Our Burning


People gathering near the cathedral in August 1944 after Allied forces recaptured Paris.

Why does the burning of Our Lady affect me so?

I’m not a practicing Catholic or even a Christian really.  So why should this conflagration matter?

Although I am not of Christian faith, Christian tropes do apply here.

The Notre Dame Cathedral was designed in the form of a cross, and the bell towers stand at the position of Christ’s feet when he was brutally nailed to that Tree of Life.

The spire once rose directly above the center of the architectural crucifix – that ashen vehicle of sacrifice – and when the spire burned and fell, it pierced the nave like a spear piercing the heart, not of Christ, but of the Christ.

And like the original crucifixion was so intended, this sacrifice may perhaps have shaken us again from a slumber.

When the great teacher and expositor of belief Joseph Campbell was once asked where he prayed, he answered simply, “Notre Dame,”  Our Lady.   Even if he had not been there in years, he explained, her profound space was still his spiritual home.

But the sorrow over her burning is not about denomination. Nor is it necessarily about Christianity or Islam or any other belief system.  The burning matters not so much because it is even a religious thing.

It matters because it is a human thing.

It matters because for many it was a place of secular pilgrimage.  How many of us have taken pictures of ourselves with family or a fiancé there among the gargoyles and demons, as if to say, we one day will die, but here, if just for a moment, we once lived and we once loved.

It matters because Notre Dame is the symbolic center of France (and you could even argue modern Europe and in general the West) – Ground Zero if you will – from which all distances are measured.

And the center – in a time in which the center struggles to hold – matters.

In his recent book, The Road to Unfreedom, Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents how in a highly calculated way foreign actors have worked to undermine political and social cohesion in the United States and in Europe.  A third of Brexit twitter posts were generated by bots as part of a covert Russian media and troll campaign.  The same forces have launched sophisticated social media campaigns in the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, France, and the US intended to invalidate liberal democracies. Deliberate untruths foment social divisions, including the Yellow Vest movement that has torn apart Paris.

But this is not just about one nation’s imperatives pitted against another.  It concerns an assault on truth itself.  We are being incited to let ourselves be governed by emotion and impulse, by vague belief in what we wish to be true and not in facts themselves.

As our fears are stoked, the spectres of authoritarian governments have risen across Europe and within the United States. Authoritarian leaders do not necessarily seize power.  Afraid, we willingly give it up.

In this strange world, fact and truth are denigrated. Chaos becomes the brand, disintegration the goal.  By turning us against each other, more can be accomplished than through a multitude of guns.   

As our passions become inflamed, the centre cannot hold.

And without a moral or spiritual or truth-bound center, unhealthy impulses grow to fill the void. We frame anyone beyond our immediate tribe as outsiders to be either vilified or feared or destroyed. We turn our selves away from one other.

It took 183 years to build Notre Dame, slightly less time than the United States itself has even existed.  Our Lady represents the greatest of human endeavors – that painstaking and collaborative work that contributes in some small way to a great edifice beyond our own cognition.  Something so vast in conception that in Our Lady’s first construction, neither the first stone masons nor their children nor their grandchildren would ever live to see her completion.

She is about honoring something greater than one’s self.

Call it the perfection of democracy.  Or human emancipation, or equality, or the extension of universal rights to all forms of life, or the prevailing of truth over momentary whim or lies or fancy.

So, strangely then, her burning may now promote a different kind of faith.  Not necessarily in God, but perhaps in us.  Not the us vs. them, but the very center that is simply the collective and embracing us.

For decades the foundation dedicated to preserving Notre Dame struggled to raise funds.  But in the hours after the fires were extinguished, more than 600 million euros poured in from donations both quite large and incomparably small.  We donate because, perhaps, we’ve been awakened to the thought that the center must indeed hold.

Her burning matters because it reminds us of the profound need to come together in a time when individuals and forces are doing all that they can to drive us apart.


Super. Tuesday.

 A reminder on the cusp of a perhaps grave and auspicious day.

85 years ago, they were a silly and disregarded minority.  People chuckled at the circus antics, the self-infatuation, narcissism, and obscenely transparent self-glorification.

The beset people who first joined on to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) believed in a united country, promotion of nativist values, and the expulsion of minority populations who posed a perceived threat.

But for years, the vast majority of the country paid little attention.  Initially these small crowds of cheering admirers were nobodies.  Routinely arrested for civic disturbances, laughed at for their absurd fanaticism, they would amount to nothing.  And then Goebbels discovered that spectacles and calls to violence brought them attention.  And the attention brought them more crowds.  And the crowds brought them power.

And then one day, that silly minority became a grudging, then an accepting, and then an excited plurality.  More respectable ones joined because it would help them get what they wanted. And it would help them retain power.  They couldn’t stop it. And so they joined it.

And then no one was laughing any more.


I’m not missing!

I posted this picture last night and had to take it down. At midnight we started getting calls from drivers who thought they saw me.

Yesterday traffic was at a standstill on I-70. We were stuck in a narrow canyon in an endless line of cars beside the raging Colorado. I told Anna I could walk out of there faster.

Which I did. Which meant I hiked 6 miles out of the White River Wilderness area. On a freeway.  And with a little help in the end.

Anna and Mazie found me three hours later in the Glenwood Springs brewpub nursing a rootbeer.



Morning words from directors Tom Shadyac and Roko Belic:

A biological system that takes more than it needs is dead. By definition it is deadness. It is cancer.

What is this thing that we have created? We relentlessly mine the earth for everything we can. Taking taking taking. Mine, mine, mine. Then we dam the rivers, not to harness, but to steal the life energy of the water. Dam the river. Kill the water.

This is what we’ve become. Mine, mine, mine. Damn, damn, damn.

Time to stop.

Zero is where the fun starts. Everything else is too much counting.

Is This the Way the World Ends

I’m in Hotevilla when the call comes.  There’s a propane leak at Hopi Health Care and they’ve evacuated the facility and the adjacent housing complex.  They’re afraid the whole thing is going to blow.

I drive back to First Mesa.  The hospital and housing entrances are blocked by a phalanx of squad cars.  Two fire trucks wait on the side of the road about a mile distant.  I drive past, hook a right on the airport road and park on the cracked asphalt adjacent to the air strip.  I secretly cut across the wash and desert to the rear of our house and hop the fence.

Inside, I settle down with a ham sandwich.  The neighborhood feels ghostly and empty. What do I take? I wonder. I finish my sandwich and grab my laptop and Mazie’s violin.  I load a duffle with some meat from the cow we slaughtered.  A half bottle of Hornitos.  I shoot a quick video of each room of our house (for insurance purposes).

The first editions of Stephen’s journals, the signed first editions of Cormac McCarthy books, my signed Turrells, the Heriz, my journals and family heirlooms – it’s all destined for flames, I decide.

I plop my Mennonite hat on my head and wrap my scarf around my neck.  I move the chicks outside.  I open the gate and our dog Mango steps out with me.  We’re joined by the stray pit that everyone dislikes and together – the dogs and me, violin and duffle in hand, set off across the desert. A sand storm kicks up, sending tumbleweeds skittering past.  A thunderstorm approaches.

Perhaps this is how it ends.  Behind me I’ll hear an explosion and feel the heat of an enormous fire ball.  Anna’s work and all of our worldly possessions will have blown up.  And then we’ll climb in the car with Mazie and drive west.

And that’s it.  We’ll be done with it.

Black Wind.

Blowing again.  Wind chimes newly hung have been ripped to the ground.  The one remaining from Arcosanti peals all night like a ball-peen on the skull.  The wind brings moisture but sooted with a thick cloud of orange dust.  The dust settles on everything inside, outside; it lodges in your teeth, your hair.

I’ve loved this wind because it chastens.  If it were just the wind, that alone would be enough.  But what when the whole world brings you to bow?

Last night I asked my friend Al how life was.

Full, he said.  100%.

Really? I asked.

Yeah, he said.  I mean it’s always 50-50.  Is it half empty or half full?  But when you add it all up it equals 100%.  So there you go.  Full.

Way full.

The Miller’s Tale

In Brueghel’s Procession to Calvary, the Mill perches on an implausibly high and incongruous rock in the flemish countryside. Or perhaps it’s not flemish, but the middle east, imagined by a man who could only conceive of that land as the only land he knew, Flanders.

What is the Mill and who is the Miller? The mill takes the grain, the life essence and grinds it into matter that will be transformed into bread, the holy host, the body of Christ. It takes the essence of god and renders it into the material world so that the ineffable can be partaken of by men. In the consuming of the Host, the ineffable, the Christ, becomes carnate within us.

And between the Mill (the agent of his conception) and the Cross (the instrument of his demise) dances the entire pageant of the human experience, all our sins, all our folly both venal and mortal, inattentive to the turning blades and the waiting pine.

Which of course, inevitably brings us to Townes Van Zandt.

His suffering was more than any men, let alone single man should live to bear. And either because of his suffering, or because of the breadth of genius that preceded it, what remained in the end burned white hot.

Today I’ve been listening to recordings he did in his last European tour, when he was near at the end. Some of the words are so searing, they brought me to a standstill. I stood on the corner in the Mission and could do nothing but listen.

And I can’t help but think. The fruit be damned. You. The Miller. The one who would ever bestow this upon a man:

You ain’t no friend of mine.

Roadtrip to Cavalry

Yesterday morning.

I race for two hours through the desert at 80-95 mph to make a flight in Flagstaff, only to learn it was cancelled due to maintenance; and then to learn that the connecting flight was leaving from Phoenix, (140 miles away) in three hours so I race at 90-100 mph to southern Arizona, throw my car in long term parking, hoof through TSA and to the gate to board with ten minutes to spare; land in San Francisco several hours later, make my way into town on BART, walk up California Street because no street cars or buses are in sight, attempted to check into my hotel only to learn my reservation had not gone through and they were fully booked; rebook another hotel across town, travelled there by bus, dropped off my bags, racd to the San Francisco International Film Festival offices 10 minutes before closing to grab my badge; eat a bowl of soba noodles; walk 100 feet to the Kabuki theatre to learn that the film they were showing was sold out and I had to wait in rush; but so many people showed they couldn’t let anyone in from the rush line; a fellow approaches and sells a spare ticket to the guy in front of me, but his friend fails to show, so two minutes before the curtain goes up, he turns and hands me his ticket to

The Mill and the Cross.

Some ponderings:

I may like the painting better than the movie.  But I like the movie because it gives us cause to consider the painting.

Which makes me consider that procession and mesh of life and intervening forces in which we’re embedded as we fulfill that life into which we’ve been born, or trace that road which we’ve chosen.

I wonder with whom of all those 500 characters in the procession we each choose to align.  Are we the miller, the horseman, the weeping mother, the man shouldering the fallen tree?

And I found it pleasant to be thrust into the stillness of Brueghel time.  Especially after a harrowing day of travel to arrive in this harrowing city.  I want that stillness, that repose from which to witness that tragedy we call being human.

This morning I feel disconnected in this most connected city.  I wonder a little about what the hell I’m doing here.  

I eat more soba.

I decide that I will just move through the day and try to be kind.  That’s all I will do today.  Just be kind.  

I’ve kind of failed at it.  But I’m still trying.  I have eight more hours to go.  And again tomorrow. Perhaps I will try.

Social Marketing

SXSW.  First day.  Or second.  Just after the premiere of Dish and a Spoon, drifting into some free boozy brunch sponsored by


They are an absolutely fantastic way to get local deals in towns you live in or are visiting.  I’ve never used them, but they’re super great.  Along with the free food we got cool shades that said “Groupon” on the side.  I really liked the food and the sunglasses.

That day I probably said “Groupon” five or six times.  More times than I’ve ever said “Groupon” in my life.

In fact, later at the still hip outside patio terrace at the

Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Hotel

my friends and I talked about Groupon for a while, everyone except my friend

Brett Baer (not this guy) who just laughed and listened.

We even told some folks passing by about Groupon and our free sunglasses and they were so impressed, they said, “Damn. That deserves a t-shirt.”

And they gave me a t-shirt promoting an online social marketing service!  It’s called


a totally awesome way to increase traffic to your website using electronic word of mouth referrals, and is up to ten times more effective than search engine marketing or other traditional forms of digital advertising.

I haven’t really used it yet, but it sounds great.

And at the very least they have a pretty good t-shirt.

The thing I can’t figure out is why they are using an old school social marketing tool (t-shirts) to advertise their new online social marketing tool?

And what about all the online tool and app and widget developers handing out free piddle-paddle noise makers and free gum and free candy and free beer and…free t-shirts?

And why do they call it sxsw interactive, when most people are sitting in the lobby staring alone into their devices?

I’m still pondering.

No answer yet.

Maybe I’ll ask my new best friend, Jane, the hots designer of the WordPress backend.  She’s super nice and seems to know a lot. She said I might even win an iPad.

Another day at SXSW.

From my brother

I told my brother about the earlier posts.  In a gracious gesture, he said they could stand, though I know he doesn’t necessarily want his life splayed across the Information Highway like so much roadkill.

He also cc’d me on an email which I’ll post in part:

“i can say too that a week later i have become more certain than ever that the healing power of love and music is quite profound.

now, for the the next six weeks i have a singular focus, and that is to be there for andy and for me this simply means that i be mindful in keeping him in a loving space within my thoughts and i truly believe that the more people that do this the better he will be as will we all.

so…here’s the picture…every morning…monday through friday…andy is getting these high energy radiation treatments from a machine that was conceptualized and manufactured in the heart of the imperium as a product of love by a people that care for each other enough that they have created an instrument that can bestow life in a sense upon each of us.

thus i say, that we as a community must simply think of andy being embraced by love every morning between eight and nine am as he goes through what is in essence a profoundly healing experience.”

Machinery of love. Yes.

Dry Heat

This afternoon I had my dry run before I begin six weeks of radiation.


My daughter asked me if it was fun.  Yes it was, I told her.  And it was also scary.

I strolled into the basement of Mt. Zion, they pointed me to the men’s changing room, I rummaged through a box of striped gowns (they reminded me of Holocaust wear), threw one on, was guided into a sweet catapulting room with cherry floors, lay down on a softly cushioned table, jammed a prosthetic in my mouth to prevent my tongue from moving and a few moments later two men bolted my head down with a mesh mask and split from the room.

Right on.  They told me they were taking x-rays which might have been a dumbed down euphemism for something else.  I heard a heavy whooshing sound, like the proximate breath of some very large reptile.  Every so often I would register an intense blue white flash followed by a strange sharp odor lodged somewhere between my nostrils and my tongue.  It smelled as if the air itself was burning.  Not cool.

I followed my breath.  I tried not to swallow.  I composed long sentences in my head.  Not much different than any other time except for the swallowing part.  I wondered about how much tolerance there was in the measurements – what would I fry in my head if I tricked my neck a millimeter to the left or to the right.  I tried not to trick my neck.  I hoped that their measurements were right.

After 20 minutes it was over.  I mentioned the smell to the rad tech.  Only a small number of people can see and smell it, he said.  What’s up with that, I wondered.  We all have eyes and tongues and noses.  There shouldn’t be that much variability in this stuff, in our bodies, in energy moving through those bodies.  And in my mind, in this game, variability is also not cool.

I grabbed my stuff.  I snapped some pictures.  Rad tech John handed me a green appointment slip for my first dosing.  8:30 am.  Monday.