Monday, April 15, 2019

Built to Burn

It’s a heaviness in your heart sort of day.

In reading through all the news about Notre Dame burning, I came across a line from a firefighter—“these cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn.

The timbers inside the cathedral were 850 years old, some of them. The stained glass 764 years old. There is no fire code, no earthquake-proofing, no Class A fiberglass shingles. Just the hundreds of years it took the people of France to build the cathedral. Built in a way that makes it mortal, of materials that are mortal. It wasn’t built in a way to be able to withstand a fire. It was built with things that burn.

A few years back, my brother introduced my family to Notre-Dame de Paris, a musical by Riccardo Cocciante and Luc Plamondonabout the hunchback story. The opening song is called "Le Temps des Cathedrals," The Age of Cathedrals. The narrator sings,

Pierre après pierre, jour après jour
De siècle en siècle avec amour
Il a vu s'elever les tours
Qu'il avait bâties de ses mains
Les poètes et les troubadours
Ont chanté des chansons d'amour
Qui promettaient au genre humain
De meilleurs lendemains

Roughly translated, it says something like:

Stone after stone, day after day, 
with love one century after another,
they saw the towers rise--
towers they had built with their own hands.
The poets and the troubadours sang songs of love
that promised to mankind better tomorrows.

Something about listening to this song today, with the scope of the cathedral's centuries all folded into one melody, was incredibly moving. Visionaries, for centuries, poured their full-hearted dreams and craft into building Notre Dame de Paris. L'homme a voulu monter vers les etoiles. Man would that he could climb to the stars. And the masons, the architects, the poets, the musicians, all sang one song: that visions could be made physical, could be given body, could be brought into tangible, corporeal existence. 

The cathedral was a labor of love.
The cathedral was a love song.

When something like this cathedral--something you thought permanent--passes nearly into nonexistence as it did in today's fire, you think things:
You mean I'll never be able to take my daughters to sit in front of Notre Dame? 
You mean when I come into Paris after a long time away and I wander over Pont Saint Michel, Nutella crepe in hand, to watch the evening turn to night and all the lights of Paris go on, I'll come to the cathedral to find ... what? 
What of the saints and apostles carved in the tympanum? 
What of the rose window?

Kind of at the heart of Notre-Dame de Paris is this pretty little song called "Vivre." The chorus says: Live for those we love. Love more than love itself. Give without waiting for anything in return. Love the way the night loves the day. Love until we die of love.

Watching the flames today made me realize, more than all else, that our time passes quickly, and we need to say the things we have to say now, while the moment is ours. All is temporary, all shifts from existing, out. So you have to go and see things before they're gone, because things go away. You have to love the people you need to love, because they will too. We are all built to burn. Timber frameworks and breakable, meltable, stained glass rose windows. So we love each other and love what's around us all we can.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Land of Your Ancestors (part 1)

"When you go to the land of your ancestors," he said, "you will feel you have come home. Something deep inside you resonates, as if it recognizes the place."

A friend told me this nearly two years ago, when he went to Copenhagen and Scotland, the two lands of his ancestors. This made sense to me. If for centuries, my people had lived in the same small village in the verdant greens of Scotland, farming sheep, adapting to the sodden weather, I can easily believe certain elements of that lifestyle would imprint themselves on their genes, the same genes they'd pass down to their children, grandchildren, and 10x great grandchildren. Even if the genetic imprint is simply a gentle comfort, a familiarity, with that sort of landscape.

A special kind of resonance with a place, that's what I set my sights on. I heard years ago that the ancient Celts believed in something they called thin places: actual physical locations on this green earth where the curtain between this life and the next is thin. They were sacred places, places where you could catch glimpses of greater truth that exists beyond what our mortal experience knows. Places where your presence connects you to the past, to your ancestors, and where that connection feels more tangible, more visceral, more actual than any other place on earth.

With these words pulsing in my heart, I planned a trip to Norway. At the time, I knew the majority of my heritage was British, but had discovered that way way in the distant past, circa 850 A.D., I have a little group of ancestors from those Northern fjords and searoads. When you learn that you can claim a place as mystical as Norway, well, I quickly became fascinated by Norse mythology, by the art of Norwegian woodcarving, by my grandfather’s mission stories of Oslo... And I was certain that should I go there, it was be a thin place for me, a place where I'd feel the kind of homeland resonance I'd heard about.

Grandpa (right) on his mission to Oslo 

I planned the trip with my brother, who independently but simultaneously had had his own surge of Norway interest. Further proof our Norwegian ancestors were calling to us! Months before our trip, I printed out the Norwegian section of our family tree for us to study. We read stories of Rollo son of Rognvald, Snae son of Frost, and Thrond the Old. --All real names, all from my family tree.-- I downloaded Neil Gaiman's book on Norse Mythology for us to listen to while driving across that ancestral homeland, touching the metaphorical fingertips of our ancestors via what I could only imagine would be a wonderland of thin places.

Well a funny thing happened. We started the trip in France and Switzerland, where we had a couple extra days before our flight to Oslo. We spent those days wandering the Swiss Berner Oberland. We stayed in a small village on the shores of a giant turquoise lake, rode a cable car up to high alps, and drove through some of the most breathtaking farmland I’ve ever seen.

Here's a map of our route in Switzerland:

It was a quick couple of days. And just a quick 46 minute drive from one end of our trekking to the other. A tiny blip on the map of Switzerland, of Europe.

Then we flew to Oslo.

It was a funny experience in Norway. We saw the glaciers, we traveled the fjords. We drove from farmland to snowy wilderness to seaport. And all the while, not a single spark of the resonance of home I’d been promised. In fact, of all the places I’ve traveled, nothing has felt so foreign, so unfamiliar to me as Norway.

But the funny thing was that all the while in that Norwegian ancestral land of mine, I was achingly homesick for Switzerland.

Everywhere we went in Norway--the fjords, the seaport, the mountain tunnels--I felt tugs inside to go back to the Alps and Swiss farmland we'd left just days before. I could still feel the alpine air in my lungs. I could still feel the afterimage of its mountains around me.

It felt like a yawn—like a big part of myself that I hadn’t known existed was opening up, waking up. Or like hearing a melody from long in the past, one you knew as a child maybe? Or when was it? Like echoes from some far distant memories that are part of you, but not your own.

It all sounds so corny when written out, but I just don't know any other words for it.

So the night before flying back to the States, on a whim, I searched through my family tree of ancestors to see if any came from Switzerland. I hoped that maybe one or two would give me claim to that beautiful country, and maybe give some sort of explanation to the homesickness I’d felt as soon as I'd left it.

Imagine my delight when I found that night, scanning my family tree, that my great great grandmother was 100% Swiss. Her parents, her grandparents, her great-grandparents, all the way back to 1470 when the Swiss first started keeping church records, are Swiss, from a tiny town in that beautiful farmland my brother and I had driven through just a week before.

Here's that map again, this time circled with all the villages where my thousands of Swiss ancestors lived out their lives.

Little did I know, but our little route through Switzerland while waiting to go to our supposed Norwegian homeland, was actually right through the heart of my heritage.

I know what thin places feel like now.

I know what it is to be homesick for a place that you yourself have only just met, but where your genes have been for hundreds and hundreds of years.

This find was so much more than an intellectual discovery--it was emotional and heartwarming and felt tied to who I am.

When I got back to the States, I set out to research this line of my ancestry. For the next year, I read all I could about Switzerland. I took a course online to learn to read German Kunstschrift. I picked my way through birth records and marriage records in church books from the 1800s, the 1700s, the 1600s…

I didn't find much in the way of new information that hadn't already been recorded in the online genealogies, but I did find their names, written by hand, hundreds of years ago. Schenk. Burkhalter. Locher. Gerber. I saw who stood as witnesses at their christenings. I found tiny details about their lives: one a cobbler, one a choir director. I saw the dates of their weddings, and which of their village neighbors were also married that same day. I saw their ages when they passed away, written beside the date they died, the date they were buried.

And I grew in love for these people I’ve never met but whose genes I carry with me everywhere I go.


For the last year I’ve also been studying swallows... (to be continued)

Monday, October 1, 2018



“I don't like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not 'hike!' Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It's a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, 'A la sainte terre', 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them.”  (John Muir)

Years ago, on a family trip somewhere, my brother made the comment that as little kids we used to go exploring. We'd be out all afternoon, in the backyard or at neighborhood parks, and if someone asked us what we were doing, we'd say "Exploring!" You go down wood paths you haven't been down, you look around corners just to see what's there, you crouch down and spend untold minutes watching all the caterpillar's legs ripple, or the ants carrying their trappings, or the squirrel rapping his tiny knuckles on a nut.

When did we stop doing that, he asked. When did we stop looking at the world like our only task was to discover it, no checklist, no obligation to the name of Productivity, just wide-eyed kids trying to see what was out there.

In Switzerland, the hiking trail signs all read "Wanderweg." If you ask Swiss people the word for "hike," they'll say wandern, but wandern is also the word for "wander" which makes me think they actually only have a word for "wander" and that there really is no German word for hike. For example, last week, a Swiss lady recounting her day to me said, "I've been wandering today!" (With her accent, at first I thought she said "wondering" so I stared at her expectantly...what have you been wondering about?? Haha)

When you wander instead of hike, you take the time to look at the underbellies of mushrooms. You count waterfalls in the peaks miles away. You get close enough to the stoney mountain walls that you can see their tiny striations. When you wander, you give the mountain enough time to talk to you, and you give yourself enough time to hear it.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

kill the vision

If you lost it, it's because you're meant to find something better.
Trust, let go, and make room for what's coming.

I've been house hunting for the past few months. House hunting is a heart-wrenching endeavor. Truly horrible. You see house after house that is absolutely not what you're looking for, but you behave yourself, go through the exercise of looking at every room, opening every closet door, and trying to believe you could possibly somehow make this one work.

Actual thoughts I've had while looking at absolutely-the-wrong-house:
  • I could transplant three giant trees on the front side of the house to block the fact that's it's pretty much on the freeway.
  • Clearing the cement out of a fireplace and chimney wouldn't be that difficult.
  • Yeah, I can probably live in the oversized closet next to the kitchen, so my roommate could have the bedroom...
  • Living next door to my company's IT offices might not be that bad. I probably wouldn't even notice.
And then one day, just a normal everyday unremarkable Thursday in May or a July Monday, you pull up to a house. Just a house. Maybe it has lilac bushes at the gate, or a clothesline in the back. Maybe you've driven by every month for years now on your way home, or maybe it was on the same street your grandparents lived on, maybe you rode your skateboard by it every summer on your way to the neighborhood park. And here you are now, all grown up and tired of looking at houses.

And then it's game over. You walk through that gate, and it's just. game. over.

You could say things like it blows all the other houses out of the water, or it just felt -"right"-, or until you saw this house, you had no idea how amazing houses could be. But the simple reality is, you just finally found something that was true. Something honest, something that didn't pretend to be something it wasn't, something that faces you straight on and calls you by name and says this is what I am and every part of me is worth loving.

When you find a house like that, you'd move heaven and earth to make it yours.

Not because of materialism, or jealousy, or possessiveness, or because it's a good investment. But because you belong inside of it, and it belongs around you. Because you walk through the air in that house and it's thick with visions. Not visions of what walls you'll have to knock out and showers you'll have to install for it to be livable, but of the nights on the front porch with old jazz playing inside and coming out through open windows. Of bright morning light coming through the bedroom windows. Of the dinner parties in the back with every good person you know. The house starts to make you a bigger person. Expanded, enlarged, enlightened. It grows your vision of what your role is on this tiny little planet.

You love the house because of what it makes you see in you.


The hard part though is sometimes heaven and earth won't move, despite your best offer, and the house goes to someone else.

There's a recovery period of course. For a few weeks after, you compare every house you see to the old one... How many square feet did it have, and is this new one bigger or smaller? Which direction did the old one face? Could I recreate the backyard feeling, here? And then you cycle back through trying to convince yourself into other houses.

I had originally set out to say something here about killing the visions. About how in order to make room for the next wonderful house that's coming your way, you have to kill the visions of the last house, because every house comes with visions, and they're different each time, and you have to love a house on its own terms, for what it is, and for what visions you find there. And I supposed that if you got too hung up clinging to the old visions, you wouldn't leave yourself open to recognizing the new ones when they came.

But that's fake. The new ones come and they blow the old visions out of the water all on their own. They don't need your help killing them. All they need from you is your best and honest heart, and a willingness to put new wine into new bottles.

Four years ago I tried to convince someone that every loss is replaced with something better, something we'll be infinitely happier about, once the pain and sorrow of the original loss is gone. This sometimes seems like a ridiculous thing to think, and I'm not entirely sure anymore that I believe that happens for everybody. All I know is, it's been true for me.

I guess this could all be read as being about more than just houses. Maybe that's okay. For me though, it's just about getting over that Spanish Fork home, about the Corner House that made it happen. I suppose I'll be homesick for the Corner House a little while longer, and I suppose that's exactly as it should be.

Monday, August 28, 2017

music monday: forest fires

I have been thinking about forest fires lately, so I started reading about them and here's what I learned.

Wildfires reset the natural landscape. They regenerate the forest, revitalize the watershed, renew the soil, and reset the clock for the ecosystem.

Many forests cannot sustain themselves without wildfire. They require fires to regenerate, because the trees only produce seeds following a major fire event. Fires push the trees to generate seeds, and without them, these sorts of forests would wither away.

Forest fires also recycle nutrients in the water. They replenish food sources. When naturally occurring, they create a patchwork of newer forest and older forest across the landscape, with the younger forests acting as safeguards against catastrophic all-consuming fires.

When forests get too thick, fires keep tree stands thin and open, letting more sunlight in so trees stay healthier.

Fires make a space for fresh growth that is essential to the safety and progression of the forest.


Wildfires reset your natural landscape. They regenerate your desire to grow, give new vitality to your source of living water, make new the soil you are working with, and reset the systems in your life.

Many people cannot sustain themselves without wildfire. They require fires to regenerate, because they only produce seeds following a major fire event. Fires can push them to generate more good, more effort, more investment, and without them, these people would wither away.

Forest fires also recycle the nutrients you're using as lifesource. They give you a fresh crop of opportunities for nourishment. When naturally occurring, they create a patchwork in your life, of areas that are fresh and young, and will at later moments be the safeguard against catastrophic all-consuming fires.

When you get to thick in places, or too old, fires will help the tree stands thin and open, letting more sunlight in so trees stay healthier.

You're thicker than you think. Let the forest fire happen.

Friday, December 30, 2016


This little blog has all but gone the way of all the world. Three posts in 2016. Remember back when blogging was a thing people did? Remember when I used to write here when I didn't want to write things like term papers? Remember when I used to post music every Monday?

I'm going to start writing again. At least I think I will. Maybe it will be here, maybe it will be in a journal, maybe it will be in the margins of books, maybe it will be in the mountains early in the morning like a prayer.

This morning the trees were full of birds singing. Don't they know it's the dead of winter?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016