Urban Eden

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Where do we find ourselves? Our father’s forests have given way to jungles of steel and concrete, and silence–so precious to the soul–has been hurled out across the ocean and forgotten. We have been left without the witness of the stars; they have been blotted out in a surging ocean of lights. No longer can we retreat to the lonely fields where we used to walk in days gone by, alone with ourselves and Nature. We have been inexorably drawn together; we often have nowhere else to go. Yet man soldiers on, equipped with a soul embossed with shining courage and steadfastness, drifting through streams of color as easily as the guide on the raft, expertly navigating canyons and rapids; touched with spray and waves but held aloft. As one tree falls, and with it, holy testimony, so we must find another in its place. For man will not be left without a witness, nor will God fail to provide one. Nature is the tool of God, and will take the shape He thus desires.

Truly, as Emerson prophesied, the heavenly City above will only show itself once every thousand years, and man will marvel. In the meantime, turn to the lights that are brighter to our eyes than the stars–the divine City below! Sparkling and dancing in the darkness around, it hums with the life and Soul of man. Walk its streets and behold creations of God at every step: the strength, the life, the imagination, the expression, the beauty inherent. In the eyes of every man wages a war between Heaven and Hell and in the heart of every woman there is the heart of Christ and of a daemon. Pass not quickly, but pause, and wonder at the hearts and souls; think of Plato and know that every person is fighting a hard battle.

Every skyscraper is a temple to heaven, every tower a lighthouse of truth; every car contains a soul that will blaze with a skin of glass in the life to come. If only we had eyes to see–ah! the beauty to be seen. Do not see the suit of the man and confine him to the suit; more importantly, do not see the clothes draped on your shoulders and thus confine yourself. Walk not through the day in an endless routine, only punctuated with accidents or mistakes. All men fear what they are not comfortable with; no great man succumbs to it. No great thing was ever achieved with a perfect record. No victor lacks scars. Do not be defined by the City, but define it. The soft vibration of energy and life echoes throughout time into a chorus that will be sung around the throne of the Father. We will not shout our exultant songs to God in a meek garden or a dying forest, but in an Eternal City prepared for us; so we prepare ourselves for that coming City.

Man can learn from the earth, but man must learn from man. God speaks to man through man; the prophets of old and the holy scribes–men whom the Spirit settled on like dew and who received it like fragrant flowers. Every man I pass under neon lights is a prophet; every women is a teacher. The lights of the City show their faces; the same light that falls on them falls on me and our shoes beat the same ground, splash the same water, climb the same heights. The same cold bites at their eyes and the same wind chills their necks and together we turn up our collars. The City always breathes, always thrums, always lives, for we carry it with us wherever we go. Where man is, there is community, and where there is community there will be cities. Temples are erected to God, and we are the priests and stewards of those temples, brought together through divine calling. Jesus and Socrates taught in the cities as much as the countryside, and so we now go forth into this urban Eden.

The pine, the flowers, the bird winging ‘cross the sky: these are the characters of the earthen world, and silence and solitude their cloaks. What about the pool of water at the foot of the stoplight, a shimmering portal into the lower reaches of Heaven? What of the buildings that streak into the sky, arrows pointing to Heaven? Or aroma of men plying their trade at corner food stands, as they have for millennia, and in doing so show the timeless thread that runs through man? Are these not holy? Are they not devout? Are they not Natural? It merely depends on our temperament to see them. Our eyes pointed down, bent under the gentle and reassuring bonds of our master Routine, and life drains out of the world and into the rivulets of water streaming to the gutters. Here we feel our soul groan as it is bent and deformed and forced into a mold of ideas, opinions, and convictions. But look up! For God’s sake look up… and see! See the life ever-present, everyone fashioned unique; have the courage to take one more step in a brave and frightening world. The fog of the City is not the fog of grey apathy and mediocrity, it is the Spirit itself, swirling through our vision and lungs. Behind the eyes of every random kindness there is the Lord and the hands of every stranger bear the marks of nails. Through them we are sanctified and covered, or we are revealed and condemned.

Yet we cannot forever be without silence and solitude; no man can forever swim in the sea without gaining rest on the shore. But he can stay many months out on a vessel, caulked and built to withstand the surge of the ocean. We are on that boat, adrift in the ocean, knowing not where we go, but a symbol for all who see that it can be done. The City bucks and swirls as in the midst of storm?–good! press onward. Push through the waves, face into them and sail on. Break for the eye of the tempest and enjoy the reprieve granted there–then press on! The best captains have braved the worst storms. And we are strong captains with a good Guide, surrounded by the City and adrift upon its glassy skin. Do not be turned aside, by Sirens or stories of treasure. We stand shoulder to shoulder with countless other sailors, following the maps of men who’ve gone before us, all seeking the same Harbor. So fear not; sail on.

 

Worship

Figure

I remember the first time I thought I was a heathen. The feeling passed, but it took a couple months. It was at a worship service. Most would say that it was a very good worship service, with lights and electric guitars and flashy popular worship songs–all the things you need in order to worship good. It was a Sunday night and I’d been watching football all day, after getting home from church, of course.

I came in a little late and stood in the back. Everybody was singing, dancing, spinning , twirling, amen-ing,  and doing all sorts of things that just proved that the Spirit was in the room. I looked around and felt a little ashamed. I hadn’t felt any Spirit yet, but seeing as I had just came in I was inclined to give it a chance. So I sang. I sang as much as I could–I tried to sing from my heart. Everyone always said you gotta sing from the heart, that it can’t be empty words. So I sang the best I knew how.

I still couldn’t feel the Spirit.

After a time I started to get a little worried. Maybe I wasn’t singing right? Maybe I didn’t really have the Spirit? After all, I didn’t know any of the popular songs being sung, with loud drums and fast guitar; everybody else seemed to know them though. I only knew Bob Dylan songs and some old hymns that I always thought were real powerful. I’d heard of Hillsong but I’d never really heard them. Everyone else had apparently, and I sat there patiently, waiting on the urge to dance. It was sure a long time coming.

These were good people, with good respectable morals. They went about the world and were kind, the type that would stop and talk to you about the Spirit, real salt-of-the-earth type folks. The type that didn’t smoke, drink, cuss, or spit. And they were worshipping, with loud cries and a solemn frenzy. The thought nagged at me that maybe because I wasn’t as devout, I couldn’t relate the same way, but I still tried: tried as hard I knew how.

Meanwhile, the fog machine and light show kicked in. Everybody seemed to love this and got really going as the whole building seemed to pulse and sway with the music and voices. Voices crying about our friend Jesus’ salvation reverberated off walls and out into the warm night. And I sang, or sang as best I could. In a flash of frustration the thought crossed my mind: sing a damn hymn! I was horrified at myself and shoved that little voice back down and looked around nervously to make sure no one had seen my thought on my face–or maybe it was to see if anyone else was thinking the same as me. Didn’t seem like anybody was.

The fog and lights hurt my head. I couldn’t focus–not with all the Spirit in the place–so I leaned back against a wall and shut my eyes. I was confused, everyone else was dancing, and jumping, and twirling, and singing their hearts out. All I could seem to do was be cynical and detached from the whole process. I tried; way down in my heart I tried to worship right. But I couldn’t, I was just too distracted.

After the service, everybody filed out into the lukewarm Los Angeles evening. Everybody was happy, at least everybody but me. They talked and chatted and remarked what an incredible experience the worship was.

“Man,” I heard one remark, “that was awesome. The Spirit was just so present tonight!”

They had been filled. I was just cynical, and the cynicism made me worry. Good Christians shouldn’t be cynical after worship, right? But I hadn’t really worshipped. I had tried, and tried, but something about it just didn’t stick. I felt like a pagan or an atheist sneering at the funny little rituals of another’s faith. I felt like I was on the outside looking in at something that I would never really understand. It felt like everybody else felt the same about me. After all, it was a mighty powerful service, from what I saw.

I was frustrated with God, or with the worship–I couldn’t quite decide. It was my confusion that led to my frustration. There was so much Spirit going around; why couldn’t I have gotten a little piece of that? There was enough to spare a bit for me: there must have been! I had seen one person dancing so fast they had fallen over and sat on the ground in a sort of religious trance. I only needed the smallest fraction of that in order to feel the music a little more, and then I could have raised my hands and sang like I meant it.

But I didn’t.

Everyone else got a double portion and I got a little bitter.

 

A Black Martin Guitar

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The only thing notable about my guitar, which is named Martin, and which conveniently happens to be of Martin manufacturing, is that it is one of a very few of its kind whose base color is entirely, unequivocally, black. The body and the fret-board absorb light, and, with the exception of when it is being played, they hoard it greedily, as if every ray was the last ray of light that was ever going to fall on it and there simply wasn’t enough to go around. It is a beautiful instrument, unique in its own brutal simplicity and starkness; as it stands, propped up against the guest bed and surrounded by a sea of papers, albums, and books, it looks almost contented, which I suppose is because it expects to be tuned and strummed by an obscure, 5th rate musician later this evening. But for now it sits upright with evening’s cool breath wafting over it; and it swallows light.

Mind you, it is not always on the take, because a startling, yet not wholly unexpected thing happens in the hands of its master; when played, the guitar will seem to glow as it fills with the sound, and instead of drowning the light cast upon it, it returns it to the world with open hands. People who see my guitar when I am playing it remark that it is unique and lovely; when they see it propped in the corner they get the feeling that it’s sneaking away to do something illicit. Obviously I relate well to my guitar, or rather, it relates well to me; for a guitar is nothing more than the hands that hold it, and it doesn’t have to the ability to think for itself (at least, not that I’m aware of, though I wouldn’t be too surprised). It seems to have an advantage on me in this regard; for while I stubbornly reject my Master when called upon to play, Martin doesn’t have much of a say in the matter. If I want to perform a minor surgery on my guitar and am forced to use pliers and oaths to rend broken, decrepit strings from it, there is no weeping and gnashing of teeth; there is merely compliance, if not often reluctant. I define my guitar, with all my flaws, and short fingers, and weak hands that keep me from forming difficult chords, and it is accepting of that–it has no choice. And yet people, when placed in the hands of their Master–with hands perfectly suited to produce majesty and beauty from within an exquisitely crafted lump of dust–they wriggle and squirm and jump about in a whole-hearted attempt to escape. Should I ever pick up my guitar, only to have it twist about and bite my hand and then make a bolt for the door, I suppose I couldn’t blame it, but I would still grab it around the neck and dash it to pieces against the coffee table.

The better the musician, the more right there is to check the disobedience of the instrument, and yet there is a perfect Musician, who directs the orchestra of sparrows outside of my window and the sound of a boot crunching through frozen snow on its way to the hearth, and we are disagreeable. It is not our role to be disagreeable, and we have a poorly refined capacity for it to begin with; we are supposed to be instruments. When Timothy says, “those who cleanse themselves… will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master” there is an implication that they are gloriously useful and magnificent in nature, but only in the hands of a glorious and magnificent Master.

I suppose too, that in the divine knowledge of my guitar, it allows itself to be played because it that is why it was made; to be filled full of melody and tune, discordant notes mystically blending together and ringing through its very soul. If one reflected upon my guitar, they should be surprised that it must be empty before it can be filled, for that does not make sense by the means of our world. The businessman should say that it must be filled with money and precious metals, for then it can be secure and stable and prosperous; the philosopher would say it should be filled with books, and then it can be learned and discern the truth of life; the cynic and the sarcastic would suggest never playing at all. Filled with its money and books, stability and security, and just a touch of cryptic bitterness, my guitar could be comfortable and learned. But it would not be a guitar anymore, for it could no longer makes children’s mouth wrinkle upward in pleasure, or sing the praises of the Kansas plains; it would be a dusty trunk, ill-equipped to hold its perishable cargo. My guitar’s soul would be stuffed to the brim and no longer would it thrum and vibrate with the ecstasy and revelation of its existence in the hands of its master. The key to its existence necessitates an emptying, such as it was empty at the point of its creation; to sing the songs of the Divine soul, my guitar must become like a little child and be cleansed of all but itself, in the hands of its master. If it had the capacity to, I’m sure Martin could make plenty of arguments against this emptying; it could ask about the future and bring up the fact that it has children on the way, that they are being hewn from rough timber by the same creator who made itself. It could plead: what happens if the master goes away and I am left all alone; how will I support myself? It could justify that with all its books and papers, it is the most knowledgeable and intelligent guitar of its class.

But it would still not make music, and music was what it was made for.

If I was the guitar, I’m sure I would object to this; I would flinch and squirm and twist as I’m tuned to be in line with my Master’s ear. It’s an uncomfortable process, with cracking strings and tension curving my neck endlessly (guitar’s necks must necessarily be curved, or strings won’t lay straight, yet I still often think that I could be the exception to that rule). I suppose that I would like to slip out of tune and would disdain it when my Master’s hands reapplied the pressure necessary to correct my laziness or account for the change in humidity. And that’s just minor correction; if it came to being shipped, or put in a case for a time, or used as a means to show grace: well! then I would feel downright surly.

But my guitar is the better in that aspect; it meekly takes its correction with the resistance only inherent to its nature, and because it does, I can make music. Should my guitar ever decide to quit its existence, and finally succumb to old age and mildew, use and strain, I will be greatly saddened; not so much for myself, but for the fact that my faithful servant can no longer sing and hum with the sheer, brutal pleasure of existence. But I will hold it in my heart and remember it for what it was; an instrument that could speak in words that my soul could understand; a wonderfully crafted dead piece of wood.

 

The Life of Tradition

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The motorcycle’s salute. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down. Symbolizing two wheels on the ground. It’s really a necessity; whether you want to or not, riding a bike means following the tradition of those who have gone before. And part of that is the salute. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down.

I grew up in Alaska. There are long winters that pour down from the mountains and over the face of the icy grey sea, the type that cram themselves though windows and doors and walls and into people’s minds. With these winters, the motorcycle riding season in Alaska is short. As soon as strips of asphalt show under their reluctant blanket of snow, the throaty roar of these two-wheeled animals emerging from hibernation resonates across the expectant mountains and out over the ocean. If they quickly retire to their dens, it means six more weeks of winter. If they stay out, it probably still means six more weeks of winter. But the season is short, so like so many bears shaking their fur free of sleep and lethargy, they emerge and brave roads speckled with the receding skin of winter. And as they pass each other, they wave–two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down–keep your wheels on the ground.

I grew up fascinated with this ritual, long before I knew what it means. I had yet to be initiated into this pagan religion that the demanded the commitment of its members, their respect, and–an ever present possibility–their sacrifice. Like Roman charioteers on their way to battle, or to the starting line at the Circus Maximus, they acknowledge each other for what they are, equals in competition and fraternity.

What drives man to do this? Why race down the road, subject to freedom and death and life? What mental process can justify the risk? The salute itself is an acknowledgement of the judgment that befalls the one who fails to respect the liturgy. Or who just lives a fragile existence.

I bring up these concepts of the salute–the respect, the tradition, and the sacrifice–because of a recent encounter with them that startled me in its stark brutality.

Every religion, can, in some way, emphasize a truth outside the realm of typical human experience. Christianity to grace, Islam to zeal, Judaism to justice, Scientology to inanity. The same thing holds for motorcycles. Sri Aurobindo once remarked that “God and truth…manifest themselves anew in whatever way or form the Divine Wisdom chooses.” Riding a motorcycle is no different. Existence is no different.

I bought my first motorcycle in Los Angeles. Riding a motorcycle in L.A. is the same as practicing any religion in L.A.; some are true to their scriptures but it’s largely watered down and commercialized. Relativism and consumerism’s dull teeth have mashed and blunted conviction and devotion. There are those who still follow the Old Ways, but they are, at best, a novelty; at worst–God forbid!–a fundamentalist.

I happen to like the Old Ways. I still flash the salute when I can–Los Angeles traffic has the peculiar ability to dictate when you can or can’t take your hand off the reigns. I still stop my bike whenever I see another broken down, even if the rider is picking his teeth with a bowie knife. As with every good fundamentalist, I don’t expect everyone to mimic me, though I often wish more would. Tradition is liberating. Ask Edmund Burke or G.K. Chesterton. Who doesn’t appreciate knowing the rules and what they are getting out of the deal? We have a thousand little religions in our lives, why not adhere to some of their tenants and learn to understand them?

Three days ago, I went for a ride. I was tired, and so was the city. The sky was a grey shawl over the suburbs; too apathetic to rain and too tired to shine. The world sighed–a woman kicking off her heels and sinking into an armchair’s embrace–and all were grateful for the break in the heat. So I went for a ride, looking for a park that my friend would often fish for carp at. I’d heard it was a restful place. I needed that. I needed to clear my head.

And so I rode, my hands guiding my horses, thrumming with the life and freedom and mortality of man, leaning into the road; straining to fly–where?–anywhere. As I rode, suspended between the earth and the sky, I danced with pagan tribesman in the shade of the mountain, penned Scripture with holy scribes, and knelt in agony at the foot of a hill, accented with three rough trees. I passed, blurring by, a streak of red in a sea of lights. And I headed for the hills ringing the city, the one place in Los Angeles that still feels reverent, like you’re a part of Nature.

I saw the other motorcycle about 80 yards off, on the other side of the street, coming in the opposite direction. I took my hand off the clutch and acknowledged him; two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down, symbolizing two wheels on the ground. He shifted into a higher gear without returning the wave and shot by me, t-shirt and jeans whipping in the wind like a standard defying the grey sky.

The sound that precluded the noise was soul-rending–like the temple curtain being torn in two on Good Friday–only reversed. It was the sound of bone and metal breaking, of plastic and flesh and life shearing away; of a mother crying and a younger brother shocked into dumb silence, unable to comprehend the pain that will later tear at his heart, with bitter strokes more real than if they had been delivered with iron or leather. The sun had just set. Twilight was shattered, streaked with furious light as the sun disappeared over the scene. The rider lay curled on the pavement, the car he had slammed into sat straddled across the road, the driver’s side crumpled up like someone had unsuccessfully tried to flatten out a balled-up piece of paper. The wheels of the motorcycle were in the air, pointed accusingly at the car they had struck, but it was nobody’s fault; what would it serve anyway? The driver shouldn’t have pulled out onto the road. One gear lower and it wouldn’t have mattered–the motorcycle would have been going slow enough to avoid him. Two fingers on an outstretched arm, pointed down.

I helped direct traffic around the rider’s broken body. People helped. More people watched. The paramedics were there almost instantly. The whine of a defibrillator told me they were trying to revive him. And perhaps a spark of life traveled–traveled down through broken bones and failing organs– and reanimated a broken and failing heart. Perhaps.

I’ve heard stories, passed down through time from Father to Son, of people being brought back to life when their bodies have failed and their hearts long before that. When they’d forsaken the traditions that would recall them from the grave; for the traditions are stronger than death.

It was dark by the time I sat atop the hills of Los Angeles. It was dark by the time I got home. The sun broke the horizon the next morning as it had for millennia. I breathed– beautifully alive in tradition.

The Age of the Blag

donkey

Everybody has a blog nowadays.

So I decided to start one. I’m not sure why. Probably because I can’t get publishers to take anything that I write.

And I love to write.

I’m not especially good at it. But I need to write. It one of the ways that I keep sane, and life is pretty insane. And if I know that just one person is reading what I’m writing, I have that much more reason to do it.

A lot of people write because they want people to listen to them. I write because I need to listen to myself. It’s a long-forgotten art. I still don’t know how to do it.

I hope anyone reading this enjoys it, but more importantly, I hope it helps you think. We are so quick to seek enjoyment, and in doing so, we miss life.

God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and He’s been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to speak through you, you need not think too highly of yourself. And if you recognize someone for what they are, listen to them anyway. Because God spoke to Balaam through his ass. And He’s been speaking through asses ever since.