Wednesday, January 11, 2012


One Sunday morning, a little over a year ago, I was up before dawn. Personal struggles had led to a particularly difficult few weeks and yet another restless night. We live in the mountains in a home that overlooks a large metropolitan area. I brewed a cup of tea and made my way out onto the deck. As I gazed across the city lights below, I emptied myself out to God in prayer. I say “emptied myself in prayer,” but, if I'm being honest, I think it was more of a gave-up-out-loud while God was listening kind of thing; a behavior in no way to to be confused with “surrender.” Surrender is an act of the will. It's choosing to take the loss and, by default, letting your counterpart win. There's almost always someone else involved— someone to whom you surrender. Giving up? Well, I can do that all by myself. No opponent necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I don't know which I find more frightening: feeling entirely empty or overwhelmingly full. I suppose it depends a good deal on with what I'm filled. On this particular occasion, I felt both empty and full. Is that even possible? To feel completely full up with more negative emotion than one can handle and to feel completely empty in spite of it? Or, did I feel completely empty because of it? All I know is that I wanted to cry.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm really not much of a public crier. For the most part, I'm emotionally reserved (thanks, dad). So, some might find it surprising that my heart breaks quite easily; more and more as time goes by. In truth, I'm considerably softhearted (shhh, don't tell). I get that universally familiar lump in my throat and my eyes well up: when I think about my kids, when I hear a particularly moving piece of music, when I feel God speaking through something I read or hear or see, when I gaze at a powerful photo or painting, when I witness an act of truly inspired selflessness, when I think about cats. (I just want to hug them all... or not.) Even so, it's sometimes hard for me to cry. I don't mean it's difficult for me to produce tears. I mean, I seldom truly weep.

I used to think that meant there was something really wrong with me. I envied the catharsis others appeared to find after a good, blubbery breakdown. But, when I do cry, I don't generally feel better for it. Perhaps it's a guy thing. Perhaps not. Either way, for me to say that I wanted to cry is personally significant. I guess it might be more accurate to say that I wanted something inside me to break. It wouldn't. I longed for sorrow. I knew joy was too much to ask for and I just wanted to feel something simple, something noble enough to dispel the feelings of frustration and fear and anger and confusion and helplessness that consumed me.

As I spoke, my throat began to close and my mouth contorted, my neck muscles tensed and my eyes clenched tightly... but alas, nothing. I think I wanted it too badly. I was lost and repentant and hungry for change. I wanted to sit there before God a salty, wet mess; a broken heap. It seemed appropriate. I didn't want to present myself to him all hard and in matter-of-fact. That had to be wrong. But, I was tired in every way a person can be tired. I was physically tired, emotionally tired, spiritually tired, and I was tired of waiting for the soft, helpless, childlike desperation with which you're supposed to approach God... yes? Unfortunately, I couldn't find my way there from where I was. I gave up. I sat staring into the distance, no longer trying to figure out from whence the courage to start my day might come. Either it would come, or it wouldn't. That's all. I gave up.

A stillness began to settle over me— a product of my resignation, no doubt. It was nothing magical, but I was going to take whatever I could get. I inhaled the cool air and looked up at the silhouette of the pine trees around me. The sky was starting to change. A subtle purple hue eased in to replace the blackness. It's actually quite stunning how quickly our world changes from night into day. One minute it's as black as... well, night. And, the next thing you know, light moves over the surface of the earth like a welcome breeze that blows gently across your sweat-damp skin on a hot summer day. But in those fleeting moments I saw something I'd never seen before. The twinkling lights from the city below, the same that had so starkly offset the darkness only a breath or two ago, began to fade before my eyes. They weren't going out. Not really. Still, little by little they became less and less remarkable— another breath, and they were gone.

Now, somewhere there was a power plant pumping raw electricity to transformers that routed impressive amounts of voltage to homes and streetlamps and signs and traffic signals all over the city. The white hot filaments of millions of bulbs continued to burn with passion. But, no matter how much energy coursed through these manufactured luminaries, it was all to no avail. Absolutely meaningless. God, one. Humanity, zero. No contest.

Dawn had come. And, I knew then that it didn't really matter all that much if I surrendered by choice, if I just gave up, or if I held on with a vengeance. When dawn comes, all bets are off.

That was a little over a year ago. How much and yet how little in my life has changed. Just now, outside my study window, I watched the sun set beyond the coastal ridge. The city below has come to life. The lights dance, an amalgam of colors shimmering through the atmosphere attempting to lure me into yet another catatonic gaze. I trust those lights. I understand them. I know how to control them. They know how to control me. They fill me up. It's what I want. And yet, I feel empty. Maybe it's because I know, somehow, that it's a manufactured reality. This doesn't make it any less "real." Still, illusions are almost always based in reality. That doesn't make them true. So, here's to the not-so-subtle difference! Fool me once...

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Contingency

I packed my dreams away
In case of rain.
It seemed like a good idea.
Wouldn't want them ruined
By the elements.
Only now,
Now, the rain is here.
And I'm the one who is exposed.

[read more at Once Upon a Blog]

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Foreword

After four years of writing “Meus Bonus Pars,” I thought it might be time to shake things up a bit.

My house is full of antiques: a china hutch from Oklahoma with pecan veneer panels; an Italian marble coffee table gifted by my wife's great-aunt; a 70 year old, mahogany secretary that we picked up somewhere in California; two oversize alabaster lamps from God-knows-where... Each piece is unique and attractive in its own right. But, perhaps more significant for me than appearance or function is the knowledge that every piece comes with a story. Sometimes I know the history. Most of the time, I don't. But, I know it's there. I love that those stories, in some small way, become a part of my own. And, should the pieces ever leave my home, they carry a bit of me on the next leg of their journey. I’m now a part of their story.

I come to deeper, better, more healthy terms with myself when I acknowledge that the people and things around me have their own story—they're not just background characters and set pieces in the tale of me. I often stop to imagine what those stories might be. It would be fun to see those musings take form outside of my head. Even so, I've never thought of myself as a fiction writer. Perhaps because my past attempts (long ago) were feeble, at best. Lately, however, I've become captivated by the explosion of flash fiction in print and on the web. I'm a somewhat reluctant social joiner. But, it would be sophomoric to dismiss any form of creative development solely as a matter of principle or out of fear that I might not meet with easy success.

So, I've opened a new writing forum. "Once Upon a Blog" is my turn around the flash fiction circle. Some posts may lean more toward short story. I may even throw in some poetry from time to time. Whatever the medium, these entries are born somewhere beyond the boundaries of my reality; places only accessed by imagination. Check it out and let me know what you think.

I won't be abandoning this space. It is very much my plan to continue to write for Meus Bonus Pars as time and inspiration allows. I would love the benefit of your feedback in both forums and, as always, thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Save the Humans!

At present, I sit perched atop a rock formation a few hundred feet above a crystal blue mountain lake nestled deep in the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s a crisp, clear, autumn day. The smell of dark, rich oak; musky woodland earth; and sweet butterscotch (from the bark of the Jeffrey Pines) form an intoxicating blend, each alternating in strength and distinction with every passing breeze. The sun shines warm on the back of my shirt while the wind chills my neck, nose and hands. Winter has sent cool, fresh oxygen ahead to scout the landscape. The brisk air burns my nasal passages as I breathe in a bit too deeply. And, instead of taking the opportunity to truly enjoy my surroundings, to draw on the inspiration presented by the muse of God’s creation—inspiration to meditate, pray, write, rest; I find myself derailed, thoughts hijacked by a plastic water bottle. Here, along the woodland trail, someone has discarded a water bottle. While I want to believe this was inadvertent, an old tennis shoe abandoned on a rock a few feet back has already set my mind’s course in the opposite direction.

I place the garbage in my day pack and push ahead, trying to refocus and enjoy the afternoon. I find a secluded spot away from the main trail and begin to read. Half an hour slips by. I watch chipmunks dart blithely in and out of the rocks around me. It's cold in the shadows—the cleft of the rock where I have been sitting. I set out further into the woods in search of a sunnier site. No sooner have I escaped the solitude of my boulder fortress than I literally trip on a second water bottle; a synthetic blemish conspicuously marring the forest floor.

Now, I’ve never spray painted a fur coat or picketed the G.M. Corporation for producing gas guzzling sport utility vehicles. I don’t have solar panels on my roof. I don’t limit my wardrobe to natural fibers. I don’t post the photos of the latest puppy up for adoption at the local shelter on my facebook profile. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that...” I’m just not that guy. Even so, I love granola. I can frequently be found camping or hiking or biking. I often spend hours exploring tide pools or photographing coastal wildlife. I hate wearing shoes. I love the mountains and the ocean and the desert. I enjoy sleeping outside under the stars. (I took my oldest son camping in the inner gorge of Grand Canyon, just he and I, when he was only seven years old.) I recycle. I bring my own bags to the grocery store whenever possible...

I connect with God most freely when I am surrounded by the beauty of His creation. I’m overwhelmed by the intricacy and balance—the plenary perfection in His design. I’ve learned more of who He is and who I am in environments such as these. For a long time, stumbling upon vandalism or reckless abuse would make me angry. I’d feel robbed—somehow victimized by another person's thoughtlessness; another person's selfishness. But, anger is rarely a healthy motivator. Going deeper, I can’t help but acknowledge that the agenda behind this kind of emotion is ultimately just as narcissistic.

I could tell you that the water bottles and the abandoned footwear and the graffiti on the majestic, fifty foot rocks at the top of this trail all rob me of the enjoyment of the natural beauty around me. And, honestly, it is, for me, a bit like an air-horn in the middle of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto for strings. But, who am I that these things should be mine to enjoy? Why am I at the center of this argument? Am I the victim? Really?

Please understand, I am not advocating for the chipmunks or oak trees or Jeffry Pines (though that might not be a bad thing). And, I do see how nature is often victimized by humanity. But, how much more often is humanity victimized by itself? Today, as I sit here, I can’t help but wonder “who we think we are?”

You see, on my way here, I passed through a construction zone where crews are building a new bridge/dam over the lake. Large portions of rock had to be carved away to accommodate the new road. Metal anchors protrude from the boulders to hold the elements in place. But, perhaps most disturbingly, there is a portion of the rock facing that has been reconstructed—fashioned out of concrete to give a more “natural” look to the cliff wall along the man-made path. So, now we are synthesizing nature?

I hiked this same trail with my family a couple of weeks ago. At the top, colorful moss adorns the underside of a large rock formation. My youngest son asked me who painted the rocks. It wasn’t that he had no context for understanding the limitless colors and variations of organic life. It's just that my family is constantly exposed to the graffiti laden urban area in the valley below. He has become accustomed to the defacement and subsequent cleanup (smeared residue or patches of rolled paint) of freeway overpasses and abandoned buildings. The “tagging” at the top of the trail, around the corner from where we stood, just further confirms his suspicion that someone has painted these rocks.

When did nature become unnatural? Is our life so full of simulation that we are unable to distinguish between the real and the synthetic? Maybe someone left their tennis shoe on the rock because it didn’t seem all that wrong or out of place. After all, the last time they were sitting on a "rock" adjusting their shoe was on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland or outside the Rainforest CafĂ© that anchors the southeast entrance of the mall. Maybe the individual didn’t notice they were leaving their water bottle behind because the synthetic has become so commonplace among the natural. Is that possible? Are we losing the ability to make these important differentiations? If so, what does that say about our ability to understand ourselves and others? Are other vital areas of discernment lost on us as well—the kind of distinctions that feed our appreciation of one another? Are we able to distinguish ourselves from God? Do we want to? Using Hollywood motion picture set tricks to even out part of the rock wall along the highway is just an innocuous enhancement, right? What are the broader implications in my relationships, my education, my faith? How do we keep from becoming disillusioned or even jaded when the Divine has become so inscrutably intertwined with humanity—when the dangerously dynamic God has been replaced by a more manageable static version? The angst I often feel at the intersection of identity and spirituality expands in the vacuum created by these unanswered questions.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Get the "lead" out

It’s been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. This has been an extremely busy summer. Among other things, my family and I moved from the valley to a home in the nearby mountains—which, consequently, leads me to my thought for the day.

A couple of weeks ago, early on a Sunday morning, we were driving “down the hill” and, as is often the case, we found ourselves in a winding line of cars accordioned together by a slow vehicle in the lead.

The shortest route connecting our small town to the valley below is a two lane, state highway. There are four, brief segments over the fourteen mile stretch where the road widens, providing an opportunity for motorists to pass slower vehicles. In addition, there are dozens of “turn-outs” along the road. Signs are posted, encouraging slower motorists to use these “turn-outs.” Funny, no matter how long the line of cars behind them, few of the slower drivers seem to recognize that these signs refer to them.

There we are, riding our brakes down the twisting mountain road, praying the hunter green minivan in the lead will take the not-so-subtle hint. Alas, no such luck. So, we wait in restless anticipation for the next passing lane. Sadly, however, if one finds oneself more than two vehicles behind the lead car, the chances of passing the offending tortoise are sketchy at best. Hairpin curves and steep grades present a worthy challenge even for the most skilled drivers. Often, only a vehicle or two break away. The remaining seven jockey aggressively in a 20 second free-for-all, eventually settling into a new, but equally frustrating configuration.

A small, white sedan that had been veraciously tailgating our minivan pied piper eagerly passed at the first opportunity. I watched in envy, fully expecting the car to slip quietly away into the serpentine distance. On the contrary, we watched in head-shaking resignation as the sedan settled into a pace negligibly different than that of the minivan. I might have been surprised if I hadn’t witness the same phenomenon countless times before.

As the noxious stench of burning brake pads wafted inexorably through the morning air, I thought to myself, “dissatisfied followers make lousy leaders.” How many people make it a life theme to discredit, defame, second guess, and work around those out-in-front? But, when granted the reigns, either by gift or by coups, they demonstrate a keen lack of innovation or meaningful direction.

A few miles ahead, our not-so-merry band of travelers caught up to another small string of vehicles, held captive by a large RV. The driver of the behemoth, more considerate than many, pulled over into a suitable turn-out and the now lengthy parade of motorists made their way past. Both cars that had initially been trapped behind the RV resumed a tempo quite a bit brisker than the white sedan had previously maintained. You guessed it! The driver of the white sedan began hugging the tail of his leader—exercising the tenacity of a would-be revolutionary, desperate to triumph over his malicious oppressors.

The simple truth is that most people—in spite of all the complaining, the character aspersions, the social tailgating—need a leader to follow; an official pace car, if you will. It’s much easier to apply the pressure than it is to deal with it. Ask Governor Schwarzenegger.