield only bad input.
Technique acknowledges that whatever outcome you're driving at, there will always be certain ways that are always inappropriate in arriving there. The technique cannot contrast with the content, or else your behavior is as mismatched as a Christmas sweater with workout shorts.
Do you consult all people your own age for advice? Do you consult people from other cultures in your decision making process? What are the fruits of the lives of people you seek wisdom from? Are you listening to people who differ from you on some issues and can reflect back a different perspective than the one you already have? Do you allow both quiet and action to reveal truth to you? Does the liturgy of the church calendar inform the way in which the collective community of faith marks your thinking and activity? Are you continually attempting to learn more about the Scripture that you depend on for clarity? Do you demonstrate an appreciation for the sciences, arts, and fields of learning and knowledge that provide a sensible approach to decisions? Do you balance worship and joy with the (potential) stress of a discerning season? Does your prayer for guidance reflect both personal dialogue with God and classic prayers of the church that provide the stability of centuries? Do you balance thinking through issues with acting through them - that is, do you look for truth and guidance in the midst of chores, hobbies, ministry, work, recreation, and service?
Discernment finds its home in its goal. Telos - Greek for goal, or perfection, or completion - communicates the end to which things are ordered. And the telos of discernment is always Jesus Christ as the picture of Triune God. To what end are your actions ordered? It may, in the short term, be in a particular career, relationship or project. But the content of a decision, and the method of deciding, must always match the telos, or goal, of the decision. If the target behind your decision is always to grow in relationship to Christ, becoming more Christlike, then that will help pull into alignment the smaller decisions you make. It can be as small as whether to stop and visit an ailing churchgoer for a few minutes, or as big as whether to invest in a ministry in a smalltown or a distant country.
Which brings me to a counterpoint: discernment implies testing a situation that is not inherently right or wrong. One doesn't stop to contemplate whether kicking a small child is a good action. But within the Christian faith, we as believers have times in which God smiles, steps back, and says, "now, this time, do it without the training wheels." Is it so difficult to believe that God enjoys watching us exercise our free will and creative impulse? After all, these are two ways in which we show the image of God in us. On occasion, we resemble those students who miss the joy of creativity for the fear of failure: "How long do you want the paper to be? do you want Times New Roman or Courier New? Single space or double space? Chicago Handbook grammar rules? How many sources should we include?" We miss out on actually learning for fear of failing due to a missed dotted i or crossed t.
But where, oh where, does Grace enter? If you really, down deep, believe that God has your best interest at heart, then where, o Christian, is there room for fear? Are you living rightly? Are you steeped in prayer and text? Are you letting others speak truth into your life? Do you accept God's grace when it manifests in acts of service to others? Then take a deep breath. Relax. Be at ease. If we truly listen to Jesus, and pursue obedience to him, then there is not a situation that we can drop and "break" that he cannot fix and make better than it was before. I am not speaking of cheap grace here, where we sin when we know better. I am speaking of prevenient grace that permeates our thoughts, feelings and actions, gently steering behind the scenes when we are attempting to discern the best course of action within an obedient Christian life.
When you find yourself in a position of exercising discernment (a phrase that implies active reflection), remember to consider timing, technique, and telos. And then sit back, when you have been labouring over your own knowledge, and know that just as you are steeping in your resources, the Holy Spirit is steeping you in his grace. You may think you're mulching discernment. But you are also being mulched in grace.

Friday, August 3, 2007

good cop bad cop

I love small towns. They have their strengths, they have their weaknesses. But they have
charm in spades.
This morning, when my boss arrived, he announced that the chief of police was going to grill free ribeye sandwiches at a nearby equine center for lunch. A moment to digress: my boss is a sponge for all kinds of information. He's a transplant from southern California, which is the best way I can describe him in a nutshell. If you want an anecdote about the time he interviewed the girl from NCIS or another time he was talking with director of Evan Almighty, you'll just have to spend time with him, because he doesn't find reasons to talk about these moments, like I would, loudly and often. They just come up in casual conversation, which makes discussions with him rather humorous and always popping up with the unexpected. At any rate, he also knows the names of the local utility guys and has an indescribable relationship with the owner of the pizza place across the street, who puts a bbq chicken pizza out on the lunch buffet when he knows Steve is coming.
So, the welcome news that free ribeye sandwiches were going to appear within a five mile radius of me landed on my ears quite pleasantly today. Around twelve thirty, I stretched, checked the directions to the local equine center with a coworker, and hopped in the car. Summer haze is stretched out across central Kentucky right now like a sticky spider web that clings to your face when you plow through it. It is a boiling sunshine. Jezebel, my trusty steed/Buick, hugged the curves out of town and I almost sailed past the lane I was aiming for. As soon as I turned down the narrow gravel path, I knew this was going to be a grand drive. The trees held hands over the stone and dirt and sheltered drunken butterflies from the dizzy heat. Toppling stone fences stood a ramshackle sentinel along the way and the lane dipped up and down as though it were in a continual curtsy.
A tidy sign pointed me down yet a narrower lane, and Jezebel and I climbed up the path next to more nodding stone sentinels slumbering from years of duty. Horse paths snaked away from the road through the brush, and I was glad that I was in a poison ivy-free car rather than crashing through undergrowth. Finally the top of a barn appeared. I knew I was at the right place when I saw a couple of police cruisers parked next to utility trucks and spied one end of a gas grill peeking from within the barn. I walked up, carefully stepping around horse evidence, and was greeted by a nondescript man with a name I recognized to belong to the mayor. The police chief sweated behind the grill but asked pleasantly, "hamburger or ribeye?" My spirit sighed with a smile as the Mayor pointed out plates, baked beans, potato salad and drinks - chilled Ale 8. The sweet smell of baked beans mingled with a dry scent of sawdust piled in the horses' stalls. I stood and chatted with a lady from city hall, and after being presented with "the best ribeye sandwich you'll ever have," was directed down to an air conditioned tack room where about ten girls who comprised the equine center summer crew sat and teased each other about boys and school and horses that kick.
God bless City Hall, even if I did just get a whopping speeding ticket recently. Jan Karon comes to mind. "Mitford takes care of its own." Whether punitively reminding me to be safe and careful or grilling me lunch.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Weird things I've seen

As I watched the end of the Guinness Book of World Records-Breaking "World's Longest Volleyball Game" last night at an area church, I reflected on strange things I've seen. Some of those things are mentioned in a post about working in a nursing home. But long term care facilities aside, it struck me that I have, at different times, chosen to be places where interesting things were happening; I have also found myself by pure accident in the vicinity of strangeness. I have also surrounded myself with people who bring the anamolous with them.
So it was that I watched my boyfriend help wrap up the World's Longest Volleyball Game (55 hours - play 3, rest 2). I've never seen a Guinness Book victory before, so it was a first.
I have also witnessed a presidential inauguration. A cold, rainy day in January, 2000, I stood with friends outside the Capitol building to watch George W. Bush take office. The early days, when things seemed rosy.
Once, by pure chance, I saw a hot air balloon crash, having run into
powerlines. Traumatic, yes. Strange, yes. Now I get quite antsy when I see hot air balloons cruising the skies on warm summer days.
In a wedding last summer, I watched a bride come down the aisle. In silence. To no music. Because the pianist had frozen. We bridesmaids shot him dirty looks, hissed, and later one of my friends confessed to the impulse to start humming the bridal march.
A few years ago I went camping with friends in Scotland. We drove around for a week. And on entering a small pub for dinner, we saw Prince William. About twelve feet away, eating with friends and a girl who kept ignoring him until she saw we were watching. Yes, I have made eye contact with royalty. No, we did not pester him. Yes, I was close enough to hear his English accent stand out from the Scottish ones around him. Easy way to keep people away from him: send him to Scotland, where they still chafe at English royalty being present among them.
At a C.S. Lewis conference in Oxford, England, I sat, amused, and observed scholar Peter Kreeft and Watergate convert celebrity Charles Colson line up at a microphone placed for questions to pose queries to the original world famous atheist turned deist Antony Flew. Seeing Chuck Colson stand in line at a microphone was fascinating.
On a more poignant note, I quietly watched an elderly Cuban Catholic gentleman who lived at the nursing home visit with his gay, HIV positive son. I cried later.
Walking up to a concert venue to hear my favorite band, Over the Rhine, I encountered two people who arrived at the door the same time I did. I started as I realized that one of them was Linford Detweiler, half of the band. All I could do was smile. Then I saw two eyes smiling out between a hat and scarf at my reaction. It was Karin, the other half of Over the Rhine. All I could do was grin.
I've also seen a Mongolian camel. In Mongolia. I tried to see the Great Wall, but there were clouds between the plane and the ground. I'm not sure if I saw it from the air or not. I settle for Great Wall Chinese restaurant. Ooh, also in Mongolia, I saw dead, frozen, skinned sheep that someone was getting out of the trunk of a car. I also saw a game of sheep knuckles.
When I was about twelve, I saw an Indy 500 practice. Half my face got sunburned, but there is nothing like the sound of Indy cars. Sends the good kind of chills up my spine.
My parents believed in exposing me to things, so I remember sitting in a university auditorium and seeing Margaret Thatcher give an address. When she spoke against abortion, my dad's claps rang out in the otherwise silent space.
In an intensely personal moment, I will never forget seeing my niece for the first time.
Of course, one strange sight, I shared with all of you recently in this space: the small town, 4th of July lawnmower brigade. Even more interesting were the pictures I snapped of Omar, half Iraqi, gleefully performing the lawnmower drills. I loved the unpigeonholedness of it
So I was a pretty geeky kid, and my early teens were spent devouring figure skating programs and trivia. So it was that my birthday present one year was to go see my beloved spinners and jumpers. Afterwards, we went to the busses, and I saw a young Michelle Kwan and got her autograph. Woohoo!
Well, if you can think of any that I'm forgetting, add it, mention it, jog my memory. Here's to more interesting sights.