TWELVE ATTEMPTS TO SAY “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” TO A DEAR FRIEND.

(Indroductory Note:  This article was originally posted on my Facebook page, July 11th which would have been Diane’s 49th birthday.) 

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I noticed today is your birthday, my friend.

People’s birthdays get noticed on Facebook.  A little reminder automatically comes up and suddenly their “friends” send lots of sweet well wishes and comments to their walls.  It’s kinda fun and uplifting.

There wasn’t a notice for your birthday (and I know why), so I wanted to find some way to acknowledge yours . . .

Happy Birthday, Diane.   You would have turned 49 today.  .  .

Being a year ahead of you in school, I turned 50 last December.  What a milestone!   I’ve been watching several of my classmates the last 6 months turn that corner and I’ve been telling them all the same thing – “It’s not so bad.”  Somehow, I have a conceit you would have snickered and taunted me on how “old” I had gotten and you would have milked that all through the 18 month difference between us.

Right now, I would enjoy enduring that more than anything else in the world!

(Because it still stings to remember you only just made it to 40.)

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But I will try not to digress on that  – ONCE AGAIN!

(Yeah, right . . .good luck!)

It’s been a little over 8 months since I learned of your departure (read: crashed to the ground).  During that interval I’ve still had moments of trying to work out the math of your untimely death, Diane – and I still crumple up the sums, toss them away and nurse the ache.

But yes.  .  . I’ve also had gradually larger seasons of breaking sun.  I’ve made stronger, more purposeful strides down the path, and there have been days where I’ve caught myself not even thinking of you.   I know you would approve – watching, as I believe you do, from your vast, intimate vantage point.   Yours was a spirit that sought ways to overcome such obstacles undaunted.

I was told, after all, that when the hospice workers showed up at your door – you sent them away – with great indignation.

(8 months and I still can’t decide whether to laugh or cry at that image.)

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I’ll be honest, Diane – Sometimes I’ve been worried and annoyed with this permanent wound you’ve left me.  It brings out the best and worst in me: Compassion and compulsion, resolve and despondency.  You’ve given me a new voice, yet I don’t always know how to stay in tune – or when to shut up!

I’ve learned that grief is a paradox:  it always cries out for expression, yet it’s a maddeningly private experience.  There is loneliness in the unique shape it takes for each one of us.  When we seek the solace of connection, we find at best, it can only overlap with the grief of another.

Grief may not placate, but it wonderfully resonates.   It’s like the song of the first bird in the morning or the howl of one wolf at the moon; the song is joined, the cries are quickly taken up, adding a chorus for other loved ones lost.   Because I miss you so, Diane – others join in and harmonize for the one’s they miss.  Duets for the dearly departed.

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Greg Haegele was one of those.   Did you know him, Diane?  I knew you both.  He was the scrawny, blonde kid a few houses down.  I loved going over to swim with him at his dock and play his bumper pool set.  Like you, he lived passionately for his causes, and he was too young to go!  (I have a few choice words to the sky about that, too!)

When I sang my song for you, many felt the tones echo for Greg as well.  If they observe your birthday where you are, and he comes to the gathering, tell him I said hello.  Tell him many hearts on this side miss him dearly, and wish him well.  Tell him special thanks for that day I came over unannounced . . .and scared.    He should know how much it meant to me that I could go there.

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As a result of my howl at the moon – I also exchanged words with two people I’ve never met, who remember you from such different stages of your life.

One remembers you as a member of her Girl Scout den.   Your mother taught her to sew so she could earn the badge.    She can remember you happily singing the song “Feelin’ Groovy.”

Another woman met you just two years before you died.  Your sons played soccer together.  She loved chatting with you during the games while your children played together – and she had hoped to become your friend.  The following year, she finally asked your husband Craig why you hadn’t shown up for three games.  When he told her how sick you were, she went to the car and sobbed.  She couldn’t bring herself to attend your service, feeling she didn’t know you well enough – yet she misses you to this very day.   She treasures a recipe you gave her for Avgolemono soup – in your own handwriting.

See how much you touched even people on the edges of your life?   Take those memories as part of my birthday present to you . . .

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Here’s another gift I would give you (if it were in my power).  At first, it was hard for my wife Terri to understand the nature of my grief.   But her graciousness humbled me as she came alongside me.  Near Christmas time she found a lovely cross (at Wal-Mart of all places) and gave it to me as an early gift.   It says, “HOPE” on it and it looks Greek Orthodox. I remember both of you when I wear it.

I would ask heaven for an hour where I could leave her with you and walk away.   Your spirits are akin in many ways; particularly the fierce tenacity with which both of you grappled that dirty, cheap monster – cancer!  (Alas that both of you could not prevail).  You were so good with people, Diane.   I think together you would fill the hour with happy words.

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You’re lucky to still be 49 (hypothetically) .  As Bill Cosby says, “That’s a whole ‘nother decade.”  I turned 50 and my hips started hurting as if on cue!   (There’s one of many things you won’t have to experience.)

Unfortunately, it’s the same with my grief for you – just when I think the ache is gone, you sneak up on me in unexpected ways.  My oldest son is now the age I was when I first met you.  I watch him get out of the car and walk into those school halls – fresh, inexperienced, keen and just on the cusp of things!   I remember our time, and it’s as if I can see right through his eyes.

My iPod shuffle ambushes me with Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” from SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE  (which came out when we were in Junior High).  It soars and gallops along, and when that lithe, mocking flute dances at the end of the song – I feel it now as I felt it then – and I just have to lower my head into my arms.

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One of your dear friends told me, Diane,  that aging another year used to trouble her.   But after your departure, she considers every birthday a blessing.

It’s ironic; I never really knew when your birthday was until I read the obituary.  But now I will celebrate!  Indeed, with a kind of wistful, cosmic defiance – I WILL celebrate – together with those who remember you in love and with tears – I will stare mortality in the teeth and acknowledge the blessed day of your earthly advent!   (Take that, O Death – you heartless cheat!)

My sister wisely observed, we did not learn how to express “the deep rivers of grief and loss” in our family – and that your influence at a formative time in my life was of such “rich, emotional, soul quality.”  That’s why I will remain a pest on this one, Death.   This time, it’s personal!

(Tossing out those hospice workers – you go, girl!)

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But enough of that.  Since it is your birthday, Diane, let me share a memory of you; a memory I had lost and only just recently had found again:

We were talking somewhere a few weeks ago, of birthdays.   As a kid, mine were frequently celebrated at Farrell’s in Bellevue.  Ooh!  I smile even now to remember the loud drums and the screaming sirens, men in skimmer hats rushing the table of the birthday victim!  How scared I was as a little tyke by the Boom, Boom!  I wanted them to go away.   I gradually grew to tolerate, then enjoy those birthdays as a teenager at the zany emporium with the 1920’s décor!

Then it flashed back into my mind – leaping out of some dark, forgotten corner in the attic of my lost memories.   Do your remember, Diane?   The double date at Farrell’s – you and Raymond sitting across from Melinda and I – and that devilish trick that only a teenager would dare to do?   We take the change for tip and drop it in the full water glass, then placing a card over the mouth it is carefully turned over onto the surface of the table – those smooth, tight marble surfaces at Farrell’s.  It’s a dicey operation to remove that card in such a way that the change lies on display, underwater in a makeshift water glass aquarium – but. . we. . DID IT!   What hilarious obnoxiousness!   And how richly we four enjoyed the moment, huddled at the cashier, watching the waiter discover his tip under that trap as he puts his hands on his hips in exasperation before reaching for a towel to clean up the inevitable mess!  That’s when you laugh, Diane – a lovely, satisfied sound I can still hear in my mind – and the playful joke was your idea!

(Oh, glorious memory!    Oh, joy!     Oh . . . heartache.)

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And then, Diane . . .there are moments like I had today.  I walk out of Costco, and the mid-Summer heat wafts against my skin – I stop at the edge of the parking lot, breathe in and feel the baked, windy air fill my lungs; I see the distant, auburn rolls of glacier carved hills dwarfing the city – light and vivid color dazzle my eyes as clouds roll across an enormous sky.  I smile at little red tennis shoes on the brown skin boy absently following mom into the store.

And all this I feel in a moment’s time.  For your sake, I LET it wash and swirl around me:  a responsive being with a beating heart.   I open the pores of my life on your behalf.   I receive this living moment in grateful astonishment – because I know such moments for you are gone.

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My lame birthday song is almost done.   I feel like it meandered all over the place.  It still feels kind of sloppy to me – not as celebratory as I wanted it to be for you.   But I believe that wide heart of yours will still accept it.

           Let’s just . . .play happy birthday together, shall we?   Me on the piano – one of those clunky, black uprights in Mr. Layer’s practice rooms in stage band.   I’ll start the chords – you take up the melody on that flute of gold – there where you stand tall – just beyond the doors of time.   (Think we could get Keith on bass?)

I’ll play as soft as I can – and let you improvise the melody first – and I will listen close – to hear some Bach, some Rampall – maybe even a little “Dreamboat Annie.” I’ll hear its distant sound just over the hills – and in the corner of my heart.  Then,   I’ll pick it up from there, Diane.

I promise . . .

I’ll pick it up a little more.  .  . As I go from here.  .  .

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An elegant song won’t hold up long

when the palace falls and the parlour’s gone

we all sleep – but it’s not the end.

We’ll meet again at the Festival of Friends

Some of us live and some of us die.

Some day, God’s going to tell us why

Open your heart

and grow with what life sends;

That’s your ticket to the Festival of Friends

Bruce Cockburn       

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FIVE FINGER EXERCISE: Counting our way to peace.

“Five fingers, skin and bone, talk to me like a telephone.   How do those fingertips say twice the words that come from your lips?”

– Leah Kaufman

One, two, three, four.  .  . five fingers!  We are five-fingered creatures, times two hands:  five plus five equals ten.  How neat is that?  The building blocks of math have their imprint on our bodies.  At an early age, we learn to flex, point and twiddle these appendages with great dexterity.   One of the most remarkable sensations I have ever experienced is to have a baby’s tiny set of five fingers wrap my one large index finger around in a tight, tenacious grip.   From there, what discovery and mischief young kids get into with their fingers.  They tap each one as they learn their numbers; they manipulate the Lego’s into shapes of ever-increasing perplexity, they run them lovingly through the soft fur of the bunny at show and tell.   Yes, they also learn to pry where they shouldn’t into cupboards of curiosity, swiping an illicit sample of frosting off the edge of the cake.   How joyously young fingers with whole palms splat through the mud and without hesitation smear that mud across the front of mom’s clean, white dress.  Our fingers learn quickly (and literally) to make their mark on our worlds – for good and for ill.

I marvel that God called us into being on a divine level partly by the use of our fingers.  The first building blocks of our memories find their way from our “digits” so to speak.   A young girl recites a list ticking it through her fingers as easily as an old man might do the same marshalling facts for a point he’s making.  I recall learning in my early piano days what were called “five finger” exercises learning to train my fingers to carefully walk, then run, then dance through the white keys of a C scale.   After years of practice I became astounded by the experience of fingers, which hold memories of melodic movement that even my mind had seemed to misplace.   This last summer, I sat in a piano studio seeking to recall phrases of composition I hadn’t played in years.   I tried but failed in frustration to recall even the sound of melodies I once knew by heart.   Then I resorted to simply letting my fingers play their way through the thicket of the keys; memories of sheer muscle and bone wandered through old passages.   Phrase by phrase, the physical dance in the fingers found the old path again, leading my brain to gradually recall what had seemed lost.   “And a little child (ten in fact) shall lead them.”   In such a miraculous way, my old music was converted to digital – literally!

Our lives are surrounded with various implements and technologies, which enable us to recall and remember whole libraries of data.  The irony is the more we rely on these implements to manage life’s information, the more needlessly complex becomes our ability to recall, let alone master any part of it.   Before iPhones and iPads, before computers and laptops, indeed, even before pad and pencil, human beings utilized the very near and natural set of counters custom-made to our bodies; we let our fingers do the walking, we let our hands pray us into remembrance. When the early Israelites were exhorted to remember and teach the next generation about “the laws of our God”, they were to do things like write them on their doorpost and “bind them as a sign on your hand.”   They were to use those things that were simple and near at hand in order to keep the word of the Lord at their fingertips.  So I discovered at the conclusion of Sabbatical a simple discipline of using my own, bodily calculator as a method for prayer to recall those things I needed to bring before God.

With 10 fingers I can easily recall the 10 commandments.  Minus a thumb I can recall the 9 fruits of the spirit or the 9 beatitudes – letting the final digit bring my hands, hence my whole life into an open expression of praise and amen.  As I came to prayer at the conclusion of Sabbatical, I contemplated the use of my fingers as reminder posts.  They became markers of the things I am to remember from the Word.  They also became a set of ten keys to unlock some of the most stubborn doors to my own heart.   Like many, I often find the sheer act of prayer becomes an exercise in gradual surrender – that when I draw near to God’s heart, the light of Christ has a way of revealing my own.   Christians through the centuries have found that the light of the spirit has a way of revealing and banishing the darkness inside, allowing us to be relieved of burdens we secretly carry.    That is why a most basic part of prayer is surrender; as the apostles say, we “cast our care on God, for God cares for us.”  It’s the act of naming and releasing our anxieties, our willful impulses and our clinging idolatries, that we might know the joy of finally abandoning them to the mercy of God.   I don’t know about you, but I often find prayer is simply the effort of letting those things go, in order that I might come to a place of receptiveness – to God and to my neighbor.

 The seeming myriads of troubles and anxieties that war within us can often boil down to a few basic things, such as our fear of the future, our lack of trust for God’s provision or our craving for vindication and to have our own way.   The particulars for each of us are endless, but the basic impulses can most likely be reduced (if you’ll pardon the pun) to a “handful.”  During the final phase of sabbatical, I sat down to identify what 10 of my most basic anxieties, fears or needs were in my life.  Once I could articulate those, I assigned them “a digit”.  The most pressing concerns naturally would get the prominent thumb and forefinger, quieter, yet more subtle ones would get the pinkies.    Once I had my list of 10, I walked through the prayer labyrinth at San Francisco seminary, taking each burden in turn and counting them off my fingers.   I would take enough time with each one that I might amply recognize and name the anxiety or need, and then release it – from my fingers into God’s.   In this way, I reached the center of the circle of prayer having completed a counting exercise that could have been done by any first grader.   I was grateful to discover how much lighter my heart became as I went through this simple, rote exercise, this countdown to surrender so to speak.

As I have been back, I have been sometimes consistent, sometimes not so much on this practice of prayer with the appendages.   When I neglect it, it seems my life appears complicated.   When I remember to pray through this countdown, I find the way is made clearer.   The peace of God, which passes all understanding – sometimes I’m able to put my finger on it!

PIANO RECITALS: A Meditation on Musical Passages Past and Present

I attended my son Christopher’s piano recital the other day.   As we entered the high, steep vaulted ceiling of a Lutheran church, we joined with other kids and teens clad in slacks, dresses and shiny shoes together with their moms and dads touting cameras and camcorders   The liquid sheen of the jet-black Steinway Grand waited at the end of processing rows of pews.   I sat down next to my son as he stared ahead and fidgeted with his legs.   Noting his quiet intensity, I thought to myself,  “He’s lucky to be early in the program – less time to suffer the anticipation.”   The first bright-eyed little girl stood up and announced her piece to the audience.  As she deftly hoisted herself unto the thick, leather bench and began to play, I experienced a sweet reverie to the days of my own recitals.

I remember as Mrs. McClellan’s young piano student the quiet ride in the station wagon as mom drove up First hill in Seattle, past the hospitals to the old city church with the gothic steeple.   We would enter the front doors and turn right into a long, carpeted reception room.   It was a subdued space, elegantly furnished with the windows draped to keep the sunlight and noise out.   Rows of individual chairs had been set out – not the pragmatic, folding metal ones you find in most churches, but nice, padded ones with circular seats.  Everything in the room pointed to the large, sleek ebony grand curled before the audience like a benevolent panther waiting to be stroked into rich music by our nimble, practiced fingers.   Mom sat with the parents in the back while I joined the other students filling the front rows close to the melodious beast.   We sat up straight in Sunday clothes, fidgeted with our slightly sweaty fingers and felt our hearts beat in our chests as we waited for our names to be called.

Through all my twelve years of recitals, it was the same piano teacher who stood up to introduce the program.   She never seemed to age.    She was slender with a kind, wrinkled face.   She wore cat eye glasses and spoke in a gentle, inviting voice as she announced the name of each student.   That was our cue to swallow, arise in quiet terror,  announce our piece, then seat ourselves in the lap of the beast and play.    As the first students played or stumbled through their compositions, I would endure these moments by fixing my gaze on the one picture that would draw my eye.   It was a framed painting of Jesus on the left front wall by the window.   He was sitting in the moonlit night upon the Mount of Olives looking down upon Jerusalem.   His posture was relaxed and his gaze untroubled and serene.   I contemplated that picture as if in adoration of an icon.   (I learned later that it is a famous picture of Christ by Joseph Untersberger and I have always loved it for the sheer peace and comfort it afforded me through the tension of waiting my turn at piano recitals.)

In my day, the beginners would go first to perform short,  simple pieces by Clementi or from the John Thompson series.    I remember as a young student having prepared easy but dramatic pieces with names like “Caprice of the Gnomes” and “Fifteen Men in a Pirate Boat.”  The program would go on through the more advanced players and end with the high school seniors playing a thunderous Polonaise or Sonata by Liszt or Chopin.   One year I watched in awe as  this tall, lanky teenager with a pale complexion and a frizzy dark shock of an Afro sat down to conclude the program.   Thunderous chords and zipping arpeggio’s leaped from the strings as his hands chopped furiously at the keys.  At one point I watched in fascination as those hands  almost became a pounding, gyrating blur.   It sounded like music only some supernatural being could play.

Coming out of my reverie back to the present, I watch Christopher rise and take his turn at the piano.   He is fifth in a program of about thirty players.    He performs a moderately difficult composition that is short, but with great dynamics and expression.  A few notes go astray, but the song is well executed and the applause is exuberant – particularly from Terri and I.  His moment now complete, he resumes his seat next to me, clearly more relaxed.   I share that feeling with him – parents carry the tensions, toils and achievements of their children.   Now comes the part I like best – drinking in the music from the rest of the program.

In my day it seemed the succession of performers just got uniformly taller even as they got more accomplished, but it’s a little different at Christopher’s recital.   Occasionally, younger candidates follow older students and astound us with their technical abilities.   Others treat us to less technique, but more expressiveness.  One high school girl plays a swaying jazz piece and delivers it with such “soul” that it puts a smile on my face.   Almost all students hit some wrong notes or forget a measure or two.   Occasionally, the mis-steps are spectacular.   One high school girl performed a Brahms interlude that I adore.  She was playing it beautifully!   My eyes were closed as I drifted along with the melody.   Then, in the bridge she lost her way.   Like a wanderer in the woods, she halted mid-melody, retraced her steps and began again.   The music stumbled again and she stopped.  We all held our breath in the silence:  patient, on hold, willing her – even praying for her to find the way home.  She never did find the original trail, but she managed to conjure up her own awkward way out of the woods.   We all clapped for her performance and her bravery.   We feel for the embarrassment she must feel (I too, in my years of recitals had one of those lost-in-the-woods moments).   Yet she found her way out so musically and with such ingenuity!   It was as if we all followed her to an unexpected precipice and instead of throwing up our hands, she enabled us to enjoy the view!

Comparisons are inevitable at recitals.   It seems the more accomplished we get, the higher the stakes.   I remember as that child performing “Fifteen Men in a Pirate Boat”  feeling it was laughable  I could ever be skilled enough to end a recital program like the lean dude with the frizzy Afro chopping out Chopin with blurry hands.  Yet after years of practice and love of music, I actually found myself assigned the closing position in my senior year.   I was both proud and terrified, having worked hard on a relatively short, technically tricky ballet piece from the big repertoire book.  I came to my final recital prepared to perform.

I was not prepared for Rosalind Bartok.

 She was a newcomer to Mrs. McClellan’s recital circle, but she was no newcomer to the piano.  She learned to play from her accomplished mother – a formidable piano teacher.   Rosalind went to my school and was in my grade, but I didn’t know her well.    She was quiet, disciplined and studious; intriguing and pretty in that subdued way of serious girls who have no time for anything but piano and studies (and certainly no time for boys!).   I never saw her at the prom or the football games.   But when Rosalind was at the piano, she dropped the collective jaws of the entire audience.   Before I closed the program, she had already performed a Mozart Sonata – all three movements!  Then she was called up again to throw in a Beethoven Rondo and a Debussy for good measure!   I listened for lost passages, wrong notes, even correct notes played blandly.   There were none!  She wasn’t flashy, dramatic or full of herself; she was simply a devoted artist, proficient and accomplished.   I couldn’t help but admire what I was hearing and felt increasing dread as my conclusion was finally announced!

I introduced my piece to an already “wowed” audience, keenly aware that my showy little ballet number only covered 3 pages and would last about 2 and half minutes.   Rosalind had played what seemed like a half-an-hour!  I sat down before the waiting beast, trying not to dread those few passages that, even that morning had given me trouble.   Launching away, I watched in a kind of adrenaline haze as my fingers turned to rubber tearing through those notes.   There were moments I felt like a wavering tight rope artist, but I didn’t get lost in the woods (the woods weren’t that big anyway!)   Before I knew it, the thing was done and I was bowing to loud if not thunderous applause.  I pulled it off adequately, but it was not without it’s flat-footed moments.

It is true; I felt somewhat diminished by Rosalind.  My big, senior finale felt more like a footnote at the end of 12 years of recitals.   Was I jealous?   A little – but not badly.   I think after that moment, I experienced for the first time that smaller satisfaction of having plunged in with my courageous best, even while I was clearly outclassed.   I like to think that Rosalind’s excellence was not so much humiliating as it was invigorating – something that made me better in unexpected ways, even if it made me self-conscious.   Such are the fruits I gleaned from the trials of piano recitals.

My son’s present day recital is wrapping up.  I sigh with contentment and not a little wistfulness of my memories listening to all those great young people sharing the beauty of their work and effort with us.  Recitals can be unpredictable, nerve-wracking things for performers and spectators alike.   But there was one moment of surprising grace I’ll never forget.   Mid-program there came a young, scrawny boy who seemed a second grader in size.  He was playing incredibly accomplished pieces.   He was so fleet of frame, it seemed he had to vault himself unto the piano bench.   He performed the first of three, short, brilliant sketches without a misstep.  It was spellbinding to watch those little hands dart so deftly over the keys.   He’s a minute into the second movement, playing with equal confidence when we’re all suddenly jarred by the sound of  a missed chord.   There’s a pause.     We all suspend our collective breath as he ponders this moment like a puzzle.    He makes another run at the passage – again, not quite right.   Pity, fondness and empathy mix inside of me for this little Mozart now flummoxed.   But then he turns his head to all of us.   In a voice so clear and completely free of self-consciousness he says, “I’m going to start again at the beginning!” – as if he was merely informing us about getting a second helping of ice cream from the refrigerator!    Serene and unruffled,  he starts up again; the music accelerates and blazes right on through the third movement and ends with a flourish.   We all applaud vigorously as he returns and whispers in the ear of his proud parents.   All was well!   And I felt so deeply well myself, having experienced our efforts, our missteps and our new beginnings – all swept up in the great concert!

WALKING WITH MRS. O’BRIEN: A Reflection on Grief in Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE.

“The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life:  the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”  – Mrs. O’Brien

Two adjectives seem to regularly rise out of people’s response to Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE:  “Beautiful” and  “Baffling.”  Simile pairs of adjectives from critics of all stripes can be found:  “Profound” to “pretensious”,  “Inspiring” to “inscrutable.”   Having seen it twice now,  I unabashedly confess myself a devoted lover of this beautiful, profound, inspiring cinematic poem lovingly crafted without a thought to the clamoring needs of bored popcorn chewers.   I am resigned to the fact there are those whose bafflement at this film must be a sad consequence of their genes.   Let them run down the road like the adolescent O’Brien boys clutching their bee bee guns in search of the next illicit thrill.     I will remain,  content to contemplate the wonder of  Jessica Chastain as she floats beatifically above the grass.

There’s a lot of rich discussion to be found about the various meanings in this film.   Like a Mahler symphony, THE TREE OF LIFE as the title implies, is a movie that attempts to embrace all of existence, both on an intimate and cosmic scale.  (I was not surprised to hear the strains of Mahler’s first symphony playing in it).  Whether you come away exalted or exasperated, it is sure to yield rich discussion down many avenues.   I want to begin my appreciation by exploring just one of those avenues.   I came to this film as someone still walking near to grief and at the very center of the story is grief over an unexpected loss.   I want to consider THE TREE OF LIFE as a film that may have  particular resonance for someone travelling such a journey – for someone who finds themselves leaving a familiar world through a door to follow figures hopefully through a barren wasteland.

Though the beginnings and endings of time itself bracket this picture, at the center of THE TREE OF LIFE is the story of the young O’brien family – a mother, father and three boys growing up in Texas in the 50’s.  Like a good college essay, the theme of the entire film is stated by Mrs. O’brien’s voice at the very outset:  life is about  the way of nature and the way of grace.   The book of Job is often evoked.  No sooner do we hear Mrs. O’brien declare how she “will be true to the way of grace, whatever comes”, then we observe the arrival of the letter that contains the devastating news of the death of their middle son when he is only 19 (we are never told how this happened).   This untimely death becomes the catalyst for the whispered, cosmic questions (questions familiar to Job) which primarily Mrs. O’brien and son Jack will whisper throughout the film:  “Why?   Where were you?  How did I lose you?  What did you gain?  Was I false to you?”

In a later time frame, Sean Penn plays the adult version of the oldest son Jack,  standing like a sentinel over the tapestry of images that will tell the O’brien’s story.   He walks almost like a wraith through the barren architecture of his working world, remembering his long departed brother.   Clouds overhead and green trees sprouting from the concrete, lead through his grief’s distraction to the deep roots of his youth.  We witness with him the seminal influences of the film’s twin themes “the way of nature” and “the way of grace” personified by his strident father and quietly nurturing mother.  We see myriad moments of life in ways that we often remember them in grief – disconnected, yet vivid scenes:   rushing bicycles; bodies of boys swimming in the summer; the uncertain, trusting eyes of a brother on a dare;  dark rooms in the attic. Typical of Mallick’s style, the film is not told as a linear story, but plays as a heightened reflection on images that go back into the deeper power hidden in  random moments of life.   Grief replays moments of our lives with that same luminous quality of intensified meaning, in the kinds of moments the film give us:  kids running after their mother laughing down the street –  soap bubbles hovering for just a moment beyond the grasp of a toddler – a hand resting on a shoulder, speaking infinite forgiveness.

The scenes of this childhood are so concrete, yet every shot holds an uncanny kind of universality.   As I watched, it was effortless to be surprised by moments that keyed into my own personal journey:    A boy and a girl walk home from school – he follows distantly back on the opposite side of the street,  keenly yet shyly watching the raven haired girl he admires from class.    Mr. O’brien (played by Brad Pitt) remembers a moment of unkindness to his lost son which he cannot take back, the wounded regret loud in his eyes.  The adult Jack confesses over a cell phone, “I think about him almost every day.”   His gaze can’t focus on the tasks at hand.   We begin to see the random moments of his lost brother as if through his eyes, now wondrously alive as a child. We almost forget in these reveries that he is gone. “I see my brother – true – kind.”   Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien walking away, alone and separate amidst the sentinel trees, asking their questions to God and the sky.

“(The way of nature) finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shinning around it and love is smiling through all things.”

As father and mother, the O’brien’s simplest actions demonstrate the ways of nature and grace almost as a kind of circling dance.  The film juxtaposes myriads of images that complement this story, images of the struggle of evolution and the sheer audacity of inexplicable beauty in the world, from barking dogs on leashes to  beaming Van-Gogh like sunflowers.  Their moment of grief sharpens them to their most elemental selves, even as we watch them fulfill their chosen paths through the recollections that follow.  There will  be the inevitable conflicts of these two ways, personified in awkward fights erupting around the dinner table, in blinking, helpless eyes and the tapping of pacing feet.  Mr. O’brien will assert his Darwinian approach to the world by  teaching his boys not to be too good in the face of life’s brutal uncertainties.   We see in his fathering the effort and agony to be “a strong man” in such a world – yet we already know from what we witnessed at the start,  that grief will soften him – gently but firmly break him even as life’s unkept promises will do that over time.

Mrs. O’brien (played luminously by Jessica Chastain) by her very looks and physical, maternal presence will personify the way of grace;  her affirmation of the way of love coming underneath as a coda to decorate the structure of her husband’s strait, unbending ways.   After he leaves on a business trip, there is a sigh of relief in the family, the boys loosen up and she sheds a radiant, softening light to the family atmosphere.  (That’s why I found the startling, dream-like vision of her floating about the tree unsurprising and appropriate.   I’ve had dreams of grace emanating from people in just such a fashion). Yet it is almost with equal stubbornness that she hurls quiet, agonizing questions at the gracious God she follows.  Her grandmother rehearses well-meaning maxims said in that awkward tone to the devastated, a tone we’ve all used at one time or another.  We hear these words while the camera gives us Mrs. O’brien’s eyes – penetrating, blazing, defiant – the agonies bubbling out her soul.  We hear her true heart in the distant, yet sharp wails of unbridled pain as the camera gazes (as it does many times) upon the tree of life lifting it’s limbs to the skies.

Her journey becomes a model for the older Jack’s journey to find his brother, and presumably, his faith again.   In a lovely moment his hand will touch the back of her head as she finally allows her beloved boy to depart through a door.   We last see her almost as a Mary figure, flanked by angelic figures as she whispers “ I give you my son.”   Which son?   The one she grieved, or the one who has wandered?

It might seem incredible that there are dinosaurs in this movie, yet this awareness of the wounding of life comes across even in the vast, cosmic moments of the film when we see through the parade of powerful Hubble images the march of geologic time periods (how much this part of the film reminded me of the dinosaur segment from the original FANTASIA). In this long pantheon, there is an arresting shot of an enormous, glistening  Plesiosaur sprawled on the beach like a sea-lion from our own day, but strange and otherworldly as he slowly turns his long, serpentine neck back to the surf.   Only at the last moment of this shot might we notice that he gazes upon his back where, as the camera pans, we see in shocked revelation an enormous, ravenous and surely mortal gash in his side from a predator.   The majesty and power of the creature is revealed as vulnerable to violence, to loss and the brutality of nature, and yet the image is one of pathos.  We watch the scene as creatures with instincts to empathy and grace – seeing it as through the tears of angels.

As I continue to mourn Diane, and through her the departed members of my family, I often catch myself in moments from the film like Sean Penn paused on the bridge while moving from one building of purpose to another.   The structures of organized life take on a transparent, permeated quality as he gazes up to see sun, wind and clouds that blow on, just as they blew over the beach of the mortally wounded Plesiosaur.  He passes his hands over the grass that leaps fecund from the concrete parking lot holders as exuberantly as it does in the endless fields where they are boys dropping their bikes and rolling down the hill.  Those for whom I grieve in love arrest me through my days and stop my in my tracks.     Memories become keen, filled with light and meaning.   Time itself seems to blend the past and future into an unreal now.  They, like the lost O’brien brother, beckon with whispered words:  “find me.”  I wonder if I might.   Even the large cosmos, so powerfully, eloquently portrayed in the film, a cosmos that so shrinks my own significance, yet it seems to contain all that my life and loss contain.  Terrence Malick eloquently puts this experience on film.

It strikes me that the nearness of grief takes away a kind of veil over life’s narrative.   Some people complain of the lack of narrative and the barrenness of “plot” in this movie.   But I say those who grieve  may come to Mallick’s poetry of images and simply inhabit it’s space, share in the reflections of it’s characters, crouch with Mr. O’brien overwhelmed on the tarmac or pace the street in red-eyed pain or shriek in the distance with Mrs. O’Brien.  We can stare mute with the young Jack O’brien at the strange mystery of death, or  just as soon frolic alongside him amidst the gravestones with his brothers.    There are many paths through this amazing film.   For the grieving it can be a film where the angels lead through the pure, clean endless vistas of memory to that place of renewal and reuniting – and perhaps, joyful relinquishment – the way of grace through the way of nature.

“They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.   I will be true to you,  whatever comes.  .  .”

THE LOST SABBATICAL CHAPTERS: Phase #3 – “Going with the Grain at the Grunewald Guild”

(What follows is the first of hopefully more entries which give an account of phases from the Summer’s Sabbatical which I never got around to writing about.   They will be recalled in their moment, yet from the vantage point of the present.   In this way, I hope to eventually finish an accounting of the rest of the journey.   Hope you enjoy these belated entries). 

In phase #3 of our Sabbatical, our family stayed for 4 weeks at the Grunewald Guild near Plain, Washington – a really small town nestled in the Cascade mountains near Lake Wenatchee.  Our friends the Obergs have been directors of the guild for the last five years.   An eclectic collection of barns, shops, residences and a school-house nestled amidst pines and fields has become a space where art and spirit meet.  The guild is part sanctuary, part spiritual clinic, part playground in the arts for the adept and the novice alike.  It was our privilege as a family to “live and move and have our being” in this community, and – for me – to lay aside the “left brain” labors of pastoring and limber up the “right brain” in arts both familiar and new.

Music and words already being a part of my creative language, I spent the first week doing my own piano work at the nearby Icicle creek music center in Leavenworth.   The second week I took a poetry class.   But the biggest surprise occurred the third week when at the last-minute, I took the plunge into – wood carving!   Aside from a few stints with Habitat for Humanity, I can tell you my familiarity with anything to do  with  lumber is pitiful (and any result, laughable!)  I was simply going to  accompany my #2 son Timothy who was already enrolled, as a kind of encouraging chaperone.    We climbed up the short, steep steps into the upper chamber of a barn into a wide, spacious room of nothing but tables, tools, and portions of lumber of various sizes and shapes.   There was the nutty smell of sawdust and the occasional screech of a circular saw.  But as I sat in on the class with John, our instructor,  something stirred my imagination.   Several students had brought works they had started the Summer before.  Many of them were wood-reliefs and several of these pieces were amazing to this amateur.    As I got Timothy settled, I looked down at a blank, rectangular piece of light pine and recalled an image from one of my favorite films – a moment caught in animation  of spiritual exaltation.  Like an eager Pygmalion, I could see the image from the film bursting out of the wood!  I ended up enrolling in the class side by side with my son!

My inspiration was the remarkable concluding set from Walt Disney’s Fantasia 2000.   Based on Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite,  this animated parable of nature speaks volumes in images about life, death and resurrection/renewal.   Ever since the first time I saw it on the big screen, it is one of those moments in film that never cease to move my heart and mind every time I see it.  I won’t bother to describe it; it’s too good for words!   It must be watched, silently – perhaps more than once – to let its heart-rending and glorious message wash through your soul.

For the purpose of my wood working piece, I will say there are 3 principal, mythic figures in this animated short:  an elk,  a volcanic firebird, and a Spring-like sprite of nature.  There is a moment of awesome devastation – strongly reminiscent of the destruction of Mount St. Helens, and the lovely, green sprite of life is all but obliterated.  Into the lost, desolate landscape the elk searches for her, breathes new life into her and carries her gently on his antlers.    Strengthened, she brings tears which turn to rain on the earth and in a geologic burst  of time,  life is restored to the landscape in her sweeping train.    At the concluding moment, the resurrected sprite bursts into the picture in a moment of exaltation, of life bursting triumphant out of death.   It was that arresting image I could see emerging from the smooth, bland wood – the waves and streams of her hair, the radiance of her smile – all to me a symbol of joy:  the theme of my sabbatical.

“Ha!  Right!  I’m going to carve that?!”  That was my initial, balking thought.   I who can barely wrap a Christmas present am going to attempt that intricate of a wood relief?  But that is the beauty of the Grunewald Guild’s invitation.   It is the invitation to all, regardless of their ability or experiences, to dip the brush, take up the pen, plunge the  hands into the clay and let the intuitive side of the brain and the deeper yearnings of the heart seek to make their hopes and fears known in a new language.     To take that plunge in itself is a wonderful spiritual tonic.  I found the challenge to bring that “spirit of Joy” out of the wood a mirror of my own calling in life; that in all I do, the spirit of joy must be patiently, daringly coaxed out of the raw material of our daily lives.   And so I have begun (and have yet to finish) what is not only a work of art,  but a spiritual discipline.   I soon discovered not only the joy of working the wood as a pleasure in itself, but a tonic that bleeds into the rest of life.

A short stroll from the guild, there’s an old bridge that crosses the Wenatchee river just a few miles down from its source in Lake Wenatchee.  It’s an old bridge with rough, timber planks for a surface;  at one time it was used by autos, but now it’s open only  to bikes and pedestrians.  In places, it’s possible to  peak at the frigid rush of the river below through open knots through which you can well imagine kids dropping pebbles or pine needles.  Some mornings after breakfast I would stroll slowly over this bridge letting the constant chatter and drone of the river lead my heart and spirit to prayer.   Eventually, I reach the other side where I can turn right and wander the grounds of the Plain Community church.   A small path and steps leads to a beach that is barely exposed due to the high level of the river.   I sit by the water and pray my way through the heart.

There are times when prayer does the opposite of what we intend. . .yet it does the thing we more likely need.  What I mean is that I often hope prayer will settle me down, lead me through the bracken of human questions into an open space where I can feel peace of mind.   Prayer has often led me to such a space.   But it’s just as likely, prayer ends up “taking the roof off” our troubled lives. It’s a spiritual act that can easily open the Pandora’s box of my heart and out waft the sins, the fears, the gripes and  the uncertainties like an invisible, rising steam.   Like a smoldering, sleeping coal shut in the darkness, prayer opens the lid and “gives air” to those festering briquets and they flare up again in the inflammation of discovery.  The spirit fans the flames to burn the chaff away, but the gnawing of the burn intensifies with the exposure, and in a kind of irony the heart feels more trouble, not less.   It’s the throb that settles in after the aching tooth is pulled.  Such were my morning prayers at that beach.   The sun was warm, the water-music soothing, but the laboring heart proved too hot to be touched by such things.

And so I left prayer that morning and wandered back to the barn where my barely started relief carving waited for me.   I settled into the stool and picked up the squat handled knives.  Gradually, cautiously – I began to peel the wood back, watching the shavings curl like a soft cheese, letting the lines of that hidden sprite of joy emerge a little further, a little more clearly.   The mind loosens its grasp on the thoughts and emotions as the fingers grip, guide and gently push away the excess with the grain of the wood, a little more confidently with each stroke.   And soon I find, I’m settling into peace.  The sheer act of carving not only shapes the wood, it massages the troubled heart.  For me, it was a visceral discovery into how the labor of art can assist the spirit in rendering grace and healing to our lives.

My “wood sprite” relief now  sits at home – partially done and patiently waiting to emerge.   Last week, I took the plunge and ordered my own set of knives and am eager for their arrival.  Now – next to the ivory keys of the piano, and the button keys of the laptop – I have a set of new tools,  a bit unfamiliar and needing better acquaintance.   But they have become yet another path of knowing, a physical act of prayer, a craftset for the soul, as the Pygmalion in me works out the spirit of joy – as the spirit of God works out the image of Christ in me.

WHEN THE QUALITY OF ECSTASY IS STRAINED: a reflection on the risks of joy.

More than 32 million people know who the double rainbow guy is.   I’ve sat gazing on that mildly beautiful video on YouTube of the clearly vivid rainbow arching against the rain-soaked sky in front of the hill (pictures rarely do justice to the reality).  But soon I forget about the rainbow as I suppress laughter listening to “Mr. Mountainbear” boil over in ecstatic, weeping rapture over the event.   30 seconds of  “woooo!   Yeaah!” would have been unremarkable; 5 to 6 sustained minutes of it, complete with orgasmic yowps and sobbing solicitations to the heavens over what it all means is a roadside accident and maybe we should call the ambulance.    The video really isn’t about the rainbow, is it?   It’s about the humor of overkill.   It’s got me thinking about our human capacity for ecstasy – and at what point does “beatitude” become “lighten up, dude!”

Mr. “Double Rainbow’s” vigorous response reminds me of a kid I met at a church retreat in high school.  We were sitting across from each other eating  dinner and I was telling a funny story.    When I got to the best part, he laughed on cue – unfortunately, he was drinking milk when I got to the punchline.  His guffaw exploded 2% Darigold all over my face and while he clearly enjoyed my joke, I had completely forgotten it in my dripping astonishment.   He seemed absolutely nonplussed that his reaction was in any way indecorous; in fact, he didn’t even apologize!   To this day I don’t even remember the funny story, but I vividly remember his unexpected, over-the-top reaction to it.   I think that’s what 32 million people get out of the “double rainbow” video – it’s a shared, knowing amusement at the bizarre lengths our human capacity for ecstasy may go – if we let it.   Really. . .snapshots of rainbows are a dime a dozen, funny stories – we all have a trunk full of them.   Where would they be without the human possibility of being overwhelmed, disarmed and enraptured?

That’s got me thinking about our amazing world  and that we are creatures made with the capacity to respond to its deepest secrets.   Take your pick:   a shooting star, an amazing baseball play, a fish jumping out of water, someone catching themselves from a fall.  We respond to the beautiful, the startling, the inexplicable – all the things that wake us up, turn us on and make us shout.  Sometimes we can surprise others or even ourselves with the intensity and investment of our reactions.  And with a little luck, we may get in touch with something of our common humanity.

Yet I fear just as often, we get in touch with our solitude.   Case in point:  I recall a friend in college telling me of a date he took out to dinner.   She ordered some kind of pudding for dessert.   He watched as she slowly took the first taste, her eyes closed up in attentive relish.   She dropped the spoon, leaned into his face and exclaimed,  “THIS. . .is ssssooooooo.  .  .GOOD !!!!”   So she fed him a bite, and after some ruminating he nodded his head and said, “yeah,  that’s pretty good.”   She was incredulous – crestfallen at the lameness of his response.   As hard as he tried to appreciate her insight into chocolate goodness, she sadly shook her head and muttered “No, you don’t understand. . . you just DON’T.  .  .understand!”   The greater the investment in rapture, the higher the risk of our being alone in paradise.

But oh, misery! – those times when someone making a scene of enthusiasm can just be plain annoying.   I recall the cheerleader like reporter for a “Regis and Kathi Lee” show who was riding a tour boat at Niagara falls.  There they were, within drowning distance of one of the North American wonders of the world –  a gaggle of water-soaked, rain-coated tourists staring blankly behind that gleeful woman  as she tried to lead them into doing the Macarena for the rest of America.    I could feel their polite, speechless annoyance that their tour had been so hijacked.

We can’t always share the enthusiasm and so we have to tolerate, even endure those of others.  On a good day, I can learn, even have fun watching someone wax ecstatic over something I may find mildly unremarkable.     I can envy the depth of their palate for appreciating something I’ve tended to brush passed in life.  Perhaps I’ve missed something.   Maybe their appreciation is an invitation to remove blinders I never knew I had.  If I can’t muster up the same vigor of relish (I think of. . .say, raising Dahlias or discerning the finer qualities of local brews of beer),  I can at least enjoy learning something from the obsession of others.   If the devotee has enough decorum to avoid being a bore, then it can be the joy of the amateur to give joy to the connoisseur.

We are made with deep, hidden pockets of delight and devotion. I admit, I may keep some queer, quaint and eccentric things in those pockets.   Yet I’m sure they’re not as strange as what’s in yours.   But I don’t meddle much in other people’s pockets – only my own.   Let’s turn them out together.  What treasures may lie hidden?

KEVIN BACON LIVES IN CASHMERE: A Reflection on “Small World” Occurrences.

Actually, Kevin Bacon doesn’t live here. . .as far as I know.  But what is it with the uncanny connections between agricultural Cashmere, suburban Mercer Island and the small-world connections of my life?

Perhaps some of you have played the little game “six degrees from Kevin Bacon?”  It’s a game for movie buffs.   Pick any actor or actress and name someone they co-starred with in a movie.   Then pick a different movie that co-star was in and identify another actor or actress that was with them.  Do this until you identify an actor who co-starred with Kevin Bacon.   The theory goes that ANY actor can be connected in this way to Kevin Bacon in six degrees of separation or less!   Kudos if you can connect the same actor in less movies to Kevin Bacon then the other person did. *

 (* Here’s an example – connect Audrey Hepburn with Kevin Bacon:    Audrey Hepburn was with Holly Hunter in “Always”; Holly Hunter was with William Hurt in “Broadcast News”; William Hurt was with Hal Holbrook in “Into the Wild”;  Hal Holbrook was with Tom Cruise in “The Firm; Tom Cruise was with Kevin Bacon in “A Few Good Men!”   Ha!  I did it in Five!   Of course somebody will pipe up and say “I can do it in 4”  and name a different path.  That’s the point of the game.)

When we do this with the movies, it’s fun.  When we do this with life, it can become astonishing, even a little creepy.   Such encounters bring up the old questions about our place in the flow of history and God’s world.   Is this pinball or was it meant to be – Chance or the Dance?  I don’t claim I understand it, but I take from it both amazement and a kind of renewed appreciation that our lives weave an intricate, wonderous web.

Come December 1st, I will have served in this little Cashmere church for 14 years.   I grew up in the affluent, suburban culture of Mercer Island attending a AAA High School on the West Side of the State.  I came to this small town Americana of Cashmere in the orchards on the agricultural East Side.   They seem such different worlds.   And yet from my very first Sunday on  I have encountered amazing, unlooked-for connections with people newly met.  I stumbled on another one just this last month.   I have thought, “One or two – even three, that’s probably common.”   But I have averaged 1 a year for 14 years and they don’t seem to stop.  So I decided I needed to document these occurrences,  because the more I encounter, the more difficult I find it to recount all these amazing connections.  So here is my catalogue of small world occurrences.    I document them with some margin of error in the order I became aware of them.  See what you make of them.  .  .

  1. The first time I ever came to the Wenatchee Valley was in 1984.  I was a camp counselor for camp SAMBICA in Issaquah and we had brought kids out to Camus Meadows.   We spent a whole day inner-tubing the Wenatchee river from the old Monitor bridge down to the park by the freeway.   Each time, my inner-tube passed right by the house of Mike Lancaster,  who later married Marilyn Whitehall,  who 13 years later would head the nominating committee that interviewed and hired me to pastor the church in Cashmere.
  2. In 1988 I was considering going into the ministry and was  living in the Seattle area where I attended Bethany Presbyterian Church on Queen Anne Hill.  The interim pastor at the church was Rev. Ken Bjornstad.   Ken  had just been serving as pastor of Cashmere Presbyterian Church where I would be serving  ten years later.
  3. A few years later, I served on staff at the INN college ministries at First Presbyterian in Bellingham.  There I  got to know Rev. Ray Smith who at the time was between calls and attending the church.   Ray would go on to serve as the next called pastor in Cashmere, following Ken Bjornastad, and preceding me when I was called to serve there in 1997.
  4. After my first Sunday preaching at Cashmere,  a member named Sandy Roeter introduced herself.  Learning I was from Mercer Island, she asked if I knew the Olsens.   Sandy’s husband Steve Roeter has a brother who married Cathy Olsen, the daughter of Bob & Julia Olsen.  The Olsens were our next door neighbors on Mercer Island and their youngest son Garrett was my best friend growing up.
  5. Greg Taylor is a member of Cashmere Presbyterian and served on the session when I was called to the church.   Greg is the CEO of Applets & Cotlets, Cashmere’s main employer.  Greg grew up on Mercer Island attending Mercer Island High school at the same time my older brother John attended.  Opening my brother’s 1966 yearbook I found  several pictures of Greg as a student leader (with thick glasses I might add)!

    MERCER ISLAND, WASHINGTON

  6.  A.E. (Bud) Hellner and his wife Pat were also members of Cashmere church when I was called; Bud was also serving on the session.  Bud worked as a teacher and administrator at North Mercer Jr. High and met Pat when she was a teacher there.  Bud retired when I was attending the High School  though I never had him as a teacher.  His retirement paved the way for my brother Nile to become a teacher at the High School.    In the same 1966 yearbook belonging to brother John that has pictures of Greg Taylor there is a picture of Bud Hellner as administrator.
  7. Eric Braun was a long-standing member of Cashmere church when I arrived.   In addition to serving as Cashmere’s mayor, Eric was

    "Senator George W. Clarke"

    elected to the State Senate and served as a Democrat from the Chelan County district.  Eric recalled to me vividly serving with a Republican Senator, whom another colleague always jokingly addressed as “his lawyer.”   That “lawyer” and Senator from the 41st district of Mercer Island  was my Uncle,  George W. Clarke.

  8. One day I visited church member Larry MacDonald who owned orchards in Cashmere.  He started telling me about relatives of his who used to live on Mercer Island.  Their last name was Low.   I knew a girl named Melanie Low with whom I attended school from 3rd through 8th grade before she moved away.   I asked if they had a daughter named “Melanie?”  Larry said “yes,” then pointed across the orchard in his back yard and said, “She’s living with her mom just on the other side of this orchard.”  After more than 25 years, I reconnected with my old school chum.   Melanie is now married to  the man who was Larry’s chief employee.
  9. Dean and Diane Priebe were members of Cashmere church when I arrived.   I learned that they were married on the same day as Terri and I were – August 29th – in the same year!   In fact their wedding occurred at the same time  just a few miles north of where our wedding was taking place in Seattle.   Digging  through a box, we found the Seattle Times announcement page of our wedding, and down in the opposite corner – there was the announcement and picture for Dean and Diane!
  10. Ken and Suzy Jones were retired and living in Leavenworth when they became members of our church.   As I got acquainted with them, I learned that while living in Tacoma their son John had gone to Bellingham and the INN where they knew fellow “Tacomacites” Kevin Hunter, Mark & Dave Hillis and Mike Nelson.  Mark Hillis joined the same bible study as I did my freshman year at Western.  That bible study was led by Mike Nelson.   The leader of the INN at that time was Fred Prudeck.  Fred officiated at the wedding of their son John.

    CASHMERE, WASHINGTON

  11. Bill and Phyllis Busse were also retired residents of Leavenworth who later joined our church where Bill became a Believer and full-fledged member for the first time.  Later, I was visited by John and Sue Peterson who told me they had been long time friends and travelling partners of Bill and Phyllis.   John and Sue’s son Dean is married to my sister Cindy.
  12. Warren and Julie Moyles began attending our church a few years after I arrived.  We soon learned that Julie went to school as a girl with a friend named Jeanette Hollingsworth.   Jeanette was my wife Terri’s aunt on her mother’s side.
  13. Terri and Ryan Bohnett were members of Cashmere church who had become our friends.  Their boys grew up with ours.  Eventually, they moved to Almira.   It wasn’t until years later that Terri mentioned that some of her ancestors came from Iowa.  I said my dad’s family came from Iowa and still had relatives with the family name of “Kinnick.”

    "Nile Kinnick from Iowa"

    Nile Kinnick, Jr. who was a member of that family, was the  Heisman Trophy winner in 1939, after which he was killed in WWII.  My brother Nile is named after him.  Terri then revealed that she is also related to the Kinnicks from Iowa on her mother’s side.   Terri Bohnett and I are distant relatives!

  14. Recently, I discovered my High School friend Diane Larimer had died in 2003 (see earlier tribute).   Subsequently, I learned from her school friend Cynthia Flash that Diane had Grandparents who lived in Cashmere and owned an orchard.   Diane had spent many summers as a young girl here.  Just weeks after  that I talked to church members Lawrence and Sybil Peterson and discovered they knew “Nels” and “Anna” Larimer and told me much of their story from their days in Cashmere.

So what are we to make of all this?  It makes for great conversation to share these connections, but what does it mean?   A part of me wishes to avoid picking at it too deeply; the last thing I want is some wearisome college debate over fate and randomness.   As far as I’m concerned these encounters don’t win arguments either way.      I’m content to find in these not proofs, but rumours of glory.   They are  connections that give me pause to wonder at the web we weave.

There’s a corn maze near our town that’s part of Smallwoods Harvest, a colorful fruit stand on Highway 2 between here and Leavenworth.   The fun of any maze is in getting lost,  finding your bearings, then trying to crack the code of the path to get you through the exit on the other side.    With more than one person, it becomes a game of hide & seek as everyone seeks clues for the right way to follow. It’s an apt metaphor for life, really.

The Corn Maze at Smallwoods Harvest (and the designated "Monster")

I’ve done my share of stumbling through the blinds and passages and leaping out of corners to scare my kids.   But just outside the maze at Smallwoods is a raised platform – climb a few stairs and down below you is the whole twisting layout.   From this perspective, I watch kids navigate their way, and I can often see where they hit dead ends or will run into the designated monster if they take the right (or wrong) turn.   If someone gets really lost, I can shout down a few helpful hints.  I’m given an elevated glimpse of the chances, the journeys, the clues, and the way.

I like to think of these “Kevin Bacon” moments I keep having every year as a glimpse from the platform.  Each time, I find that I’ve brushed by someone familiar or have touched a place someone dear has touched before.  I receive them with gratitude as friendly clues – and the clues say, “I’m not lost and wandering”.   They say, “I’m being led by a hand of kindness.”   They say, “I’m not alone.”  For every one of my 14 years of ministry I’ve been making my way through  this wonderous, almost inconceivable maze of God’s world.   What amazing encounters I’ve had every year.   They’ve told me that I am, perhaps, only six degrees of separation from where it all began, and from where it all goes.  Only six degrees of separation (perhaps less!) from any one of you!