Regarding Baseball…

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the West Texas sun shines bright on the ballpark. I sit behind the visitor’s dugout, next to my father-in-law, with my baby son on my lap. Balls thunk into gloves. The smell of sizzling hot dogs fills the air. The crowd hums, most watching the game, some just enjoying the feeling of being out at the ballpark. Men and women, old and young, caught up in they rhythm of the great American past time.

Some call this game boring, but I find comfort in the steady rhythms of the game. Three strikes. Three outs. Nine innings. It’s predictable, with the opportunity for surprise and thrill implicit in every pitch. And there’s always hope, as long as one out remains. And every sight, sound, and smell is for me deeply tied up with memory.
I close my eyes, and I’m a little kid, glove on hand, hoping to catch a foul ball in the stands at a Pawtucket Red Sox game. I don’t know the rules of the game. I’m in awe of the hugeness of the park. My sister says if I pay attention I might catch a ball.
I’m a bit older, playing on a little league team in Pakistan, with my sister and cousins. I have to wear the uniform of the hated Yankees, and I fear that my mother won’t come to see me play as I know the reputation that the Yankees have in our household. My fears are unfounded. I remember the roar of the crowd when I hit one past the shortstop and take two.

I’m in Middle School, back in the U.S., and the Red Sox are on TV almost every night. Mo Vaughn. Mike Greenwell. Jose Canseco. Tim Wakefield. We don’t talk about Roger Clemens anymore. I stay up  most nights watching the game until forced to bed by parents who understand the importance of rest. I dream of going to Fenway.

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I’m in high school, visiting colleges in the Boston area with my Dad and sisters. We walk by Fenway, and wander up to the ticket booth. The tickets are expensive, but there are some left for that afternoon’s game. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. We buy them, and the experience is magical. Beyond what I had dreamed.
I’m in college, troubled by politics and so much else that my young mind perceives as being broken in the world, and low on funds. A ticket to the Lansing Lug Nuts or Detroit Tigers is always cheap and available, and there are always friends to go with. The rhythm of the ballpark provides a sanctuary from the existential questions that torment young minds finding their way in the world. In 2004 the Red Sox reverse the curse and win the world series. My friends and I stay up late and blow off work to watch every playoff game.
I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, sitting in the stands watching a winter league game between the Estrellas Orientales and Leones del Escogido. Merengue music blasts. Cheerleaders dance. The crowd sings elaborate songs between every pitch. I don’t know the songs, but the game is the same. I sit next to a beautiful woman who has for some reason agreed to date me. We talk about baseball. We talk about life. The conversation continues.
We’re sitting in a bar in Milwaukee, watching the Brewers win their first playoff series in 29 years. When the final run is scored it feels like the roof is going to come off the place. We’re a graduate student and an AmeriCorps volunteer, newly married, on a budget. Miller Park is less than a mile from our apartment, and tickets are cheap. We go to a lot of Brewer games, and that wonderful sunlit building with its retractable roof becomes a favorite place.
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A bat cracks, a line drive that zips right past the shortstop. I’m back in El Paso. My son is on my lap, trying to pull the hat off my head. We’ve been to a lot of games at this park, with friends who we won’t forget. People who’ve shared the beginnings of this Foreign Service life with us.  I realize that baseball, it’s atmosphere and it’s rhythm, have been a thread that has stretched through my life from the beginning. It doesn’t bring meaning or satisfaction in and of itself, but it is a conduit that connects me to memories of people, places, and different times in life. I look forward to carrying that thread into the future, with this kid on my lap and that beautiful woman who I took on cheap dates to ballgames and who still enjoys them. The setting will change, as will the climate, and teams we cheer for. But the story will continue. Care to catch a game with me sometime?

Regarding Volcanoes and Easter

K and I spent a few hours this week walking (with J riding) across a field of black ash and twisted rocks in the shadow of a tree covered mountain in Northern Arizona. Sunset Crater National Monument is where a volcano erupted, and it’s fascinating to explore.

Geology and chemistry tell us a lot about what happened here. Sometime between 1040 and 1100 C.E. a fissure opened up in the ground, and began spewing molten balls of lava into the air. Toxic gases and ash were released as well. The ash covered some 800 square miles, and the heat of the massive lava flows started myriad forest fires. When the event ended (after possibly as much as a year) all life within miles of the crater had been completely wiped off the map. The ash and rocks (cooled remains of the lava bombs) remain, revealing no hint, not even a solitary fossil, of the plants, animals, or people who were caught up in the disaster. Everything burned.

There is much that science doesn’t tell us, but that we can reasonably guess, about what this must have been like. It must have been terrifying for anyone close by. It was life changing for those who had to flee, and watch the farms and houses they had worked to build, and the forest on which they depended,  be consumed by forces outside of their control. We can imagine the cries of mothers whose children were out playing when the eruption started, but who never came back. The loss. The confusion. The dread for the future. 

Yesterday was Good Friday. A day that in its first iteration did not feel very good at all. Jesus’ followers watched as the man in whom they had placed their allegiance as King and Messiah was arrested, flogged, and executed like a common criminal. Their friend was dead. Their hopes for their nation were dashed. Personal grief mixed with a hopelessness about the future into a strong cocktail of despair. All was lost. I bet those folks (barring the obvious obstacles of language and time) would have had a lot to talk about with the folks from the Sunset Crater valley. Grief and pain know not the limits of time and culture. We too face it in our own ways. Cancer robs the young of life. Bombs and hunger are all too common. Ignorance trumps understanding. Institutions founded to make the world better fail to live up to their promise. There are times when we all feel those figurative and literal lava bombs crashing down around us.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story at Sunset Crater. We also visited several archaeological sites within a few hundred miles of the volcano, and learned that the century following the eruption appears to have been an unprecedented time of growth and advancement in the society. The population grew, and some of the most remarkable architectural projects in North America were realized. Some say that this flourishing may have been due to the nutrients given to the soil from the volcanic ash, which improved agricultural productivity.

I imagine that there were people who in the aftermath of the disaster steeled themselves for the task ahead. It can’t have been easy. But they stuck it out. They salvaged what remained. They found seeds and plows, and sowed new fields. They built new houses. They sought to do right by those who never came home, and found hope in the midst of unimaginable grief.

And the crucifixion was not the end of the story for those first Christ followers either. That’s the part that we will celebrate tomorrow. After a night of death, horror, and fear came a day of life, redemption, and hope. We, as Christians, believe that the resurrection of Christ represents the beginning of a new era. It is a time when all that is broken will be mended, and even death will ultimately be defeated. It is an era of hope. We know how the story ends. We know that good triumphs. So now we, when the fire and ash rain down on the world, can be the ones who despite our tears, pick up our plows and bags of seeds, and get to work. To bring flowers and food forth from the ashes. The times are hard, but our hope is real, and the world needs it. I’ll see you in the cornfield.

Regarding Grandeur

We visited the Grand Canyon today. It was a first for me. I expected it to be impressive. I’ve seen the pictures. I know of the brilliant quotes from the Teddy Roosevelts and John Muirs of the world who were moved to poetry by the canyon vistas. I know of the writers, painters, and photographers whose work was informed and inspired by this place. 

I knew all this, and I was still blown away when I, with my wife and son, rounded a corner and found myself staring off the edge of the world at a scene of a thousand colors. The immensity and beauty of the place is overwhelming.

I know that in the grand scheme of things the Grand Canyon is not that big. It is a scratch on a rock hurtling through space. A stream of water flowing across North America began plowing a path through the sand, eventually waring into the rock below, and kept going for a few million years, creating this scene in front of me. 
How is it that something that came about so simply could evoke such deep emotion? People of different cultures have been coming here for centuries, and being moved by what they see. The Canyon figured prominently in the beliefs of Native people groups who lived (and still live) here. I heard at least a dozen languages being spoken by fellow tourists today. People come from all over the world to experience this place. 

These feelings of awe triggered by witnessing the beauty of nature play a large role in the structure of my beliefs. These feelings, among other things, tell me that I am more than a mere physical being. There is a spiritual dimension to reality that is inescapable. C.S. Lewis said it brilliantly:

“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves-that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that ‘beauty born of murmuring sound’ will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.

For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.”

-C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 1949/2001), 42-3.

So I liked the Grand Canyon. You should go!