Thursday, December 25, 2008

This is a Coup

Last night, I went with my family to a Christmas Eve service. This being California, rain - and not snow - fell in sheets outside the windows, and, conspicuously to my eyes, no one had to remove scarf or gloves before sitting down in the aisles.

The service began with up-tempo carols - "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Joy to the World". It was all in the vein of my upbringing. Energetic guitar strumming. The congregation singing back in full voice, children and adults together.

Next came a duet by two very talented sopranos. They sang a song that was new to me, their voices soaring in the rafters with trained virtuosity (sometimes in Italian, no less), but the longer they sang, the higher heaped my dismay.

These were the words that they sang:

"Let this be our prayer,

As we go our way.

Lead us to a place;

Guide us with your grace,

To a place where we'll be safe.

[. . .]

We ask that life be kind,

And watch us from above.

We hope each soul will find

Another soul to love.

Let this be our prayer

Just like every child

Needs to find a place

Guide us with your grace

Give us faith so we'll be safe.

And the faith that

You've lit inside us

I feel will save us."

It was a beautiful song, beautifully executed, but there my praise for it must end, since it was, from start to finish, a load of hogwash.

"Give us faith so we'll be SAFE?" Is that the point of advent, then? Is that why Christ came? To be safe? To make me safe? Have the authors of this soaring anthem so entirely forgotten that the child Jesus did not, in fact, find any place but a feed trough to receive him?

Nothing could have been less safe than that night in Bethlehem. The great I AM makes himself infinitely vulnerable in the shape of a squalling infant. A worn-out pregnant teenager, with none to attend her but a coarse-handed carpenter, lays her head-covering, perhaps, over the animal dung to have a place to wrestle through the contractions. And in the capital city, a paranoid tyrant is plotting the child's murder.

This is not about safety. This is an act of desperation by a God determined to reconcile to Himself his estranged, rebellious creatures. In the great war for men's souls, this is Omaha Beach, the toehold from which God will reclaim out of enemy hands all that He has made.

The earlier songs, though perhaps homelier, spoke far more truth:

"God rest ye merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay. You know that Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan's grasp when we had gone astray!"

"Joyful all ye nations rise! Join the triumph of the skies!"

"Let earth receive her King. [ . . .] No more shall sin nor sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings known, far as the curse is found!"

This is no silent night. This is a coup. We have long lived in occupied lands, but the real king is coming to take back his own.

Ranting aside, the song does speak some truth. In the end, when Christ comes again in final victory, He will grant to us shelter at His table, in His home. When once are souls are bought by Him, no power can do them harm. In that sense, we are "safe". And even in this life, in His presence, there is a security, a peace, a joy, that no evil circumstance can touch. But let us not deceive ourselves. The battle has not ended, and we should not act as though it had.

When Christ has laid himself out for us in the vulnerability of human flesh, being born and dying like us, shall we then, before victory is final, ask him, simpering, that life be kind to us? That we all find a hand to hold and a bunker to hide in? Would it not be a more fitting tribute to Immanuel the Infant King, on Christmas Day and each day, to offer Him a life yielded for His purposes, though like Him we have no true home on this earth, though like Him we may face dangers and indignities, though like Him we may still do battle in a world that is decidedly unsafe and unkind?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The World That Has No Covers

As a little girl I was never without a book. I took them with me in the car, into bed, and into the bath (I would have taken them into the shower if my ingenuity could have devised a solution). Late at night, my mother used to rap her knuckles on the outside of my bedroom door, nudge it inward on its hinges, and chide me to turn out the lamp.

“You have school tomorrow,” she would say.

“Just let me finish this chapter,” I would answer, my eyes returning to the pages even before she could shut the door again. I would go on until my eyes burned and my head ached. Once, I went until the sun rose, and I closed the book with genuine surprise to see dawn supplanting the lamplight.

I loved best the old, hard-cover books bound in cloth. I loved the world-weary smell of their slowly moldering bindings, the soft, whispering, rent-fabric sound the pages made when I turned them over. I loved their heft, their immutable solidity, and how, when it was full of them, my book bag strained against my shoulder blades like the weight of a pair of wings.

I read new, glossy paperbacks, too, and I read them over and over again until the covers fall apart like old wash rags. Indeed, for all the love I bore my books, I treated them roughly. I broke their spines. I dog-eared and creased the paper. I smeared the pages with chocolate, grease, and sometimes tears. I made them my bedfellows and rolled over them in my sleep. I loved them not like deities, but like extensions of my own family: Brother and Sister Book.

Not that I lacked for siblings. I was sandwiched between two sisters, and I spent hours with them at girlish games. But somehow I always wound up with my books again, skinny, scabbed knees drawn up against my chest, the book supported between the palm and thumb of my right hand, and the sticky, oxidized brown core of an apple long forgotten in my left.

Reading was a bonfire with me, and I found it hard to come up with enough new books to feed it. I “stole” books from my older sister’s backpack, reading her literature class assignments two years before I would go through the same curriculum. I feasted my bibliomania at the library from time to time, but, given the tendency of books to get lost or damaged under my guardianship, I preferred to own instead of borrow. After Christmas and my birthday in August, with gift certificates burning holes in my pockets, I would spend hours examining the shelves of the retail bookstore for the treats I would take home and devour.

Mostly, though, I re-read books: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Little Men, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, Jean Craighead’s My Side of the Mountain, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano d’Bergerac, Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places, plus Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare in their glorious canons. I read the Bible in its sonorous entirety, putting a small dot and the date next to each chapter as I completed it.

I would read my favorite books twelve or thirteen times, until whole paragraphs played in my mind with the resonance of liturgy, until the authors’ voices leaked out of my pen (Thanks to Dickens, I am still trying to exorcise the Victorian narrator wont to show up in my writing). If my family taught me English, books taught me language – its rhythm, its variety, its power – and I have never forgotten the lessons, though my self-guided tours were not without peril. To this day, I still come across words that I pronounce incorrectly because I have never heard them – only read them. Until I was fifteen, I thought that “unsh” was a verb, meaning, onomatopoeically, to scrunch up one’s face to hold back emotion. I derived it from the phrase “unshed tears.” How I mourned the loss of that word when I discerned my error.

The books I re-read offered me some kind of emotional release, some field on which to play out the conflicts of a reserved, bookish child. I identified especially with female misfits – Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn – and all the more so with bookwormy misfits – Jo March and Anne Shirley. Over and over again, I would cry along with their travails and self-doubting, at how the world misunderstood them, and over and over again, I would hang in anticipation for the moment when love vindicated the heroine. In more cynical moments, I longed for the resigned, self-effacing sweetness of Beth March or Mercy Wood.

It seems likely, looking back, that the books kept me sane. Into them I funneled my unresolved complexity, to be faced at my own pace, and with the buffers of vicarious distance and melodic language safely in place. If I sometimes disappeared for days, my family seemed to sense my need, drawing me up from the pages only often enough for food or sleep.

As an adult, I still spend occasional afternoons ensconced in the pages of a book, but I no longer read with my former rapacity. I grow bored. Sometimes I skip to the end, scanning for interesting chapters, and sometimes I put a book down forever, unfinished. As a child, I never missed so much as a preposition, cleaving to my books with the fidelity of a soldier to his squadron. The books have not changed; it must be me.

While this change feels strange to me, I try to take this as a good omen. If I find myself less absorbed in the makings of an author’s mind, I will hope that the traffic has improved between me and the world that has no covers.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On the First Cold Morning

On the first cold morning I walk
Through the crinkly decadence of trees
Heaped into bags
Like the papers of an old professor
Who has died
and ingenuity all together
Fit only
In the end
For love
Or burning

After a while I pass a
A mother with a bicycle
And two children
That she tries to keep from freezing
And a woman with a coffee cup
And roses in her garden
That she tries to keep from freezing

And I think as if for the first time
That trees die in winter
From yearning for the sun

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Go Vote

Congratulations. If you are reading this blog, you (probably) live in a country that has enjoyed 44 consecutive bloodless power transitions*, a feat unreplicated in the history of mankind. However you feel about the present state of national affairs, and however you feel about who wins tonight, get out there and exercise your civic privileges, and afterwards, celebrate that tomorrow there will be no civil war.

*I do realize that the American Civil War was a bloody and drawn-out exception in part touched off by Lincoln's election to the presidency.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Gilead's Balm

Sometimes we come suddenly face-to-face with our own brokenness, and it's as though we could feel its seams like the raised skin of a scar beneath our fingertips, and we are only too aware that we cannot heal ourselves.

There is a song that I like for such days. 

There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

Sometimes I get discouraged
And feel my hope's in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

If you can't preach like Peter,
If you can't pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus
And that He died for all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Poem Written Long Ago in a Legal Pad on an Occasion I No Longer Remember

Mantengo mi silencio come la nieve
Que cierra las montaƱas
Una belleza escondida, tranquila, olvidada
La belleza de monjas rezando
Es mi silencio
Mi silencio una pregunta, una duda, un pacto
Mi silencio mantengo

(I keep my silence like the snow
That closes the mountains
A beauty hidden, still, forgotten
The beauty of nuns at prayer
Is my silence
My silence, a question, a doubt, a covenant
I keep my silence.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

In Defense of Fake Cheese

I believe that Kraft macaroni ‘n cheese is good for you – or, at least, it’s not going to kill you tomorrow. Here’s why: I have two sisters, and when we were growing up, my mom sustained us on a relativelt healthy diet, punctuated with our favorite stop-gaps: Bisquick pancakes, beef-flavored Top Ramen, and, yes, Kraft macaroni ‘n cheese. I still remember the royal blue cardboard box. The noodles, innocuous enough, had a semolina base. To the boiled noodles you added milk and butter, but the true magic lay in the cheese packet. You ripped open the package with your teeth, and out came a clump of powder glorious to behold, better to taste. God only knows what the fine folks at Kraft put in their fake cheese (fire hydrant paint, from the color of it). Whatever plants or animals it came from originally, upon consumption it was processed, hydrogenated, and emulsified into a vegan’s nightmare. Paradise on a plate. Julia Childs it wasn’t, but it filled me up, and the preparation was simple enough for me to slay my third-grader hunger until dinner time.
Many would gainsay me, among them, presumably, the designers of the food pyramid and legions of parents. I see their point. I’ve downed my share of square meals, and I like it when my food has ingredients I can pronounce. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are massive health care concerns, and they must be addressed with improvements to our overall lifestyles. But I think, sometimes and in some places, we’ve gone over the edge. I have seen juice cups wrested from the hands of babes. I encounter parents in the aisles of the supermarket, angst-ridden over the choice between seven-grain Kashi crackers and organic carrot sticks. Don’t we have enough to feel guilty over? Aren’t their enough menaces to truth, justice, and the American way with finding them in the peanut butter jar?
My sisters and I have grown into intelligent, active, cancer-free adults. The occasional enjoyment of fake cheese did not permanently stunt our development, but we might well stunt the rising generation in more grievous ways if we expend our energy on minor battles instead of major challenges. A warming planet will kill us. Multi-resistant TB will kill us. Wars of religion and ideology and oil will kill us. Give the mac ‘n cheese a break.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cute or Stupid?

Every now and then, I walk up to one of my female friends  and ask, "Cute or stupid?" 

It began as a habit with my sisters. I like to play around with my clothes, my make-up, my hair. Try new ensembles. California is kind to that sort of thing, I suppose, but my judgment in fashion is far from impeccable, so I often approached either of my sisters - both far beyond me in taste, and asked, "Is this cute or stupid?" Had I gone beyond the bounds of good taste? Would the soccer moms tsk-tsk me in the produce section? Would the cheerleaders turn their upturned noses up further than normal? I did it often enough that I could barge into either of their bedrooms and announce, "I need a cute-or-stupid check," to get a final verdict on my way out the door. I could trust them. They loved me; they would not ridicule me, but neither would they, for the mere sake of my feelings, let me walk out the door looking like a train-wreck.

("Almost a month without a blog," you protest, "and this is what we get? The cute-or-stupid checks?" Bear with me, gentle reader. I promise I'm going somewhere.)

A week ago, I spent three days in the woods near Goshen, Virginia for the annual IJM staff retreat. I went for long runs on the misty mornings through stands of pine that favor the sandy soil. I went to bed tired and achy, halfway toasted from a bonfire, hoarse from singing the choruses to songs written before I was born. I slept out under Orion and the Seven Sisters and woke up cold and covered in dew. That was all better than good, but it was not the best.

Every year, IJM studies a spiritual discipline. This year's theme is rest. It's self-consciously ironic; you'd be hard pressed, on any given Monday, to find a more hard-core group of Type-A personalities congregated under a single roof than the staff of International Justice Mission. But, irony acknowledged, we went out of the city for three days, reading and praying and singing about the Fourth Commandment and its application to our complex and demanding existence.

Much of the talking centered around the rhythm of Sabbath. Every seven days, God says, stop what you are doing. Take off your yoke, acknowledge me, and just do nothing. Why seven? It seems arbitrary. 

Mark Labberton, the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, was our guest speaker for the retreat. Mark suggested that the length of time was indeed arbitrary, but that the arbitrariness itself was significant. "God puts us on a leash. I don't think we can go any longer," Mark mused, "before we start to forget which one of us is God, and which of us is not."

I came away with many new truths to cobble into my daily life, but this one has been particularly resurgent. The sabbath is not just a cessation of work, nor a mere dutiful, religious observance. Like my silly cute-or-stupid checks, the sabbath is a reality check. Sabbath is an invitation to remember that I am human - neither more nor less. 

I am not God; therefore, if I stop working, the world will go on spinning. And though I am not God, I am still God's; therefore, I have the responsibility to be no less than what I was made to be, "a little lower than the angels." The life I lead I live not for my own gain, or for ends beneath my heavenward calling, but for His pleasure and glory. If I can, every seven days, remember these things, I am markedly less likely to get myself in a fix. I can focus on being fully and merely a creature of God, with all the glory and blissful smallness that entails. 

Sabbath is, in these respects, like looking into the loving eyes of my sisters and saying, "How am I doing? Is this working? Have I gone beyond myself again?" It's just that here, the stakes are far higher. 

Friday, September 5, 2008


No tomes today.

My IJM mornings begin with thirty minutes of quiet reflection called "8:30 Stillness", thirty minutes in which my prescribed responsibility in the universe is to be quiet before my God. It's as good as it sounds to you.

This morning I spent them leaning over the bannister on an outdoor staircase that leads up to the esplanade. Looking at the sky and the minute people walking below me, I heard the papery chattering of leaves on concrete. I mounted the last flight of stairs to have a look. There, in the corner, was a little wind devil, scudding dead leaves before it in a mad, if harmless, wheel. But in the center were a few leaves unmoving, as still as if the chaos did not exist.

The word for this morning was that I can be like that, centered on my God, still, at ease, though the whirlwind comes and encircles me. Perfect peace is possible where it seems least likely to exist.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My Desk

An old man from Pakistan
Has been staring at me these eight years
Never blinking
Since I put his eyes down in ink
That smelled like a carpet store
And a Crayola red rose
Curls out of a Mason jar
Like a trap-door spider from its hole
Surprising in the veined velvet softness of its petals,
The clock ticks
And I do not hear it
Like I do not hear my breathing
It is one eternal second off
And at my fingers’ touch
I have
A brick made by the hands of a free man
And a crystal perfume bottle from Paris
That keeps winking purple
And a piece of silk sewn
By a girl with almond eyes
Sold to strange merchants in her childhood
And Edmond Dantes, Suffering
And Holly Golightly, Traveling

Friday, August 22, 2008

Under Heaven

There is evil in the world – cruel, brazen, mocking evil in the world. You can stop your ears. You can avert your eyes. You can fortify your life like a medieval castle, complete with moats and turrets, against the day that evil finds you where you live. You can box it up in neat philosophies and tie it with a bow of flawless exegesis. You can sleepily forget that it exists, even for years at a time . . .

But for all that, evil will not suddenly become less real, less aggressive – not to the child sold into a brothel before she can spell her name, not to the homeless man beaten for the amusement of teenagers in an American city, not to the Sudanese woman who bears the child of a systematic rape campaign.

If I have shocked your sensibilities, you who come here for your dose of lyrical prose, I am not sorry. It is midnight, I have turned the lights on, and around the world there are some two million children whose dignity goes for the price of a steak dinner. Tonight I have five of them stuck in my head (the five are somehow less bearable than the two million), so let me for at least five minutes refuse to look away from them.

Evil demands response. It will either run us over or rouse us to combat.

What shall be done?

It is one of the great advantages of Christianity that it takes the reality of evil as its starting place. Pure wickedness, and nothing else, necessitated the work of the cross. Christianity is thus well-reconciled to the accumulated life experience of most people under heaven. This faith becomes more difficult to understand, though, because it does not stop with recognition. It charges ahead with its lovely, terrifying images of the kingdom of God: days of judgment, the drying of all tears, heaven and earth remade without the blot of an accursed rebellion.

Indeed, it goes too far. It strains credulity. Two millennia later, where is the promise? Do the prophets of that kingdom live where the poor live? Do they walk in the Managua trash dumps, the Freetown slums, the Burmese refugee camps? Do they read the same newspaper? Surely they are fools are dreamers all to proclaim that the unjust execution of an itinerant Jewish teacher and miracle worker – a minor act in the history of the world’s gross excesses – will make everything good as Eden again. Evil doesn’t just linger with us; it laughs, it romps. By all appearances, it reigns.

What shall be done?

I have wept at evil. I have wept because it mocks the goodness and glory of my Maker. It treads His name in the gutter.
I have raged blindly at evil. I have raged because it praises the perverse and lays snares for the sacred.
I have sat frozen in the paralysis of despair. I have sat frozen because the weak cried out and the righteous faltered.

What shall be done?

The ancient Scriptures are not silent concerning the reality of evil. Nor are they silent about the end of evil, and how that evil shall be ended. The answer has two parts: “Take heart! I have overcome the world,” says Jesus, the Word whose words are life to us. In His coming, His atonement, His resurrection, He has overcome the resident evil. He has knocked over the first domino. He has sung the first verse of a new and brilliant music. But there is a second part.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is our mandate, our portion. We are to take up arms against evil, and our arms shall be the same as Christ’s, who wielded both authority and humility, truth and compassion, power and the obedient sacrifice of His will entire will and being.

What shall be done?

I dare you (as I, trembling, dare myself) to let yourself be re-arranged by two realities – the reality of evil and the reality of our responsibility to address it. If you call yourself Christ’s, this is not an additional feature - it is the very substance of the life of redeemed creatures. The answers we find are unlikely to seem rational, reasonable, or sufficiently moderated. But they will have the smell about them of things that are right. And sometimes in this world of unvarying gray, we still have to choose.

Am I ranting more than usual? Undoubtedly.
Am I over-simplifying? Almost certainly.
Am I wrong? I must own the possibility.

But this, God willing and God aiding, is what I shall do.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

You know you want to . . .

. . . come to an IJM Benefit Dinner this fall. All events will have Gary Haugen, IJM President and Founder, as the speaker and Lamont Hiebert of Ten Shekel Shirt as the performing IJM Artist Partner.

October 14 - San Francisco - Fairmont

October 30 - Houston - Westin Oaks

December 11 - DC - Omni Shoreham


Monday, August 18, 2008

Three Feet of Green Space

Yesterday, I prayer-walked the campus of Georgetown University. The freshmen are arriving, posing for pictures in Dahlgren Square, and the football team (such as it is) is practicing without pads on the carefully painted yardage below the Southwest Quadrangle. Which means, of course, that another summer has fled. There are other, subtler signs of its lingering departure: The fireflies have all gone, the thunderstorms are fewer, and the light has a leaner, yellow quality.

The election season is ramping up, too. The McCain staffers have multiplied like hamsters, and by all appearances, they never go home. Taking a break on the esplanade today, I found one of them stretched hobo-style on a bench, barefoot, his tie undone and his bicep pressed against his eyes, blocking out the world.

I am in his camp today. I am hiding from my spreadsheets and my Outlook calendar amid three feet of green space, amid breezes that rustle a thousand five-pointed leaves, and bugs that tick and chew and buzz. It is the deep breath before the long, sustained effort at perfection that comes with the banquets.

It is the beginning of my third year at IJM. My work is steady and repetitive, but it no longer overwhelms me on the regular basis that it once did. I can barely account for the passage of time, and before I know it this tree will be bare-limbed, groaning with fresh-fallen snow. I strive to remember important and calming truths: What needs to happen will happen. And what doesn’t will fall by the wayside. And the fireflies will know when to come back.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Lunch Break Poem

On my own
Naught can I do
Of the good
You will me to.
Can You tame
A heart untrue,
Bend it from
Unholy views,
Stir it from
So long disuse,
Make it yield
To Thee Thy due,
Health and life
In it imbrue?
Many words
Meet with Thy few:
“Abide in me,
And I in you.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Over My Head

I have a habit of getting in over my head, of over-commitment and under-resourcing, of squeezing too much from too little. In that spirit, I’ve been trying lately to wrap my finite intellect, which wheezes and huffs with the effort, around the efficacy of prayer. I have not been searching for a yea or nay – that particular question has been for some time resolved for me in the affirmative – but I have been searching for a glimpse, if it may be had, of the mechanics of that efficacy.

Suppose that I and many other people pray for improbable outcome X, and it comes to pass. Would it still have been granted if I alone of all that crowd had kept silent? Is any prayer ever the pebble that tips the scale? Or are the prayers of God’s people inseparable before Him, like drops of water in a river? And wherein lies the undeniable but inexplicable charm of a fallen race to move the hand of an immutable Divine?

I have no answers to these questions. I have read Spurgeon and Willard, Lewis and Tozer, Carmichael and Chesterton on the subject. From them I have gotten signposts, and not the desired schematics, truths that only deepen the mystery.

Scripture does not seem overly concerned that I understand the process. I am told not how prayer works, but “This, then, is how you should pray.”

If all the roads in this province of thought lead to befuddlement (and so far, for me, they do), then I seem to have three options: 1) I can, distrusting what I do not understand, cease to pray. But my very spirit recoils at the thought . . . 2) I can continue to pray out of habit, or grim-faced compliance, but with secret mistrust that my prayers make any difference. But no sane or honest person would waste time in this fashion . . . 3) I can, in obedience, go on praying, because I know on instinct that the Maker is far more important than the mechanism. And the Maker that I know would not tell me to ask, would not tell me to seek, would not tell me to knock, only to let it be a lie told for the comfort of infants.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Walk with Me

The fragmented stories below, all of which I have heard with quiet wonder in the last week, are true. I have had them all first-hand, or second-hand at worst. I have changed some of the particulars - name and locations - so that no one minds if I put them down, but the substance had not been altered. May they be of some good to you.

Act I : Maryland

About two weeks ago, Brian took Bethany salsa dancing at the Lucky Bar on Connecticut Avenue. Afterward, he took her to Volta Park and asked her to be he wife.

So the last few times I've seen Bethany have been a little giddy. She is trying to plan a wedding on very short notice (they are shooting for autumn), in a city where she no longer lives, while being almost constantly on the road for seminary classes or fundraising. On Thursday, she had an appointment at a wedding dress consignment store - somewhere in Maryland, I think. I couldn't go, but Ann, staying with us for the summer, was her willing consort. She didn't expect to find anything, but she was armed, at least, with the admonitions of her sisters, "Don't wear pure white. It will wash you out with your complexion," and "Pick something that accents your waist. You've got a cute waist."

When they arrived, they were met by a bleached blonde saleslady. She had ten visible body piercings, five in each ear. She was, to hazard a guess, sixty years old. We'll call her Cathy.

Bethany was not allowed to be alone with the dresses, not even for a minute. Cathy followed her straight into the dressing rooms, and while Bethany wrangled the yardage of ecru taffeta and candlelight satin - or whatever is the going term for off-white these days - Cathy talked.

Cathy asked Bethany what she did, and was impressed to find that she worked with students in a campus ministry setting. It was so good, she thought, for the young people to have someone who would talk with them, help them work through their feelings, listen to them. Cathy was raised Catholic. She tried to go to church on Sundays, but it was hard, and she rarely made it anymore. She got so tired.

When Bethany had gotten herself into a dress, she would come out to model them in front of Ann.

"What about you?" Cathy said to Ann, "Are you doing this anytime soon?"

Ann, about to start her second year of law school, demurred.

"Yeah, don't get me started on the marriage thing. I was married for twenty-five years. I'll never do THAT again."

Bethany, head-to-toe white in a dress Cathy was theoretically trying to sell to her, was not sure what to say.

When all the dresses had been tried on, Cathy walked Ann and Bethany back to Ann's car.

"You know," she said to Bethany, "I'm in Georgetown sometimes. I could call you. We could get lunch."

Bethany gave her her business card. Cathy wrote her cell phone number on the back.

"Just call me, if you want to. And if I don't answer, leave me a message. I can just call you right back. It's so nice to have people to talk to."

She hugged Bethany. She hugged Ann, too, who later confessed surprise.

Act II:

In a country in South America, in a hospital, there is a ten-year-old girl called Catalina. Catalina has no parents, so her uncle, Diego, takes care of her. Six months ago, she was raped by an adult in her community. Such crimes are not uncommon where she lives, and they are met with almost certain impunity. But the rape is not why Catalina is in the hospital.

Catalina is in the hospital because something is wrong with her, and the doctors at the public clinic do not know what it is. All that is clear is that she is dying. The doctors are not doing much, nor do they seem to care. They say that they are not treating her because there is no money to pay for the treatment, but they have also removed her from her bed at times so that they can use it as a place to sit.

The employees of a non-profit have taken an interest in Catalina's case. They have been driving around the city trying to find her new doctors, trying to buy her antibiotics and blood. That is the way the health care system works here. If the doctor is good, he tells you what you need, but it's probably up to you, or someone who cares about you, to find it and pay for it. Catalina is in and out of consciousness, but she is a little in awe of the strangers who seem to care so very much whether she lives or dies. She knows, in her own way, why they are doing it.

She wakes from a sleep of drugs and fever, to find one of the women at the edge of her bed. Quiere aceptar a Jesucristo en su corazon, she makes it known, and a little later she sleeps again.

That night, she took a worse turn. I have no reason to believe she is dead right now, but no very good reason to believe she is alive, either.

Act III: Moravia

It used to be that from a particular family compound in Moravia, Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, you could see the ocean. You cannot see it anymore. Now, all the houses have nine-foot walls topped with barbed wire. The rate of armed robberies following the war has made it necessary.

Eight years ago, a comparatively wealthy Liberian woman we'll call Debbie, who lives on the outskirts of Moravia, had a visit from a neighbor woman. The woman asked her to watch her two-week-old son (whom we'll call Anthony). She said she would return in a few hours. Debbie agree, and the woman left.

The neighbor never returned.

Debbie adopted Anthony. Today, he is a smiling, well-dressed little boy. In front of cameras, he likes to put on his Batman costume with the fake muscles. He is cloistered, most certainly, behind the gates of the family estate, but in Moravia, cloistered is also protected. There will be time enough to know the world outside the walls.

Anthony made a friend, Charles, who invited him to come over to play. Charles lived downtown in a less savory district. Debbie did not want Anthony to go, but in the end, he was allowed.

Anthony and Charles played together well enough for a while, but towards evening they got into an argument. Charles pushed Anthony outside the gate of his family's compound. He threw his belongings out after him. Anthony, who knew virtually nothing about the geography of the city, was miles from either his home or Debbie's office, but Debbie's office was closer. He started walking.

Several hours later, Debbie's sister, who worked at Debbie's office, was leaving at an unusually late hour. She was going to take a cab home. She raised her hand. A cab stopped, but she let it pass. Another cab stopped, but she waved it on again. She has never known why she let them go.

Suddenly she turned, and there was Anthony, carrying his backpack, his well-pressed clothes mussed and dirty,

On sight of her, he small knees buckled and he began to cry.

"Anthony, Anthony," she said, pulling the seven-year-old to her chest, "How did you get here?"

Anthony did not know the city, and between Charles' house and the office lay twisting miles of slums, violent neighborhoods, wracked by kidnappings, where he had walked, dirty but unscathed, in his well-pressed clothes. How, indeed?

Anthony looked at her and said, "Jesus walked with me."

Note added Monday, July 21: Catalina is dancing with angels.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Poems for Jesus #5

I fear this cannot be the path you chose -
That downward curves, in darkness, and apart
From all my friends, and sets me among foes.
I turn and say, “Some respite, You’ll impart?
There’s some escape you’ll show me from this place?”
But now my smarting heart receives no cheer;
Gone silent is Your voice, like flint Your face!
My fainting hope quails at your eyes severe.
And downward winding, twisting, while winds blow,
You lead me on and never turn around.
My sorrow grows that you would lead me low –
Until I see your tears have wet the ground!
“Did you not ask,” you finally say to me,
“That I would in my crucible refine you?
And from your mesh of fears to be set free?
The things you asked, I’m faithful now to do.”
And now I see this path has been well trod
By none you have betrayed, but by Your own
By saints and prophets – all well loved of God -
All on their way to praise You at Your throne.
You lead me low, that you might lead me higher.
For gold that lasts, these tears shall be the fire.

Brave or Safe?

Friday, July 4, 2008

My First Publication

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Following the Leader

Brent told me outside the cafeteria that had no use for Jesus. He said that after consideration, he rejected the notion of substitutionary atonement. I thought that was ironic, for a Jew, since it was a Mosaic doctrine long before it was a Christian one, but I had to respect him for it. At least he had thought that far. Though we differed on that score, it did not keep us from getting Philly cheese steaks at a dive on M Street, or from dancing the rumba, the quickstep, and the mambo.

Ballroom dance practice took place on Wednesday nights in the Copley lounge. It was a smallish, oblong room wil columns ill-placed for dancing. The floor was old wood, honey-colored and buffed to a high sheen by the brushed, suede leather on the soles of the ladies' shoes.

Brent stood around 6'4". Four-inch heels and my best posture brought me level with his perfectly symmetrical chin.

We learned slowly. He liked to take big steps, and his feet, too, were big and square-toed and heavy. The women dancers learned faster than the men in general, feeling fewer impediments to the union of their bodies with an external influence. But the women, learning faster, wanted to lead. That was their trouble.

Brent and I were no exception. One-two-three-four, and start again, and again . . . and again. Brent was no help, making wisecracks in his lispish Castilian Spanish so that the instructor could not understand. It's hard to suppress a giggle and maintain correct posture ("Pretend you're carrying a heavy tray.") at the same time.

After a month, the men learned the steps. In another month, they, including Brent, began to learn to lead. They learned the circumference of our turns, the lengths of our arms, the accomodations of stature and momentum. Above all, they learned to keep the tension. That was the moment of revelation. The gentleman leads and the lady follows, by the setting their weight each the other's in precise counterbalance. The sign of a weak lead wass that he pushed his partner around the floor like a vacuum cleaner. A good lead had only to touch an elbow, vary by slight degree the pressure in his palms, and her steps were known to her like a sudden flash of intuition.

In October we went to the Ohio Star Ball in Cleveland. We went on a big bus, me and Brent and Pola and Meg and Thuy and a dozen others. Thuy's family was from Viet Nam, and she had been raised since adolesence in Los Angeles. She was impossibly compact. The cha-cha came hard for her, but she moved like a swan in the waltz. At a rest stop in Ohio, she stepped off the bus and put up her gloved hand to feel the first snowflakes of her life lap against her.

The competitions were unpleasant. The make-up was garish, the application of hairgel an impossible ordeal. But I loved the Jack-and-jill dances. Every now then, I got an experienced dancer, a really good lead. A good lead makes you a better dancer.

There's probably plenty of earthbound applications for this, something about men and woman that is obvious, but it sets me to thinking about God. About why His words sometimes seem like incomplete directive. About why we are left in positions of great paradox and unbearable tension. Perhaps He is just a really good lead.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


There were weeks in college when I lived for The Compline. It goes also by the name of "All Praise to Thee, my God, This Night." Whatever its name, it is one of the oldest and loveliest hymns I know, penned in the late 17th century by Thomas Ken, an Englishman. The simple music, by Thomas Tallis is a century older still. And even if you have never heard of it, you may have sung the last verse, known by Protestant Christians throughout the English-speaking world. It is the source of The Doxology, or Common Doxology.

I read it today for the first time in its entirety. Usually, I have sung only four or five of its twelve verses. But even in its shortened version, it was for me, from week to week, in the breathing space between a capella verses, a place in which to feel brave enough to go out again and charge the darkness, to use a term of Gary's.

All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
Beneath Thine own almighty wings.

Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son,
The ill that I this day have done,
That with the world, myself, and Thee,
I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.

Teach me to live, that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, that so I may
Rise glorious at the judgment day.

O may my soul on Thee repose,
And with sweet sleep mine eyelids close,
Sleep that may me more vigorous make
To serve my God when I awake.

When in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with heavenly thoughts supply;
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of darkness me molest.

O when shall I, in endless day,
For ever chase dark sleep away,
And hymns divine with angels sing,
All praise to thee, eternal King?

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

My father died on a Monday. I was a visitor at a downtown D.C. church the night before. I had not sung the compline in a year (California churches know less than one might hope about 17th-century British worship). And a woman at the front played it on the guitar. I sang with sudden joy, and knew thereafter the gift of preparation, the promise of the Lord's companionship, that had been given to me.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

From the Archives: Of Manzanita Trees (Fall 2001)

My teachers taught me the authors of the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, and the Connecticut Compromise. They taught me absolutes: the Pythagorean Theorem, and then they taught me the theory of relativity. They taught me the entropy of the universe, the mechanics of grammar, and the death of a star. They taught me of men that build bridges, and they taught me of men that burned them.

My mother taught me to hook mealworms in one blow; she taught me to wait and watch for the silver flash of a rainbow trout's belly. She taught me that the bark of the manzanita tree is always cool, like chilled red glass, even in summer. She taught me how to make sourdough bread in the hot August afternoons: knead it soft and smooth, not too little and not too much, and to always save a remnant of the yeast. That way you can always start again. She taught me the meaning of grace and the best reasons to cry.

My great-grandmother, her clawed hands veined and arthritic, taught me in her straining voice how quickly life passes, like daylight fleeing from the mountains. She told me about Sol, five years dead now, who after the war wanted to hide under tables at the wail of a siren on the street. She taught me what it means to get a job because you look less Jewish than your sister, and what it means to go dancing during a funeral. She taught me what it means to be old, always remembering with envy the faces of the dead and the hours of the past, always alone. She taught me what it means to be young.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The lightning comes again in the time it takes for a heart to beat. The sky is like a hunk of dark granite split through - white like the inner skin of an orange - with great hammer blows. A thunderclap follows hard on the latest flash, and before I know it I am hunkered down, crab style, instinctually, fingers burrowed into my ear canals to block the sound. When I walk again, the only thing louder is the fire trucks, wailing east down South Hayes Street on their way to only they know where, they and the recipients of some cloud-borne disaster. For a while, the rain was halfway to horizontal, but now it comes in bands like the footage of a hurricane. It stands in warm puddles ankle-deep in the low points of the sidewalk, and with the rat-tat-splash of urgent drops, the puddles seem to boil.

The ancients were not so daft to picture the gods hammering out weapons of war on great anvils in the sky.

My dad would have liked this storm. He would, I believe, have chased an F5 down the highway with the top down, but we lived in California, not Kansas. But today, I just know that I like the storm for myself. I am wet to the skin and smiling and singing Amazing Grace aloud on the sidewalk because no one else is out, and anway they couldn't hear me. I savor the white, hot, still mornings that promise eruptions of the sky like this one. It invites something in me to praise and awe and tremble, and the modern diet offers precious little to summon any such emotion. To think that mortals can be the friends and children of the God whose playthings are such wild dangers! To think that He is mine and I am His forever!

I am not without thought that some storms hold catastrophe. Some storms make widows and orphans and homeless. Just last week, I spent two days without power, and that is the least of all that could have happened to me. A great-girthed tree fell onto the white pickup truck of a man in that storm, and it pinned him where he sat, buckled safely into the driver's seat. "Impaled," said one newspaper. "Crushed," said another.

The random punches that the sky can throw have been the making of many an atheist.

Here I come to the limit of what is given me to understand, but I am not asked to understand. I am asked to believe that God is out for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose. I come to find that the only thing harder than an inscrutable purpose is a purpose that does not exist.

So often, belief must precede understanding.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


It has been said with some veracity that eyes are the window to a man's soul. The contents of a woman's purse, I'd argue, are the window to hers. For posterity and for all you amateur psychological profilers out there, here are mine:

What passes for my purse is a brown jute messenger bag with a shoulder strap and a velcro flap. I can't dirty it, and I can't destroy it. For me that's perfect. It was made by a woman in India trying to keep herself out of the sex trade.

Attached by a purple carabiner are my keys, keys that open my apartment, the dark, dingy community laundry room, a filing cabinet that contains nothing of value, a Kryptonite bike lock, a wheel-less 60-pound black banner case named Bertha, and the office floor directly above the campaign headquarters of Senator John "Maverick" McCain.

Inside: five bungee cords, assorted lengths and colors; a dark blue DC Urban League T-shirt, size XL, obtained during my stint on the IJM softball team; two pink and grey women's kayaking shoes, size 8; 1 pair of grey running shorts that say "HOOS" across the seat; a Christian historical romance of questionable literary merit; a James Joyce novel of impenetrable literary merit; an LG flip phone with many cool features that I lack the mental capacity to use, most recent text message a request for Raquel to ask Josh if he knows any solid, Christian, Spanish-speaking attorneys with criminal litigation experience; eight $1 bills, decidedly wrinkled and dirty, obtained as change on my last visit to the Columbia Pike Farmers' Market; a Swiss army knife; a class syllabus for Literature of Science, scrawled with illustrations of flowers, butterflies, and shooting stars, plus the words "anthocyanin," "epilepsy," and "boring," and the epigram, "Dare to be wrong;" class notes for Literature of Science, written on the back of a diagram of the Nicollet Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis; receipts for food purchased at airports in Washington, DC and Minneapolis-St.Paul; a bank card; a credit card that gets me free outdoor adventure gear; a credit card that gets me free flights to California; a card that gets me into my gym; two cards that get me grocery discounts; a work ID that shows me with black, short hair; a passport with me sporting long, blonde hair, and stamps from Nicaragua, Frankfurt, Athens, Florence, Corfu, and the seaside city of Sarande, Albania; a compact mirror; a journal; a pencil case containing nothing that writes; a calculator; a ticket stub for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; an address book featuring a hair salon, a dentist, a college friend in Durham, and my sister and brother-in-law, addresses that I want to know but can't seem to memorize.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Towards a Theology of Work

Have you ever wanted to quit your job to join a paid sleep study? I didn't want to today, when I walked to work, and I was smiling like a fool because the rolls of new grass smelled so earthy and good under a blue sky. I don't want to when we read from the Psalter in staff prayer, and I don't want to when someone is encouraged just because of my peripheral role in something that thrills the heart of God.

But I confess that I have wanted to call that sleep study hotline, when the city is dark except for my cubicle. I have wanted to when I have seriously considered taking a nap on my keyboard. I have wanted to when my computer blinks at me with the blue screen of death, looking quite innocent about having just sucked my analysis into the black hole where lost data goes.

Most of the time, it is not hard for me to like work. That is a predisposition, not a virtue. I just get antsy without something to put my hands to. And if I do something, it might as well be well done.

Because work came easily, I did not for a long time giving more than passing consideration to what God has to say about work. But he says quite a bit. In Proverbs, there are dire warnings about sluggards going hungry. The New Testament says to work as unto the Lord. And my elementary school took as its motto that part about "studying to show thyself approved, a workman who need not be ashamed of his labor." That only scratches the surface, of course.

But sometimes my work hangs on me like a sack of paving stones. Then, all I want is to have it lifted from me. I want to retire. I forget that at age 23 and with loan debt, this is not a feasible option. I long for heaven, not because of the presence of my Lord there, but because of the total absence of spreadsheets. And since neither the Grim Reaper nor the Publishers' Sweepstakes has come to my rescue, I turn at last towards this topic of a theology of work.

A theology of anything is a tricky enterprise. The chief danger is that we shall seek knowledge instead of Jesus, and set up for ourselves a sacrosanct opinion that is as much an idol as any golden calf. That's why this blog is called "Towards a Theology of Work." I don't intend to answer the question of what a proper understanding of work is. I only want to come a bit closer to seeing it as God does, and I think it can be done by examining some of the most popular ways for thinking about work in light of Scripture.

Myth#1: Work is not part of God's original plan. It is God's punishment of man for the Fall. When God redeems the world, work will no longer be part of the picture.

Yes and no. In Genesis, we do read that God told gave Adam work to do long before the Fall. He named animals and acted as a sort of general superintendent. He had responsibilities to fulfill. That is the core of work. It was after the Fall that Adam's work became bitter to him. While in the garden he performed his work without strain, but in the exile of the wilderness, he had to wring his bread from an earth grown suddenly truculent. With the Fall, bitterness and futility entered our understanding of work, but work has been there all along. Not only did Adam work, but God did. God labored over His creation for six days. If God labored, we must be open to the possibility that work can be entirely holy and joyful, forever. And if we shall be like Him when we see Him, as Paul says, than perhaps heaven shall be a busier place that we are sometimes inclined to think.

Myth #2: Work is the highest end of man of earth.

There is something called a "Puritan work ethic." If someone is said to have it, you will hear murmurs of admiration. The Puritans, being strict adherents to Calvinism, thought that earthly prosperity was a sign of their election, so they put their hands to the plow and not only did not turn back, but did their furrows double-time. Their modern inheritors might be the doctors or CEOs or district attorneys who put in 18-hour work days with righteous zeal.

"I love my work. It's my life."

Is that wrong to say such a thing? Suppose they are unmarried, and so have not even the usual filial guilt to curtail their hours? Work, after all, is extolled in Scripture. It is beneficial to society, gives us purpose and security. It prevents idleness, which (don't you know?) is the Devil's playground. And doesn't Scripture say to work as unto the Lord? Doesn't that mean giving everything you have? Dropping in the harness?

But let us stop. Is that truly God's will for us? To burn the candle of our energies until it flickers and dies in martyred service?

Scripture says no. "The Lord gives rest to His beloved," says the Psalmist. And God roars with indignation against the breaking of the Sabbath, the inheritance of holy rest set aside for His people for all generations.

I will venture this much: Any adequate theology of work must incorporate a theology of rest. Work, as the gift of God, can be a wholly joyful and holy undertaking, but rest is equally so. Rest is a celebration of divine sovereignty and splendor. Rest says, "I can take my hands from the rudder, because God's hand is upon it still." Rest says, "My God is good, and all His works are marvelous. Let me soak it in."

What can all this mean to me in my cubicle? I'm still figuring it out. I expect I shall always be figuring it out. But again I will venture this much: When Jesus came, He proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God. It started with him. Did he work hard? Ever so. Did he rest? During a storm. Is it possible for me? His resurrection promises me that, though I am always a work in progress, contending with my flock of fears and vices, His reality shall ever more become my reality. My ways of working and resting, properly surrendered, shall bear an increasing resemblance to His.

And to this I say, "Thy kingdom come."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Silence of Satiety

Cooking is high on the list of things that make me happy. Cooking means loving people well by giving them something that they both need and will give them pleasure. Cooking means creativity and challenge. Cooking means taking odds and ends and, by combination, making something surprising and delightful. Cooking, at its best, is an act not only of nurture and comfort, but of redemption.

Cooking also means dirty dishes, but I try not think about that until after dinner, and occasionally not until after breakfast.

I have my older sister, who is closer to culinary sainthood than I shall ever be, and who by her own telling at least partially ensnared her husband with a piece of blueberry pie, for first making me think about food in a way that is similar to how I think about words. A subject requiring precision, perseverance, and a sense of humor. In the end, an offering to those I love.

There is also in cooking that note of obscurity that I always find attractive. To be honest, one of my favorite things about baking bread from scratch is that I'm expected to buy it in a store. That, and I like to do things the hard way; it makes the end results much more fun. I'm not-so-secretly delighted if my Ethiopian recipe has me picking through unmarked bags of spices in a dimly lit shop in DC's Little Addis Ababa neighborhood.

My little apartment kitchen sometimes makes me sad. It's more like a galley than a kitchen. The dishwasher has never worked, and a single dish out of place qualifies as a huge mess for simple want of space. Sometimes I think with envy of the grand designer kitchens in the houses where both my mom and dad have worked, kitchens that would make Julia Child weep for joy, and that yet always gleamed with the telltale cleanliness of disuse.

But my own plastic countertops and jam-packed cupboards have not stopped me from squeezing my own orange juice, nor does the fact that my dining room table seats four keep me from inviting a dozen. When people come to eat, I pull out every thing that can possibly be sat upon, and some people go into the living room, balancing glasses on their knees and trying not to spill ragu sauce on the couch, as though that poor old three-legged Craigslist couch could possibly be spoiled. Conversation stops. People who were hungry are satisfied and cared for. This is why I love to cook: the silence of satiety that falls upon such gatherings. And though cooking by itself is fun, this is the part the makes me happy. I wouldn't trade a minute of it, not for a butcher block countertop or my own fleet of Kitchenaid mixers, not unless the same faces were around my table.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tough to Reconcile

Tough to Reconcile

***Laura Waters Hinson is a member of my church, Church of the Resurrection. She was kind enough to grant me an interview so that I could write an article for my workshop.***

"By nature, I'm a skeptic," says D.C. filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson. That inborn skepticism is a clear asset to her new documentary, "As We Forgive," a film treading the heavily mined topic of social reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda, where questions abound, answers break your heart, and the stakes are unbearably high.

In Rwanda, a rolling emerald country south of Uganda, the people speak Kinyarwanda, and oftentimes French, with an accent that drains it of its snobbery. Among its largely rural and contemplative people, coffee grows on the hills and churches stand in the villages. In April 1994, the plane of the president of Rwanda was shot down, and the extremist Hutu government blamed the Tutsis, an ethnic minority that had been broadly favored by Belgian colonialists. "Stamp out the Tutsi cockroaches!" became the government's official credo, and mobs of Hutu extremists, called Interahamwe, went out into all Rwanda bearing machetes, clubs, and death lists inscribed with the names of their next-door neighbors.

In 100 days, the Interahamwe killed approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. HIV-positive soldiers were hand-selected to rape Tutsi girls. A pastor bull-dozed a church over the huddled bodies of his parishioners. By the hundreds, bloated bodies floated like pontoon boats down the rapids into Lake Kivu. The massacre ended only when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an army of Tutsis who had been exiled into neighboring African countries, invaded from the north and captured Kigali, the capital city. Over one hundred thousand murderers were jammed into crowded prisons, and those who were left began to bury the bodies.

As its full horror was revealed, the Rwandan genocide became shorthand for the failures of the international community. The killings had gone on in full view of the watchful though disbelieving eyes of the United Nations and its member states, who quibbled over using the word "genocide," with all the untidy legal responsibilities it would entail. In the aftermath, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton made a humbly worded apology to the people of Rwanda.

In 2005, when Hinson first traveled to Rwanda as a muzungu - meaning “foreigner” or “wealthy person,” since the terms are interchangeable in Rwanda - she might have expected to find resentment. Instead, she found that Rwandans had far more to deal with than the abandonment of the international community.

Hinson learned that new Rwandan President Paul Kagame, faced with bursting prisons and a 150-year court backlog of untried murderers, had implemented a conditional prisoner release program for participants in the genocide. “Common” killers, who had not been ringleaders but were swept into the genocidal fury, could walk free if they had confessed their crimes and had already served a certain minimum sentence. Many took the opportunity, and to date there are 50,000 ex-genocidaires walking the lovely red dirt roads of Rwanda. They live in houses next to people with machete scars.

The story only got more unbelievable. Some of the genocidaires, Hinson heard, were asking forgiveness from the survivors. And here and there, survivors were giving it.

Hinson thought, "This is the best idea for a documentary I've ever heard." She traveled to Rwanda for shooting in the summer of 2006. The stories she filmed, woven together in of "As We Forgive" tell of communities attempting, in their own ways, to heal the wounds of genocide. For a startling and growing minority, the curative of choice is forgiveness and reconciliation, but it doesn't come cheaply for anyone.

Hinson landed in Kigali with a shoestring budget, a student crew, and no one to interview, but she was determined to capture the drama or forgiveness and reconciliation unfolding on film. With the help of a skilled and well-connected translator, she began to make headway. She soon learned that through Prison Fellowship Rwanda's Umuvumu Tree Project, ex-genocidaires who wanted to show their remorse were building houses for survivors. She met Rosaria, whose sister and nieces and nephews were bludgeoned to death by a man named Saveri. Rosaria and Saveri had taken part in a community reconciliation workshop, and she had publicly forgiven him for his crimes. Today, she lives in a house that Saveri helped to build for her.

The story of Rosaria's forgiveness, which comes across as a complex melding of faith and social values, made it into the documentary; Hinson, however, with her natural sense for ambiguity, wanted to film a story of forgiveness in progress, a story that would lay bare the ponderous dynamics of brutality, shame, and pardon among people who must somehow live together.

She spoke to a worker for CARSA, an organization that runs reconciliation workshops for survivors and ex-prisoners. The worker told her about Chantale and John. Chantale was a genocide survivor. John murdered Chantale's father. After fourteen years in prison, he heard Kagame's startling announcement on a transistor radio. He was released. He wanted to see Chantale and beg her forgiveness.

After days of reluctance, Chantale agreed to meet with John and the reconciliation worker while cameras were rolling. "It was like the cameras weren't even there," Hinson marveled. "Rwandans are a stoic people, normally, but she just came unraveled on film."

In the documentary's climactic scene, John keeps his eyes riveted to a tile on the floor, while he tells Chantale that he did an evil thing, and then says over and over again, "Have mercy."

Chantale cannot look at him. She doesn't listen, either, as she spills out the accusatory monologue of her despair.

The reconciliation worker steps in, "Every time you look at him, you see your father. Every time he looks at you, he sees the blood. That is the problem."

Chantale leaves, unable to forgive that day. The ongoing struggle to do so is at the heart of the film, which, far from a panacea, looks unflinchingly at the irreducible complexities of human relationships strained to the utmost: of churches, complicit in the genocide, spearheading the road to recovery; of killers released from the bars of jail to meet the barriers of survivors' contempt; of the depth of feeling that lets some Rwandans feel they must forgive, and others to feel they cannot.

Reactions to the project have been mixed. Rwandans are overtly enthusiastic. President Paul Kagame even granted Hinson an interview and fed her film crew lunch off of gold-rimmed presidential china. From small to great, Rwandans are excited at the prospect of the greater world hearing stories that go beyond Hotel Rwanda. Others are wary. Actress Mia Farrow, who lent her voice to narrate the film, expressed concerns, not uncommon, about placing too great a burden on survivors to forgive the perpetrators of genocide.

Even after the hundreds of hours she's spent producing the film, Hinson hasn't found an answer to what she'd do in Rosaria or Chantale's place. She's newly married, and she can't conceive what she'd do if her husband was murdered and the government set the killer free. Could she forgive? Hard to say. But the survivors are being asked to do even more than forgive. They're being asked to reconcile. "Forgiveness asks you to give up your right to be angry," says Hinson, "Reconciliation asks something much greater. It asks you to enter back into relationship with the people you've forgiven. That's what the Rwandans are doing, and it's astonishing."

Bearing witness to such an astonishing process seems to have made a believer from the skeptic. She's working with a lawyer to establish the As We Forgive Foundation to support the work of reconciliation in Rwanda, and she hopes to show the film around Rwanda and other former conflict zones to demonstrate that forgiveness and reconciliation, though gut-wrenching and slow, are not impossible. For viewers of the film, as for its maker, "As We Forgive" has the potential to be a transformative journey.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Notes from the Road


I have discovered how to become a famous writer. The answer is to immediately stop censoring myself or imposing any kind of purpose or organizational structure on my blogs. Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French observer of 19th century America, wrote Democracy in America, on of the single most comprehensive and unreadable volumes in any language, and he has been avidly quoted by politicians and academics of every ideological strip ever since. A good Tocqueville quote is indispensible, whether you're opining on behalf of Marxism, neoconservatism, or baseball. He has achieved literary immortality. But why?

The purpose of quoting someone else, of course, is to hide your own non-sequiters using the words of someone rendered irrefutable by death, fame, or both. Tocqueville is so eminently quotable simply because 1) He is dead, and 2) he could offer a vaguely educated opinion on virtually every subject, and he expressed them all with the grandiosity of an age when all novel ideas also seemed plausible.

My own plan is equally simple. I shall be Tocquevillianly grandiose, vague, and unfocused. Then (at some point in the passage of time), I plan to die, and whoever of you outlasts me can feel free to quote me.


I don't think I'd ever ridden in a taxi before my eighteenth birthday, but since I moved out of the suburbs, it happens often. This delights me to no end, because I've found cab drivers to be infallibly interesting. I'm on my way to Seattle at the time of this writing, and the cab driver who took Lana, Connie and I to Reagan Airport was a remarkable specimen.

His name was Modesto Bardino Bretas, or so proclaimed the cab driver's license mounted above the dash. It sounded vaguely Mediterranean. He had the American and Israeli flags tucked behind the sun visor on the passenger side, and the cross hanging from his rearview mirror was of the design you see in Ethiopian souvenir stores.

"Where do you want to go?" he said, and the turned on the radio. It was a waltz. By Strauss.

We arrived at the airport - for the second time that day. Our earlier flight had been cancelled, and we whiled away the time by watching a parade of WWII veterans at the airport. They deplaned with wheelchairs and walkers, while a brass band brought in by U.S. Airways played martial music. After that, we took a cab back to the office, and we piled into Connie's German car. She turned on her West African gospel mix, and we drove to a Lebanese restaurant on Pentagon Row in a small square that also boasted Thai food, Mexican, a noodle shop, an Irish pub, and a French creperie. Connie decided, however, between drafting e-mails at the outdoor table, to be pretend we were in Santorini.

Our second effort at leaving Washington was, thankfully, less eventful than the first, unless you count the glorious absurdity of TSA security. On this day, it involved stepping into a machine that blows puffs of air at you (it always makes me giggle), and a nine-year-old girl in a red flowered sun dress being "randomly selected" for additional screening, though that's nothing to my friend's baby, who at birth somehow wound up on the "No Fly List" and endured frisking while still in diapers.


There's a ridiculous profusion of McCain, Clinton, and Obama memorabilia in the airport shops. It's getting old. The general consensus in the capital is that everyone wishes it were over - and we're still nine months away from inauguration day! I was an enthusiastic participant in the Potomac Primaries, but I'm also rather sick of the whole thing. The longer I have to reflect, the more I become convinced that anyone who would volunteer for the nation's highest office must be out of their minds. They'd have to be, to consent to have their faces (looking ever so competent and poised) placed on a sweatshirt in the duty-free shop. And the suspicion, which seems ever more warranted, that I shall have to choose between two slightly nutty candidates with whom I disagree at least half the time in both principle and policy, just takes the zest out of performing my civic duty. Will I vote? Of course, but I'll pray even more.


Safely at our gate, I began to write, since I had long since lost Lana to a biography of Ted Bundy, and Connie to the stoic endurance of a germ-filled public place like an airport, an environment not much loved by her fastidious nature.


I'm partway through a novel by Thornton Wilder. He has a lyrical, almost liturgical prose style that reminds me of the King James Version of the Bible. If I'm overdoing it on the adjectives today, you know why. I've always been a terrible pushabout when it comes to my writing style. I'm a mimic. I seem doomed to channel whomever I've most recently read. I still carry the scars of an ill-advised obsession with Dickens in elementary school. I've often wondered if any of my style is my own. It must be, to some degree, but mostly I think I'm a shameless borrower, and whatever knack I have for language stems from a simple fact: I have a sufficiently indifferent opinion of reality to read three books a week since I my alphabet.

I can hardly imagine a world without books. When I was a child, if asked, "Would you rather be deaf or blind?" (I don't know why children ask each other such morbid hypothetical questions), I always said, "Deaf." Even if I lost my hearing, I would still have my books.

"Story" is the paradigm through which I view my world. I mark off my life into chapters, themes, and motifs. I understand people as heros and foils, though I've had the good fortune to know few enough villains.

Because of that, one of Scripture's most profound statements for me is that God is the author of faith. The one word - author - resolves the sovereignty vs. free will debate for me. An author, you see, has total control over his creation, but at the same time he is not arbitrary. He actions are bound by rules - such as grammar, spelling, chronology, and even the internal consistency of his own plot and characters -- to which he freely submits himself in order to tell a good, clear story. So God, in "writing" our faith, is both fully responsible for the outcome, yet constantly checks himself, enabling us to make choices, so that he does not contradict the laws of love which he both invented and obeys.


For a person who flies as often as I do, I find it terribly exhausting and boring. At least I can be grateful that I am not afraid of flying. Some one my friends are, and I think I would spend half my life in a catatonic state if I partook of their phobia.

I have little use for fear of things I cannot control, and I am frustrated by people who allow fear to dictate their outlook or actions, or even worse, for those who try to instill their fears in me. Of course, I have my own skeletons in the fear closet, enough to render me a hypocrite, but I give myself a good scolding if I find that fear's been at the root of some action of mine. I don't remember always having such strong feeling about fear and its proper place; if anything, it's been a recent development. I think I hit the point in my life where fear stopped being worth it. The things you fear have a way of never happening. It's the things you never bothered to fear that will get at you.


We landed in Charlotte, North Carolina. It's always bemused me that I would have to fly several hundred miles south in order to go north and west, but mere mortals ought not to question such things. Anyway, the bathroom more than made up for it by offering a Listerine dispenser and homegrown roses set out in empty Tropicana orange juice bottle. In some respects, loving the south is a moral imperative.


I always wonder what the inside of other people's minds are like. I wonder if, like my own, they are endless ping-pong games, sometimes well-ordered, but sometimes an erratic, white-noise stream of consciousness that hardly ever abates except in prayer or sleep. When I'm extra tired, it goes on, but often in my second of third language, or a hybrid of the two.

This is a large part of why I write and why I read: to impose a brief silence on my mind. This is also why I lose things and why I forget vital details when I most need to remember them: because I am so enchanted with some digression (of which the above are a sampling of a single day's fare) that I fail to pay attention.

I once tried to describe the interior of my mind to a friend of the family. I tried to tell how I sometimes wish I could just think less.

"Yeah," he said meditatively, "That's why some people take drugs."


Laurie, the fourth member of the banquet squad, managed to get on an earlier flight that we did, but she was sentenced to an eight-hour layover in Dallas. Her in-laws came and bailed her out.

I, for one, would be content to do all my airport time in Charlotte. To add to the numerous perfections of its ladies' restrooms, there are hundreds of white, high-backed rocking chairs just waiting to be sat in. I consider rocking chairs to be the sine qua non of creature comfort. My greatest (easily attainable) goal in life is to live in a house with a wrap-around porch and rocking chairs. In fact, you can keep the house. Just give me the porch and the rocking chairs.


While waiting for our flight to take off, we quizzed Lana about her Bundy biography. Lana is interested in psychology and therefore fascinated by serial killers. She said the Bundy seemed like a really nice, normal, high-achieving guy . . . until he started killing people. The dozens of people he dispatched with were all pretty, young women in the Seattle area. As three pretty, young women, with active imaginations, bound at that moment for downtown Seattle, it was only a small consolation to know Bundy is no longer on the loose.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Something Pretty

For Madds in Mallorca - Enjoy!

Introduction: My little sister turns twenty today, but I am not able to celebrate with her, because for the last several months she has been studying abroad in Mallorca, a sunny isle off the southern coast of Spain, where I am informed she has a view of the Mediterranean from her "flat," as she calls her apartment. Our sole link is Facebook, and last week she requested that I "write her something pretty" for her birthday. It's the least I can do, since by all appearances her birthday packages have been swallowed in the dubious black hole of international parcel service. Well, Madds, and all you far-flung readers, here is something I hope you think is pretty.

Something Pretty:

Slice and flesh. Those are the two words that Madeline cannot bear to hear said aloud. They make her skin crawl, and she gives a violent shudder before making you feel how imperative it is never to repeat those words in her presence. So of course, when we were all little, every now and then I had to find an opportunity to say, "Gee, I sure sliced my flesh on that tin can." It was wonderful. The only thing that was possibly more wonderful, when Madeline still rode in a car seat, was to imitate a spider with my hand and make it crawl all over her face and body. She was amused for about 2 nanoseconds, and then she would start to scream in terror. It helped to pass the time on drives to grandma's house.

Looking back, I must conclude that, between the ages of 4 and 5, I was a horrible human being, to get such amusement out of torturing my sister. One of the things I am most thankful for in my life is that either she has forgotten it, burying it in the scarred portion of her subconscious, or, even better, she has forgiven me. Because if she hadn't, I really don't know what I'd do.

My sister, you see, is what I think of as a remarkable human being. (Both of my sisters, actually, are lovely beyond measure, but this is Madeline's birthday.) She has a loveliness that grows and grows, and living as far away as I do, it strikes me afresh on the too-rare occasions when I see her. She loves people deeply and well. She has a dauntless affinity for the truth. She is planted firmly on the Rock. Her whole demeanor is an invitation to relax and be glad.

Somewhere along the road, I went from seeking opportunities to torment her (or in my better moments, to protect or amuse her) to seeking ways to be more like her.

May the year to come be more than you hope for and everything you deserve.

All my love,

your sis

Saturday, April 5, 2008


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps one of the only people ever to live up to the grandiosity of their own name, was shot on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, forty years ago yesterday, where he had gone to show solidarity with a sanitation workers' strike.

Gary is a great admirer of Dr. King. Yesterday, during the staff prayer time, he played a video of the "Mountaintop Speech." It was King's last important public address, given the night before his assassination. His voice was as powerful as it has always been, in the many recordings I have heard, the unquenchable vibrato of an African-American preacher, roaring in deep like ocean tide. "I've been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land," he said. "I may not get there with you, but we, as a people, will get to the promised land." The crowd was roaring and amen-ing as he looked from right to left, scanning their faces, hands clenching the podium as though to keep his compact, muscular body upright. But I was arrested by his eyes. In his eyes there was the frantic blinking of a man trying to hold back the force of his tears, of a man who, if he stopped what he was doing for a moment, would break down weeping with the weight of the love that all at once bore him down, propped him up, and pushed him onward.

We could do with more Kings.

When I look at my life, at the small things with great capacity to bog me down, I wonder how it happens. We look at the great lives, the lives of the Kings and the Wilberforces and the Mother Theresas of Calcutta, real people whose struggles and words are known to us, who knew the same empowering God I know, who are working with the same basic human stuff as I, whose legacies are heaped with eulogies fair and bright enough to light a new galaxy, whom I readily assent should be imitated, and wind up still with the pale and tawdry substitutes for the abundant life.

The surety of heaven is a grand thing, a thing to lift wearied and despairing hearts, to comfort the grieving, to give steadiness to the short-sighted. But this resurrection would be but a partial salvation if it did not also animate our lives on earth, if it did not invite us into a sort of torrential life, where the miracles of mercy and justice, peace and forgiveness, regeneration and victory are everyday realities. My great joy is that if Christ is to be believed, it does. My great hope is that I shall let it.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Interactive Blog Results

Well, as all you clever blog readers have figured out for yourselves, judging by the comments, the prize goes to the Walkers in southern California. As much as I appreciate the choice of titles, D, I always like a challenge. You can look for, "A funny thing happened on the way to the gas chamber . . . " over the next several days. I know the usual response time for an interactive blog is three days, but I think I've got to do some research to make this one worthwhile. What this is going to turn out to be is anyone's guess, at this point, but I think it will be fun.

Many thanks for the entries from Minnesota, Tennessee, and Texas.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Interactive Blog #3

As you might have divined from the frequency with which I play this game, my creative juices are once again a little low. Modified rules! The person who posts a suggestion within the next three days and LIVES FARTHEST AWAY from me will choose the title of the next blog.


A Rose

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Palm Sunday Prayer

My God,

Whose nearness is to me a song of great contentment,
A song like a river sings when it is broad and untroubled.
Put to rest me in me the fretting
That shall bleed away, drop by anxious drop,
The sureness of your lordship
And the lifeblood of my trust.
Surely none can snatch me away
From the strong grasp of your hand.
But since my fingers will itch and my eyes twitch
To peer over the prow and take from you the rudder
Wrap my heart around you finger like a ring of betrothal
Warm with your warmth, pure gold in your christening fire
That no dawn shall I see but I seek your face
Like a flower tracks the sun
And no setting shall I see
But I remember the death of glory
That made all things live.

Six days to Alleluia.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Top Ten Signs It's Spring in DC

"The spring is sprung/The grass is ris'/I wonder where the daisies is." That's what my mother used to say when spring rolled around. She was quoting my grandfather, and he was quoting a corruption of a childish little poem called, "The Brooklyn National Anthem." No one can seem to agree on the author, but in its entirety it goes like this: "The spring is sprung/The grass is riz/I wonder when them boidies is/ The say the boid is on the wing/But that's absoid/The wing is on the boid."

But springtime never meant much in California. We were never without flowers. Winter meant rain, green hills, and the occasional frost. Sometimes, Mt. Diablo got a dusting of snow, and parents removed their kids from school in a pathetic attempt to make snowmen that were the color of dirt more than anything else. And that was all. I've grown accustomed, now, to having something more like a real winter. There is snow, and the trees curl up to die as though they'd lost their zest for living. The clouds come cold across a sky pale blue with chill, and the dirt is hard with ice when you walk upon it. So I've learned the longing for spring which, wrapped up in the celebration of Lent and Easter, lends to March a seasoning of expectation that my childhood lacked.

Here's how I know it's spring in D.C.

1) As soon as things thaw out, anything within a 1/4 mile radius of the Potomac smells strongly of swamp.

2) The metro system is entirely overrun by tourist groups that feel it prudent to congregate in front of the turnstiles.

3) Walking along Pennsylvania, one hears person after person say with some sort of regional American accent, "Are you sure that's the White House? It's so small."

4) A vendor at Eastern Market sells bars of cherry blossom soap on Sundays.

5) The Marine on guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has put away his wool cape.

6) The dogwoods, magnolias, tulip trees, and azalea bushes -- in addition to the cherry trees, are all agog with blossoms.

7) The National Mall is the site of an annual civil war pitting clusters of tourists against various softball leagues made up of Hill staffers in a battle for space.

8) The entire college population disappears in shifts and comes back discernibly browner and poorer.

9) The Virginia Department of Transportation puts away the snow plows and stops maintaining a massive pile of sidewalk salt beneath a tarpaulin in the parking lot.

10) The skating rink at the Hirschorne modern sculpture garden closes down for the winter, and once again I have not managed to skate on it, which I am beginning to think betrays an indifference toward ice skating even in the most picturesque of circumstances.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Behind the Museum

This year, 32 million people will come and gawk at the neoclassical grandeur of Union Station on Washington, D.C.'s Massachusetts Avenue, en route, perhaps, to one of the city's no-charge museums. Virtually none of them will spot, across the street, an aluminum door emblazoned with the many-pointed star of the Smithsonian Institution.

This morning I hesitated in front of the door, half certain I was lost. But the door did say, "Employee Entrance," like Becca Johnson, a museum technician at the National Postal Museum, had promised. I tried the handle. It was locked. I pushed the black button on an intercom, and after a delay, a deep voice said something unintelligible and vaguely menacing. The door sprang open, and I slipped inside.

I gave Becca's name to the guard in the reception area. I was there to learn about her unique job behind the scenes of one of America's premier museums. The guard, however, had never heard of Becca Johnson. She wasn't on his list. I gave him her business card, and he placed a call to the Preservation Department. She emerged momentarily from a corridor in jeans, sneakers, and a headband aimed at taming her unruly hair.

"Things just aren't going well this morning," she said by way of greeting, then turned to the guard to persuade him not to take away my driver's license.

"We're going off-site in a few minutes, anyway," she cajoled.
The guard was a determined but flexible bureaucrat. If we were going off-site, he persisted, then Becca should have a property pass. Becca explained that she didn't need one for the particular operations we would be undertaking, and we hurried past the counter while he was still in some perplexity.

She led the way down a long, twisting passage.

"We definitely don't need a property pass," she threw over her shoulder.

"What's a property pass?" I asked.
Becca did not answer. Instead, she introduced me to Jerome, a clean-shaven man about thirty. All day long, I learned no last names. He was just Jerome.

Becca pulled me and Jerome back into her office. She sat me down at her desk, and then she pointed to a big, boxy, gleaming black thing with innumerable knobs and wires protruding from it.

"Can you help me move this welder?" she asked Jerome.

He lifted a corner of it off the counter.
"Oh, that's got some weight to it," he admitted.

"Don't hurt yourself."

"No, I ain't going to hurt myself."

Becca had plans for me, too.

"Can I put you to work?" she said, and as soon as I could be on my feet, she was halfway to the door. On our way out, she introduced me to Helen, the Postal Museum's paper conservator. She led me down several more hallways. While we walked, she explained the difference between preservation (what she did) and conservation (what Helen did), a point she was keen to press home.

Preservationists prevent damage and deterioration to the objects in a museum's collection, while conservationists try to undo the effects of time and accident. Since I was going to see Becca in action later in the day, I asked what sort of things Helen would work on. She gave Rembrandts as an example. Rembrandt's works are all on paper, she said, and prone to tear. A conservationist would fix that. Or, if Helen had to clean one, she'd put it on a grid, and suck the dirt out with a HEPA filtered vacuum so she wouldn't even have to touch it. Becca smiled at this brilliant blow to entropy.

By now we had arrived at a small storage room loaded with cardboard boxes . They held the pieces of a disassembled photo table, the welder, and a portable, high-pressure hose. We took it all to the loading dock, where we were met by Dan.
Dan was one of two exhibit designers at the National Postal Museum. Becca explained that he determined things like the mounting of objects in an exhibit, the design of signs, and then paused as if she were forgetting something. Them she remembered.

"He changes light bulbs, too" she amended.
This morning, though, Dan was going to haul the equipment and us to the off-site facility in his truck. All of the museums under the Smithsonian umbrella have access to the organization's vehicles, but the Postal Museum, the smallest of them all, has to go across town and borrow one from the National Zoo. They prefer to use Dan's truck.

Dan and Becca loaded up and headed northeast along city streets until we wound up near the D.C. – Maryland border. On the way, the museum employees got into a discussion of museum ethics that had me interrupting frequently for the definition of some jargon. Any item purchased by or donated to a museum, I learned, is called an acquisition, but anything that a museum puts on display has to be "accessioned," or made an official part of the museum's collection. Once accession has taken place, the museum is obligated to take care of an object in the same way regardless of its relative historical value. A plastic office chair from 1975 has the same priority, in theory, as the granite sculpture carved millennia ago.

An object can also be de-accessed, removing the museum's obligation of stewardship, but it's a difficult and touchy process. Accession is like adopting an object, but de-accession is like disowning it. Too-frequent de-accession can undermine the public's trust in a museum. Policies toward accession and de-accession vary between institutions, both Becca was clear as day on one point: "If you can't safely take care of an object, you shouldn't take it in the first place."

Becca has always had a great respect for old things. As a child, she relished organizing her parents' photograph collection. In college, she double-majored in history and classical studies. When she didn't get into the grad school of her choice, a friend recommended that she volunteer for a museum to keep up her historical interests. Becca volunteered at a facility near her home in Central Florida. She soon took on the catastrophe that was the museum's basement – a mass of objects thrown together in no particular order and with little regard to their preservation. After that experience, Becca went on to get her master's in Museum Studies from George Washington University. Since that time, she's worked in the coin department of the British Museum in London, as well as for the museum of the National Law Enforcement Agency. Becca is only twenty-five years old. All of these stints were short, but preservationists are rarely kept on staff. Instead, they sign on with a museum for a particular project. Wherever she's working, though, Becca finds the same pleasure in tedium that she found in the museum basement in Florida. "I like making order from chaos," she said.

Dan parked the truck. We had arrived at a massive distribution facility run by the U.S. Post Office. Becca found a flatbed cart and loaded her equipment on top. Pushing it up a ramp into the warehouse, she told me to expect her supervisor, Linda, later in the day.

"I'm always supposed to have someone with me, in case I drop a crate on myself. Though I guess they would find me eventually," she mused.

"How much does a crate weigh?" I asked.

She laughed. "Quite a bit."

At the end of a corridor, she pushed the button for the elevator. Once the elevator doors slid shut behind us, she explained why her work was going on in a postal facility. The warehouse where we were then standing used to be called the Brentwood Facility. In 2004, two postal employees were killed by anthrax being dispersed in the mail they had sorted. Now, it was called the Cursee-Morris facility, after those who had died. The anthrax episode also motivated the Post Office to make its sorting process almost entirely electronic. As a result, it laid off over half its Brentwood work force. Some of the locker rooms that used to serve postal employees were renovated and turned over to the Postal Museum for its own purposes.

The elevator opened. Pushing the flatbed ahead of her, Becca led the way through a set of doors. The first thing I saw was a white, glossy mat on the floor in front of the door. Following her example, I stepped onto it. I stuck. It was like a giant piece of flypaper, if a little less sticky.

"It's my sticky pad," she beamed, "It takes all the dirt right off your shoes. Keeps the environment clean for the objects." This was Thursday. On Monday, she had a fewer older men from the museum come over to help her move things. They had stopped dead on the pad, thoroughly intimidated by it.

Next, Becca took me next door to the crate room. There were enough pine-slat crates inside for the set of an Indiana Jones film.

"Don't touch," she warned, pointing to a long row of crates. "These ones haven't been lead-tested yet." But Becca looked at them with an obvious affection. These were the crates of which she did not know the contents. They might contain more books, donated by a defunct postal museum in Kansas City, Missouri, like the ones she'd already opened, but she could never know for sure what she'd find. Next to the crates, there was a perforator – a machine that makes the perforations in sheets of stamps -, a printing press, and a coiling machine.

"I have absolutely no idea what the coiling machine does," she confessed with perturbation.

Next to that were portraits of past Post Master Generals, all leaning against each other in their sheaths of bubble wrap.
Becca took me back into the processing room. Along one wall were the objects she had already finished. On three shelves, she showed me an odd dozen antique mailboxes given over to rust in varying degrees. Beside them, there were packages meticulously wrapped in cream-colored paper and tied with cotton twill.

"Tyvak," she said, cryptically. Tyvak is a special buffered paper preferred by preservationists like Becca. It's virtually impermeable to stains and changes in humidity. It retails at $117 for a 50-yard roll.

On another shelf, she showed me the first thing she had opened on this project, a printing press. She had the air of an aunt showing off a favored niece or nephew.

"It's a cancelling machine, but it was made in France. So we call it the French cancelling machine. It's the apple of our eye. We love it."

Leaning over, she plucked a large ball of brown tape from the floor.

"I leave this place perfect. Must be courtesy of the guys on Monday," she said.

In the middle of the room was her work station, bare, pristine, and presided over by a work lamp screwed on to the edge of the counter. She sighed. The guys had put her lamp on the wrong side of the counter. On the far side of the room was a blue cart, loaded with old-looking books and surrounded by grating. Becca called it a cage.

She got to work, snapping on a pair of royal blue gloves (powder-free, to keep residue from getting on the objects) in order to handle several books that she pulled out of the cage. Among them were several Kansas city telephone directories at least a half –century old. Lovingly, she catalogued each obsolete volume, wrapped it in low-acid paper, numbered it, and tied it securely with a length of twill. Then it would go on the shelf. The stack of books, twenty-five in all, would take her the rest of the day. The entire cage, each cage representing a crate, might take a month. A piece of errant twill refused to tie properly. She lifted her shoulders high and exhaled her frustration.

Non-archival material – that is, anything besides books – can take considerably longer to process. Becca routinely spends between three and six hours cleaning, weighing, measuring, researching and cataloguing each item. When it's done, she puts it in front of a black velvet drape to photograph it. These are called glamour shots. She hates this term, because it reminds her of bad hair in the '80s.

The objects in Becca's care are in limbo. They are acquisitions, and she faithfully catalogues and preserves them, but whether they get accessed is up to the curators. Each month, Becca faithfully updates the museum's five curators with photographs of recently preserved acquisitions. It's like she's running an orphanage for foundling objects that the museum might adopt.

Though she works alone each day, the silence and isolation agree with Becca. She likes that she doesn't always have to scurry off to meetings, and she's only too glad never have to deal with office politics.

"I have an invisible job," she admits, "People in the office think I go to movies all day because they can't see my progress. But I like being off the radar. There's no one to piss me off," she added with a laugh.

In the absence of human company, it's easy to immerse herself in the minutiae of complex processes, and to grow fond of things like the French cancelling machine. It's a tendency of hers. In college, she had a flash drive named Craig. Admittedly, she has too many objects now to name them, but she continues to feel concern for their welfare. It helps keep her on the project.

"I'm afraid that if I walk away, it will all be crated up again," she said, frowning.

Rebecca's stomach started to rumble. We looked at the clock, and it was almost noon. It was time for me to go. Becca escorted me out, and I asked her what I should see at the Postal Museum. She shrugged.

"I don't really enjoy museums," she confessed, "I'm always looking at the hygrothermograph, the thing that gives you temperature readings and humidity. I'm worried that it's too humid, and it'll cause mold, or it's too dry, and it's bad for the objects. Museums are ruined for me."