Harold Fry, Walter Mitty and Me

I am a pilgrim at heart.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming to say goodbye to 4 or 5 year old me in the dark hours of the morning as he headed off on a business trip to a magical, faraway place called Switzerland. That seemed to me to be a lot like Disneyland but for grownups.

I can still smell his cologne, feel his freshly shaven face on mine as he whispered his love and promised soon to return, and I knew the black fancy car was already out front waiting to whisk him away to the airport and off to his adventure. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go too.

The urge to travel, or more specifically, to journey, I am sure is etched deep in my DNA, and throughout the years of my life I have traveled as time, opportunity and good fortune have permitted.books

I have been transported by the requisite trains, planes and automobiles. I have traveled on foot, by bike, by boat and, dare I admit it, even in my imagination, but some of my favorite journeys have been by way of books and the millisecond frames of provocative films. My own story seemed best told as a pilgrimage, a travelogue of interior places, even though physically I rarely left the confines of my living room. The Spirit, however, seems uniquely undeterred by what we think of as boundaries of time and space. The world of the psalms, I discovered, was a place where past, present and future were all accessible, where physical space dissipated in ways that defied explanation, where the longest, most arduous portions of my journey were mysteriously begun and completed in the span of a few silent, still, knee-bent hours.

And so it should come as no great surprise that when my family made a bee-line for the Waterstone bookstore that was a mere stones throw from our Trafalgar flat last week, I hiked up my skirts and joined the mad dash. It should come as no further surprise that the book I selected and started thumbing through on the walk back, nose book-ward and thus running into people and trees, was aptly titled, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The book tells the story of a simple English man, a few years into retirement, who sets out one day — in yachting shoes and a slight jacket — to walk down the lane and post a letter to a dying friend, and ends up walking the entire way across England to deliver the letter in person. His motivations are breathtaking — simple, painful, archetypal — and like most motivations for most of us, they are inaccessible to him until he actually begins to walk. It is in the walking, in the hunger of journeying, the leaving behind and the stepping forward one foot after the other, that he matures, a process that begins with a wrenching self-knowledge and ends with self-offering and joyful abandon.

I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage somewhere over Greenland. The plane was dark, most were asleep, and I felt an exquisite sadness that there was no one else on that plane who knew Harold Fry, no one with whom I could reflect upon his well-traveled road. I blew my nose and dried my tears, sat for a spell in the dark, and pondered it all. Finally, feeling somewhat blue at having to say goodbye to Harold, I decided to see if there were any movies worth watching.secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver7

My sister-in-law had posted on Facebook a few days earlier that she and my brother had immensely enjoyed the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and seeing it there on the console I pushed ‘select’ and settled in to see what it was that captured Joe and Camille’s affection.

To my surprise and delight, Walter Mitty — like Harold Fry, like me — is a pilgrim.   I won’t spoil the movie for anyone interested, but suffice it to say that Walter, like Harold, can’t entirely figure out exactly how he ended up in the life he’s got. In his imagination, Walter is a different sort of person living a different sort of life, a life diametrically opposed to the real one he finds himself occupying. In the beginning, his journeying is all in his imagination, but as the film unfolds we realize that Walter’s imaginary life has imperceptibly done a deep work in Walter, enabling him to take an actual journey in the real world — a pilgrimage by plane and helicopter, by skateboard and bicycle, in the company of drunks and gurus and in the end, entirely alone. He traverses continents, runs toward active volcanoes, travels backwards in time to his childhood, and forward into an unknown future by way of relationships. In the end, Walter — like Harold, like me — is made new by his quest which began in imagination, was fueled by hope and hunger, and resolved ultimately in a quiet assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Perhaps all pilgrimages are ultimately about faith.

On Preferring Free Fall

A Graphical Representation of Journeying in the Psalms: If you survive the first free fall the rest is a breeze!

I found out last week that the drop date on my book is looking to be end of June. That made me laugh, because honestly if I was going to pick the worst time possible to launch a book, it would be The End Of June.  Not that there’s anything wrong with June. Its a lovely month, all swimming pools and farmer’s markets and sand. Lovely. Its just that the kids are home full time and we are traveling and my phenom editor at David C. Cook is traveling before I’m traveling and my actual paid job is scheduled to be insanely busy — all at the End Of June.

I find this situation … wildly entertaining.

This entire project — from attending Brian’s psalms class, to crafting some 40-odd poems (never thought I’d do that) to writing the backstory behind each of the poems and discovering with surprise that they actually told a story, to getting my arm twisted by Brian to get it published (OMG talk about getting shoved off a cliff!) to then having a thing called a “drop date” — has been an exercise in me-being-not-in-control.

So the fact that my book becomes available at a time when I will be spinning wildly out of control is just So Like God and that makes me deliriously happy.

I am not in control. Me, the perennial control freak — I am learning to yield.  Can I get an AMEN here!

I might, on occasion, seem to be a crazy person channeling Jack Nicholson as in “Here’s Johnny!” but in reality I am quite content. I find that once God pries control out of my sweaty, clenched fists I relinquish control, life takes on a delightful cadence, much like riding a roller coaster (and for the record, I really like roller coasters if I am convinced I won’t die on them — an apropos continuation of the metaphor I presume).

So, in honor of this plummeting free fall I’m in, here’s an excerpt from my book, Travelogue of the Interior:

“The best travelogues inspire us to undertake our own journeys, as uncharted geographical space becomes a metaphor for the undiscovered places within our souls. Most of us, however, can’t pray our way through India or hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Our vicarious adventure begins and ends with the book in our hand.

Not this one.

This travelogue invites you to start climbing – what I call “psalms journeying” – right where you are, in whatever spaces and places are available to you: the privacy of your living room, your favorite hiking trail, your community of worship. The topography you will explore will be your own and God’s and so you are free to reconnoiter whenever time and heart permit.

Psalmls journeying is, alas, not formulaic, so if you are hoping for a quasi self-help book masquerading as a memoir, I would encourage you not to waste your time here. While psalms journeying is deceptively simple, the process and results are as unpredictable and unique as the individual who undertakes the journey.  So, while I cannot give you the (unconscionable) “Six Steps To Wholeness In The Psalms” (as if), what I can do is show you the scenic route I followed. I can point out along the way some of the particular vistas that arrested my attention and sent me to my knees in worship, confession, lament and praise. I can offer my journey as an instance, a pathway through the underbrush, from which you can forge ahead on your own. 

If you are hungry for wholeness …
If you have wounds down deep that never seem to heal …
If you have big doubts about God …
If you are weary from trying so hard to get the Christian life “right “…
If you feel like you don’t have a voice with God and with others … 

… then psalms journeying is for you. It is messy and not particurly linear and asks that you take just a tiny leap of faith. OK, so maybe it’s a giant leap of faith into the yawning blackness of pitch dark. But all epic journeys portend of risk and the real possibility of failure, and psalms journeying is no exception. Part of me wonders if this is the very reason engaging with the Psalms is so life-changing – you simply can’t do it from a safe distance. Try to be but an impartial observer and the psalms will remain two-dimensional. But bring yourself to them, flayed and available, and God seems to respond by pouring out himself into the space we forge.”

Les Mis at Easter

This past Saturday, in the throes of preparing for Easter Sunday, the girls and I met up with some school friends for front row seats of Les Miserables, put on by the Pinewood Performing Arts program. 1525194_713789328632871_1784591407_nIt was a phenomenal production and if you live in the Bay Area and are looking for a great evening, I encourage you to get tickets. This is one talented and passionate group of students!

I have been a Les Mis lover since my senior year at Monta Vista High School, when Mr. Keep played the debut recording of the London musical during our AP Humanities class while we read along to Victor Hugo’s unabridged masterpiece. The written story is mind-blowing, a brilliant study of the nuances of law and grace and the gray spaces between our self-serving definitions of right and wrong. The musical adds a breathtaking and layered interpretation, and despite knowing every word of the entire performance, I still get chills up my spine whenever I hear its iconic opening measures. A few summers ago I sat in my living room with tears quite literally pouring out of my eyes as Alfie Boe sang Bring Him Home in honor of the 25th anniversary of the production. In fact, just wait a minute … I’m going to YouTube right now to watch it and then there’s this one, where all four of the Valjean’s sing the song together and Alfie makes what might be the most stirring key change in the history of key changes. Chills, I tell you. Chills.

Saturday evening, squeezed along with a few dozen other people into the tiny Pinewood theatre, as this familiar and beloved story unfolded for me once again on stage, God arrived.


The cast of Les Miserables, Pinewood School, 4/19/2014

I know I just lost some of you, and that’s OK.

But you see, if you recall from my post last week, Easter came out of nowhere for me this year. I ran headlong into Good Friday with barely a thought about the crucifixion. The weeks leading up to this most sacred of liturgical events had, for me, been thoroughly secular and I was struggling to carve out time and space for intentional reflection. I felt like a failure — as a parent who couldn’t seem to incorporate meaningful spiritual discipline into my daughter’s lives, and as a follower of Jesus, who couldn’t seem to carve out even the most rudimentary time and emotional space for journeying from cross to grave with the One I call Lord, Savior and Friend.

Then two young men step in and out of the light — one Valjean and the other Javert. One sings of grace, the other of Law. One sings of mercy, the other duty. Their voices flow seamlessly from solo to duet to antiphony, at times harmonious and then discordant. I listen to each word, knowing full well the end of the story. I know the last words on Valjean’s lips will be a humble prayer to God for salvation. I know Javert will take his final breath in searing, confused pain as he throws himself from a great height into a watery grave.

This movement from law to grace, this is what captivates me in the theatre that night. How hard it is, especially for those of us who have a religious heritage. We want the rules to matter. We want to be righteous in our own eyes. “Those who follow the paths of the righteous shall have their reward,” Javert sings, and we believe it deep in our bones. We want life to work this way, because we, like Javert, are sure God is on our side, and in that deluded state we heap judgment upon ourselves because we heap it upon others. God have mercy on us all.

Awash in the music, God lifted my head to see myself there in that antiphony. The entire guilt trip I had been living under for the weeks leading to this sacred Easter weekend, every moment of condemnation I felt, every self-chastisement to do more and do better was law. I was Javert, clinging to my bedrock beliefs about what God wanted from me and why.

The thing is, there are only two ways out of a life saturated in law — grace or death. Javert chooses death, because choosing grace would require him to willingly dismantle his entire understanding of God and the way the world worked. I know people, Jesus followers and Jesus haters both, who would rather die than hold in their own two hands the idea that they are wrong and always have been wrong — about God, about themselves, about what matters, about what it means to follow Jesus.

This journey from law to grace — it is perhaps the hardest one any of us take. To learn to open our hands to receive. To discover we have nothing to offer God, not because we are worthless sinners but because there is simply nothing we can put in our hands that matters more to God than our very human selves– not our talents or gifts, not our effort or grit, not our theology or our highfalutin convictions, not our money or time or intentions. Nothing.

You know what was wrong with me this Easter? I kept thinking I had to do the right religious things in order to receive from God. Intellectually, I know better, but deep in my core still the law lurks. “Do more. Be better. Work harder. Figure it out.”

To get through to me, God used what was readily available — in this instance, a 19th century story about the French Revolution, re-imagined for 20th century musical theater and then further revised for high school students, to remind me to live in the grace by which I have been saved.

As grace abounds, the law recedes, and faith takes flight.

It was a blessed Easter after all.











“The Book Thief” and taking words for granted

“Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out, like the rain. (p. 85)” ― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

book thief

My daughter, Ella (age 10), just read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I encouraged her to read it and she did this past month and we’ve been talking about it ever since — World War II, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, Liesel and Rudy, Max and what the written word does for a person and a community. It is a marvelous, breathtaking book, beautifully written. It tells an important story, and if you haven’t read it I urge you to do so. It is worth the investment of time and tears.

I read it first, in January, and I’m still not over it. Specifically, I keep coming back to the basic truth that words — and the ideas those words capture — matter.  They matter infinitely.

There have been times and places where books were burned. They were burned because the ideas in them threatened the powers that be. They were burned because powerful people wanted to control the thoughts and ideas, the beliefs and choices of others. In our modern moment we look at those book burnings and decry them and say we would never participate.  And we wouldn’t.

But I wonder: do we really realize the gift we have at our fingertips? Do we realize just how amazing it is to have access via the Internet and eBooks and traditional booksellers to ideas that differ from our own, to stories that offer us a way to see the world and our place in it differently? Or do we just keep reading the stuff that reinforces what we already believe, what we already think? We return over and over again to the pundits and the websites that regurgitate what we want to hear and in so doing we feel that we are not quite so alone. I understand this. I fall prey to it too at times. Perhaps it is an essentially human thing to do, this seeking out of solidarity, no matter where it presents itself.

But I wonder: if we didn’t have this outrageous wealth of ideas from which to pick and choose, if freedom wasn’t ours in the extravagant way it is today, would we, like Liesel, simply grab the first book we could out of the pile of flames, tuck it into our coats at the risk of a beating or death, simply to pour over the words, hold them in our hands, let them change us? Or would we pause at that flaming pile and decide which book to choose based on our entrenched ideology?

I watch Ella process this book, The Book Thief, as she awakens into the breaking dawn of her adolescence, and it is shaping her in matters of the heart and conscience. It is opening her eyes to a world she has to struggle to make sense of, and rightly so. It has ignited passion and given her a vision of heroism in the form of an 11 year old girl, an emaciated Jew and the accordion-playing German who taught them both the meaning of love.

I wondered for a while if Ella was too young to read The Book Thief. Listening to her now, hearing the crack in her voice when she describes the book, I know my answer.