Friday, December 16, 2011

Norris Christmas Letter 2011

Across the miles, and memories, and dear friendships, from our home to yours, greetings of Advent Peace from the Norris Family!  As 2011 comes to a close, we can all say this sure has been an interesting year.  Read on, for a brief overview of what we have been up to in the past 12 months.

A Junior and a Senior 
As if life was not rushing headlong faster than any of us could imagine, Kelly is now a Junior at DePaul University in Chicago, and Heather is a Senior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.  Kelly is looking forward to her last 18 months of college instruction (after spending the past three months with us here, as she finished some general ed classes in Southern California), and to being fully certified as an elementary level teacher upon graduation.  From there, only God knows what comes next, but the current plan is teaching someplace overseas for a few years.  She is quite used to world travel, having almost spent last Christmas in London, close to being snowed in on her way home from Livingstone, Zambia.  Heathrow in disarray, stranded in London, without luggage, and wearing only sweats and Tom’s shoes, she spent the next 72 hours improvising a new wardrobe, planning travel home, but also enjoying the snowy sights of London at Christmastide!   She made it home, via Houston to Los Angeles, on the 21st; it was the best Christmas present of the year for our family. Her smile on our doorstep will not quickly be forgotten.

Meanwhile, Heather’s life is never a dull moment, with present plans for 15 (yes, count them) separate college applications.  Thus far two acceptances, 13 more to go.  We are all so proud of Heather’s hard work, and Dad is just overjoyed he did not have to write an application check to USC.  Stayed tuned for more news.  The fall presented a surprise, as Heather’s grace and poise (characteristics having nothing at all to do with her Dad) propelled her to the final 30 young ladies to be considered for the Tournament of Roses Royal Court.  Alas, royalty was not to be, but Heather is quite happy with her life as a commoner, and another year on Varsity softball.  We love this girl.

Intramucosal Carcinoma of the Colon
Just a few words, but the gravity they contain can be life changing.  With those medical reference words, our lives together as a family took a summer detour we did not expect.  We don’t have a story of how our majestic and exemplary faith made this experience entirely free of questions or worry.  We learned deep lessons of love, commitment and friendship from so many during this time.  Surgery was required, and the result: no evidence of ongoing serious cancer.  In fact, what had previously looked likely cancerous was in fact, benign.  One more related surgery is scheduled for later this month; a purely preventative procedure.  Nancy is back to full and complete health, and we are all deeply and profoundly thankful.  Words simply will not do.  A word of prayer for one more short hospital visit for Nancy would be a gift to us.  The doctors want to keep a close eye on her in the years to come, but for now, the way ahead is clear.  Suffice it to say, we have a different understanding of the concept of the gift of each new day.  And in thanks, and as a celebration, we will be giving a financial gift this year in your names to the City of Hope (, where Nancy received truly remarkable and compassionate care.  This was a summer we will never forget.

More Modest and Thankfully Dull Adventures
As for me, the balding guy who is the oldest around here, this has certainly been a year.  From emails to and from Zambia, sitting in the City of Hope hospital waiting room wondering about the future, to awaiting a Rose Court announcement; it never, ever, got boring.  This included a business trip to Alaska last year just before Christmas (spotted several moose on major streets in Anchorage, high temperature +15 degrees), a conference in Washington DC in November, with a day to enjoy the nation’s capital.  The year was filled with some wonderful musical interludes with good friends, the Watkins Family hour at the Coronet, Alison Kraus and Union Station under the stars at the Greek, The Civil Wars at the Wiltern, and fall evenings at Disney Hall with good friends.  A week at the beach at the close of summer, complete with rooftop sunset dinners full of the kids and their friends and much laughter.  Summer evening barbeque dinners on the back deck with friends old and new.  Bruin games at Pauley with friends new.  Life is rich and full, each day.  Thankfulness abounds.

And so, in this past year, as Kelly traveled to Livingstone, via London and Los Angeles, I wondered about what seems to be the only event that can unite the people of these distant and disparate cities. An event that occurred in obscurity more than two hundred centuries ago, in a dusty village in the middle of, well, nowhere.

At the point of a single birth, everything changed.  Time was carved in two.  For everyone, forever.  For countless thousands alone, with their thoughts on Los Angeles freeways, for the masses riding the London tube, and for the dusty streets of Livingstone.  And even for you too, standing in your kitchen reading this Christmas letter.  All these places, all us people, given a chance again. Given hope. Christmas hope.  Christmas love.  Across continents, and time zones, and time itself.  This is what Christmas is all about.

Merry Christmas from Steve, Nancy, Kelly, and Heather

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Here and Heaven - Chris Thile and Aoife O'Donovan

This song is from the brand new album Goat Rodeo Sessions. I cannot believe how good this is.

With a hammer and nails and a fear of failure we are building a shed
Between here and heaven between the wait and the wedding
For as long as we both shall be dead to the world
Beyond the boys and the girls trying to keep us calm
We can practice our lines ‘till we’re deaf and blind to
Ourselves to each other and it’s
Fall not winter spring not summer cool not cold
And it’s warm not hot have we all forgotten that we’re getting old

With an arrow and bow and some seeds left to sow we are staking our claim
On ground so fertile we forget who we’ve hurt along the way
And reach out for a strange hand to hold
Someone strong but not bold enough to tear down the wall
Cause we ain’t lost enough to find the stars aren’t crossed
Why lie and why fall hard not soft into
Fall not winter spring not summer cool not cold
And it’s warm not hot have we all forgotten that we’re getting old

Monday, October 24, 2011

Of Princesses and Commoners

Sometimes it might be the better thing to not be among the chosen. 

You would think that at my age, I might have a better grip on this rather fundamental concept; that I might have the basic priorities of life sorted out.  But, due to a somewhat narrow minded perspective on life, and my decidedly clay-like feet, it seems I still have much learning to do.  Over in the past couple of weeks, I have again learned something I should have known very well all along.  And my daughter has taught me this lesson.

The (Seemingly) Important Thing - Becoming a Princess
In late September, Younger Daughter decided that she, like almost all of her Senior class at school, would try out for the Tournament of Roses Royal Court.  It seems almost all (only about 120) of the girls try out for what is known locally as "The Royal Court" (note the capitalization) mostly for the fun of it.  The Court consists of 7 young ladies from throughout the San Gabriel Valley, who are chosen to represent the Tournament of Roses each year, and to "officiate" over the Rose Parade on January 1st.  The field of applicants starts out with roughly 1,000, and is narrowed down over several weeks and interviews to a final field of 34, prior to the big announcement of the Royal Court, comprised of seven young ladies. 

As fate, seemingly random selection, and (biased Dad portion here) poise and warmth would have it, over the several weeks of Rose Court tryouts, Younger Daughter ended up in the final field of 34, who would stand up before the press and local dignitaries to hear the announcement of the Princesses of the Royal Court.  The Chosen Ones.  The girls in the final cut spent an afternoon at the famous Tournament House, being photographed and meeting with the press.  My daughter, meeting the press.  Has a strange sound to it.  In local social circles this is considered something elite, classy, and certainly the ideal compliment to a young lady.  Selection for the Royal Court means you have "made it" socially, that have been "chosen" by society; and that, in a way, you might even be, in some ways, royal.

And so, on a sunny Monday morning, parents, families, friends, and the press all gathered on the Tournament House lawn, to learn who would be selected for the Royal Court.  Long story short, the finalist who lives in our house got to return home later that same morning as a commoner.  She was happy for the journey, slightly disappointed, but fine with the life she leads.  I do love that girl.

The Common Thing
At about the same time all of this social fomenting was going on, something else happened in the life of Younger Daughter.  Something more mundane, not glamorous.  Just a school assembly on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday morning, for a cause that doesn't get much press at all.  Little limelight, and not something for social climbers.  A common thing.  To be more honest, this sort of assembly was about a subject many of us don't really do well with.  This assembly involves those in our society who are often not noticed, those who will be certainly never be chosen for any Royal Court having anything to do with the Rose Parade.

This was an assembly about helping families with children who have Down Syndrome.

Club21 is a learning, support, and resource center for those with Down Syndrome.  It was started by our dear friend, just four years ago, in the living room of her home.  Our family is blessed beyond measure to be a part of this effort.  For 14 years now, we have known Molly, our friends' daughter who has Down Syndrome.  As a result of this friendship, Younger Daughter has, on her own, taken this cause to heart.  For some time now, she has been planning to lead this assembly, as she felt her classmates, all 400+ of them at her school, needed to learn about families and kids with Downs, and how they might help.

And so, on that Thursday morning, the gymnasium at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy filled with noisy high school girls, and with families of children with Down Syndrome.  An unlikely combination, two people groups who otherwise would not meet.  Girls who have everything, and special needs kids who need, well, a lot.  And they will continue to need a lot.  For a lifetime.  These are not kids you can afford to believe in for a just month, or a year.

One by one, families of Down Syndrome children got up and shared their stories.  Stories of disappointment, confusion, frustration, challenges, sadness, and joy.  Lots of joy.  After just a few moments, that raucous gym quieted to the point where you could hear a pin drop.  The assembly went on for almost an hour.  I have never seen more focused attention from so many high school girls in my life.  The girls were encouraged to take part in a charity walk that will benefit the families and kids of Club21.  This will not make the social pages of the paper, but it will make a difference in terms none of us have the ability to measure.

And so, in the end, although Younger Daughter will always be a Princess in my eyes, its the commoner in her that I really love.  And, often its better to be among the unchosen.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Making a Difference in LA

Do you wonder sometimes if just one person can really make a difference, even in the midst of a world or a city where the sheer numbers of problems seem to defy the odds?

Look below for real stories, of real people, who believed that God had designed something special for them. 

One person can make a difference, just look at the opportunities.

Deidox Films - The Story of Lindsay  "...and then I spend all year....trying to prove it"

Deidox Films - The Story Pi Chui   "because I know God, I am happy, I am at peace"

Unsung Heroes of Los Angeles - opportunities to become involved and serve the City, through the California Community Foundation; including the remarkable story of Andrew Bogan, who believed in girls that society otherwise gave up on.

Serving the Homeless of Hollywood through the Lord's Lighthouse

Understanding injustice in the world, and doing something to help, via International Justice Mission.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tournament House

Just another dull morning at the Tournament of Roses Tournament House.

Friday, September 23, 2011

My Dad was a B17 pilot in World War II. I have always been amazed by flight. This story, sent to me by a good friend today, is remarkable:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Beverly Eckert

This is Beverly Eckert, who lost her husband on September 11, 2001.  Click the link below to listen to her thoughts, collected as a part of the Story Corp project.
It has been 10 years, today.  I will never forget where I was that day, and what I was feeling and thinking.  It was horrific.
Today, I will remember those many lives lost on that fateful day, and remember those left behind who still grieve the loss of those they loved so much.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

And Whither Then

This week, a very good friend's son headed off to his first year of college.  He has been raised in a wonderful family of faith, and is one of the most humorous, enjoyable, and clever kids I know. 

He left this missive on his Facebook page several days ago.  I can't get it out of my head.  It is exactly right.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Benign, But In a Moment, So Much More

Earlier this month, we received some very good news.  But in the midst of this good news, there was a moment, just a small moment, that contained a brief and fleeting glimpse of the deep struggle, mystery, and pain that are a part of this life.  Joy and sorrow, mixed together in an instant.

Several weeks ago, Nancy went to her surgical follow-up visit to learn of the pathology of her recent colo/rectal surgery.  The result : no evidence of cancer.  In fact, what had previously looked likely cancerous was in fact, benign.  She is, and we are all, deeply and profoundly thankful.  Words simply will not do.  The doctors want to keep a close eye on her in the years to come, but for now, the way ahead is clear.

When Nancy met with her doctor, his schedule was typically packed to overflowing, and she only had a couple of minutes of time with him.  I should interrupt here and mention that by some feat of sheer Divine Providence, we ended up with the Chief of Surgery at City of Hope as our doctor.  The story behind this is too long to relate here, but is quite amazing in its own right.  And so, this doctor is a busy man.  And a man that Nancy and I have been thinking about a lot lately, now that our journey through surgery is done.  And here is why.

When Nancy received her good report from the doctor, with a sense of compassion that is her hallmark, she replied, "Well, doctor, it must feel great for you to give out this kind of good news every once in a while."  I think her reply came from both our brief experience at City of Hope, and our experience the past years as grown ups.  We know now, sometimes painfully at this season of life, that often, cancer is not equivalent with good news.  Not all polyps are benign.  Not everyone gets to go home from the doctor and right back to leading a "normal" life.  Many do not.  Many are stuck in the midst of wondering, and worrying, and confusion, and hoping.  Many face multiple surgeries for a cancer that will not go away.  Many do not make it out of that dark journey.

At just the moment that Nancy spoke her reply, the doctor's eyes dropped, for a moment, to the ground. For just a moment.

What was happening in just that moment, in that brief, fleeting, glance away?  Oh, to know the thoughts in the mind and heart of that surgeon at just that moment.  To know the many surgeries he has performed that did not look good at all, where the cancer was not neatly contained and defined, or benign, or simple.  To see the things he has seen with his trained eyes.  To be present in the recovery rooms, where the post surgical report was not so happy, so simple, or so, well, benign.  To watch with his eyes, as he explains a not-so-hopeful diagnosis to family members desperate for good news.  And, as he travels home in the car in the dark, after a long day of surgery and meetings, and patient visits; to know the thoughts and wonderings of this good man.

In that brief look to the floor, so very much was contained in a brief and slightly awkward silence.  So much contained, and to Nancy, to us all, unknown but felt.

But we can imagine some of the things our doctor was thinking.  And we can pray.  We can pray for him, for the good people at the City of Hope, and for those involved in medical research that just may, someday, bring relief to so many lives.

And I have been wondering too.  Why did we get this good news?  Why us?  And now that we have it, what will we do with our lives that will make this diagnosis a blessing to others.  Its not just about us, its about so very much more.  Take a moment and watch this; you will see our smiling doctor at 0:30 exactly.  Watch this, and feel hopeful, and if you feel lead, give to the City of Hope, or the cancer cause of your choice.  Its important - its a matter of life and death.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Visitation

It was the day of surgery.  After several short weeks of tests and doctor visits, the day had come for Nancy to undergo the procedure that would hopefully remove the rest of a troubling polyp and possible colon cancer.

This was a different day.  A day spent filling out forms and waiting in a large hospital, unsure of what lay ahead.  There we were, the two of us, after almost 23 years of marriage, together in the waiting area.  Together, but also wondering whether we might not be somewhat alone on this ride.  Of all days, this was a day upon which it would be nice to know that one is not doing this surgery thing, well, solo.

In a perfect world, on a day like this, it would be nice be surrounded by a group of thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate friends.  Those who could say just the right thing at just the right time.  Perhaps a trained psychotherapist, and a thoughtful relative, someone who does not spout off platitudes, but knows when to be quiet, and when to offer a word of encouragement.  Oh, and having someone with a thorough theological education might be nice as well, for those tough, "where is God?" moments. 

That is not who we had with us, and that is not what we got. 

As we waited, in the distance we spotted a familiar sight, and a familiar person.  For the past 22 years we have lived in the same house on the same block.  At the other end of the block was a family with a mentally challenged son, who is close to our age.  For many years, he lived at home, and worked on the housekeeping staff at City of Hope.  We will call him John.

And on this day, of all days, the man we got was John.  And it was, at least for me, a Visitation of sorts.

John came slowly ambling toward us, cleaning towel in hand, his face brightening as he recognized his neighbors from South Pasadena.  There is something quite calming about a conversation with John, he tends to put one at ease quite quickly, as was the case with us on this morning.  John does not engage in complex conversation, but the style in which he speaks and listens is something we could all use as a lesson in active listening.

"How are you today", John asks.

"Fine, John, and you?" is our reply.

"Fine.  What are you doing here today?", John wants to know.

"Well, we are here for Nancy's surgery; she is scheduled to go into the operating room soon", we say.

"Who is her doctor?", John asks, smiling.  (We find out later, that almost everyone at City of Hope knows John)

We tell John the name of our doctor, and he asks, "Is he a good doctor?"

(I should interrupt here and add that this question is not one that I am sure is published in any therapy manual for hospital or social workers anywhere.  But for us, this seemed a perfectly logical and good question, asked by a good man with absolutely none of the grown-up filters we place on ourselves in our modern society.)

And so, we answered, "Yes, John, he is a very good doctor, and we like him a lot".  By the way, he is, and we do.  Saying that "yes" felt very good indeed.

"That is good", smiles John.  "How long are you staying here?", he asks.

"Just one night", is our reply. 

"That is good", responds John.  "Then, you can go home and recuperate", he adds.

The conversation lasted a bit longer, but I don't recall the details.  They don't really matter.  But I can tell you that I had the sense, in just that short conversation, on that very important morning, that we didn't need any experts, or wise people, or good counsel. 

Instead, we got what we needed.  A few moments with John.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Simple Gifts - David Tolk

Just now, this song shown below came on my Pandora at my office.   Tomorrow, my wife will have surgery to remove what appears now to be a small cancer in her colon.  How is a song, and a surgery related?  I am not sure how, or if at all.

But maybe they are. 

Maybe the mysterious and slightly frightening events of the past month or so are, in fact, under the hand of control of a God we cannot see, and do not understand more than a shadowy imagine of a man in the desert two thousand years ago.  Just maybe.

Tomorrow, as Nancy sleeps in sedation, surrounded by gifted hands a surgeon and staff, at a remarkable hospital, I am choosing to believe its all connected. In a way I may never understand, but can try to embrace with my feeble heart, and mind, and arms.  It seems the Shakers got some things right.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Where We Are
Intramucosal carcinoma.  Just two words, but the gravity they contain can be life changing.

With those medical reference words, our lives together as a family have taken a detour we did not expect.  But let me state at the outset that our likely venture into the world of cancer treatment may very well be a modest one.  As we have learned in the past weeks, there are so many more who are assaulted by cancer to a degree we cannot even begin comprehend.

For the past several months, my wife Nancy had been having some unusual digestive issues, and so, she went to see the doctor.  After that visit, an early colonoscopy was referred, and after the pathology reports came back, we now are familiar with two new words.  A quick word of warning and advice.  Nancy's maternal grandfather likely died of colon cancer.  If you have ANY history of colon cancer in your family, go get a colonoscopy.  NOW.

These words led us to this place, The City of Hope in Duarte, and to a kind and informative surgeon.  Nancy will be having further endoscopic look-sees soon, and then likely minor surgery to remove the balance of the cancerous tissue in July, and at this point we are quite hopeful the surgery will be the only significant milestone we have in the world of cancer.  But we do not know where this will end.  We can only, well, Hope.  I think we are at the right place for that.

What This Might Mean
One does not wake up on a Friday morning and decide, "I think today I will go to a national cancer center and walk the halls, just to see what it feels like."  But last Friday found me doing just that, as I waited for Nancy to complete the scheduling process of her future visits.  And what a walk it was.  Without knowing, my walk led me past the pediatric oncology offices.  There, looking in the door as I passed was a boy of no more than 7, with a bald head and surgical mask, staring into the aquarium in the waiting room.  As I felt my heart rising in my throat, suddenly, right there, our family journey with two words had its proper perspective.

I am not going to tell you a story of how our majestic and exemplary faith has made this experience thus far entirely free of questions or worry.  Simply stated, we do not know where we are headed on this journey.  But we do know this; we are not going alone.  Over the past days we have been embraced by friends and family with notes, and cards, and even flowers (save those, please, they are a bit creepy at this point in the process), but mostly with love.  We are at peace, knowing also that we are not alone in the Universe.  These two medical reference words now with us, these words do not define us.  They are not larger than we are.

In the midst of this, we are reminded that we do not travel this road alone.   There is One who knows our way, and walks these halls with us.  He knows the way we will go.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Coming Soon, at the Greek Theater

In 10 days, we are all going with a bunch of friends to the Greek Theater to see....

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Of Baby Owls, Ancient Indians, and A Nightfall Walk

We think all that matters is today.  The immediate.   Now.  But sometimes, just going on a walk helps us to get perspective on the broad arch of time, and how we fit into that. 

This is a nighttime view of Eddie Park in South Pasadena, just a block and a half from where we live.  Last week, I took Our dog Ella on a walk past Eddie Park, just after dusk, as the western skyline darkened.

Something wonderful and mysterious happened, and I have been thinking about it on and off ever since.

The Little Owl
It was a quiet night, no one was out, all the families and kids who frequent the sideways and parks this time of year were elsewhere.  As Ella and I approached Eddie park in the gathering dusk, we both heard a rather soft peeping sound that drew our attention to the center of the open grassy field.  And there, about 40 feet away on the lawn of the park was a small, peeping creature about the size of a little football; faintly visible in the park streetlight.  A baby barn owl, right there in the middle of the city.  A little visitor from nature, peeping in the grass.  And Ella seemed to know not to yank the leash and chase this baby.  As we stood there, surprised and staring, the baby owl suddenly took graceful flight to a tree above and ahead of us.  As she gently swooped above us, we could tell this was not a bird new to the concept of flight, this was a little owl confident of her flying skills.

I stood still and wondered how she ended up in this park, on this night, at just the time we came walking by.  I, interrupted on my walk, consumed in the thoughts of my workday and family, and Ella, sniffing for something interesting in the grass.  Why did we meet like this, in this simply beautiful weekday evening calm.  And where would that baby owl go from there?  What would the rest of her night be like, where would she fly, what might she see, quietly gliding in the growing dark over the homes in our neighborhood, looking into the lighted windows of our homes?

The Indians
Several weeks ago, our local paper revealed a fascinating glimpse into the long-ago history of our neighborhood.  Recently, a woman gardening in her back yard, just two blocks from our home, discovered a human skull buried in the shallow soil of her garden.  The Coroner was called, research was done on the remains, and it was determined that this was very likely part of the remains of a Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe member.  Just inches from the bottom side of the grass.  Right here, blocks from our home.  This Indian man or woman, there in the shallow soil, resting quietly for hundreds of years.  What had our neighborhood been like back then, in 1500 or 1700, long before streets and sidewalks and running water and homes and parks?  Before the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Great Wars?  Did you walk on the land that would become our street and our yard?  What did you know of the greater world?

As Ella and I continued on our evening walk, I thought of that little owl and the buried Indian.  And then, it struck me that the real original occupants of the place we call home were......owls and Indians.  For hundreds, if not thousands of years.  Long before I, or my family, or any of our friends even existed.  Deep into history.

I live in a world of present tense.  Most of the time, I have little interest in the past, or in pondering my place in the grand scheme of things.  Maybe life is just a series of random events or loosely connected occurrences. 

But perhaps that walk in the park, the finding of the Tongva in the garden soil, and those moments with the baby owl are not random at all.  Maybe these things are all orchestrated, are part of a deep mystery we will never fully understand.  A final resting place in a suburban garden, a little owl drifting over our homes in the deep of night, and a walk in the dark by a middle-aged man.  All connected in some way?  I wonder.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

More Than Just a Hike

A couple of Sundays ago was Mothers Day, and my sweet wife and the mother of our children had a plan for her Special Day.  She wanted to go on a hike. 

Quite different from what Dad will want on his day - which will likely consist of a medium rare steak he cooks himself, and a .... sit.  As opposed to a hike.  But enough about me.

We loaded up the car with a simple picnic lunch, and took off for this place, above Glendale.  The best part of the day was that Older Daughter had decided to board a plane and fly 1,700 miles home from college, just for Mothers Day.  For me, this was a wonderful illustration of the magnetic power of a mother's love. 

And so, the whole family was together again.  It doesn't happen as much these days, with Older Daughter off at college, and Younger Daughter quite independent and very busy as a high school junior.  And so, there was a simple sense of celebration in the collection together of us all, if only for a weekend.  Studies and time with high school and college friends was put on hold.  We piled in the car and headed out, if only for a couple of hours.  It was time for Mom.

More than two years ago I wrote here about the Station Fire, and the overwhelming nature of this epic wildfire.  For our hike, my wife had chosen a park and trail that was right in the middle of this fire.  We really did not know what to expect, two years following this massive and utterly devastating event.  I have read that the measured temperature in the middle of an open wildfire can exceed 900 degrees Celsius, or 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit.  Complete annihilation of the landscape.  One would expect to find black the predominant color, with patches of green showing through, finally, two years after the fire. 

What we found was stunning.  But the primary color of black only visible in small patched, with the overwhelming portion of the landscape now a brilliant green, spotted with flowers of an amazing array of colors.  What was once black everywhere has now become, in time and the healing of nature, a showing of resurrected color.   Blackened chaparral stumps and younger oaks yielding to the healing of time.

We hiked up and around the canyon, we enjoyed the vistas through the spring clouds hugging the San Gabriel range, marveling in the variety of flowers and plants, and laughing, just at the chance to be together.

Many years ago, John Muir wrote a poem that captured well our little afternoon in the hillsides and clouds, among the new hope of Spring.

John Muir

Let children walk with nature,
let them see the beautiful blendings.
communions of death and life,
their joyous inseparable unity,
as taught in woods and meadows,
plains and mountains and streams.
And they will learn that death is stingless.
And as beautiful as life.

Our faith teaches us that death is stingless, but two years ago it looked as if death might have the last word in the foothills.  And on this weekend, we learned the opposite.  Regeneration, new life, bright color, these are the things that have prevailed in a once charred and barren land.

May it be so for our lives.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

This morning I heard a truly beautiful narrative on the meaning of the cross and Good Friday here.  The text seemed so thoughtful, I have transcribed it below. 

Beyond all the hypocrisy and pomp, above all the pain and confusion caused by the church, this is truly the essence of the who Christ is.

"As you stand there, in this strange, powerful mixture of recognition and horror, bring bit by bit in the picture, the stories upon which you have lived.  Bring the hopes you had, when you were young.  Bring the bright vision of family life; of success in sport, or work, or art.  The dreams of exciting adventures in far off places.  Bring the joy of seeing a new baby, full of promise and possibility.  Bring the longings of your heart.  They are all fulfilled here.  

Or, bring the fears and sorrows you had when you were young.  The terror of violence, perhaps at home.  The shame of failure at school.  Of rejection by friends.  The nasty comments that hurt you then, and hurt you still.  The terrible moment when you realized a wonderful relationship had come to an end.  The sudden, meaningless death of someone you loved very much.  They are all fulfilled here too.

God has taken them upon himself in the person of His Son.  This is the earthquake moment, the darkness at noon moment.  The moment of terror and sudden faith, as even the hard-boiled Roman soldier blurts out at the end.

But then, bring the hopes and sorrows of the world.  Bring the millions who are homeless because of flood or famine.  Bring the children who are orphaned by  AIDS or war.  Bring the politicians who begin by longing for justice and end up hoping for bribes.  Bring the beautiful and fragile earth on which we live.  Think of God's dreams for his Creation, and God's sorrow at its ruin.

As we stand here by the cross, let the shouting and pushing and the angry faces fade away for a moment, and look at the slumped head of Jesus.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Him, here, on the cross.  God chose Israel to be His way of rescuing the world.  God sent  Jesus to be his way of rescuing Israel.  Jesus went to the cross to fulfill that double mission.  His cross, planted in the middle of the jostling, uncomprehending, mocking world of His day and ours, stands as the symbol of a victory unlike any other.  
A love, unlike any other.  A God, unlike any other."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

O Magnum Mysterium - University of Utah Singers

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day Christians commemorate the Last Supper.

This piece seems particularly appropriate for today. Although the lyrics deal with the mystery of the common birth of Jesus, I find the mystery continues to the last moments of his life - the moments of that last meal.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Man on the Road

So much in this life is thrust upon us suddenly.  We have no idea its coming, we are completely unprepared, and afterward we are never the same again.

We all know the feeling.  What seems like a normal day is suddenly changed into a day we will never forget.  A phone call comes that completely takes our breath away.  The doctor delivers news that we have been dreading to hear.  News arrives that a friend is in deep trouble, life threatening trouble.   An ordinary day becomes extraordinary.  Filled with shock, pain, confusion, wondering, and sometimes panic.

And then, when the day changes, we must face it.  We cannot flee.

For the past week or so during Lent, and coming now into Holy Week, I am struck by the moment in which Simon is abruptly thrust into the path of Jesus.  We know he was from Cyrene, which is now Libya.  But beyond that, and the names of his sons, the rest is mystery.  What was he doing in Jerusalem?  Why was he beside just this road, at just this time of day?  Was he there by accident, or did he plan to be there?  Did he hear the noise along the Via de la Rosa, and come running to see what was going on?

Here is an otherwise ordinary man, thrust into a day he will never forget.  Just like we have been at one point or another in our lives.  And, someday it will happen again, to us all.

We have no idea why Simon was there, or why he was compelled to carry the cross.  Luke's gospel emphasizes the coercion of Simon, citing that he was seized, the Cross of Christ laid upon him, and forced to carry it behind Jesus.  It’s unclear here even what the motivation of the Roman soldiers was.  They may have feared that Jesus, thoroughly beaten by the Romans, may not survive carrying the Cross long enough to be crucified.  Or maybe they caught something in the eyes of Simon that made them want to force him to become a participant in this cruel parade.  Was there something there in his eyes?  Fear, or shock, or horror?  Perhaps a fleeting glance of compassion?

Simon was caught up in a moment of cataclysmic significance.  He thought he was just standing beside the road.  But really, he was standing at a place where Heaven and Earth were colliding.  And after this day, nothing would ever be the same again.

We all face days, and moments that change us forever.  And most of the time, we do not enter these events as willing participants.  Neither did Simon.  But I wonder, and I am guessing that afterward, he was never the same again.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Waiting Ad Infinitum, Jury Duty

The universe has aligned against me.  I have been selected to appear for jury duty.  Welcome to the Land that Time Forgot.

As I write this, I am sitting in the 11th floor of the LA County Criminal Justice Center, a lovely mid-60s architectural mistake in downtown LA.  I am in a room of about 150 other semi-conscious, reading, semi-comatose, sleeping, and staring-off-in-the-distance souls.  This room is called the "Juror Assembly Area".  Perhaps a better name would be Terrestrial Purgatory.   But this Purgatory has wireless, thank you God!

As I look at the Catholic Encyclopedia, I note that "the sleep of peace" may be a part of Purgatory.  A number of those around me are already there. 

This place is quite unremarkable.  TSA style screening upon building entry (I have been "wanded" twice), a dim and completely uninviting lobby, administrative staff who appear as if they should be cast in a zombie movie, and elevator service that employs all the efficiency of the Victorian Era.  It takes from 5 to 10 minutes for one of four elevators to arrive at whatever floor you are on.  Hello, LA County....they now have an app for that!

There are about 150 people in this room.  About 120 of us have been waiting all day, with only one jury being empaneled to leave the room.  This seems strangely odd, and suggests to me that the County might want to take all this money being spent on jury room furniture and painfully slow elevator performance, and instead hire a group of competent judges and/or retired lawyers who can certainly try cases without the need for those of us in this waiting room.  I am fine for giving the judiciary more power in this regard.  Or, take the money and throw us all a Toga Party.  Either would be fine.  Its the sitting and waiting that is beyond comprehension. 

A feeling of suspicion about the jury system also comes from a number of years of experience as an occasional court expert witness in my work.  A number of times I have testified and looked upon a panel of jurors, knowing with relative certainty that these good people had no idea what I was talking about as an expert, and were more interested in when break time was, or what was on TV that night.  I know I am feeling like that right now.  I would rather watch Dancing With the Stars for an entire day than suffer through this immense and interminable bore.

It is said that "Good things come to those who wait".  I am hoping for a pony, at least.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Of Emense Suffering, Loss, and Hope

The events of the past several weeks in Japan and Libya have focused my attention on a part of life of which I know very little, if anything.

Human suffering.

During the 1960s and 70s I grew up in a home where virtually all pain, disappointment and heartache were ignored.  My Mother in particular purposefully distracted me from the pain of others, or made tragic events seem as if they had not happened.  When people would ask my Mom how she was doing, the answer was, invariably, "fine".  It seemed as thought just about everything was always described as just "fine".  "Fine" was one of my Mom's favorite words. As I grew up, I slowly began to realize that the world around me was anything but fine.

And in the past two weeks, the level of suffering and loss we have seen in the world, yet again, staggers the imagination.  Entire villages washed away, families torn apart, lives shattered.  The stories seem endless, the images riveting, the loss more immense than words could ever convey.  There is a depth to this suffering that cannot be plumbed, or written about, or ever understood by most of us. 

And this time, so strangely, we were able to watch the tragedy unfold in almost real-time, as a helicopter hovered over the eastern coast of northern Japan, and relayed live video of the tsunami washing away vast swaths of coastland, homes, and lives.  Cars and buses which one moment were driving down coastal roads, had become in the next few moments, the final containers in which people would take their last breaths on this planet.

How can one even begin to comprehend the depth of sorrow, when you read of the couple who lost both of their children; because they were moved after the earthquake to the safe area in the playground of their elementary school, only to be carried away moments later by the waters of the tsunami?  How can you empathize, how can you cope with this news?  This is all too big, too overwhelming.  Bright and promising lives, simple seaside villages, dignified elderly Japanese, all washed away in sudden 30 foot tsunami of suffering, obliterating everything in its path.

And in the midst of this, if I am honest, I must ask myself, where is God?  Why did this happen?  To these people, in this place.  We have all read the stories of elderly Japanese who are now facing, yet again, a cataclysm of massive proportions.  After the fire bombing of Japan at the end of World War II, and the complete erasure of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the older generation of Japan is bearing a burden for the second time, that no other nation has experienced in modern history.  What is going on here?  What could be the point of this?  I confess I do not know, nor do I understand. 

And is there Hope?
Niholas Kristof of the New York Times writes of the Japanese people,

"There’s a kind of national honor code, exemplified by the way even cheap restaurants will lend you an umbrella if you’re caught in a downpour; you’re simply expected to return it in a day or two. If you lose your wallet in the subway, you expect to get it back."
For the better part of the past 60 years, the Japanese people have endured unbearable hardships with dignity and grace.  Watching this has brought tears to my eyes.  Had this calamity been visited upon us, we Americans would likely be busy blaming one another on cable TV for who was at fault for not being well prepared.  The tort lawyers would be lined up ready to sue.  And there would likely be looting.

But the Japanese face this all with a quiet resolution that is resolute, yet full of dignity.  There is a hiku by one of Japan’s greatest poets, Basho:
The vicissitudes of life.
Sad, to become finally
A bamboo shoot.

I think Japan will rise from this ruble, assisted by the world community, to go on teaching us about order, dignity, and hope.  They already are an example to us all.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sing Me To Heaven

This choral piece is sweet and touching. The lyrics are below. Go here to read the stories of healing and grace associated with this song.

Sing Me to Heaven
Text by Jane Griner

In my heart's sequestered chambers lie truths stripped of poets' gloss
Words alone are vain and vacant, and my heart is mute
In response to aching silence, memory summons half-heard voices
And my soul finds primal eloquence, and wraps me in song

If you would comfort me, sing me a lullaby
If you would win my heart, sing me a love song
If you would mourn me and bring me to God,
sing me a requiem, sing me to Heaven

Touch in me all love and passion, pain and pleasure
Touch in me grief and comfort, love and passion, pain and pleasure
Sing me a lullaby, a love song, a requiem
Love me, comfort me, bring me to God

Sing me a love song, sing me to Heaven

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chained, The Crabby Old Man Within Me, and Change

For some reason, I have had these reoccurring thoughts of late.  About people who get stuck in life.  And about how I fear one of those people might be, well, me.

I have been wondering about how we can chain ourselves to the ground, restricting the arc of our lives by our own inability to see what is really going on around us.  Or by our inability to change.  And how we are unable to move from those "stuck places".  This may be the root of much of the bewilderment, confusion, and pain we experience.  I have been thinking about these things.  We make subtle choices to become stuck.  It's easier to be stuck than to get up and move, or so we think.  These things don't just happen.  It's really not meant to be like this.  This wasn't supposed to be.

Becoming "Self Aware"

There has been much talk in recent years about becoming "self-aware", particularly among those of us who have had the luxury of spending a little time and money on psychotherapy.  To be self-aware is defined as,  "awareness of yourself as an individual or of your own being and actions and thoughts".  In shorthand, this means that we might simply "get ourselves", and hopefully, most of the time, be better able to understand why we behave the way we do.  Or so we hope.  So I hope.

Not Me, I am All Better
But over the past several years, I have often found myself making the sadly self righteous comment that someone I know, he or she, this person or that, is "not very self aware".  I say this when I feel that someone is not "getting it" about how they are behaving, or what they are doing to themselves or others by their actions or their inability to change.  Why they can't deal with that character flaw they have, or that difficult relationship, or that troublesome child, or that impossibly stupid recurring situation.  Things never seem to change.  Clearly, they are stuck.  And I think I know why.

I think I have it all figured out.  Those people, they are simply not very self aware.

As if I am.  As if I really do "get it".  As if I am all put together.  When I think this through, I then wonder if I am not becoming a judgmental and crabby old man.  At 52.  What a sobering thought that is.

The Truth
I should know better.  I should know we all stumble through this life, sometimes with what seems to be just enough available light in front of us to take the next step forward.  We are not very good at this becoming adults and growing up stuff.  Life is bewildering and mysterious.  Friends come and go, a loved one becomes deathly ill, a relationship becomes irreparably broken, we loose a job, and we are confounded by the separation and pain around us.  We feel chained to the ground, as if we have become some kind of modern day Gulliver, unable to move.  Sometimes, it seems to make no sense at all.

And then, I hear, again,  this story of choices, for what seemed like the first time all over again.  A Story of Investment.  A story meant for me.  In particular, the last lines, 
"And get rid of this "play-it-safe" who won't go out on a limb."  
Wait a minute.  What is this about?  Was Jesus an entrepreneur?  Is this story really just about money?  Is that all that's here?  But wait, there is something more.

Maybe God is calling us, through the echos of history, to take risks with our lives.  To step out of the comfort zone.  To loosen our own chains.  You know the ones.  The chains of self doubt, of insecurity, of fear of change, of timidity, of doubt.  The changes that restrict us from changing.  From becoming more than we are.

I think He wants to start with that crabby old man that is trying to emerge from within me.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Of Quarks, Coldness, and Creation

Looking Up
Orion the Hunter.  Every night He guards the winter night sky over our home.  Far above the back yard, standing tall and pointing to the northern sky.  In the spring and summer, He disappears below the horizon, preparing the way for warmer summer months.

But for now, it is still winter.  Often, at this time of year, those in colder climes tend to become tired of the cold and dark, and cold.  Oldest daughter of our clan has had some brutal winter weather of late, with 18" of snow overnight some days back; the worst blizzard in Chicago in decades.

Of late, I have been thinking about this winter coldness, of constellations, and of how it all came to be.  It seems nearly beyond comprehension that nightly, hanging above my house, is this amazing constellation with blue and red giant stars, and that light takes 776 years from one star to reach my upward looking eyes.  And just below the belt of Orion, there is a stellar nursery, a place where new stars are being born.  Just the other night, I grabbed my binoculars, went out in the yard, and found, sure enough, found the M42 Nebulah, a place where new stars come to life.  Over our back yard, light years away, new stellar life taking form.  As I look up, I am seeing the night of the 13th Century.  How can this be?

Looking Around
Back down here, on earth, we bustle about our daily lives, with morning and evening, days and weeks, months and years blurring together.  We joke with one another about how "time flies" and how we do not really feel that much older.  But then, something happens that reminds us we indeed have been here quite a while, and the end is out there....perhaps close, perhaps far off.  We don't know.

But that starlight over our yard, some of it took almost eight centuries to reach us.  Fast and slow, our busy world below, and the slow universe suspended overhead, each night.  Our little lives and this immense stellar canopy overhead.  If we just take the time to look.  And ponder it all. 

And so, I stand in the back yard, binoculars in hand in my 52nd year of life on this planet, looking upward and wondering.  And thinking.  How can you live here each day and not be struck by the depth of this creation all around us?  How can you not be affected by this?  How can one be more concerned with sports scores or celebrity lives than by what is really going on here?  By the beauty and the tragedy of it all.  The joy and the heartache in even one day, let alone over the centuries.

Do you have a few minutes to share with me in thinking about such things?  Take a look at the video below, of winter in one of the most beautiful places I know of.  It is the pure beauty, the enormous complexity, and the stunning simplicity of these images that started me thinking about all these things.  Were we created?  Is this all some giant stellar accident?

I wonder about these things.  Daily.

Winter in Yosemite National Park from Henry Jun Wah Lee on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

With or Without You

Before Older Daughter left for college this week, she made me a CD of some music she thought I would like. On the CD was a song by "Scala and Kolacny Brothers", a girls choir from Belgium.
Oh. My. Goodness.  First, I love this music, it is surely part of what Heaven will sound like someday.  Second, I just love girls of this age, I am partial, I am a Dad of two.  Third, part of this video is shot in Berlin, a city I visited many years ago, before it was free.  All this is wonderful, really.


What I Know

“God is not a belief to which you give your assent. God becomes a reality whom you know intimately, meet everyday, one whose strength becomes your strength, whose love, your love. Live this life of the presence of God long enough and when someone asks you, “Do you believe there is a God?” you may find yourself answering, “No, I do not believe there is a God. I know there is a God.”

~Ernest Boyer, Jr.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Los Angeles, London and Livingstone

The weeks of December were remarkable and amazing for Older Daughter, as well as for the rest of our family. She left Los Angeles, stopped over in London, England, stopped again in Johannesburg, South Africa, and then landed in Livingstone, Zambia. All at the ripe old age of 19. When I was 19 and in college, I worked in a luggage store at the mall before Christmas. My dreams of a great journey were to go someday to Hawaii. My, how expectations and times have changed.

London, Los Angeles, Livingstone, three such distinct and different places. Yet, for this girl, three cities now connected by new adventures, memories, friends, and also now a bigger sense of this remarkable world. Definitely a different sense of the contrasts of life than her Dad possessed at 19 years old.

On her way home on December 18th, Older Daughter was caught surprised and unprepared by a massive (read: 5” in several hours) snow storm in London, grounding the final leg of her flight home to Los Angeles. Heathrow in disarray, stranded in London, without luggage, and wearing only sweats and Tom’s shoes, she spent the next 72 hours improvising a new wardrobe, worrying about getting home, but also enjoying the snowy sights of historic and beautiful city. London in the snow, at Christmastide! She made it home, via Houston, on the 21st; it was the best Christmas present of the year for our family. Her smile on our doorstep will not quickly be forgotten.

Given these events, the past several days have had me reflecting on these three places; London, Los Angeles, and Livingstone. After seeing the pictures of my daughter in England and Africa, so very far from home, and then spending time talking with her here, I have been wondering a lot. I have been thinking about these cities so distant from one another; not only in miles, but in also in time, in condition, and in need of our attention and prayer. Each city, so different, each so much in need.

Los Angeles, the city next to our home town, and by default, part of our greater home for many years. Unlimited sunshine, crowded freeways, fantasies and dreams, and hopes of fame and fortune. Millions, teaming back and forth on the freeways, isolated most of the time, one to a car, rushing forward. People come here from all around the world, hoping to find their future, to meet their imaginings. And yet the streets are not lined with gold here, but often with disappointment and frequent sorrow.

London, that foggy and snowy ancient Roman city. The city of Lords and Ladies, of Parliament and palaces, of history and gravity. Of Browning, and Dickens, Churchill and Montgomery. The cultural center of the British Isles, the center of the former British Empire.

And then there is Livingstone, the former center of trade in Northwest Rhodesia from the late 1800s that is now struggling to find its way, as is so much of Africa. A continent seemingly out of time. A place of the beauty of Victoria Falls, and the sadness of tribal poverty and the ravages of AIDS. A place the world visits, to see majestic animals on luxury safaris, and yet the same place suffering from global benign neglects. But as Kelly’s photos and stories have so strikingly shown us, Livingstone is so much more than a place or its history. For her, it was personal. It was real. Dusty, barely adequate classrooms and a school yard full of children, smiling, laughing, and being given a chance at a better life; something we take for granted here in Los Angeles, or in there in London.

And this girl, for her college Christmas break, decided she wanted to go. To go from here to there, across the world. Los Angeles to Livingstone, with an unexpected snowy stop in London on the way home. What motivated her to do this? Livingstone is a place of history and discovery, connected to London in a fascinating way – in that David Livingstone’s body is interred in Westminster Abbey. But not all of his body. The African natives, to whom he had become so close, cut out his heart, leaving a note on the body that read, "You can have his body, but his heart belongs in Africa!" Livingstone’s heart remains buried in Northern Zambia, near the place where he died. I wonder, where is my heart, even today? And where do I want my heart to be hidden, both now, and someday?

These past weeks, I have been thinking about what seems to me to be the only thing, the only event, that can unite the people of these distant and disparate cities. An event that occurred in obscurity more than two hundred centuries ago, in a dusty village in the middle of, well, nowhere.

At that single birth, everything changed.  Time was carved in two.  For everyone, forever.  For countless thousands alone with their thoughts on Los Angeles freeways, for the masses riding the London tube, and for the dusty streets of Livingstone.  All these places, given a chance again. Given hope. Christmas hope, across continents, and time zones, and time itself.

While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.
Luke 2:6-7 (The Message)

The Road Home - Stephen Paulus

May 2011 be a year of new blessing, abundant life, and time to reflect on what it all means. And, above it all, may you find your way.... home.

The Road Home

Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own,
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh when will I know
There’s a way, there’s a road
That will lead me home?

After wind, after rain,
When the dark is done,
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day,
Through the air there’s a calling
From far away,
There’s a voice I can hear
That will lead me home.

Rise up, follow me,
Come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart
As the only song;
There is no such beauty
As where you belong;
Rise up, follow me,
I will lead you home.
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