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An Evil Man

If you haven’t been paying attention, there are some really bad things going on in Zimbabwe right now. Robert Mugabe, the president of the country, who is an evil man, lost his bid for re-election a few months ago but refused to step down, instead forcing a runoff election which is scheduled for this week. His government and the police forces have used the intervening time to systematically kill and torture members of the opposition party, with the explicit intention of scaring off voters who might vote against him in the runoff.

These are the words of Mugabe from last week: “We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot,” he said in a speech last week. “How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?” (quoted in the NY Times today in an article called “Assassins Aim at Zimbabwe Opposition”. Read it if you have the stomach for it.)

It makes me feel both angry and helpless to read this. How can this be going on right now, under this same sun that is shining out my window? A year ago I flew over Zimbabwe, looking down at the forests and farmland of that beautiful country. It is a real place, not just a story on the news. But what can I do?

The attached PDF contains some images and an article from someone who visited the country recently. They are not easy things to think about or see, partly because if I see, I start to become responsible to act. It’s much easier to look away.

PDF: who is zimbabwe

If nothing else, and maybe most importantly, we can pray for the country and pray for the people who are suffering under an evil government addicted to power and pray that truth and justice prevails.

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Today while I was riding

I was riding my bike today in the hills above the house. I had climbed up high to a viewpoint that looks out over the entire Los Angeles basin. It’s a spectacular view and I spent a moment stopped at the top, catching my breath and enjoying the perspective. Then came the plunge back down the hill. 

It’s a few miles down along a gravelly fire road to the parking lot where I start my ride. As I get lower the road smoothes out and I usually begin to ride faster. This time I was going very fast, barely hanging on as I rounded the corners. This is fun and it provides good practice in being alert. A small error in judgement can have uncomfortable consequences.

Not far from the bottom I came around the corner to find a deer standing in the road maybe a hundred feet in front of me. Next to her were two tiny fawns (translation: “very little deer”). As I careened closer, braking hard, she stepped gracefully off the road followed by one of the little ones.

But the second little one didn’t notice me or maybe was completely frozen with fear. He stood at the edge of the road completely still, looking off into space, not even a blink. I rolled past him, close enough that I could have nudged him with my heel as I went by. He was hardly bigger than a housecat, little white patches on his back.

As I watched him over my shoulder, he didn’t move at all, holding his pose. His head was turned to look up the hill where I had come from. Not one move. I wished I had been able to stop the bike in time to take a closer look and maybe say hello.

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After the fire

When the flames came over the top of the ridge a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of cleaning out the storage shed. Folders full of financial paperwork on one side, diaries from my childhood on the other, I was simplifying. Mostly in my mind was this: what can I get rid of?

A few hours later, when it became clear that the fire was going to continue to burn through the night and possibly right down into my canyon, my thoughts began to shift to this: what should I save?

I went first to the obvious — the hard drives and the important papers. In retrospect, I understand the hard drives, but if the house had burned down, I’m not sure that I would have cared that I had saved my old tax forms and bank statements. But these were the first things I tossed in the back of the car.

Then things got more complicated. I began to walk slowly through my house. It was almost like touring a museum. Look at something, some object, pick it up, this carved giraffe from Africa or this jar of sand from the Swiss Alps, consider the stories, imagine its absence, weigh it against everything else in the house, make a decision. The giraffe stays. The sand comes with me.

The diaries from my childhood came too. How else am I to know who I am? The box of negatives from before the digital age overwhelmed us all. I packed a small bag of clothing and toiletries. No sense in having to wear the same T-shirt and jeans for a week if I don’t have to. The laptop, which these days is my file cabinet, correspondence, creative expression, and connection to the world, the laptop came along.

In a burst of faith, I watered the lawn.

It was dark by then and huge walls of flame were beginning to wrap around the canyon. Out my window the hillside across from me was deep orange with the reflected light of the fire.

But there was still time and room in my car. What else? The big things were ruled out. No furniture or appliances. Also no books. If you start to take one, they’ll all want to come along. The same with the music. I took photos of the bookcase and the CD rack.

From there the process started to get silly. That sleeping bag was expensive. And it’s comfy. The sleeping bag comes along. And this pair of shoes. My circles around the house started to get faster and more frenetic. With time and a little motivation, the miser in me begins to come out. 

Finally, just after I caught myself tossing a wine corker (expensive, beautifully crafted) into the car, I realized the slippery slope that I was on. Another half hour and I’d be hitching my car up to the house and trying to drag it down the hill. Then what would I have gained?  Nothing but the same headaches with a crappier view.

I realized then that the fire was doing me a favor. I was seeing more clearly. I was discovering what was most important. I was letting go of what wasn’t. I’ll confess that there was a small part of me that hoped that the fire would come right on down the canyon and take it all.

It didn’t. From where I’m sitting this morning, I can see the blackened hillside where it burned so ferociously. Unpacking the car was harder for some reason than packing was. The giraffe and the jar of sand are reunited again — for how long, I don’t know, but the giraffe is keeping a wary eye on me, our true relationship now revealed — and the clarity of flame exchanged for the ambiguity of life. But the lessons have stayed with me. After the fire, you can’t help but see things a little differently.

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Book Review: On The Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

book cover

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about this one. Andrew Peterson is high on my list of favorite singer/songwriters, but I wasn’t sure that his considerable talent would translate well to the novel format. After all, you need more than a couple verses and a hooky chorus to make a storybook sing.

But aside from a few reservations about the sheer ridiculousness of some of the character names, I loved it. I found the book to be really enjoyable, suspenseful, quite funny, and possessed of its own unique voice.

The story follows the fantastic adventures of three children–Janner, Tink, and Leeli–as they look for treasure, hide from the bad guys, and try to unravel the mysteries of their own past. The pace and tempo are similar in some ways to the Harry Potter books, but with much more fun and much more hope.

Along the way, they are chased by all manner of strange creatures, including toothy cows (which are hilarious to imagine, but not to meet in person) and the Fangs of Dang (which are smelly, ill-humored villains with a taste for maggotloaf.) They explore Anklejelly Manor. They end up in the Fang dungeon twice. They narrowly escape certain death numerous times. In the end, they…well, you’ll have to read it, I guess.

For me, what made this book more than just light entertainment was the presence of two deeper themes. The first–a fierce love of family–was a refreshing departure from the dysfunctional relationships and remote or absent adults of so many other modern children’s stories.

The second theme, which gave this book its heart, was the acknowledgement of and longing after something deeper, some mystery beyond understanding. To quote Frederick Buechner quoting Rinkitink, the king of Oz, “Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders.” After a day of near disaster, little Leeli sings a song of sadness and hope that makes even the dragons fall silent. And then the moment of beauty passes without explanation and we never understand what really happened there on the rock overlooking the Dark Sea. But in the gloom a light shimmers and brings hope of something bigger, some deeper magic. Despite the danger and doubts, still we discover a world full of wonder. As far as I’m concerned, that, and a toothy cow or two, is all you really need for a pretty good adventure.

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The Singing Clump

These days I stay up late and, in the mornings, I sleep late as well. It’s nice to have a long evening but sometimes I feel like I’m missing out. The days go by so quickly. Not long ago I woke up early for no reason at all. There was no sleep left in me. It was still dark outside. I crawled out of bed.

As I showered, I thought about how nice it would be to see the early morning light slipping in around the corners of the mountains to the east. There is a large lake nearby where I sometimes go to walk the dog.I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I woke up the dog and got in the car. We got there quickly. No freeway traffic at that hour. Can you say “we” when it’s just you and the dog? I guess you can. I’m pretty sure that’s how the dog thinks of it.

I took the Long Walk Route this time which included parking at the far end, hiking up to the top of two consecutive hills, down the other side, across the bridge, along the water, through the gate, up the hill. Stop. Enjoy the view. Walk back the way you came.

On the outbound leg of the walk, in the gray light, I passed a tall clump of reeds the size of a small house growing at the edge of the lake. At the time, I mostly ignored the reeds, although I did notice some coots and a family of mallards mucking around in the water. Noticing them reminded me to remind the dog that he isn’t allowed to eat coots or mallards.

On the way back, the sun was just coming up and there was beautiful red glow in the east. On the hillside above me, the first shadows of the new day were receding, burrowing back under the rocks and sagebrush. In the air, unseen, was the sound of a giant blackbird choir. I knew they were blackbirds, not because I could see them, but because I was raised well, brought up to recognize such things, for which I’m grateful. (Thanks, Dad, and happy birthday.)

By the sound of them, the blackbirds were happy to see the sun. I didn’t blame them. I was too.

I walked by the reeds at the edge of the lake and realized that the singing was coming from right out of the muddy heart of the clump. Not a bird in sight, but the air was full of their chorus. I stopped and watched for awhile. Not a sign of life from the bush. Except, of course, that song. There must have been hundreds of birds in there.

What does it all mean? I don’t know. But I’m glad I woke up early, even if I was tired all afternoon.

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On The Mountain

I woke up in the dark yesterday morning to the sound of rain on the roof. I am still temporally misaligned. My timezones, present and past, are sliding closer, but it will be another few days before things are right. By the time the sky had started to lighten, I had been awake for a couple hours, partly from the jetlag, partly from thinking too much. Since the dog needed some exercise and I had spent plenty of time already this week in fog, we made tracks for the hills.

The rain was stopping and the clouds had started to break by the time I was on the trail. Above me on the hill was the first light of sunshine. When I reached the viewpoint, I regretted not bringing a camera (the better to see things with?). The valley was still wrapped in fog and to the east everything was misty and beautiful. The kind of morning that makes you think of prayer as a rational activity.

Being in the state I was, the only thing I could think to pray was “help, help, help”, which I think is a pretty good prayer in general. Then I stood there with my arms out and the dog running in circles around me. And at that moment the fog decided to slide up the hill and gather all around me, so that the valley below and the mountain above became vague outlines and then disappeared altogether and I was left on a small point of land surrounded by air that glowed as if it were lit by angels. Things stayed like that for a few minutes, all ablaze with crazy, golden light, until the fog slid past and the sun climbed into the clouds above and things went back to normal.

I’ve read about something like this happening before, but those people wanted to build tents and stay there. I can’t do that because I have a job, and because there are rattlesnakes. But it did make me want to stop for awhile, especially when climbing down into the valley meant going back down into the grey. So I sat there and said “thank you” out loud a couple times. Then I went down the hill.

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Did you see…

…Perseus last night, lobbing fireballs every which way? I drove myself out to the desert to sleep, well, not really to sleep, under the meteors. It was impossible to close my eyes with the sparks flying back and forth. What fun! I met and made friends with Andromeda. She was looking radiant, chained though she was. And her mother and father were there too and they spun together in one vast wheel above me with Pegasus the winged horse in the lead.

Early in the morning, the Pleiades leapt up in the east, late for the party, grasping at Perseus’ heels. Finally at around 2:30, I fell asleep, only to wake again in a few hours to find them all spun round above me. Someone had moved the sky while I was looking away.

A few more fireballs slashing their way across the sky and then they all faded into the blue as the sun rose. And I crawled out of my sleeping bag on the top of that picnic table in the Mojave Desert and got in my car and drove home.

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Mt. Shasta: Why Driving In Northern California Is Nice

mt shasta from california highway 89

I had been wandering for a long time in the tall timber when I looked in my rear view mirror and saw this. It surprised me. How it got behind me, I’m not sure. I was tempted to think that it had moved, or was sneaking up on me. But, in my experience, the mountains sit still most of the time (my faith is clearly not quite as big as a mustard seed). I’ve decided it was a miracle. Which explains it nicely, I’d say.

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Open Space

Ash Creek Wildlife Area, Big Valley, California

My house is among trees and I’ve taken a liking to the grasslands. I’m hoping to resolve this conflict before long, but in the meantime I’m taking walks in places like this. The dog likes it, especially when it is cool and damp outside and when there’s a ball to chase. I like it because I can see in all directions which is good for watching the sun rise and set, tracking the wind as it approaches, and lying down quietly and listening to stillness of the open space.

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Driving North

I left Southern California at 4:30pm on Thursday. Over the San Gabriel Transverse Range and down into the Mojave. Unfortunate that I chose to make a 1000 mile overland drive on the hottest week of the summer. I stopped to get food in Palmdale. Too hot to leave the dog in the car. Too hot to take him out. But something must be done. So he skipped across the blazing hot parking lot to a place in the shade while I went inside.

An hour later the highway changed numbers (14 to 395) and I’m in Red Rock Canyon. The wind was incredibly hot and dry. We only stopped for a short time. Shadow, almost blown over by the wind, looked around in surprise. What kind of place is this?

One quick stop in Olancha to take pictures and chase rabbits. I took the pictures. The dog chased the rabbits. The sunset was beautiful. Suddenly the trip started to be an adventure. Back on the road, the air was beginning to soften. Pulling into Lone Pine, the open windows brought the scent of water and green grass and my head spun with delight. Have you ever smelled something that made you sad and happy and dizzy all at the same time? Strangely, my first impulse was to somehow record the experience. Camera wouldn’t do it. Neither would the audio recorder. How do you record a scent? In this day of gadgets, the smell of a thing is still unconquered. It is the most immediate of experiences. All along this drive, I found this again and again. There is no way I can ever share those moments. You had to be there.

Bishop for the night. Super 8. Terrible. Please, I never want to stay there again.

In the morning, the front right tire is flat. Perfectly appropriate finish to my stay. I’m up and ready to go, wanting to count off the miles before the sun starts to blaze. Instead I change to the donut tire and find a tire shop. They will open at 8am. It is now 6:25. So I sit still and listen to see what it is I am to learn from this. Finally by 9, the tire is fixed and I am back on the road.

The road climbs upward and eventually back down again to Mono Lake, a beautiful and alien lake. The Caltrans Adopt-A-Highway sponsor sign says “Another June Lake Liberal”. I feel like visiting June Lake. I weave my way through the sagebrush down to the edge of the water. Tufa formations. The salty water is beset with flies. The shoreline is black with them. The dog sniffs at them and then jumps back in surprise. The sun is hot. Time to drive.

Now the 395 crosses into the border of Nevada. The sky goes white hot and I swear to myself that I will do my best to never visit Carson City again, much less Reno, for the rest of my life. There is nothing there. 106 degrees Fahrenheit. No reason to ever go there again.

Crossing back into California, I forget to look for the sign marking the border. But suddenly I am noticing that things are cleaner, the road is better, the signs are in good order. I realize I am already over the line and, for some reason, breath a sigh of relief. It is nice to feel at home.

At Susanville I decided to take a detour. I won’t spend the time to write about Mt. Lassen other than to suggest that, if you are driving in the area, you take the time. I mean it.

Late afternoon, driving flat out and fast for Alturas. The long slow summer evening stretches out across the valleys and make me feel peaceful and in love with the land. More of the smell of dirt and sand and water and summer. Ash Creek Wildlife Area feels like a holy place. The barn owls peer down from the rafters through the murky darkness. The avocets stalk gracefully on the mudflats. Finally it is dark and I am safe at home at the Rimrock Motel.

In the morning, I climb northward out of the valley into the high desert of southern Oregon. Lakeview is small. The people who live here must either never drive their cars or they drive them for miles and miles. There are no other options.

And finally to Bend which seems a little like a heaven on earth. The evening skyline is one of the best. I’ll try to post a picture of it. Any town which features “floating the river” as one of its main attractions on a summer afternoon has my vote. And the fact that as you float, you float right past the back door of the Gap makes you realize that this is a different kind of place. Here they use SUV’s to carry their kayaks, not to ensure that they have lane changing rights on the evening commute.

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Road Tripping

Happy 4th of July everyone. Hope you’re staying cooler than I am. But I shouldn’t say that as it may just a sneaky way of trying to get sympathy. Which I don’t deserve since I am leaving for a short road trip tomorrow. I intend to drive up along the east side of the California Sierras, through Mammoth Lakes, past Lake Tahoe, and then one way or another into Oregon, finishing my drive in Bend.

Shadow Greeley the Wonder Dog will accompany me. He doesn’t know this yet, but I’m sure he’ll be amenable to the idea. Especially if there are rabbits along the way. The rabbits are even more fun than the squirrels because they can run faster and they don’t usually ruin the fun by climbing a tree. Although if a rabbit were to climb a tree, I’d really like to be there.

Anyway, more to come later.

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