Pray that you are not tested

(time for the annual Good Friday post. Happy Easter everyone. See you on the other side.)

The trees crowd together in this dark valley, grown fat, and watered by the blood of the temple sacrifice. On this moonless night there is no light in the garden but those of the stars overhead. The stones still radiate the afternoon heat, and the dust clings to everything like talcum. He leaves the others beneath an olive tree and walks off into the darkness alone.

All is quiet but for the call of the night guard that drifts in from somewhere inside the city walls. The dark shadow of the mount is silhouetted against the stars. As he kneels to pray a dark bird is startled from its roost, and quickly flies off into the night. Above him the branches reach out as if to gather in the stars.

His companions are lying on the soft grass beneath the branches hung with dry fruit slowly giving in to sleep. An hour passes with no motion but the imperceptible turning of the sky above. Still he kneels alone, his head bowed in silence. The drops of sweat bead upon his forehead, and fall like blood to the dust below. The roots of the hungry trees yearn to feel them like drops of rain.

His head tilts upward, and he murmurs to sky. A slight wind stirs the leaves, and a whisper runs through the garden, leaving the sound of distant voices in its wake. Slowly the voices grow nearer and torchlight flickers in the distance. The red light grows brighter and the shadows of the branches writhe about his feet.

His companions wake from their dreams amidst the rattle of centurion swords. They are approaching through the garden now. The hour has come.

Pray that you are not tested.

Gravity’s Pull

The full moon was floating like a balloon in the western sky as I drove to work this morning. The sun just starting to add a pink glow to the steam rising from the buildings downtown as I made my way through traffic at this ungodly hour. The Mazda leaned into the curves, the steering wheel tugging back on my hands with a satisfying feel as the interstate snaked through the city. Is there any better feel when driving  a car than the bite of the tires as you enter a turn and centrifugal force tries to throw you off the road? There is something visceral about the feel of speed that will always draw men (and women) to push whatever vehicle they control right to the very limits of physics.

Perhaps it’s the feel of the chase encoded in our DNA from our Paleolithic ancestors running to bring down a mammoth with their spear points. Or maybe there’s some unknown organ hiding in our brain that releases some wonderful chemical when it feels the tug of gravity pulling at it; our moods rising like the tide as the full moon tugs at the earth.

At this latitude we spin at 700 miles per hour oblivious to the tug and pull of celestial bodies. Our earth flies around its orbit at a further 67,000 miles per hour without our feeling the slightest force. Yet the slight pull of my Mazda as it dips into a curve is still enough to excite my senses. Physics is a funny thing. For all we know and have speculated about the forces that move celestial bodies around us we still puzzle to really grasp them in our little brains. Well, I do at least. I can’t speak for Stephen Hawking.

Staring at the heavens our Paleolithic ancestors must have felt the same thing for as long as man has lived we have projected the causes of our struggles upon the movement of the stars and planets. Many of us still do. The stars align, the planets conjoin, and the earth trembles. Surely the center cannot hold forever. Surely there will come a point at which the wheels slip, and rubber no longer grips the road. A point at which we are overcome by one force or another, and sent hurtling towards our demise.

I press down upon the accelerator, and feel the force increasing, a smile breaking out across my face. Until that day, may our senses still tingle at gravity’s pull.

Standing in the field

It was a glorious sunny day on Saturday. One of those late winter days where even though the temperature was below freezing, the heat of the sun was enough to make you unzip your winter coat. So I packed the mutts up into the car, and took them to the dog park. It’s their favorite place to go for a walk, a 3 acre plot of rolling Oak Savannah, dotted with mud holes and woods, and surrounded by a wire fence. The one place where I can take them off of their leash and let them run wild.

Because of the weather the place was packed with dogs and owners out enjoying the scent of spring. There was much running with the pack, and barking, until exhausted they limped for home and a bowl of food before finding a soft spot on the couch to spend the evening. We returned again on Sunday, but true to Minnesota fashion, the weather had shifted, and we now walked beneath steel gray skies. As much fun as the dogs have when the place is busy, I prefer to be there it when it’s quiet. The hounds sniffed around, and explored to their hearts content this old field that was once the home to a farm. In the woods by the entrance, the old foundations of the farmhouse still sit surrounded by new grown birch.

I’ve always been attracted to places like this where the remains of earlier ages still linger in their slow surrender to time. The empty spaces where the vestiges of the past still cast a shadow on the landscape. Whether it is the stone foundations of old homesteads overgrown with weeds, or the crumbling hulks of old factories, I am always drawn to place my hand on the ruins and imagine the lives of those who built them. Did they know how transitory their creations would be? For that matter, do we?

No. No person would sacrifice their blood and sweat into raising up a monument unless they expected it to outlive them. Yet nothing outlives decay. Even the great pyramids will someday become a pile of sand, long after the names of the pharaohs who built them have been forgotten. Go to any rural part of America and you can see farmhouses whose busted windows look like empty eye sockets, the skeletons of an agrarian country that no longer exists.

Standing along the edge of the field I could almost hear the wire fence singing in the wind. Or maybe it was the ghosts of the pioneers who broke the sod, and tamed the land that were singing to me. The dogs seemed not to notice, absorbed in tracking the scent of some animal through the woods. Putting my hands in my pockets to warm them, I closed my eyes and felt the cold wind blowing over the field.  If I listened close enough I thought I could hear their voices through the soft hum of the breeze. Whispering their advice to generations who followed in their footsteps. “Put your energy into love. In the end it is all that will remain.”

On the cusp of Spring

Spring is an uncertain time in Minnesota. The whole world seems to oscillate hourly between raw freezing cold, and the warm promise of summer. Walking the dogs tonight, the March sun was setting into a glowing orange pool on the horizon. Above it, a thin fingernail of moon was just starting to appear in the darkness. As I hustled along the quiet streets, the houses were shut up tight, shades still drawn against the night. The silhouette of geese passed overhead in the cobalt sky, their honking the only sound rising above the snapping wind.

One of the funny things about memory, is you never know what will trigger it. It can be a scent, a sight, a sound, or sometimes just a word said in passing by a stranger. Walking the dogs through the dark tree lined streets tonight I stumbled through such a portal, back into 1985. The springtime of my life, when unbeknown to me everything was about to change.

It was on a night similar to this one, when winter came clawing back in response to a warm spring afternoon, that my good friend Chris and I were headed to a dance at Batavia High. I was flying solo that night, having just broken up with my girlfriend, and lusting mightily after the girl next door. I was sixteen years old and the night seemed full of promise.

My parents were working Bingo at ND that night and had taken the car, and my big sister was out with friends, so it took a little creativity for us to get our hands on alcohol. Discussing our plans over the phone, we decided to each try to raid whatever we could get from out parents and meet at 7 pm, outside of Platten’s North Side Deli.

Surveying the options before me in the empty house, I decided to fill an empty 16 oz bottle of Sprite with some White Lake Niagara jug wine that my Mom kept in the fridge. It seemed to be the least likely stuff to be missed. Walking down Richmond Ave to meet Chris I wondered what he would be able to score. I don’t think I had ever seen his folks drink, but being Catholic, I’m sure they were required to keep booze somewhere in the house just in case of an emergency, like a death or an unannounced visit by a priest.

He did not disappoint. Meeting up on the street in front of the corner store, he informed me he had managed to fill half of an empty coke bottle with some rum. We surveyed our options for how and where to go about drinking our booty. The wind was blowing last years leaves down the gutters of Bank Street, and the sky was beginning to spit light rain at us. We decided to try the old stone picnic pavilions in MacArthur Park, out beyond the outfield fence of Dwyer Stadium. Still, the thought of trying to drink straight rum, wasn’t sounding too appealing to us, so we lit upon a plan to buy a bottle of Coke to mix it with.

After that, it was just a simple word problem to figure out how to get the Coke into the rum, and the rum into the Coke in even amounts. I think we decided the easiest thing to do was to drink the wine first, then use the empty bottle to mix the rum & Coke. It was that sort of quick thinking that helped us score high enough on our SAT’s to get into the colleges of our choice. Oddly enough though, the SAT never presented questions on the best way to mix Rum & Coke in a park at night.

Shivering in the cold rain, we walked to the stone pavilions, and warmed ourselves with the cloying cheap wine, and the tangy bite of the rum and Coke. Taking swigs from the bottles, and holding them inside our burning mouths just heightened the numbness of my cheekbones, and nose. Then, feeling sufficiently fortified to face the lovely young women of Batavia High School, we made our way across the parking lot to the school.

As any clandestine high school drinker will tell you, the key to getting through the chaperons at the door, is to keep from exhaling. There’s a real art to being able to say hello to teachers, and parents, without letting any air escape your mouth. I’m sure ventriloquists practice something similar.

Successfully making it past the bouncers, we hung up our jackets, and started down the long hallway to the gym. The alcohol was just beginning to make its way fully into our bloodstream. I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. Passing the brightly lit glass windows of the school cafeteria we ran into Jennifer and her friends, who immediately squealed “You guys have been drinking, haven’t you!?!”.

There is no more grown up feeling in the all the world, than being 16 years old, and drunk. If I’d have known that then, I probably would have been sorely disappointed. The lights in the gym swirled, and the DJ played all the greatest hits of 1985. We found the group of Junior girls we’d come looking for, and began doing the white guy shuffle to the music, in a big circle of kids. It wasn’t long before the alcohol was making the whole scene seem like a kaleidoscope of sound and light.

The girls seemed more beautiful in that dimly lit gym, than they ever did in the florescent hum of the classrooms. Taking turns dancing slow songs with them, I was able to revel in their scents, and the fuzzy warmth of their sweaters, clinging to their small of their backs. At that moment I was in love with each and every one of them, which is to say that I was mostly in love with myself.

It was all so new. We seemed like the first teenagers on the face of the earth to discover the warm sticky embraces of dancing together. I felt like the night could have lasted forever, but before I knew it the DJ was announcing the last song of the night. I managed to grab the girl next door, and hold her close as the last slow song played, my hands slowly inching down the scratchy wool of her sweater, over the tell tale clasp of that forbidden bra somewhere underneath it. I had no thought or plan for what if anything would happen, I was purely living in the moment.

The song ended, and before I knew it, our coats were on and she was hustling off in a crowd of friends to catch her ride. Chris and I stood outside on the sidewalk, saying goodbye as they left, then turned our collars up against the windy drizzle, and started the long sobering walk home. I thought there would be so many other nights, and so many other chances to experience such bliss. I had no idea how fleeting it would all prove to be. We were growing up so fast, and time was accelerating.

How quickly it would pass. That was over 25 years ago. Stumbling back into that evening tonight was like finding a rare coin whose true worth is not in its value, but the warm reassurance it gives, as you turn it over and over in your hand.

Homecoming

First day back at work after a weeks vacation, so I’m running a little behind. Please have a seat and help yourself to a cup of coffee while you wait. There’s a stack of old National Geographic and Field & Stream magazines for you reading enjoyment. There’s also this… 2 years old, but somewhat along the themes of coming home again. Or leaving home. Or something about home. I just know it’s a warm one, which we all desperately need right now. So come with me to 19th century Pietravairano, Italy and stand with my great, great, grandfather Francesco DeBottis as he ponders his fate.

The Flight of Icarus

for Francesco

The buildings rise like wooden blocks stacked one upon the other, clinging to this impossible slope. The afternoon sun warms the stones, and peeling stucco. You run your hand across their rough face, and feel the heat burning like blood within. In this shimmering summer heat, people take refuge in the oasis of shadows under doorways, and passages. The streets so narrow, even a donkey would struggle to pass.

As you climb, your foot slips on the dusty cobbles, rounded smooth from the passage of feet, and time. The slap of the fountain echoes down the alleyways, as the women gather around to collect cool water from deep within the mountain. At the end of this crooked lane lies the steps to the Castello, overgrown with weeds. No one goes there now but children, and dreamers.

You climb the last few steps past the walls of the town, and turn, looking out over the cracked red tile roofs. The patchwork green of the valley is ringed by a crown of hills, set against the faded blue of the cloudless sky.

Rolling up from below, the peel of the church bells tolling the Angelus. This is the noon hour, the axis of the day. Women bless themselves above the wash tubs, and pause to pray. Even the barefoot children stop their clamor, aware of something watching from above.

You look beyond the crown of hills, to the bald mountains rising in the summer haze. No snows are left to feed the rocky streams, just the seeping of springs, like blood from within the stones.

High above a hawk is turning in the sky, rising on the warm breath of the village as it exhales.

You close your eyes against the brilliance of the sun, and dream of flight.

Snowblind

The flakes fly past the car windows like so many shooting stars. We are two hours into our drive, and the snow has been relentless. It melts on the roadway and rises as rooster tails of spray behind the trucks. Squinting in the white glow, their shapes move through the the tunnel of whiteness like the dim outlines of some lumbering beast.

There is only the black streak of road, and the curtain of flakes around us. The landscape lost to the storm leaving behind only the shadow of trees. How many more miles lie between us and our destination? In this blankness we have only our instruments to guide us, and mark the passage of time. Distance is but a theory we measure out in minutes, and hours.

The hours turn to days, the days to weeks, the weeks to years. Until all of time becomes a slow moving glacier whose bulk grinds mountains into piles of sand. Against such forces what difference can we hope to make? Our lives are little more than a pebble to be deposited in a moraine.

The minutes pass, the snow continues, and the hum of tires on wet pavement drowns out all other sounds. Somewhere behind this veil of white, deer stand silent sentinel, watching as we flash past. Eyes straining on the road ahead, sweaty hands gripping the leather steering wheel, our thoughts consumed by this race against geologic time.

Goodbye Big City

Our spring break comes to an end today. Six days in and we’ve had all we can take. Lil’ Miss 20Prospect is done with her leadership conference, mourning the separation from her new friends. Mrs. 20Prospect is fighting off a late spring cold, and me and the boy are just plain tired.

This city always amazes me at its shear enormity. It goes on forever in every direction but one. The blue crescent of the lake carving right through its heart. There’s a part of me that would thrill at living in the middle of these concrete and glass canyons, but I know my soul needs more space than this. Even our suburban twin cities paradise feels restricting after awhile.

Back home the responsibilities are lining up like planes coming in for a landing. It’s time. Life awaits, and dream all I want about escape into the country, the reality is none of this is possible without that. Time to put on my big boy pants and get back to work.