One Bucket

What good is a single bucket of water on a house fire?

If you had that single bucket of water, would you pour it on the house aflame? Or would you put it on the wall of house next door, to help prevent it from catching? Or would you offer it as a drink to the other people fighting the fire?

Just don’t despise your single bucket of water. Use it. Then go fill it again and use it again.

Think about the boy that gave Jesus his five small barley loaves and two fish.

What is the story I want to tell?

I see a scene of late summer, early afternoon and the air dry and restless. The grass has grown long and the weeds tall across the hills. Kneeling on the ground, near to a scrub oak, she carefully considers the remaining supplies in her pack and takes a bearing. She knows she needs to make a couple more miles before nightfall, and she’s being deliberate. She’s young, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, and I don’t know why she isn’t with anyone else. Something terrible has happened and this is her way forward. She is not in immediate danger, but she knows she is not in a place of safety either. She must be vigilant. There’s a seriousness to the situation, but she is not panicking.

I’m not sure where she came from. I don’t know where she is going, and I’m not even sure why it matters. When I tried to write about her story it seemed so jumbled, so scattered, that I didn’t enjoy reading the few lines I put down.

Maybe I will put down some more lines, and this story could yet reveal itself.

Spaces

I was incredibly fortunate to be a child with open spaces all around me. There was a pile of old haybales in the loft of our horse barn. I rearranged the pile in such a way that there was a space for me to sleep with soft hay below me, and walls of bales all around me. Occasionally during the January winter nights, I would go sleep on that hay pile. I can still remember one night in specific. My dog Esther was with me, and we could occasionally hear the rustle of one of the goats in a stall below us, or the gentle bellow of of one of the cows (yes we let our beef cows use the beautiful horse stalls). On that night it was snowing, and when the wind picked up, I can still see the way the flurries came dancing and gliding under the eves and settled on the cold oak floorboards.

This was only of the many spaces that I had claimed as a young man. There was also the massive limb of a giant white oak tree that grew on our neighbors’ hill. That one limb was as large around as many decent trees ever grew to be, and it had a perfect bend and arch to it that let me lay on it and watch the woods from a short distance up. I once asked a dendrologist about the possible age of those oaks. From their location, size, and history of logging in that region of Ohio – he said they could be around two-three centuries old.

When I went to University, I found the available spaces to be much less common. My alma mater had an absolutely delightful Arboretum (the other “Old”, and mostly forgotten, Arboretum had a rich history, but I’m talking about the “New” Arboretum here), and I spent oh so many evenings there with my thoughts to accompany me. Many times I went there with my closest friends, and other times it was the place to find solitude. On one occasion, there was half a dozen of us that went up late one Friday or Saturday night. When the dawn drew nigh, we climbed the hill and sat on the roof of a small storage shed, that was situated under the campus water-tower. This shed was a stone’s throw from a hedgerow that lined the backyard of the President’s house. We sat there and watched the sun rise up over the city.

I was some months later at a dinner with President Nellis, and I told the First Lady (Ruthie) that I loved the Arboretum tremendously, and how once I was with some friends sitting on the roof of the old shed and I apologized if we ever got too loud when we were so close to their home. She said “oh we can hear you students in the middle of the night, but it doesn’t bother us too much, we love and enjoy the arboretum too”.

But the UI Arboretum wasn’t even the space where I had my most memorable moments. That most precious space was Alice’s Room. Way up on the fourth floor of the Commons building (now called the Student Union), Alice’s Room was a small place of beauty, with wood panels and a wall of glass that looked out over Phinney Hall. You could see a long way from up there.

In the cold winter nights, the air was crisp and clear and there were a thousand points of light out in the night. There was also a steam plant down below on Line St, and the floo gas rhythmically drifted up and curled out into the night. It was mesmerizing. Sitting in that room, always in silence, gave me new perspective. When the tempest raged in my head, I could escape to Alice’s Room and ride out the storm of emotion and the chaos of thoughts. More than once I desperately hoped the janitor would forget to check the room, and instead just lock the door. That way I could spend the entire night in there, but just a few minutes before locking the building down, he would always find me in there and kindly tell me he was about to lock up.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to any of those spaces, and if I do, they won’t be the same. My memories are not of simple physical places, but of the stage I was in and how those spaces were interwoven with my life. Those spaces are part of my story now.

Story in Song

Bob Dylan was able to tell an entire story in just a few lines of verse. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing. Take the first verse of The Times They Are a Changin.

A repetitious and technically basic guitar strumming carries the song. It is just fast enough to make you to cause some internal tension, but it never sounds rushed. He calls out far and wide “come gather ’round people wherever you roam” and asks them to reevaluate their position in society and in life “and admit that the waters around you have grown”.

He spends just a little extra time to draw out his question – “if your time to you is worth saving” and follows it rapidly with his own answer “then you better start swimmin or you’ll sink like a stone”, but this game of question and answer is just a lead up to what he really wants to say. “The times they are a changin”, which he accents with a blast from his harmonica. This is the centerpiece of all of the song.

That is a truly outstanding level of storytelling. Bob is compelling and leaves you with a chill, and the entire song is less barely over three minutes long.

However, today I also want to talk about another artist, and a specific song that has blessed me many times, and just yesterday I was singing it very loudly in the truck. It has such a well-crafted first verse, that can be written in two distinct, yet equally true and beautiful, ways.

Consider the first verse – “I am weary with the pain of Jacob’s wrestling, in the darkness with a fear” – describing the state of being and then referencing this very famous story immediately gives us an entire perspective on that state. Not just weary, but weary as one would be after years of self-seeking and deceiving family members, years of living in fear, working incredibly hard for a goal only to be conned out of it by his own uncle. And then the next line in the song is magnificently written – because it can be written in two distinct ways and either way is completely accurate.

Option 1. “But He met the mourning-wounded with a blessing, so in the night, my hope lives on”. I take this to mean that He (Christ) met the mourning and wounded man (Jacob) with a blessing. As you know in the story, Jacob wrestled all night long and would not let go of Christ, and his (Jacob’s) hip was thrown out of socket and he received a blessing, a new name, from Christ. Therefore the hope of the songwriter lives on because even though he may be wounded and mourning, Christ will bless him in due time.

Option 2. “But he met the morning, wounded, with a blessing, so in the night my hope lives on”. Reading it this way, I can see a focus on Jacob wrestling all night long, and not letting go. He (Jacob) made it all night long, and even though he was wounded, he received a blessing when the morning came. In this case the songwriter takes heart in remembering the suffering of Jacob, now and his hope will live through the night because he has the example of Jacob to remember.

I don’t know which way Andrew Peterson thinks of when he sings this song, but it blesses me as it is.

Aging

You’ve changed and it took me a moment to recognize you. Your hair once thick with the hue of a late autumn forest, is but a thin forgotten gray.

They speak of the years being kind and of the days pleasant, but on your face the years have drawn deep lines, and on your cheeks the days have worn long.

Yet I see the same old friend when I look into your eyes. The life-flame within you grows still strong.

Overwatch 2001

This has nothing to do with the incredibly popular video game Overwatch. This post is about the game I first played in 2001 – “Halo: Combat Evolved”. It was an incredible experience for me. The first night I had played it, when it came to go to bed, sleep eluded me. I am one that often has no memory of turning the light off (in fact I frequently have fallen asleep with the light still on). On that night, sleep eluded me. Instead I had eidetic memories of battling grunts and jackals.

I had never played a video game with such a responsive enemy before. The intelligence was creepy. Yes the NPCs had their starting positions, but they moved and responded to me in such a way that it felt like I was really there. I got lost in the game for a while, they had at the first passed my Turing test.

Eventually I traversed the uncanny valley and the game took a much more mundane role in my imagination. The AI was scripted and bounded. It was, after all, hollow and dead inside once you had dug deep enough.

And yet there was still magic to be found in that game, not by the games designers, but within our own imagination – in recreating a moment that had impressed me as a boy a couple years before.

This scene.

An excellent story of honor, love, sacrifice… I recommend watching that film in its entirety. It will move you.

Anyway, that scene had especially impressed me and my younger sister, Elizabeth, and in cooperatively replaying Halo many times over, we had found a way to recreate that scene. In fact I can still remember exactly how we did it,

We would sit in the room upstairs in my mom and dad’s house, the old room with pink carpet and thick walls, that had once been part of the original log cabin. I had an alarm clock that was also a CD player. It had a cracked screen. It had a function to increase volume until the snooze button or shut off was pressed, and it would occasionally get all the way to maximum volume before waking me up. Unfortunately for my dear family, it would wake all of them up at that level. On one occasion, I finally woke in a panic because my family was yelling at me to shut it off, and in my haste to do so – I knocked it off the table and cracked the screen.

Elizabeth and I would play together, over an hour through one of the longest stages in the game, Two Betrayals, and make it to the Final Run.

Two Betrayals. Halo: Combat Evolved

A legion of enemy warriors, including even two armored tanks and a dozen dug-in infantry troops, waited for us at the other end of the valley.

We would then put, into that old CD player, the soundtrack (that we probably had downloaded from Napster) of the “The Last of The Mohicans”.

Most often I, but on occasion I would allow my little sister to do it, would sneak out ahead and steal one of the flying ships from the enemy. Ideally one would use the powerful weapons of the flying ship to bombard the entrenched enemy position, or at least to take out the heavily armored tanks, but in this case we would park our vehicled on a very high ledge and instead pull out the sniper rifle.

The other player, previoulsy watching and patiently waiting, would now arm themselves with the shotgun and an assault rifle, and with the Last of the Mohicans Music resonating in the room, the person on the ground would let out a battle cry and charge the enemy position. The trick of that person was mainly to avoid the massive cannon blasts from the enemy armor and to charge straight for the door on the far end of the valley, all the while the person up on the bridge sat in overwatch.

Up on the bridge I could see the full battlefield and I would use the sniper rifle to protect my friend from the attacking infantry. We made believe that we were the legendary Uncas and Hawkeye while we provided cover for our brave hero that was face to face with the enemy.

That is a most precious memory of a shared experience with my sister Elizabeth, and one I will continue to treasure.

New Lights and Learning

A recent past weekend, I took on a project that scared me. I ran electric wire to one side of our garage and installed two lights, two switches, and an outlet.

I learned more through this little project than I thought I would. That is funny to me because it means that I was ignorant about how much I was ignorant.

I learned to appreciate the wonderful role of a fuse. At first it was frustrating when it blew and everything went dark, then I realized that I had wired a simple switch incorrectly. I put the positive on one terminal and negative on the other. A quick Google image search showed me my error immediately. I created an uninterrupted loop, that would have resulted in overheated wire. The fuse stopped that dangerous progress.

I also learned more about drilling through concrete. I learned why outlet boxes come in so many depths. A small project, just to add light to the front yard, taught me so much.