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.