Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Postcards Without Postage, pt. 8

Dear Robin,

It's not the same without you here. Not that you've ever been here before, but in your own way you had come with me every time before. This time I am wandering, looking for clarity, searching for answers. My return has been more hail mary than bullseye, and I keep wondering if divine hands are cupped in the midst of the mob, ready to cradle me from falling.

I wonder why your presence shielded me from this anxiety; wonder why you gently accompanied me down the frantic streets and through the manic markets; wonder why you laughed with me on the evenings when some odd event reminded me of your patchwork idiosyncrasies. All I know is that the sense of wonder has faded this time around. I'm told the newness has run its course, but I wonder if I just finally ran out of excuses to pretend there was an us.

Yet as I wander, I am finding love in this place. The drive-by "Hello!"s from nervous school boys; the guesses that I am from Africa, Pakistan, or Malaysia; the clusters around heated Mah Jong arguments; the elderly ladies dressed in red jogging suits and dancing to techno music on my way to class; the sweet potatoes roasted whole inside a sooty barrel; the white-hatted men carrying prayer mats to the mosque for evening prayer; the beautiful woman who sells stinky tofu in the alley behind the market, wants to marry a foreigner, and just learned that there is an ocean between here and America; guests who come bearing gifts of yogurt or salty crackers.

There is room for me here. Amidst all the strangeness, I feel welcome; like you made me feel. Amidst all the familiarity, I feel estranged; like you made me feel. I wonder, will I ever be able to hold this place and these people in the parts of me that forever belong to you? You never were one for cohabitation.

No matter the answer, I will take it all in. I will spread my arms, expand my diaphragm, and breathe China down to the tiniest toenail of my soul. And when I exhale and let go, I will hope once more that she will stay.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ghost Poster

Hello friends,

I just wanted to write a quick note and let you know that the reason you are not receiving responses from me on blogger and facebook is that I am not able to access those websites on a regular basis. My good friend Dave Johnson has agreed to be my ghost poster this year, posting blog entries that I am sending to him through email. If you would like a response from me please send me your email address through a facebook message or on the blog and I can respond through gmail. Thanks for the encouraging wall posts, responses to my blog, and facebook messages. You guys are the best, and I miss you dearly.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Eid Celebration Pictures

My friend Amanda is a great photographer, and unlike me, she woke up early enough on Eid to get some pictures of the gathering in front of the mosque. I heard yesterday that the Eid gathering at the Dongguan Mosque in Xining is the third largest in the world after Mecca and Medina. At first this sounds outrageous, but considering the various geographical distributions and geopolitical concerns, it's plausible. At any rate, here are a few pictures from this year.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Celebration, 9/20/09

*editor's note: this post deserves accompanying photographs, but I am really bad at remembering to bring my camera places. In the future, please accept substitute pictures from a previous year's Eid celebration.

The invitations poured in throughout the week. "Come celebrate Eid with us!" We had been waiting for these calls to make plans for one of the biggest days on the Islamic calendar--Eid-ul-Fitr. The celebration of the end of fasting during Ramadan. While it is my understanding that each region's imams and sheikhs determine when the fast begins and is broken based on the cycles of the moon, it seems the Hui Chinese ahongs (same as imams) really enjoy the spontaneous nature of the timing. A few nights before the end of Ramadan is the Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Power. This night commemorates the first revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad (pbuh) and some Muslims will stay at the mosque all night, praying and reciting Qur'an with the belief that the heavens are most open on this night for blessing and revelation from Allah. We kept asking all our Muslims friends what night it was, but they said the ahongs had not announced it yet. Finally, last Tuesday morning we get a call informing us, "Tonight is the Night of Power!" That's how it works out here.

Eid was a bit of a mystery as well. It is usually around 30 days from the start of Ramadan, but the exact date depends on the sighting of the crescent moon. Nonetheless, it was "announced" that Sunday would be the day (perhaps the government here requires more concrete planning?), though official confirmation could not be given. That did not stop the invitations from flowing in, and the more calls we got, the more excited I became. It is said that around 200,000 Muslims go to the Dong Guan Mosque on Eid and I was anxious to see it. After that, there was all the good food awaiting at whichever homes we visited. I've observed Ramadan once before, but not in a community, so no Eid celebrations. Today was my first.

After a late Saturday, M and I did not make it up for the traditional small breakfast of honeyed dates, nor did we make it to the khutbah (sermon). We did make it to the mosque just as the crowd was dispersing. I have no way of knowing if it was truly 200,000 people, but I will say that traffic was stopped for blocks around because the streets were filled with elated Muslims wearing white caps and colorful hijab, many wearing new clothes or shoes. Everyone was saying to one another, "Salaam!" and "Eid mubarak!" to us as we walked through the crowded streets and alleys around the mosque. It was incredible. We saw some friends. We also saw tons of beggars who receive a special zakat (charity) from the mosque for the holiday, as well as collect a lot of small change from the worshippers at the mosque. They had come from all the surrounding counties to the great mosque here in Xining. It was a sight.

My friend from the Middle East was approached several times to speak Arabic (true Arabic speakers are rare here), and people looked at me questioningly like I should be able to speak it too, but they weren't sure. My friend UE then started us on the long journey of bringing gifts to people's homes as they hosted us for Eid meals. Between 11:30 am and 7:30 pm we thanked our three hosts with four bags of fruit and a case of yogurt in return for three large meals. It was all delicious, but by day's end I was stuffed to the gills. I was assured by M that for Qinghai standards, these were small meals. Thank goodness!

I also made some new friends at these meals, a few who spoke very good English and few who patiently encouraged my Chinese and chopstick usage. One of our hosts is an influential man who was responsible for the development of sports in western China during the Mao years. He was a bit...impressed with himself, but was the consummate host. He even had us go to a park for post-meal exercises! Our second hosts were a family of brothers, the youngest two of whom were policemen. We crammed eight of us around a small table and ate and talked (or listened, in my case) and laughed. Again, impeccable hospitality, accompanying us down six flights of stairs to the gate in order to say goodbye. Finally, after a two hour break, M and I made our way to his good friend's family's house. We had so much food and so much fun and were again shown the most amazing hospitality (though they are comfortable enough with M to tease him quite mercilessly. I was assured that it would not be long until I would suffer the same fate). We finally returned home at 11:30 pm, very full and very satisfied. There was nothing else to say but, "Eid mubarak".

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On a train between Nanjing and Xining, 9/1/09

I don't usually travel like this, unaware and uneducated about the terrain I'm passing through; uncertain of east or west, mountains or sea. I think it is adding to the wonder, a welcome companion on my second lengthy train ride in three days. This time it's 27 hours, but at least I have a hard sleeper. As I said, I don't know where we are right now, but it is beautiful. We most recently passed a sign for Xin Ta Shi, so I'll have to look up what province we're in later.

Without knowing the attendant characters, and without knowing the tones for the words, I want to add a letter and mistranslate the name of that town as "New He Is." I find that name fitting if inaccurate. This is all new to me, even with my previous experiences in China. Our train is cutting through valleys and tunneling through mountainsides, following the winding path of a sluggish river. It's smallish now, but a half hour ago there were wide gorges sculpted by eons of erosion that left marks on the quietly green mountains rising into the mist. We are riding through clouds, tunnels, clouds again.

The people along this route look to be exceedingly poor. This part of China I recognize. Here are houses made of mud bricks that match the clay beneath. There are healthy looking crops that lie dangerously close to a river that would flood with a good afternoon rain. Despite the dreary landscape, satellite dishes occasionally dot the rooftops. Between tunnels, little scenes of the everyday emerge -- a line of young girls sport brightly kerchiefed uniforms with matching backpacks and climb the steep hillside to get to school; a circle of old mean and women kick and stretch in preparation for tai chi; a woman with a baby strapped to her back fills a washtub with water for dishes or laundry; workers sit and laugh on their break.

All of them dependent on one another, dependent on this polluted river which is nonetheless a source of life. I go back to my statement that they are exceedingly poor and I challenge it. They are all smiling. They have what they need for today and lacking that they have each other. At least so one could think watching from a train window.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kate's apartment, Nanjing, China, 8/29/09

The rain falls on the rooftops, a curtain of sound dulling the sharp edge of life teeming in the noisy streets below: honking horn, revving engines, vendors hawking their wares, customers haggling over the prices. We are all made one beneath this baptism of strained silence, listening for who knows what. The still small voice? It is washed away before the anxieties we create as the gentle pitter patter of a drizzle becomes a roaring downpour.

There have been many adventures already. The day I arrived is a blur, but I did get a ride from the airport and got to catch up with an old friend for the evening. He set me up in all kinds of ways, including giving me a cell phone for the week of journeying ahead. Unfortunately, he was not able to get an early ticket for the next leg of my trip, so I had to leave Beijing earlier than expected and had the privilege of experiencing my first hard seat ride on a Chinese train.

For the uninitiated, Chinese trains have four categories of seating. There are hard and soft seats, and hard and soft sleepers. The hard sleepers are open compartments with six platform beds each, stacked three high. There are also fold out seats with small tables in the hallway running past the compartments. These are the best value for a long ride. Soft sleepers are four beds in a closed compartment, which sounds amazing except for two things. First, the beds are not that much softer (hearsay), and second, people are allowed to smoke in the closed compartments, whereas the hard sleepers are smoke free. Hard and soft seats are just what they sound like, though the hard seats on the newer trains area actually quite nice.

The plan was to get a hard sleeper from Beijing to Nanjing on an overnight fast train. My travel time would be about 9 hours and I'd arrive refreshed in Nanjing ready for a day of activities with my dear friend Kate, who I've known since third grade. However, the only option available to me for the next four days was a hard seat on a slow train to Nanjing, travel time 15 hours. Ah well, it could be worse, right?

Yes, it can. And that was proven when I got on the platform for the train to find that every car was filled to overflowing with people. When I say overflowing, I actually mean it. See, I learned that afternoon that if your ticket does not have a seat assignment on it, you are part of the "standing room only" overflow group. In addition, there is really only enough luggage rack space for the people in the seats, so imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried to force my way into the train car with a large suitcase (49 lbs.), large camping backpack, and another small backpack. I literally could not get into the car, so one of the attendants opened the door on the other side and forced me in. People were sitting on the floor everywhere, in front of bathrooms and in the space between cars. It was insane.

This was a true China experience. I stood with pack on, suitcase in front of me, fielding dirty looks from people jostling each other for floor space, for two hours before a fellow passenger started speaking English with me. His English name was Apex (there are a lot of interesting names like that here), and he was on his way from work in Beijing to visit his family in Shandong Province. He is an aeronautical engineer working with experimental planes, and his English was impeccable. He was a man of peace. He helped me eventually get my bags situated as people disembarked, rotated standing and sitting with me, shared some food, and talked to me for nearly five hours until his stop. This man was a true blessing.

The packed train car reminded me of the buses in Guatemala, except this time we weren't hurtling down a mountain, honking the horn as we went around curves. People were everywhere, on top of each other, holding babies and sitting on the tiniest edges of occupied seats. A lot of people got off at Apex's stop, and I was bequeathed his seat for good. At this point it was near midnight and and time to sleep. Ha...yeah. Sleep came in 10 minute fragments, interrupted by my head lolling into the empty space of the path between seats or by the food cart guys passing by yelling out what they were selling and running over my foot. I did not get REM of any kind.

But I made it! When I first got on the train and saw there was nowhere to put my bags or sit down, or even get further into the car, I considered leaving. I considered swallowing the 150 yuan (about $22) and getting a plane ticket for the following morning. I kept trying to tell myself it was an overrated adventure, an unnecessary hardship. There would be more worthwhile adventures. But, I felt something deeper at stake, so I stayed. I'm glad I did, but when those doors closed and I had all that stuff on me, the thought of 15 hours ahead was mind-numbing, soul-crushing.

Now I am here, and the 15 hours are behind me. I am, at long last, in China. There is so much familiarity here, yet so much strangeness. I really do not know the language, though it is resurfacing a few chunks at a time. It is exciting to be back, but definitely a little scary. One year. Wow. The scariness is really just the unknown, the inconceivability of it all. What will this year be like? How will I grow, a a student, as a follower of Jesus, as a friend, as a man? What will be the outcome of it all? It will be hard, but I must bring the lessons of Presence in Portland to bear.

Ramón, be HERE each and every day. The answers to those questions will grow out of well tended soil of the Present life. God is here. You be here too.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Airport, Vancouver, B.C., 8/26/09, 10:48 a.m.

In a little over an hour the next year begins in earnest. I am exhausted. Yes, emotionally, but mostly physically. I'm running on about five or six hours of sleep in the last 48 hours. The emotions are dancing around the edges of my weariness, waiting to break out. I've come close to crying this trip already. I feel fragile.

And I feel alone. It sunk in while I was sipping my coffee bought with Canadian dollars that I really did not prepare for this trip. Obviously I was extraordinarily disorganized and did a shoddy packing job. But there has been even less mental prep, spiritual prep. The implications of leaving for a year still have not sunk in, nor has the weightiness of the various uncertainties. Other people have always handled the details for my overseas trips. They were the knowledge bearers before me. They let me focus on the spiritual, on caring for others. But now, it's just me. And I'm wondering about the basics--will I have a ride from the Beijing airport?

Either way, with all the doubts, the weariness, the feelings of loneliness; there is one thing I cannot deny. There is so much love for me in the pages of this journal. That means there is so much love for me in that city I've just left. That Portland. That home.

It came to me like an old friend a couple nights ago--this is my home. Portland is where I will return, in my heart and in my desires. I am not praying much these days, but my request is to be allowed to return. To really make it home. I wish it was easy enough to say I deserved it, to claim an equal trade for working as a wanderer these last years. But there is no deserving, there is only love.

Will I give it, no matter where I am, without reservation? Will I receive it, no matter where I am, without skepticism or doubt? It's much easier with these fellow broken vessels who are learning to live in love with and from me. God - that's harder. Despite my theorizing, it's hard to know (relationally, like conocer in Spanish) the love of God in these people who love me. But what else do I know of love? It grows on the Tree of Life in that Garden, lost in the fog. It grows at home.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Of Action

Please excuse the woeful inactivity on this blog of late. I determined at the New Year that 2009 would be a year of action, and so it has become. In 9 days I depart for a year living abroad in Western China. I am going to a region in which I have traveled before, but much uncertainty lies on the other side of the dwindling hours.

I've never been a man of action. As this blog illustrates, I have some amount of comfort with words and the illusions they can spin, and admittedly have often used them to shield me from the reality of my inertia. Lack of follow through. Apathy.

I'd like to say I've turned a new leaf, but for today I will just say I've taken a step that I have not taken before. Some of you know this is my fourth attempt to move overseas. As usual in times of change, I have reflected on those earlier attempts and subjected them to the torments of my overly analytical mind. They have held up admirably, but I still wonder how much heart I put into those earlier attempts. I always question my heart.

But, constant analysis is another form of paralysis. I've used it as a shield too, masking my inability to decide with the veneer of a desire for deliberate wisdom. But this time, I just have to go. I don't know what it's going to be like, but I have to get there. So I'm going.

I don't know what this commitment to action will do to my blogging. I hope enhance it, but it certainly can't get much slower than it is right now. Stay tuned, and we'll see what happens. You see, things are happening in 2009.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reflections on a love poem

The point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. It is the food they eat in God's new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now. It is the music God has written for all his creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and practice it now so as to be ready when the conductor brings down his baton. It is the resurrection life, and the resurrected Jesus calls us to begin living it with him and for him right now. Love is at the very heart of the surprise of hope; people who truly hope as the resurrection encourages us to hope will be people enabled to love in a new way. Conversely, people who are living by this rule of love will be people who are learning more deeply how to hope.

--N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Postcards without postage, pt. 7

Dear Sophie,

It is the time of barbecues and bottle rockets, and I am once again reminded of you. Did you watch the fireworks tonight? Did you whisper confession to your companion that you have nightmares of real rockets raining down fire, cracking the veneer of peace in your sleepy satisfaction? Did you tell him under the flash and glow how you weep for the ravages of war?

It seems so long ago that we talked that way. Remember how we walked the city night in search of the final ingredients for our summer sauce? How we worked together until sunrise, juices mixing and simmering until all was just right?

Then, we waited. A good marinade has to settle before its true taste can be discovered.

But I awoke later that morning as a lone explorer. I don't know what secret conflict forced you to flee, but I want you to know that our recipe worked. It just needed time to grow into its full flavor. How I wish you had given it time.

From my house in Portland I can see fireworks flying to the heavens in every neighborhood for miles, and I cannot sleep for the flashing and popping. I am reminded how your heart was a restless refugee, afraid to stay and fight the battle to make someone, someplace, home.

Do you weep for me? Please do not, for healing has found me in this place. I hope it might soon make its home with you, a whisper of peace in the night air between us.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Loquetur pacem

The first thing I noticed was her smile. You just don't get many smiles like that in customer service––genuine, warm, and directed. I've given my fair share of fake smiles from behind the counter, mostly in response to the overwhelming lack of humanity I begin to feel at all the mechanical interactions and orders mouthed while talking on cell phones. But to see a genuine, warm smile directed at me is a rarity indeed.

The second thing I noticed was that she had a tattoo on her inner forearm written in another language. Sneaking glances, I suspected it was in Latin (I am in fact a language geek), so I asked what it meant.

Tattoos are funny like that. They can be intensely personal, and yet out in the open for all to see. They sometimes beckon, prompting the viewer to get below the surface level to what is beneath. In essence, I was really asking her, "What's the story behind that smile? What's your story?"

But there is only so much you can ask from behind a counter, from behind a green apron. Sometimes the divide between us is too wide to cross in a single encounter.

In a tiny village a few hours outside a small town with plastic palm trees in Western China, I once met poor Tibetan children who had some of the most radiant smiles I've ever seen. Contentment was written all over their faces (as well as curiosity at us foreigners) but without speaking Tibetan, there was little else I could learn about them. I remember being amazed at how little we take advantage of the opportunity to ask about someone's story when we speak the same language.

"It's in Latin," she confirmed before pausing. "It means, 'The Lord will speak peace over his people.'" As she said this last part, I watched the divide rise up between us. Her beautiful, beautiful smile turned heartbreakingly sad as she remembered her story. As she remembered what had moved her to inscribe those words indelibly upon her fading body. "It's from when I used to be a Christian."

Then she walked over and stirred cream into her coffee.

One of my favorite things in Islamic cultures is how Muslims greet one another with "Asalaamu alaikum", Arabic for "peace be upon you." It reminds me of Luke's story about Jesus, how he sent out seventy-two of his disciples in pairs to the villages where he would soon arrive, villages like that one in Western China. The first thing he told them to say was, "Peace be to this house!" I think there is forgotten power in the pronouncement of peace over one another.

When the terrible things happen, there are often no meaningful words to say. Just empty promises or well-intentioned but misguided assurances that everything will turn out fine. But, the reality is that many times things do not turn out fine. What is there to say then? When we have sat with our loved ones in silent mourning for seven days and seven nights (like Job's friends before they started pronouncing judgment and giving advice), what is left to speak but peace?

In the speaking of peace over someone, we are not describing reality as it is. We are speaking of how it should be. There is simultaneous acknowledgment of the desperate brokenness of a situation, the hope of healing, and our utter powerlessness to bring it about alone.

But in speaking peace over someone, we are also saying, "Don't be afraid. You don't have to do it alone," and it is powerful. It is the first thing Jesus says to his gathered disciples after his resurrection––peace to you.

It's what I wanted to say to her from behind the counter, from behind my green apron. Not because she used to be a Christian, but because she is sad that she used to be a Christian. Because maybe hearing the Lord speak peace over us starts with some guy on the fringes of mainstream Christianity who smells of coffee and chonga bagels saying, "You don't have to do it alone."

Maybe next time I'll have the courage to speak across the divide, "Asalaamu alaikum."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A city in the clouds

The nights grow longer now. The solstice has carried us over the apex of daylight hours, is guiding us down to the valley floor. What's down there? It seems strange to be at the beginning of summer and realize that we are in decline. Is that what gives these months such frantic energy? We are reminded with each sunset that the days are fading, their exuberance shortening, our somnolence growing.

Portland is renowned for its rainy months, but driving tonight I was struck anew by a persistently overlooked feature of this city––the clouds. Being only a little more than an hour from the coast and mere minutes from the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge, we find ourselves spectators of the mass migration of clouds of all shapes and sizes, colors and consistencies. Quite simply, they are spectacular.

The clouds fit the temperament of Portland's denizens. We are a hapless lot, locked in step with dreams bigger than our ambitions and besotted with the startling enchantment of this place that will never fully be ours. Portland is a city of dreamers indeed, with all the attendant depression and alcoholism tucked into the folds of bewilderingly genuine creativity and optimism.

I was watching Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back a few weeks ago and was reminded of Lando Calrissian's Cloud City. Here is a man who was a gambler, scoundrel, and thief trying to make it legit as a city administrator of a mining outpost. He was trying to leave a lifestyle behind, but the cutthroat in him had to be resurrected when offered the opportunity to ensure his security by turning in a friend from the old days. Even before Darth Vader kept changing the deal, had Lando's betrayal already lost him the real Cloud City––his dream of being legit?

All you non-Star Wars fans can pay attention again. Portland is a Cloud City of sorts. Local author Chuck Palahniuk called his offbeat tour guide of Portland Fugitives and Refugees because of the double lives that so many of us lead. We often come from all over with demons on our trail, chips on our shoulders, and the elusive dream of a new start clutched against our breasts. This makes for some great art.

It also makes for some spectacular failures. What happens when the dream falls to the cold, hard ground of reality below? What happens when it shatters into a thousand tiny fragments of rejection and regret?

Oh, how painful it is to watch a dream descend from the heights of possibility! See the horde of disgruntled pilgrims in its wake! Do you see those migrant dreamers over the horizon, swaying with the ebb and flow of the tide? In waves, we come and go, realizing the demons on our trail were all along in our heads. The dream could not escape the seeds of nightmare buried beneath the surface of our reinvented selves. So we leave again, in search of a cloud bank sturdy enough to hold our legacies.

The clouds are gathered on all sides tonight, towering behind the West Hills and lurking behind Rocky Butte. They resemble mountains, dark and impassive, peaks reaching for the sky. It could be a brochure for another country, Portland being swallowed up by some granite utopia beyond the Columbia.

But I look at the crescent moon hanging in the sky, and I can't help but laugh at how much it looks like nothing so much as a glowing toenail clipping. The things I want to cut off keep growing, inexorably. They remind me that this pilgrim has a long way to go in finding the balance between hope and disenchantment. I'm just glad I am not alone in the journey, for the days grow shorter.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Airplay Cafe

I'm beginning to have a new place in Portland just a couple months before I leave. It's called the Airplay Cafe, and it's on the corner of E. Burnside and 7th.

Frankly, a lot of the events are geared toward families with kids and are not my cup of tea. However, there's a great open mic every Wednesday night with a featured songwriter (such as Dustin Pattison, who you should check out), which also allows musicians to use the house band during the second part of the evening. But, tonight I moved from giving mixed reviews of Airplay to being a fan. Tonight, there was jazz.

There were four young players who swung hard and funky – Farnell Newton (trumpet), Greg Goebel (piano), Eric Gruber (bass), and Chris Brown (drums). Do yourself a favor and follow the links to check out these guys' music, because it's phenomenal.

I first saw Farnell Newton a couple years ago at the Monday night jazz jam at Produce Row, and then saw him later with local Cuban band Caña Son. He's an exciting player who excels in straight ahead jazz, funk, soul, Latin, hip-hop, and what sounded tonight like a hard-bop/funk fusion.

I first saw Greg Goebel playing at Wilf's with Kate Davis during this year's Portland Jazz Festival, and saw him again at a Produce Row jam. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite pianists in Portland, with harmonically complex and rhythmically adventurous solos that are always tuned in to what the rhythm section is doing around him. He is slated to play a long run of shows with local modified bass master David Friesen in support of Friesen's newest CD release, Five & Three.

This was my first time to hear Eric Gruber, and I liked what I heard. He really helped amp up the energy in the rhythm section and had some fantastic harmonic interplay with Greg on some of the solos. He only took a couple solos himself, but they were harmonically rich and rhythmically driving. He plays with tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips' New Orleans Straight Ahead and the Andrew Oliver Sextet.

I had never heard of Chris Brown, and I can't believe it took me so long. He was leading a lot of the songs tonight and brought high energy and tons of rhythmic complexity. They played one or two of his compositions and a few of his arrangements, all of which were stellar. He's a Portland native (son of the famed Mel Brown), but has been on the East Coast for a decade now, where he teaches jazz theory at Rutgers and plays drums in the New York scene with luminaries such as Benny Golson, Essiet Essiet (see the link for Produce Row above), Kenny Davis, and Roy Hargrove.

These guys put on an amazing show. You have two more chances to catch them as a quartet before Chris heads back East. Tomorrow night they'll be at Jimmy Mak's at 10pm playing as Itutu and Saturday night at they will be playing as the Farnell Newton Quartet at a very cool new Portland event (which sadly ends in mid-June) called 'Round Midnight at 11:30pm.

Do me a favor and go to one of these shows, since my early work schedule will not allow me to enjoy a repeat performance. And after Chris leaves, be sure to catch Farnell and Greg whenever you can. They're well worth the affordable cover fees that Portland's underappreciated jazz scene currently charges.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Journals on fire

Throughout my childhood I would periodically have these intense episodes of overwhelming anxiety with no apparent cause. It's been ages, but I had one last night. All the crazy bunched up in this tiny space just behind my left ear lobe, and it felt like my soul was going to vomit.

When this feeling comes over me, I want to lay in bed in the dark and stare at the ceiling. But then I feel out of place and I want to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry's Oatmeal Cookie Chunk and drink a Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout. But then I am acutely aware that I am self-medicating and I put on a movie and try to tune out the low level jangling in my lungs.

I can't be around people in that state, mostly because any reasonable person asks if everything is alright and what's going on and is there a reason. I can't talk about this thing very well. It makes me feel like a psycho, and how do you say to someone, "It's cool, I just feel like yelling at the top of my lungs and banging pots together and setting my journals on fire. Don't you ever feel that way?" More frightening is if I somehow aim my anxiety at them and lash out. People avoidance is the name of the game when these moments hit.

Thank goodness for text messaging and email. In the past when I had access to neither I would just hole up in my room and read fantasy books or play video games, sensing that with each page turned or level beaten that I was drifting further away from the relational moorings that make me human. At least now I can communicate with people (in an admittedly one-sided fashion) without having to interact with them that moment. It helps me to feel like I'm still connected, still held together somehow. And now I'm blogging about it to keep that feeling going, I guess.

Deep breath...

Ok. Time to start the day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

One man's house

I have been sitting in my living room, staring at my laptop, for nearly a half hour. I want to write something profound and moving, because I feel it all swirling just beneath the surface. The other night I took semi-detailed notes on an event I wanted to write about, but the thought of pulling them out and composing a coherent essay is exhausting.

There are other thoughts running through my brain these days, such as the complexity of love in all its forms – familial, fraternal, romantic, divine. And then there is that most elusive love of all, the love of one's enemy. I definitely don't have the energy for that post right now.

No, I am sitting here staring at my laptop, because I am mostly enamored by something so ordinary in Portland that even mentioning it seems pointless. Tonight, I am enamored by the rain. Perhaps more accurately it is the smell of the rain that is captivating me.

Sitting by the window after a string of gorgeously warm and sunny days inviting we denizens of Stumptown to imagine summer in full swing, I am struck by the fact that in all of the autumn, winter, and spring rains we have had, it has been years since I stopped to smell the rain. It's such a distinctive aroma, and it wafted through the window unexpectedly as the sky turned it's final shade of night. My first thought was, "Oh, how I've missed that smell!" My second thought was, "How did I miss it when it's always raining?"

It sprung upon me tonight, held me down and wouldn't let me go. In minutes I will turn off the lamp and lay on my dark bed, drowsy mind dancing slowly to the rhythm of rain falling gently on the walkway below my window. In my dreams, I will wrestle with the rain until dawn, demand some kind of answer for an ineffable question. Perhaps I will awaken with a name that dissolves on my lips before I can speak it.

The rain speaks to me in so many ways. All the powerful imagery comes to mind of cleansing and baptism, growth and refreshment. The first time I came to Portland, I was in awe of the vividness of the greens here. Unless you grew up near a rainforest, there is no way to prepare for how green the Pacific Northwest is. Four years later I can tell you that it is a 9 month deposit of rain that produces the pristine perfection of lush vegetation set against sapphire skies during the summer. It's well worth it.

Rain brings to mind Lauryn Hill's performance on MTV's Unplugged 2.0, the recording of which is the last new material we've heard from Ms. Hill in nearly a decade. Near the end she plays Bob Marley's "So Much Things to Say", which includes the lines:

Though the wicked may find me guilty
Jah will prove my innocence
'Cause when that rain
When that rain falls
It don't fall on one man's house
Remember that

This is Marley's rendition of a troublesome part of Jesus' sermon on the mount. Why so troublesome? Because the original statement is that the rain falls on both the just and unjust, which is meant to underscore Jesus' remarks immediately prior: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."

There I go, marking the head of a trail I have neither the courage nor the energy to explore tonight. Suffice to say, the smell of the rain is moving me to contemplate the deeply subversive call to love my enemy and the necessity for all of those symbolic functions of rain to come into play for such a call to be followed.

The rain is singing redemption songs, and redemption is a welcome companion tonight.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Jazz is once again a metaphor for my plan, or lack thereof. The essence of jazz is that each song is a framework, a beginning and ending melody which bookend a myriad of improvisations in the middle. Each performance is completely different.

When I started playing jazz, I would go over the songs for my lessons and memorize an “improvisation” that sounded good from start to finish. It worked while I was playing alone, but once my teacher started playing piano with me, he would ask, “Why aren’t you responding to what I’m playing?”

I’m thinking life is like that, for me at least. I’ve got great players surrounding me, a strong starting melody, and now it’s time for improvisation. The trick is that I can’t plan it and I can’t figure it out without committing to play something with no idea where it’s going next. I must put myself out there, then listen and respond to what the other players are offering.

I’m going to China in September, if all continues apace. I will study Mandarin and work with my friend to figure out how to bridge the Christian/Muslim divide in our minuscule corner of a tiny corner of the world. After a school year (semester?), I’ll see if it’s time do something else, and if that something else has made itself accessible.

It is not much of a plan. It is the first note, the first lick, in a longer improvisation that I cannot hear yet. All I can do is surround myself with good players, put my heart and soul into that lick, and pray that I don’t miss what the others around me are playing.

Then, when the time for improvisation is done, I will know the exact changes, exact notes for how the tune finishes. I will be able to look back and see how the improvisations brought the melody full circle. Then, if I’m fortunate, I’ll be able to look back and discern a coherent, plan-like journey.

Either way, I was playing jazz, and that’s what it’s about.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


The Wanderer Returned

In the middle of the street, I wonder, Where
is the city? It's gone, has not come back.
Perhaps this one is the same––it has houses,
it has walls, but I can't find it.
It isn't a matter of people––Pedro or Juan––
nor of that woman, nor of that tree;
now that city has buried itself,
has tumbled somewhere underground,
and this is another time, not the same at all,
taking on the same lines of streets,
assuming the same house numbers.

Time then does exist, I realize it.
I know it exists, but I cannot understand
how that city which had warm blood,
which had sky enough for all,
and whose midmorning smile
spread like a basketful of plums,
those houses with a forest smell,
wood newly cut at dawn with the saw,
the city that always sang at the water's edge
of sawmills in the mountains,
all that was yours and mine
of the city and its clarity,
wrapped itself up in love, secretly,
and let itself fall into forgetfulness.

Now where it once was there are other lives,
a different way of being, another hardness.
All is well enough, but why does it not exist?
Why is its old aroma now asleep?
Why did all those bells fall still,
and why did the wooden tower say goodbye?

Perhaps the city fell away in me,
house by house, its warehouses eroded
by the slow damp, by passing time;
perhaps it was I who lost the blue of the pharmacy,
the stored-up wheat, the horseshoe
that hung in the harness store,
and those souls who were always searching
as though in a well of dark water.

Then what am I coming to, what have I come to?
That woman I loved once among the plums
in the stunning summer, clear, clear
as an ax blade catching the moon,
she with the eyes that bit
like acid into the metal of helplessness,
she went away, went away without leaving,
without changing house or country,
went of her own will, tumbling through time
backwards, and did not fall into mine
when she opened, possibly, those arms
which clasped my body, and she was calling me
perhaps at the distance of so many years,
while I, in another corner of the planet,
was drowning in the distance of my age.

I will ask leave of myself to enter,
to return to the missing city.
Inside myself I should find the absent ones,
that smell from the lumberyard;
perhaps the wheat that rippled on the slopes
still goes on growing, but only within me,
and it's in myself I must travel to find that woman
the rain bore off, and there is no other way.
Nothing can last in any other way.
I am the one who must attend those streets
and somehow or other decide
where the trees should be planted, all over again.

--Pablo Neruda, from Fully Empowered
(translated by Alistair Reid)



Goodbye, goodbye, to one place or another
to every mouth, to every sorrow,
to the insolent moon, to weeks
which wound in the days and disappeared,
goodbye to this voice and that one stained
with amaranth, and goodbye
to the usual bed and plate,
to the twilit setting of all goodbyes,
to the chair that is part of the same twilight,
to the way made by my shoes.

I spread myself, no question;
I turned over whole lives,
changed skin, lamps, and hates,
it was something I had to do,
not by law or whim,
more of a chain reaction;
each new journey enchained me;
I took pleasure in place, in all places.

And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye
with still newborn tenderness
as if the bread were to open and suddenly
flee from the world of the table.
So I left behind all languages,
repeated goodbyes like an old door,
changed cinemas, reasons, and tombs,
left everywhere for somewhere else;
I went on being, and being always
half undone with joy,
a bridegroom among sadnesses,
never knowing how or when,
ready to return, never returning.

It's well known that he who returns never left,
so I traced and retraced my life,
changing clothes and planets,
growing used to the company,
to the great whirl of exile,
to the great solitude of bells tolling.

--Pablo Neruda, from Fully Empowered
(translated by Alastair Reid)

Monday, May 11, 2009


For Everyone

I can't just suddenly tell you
what I should be telling you,
friend, forgive me; you know
that although you don't hear my words,
I wasn't asleep or in tears,
that I'm with you without seeing you
for a good long time and until the end.

I know that many may wonder
"What is Pablo doing?" I'm here.
If you look for me in this street
you'll find me with my violin,
prepared to break into song,
prepared to die.

It is nothing I have to leave to anyone,
not to these others, not to you,
and if you listen well, in the rain,
you'll hear
that I come and go and hang about.
And you know that I have to leave.

Even if my words don't know it,
be sure, I'm the one who left.
There is no silence which doesn't end.
When the moment comes, expect me
and let them all know I'm arriving
in the street, with my violin.

--Pablo Neruda, from Fully Empowered
(translated by Alastair Reid)

Into the spiral

or, Pablo Neruda tells me why it makes me so sad that my friends Ray and Kelly are moving this week, and that I will be moving at the end of this summer, and that if/when I return it will not be the same

A series of three posts telling my story in verse.

*Editor's note: Pablo Neruda is said to have asked poet Alastair Reid to translate the collection Plenos Poderes, or Fully Empowered. Nevertheless, as in all things involving translation (especially poetry), it loses something. If you speak even just a bit of Spanish, look up the original versions. If you don't, these are still beautiful poems. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Vienna Teng

Vienna Teng continues to amaze me with her ability to engage me as both an aspiring songwriter and a listener. Her stellar lyricism is a constant, but she has taken two massive steps forward musically on her last two discs. What appeared to be experimentation in her well-received Dreaming Through the Noise is now on display on her newest album, Inland Territory, as full blown musical exploration.

Her collaboration with accomplished songwriter Alex Wong (check out his duo The Paper Raincoat, who played a phenomenal opening set) as bandmate, cowriter, and producer is delivering an incredible variety of styles in which Vienna's musicianship can continue to expand and mature. She has also pushed herself as a musician, including studying with a jazz instructor, and it is fun to see her growing confidence in what she can do on the piano.

And speaking of fun, my enjoyment of Vienna's performances has increased exponentially with the number of musicians on stage with her. Her playing and singing stand on their own, but they take on entirely different dimensions of energy and nuance when she leads a band. Tonight she played in a trio with Alex (percussion) and Ward Williams (cello, electric guitar) and they were locked in tight on every song, which included selections from all four of Vienna's albums.

I really like the songs on the new album, but will give it several more listens before commenting on here. I would love to leave you with a link to one of the songs so you could judge yourself, but I am blogger illiterate. Any help out there?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter musings

Despite the candy, the egg hunts, and the Easter Bunny; despite the overlap of Christianity with a Roman pagan holiday and its eventual wedding to Empire; despite all of this, the roots of Easter are in remembering and telling the story of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the traditional greeting is, "He is risen!" to which one responds, "He is risen indeed!"

In addition to remembrance, there is also anticipation. The resurrection of Jesus was viewed from the earliest days of Christian faith through the lens of the restoration of the entire world. The apex of this restoration was the final abolishment of death, perhaps rendered most poignantly through an improvisation on the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

"Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?"

Therefore, beyond even remembrance and anticipation, there is a present call to action. Behind the anticipation of death's eventual impotence is the faint echo of the most frequent command in the Bible - do not be afraid.

If death is defeated, we are free to live in the risky ways of Jesus that will put us in conflict with the ruling powers - proclaiming good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives, recovering sight to the blind, setting at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor. Thus the resurrection as a promise of the full restoration of the world is more immediately an invitation to join the present work of reconciliation. The hope of the resurrection is part and parcel with the hope that what we do can and will in fact make a difference. That is why we remind ourselves, he is risen indeed.

So what does this have to do with the poem in my last post? It's about the hope of the resurrection, in all of those dimensions mentioned above, but this time through the lens of grief. More than the hope of the resurrection focusing on seeing loved ones lost again someday, for me there is the day to day battle against being paralyzed by grief.

I lost my grandfather last spring, and the grief and regret have come close to being paralyzing at times. As I mentioned in the last post, that poem was not written specifically for my grandfather, but for dear friends who lost a baby to a miscarriage this past winter. It was the last in a series of devastating losses in my community, and it cut deeply. That poem was my response to the grief, and in the end, it was about my grandfather too, because it is about the hope of the resurrection.

And what a hope it is.

A poem before Easter

Rather than my normal explorations of religious themes through the culture and history of 1st Century CE Judea, I've elected to share a poem written in January for dear friends who lost their baby. It is essentially an Easter poem.

Fallen in the Garden

Winter has come
Leaves crowned with autumn
have fallen like tears
to rest upon roots deep
in the soil of sorrow
A garden of mourning
in bloom

Also fallen
lie the seeds of promise
Joyous burden of spring
dormant beneath skeleton shadow
Hardy shell of hope
waiting within
earthen womb groaning
for glorious birth

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Gliding above these
fields glittering
with snow I am blinded
by a vision
of purity
covering the land.
If only peace
would lay its mantle
upon us with such
such finality.
I am imagining
war weary boys and girls
crowing with delight,
gazing with wonder
as whispers of promise alight
from the leaden sky
to blanket the world
in cessation,
violence at last enthralled
with the silent fall
of winter's gentle magic.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Blues Are Hungry

I am sitting in a Portland café,
drinking beer and chewing
on history, surrounded by musicians
of varying abilities and obvious ambitions.
We are quintessential musical men,
with all the attendant insecurities and illusions
that what we do matters. That what we create speaks
to others. That it is enough in this world to be
simply a voice, a human inkwell
spilling the dross of molten desire onto
dissonant harmonies,
mournful melodies that echo
from the dark places
behind human faces.

I sit at a table with three
empty chairs, my empty plate.
I am the only one with
dark skin and out of control afro.
I am apparently also the only
one who has come without
guitar or girlfriend. And I can’t prove it,
but I suspect I am not the only
one with a boulder of disappointed indecision
balanced precariously upon
world-weary shoulders. Either way,
I am alone.

A man with a beard like Father Time is playing
timeless tunes on a hungry harmonica.
A hungry harmonica?
Yes, I tell you, it is hungry!
Have you ever listened to the blues so hard
that your soul flickers with each inhale and exhale,
breath stretched on the rack of minor
pentatonic pain? The blues are all flat-fifths and appetite,
feeding on the steady rhythm
of unsightly sorrow, and
they are insatiable.

As I listen to the man play, I suddenly understand
why I have not written a song in
five years. Once lyrics have lamented love
lost and confessed confusion, what is left
to share but latent hope and
cautious dreams?

And I am afraid, so afraid, that no one will care.
What will become of me then?
What will become of me now,
surrounded by love that has found me
in a town I have come to
call home? A town
I am leaving.

I am eating the blues in this café, filling my belly
with cold beer and hot regret, willing
myself to forget that I am sitting

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
The accessibility to the Western reader of Hossieni's narrative journey through the eras of modern Afghanistan is an incredible accomplishment on its own. Add to that the care with which he crafted the characters who drive this story forward, and this novel becomes a signal to me of a writer who will hopefully continue digging deep into the well of his craft, alternately enchanting and educating.

Not everyone who liked Kite Runner will like this novel, but I prefer it. The page turning suspense of his first work is reduced here to moments of narrative climax, while the overall tone is one of subtle persistence. There is an insistence upon the reader to recognize that the mundane in one context can be horrifying or electrifying in another. Sorrow and joy are explored here as Kahlil Gibran paints them--they are inseparable.

In this novel, the ambiguity of Amir's actions in Kite Runner is now extended to nearly every character portrayed. Each has the stain of complexity that makes us truly human. Though the reader might be unfamiliar with the cultural setting, there is a similarity that invites empathy while simultaneously defying universality. The joys and sorrows of the people of Afghanistan--Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek alike--are unique to their history. Yet, in making us laugh and cry through their stories, Hosseini allows us a vital, and all too brief connection.

I highly recommend this novel.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Produce Row

Every Monday night from approximately 8:30-11:30pm there is a jazz jam at Produce Row. The quality of the music depends on the caliber of musicians who show up each night, but it is always worth the $3 cover.

Tonight was different though. I have never seen so many musicians and such a high caliber of musicians at a Monday night jam. Some of them had played with the likes of Etta James, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Tonight's overall instrumentation included:

Four vocalists
Five drummers
Three pianists
Two tenor saxophonists
Three trumpeters
One flugelhornist (Not your flugelhornist, Jesse)
Three guitarists
Three bassists
And finally, one bad ass who did things on the bass so ridiculous that he has to be listed in his own category - Essiet Essiet (the last bassist to play with the late Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers).

And that's just the people who got the green light to play.

I'm exhausted. I should have been asleep hours ago, as I work at 5:15 this morning. But, the music I heard tonight will not let me sleep.

That is the power of jazz.

Monday, March 23, 2009

These Days

I had a lover
I don't think I'd risk another these days
These days
And if I seem to be afraid to live the life
I've made in song
It's just that I've been losing
So long

--Kathryn Williams, These Days (originally by Jackson Browne)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I'm in the same boat...

“I’ve been grappling with that a lot lately: how I have certain obligations to both the past and the future, and they’re not always easily reconciled. I think it’s important to feel the full weight of history sometimes, but there’s also a place for being fearless about things…you know, being naïvely hopeful, taking risks. I’ve been given a pretty amazing life, and I’m grateful for everything it took to put me here. So now the question is, ‘How do I spend this inheritance wisely?'”

--Vienna Teng, from an interview on the Aladdin Theater webpage

If you've never heard Vienna Teng's music, I envy you the discovery process. She has inspired me time and again as both a writer and musician with her sublimely crafted songs, overachieving albums, and enchanting performances.

I'll be there to see her at the Aladdin Theater on April 22nd, 8pm. If you set aside just 50 cents a day, you can easily pay the $17 cover and join me. Afterward, we can discuss how we paid a bargain price to see a treasure of modern American music.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Street Ballet

Walking home tonight, it got all bunched up inside--the contentment, the angst, the worry, the uncertainty, the excitement, the longing. I tried to pound the asphalt into some semblance of sensibility, my pace quickening to match an eerily appropriate waltz by Laura Marling.

All I could think about was how good it would feel to run through the streets, jagged breath and murmuring heart carrying me up toward the enchanted night sky. How free it would feel to loose gravity in a Swan Lake leap over the puddled curbside. How simple it would be without the need to run toward something or away from something. How elemental it would be to just run.

I thought about it all the way home, hands stuffed in pockets, feet disappointed in their downward mobility.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Shortest Month

Before the summer, before the spring
When the snows had blown and gone
I sat at your bedside, listening
To winter rain's whisper song

"It's nearly planting time," wistfully
You sighed with a crooked grin
You lay there in bed so peacefully
Worn body so frail and thin

A man is more than his bone and blood
Without it, he ain't a man
A clue you'd wished that I'd understood
A riddle you'd learned from the land

But I don't understand your passing
The finitude of your breath
Your body bent low like a sapling
Before the grim gale of death

So before the summer, before the spring
Each year in the shortest month
I'll lay at your graveside, listening
For whispers of spring to come

Friday, February 27, 2009

Postcards Without Postage, pt. 6

Dear Martina,

You were subdued that Wednesday night, when we said goodbye for the last time in that half-lit parking lot. Had I known it was the last time, I might have said some things. Things deep from the heart that while probably understood are better expressed.

So, as always, I listened. There was always something to say, something just beneath the surface that I couldn't position on my tongue. But the time for talking never came for me. I gladly listened, thinking that the bothersome parts of me could disappear, that my misplaced passion could be silent.

Now that you're gone, my tongue is loosed but so are you. I've heard rumors of a new town, a new last name. I would love to hear it directly from you but I scared you away, didn't I? You were subdued because somehow in my listening, the silent was spoken. I didn't know it that night, but a half decade of nights later with no word from you, I'm putting the pieces together.

I found a snapshot of us in the picture box last night. We are in Chicago, bright city lights crowning your windblown hair. We are arm in arm, and it looks easy. If only things had remained that black and white.

I hope you are well in your new life. Know that you are missed by an old friend,


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Adam Hamilton, pt. 2

Her classmates were even less attuned to her story. The very few with whom she felt safe sharing would often respond with a momentary blank stare before admitting, “I’m not sure I get it.” Disappointed, Vanessa would love them just as much, but she mentally adjusted the safety she felt with them. She wondered if she was really the only one who got it.

Jenny, however, responded to her story with an easily detectable false comprehension. Vanessa had expected nothing different from her best friend. She’d always believed that best friends came in categories and Jenny was a situational best friend. She had been there from the beginning in every situation imaginable, and that meant a lot. But, Vanessa never felt a soul level connection with her, never felt completely safe sharing everything. Sure, she would confess her crushes and vent her frustrations with her family, and Jenny was always marvelous at fielding those types of interactions. To her, that’s exactly what a best friend did, and she only felt her disconnect with her best friend in the occasional awkward silences of mutual estrangement.

Jenny was as surprised as everyone else when after all the unrequited love declared for Vanessa by the hapless lot of Maple Ridge adolescent boys, it was Adam who managed to get to her. He did it without fanfare, and seemingly without effort. Jenny did not realize that the secret to his success was his questions. From the first time he called her on a Wednesday night and asked if she had ever noticed the calm sound of rain just before sunrise, a unique bond had formed between them. Neither one thought of it as attraction at first. Even Adam’s sleepless night waiting to call was less a romantic agitation than it was a compelling, inexorable wave of curiosity. In Vanessa, he’d found someone worth discovering.

She felt the same about him. Watching him sculpt a place for himself among the crowds when he first arrived in Maple Ridge, she was sure that most of what he was offering to people were masks. Disarming smiles marked an easygoing affability that quickly opened up doors for him in many different circles. She saw in him the ability to become a multitude of Adams, none of which had real substance. She wanted to crack the façade, and she knew she had to draw him in. So, she ignored him.

They watched each other for weeks, fascinated by the ease of their respective presence among their adolescent peers. They saw an echo of themselves in the other, a complimentary insight. And as they watched, they weighed the possibility of a kindred spirit suddenly appearing. They watched and weighed until Vanessa steered her and Jenny’s after school walk home through the hallway where she’d seen him at his locker earlier in the day. She had no intentions other than observing him in yet one more environment.

But Adam had finished weighing, and when he saw them approaching, he was laden with intentions and expectations. Jenny was surprised and slightly appalled to see him turn his attention toward them, and could not hide the agitation on her face. On the periphery he saw her immediately tense, but he was looking for Vanessa’s reaction. He smiled inwardly at a false neutrality he knew very intimately.

“Are you two coming to the track meet this Friday? We need some fans!” He sensed Jenny relax slightly as he broached the trivial and continued. “What else is going on? A baseball game? How boring is that?”

It was an easy out. All they had to do was make a false promise to be there and walk away, and that’s what Jenny expected her best friend to do. Instead she replied, “Well, we’re not really the sports types," to which Adam smiled inwardly.

Jenny quickly scuttled their conversation in the hallway, claiming some prior engagement. Adam’s curiosity was further piqued by the complete absence of annoyance on Vanessa’s face at this interference. Jenny was Vanessa's best friend, but Adam was pretty sure he had a much better idea of what was going on in Vanessa’s head than she had.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Slippery Slope

The hiking time is upon us once more in Portland, Oregon. At least it has been the last few days. Gorgeous weather with clear skies and temperatures flirting with the mid-50s. Today I hiked up to Council Crest on a trail that gains 700 ft. elevation by way of gentle switchbacks stretched over 1.7 miles. Very relaxing hike with a great payoff. The clear day afforded perfect views of the snow-capped splendor of Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and even Mt. Ranier! It was glorious.

The trail was almost in perfect condition, unlike Eagle Creek yesterday. The snow melt had made the beginning of the trail a complete sludgefest. Nothing like starting an 8 mile hike in 3 inches of mud! But, my friend Ron and I made it through that early patch of muddiness and enjoyed the spectacular views of Eagle Creek (and due to the season, the spectacular silence too). That is until we began hitting the ice.

There's a strange exhilaration when hiking gets that little hint of difficulty. Though most of the trails I've hiked on are very much so groomed and laid out to avoid severe injury by hikers, there are the moments when our attempts to tame and defang nature fall short. Ice is one of those moments for me.

I feel out of control when there is ice on the trail and I probably hike three times as carefully as I need to. It's not so much fear as it is a very vivid imagination of what would happen should I fall :o) So, we took our time and we made it four miles in to High Bridge before we decided to turn back until less icy conditions prevailed. As we backtracked, I remembered another hike where I felt out of control.

My friend Jon Mesh came to visit me from St. Louis and we hit up the coast at Oswald West State Park. Since we arrived late in the day, we forwent Mt. Neahkahnie and headed out Cape Falcon. After enjoying the beauty of the sun sinking slowly toward the Pacific Ocean, we decided to book it back the 2.5 miles to camp before darkness fell completely.

Our plan was slightly ill-conceived. See, if you watch the sun sink into the ocean, light leaves the sky very quickly. In addition, when the trail is mostly through forest, the faint light of post sunset sky is no use to you. And, though we are usually more prepared than this, we did not bring flashlights. Yeah...

As we were getting ready to plunge beneath the tree cover, Jon pointed out a tiny path through the underbrush that seemed to head down toward the beach. "Shortcut?" he asked with his eyebrows. I shrugged and he went down to explore further. After a short while, he called back up to me and said it would work. So, I followed the path to where Jon was standing and looked around.

"Where's the rest of the path?" I asked. I asked this because there was brush to the left, brush to the right, and in front of us, a slick wall of stone leading down to a small sliver of sand which was slowly shrinking with the incoming tide. It wasn't a vertical drop, but it wasn't walkable, especially with the water splashed all over it.

"We can climb down to there," he said as he pointed to a ridiculously small ledge. "Then it looks like we can slide down." I shook my head in disbelief and looked back toward the path we had come down. With the rapid darkening and the steep ascent to return to the main trail, I knew there was no going back.

I couldn't look at Jon, because he seemed disgustingly pleased with the idea. I think he is an Eagle Scout or something, because I would never look at the same terrain that he did and think, "We can slide down this." I believe groomed trails are good. I like a little exploration now and again, but usually only to the extent that I can return when I get uncomfortable. See, I have mild control issues.

Control is elusive, both in its unfulfilled promise and its fickle availability. So why do I strive for it so much? I've tried so many times to put together long range plans for my life, and they never stick, never have time to put down roots and grow. I've tried to make every minute happenstance fit together into some kind of cohesive map to guide me through the unknown. But in the end, life keeps reminding me that control is ultimately an illusion when I try to extend it outside of myself.

I am being reminded of that right now. I have in the past made extensive, detailed plans on how it was supposed to work for me to move overseas. None of them worked out. Yet, here I am, knowing that I have to bounce back. It keeps beckoning to me, singing its sweet siren song into the turmoil of the storm. It's time that I untie myself from the mast and jump in.

Jon proceeded before me and made it look so easy and graceful. Then he stood on the sand, pointed out the roots I could use as handholds, and encouraged me to ease my way down. I grabbed the last root, faced outward, and put my body in a position for a controlled slide. The last step was to let go. Let go of that root and slide.

It was impossible to let go. I kept trying to will my hand to let go, but my brain could only seem to process the fact that height + gravity = falling. So I stayed there, hanging on to this tiny root until a mixture of fatigue and inevitability overwhelmed me and a released my grip.

I was fine. Less graceful than Jon, to be sure, but I arrived at the bottom with minimal scratches and bruises. We then trotted across the beach before the tide rolled in, and voila!, we had a new adventure story to tell.

I feel like the last year and a half have been similar to me hanging onto that root for dear life. There are some things, some people, that I have been unwilling to release, and I am tired. I see glimpses of what is below me on this pathless journey, but all I have control over is when I let go and how I fall. The rest is up to gravity.

My New Year's resolution was that 2009 would be a year of action and I think I'm ready at last to step out into the ambiguity of trying to move overseas, trying to sort out what in the heck the word "missions" might mean. I think I'm ready to see where gravity takes me.

The best thing about it is that I don't have to figure it out. I just have to let go.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kate Davis

Ladies and gentlemen of the music jury,

I present to you a performance from bassist/vocalist (in that order) Kate Davis. This phenom lives in my very own Portland, Oregon and already has garnered numerous accolades in the jazz community. Remember this name, as I am quite confident that it will soon extend beyond strictly jazz circles.

Did I mention she is only 17?

So, give a listen and cast your vote. If you live in PDX, you can cast your approving vote by attending her show (part of the Portland Jazz Festival) at Wilf's this Saturday night at 8pm, $5 cover.

The following clip is from Jimmy Mak's this past September, with Tom Grant on piano and Todd Strait (Karrin Allyson) on drums.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Adam Hamilton, pt. 1

Today, Adam was going to ask Vanessa to leave Maple Ridge with him. He was going to ask her to leave behind her security blanket, leave behind the bullshit, and prove everybody wrong. Prove themselves wrong. From day one there was a slightly forlorn quality to their love, a quiet melancholy. Whenever people challenged their relationship, they would nod grimly, as if they had been expecting this all along. And they had. Interracial dating was just not done in Maple Ridge, and especially not by the crown princess of the Hitchinson family.

Of course, no one was indelicate enough to say that race was the problem directly. But they had their ways of communicating disapproval, their euphemisms designated for polite company. “His family doesn’t have any roots here. No history,” they would point out with concern. “What’s to keep him here?”

The assumption, of course, was that Vanessa would never dream of leaving Maple Ridge. After all, her family did have history here—over 200 years of it. They’d been pillars of the community from the days of the Revolution. Their family’s names dotted the headstones in the local graveyard. The high school football field was named after Vanessa’s grandfather, an All-American halfback.

To the denizens of Maple Ridge, there was nothing more odd, more frighteningly compelling, than the scandal of a Hitchinson daughter beginning a romance with a “transplant”, as they called them. Not only a transplant, but “an…unusual transplant.” Such incidences in the past had been quickly resolved, though not as quickly forgotten. Scandal had a way of lingering unpleasantly in Maple Ridge.

How does one describe the Hitchinsons? They were not particularly wealthy, though certainly not poor. They were well educated, smartly dressed, confident without exuding an aura of pretension, and all without that ultimate mark of the upper class – boredom. They were noticeably involved in the community, but never at the expense of time spent together as a family. They were the paragons of the expression, “Everything in moderation.”

Where the Hitchinsons were admirable in their balance and vigorous spirit, Vanessa was more so. From an early age her teachers and dance instructors remarked upon her special blend of grace and fortitude. Neighbors would delight in telling her parents about her acts of kindness and generosity, smiling fondly and finishing with, “That Vanessa sure is something else.”

She was not the most popular in school according to social currency. Very rarely do teenagers adhere to the same standards of societal status as adults, and her family name meant little to her classmates when it came to forming in-crowds and outsiders. In line with her usual measure of grace, this did not bother Vanessa at all, and so it was that she floated effortlessly between the various groups, soliciting smiles and defusing confrontations. Had she so desired, Vanessa Hitchinson could have claimed the distinction of getting to know more people at Hitchinson High than any other person. She just never thought of it.

That’s not to say she was naive. She recognized from early on that she was a beautiful girl, and the guys paid a lot of attention to her, ranging from wholesome to unsavory. She also recognized that many of her classmates struggled to attain the ease with which she traversed social circles and yet never achieved their goal. She was not the type to host a party and invite people from different cliques without considering the ramifications. She was extraordinarily intuitive about social interactions, and this was one of the things that set her apart from both her family and her classmates.

She would sometimes half jokingly tell the story of the night when she was nine years old and she lay in bed frustrated that her parents had not let her stay up and watch some television show. She lay on that bed and told herself, “I’m done being a kid. I’m ready to be a grownup now.” With that she closed her eyes and imagined all the freedom she would have as an adult, the rules that would not apply to her, the secrets that would not be hidden from her.

But as she imagined these things, something strange happened. She began to see much less whimsical images—broken marriages, financial anxiety, premature death. It scared her to be sure, but as she would tell it, she knew that choosing the one meant accepting the other. So, she lay there on her bed, nine year old brain swirling, until she fell asleep.

She would always laugh self-consciously before continuing. “When I woke up, something had changed. The world looked different.” She would pause thoughtfully. “But I knew the world was really the same, I was just seeing it differently. Does that make sense?”

Adults never knew how to respond to this question. It made sense in the natural flow of maturation and coming into adulthood, but it seemed shockingly out of place being explained by a 14 year-old, much less a 14 year-old recounting the realization of her nine year-old self. She would give them a genuine, slightly sad smile as they gently dismissed her claims with bravos and encores. After all, adults wanted to be entertained by children, not educated.

Postcards Without Postage, pt. 5

Dear Amelia,

I will never forget the look on your face when I picked you up at the airport and spoke the unspoken. You were looking at me, eyebrows raised, as if to say, "But, how do you know?"

The question caught me off-guard and I had no answer for you. I wish I had said,

I know the same as anyone else knows, I suppose.

I know that when we are together, I don't ever want to say goodbye. But I must.

I know that when something amazing or exciting happens, you're the first person I want to call. But I can't.

I know that when I hear a great jazz recording, you're the first person I want to hear it. But you're not listening.

I know when we are with our friends, I never want to leave your side; never want to miss your smile; never want your laughter to subside. But, I mingle.

I know when you are full of grief I want you to find relief in my embrace. I want to hold all of you -- your shaking shoulders and shuddering breaths, your darkest fears that there is no one left to cry with. But I am there.

I know I want you to know me, in all my weakness and ego and confidence and joy. But you don't really know, do you?

How do I know, you wanted to ask. I don't know. No one does. But with all that I am, I choose you.

What do you know about that?

DASH: First lap

Looking back, there are several variables that could have contributed to such a high blood pressure reading in January. I am convinced that the changes I've been making in diet and exercise have in fact been beneficial in a short time. Leaving aside blood pressure, I've lost nearly 10 pounds in a month, so that's saying something.

But, the blood pressure was the motivating factor here, and on Friday I went in to see a doctor for the first time in a long time. He took my blood pressure--twice--and it turned out normal. How normal, you ask? 125/76. Better than it's been in a long time. Interestingly enough, there was a nearly ten point differential between the first and second reading, which my doctor attributed to the stress of anticipation during the first reading. Who knew stress was such a factor?

While the changes I've made are good and I plan to keep them around, it is stress that I will focus on mitigating in this next phase of DASH. We'll see how that goes...

My doctor told me to relax and to feel free to practice moderation instead of abstinence when it comes to the stricter parts of my regimen. In his words, "Celebrate your health with a beer sometime". Doctor's orders.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Laughter is medicine

Need a good belly laugh? Proceed immediately to Trevor's blog. When you stop laughing long enough to type again, leave some comment love.

Friday, January 30, 2009


It stands for Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension, or something like that. My friend Bitta works at the Mayo Clinic, and she tipped me off to the existence of DASH. It is an existence that will begin to influence the way I live.

See, this past trip to Arkansas I did all the culinary things a trip South requires: ate lots of barbecue, lots of fried whatever, and drank lots of Dr. Pepper. It was glorious.

It was also excessive. In the months leading up to my trip I had been experiencing various physical discomforts that seemed to be symptoms of something. In the early autumn I gave up most caffeine, which I think helped, but some of the symptoms persisted. By the time it became clear that it would be beneficial to seek medical attention, I temporarily lost my health insurance with Starbucks.

Let's be real though. Partially from my dad's example and partially through growing accustomed to living without health insurance for several years, going to the doctor is usually a last resort. So it is that I began feeling some of the discomfort one night at my parents' house after dinner, and I decided to check my blood pressure.

To say it was high might be an understatement. I was freaked to say the least. But, without medical insurance, a visit to the doctor had to wait at least another three weeks. So, I called Bitta to seek her sage advice on life style changes in response to this new discovery.

Thus, DASH became a part of my life. It's really a pretty common sense as far as diets go. But, that's the point of lifestyle changes, right? They are usually not unexpected changes. Just unwelcome. So, for me here are some of the guiding dietary principles:

*Lower sodium intake. Sodium is one of the primary culprits of elevated blood pressure. The daily recommended value of sodium is 1500 mg, but most people exceed this several times over. One of the dictates of lowering sodium is giving up nearly all packaged food. Things I would not expect to be high in sodium, like much bread and cereal, have turned out to be on the black list. Also, no more free food at the Bux. Other than the overpriced oatmeal, there is not much reasonable there.

*Lower alcohol consumption. I won't dwell on this, but I pretty much hate this part. Thankfully I was dry for a month last winter and I know I can do this. Also, as much as I hate to admit it, I feel better when I'm alcohol free.

*Lower caffeine consumption. Also helping me with the alcohol reduction is looking back over the last few months and being surprised at how easy it has been to significantly reduce how much caffeine I drink. Another consequence is that my awake feels more awake, and my tired feels less tired. My sleeping has also improved.

*Drink more water. Obvious, but something I've not been very good at practicing.

*Increased magnesium, calcium, and potassium intake. Still researching what foods will help me do this, but I am also reacquainting myself with the multivitamin.

*Eat moderately. A big help with high blood pressure is weight loss. Eating smaller portions, and selecting healthier options go some of the distance with this. The other part is of course regular exercise. Thanks to a growing group of friends who love tennis, this has been an easier addition to my lifestyle. Come spring, I look forward to getting more hiking in as well.

There's lots of other things to consider in DASH, but those are the most salient for me. The upside has been moving my focus from what I'm needing to give up in order to get rid of something, to realizing how the changes I'm making are adding value to my life. I am feeling motivated about SOMETHING for the first time in a long time.

Then there are the little reminders. There is that wonderful feeling of exhaustion after a good tennis match which helps me realize that while my shots were wild and unruly, I left every ounce of energy I had on the court. There is that satisfaction of eating just enough at a meal instead of feeling like I'm going into a coma from overeating. There is that appreciation of friends who give recipe suggestions, cook sensitively, and respond to my ridiculous requests to play tennis in the cold drizzle.

Life is good and is getting better. It's nice to say that without trying to convince myself. Which is part and parcel with these changes. Stress elevates blood pressure as well, and there has been no shortage of that this past year and more.

To put it as simply as possible, I have been stressed that time keeps passing even though I don't have a clue what I want to do. I'm confident in who I want to be, and even certain things I want to do, but the day to day of making a living and all that goes along with that--no clue.

The merry-go-round spins...grad school, nonprofit work, missions, teaching, translation, writing, etc. I never land on anything for too long. I'm not looking for a permanent fit, but I'm looking for a meaningful occupation. I hope that's not too much to ask.

At any rate, my attempts to let DASH impact my life are in the infancy stages, but I'm hopeful. I'd like the other decisions in my life to follow that same path of hopefulness.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Come, Captain

Coquettishly you come to
me in the
A faerie masked in mystery
aloft on gossamer wings
soaked with starlight
Close you hover
gentle caress upon jugular
until secret somethings
gush unceremoniously forth
An outpouring of darkened heart
bleeding confession
costly petition
penitent libation

If I could only catch you
stall this dance
Silence this cacophony
Fill up what is lacking
in my affliction of
Oh! to know your coming
and your going
know it with the familiarity
of tide and shore
Wash over me
wipe away gritty
uneven surface
smoothly I flow
into the heart of
the sunset

I am lost upon you
I am lost without you
I have tasted the
gravity sinking through
the vortex
yawning beneath idle feet
I have felt the wind blow itself
to pieces against
the drift of
my wandering
upsetting course set

Come, captain this ship
Set the sails, tie the rigging
slip the anchor
for home

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"The house rose from its ashes and I sailed on my love of Delgadina with an intensity and happiness I had never known in my former life. Thanks to her I confronted my inner self for the first time as my ninetieth year went by. I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people's time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.

I became another man. I tried to reread the classics that had guided me in adolescence, and I could not bear them. I buried myself in the romantic writings I had repudiated when my mother tried to impose them on me with a heavy hand, and in them I became aware that the invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love."

--Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Postcards Without Postage, pt. 4

Dear little one,

I had a strange dream last night that made scant sense, but when I woke I knew it was about you.

From atop a mountain, I saw a dark bank of clouds streaming in from the east. They moved swiftly, heavy with purpose. As they reached the sky above me, they began to hover and swirl. Deliberately and ominously they gathered until they became the sky.

I heard a voice neither cruel nor gentle wail, "Cover your eyes!" Against my will I obeyed, the force of the voice driving into me with irresistible compulsion. As the world went black, I could feel the heaviness of the clouds crashing over me, an inexorable tide of darkness threatening to suffocate.

"Open your eyes," said a whisper in my ear, childlike and wise. Oh, how I wanted to listen to this whisper! But against the heaviness I could only manage to loose my left eye from its imprisonment.

I saw the underside of the clouds bathed in a bright orange glow, the reflection of some great forest fire, trees below singing with elegiac passion within the conflagration. It was terrible and beautiful, and I returned to my darkness with a mixture of regret and relief.

"Open your eyes," came the whisper once more, laden with urgency. Again the heaviness prevented me from complying fully, but this time I opened my right eye.

I once again saw the inky cloud bank bathed in fire, but this time the glow was warm and fading, like the sunset. It was another flame of passing, but it burned with the promise of tomorrow's rising. All beneath was silent in anticipation. It was beautiful and terrible, and again I retreated to the comfort of my blindness.

"Open your eyes," came the whisper a third time, adding gently, "Do not be afraid." These last four words birthed a lightness in me, and pregnant with expectation I opened both of my eyes onto the leaden expanse.

Just as I looked, the heavens broke open and the deluge began. The fire beneath the clouds shone through the rain to create a crystal clear rainbow, its arc crowning the horizon. I began to cry.

And then I woke, crying still. My little one, I am awash in sorrow. How will I not drown? I have sent my prayers for peace flying to the four corners of the heavens, but they have returned bearing no message, no assurance. Though I endure 197 days of silence, will I ever again see the world unflooded by tears?

As my red-rimmed eyes surrender to slumber once more, I am searching desperately for the courage to open my eyes to the sunrise. For I know it is you whispering in the morning, "Do not be afraid."