[Here in the Blue Ridge, I am thinking of the Maine coast this morning, where our family lived for 27 years. I'm thinking of Maine because, here, it is cold this morning--about 18 degrees--and it is going to snow in the next day or so. I'm thinking of Maine because when it snowed in Maine, our children and I skied regularly, and also because our son Sam and I have just returned this week from a Special Olympics ski meet in the North Carolina mountains, near Blowing Rock.
[This was Sam's and my third year at this invitational meet, along with four other Virginia skiers, a smaller Virginia contingent than usual. I was pleased for Sam that he duplicated his success from last year--he took a silver medal in slalom, which was particularly impressive because the snow was difficult to ski, being wet, and warm and slushy.
[I'm also thinking of Maine because Channa and I have been married a long time, and I mostly lived on the Maine coast when I was courting her. Takes me back....
[Here's a piece I originally posted in 2014.]
Mainer Potatoes, Fire Baked
Recipe by Dikkon Eberhart
1 13’ Whitehall Pulling Boat, with anchor
1 match – just 1
coupla potatoes and a chunk of butter; salt
good heavy knife
Mise en scene:
Don’t burn your fingers when you grub the potatoes from the ash, open them, and, while they drip with butter, you eat them in the dark.
Pour water on the coals until they are really out. Toss everything into the boat. Drag the boat down the beach to the sea. Wade out beside her and pull her farther until she’s afloat. Stare off for a time at the black horizon.
What if I ask her?
Maybe I’ll dare.
When I was a young seminarian, I enjoyed walking in the California and Oregon coastal hills and planning more substantial hikes—even expeditions—in my imagination. Expedition planning was fun because it allowed me to pour over topo maps and to trace each elevation change I would later experience but this time with my fingertip. It was also fun because it justified time spent in hiking equipment stores where I critiqued technical improvements in backpacks and other gear.
When money was available (even when it was not quite available), the necessities of my pending expedition rationalized a purchase—for example, the purchase of one of those new Trailwise expedition packs from the shop on lower University Avenue in Berkeley, above San Pablo. That’s where I once saw Colin Fletcher, the famous walking guru—he of The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time—but I was shy to stand close while he chatted with the staff.
I had my own Trailwise pack, too, but I was not yet ready for the whole Pacific Crest Trail between Canada and Mexico—even my imagination was daunted by its 2,653 miles. But I was ready for a trial run. I focused on the Marble Mountains of NW Oregon. I packed and re-packed my gear, weighing it with Jesuitical precision, stripping as many ounces of useless weight as I could.
Here’s a Fletcher suggestion for all of you out there now preparing for your next expedition—cut off half the handle of your toothbrush. Three ounces can be saved that way!
Of course, the real weight problem in my expedition pack was books. Some gurus suggested tearing signatures out of bound books and carrying only those. But I couldn’t deface books that way. What I needed to read was Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. That was a weighty tome, even in paperback, but I found that when I jettisoned two of my four pairs of socks, my Bowie knife, my tube of tent-repair cement, and most of my gorp, I could keep Tillich and still balance out at less than forty-five pounds for a two-week hike.
Off I went!
Four days in, my Trailwise backpack and I were faced with a choice of direction. That morning, we could climb the rest of the ridge I had slept halfway up, top it, cut down its other side and end up by the stream I wanted to climb to the source of, or we could go all the way around the ridge on a flatter but longer path and still come to the stream. The first way would take about two hours, the second half a day.
My pack’s weight was down—I’d eaten the rest of my gorp, some of my granola, two of my freeze-dried meals (not worth carrying anyway), three of my oranges, a hunk of the cheese, and we were only carrying a half liter of water now instead of two liters—so I figured the steepness of the quicker course would not be a trouble.
We went up and over.
Having topped the ridge, my backpack and I were descending happily through a sunny deciduous forest. My intellect was fine tuned to a high seminarian degree—we theologians delight in what the medieval period called The Queen of All Sciences, that is, our study of the ways, means, and beneficence of God.
I had Tillich on my mind, my staff in my hand, and the sun at my back. I hadn’t seen another hiker during two days. This was my world—and surely the Pacific Crest Trail was next—mine for the taking.
I rounded an outcrop and a vast brown hairy object exploded upward from eight feet before me, emitted a bellow, stared at me during a frozen moment through its eyes taller than I was, turned and galloped away down the trail ahead, and then crashed a few steps into the bracken at its side—and utter silence reigned. That was the trail along which I needed to go.
Never had I encountered a wild and enormous brown bear this close—and I’d swapped out my Bowie knife for Tillich!
Since I’m writing this some fifty years later, you can guess that the bear didn’t eat me. However, I can still remember the tension I felt as I continued down that trail. I clung to the notion that the bear might be scareder than I was. I certainly hoped so.
I'd dug out food from my backpack—do bears like eating Oreos and bacon bits better than theologians?—and I had them ready to fling to him. My backpack was unbelted and loose over one shoulder, ready to drop. I scoped trees near where I thought the bear had left the trail and was hiding there in wait for me, and I mentally readied my muscles for flight response and swift tree climbing.
Then I decided to sing.
Nobody likes to hear me sing, but the bear probably didn’t know that and might not even complain, but I wanted to give him no excuse to think I was creeping up on him.
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
Step by step I was getting closer to where I could see he had crashed off the trail. Big clods of earth thrown aside by his paws; broken bracken. Silence—except me with my loud, untuneful song.
Maybe this wasn’t even a song, maybe a nursery rhyme—but it didn’t matter: I was loud!
He was right there! He was watching me! Right now, he’s watching me!
I was past him.
This was the biggest adventure my Trailwise backpack had with me. We went on other hikes together, too, but, over time, my emphasis became carrying less weight rather than more, and as a result my backpack got left behind sometimes when I used a smaller rucksack instead.
Also, my lust after expeditions declined—four nights on a ledge above Big Sur with no people, a couple of paperback mysteries, a skillet, and two pounds of bacon really was better than Canada to Mexico on sore feet, however much Colin Fletcher raved about it.
My backpack’s biggest adventure, though (after the bear encounter), was not with me at all. My sister-in-law Malya was going off to India for an open-ended rambling tour of exotic terrain and temples, and she needed a way to carry along a few extra rupees, some grains of rice, and maybe a head scarf or two. Might she borrow my big backpack?
I asked my backpack, who was confined to the back of the closet. What he said to me was, “When’s the next time you’re going to take me to the Himalayas?” I conceded not soon, so off he went with my dear Malya, and they had a magnificent experience among the foothills of the most elevated mountain chain on earth.
Don’t give up on your friends, that’s what I say. You may not see them often. They might be tucked away at the back of your garage with the four-man tent and the minus-ten mummy bags, but they are there for you when you need them.
Like last Sunday.
In the Blue Ridge, we had a big snowstorm. More than a foot fell around our house. It was the first snow of the year, and it was beautiful. Our grandchildren loved it. I loved it.
We live about a quarter mile from a big road which is kept clear by the county during snowstorms. However, the county does not clear secondary roads, such as ours very quickly. Our house is uphill from the major road.
Our son Sam had a work shift Sunday. During the storm, I was able to drive him down to his grocery store. However, when I drove home, for the first time since we moved here, I was unable to get back up the hill to our house through snow.
Over the phone, my wife and I decided I would go back to the store and ask to have Sam leave his shift so I could drive him back to our part of town during daylight, park the car somewhere safe, and then walk home. Sam is a good solid worker, and the store was generous to allow him to leave his shift. He and I parked about a mile from home and trudged through the stormy evening.
However, there were still about fifty pounds of groceries left overnight in the car.
My old friend, Mr. Backpack! Yay! He was ready to help me out.
Next morning, I found that we’re both a little clumsier than we were fifty years ago. His swivel parts tend to bind instead of swinging smoothly. Some of his waterproofing is flaking off. My hips take the weight his belt directs to them, instead of to my back, with less joy than was the case. His belt buckle was set for a smaller waist than mine has become.
But I packed him full and skillfully managed to keep the grocery weight balanced. He was patient as I propped him on something and managed to get his straps adjusted over my shoulders. I stepped a half step forward and felt competent as his weight settled familiarly onto my shoulders.
Pacific Crest Trail, here we come--NO!
But we did get home—uphill—with food for the family.
We’ve had a nice long life, each of us, he and I—adventures both of challenge and of grace. I hope you have, too, you and your symbols of daring.
During the interlude of my blog posts, much has occurred in Channa’s and my lives. Two broken bones and a squamous cell cancer. I’ll tell you about that in a minute.
I write stories about my Christian life and the way I experience and think about it. I write my stories in order to encourage seekers who are searching for God.
Many of you who read my posts are Christians but certainly not all of you.
In fact, some readers who are not Christians are among my most steady readers and responders.
Some readers who are not Christians tell me about times when they feel God is searching for them.
As my three-year-old granddaughter would say – “That’s funny!”
We all have stories to tell.
Consider writing yours.
Your family, friends, and lots of other people wait to hear from you about your Christian life. People who are seekers and people who are already Christians love to know how your story occurred.
Here’s what they want to know-
Please bless those people by answering their questions! I intend my website and my blog posts to help.
There is enormous pleasure (and hard work) in writing the story of your Christian life.
I am near completion of my next memoir—which is a story of my wife’s and my Christian life. Some of you read my previous memoir about our Christian lives, which developed out of Judaism a decade ago.
Many of those readers asked for more detail particularly related to the theological challenges we faced…and, they all wanted to know, “What happened next?”
If you haven’t read my previous memoir, it’s available through Amazon or your favorite bookstore—if you shop in western Virginia, please stop at Book No Further in Roanoke and enjoy its wonderful Indie selection, or order from them online--here.
Or you can buy it directly from me, autographed however you like.
See details here.
So here’s what’s new, for you, with my blog posts.
My intent, after Channa’s and my time of broken bones and minor cancer, is to give you, as a reader, Insider access to my process of completing my new memoir.
Insider access is for subscribers only.
All subscribers may have Insider access, but it must be requested.
Insiders will receive sections of the memoir as they are fitted into the overall manuscript.
I’ve been using assistant readers. Some Insiders may become assistant readers, if they wish.
Once I reach the conceptual editing stage, Insiders’ advice about pace, content, emphasis, structure, etc. will be valuable to me and will be acknowledged in the book itself.
At this moment, I have not settled on a title. Insiders may be asked to vote on their choice among several titles.
And there’s even more planned for Insiders. I’ll announce more later.
Here’s what my new memoir is about.
For the longest time, before Channa and I knew we were living God’s Plan, we were living God’s Plan.
The Trinity saved us.
God spoke to me. Jesus dazzled me. The Holy Spirit emboldened us. We broke away from our urgency to sin. We broke away from our urgency. We did not stop sinning. We are humans. Sinning is what we do--also we praise.
We broke away, too, from Jewish substitutionary animal sacrifice and have been saved instead by Christ’s Own Blood.
Here’s my plan, for you –
Subscribe and, if you wish, be an Insider.
You will experience my memoir writing, as it develops--
Each subscriber will receive a FREE downloadable pdf copy of my new Christian focus book, which is entitled
What Would the World Miss
Without Your Christian Story?
Please Write It
In it, I distill my experience and knowledge from years of writing my memoir and of helping others to write their memoirs. They may
I include bullet-pointed lists of things you must do as you undertake your own writing.
Here’s everything you need--
Here’s my plan, for me--
Most of my writing attention is directed at completing my new Christian book.
I’m re-launching my blog posts and have re-designed elements of my website to narrow its focus in that direction. Some future posts
will be of the former sort and will still be listed under the headings God or Life, as appropriate.
Most new posts will be different.
They’ll be listed under the heading Writing.
They’ll actually be writing, or they’ll be about the process and problems of writing.
Further, I am changing the time of the posts. Instead of posting at 11 am on Fridays, I’ll post at 2 pm on Saturdays, US Eastern Time.
Until further notice, although I will usually post weekly, I may not post some weeks at all.
If you notice me not posting on some week, you can know that I am writing very hard just then on the new book!
…and, as one assistant reader of my new book suggested that I say to you in this announcement post, don’t expect an entire meal with each post. Sometimes you’ll just get an appetizer.
(This reader is referencing one of my former writing jobs—almost five years as an anonymous, weekly restaurant critic for the largest newspaper in Maine!)
So what have Channa and I been up to?
In January, Channa’s foot caught on an irregularity of an external brick staircase, and she fell and broke her left upper arm—her humerus—so that the ball in her shoulder socket was split three ways.
This was not so humorous, ha ha!
Having never broken a bone before, Channa was both alarmed by and surprised by the intensity of the pain involved. The drug she was given for the pain was baffling, too, since her brain is usually very discerning and the drug’s effect was to dull her brain, though it did also dull her pain.
We considered shoulder replacement and at first leaned that way, but in the end we decided to allow the Lord’s design for healing to take its natural course.
Channa lived in a sling.
Our orthopedist impressed us with one of his comments while we debated surgery versus natural healing.
He said he could give Channa a new shoulder, and that he is very good at doing it. It’s his specialty. But, he admitted, with her particular variety of break, statistically there is negligible difference in terms of recovery of former range of motion between surgery and the human body’s natural healing.
Then this top surgeon said something that I loved to hear, from a top surgeon. “Yes, I’d love to give you a new shoulder, but also it’s good for us physicians to remain humble.”
Our choice of natural healing proved to be a success, and, using physical therapy, Channa has regained most of the former movement of her left shoulder. Now she can work on regaining her former strength, which she has begun to do at the gym.
But not so fast.
A few days after Channa felt relief that her shoulder had finally healed (and after she had starting to drive again), she tried to stop our youngest grandson from dashing off the edge of our deck.
He was then thirteen months old, and we didn’t even know he could dash!
She fell and cracked her right patella—her kneecap.
But this time it was almost funny. This break didn’t hurt.
This time she was given a long straight brace to immobilize her leg so that she walked like a peg-legged woman pirate. (And she was back to no driving.)
Over time, her patella healed completely, but, in the meantime, a red spot on my right cheek was finally diagnosed from a biopsy as a malignant squamous cancer, though fortunately in situ (on the surface of the skin and not yet inside).
So while Channa was managing her kneecap back to health, I was reacting to the first time a doctor had said to me, “I need to tell you that you have malignant cancer.”
The cancer was successfully removed.
Channa and I take these incidents as welcome alerts from the Lord.
You’re going to die is what we understand that He is saying to us; just not this time.
Something’s going to need to kill you—unless I send My Son back first.
So pay attention to the work I have set for you now—I and my Son and my Spirit. And encourage others to write their stories, too.
Let everyone I am searching for—as I was searching for you—know of the joy that is within you, AND WHY.
I need to stop writing posts. This is due to a commitment of attention, of energy, and of time that should go, now, in another direction.
I am grateful that so many of you read what I write, and I am particularly blessed by the relationships that have developed among us, which have arisen by way of comments, and by emails, and by other means.
Until further notice, you will not receive what have been my weekly posts, on Friday mornings at 11 eastern.
For those of you who are Subscribers, I hope you will keep your subscriptions open, so that, if I begin posting again, we may easily reconnect.
In the meantime, I encourage you to--
Live with and Attitude of Gratitude!
I used to publish politically oriented posts. During the past year, I’ve forsaken them in favor of posts that fall instead under one or another of the general topics GOD, LIFE, and WRITING.
This one is political, and it falls under LIFE. Life includes the political, especially when the point of the post is supported by ancient wisdom.
Have you seen the movie “Darkest Hour?” If you have not, please do.
Perhaps you have heard about it even if you have not seen it. It is the new Winston Churchill biopic, directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman among others.
The movie covers the month of early May, 1940, through early June. In early May, both France and Belgium fall to the German Nazi attack. With much of the British government disenchanted by the leadership of Neville Chamberlain, who favors appeasing Hitler, Churchill is brought out of relative obscurity—he is a disliked and maligned Conservative—and he is presented to King Edward VI.
The King, with teeth clenched, asks Churchill to form a government, as Prime Minister. Churchill agrees, and, as they say, the rest is history.
In early June, the Miracle of Dunkirk occurs, and the movie ends. But, historically, that’s the beginning of many, many dark hours.
Why should you see this movie?
First of all, it is brilliantly done, in terms of acting, directing, set design, makeup, cinematography, and script.
Second of all, it happened (not all of it: the scene in the Underground did not occur in actuality.)
Third of all, its event begins an historical triumph of freedom and of western decency as a Christian culture over Axis tyranny. I believe we MUST remember and embrace this history, or else we may go through the same darkest hour all over again.
Churchill set in motion the wavering hearts of the British public and galvanized his government to resist the Axis. Hitler was poised to invade Britain. In order to soften the county for his invasion, Hitler sent his air force to bomb London, particularly, and other locations, so the British would crumble before his army when it waded ashore. This began the Battle of Britain, an air war that stirred the hearts of the Allied world.
Here’s a snapshot--
Thursday, August 15, 1940
Blue skies over Britain.
Never before have more sorties of bombers been flown against the battered democracy in Britain than Hitler sends today.
Luftflotte 5 strikes northern England from its base in Norway. Luftflotten 2 and 3 hurl themselves once again across the Channel. It is high tide in the Battle of Britain, and Hitler’s invasion itself is only moments away. Britain is virtually bankrupt.
Despite the evacuation of 338,226 troops from France—the Miracle of Dunkirk—her army is toothless, nearly all of its weapons abandoned on the French shoreline.
Hitler owns Europe. His U-boats own the North Atlantic. The RAF is stretched too thin: every fighting plane—every spitfire and hurricane—is airborne. There are no reserves at all. The War Cabinet calculates that “pilot wastage” is running at a rate of 746 men per month, way more than are being trained.
When asked for his war plan, Churchill replies, “My plan is we survive the next three weeks.”
The question then, possibly the question which might emerge nowadays: Will the democracies consent to their own survival? A secret warrior, code named Intrepid, is even at that moment negotiating with President Roosevelt for the loan of 50 rusty, outmoded destroyers…anything, in fact, that might stem the tide. He’s the one who phrased the question above. Will the democracies consent to their own survival?
Three hundred twenty-four years before this, Shakespeare died. Here’s another way to ask that same question. Will the democracies be Hamlet, or Horatio? Will they dither and muse? Or will they—as bluff soldiers do—march across a stage strewn with the corpses of the better-notters…and survive?
Roosevelt can do nothing openly to help. The dithering American public will not allow it. This conflict on the far side of the world is not theirs.
Only twenty years before, they consented to pull Europe’s chestnuts out of the fire, and what good has that done? Now three massive tyrannies are spreading like cancers across the other side of the world--Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Tojo’s—the capitalist system seems to be in ruins, and if there is any hope during this bloody century, it must be in the Soviet worker’s paradise (wherein a few eggs need to be broken to make an omelet, indeed, but Stalin should be given a tolerant pass about his tyrannous internal egg-breaking).
The question then, the question now: Will the democracies consent to their own survival?
That which is great is also that which is miserable. The greatest single idea of democracy is that the people rule; they have their say. The greatest single weakness of democracy is that, while the people are saying—on and on—the gray ideas will ensnare them, and they won’t see the black and the white.
What is the case today, in 2018? Hitler wrote Mien Kampf: he told the democracies what he planned to do, in advance.
Today, in Iran, in North Korea, and elsewhere, tyrants almost daily tell us what they plan to do, in advance.
Will the democracies consent to their own survival?
It takes a mighty provocation for a democracy to fight and especially to fight to the death. Tyrants always get the upper hand right away quick: they don’t hold back. But the democracies cry, “Wait! Wait! Let’s talk. Surely, surely, we can talk this problem through.”
It’s what tyrants count on; it gives them time.
Which they need…because there’s this other thing about the democracies. As Victor Davis Hansen has pointed out, when the democracies are finally put to it, when they finally perceive the choice to be either black or white, at long last, free men and women stand up to be counted, and then the tyrants are toast.
Churchill, evening, August 15, 1940. The Battle of Britain lasted through mid-September, but this was the end of its last, worst days—before little Britain and her spitfire pilots banished the massive German air force from its skies:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The picture is our son Sam showing his silver medal, which he won last Monday at the North Carolina Special Olympics winter games at Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock.
He looks pleased, doesn’t he?
Blowing Rock, NC, is a four-hour drive from our home in Roanoke, Virginia. Our SW Virginia contingent of athletes attended the games as a group. This was Sam’s and my second time at this venue.
Sam medaled there last year, too.
Last weekend’s event was fun for all, with a banquet and a raucous dance on Sunday night and then a rush to get off the mountain ahead of the coming “wintery mix,” which was due on Monday afternoon, to break the intense cold everyone in the US had experienced during the previous many days.
The drivers of our car pool of vehicles were not concerned about getting off the mountain. That would be easy.
We were concerned that the wintry mix was coming fast from the west, and we needed to stay ahead of it while we rushed eastward for 100 miles before we could climb the most difficult part of the road we would be on. We didn’t want to be caught on that difficult part of the road, slushing through any form of wintery mix.
This difficult part is famous among drivers on I-77 as a very steep and scary stretch, to be avoided in any sort of powerful weather. It has a precipitous drop, open to the south and the east, carries intense truck traffic, slams with powerful cross-winds, and it seems to be going either straight up or straight down (though of course it isn’t—it just seems so).
We were going to be going up. We were leaving the NC lowlands for Virginia’s mountains, and we would be crossing into Virginia at the crest—in a tiny town of fancy name—the town of Fancy Gap.
Yes, the wintry mix did hit us.
After 100 fast miles, it hit us just as we cleared the rise at Fancy Gap.
I wrote about Sam as a Special Olympian in a post in June, 2017, after his winning performance in the Virginia Annual State Swimming Meet. In that post I repeated a point made by my wife Channa. Sam competes in various team efforts, but he earns his best results in his two sports that are individual effort sports—swimming and alpine skiing.
In that post, I made a biblical point as well. I’ll make a small point this time, too. Devotional, not biblical.
But, really what I am most enthusiastic to communicate about last weekend is how pleased I was with Sam’s athletic effort and with his excitement about his result.
If you’d like, here’s the link to the earlier post.
Swimming and skiing are team sports, of course, but only in a general sense—the athletic competition is between single athletes and time. During practice runs and time trials Sunday and Monday, Sam showed he had mastered his turns—he never missed a gate. (Particularly, he never missed the third gate, which was the hardest to get round efficiently and neither lose speed nor get off track and thereby miss the fourth gate entirely.)
When the competition began, the issue was time. How fast could he do it?
You see the result in the picture above. (Taken by a friend, one of our team’s wonderful volunteers.)
Our team drove six hours round trip from our meeting place to the mountain…and Sam and I live an hour away from our meeting place, so he and I rode another two hours—that is, eight hours all together. For a day-and-a-half on the mountain.
Racing back ahead of the wintery mix, I was aware that we as volunteers and coaches were doing a lot of work—a lot of driving, burning of gas, wearing of tires, etc., etc.—just to spend a short time (as short as possible!) running gates on snow.
When we lived in Maine, we were only about 50 minutes away from a nice ski mountain where Sam practiced with his team and coaches weekly through the whole season. Competitions were held at one or the other of the two large ski mountains way up north in the state, each about two-and-a-half hours distant.
Here’s my question, relating to devotions--
Have you ever felt that you were going through a lot of work, expending a lot of effort, avoiding distracting storms, just to get to the point where you can do the thing that you had set out to do in the first place--which, in itself, is the point?
Have you ever wondered, then, whether the effort has been worth the result?
Sometimes the effort is greater—like getting to and from Blowing Rock—or sometimes lesser—like driving less than an hour to ski all afternoon. But still it’s an effort.
As for the result?
From a skiing perspective, observe Sam’s grin. Sam loves to know that he is a competent skier. He loves to go on any trips away from home, and ski trips with me are special favorites. He loves to display his medals, but his medals are not the point for him—for him, it’s the being there, the experience, and the joy.
From a devotional perspective, of course, you yourself must gauge your result.
Speaking for myself, I am too easily distracted by the effort of getting there, and pray—in 2018—for a more disciplined willingness to focus on the doing-of-it whatever the effort.
May it be so.
Welcome to the New Year! May you be blessed!
In this new year, I resolve to climb beyond an habitual sin of mine and to progress in imitation of Jesus.
Below, I reflect on this matter by focusing on four ages of my life—when I was twelve, when I was about twenty, when I was about fifty, and when I was sixty.
As I write, now as a Christian, I am seventy-one and am challenged to speak truthfully, succinctly, usefully, and in imitation of Jesus.
I was twelve. It was cold.
That morning, I noticed that the temperature outside our house was 39 degrees below zero.
I took off my shirt and dashed outside.
Mom spun away from the stove and shouted, “Wait! Wait! Dikkon Eberhart, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
I slammed the door shut behind me.
(Wooden doors don’t slam with their usual sound at 39 below. They bang and sharply reverberate.)
The door wrenched back open. Mom stuck her head out. “Dikkon, come in this second! THIS SECOND!”
I stood on the porch with my arms spread out. (I admit the air in my lungs had frozen stiff, and I was gasping--but I was out there without a shirt on, at 39 below!)
“Richie!” Mom yelled over her shoulder at Dad, “Richie, come here! Your son—he’s….”
She slammed the door.
We lived in Hanover, NH, which is about halfway up the state, on hilly terrain. Hanover is not so far up north in New Hampshire as to be in the real mountains. But on a still night without cloud one day after a full moon, even in Hanover the temperature can fall to 30 degrees below and lower.
I was a man, outside, naked to the waist, at 39 below.
New Hampshire’s real mountains are the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, which is dominated, as part of a great curving east-west massif, by Mount Washington. Mount Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States, at 6,288 feet. Also it is the windiest spot on the globe, having registered a sustained wind of 231 mph at the summit’s weather station, in 1934.
Furthermore, Mount Washington is one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in the United States.
One, while Mount Washington is not as high as other mountains in the United States, its weather can become lethal very, very quickly.
Two, the mountain is located only a three-and-a-half hour drive north of the densely populated Boston area.
Well, in sunny Boston there live many carefree hikers who are just watching for a good day to drive up to the Presidentials and to stroll up Washington for a view from its top. However, Mount Washington’s massif divides cold, dry northern air from warm, wet southern air. The two masses of air sometimes pour across the summit ridge, and they mix, and--
Virtually instantly a sunny climbing day becomes thirty-five degrees, with fog and driving rain, so foggy you can’t see six feet ahead. Nor can you even distinguish up from down. And the wind is now gusting over 60 mph.
(You don’t believe not being able to distinguish up from down? I didn’t either—I thought it was a mountaineering tall tale. Until it happened to me.)
In Hanover that memorable morning, I was a man, outside, naked to the waist, at 39 below.
Even then, at twelve, inside myself I admitted I was cold. But I told myself--feel it, feel it, feel the cold!
The rest of the year is just April, mud, and gardens. The rest of the year is just summer, sweat, and lolling. But this is real.
This is the universe as it actually is.
The universe is empty. It is cold. It is permanent. It is huger than me. It dwarfs my fantasies, my problems, my conceits.
…but now I want to go INSIDE!
It was Dad who opened the door this time. I burst in. The kitchen was so hot it made me hurt.
“So?” Dad asked, “How was it?”
I wanted to laugh, but I was too frozen to breathe. I coughed and waved my hands trying to signal positivity.
Mom: “You’re crazy.”
She shook her head. “Now put clothes on, you dope, and we’ll have breakfast.”
When I came back down—turtlenecked and double sweatered—I was vividly alive. “For the rest of my life, I can say I’ve been outside at 39 below without a shirt!”
Mom included both me and Dad with her comment.
“Men,” is what she said, and she dished out the eggs.
Later, at age twenty or so, three times I climbed Mount Washington, solo. One of those ascents was up the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine, in May, which on that particular year was still almost winter on its north-facing wall. Partly I was climbing on ice and collapsing snow, with frigid melt water pelting down on me from the boulders.
Stupid, but I made it.
(I DO NOT recommend doing this, even if you are someone who is twenty years old, and who assumes himself to be immortal, as I did—at that time. Wait until it’s really summer; still a stiff climb.)
I LOVE WINTER. I LOVE COLD. I LOVE SNOW.
I have loved any physical challenge in snow. For example, like climbing the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine.
Then I became older, in middle life, at about the age of fifty, and what I like best to do in snow is what I imagine is possible by seeing the photo above.
What I see is a long snowy field over a hilltop. Enough snow to make a slog but not enough snow to require snowshoes or skis. Looking at the photo, I imagine the temperature to be about 15 or 20 above. Little wind. No civilization at all. Midday. Walking alone.
Looking at the photo, further I fantasize an average day in the middle of my life. I fantasize that there are two more miles to trudge across the hills in order to reach the inn, way north—up above that great wall of mountains in New Hampshire.
I’ll be tired when I reach the inn, I imagine, but they have an innkeeper’s reception in late afternoon at that inn, while the day darkens—hot mulled cider or cold beer. Probably sliced sausages with strong mustard on the bar; hard, sharp cheddar.
I miss my wife and children who are back at home, while I make one of my regular sales swings into the far north. I cold-called this morning, and then I took off during the afternoon so as to enjoy my trudge through the snow.
I have three well-prepped appointments for tomorrow; two of those likely will close; one of those may close big—I’ve been working on that sale for six weeks.
Here’s the truth. While I walk and miss my home, I need to be certain not to imagine that the whole of my life is good. Parts of my life are good. Parts, however, are not good.
I must not imagine but instead must be truthful.
Too often I speak too quickly and without sufficient thought beforehand. Not in a sales situation, no; in a marital or parental situation, often yes.
Years ago, undertaking difficult climbing challenges, I took great care to succeed and to thrive by means of truth. Yes, climbing the headwall solo in May with snow and ice still covering most of the ascent is stupid, but the truth was that I had experience, fine equipment, strength and sufficient élan.
Truthfully, I knew I could succeed.
I would need to plan each step with intent and with judgement, that’s all. Not unlike speaking only after each thought I intended to speak has been evaluated beforehand.
For a fantasizing fellow like me, the way to succeed is not to imagine myself at the top of the headwall, but to concentrate profoundly on where I am along the way.
To feel it; to feel it; to feel it.
Planning the headwall climb, I knew I could succeed because, years ago, I had once been a hero in bronze—frozen, yes, but—as a man—out on our porch without a shirt on, at 39 below.
Now my fantasy has placed me in the middle of my life but by no means any longer as a hero in bronze. Bronze is too cold, too stiff.
Yes, in my fantasy, I’m still walking in snow—but now with my family to get home to. And, since I’ve carefully climbed my professional mountain to possible sales tomorrow, it is likely I will reach that summit, too.
All that part of my life is good.
And then I am sixty, nearing the end of my professional climb. The truth is that still I sin, and my habitual sin weighs on our family.
Recently, I’ve become curious about this fellow Jesus.
I can’t go back to being twelve again, or even twenty. But here’s the question. Could I be myself, at sixty, just as I am…and still feel as alive as I did back then?
Could I? With Jesus?
And if I could—with Jesus—would I be able to climb above this particular manifestation of sinfulness?
As I understand it, those who follow Jesus believe all humans are sinful but that believers who are able to trust in Him may live with aliveness and awe even so.
May it be!
The photo below is of Tuckerman’s Ravine. For scale, look closely at the two dark spots just below the top right hand edge of the ravine. Those spots are two skiers. Also, there’s one skier just above the boulder wall, in the center.
To schuss the headwall at Tuckerman’s—ski straight down it—is an act of daring that was far beyond anything that ever attracted me.
[The photo is copied from the Wikipedia article about Mount Washington.]
I’ve read autobiographies in which the author describes great Christmas days when he was a child. Sometimes the tale is cute. Sometimes the tale is more than merely cute.
Sometimes the tale has something to do with that boy, the boy who was born on Christmas Day.
For me, I have a tale to remember. My tale has to do with my father and my uncle and my adult male cousins…and with my guns.
Here’s how it goes--
It is early afternoon on Christmas Day. My father, mother, sister and I have been at Grandmother’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the past few days. Dad had annual posts at various colleges—where he served as Poet in Residence—but, wherever we lived during any year, almost always in order to celebrate Christmas we came back to this house—to this house where my mother was born and raised.
That year, I was either seven or eight.
Christmas morning had gone very well. My most important present had come from my pacifist grandmother.
Earlier in December, my mother told me that Grandmother had asked her what I most wanted for Christmas. Easy answer. What I most wanted was the double holster belt with two shiny cap guns that I had seen in a store.
However, a few days later, Mom sat me down. “Dikkon, I spoke with Grandmother. You know there’s just been a very bad war, and that’s why your daddy was in the navy, and a lot of people were killed with guns.”
This was the kind of talk that grown-ups used sometimes. They referred to something I could not understand, but, because they were talking with serious faces, I knew I should try to understand.
“Well, your grandmother loves you very much, and she knows the guns you asked for are pretend, but she’s troubled about whether she should give them to you. She wants to know if there is something else instead that you really want.”
I loved my grandmother, and I wanted to help her out…BUT.
That holster belt and those guns!
The guns were shiny, and the holsters had silver stars on them, so I knew they must cost a fortune. Way more than my parents would spend on me…though they loved me, too, of course.
Grandmother was my only chance.
Then I had an inspiration. (Later in my life, I made my career as a salesman. You’re about to learn why that was my obvious career choice. At seven or eight, I knew intuitively how to engage with and how to counter the objection of my customer.)
Here is my first sales-closing statement. “Tell Grandmother it will be OK. Tell her I’ll only to shoot people who are already dead. I promise.”
That cracked my mother up, and she told me years later it made grandmother laugh, too, though ruefully: Grandmother really was a pacifist.
But I got my guns!
So, it is early afternoon, and relatives and friends begin to arrive for Christmas dinner. My mother’s brother Charlie is one of the first to arrive, along with my Aunt Aggie, and their daughters, Kate and Susan, who are my close pals—we three and my sister were accustomed to wrestle around with one another like puppies in a box.
I stand in the vestibule, wearing my guns.
One after another, these tall men come through the outer door, smelling of cold snow and winter wind, their faces red. They all wear overcoats, which they doff as they trade greetings with Dad, who acts as host since my grandfather died two years before. The overcoats smell of the outdoors and swirl a cold air as they are swung off shoulders and hung among others already there.
These men are well dressed, good-looking, competent. They chat with one another as though they are all members of that enviable club—the club of adult maleness.
They notice me; they greet me.
More than anything on earth, I long for membership in their club. I would give up my guns to be a man in an overcoat arriving out of the snow from a world in which I know how to make things happen.
If you are a woman, you will have had much to consider about men. We men, I can tell you, mull a lot over women. But first, when we are seven or eight—and at later times, too—we mull a lot over men.
As we boys come up, we encounter the lives of our fathers. For most of us, we encounter the well-lived lives of our fathers. Our fathers are decent men, who tried, and sometimes failed, and then tried again. On the whole, our fathers are men who succeeded, much of the time.
Along the way, our fathers made their mistakes of course. Eventually, all fathers display their weaknesses to their sons. However we sons already know what those weaknesses are.
When I was six or eight, I imagined I knew Dad’s weaknesses because of visceral sympathy between the generations. I experienced soulful accord with Dad. Here’s what I thought. I know Dad (comforting and cozy); he knows me (sometimes, not so comforting and cozy).
Anyway, Dad and me—we know one another’s weaknesses because we are father and son, and when our eyes met, we transcended the detail of the moment, and we were just…male.
But there is both a sager and a more godly explanation for this communion of maleness between the generations--sin.
At seven or eight, I probably knew the word sin, but it had no context for me. In our family, we were Episcopalians, after all, as high as could be. (This was long before my wife’s and my venture into Judaism.)
More to the point, my father was a poet, whose heart was tuned, really, to the muse. Sin had nothing to do with anything that had to do with us.
Yes, a shaft of jabbing badness cut at my guts, sometimes, and made me keep secrets. But—I crouched inside myself in confusion—perhaps boys keeping secrets is just the way things are.
Jabbing badness could not be in my adult cousins who wore their Christmas overcoats. Nor in Grandfather, who had been so kind to me before he died. Nor in Dad. How could there be jabbing badness in Dad—who was Dad! Nor in my favorite uncle, Charlie, who knew so well how to play.
I was the only one who kept secrets and who experienced that jabbing badness.
But perhaps soon I could stop keeping secrets. After all, now I had my guns. Maybe my guns could keep me safe from jabbing badness.
What is it about that boy who was born today? Did he have jabbing badness and keep secrets, too, like me?
There was something different about him, everyone said so. Even angels said so, from heaven itself! About him, there was something more powerful and more holy than my everyday jabbing badness.
Yes, I had my guns, and they would surely help, but maybe that boy would help, too.
Before we sat down for Christmas dinner at Grandmother’s long table we sang songs about that boy. That just shows how important he is.
What were those songs we had just sung, about how quiet was the night outside, and how holy it was…and about a Star?
Maybe…if I try really hard to know something about that boy….
Channa and I have two daughters. Each is admirable. We are blessed. (We also have two sons—further blessings!)
One of our daughters, the younger one, lives with us, along with her husband and four children. Her name is Rosalind Stanley, and she is a busy woman.
Among her activities is blogging. She is the author of the blog Days Like Ours.
I recommend you consider following her at http://wp.me/p7t1jG-fH
Her posts are irregular but worth waiting for. And worth sharing among your circles (hint, hint!).
An example is her post from two days ago. Her post from two days ago is about what God said to her.
That post is of more immediate importance than what I planned to post myself today…and anyway I admire my daughter, the writer, so I hope you’ll read her message below.
So Saith the Lord
Recently, a group of friends and I were discussing the times in our lives when God had revealed to us a piece of His character. (I know--my friends and I are a real laugh riot. I can tell you're jealous.) It brought to mind a moment from almost seven years ago, when my oldest child was only a few weeks old.
If you've read much of this blog before, you know that I dealt with many many months of untreated post-partum depression, a holdover from the many many months of untreated normal depression. This beast appeared in all of its disgusting and insidious glory within hours of my daughter's birth. (If you're feeling a little too cheery on this beautiful day, you can read more about it here.)
Often an episode of depression will announce itself in the form of anxiety bordering on the unhinged, balanced ever so precariously with the belief that I can plan my way out of trouble...if only I ever figure out the right plan. Add the care and keeping of a tiny new appendage, and I was a real gem in those days.
Enter the book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, by Tracy Hogg. I inhaled this book. Hogg affirmed all of my instincts and made motherhood seem so much simpler than I had made it in my mind. She was famous for getting babies to sleep through the night within a handful of nights, before six weeks.
The book outlines her method:
Lay the baby down, drowsy but awake. When the baby cries, pick him up and calm him and then put him back down.
This is supposed to reassure the baby that he is not alone but also provide an opportunity for him to learn that he is capable of soothing himself. In the book, Hogg gives several examples of clients to whom she'd taught this method; they all have stories of picking up the baby 88 times the first night, 43 times the second night, six times the third night, and zero times the fourth night (and ever after). This seemed like magic to me. If I could get my daughter to sleep...everything else would work. I could be a good mom, if I could only get her to sleep.
So, my husband and I decided to try it out. She was somewhere around three or four weeks old, certainly in the right age range to start this training, according to Hogg. We picked a night and spent the day psyching ourselves up for what we knew would be a serious test of our fortitude. We were prepared not to sleep at all that night, placing all of our hope in Hogg's experience: by the end of the week, we'd have a baby who slept through the night.
Knowing how intensely mercurial my emotions were at this time, and how susceptible I was to stress, we decided to pray before putting her down the first time.
Did we pray for peace, for strength, for discernment? No, nothing that spiritual. We prayed that it would work, that she would sleep, and that no one would kill anyone else in the process. Then we put her down and stood back to watch what would happen.
She started screaming. My husband picked her up and started making cooing sounds. She stopped screaming. He put her back down.
She started screaming. I picked her up and started making cooing sounds. She stopped screaming. I put her back down.
I think I can spare you a detailed account of the next eight hours and just tell you: the plan didn't work. She didn't sleep, my husband didn't sleep, I didn't sleep. Nobody slept. This was worse than I'd feared. I'd stopped marking our progress after the 50th time we picked her up--and that had only taken an hour or so. My body was tired, my mind was tired, my baby was tired.
There was one unbelievable moment of grace, sometime around three in the morning, when the mind ceases to work rationally and is open to things like that.
I was holding, for the thousandth time that night, a crying baby, bouncing up and down on sore legs, trying to keep her quiet so that my husband--sprawled on the other side of the room--could maybe at least sleep for one minute, when it hit me: I was not upset.
I wasn't angry, or crying, or feeling anxious, or feeling disappointed, or even feeling particularly tired. I felt good. I felt useful. I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing. I was helping my daughter learn how to do a hard thing. I was being a mom. In that moment, I thought about how many times that night I had already held her and how I would gladly have held her as many more times as she needed me to. I thought how remarkable it was that she had cried eight trillion times for the same exact reason, and I hadn't gotten tired of her yet. I hadn't given up on her. I hadn't even gotten annoyed.
In that moment, in that tiny quiet private moment in the midst of the middle of the night, I heard God speak. He spoke into my fears, my insecurities, and my unshaking belief that I was incapable. He said, "This is how I love you."
This is how I love you.
How many times had I cried out to God for the same reason, over and over again? Hundreds.
How many times had I thought that I couldn't do what God was asking me to do? Thousands.
How many times had I been angry with God for making me do a hard thing? Millions.
How many times had God picked me up, and held me, and made soothing noises in my ear, and then, when I was ready, put me back down so that I could try again? Every. Single. Time.
To God, I am that red-faced, shrieking, helpless three-week old, and He is the parent, so full of perfect love that He will pick me up again and again and again, through the long sleepless night that is my life.
I am His child, and He is my parent. He will never not pick me up.
People, I don't know how to say this clearly enough: what happened that night (and what didn't happen: the hissy fits and self-pity) was not from me. In almost seven years of being a parent, and with four children for whom I have an obscene amount of love, there has not been even one single night in the middle of which I was glad to be awake. I hate being awake in the middle of the night. Middle-of-the-night feedings and soothings are to be trudged through, with as little anger as possible.
That one night, that magical night of grace, was a miracle. God used a sleepless night to reach down and reveal something to a tired and scared and lonely new mom: His unending patience, and His unfathomable love.
+ + +
After such a mountaintop experience, we decided to try co-sleeping the next night.
That worked much better.
dayslikeoursblog | October 25, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Categories: Faith, Marriage and Mothering | URL: http://wp.me/p7t1jG-fH
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Brooklyn, New York.
The Grand Army Plaza and its triumphal Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch. (1892)
You stand before the arch and gaze eighty feet up at its magnitude and at its bronze figures of martial success displayed against the sky. You may be swept, as I was, with the gratefulness which the Arch’s creators felt at the salvation of our national Union, coming as the result of our Civil War.
That conflict had cost our national Union—that is, the United States—blood and treasure on a massive scale. However, the war was finished; when the Arch was unveiled in 1892, Appomattox had occurred twenty-seven years before.
No longer was the South divided from the North; the threat of a fractured commonwealth had been averted. Brother, at least figuratively, was back together again with brother.
For a moment then, standing as I was before that 19th century Arch in my 21st century day, I was struck by how mighty our great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers in the 19th century thought national and human aspiration to be.
They honored victory on the battlefield.
The Civil War was worthy, it their view, of elaborate sculpture.
They erected an elaborate Arch at a central crossroad of their town—topped by rearing war horses, shouting warriors, and ringing lances.
The Civil War occurred during the 1860s. During the 1960s, my generation had its own military adventure, which occurred in Vietnam.
What did my generation do to honor its adventure and its dead?
Monuments are the way we as cultures memorialize our sacrifices. Observe the difference, then and now.
In Washington, D.C., we created “The Wall.”
It’s made of black stone. It looks as though it is partly buried into the earth. On it there are names, and names, and names.
There is no decoration. There is nothing majestic about this monument.
Visitors looking for the name of a deceased warrior are provided nothing which shows that the warrior’s sacrifice was about anything of importance.
“The Wall” shows that the persons bearing these names existed once upon a time; then they didn’t. That’s all. We stare at the names as they march toward death.
“Nothing to see here, folks,” this sculpture seems to say, “nothing to honor. Move along, please.”
This cultural and artistic indifference reminds me of a remark by a prominent American politician when questioned about the death of American soldiers in a recent skirmish in North Africa. “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
On the other hand, some readers may remember the name of poet Rupert Brooke, who wrote from the trenches of World War One before he was killed in 1915.
A memorable poem of his, “The Soldier,” is tied to the same consciousness that erected the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch and would not have understood “The Wall” in Washington, D.C., nor the remark by the politician.
The initial lines of Brooke’s “The Soldier” read--
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
A sentiment such as Brooke’s could still be written during World War One but not for Vietnam (and the sentiment could still bring tears to the eyes of my mother when she quoted it to me often during my childhood). What a romantic ideal!
Since time immemorial, war used gloriously to be between one man and another. Sword to sword.
Our Civil War was one of the first wars in which machines began to appear—machine guns. Mechanized war was a new idea. By World War One, about a half century later, soldiers were less dominant and machines ever more ascending. But Brooke could invigorate The Great War’s mechanized slaughter with our humane pining for grandeur.
By the time of the Vietnam War, about another half century later, machines dominated everything. Warfare evolution has continued—our future wars may be fought between machine and machine…with no humans involved.
In terms of the number of human casualties, that trend may be good. But it is dry. It is passionless. It is cold.
Humans, as we have reason to know (it’s written right there in that Holy Book)—humans are made in the image of God.
Humans are hot, not cold.
Machines are not made in the image of God. Machines are made in the image of man.
Machines are not made with our human tension and awful joy of choice. Machines do what they are told to do without awe.
A future war fought by machine against machine, will be a spiritless war. It will be a dry war. There will be a no-meaning war. Observers will build neither Soldier’s and Sailor’s Memorial Arch II nor The Wall II in that war’s memory.
We would be better off to bring the spirit of God back into our awareness during battle. As warriors for Him, we would be better off to long that there should be a corner in some foreign evil field that is forever…God.
That’s a war worth fighting and combatants worth honoring.