a poem for january 15

What is it called when two people have an ESV Bible,
A Spanish New Testament,
A Merriam-Webster dictionary,
A Greek New Testament,
A Greek lexicon,
And the internet
All open at the same time, looking up the etymology of jealousy versus envy?
Then later a roommate, in a black and white sweater,
lilts across the kitchen making sweet potatoes and a salad-
from one counter to another, she leans into what she does
like grass leans in the wind-
and salmon goes into the oven.
And there is a recording of “Gaudete” in sung in cockney accents.
Then a friend comes over with music in his hands,
Trying to put it into your clumsy hands, and you practice conducting entrances on the second eighth note of the down-beat.
What is it called when he and Meagan sit in the afternoon-lit living room
And talk about thought and emotion and the Aeolian harp
And whether a Brahms piece sounds like it was meant for strings or organ?

We have all of this and no name for it.
O peace of imprecision, of gifts that waft like fragrance, out of definition’s reach.


365 beautiful things

Back in April, I wrote about listsThe truth is, I have internalized Rilke when he said that perhaps we are here simply to make lists: House. Bridge. Fountain. Gate. Pitcher. Apple tree. Window. To say things as they are in their integrity, without embellishment.

Last New Year’s Day, I made my first and only New Year’s resolution: to make a note each evening of something beautiful I saw or experienced that day. I set a repeating reminder on my phone and didn’t miss a day. It became a precious ritual, and I think it made me progressively more mindful and grateful. I want to share some of the 365 beautiful things with you, interspersed with a few mediocre iPhone pictures.

1. Ben climbing to the outside of a fence at the arboretum to look over the ledge: “Everything is an adventure.”
6. Driving to Austin in 30 degree cold with rhapsody in blue on the radio and the clouds rolling away from the sun
16. Ran past restaurants this morning- and past Christmas trees left out for bulk pickup. It smelled like breakfast on Christmas.

31. Quiet at Trinity university, surrounded by walkers, next to a sculpture like Stonehenge, under the thin moon and two stars
39. I fed stingrays. In addition, I felt quite acutely homesick, and I think there is a beauty in that awareness.
50. Jesus changed death from a weapon against us into a weapon to be used by us. “Unless a grain of seed falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit.”
52. Two hawks flying between South Lamar and Rio Grande
60. Bible study and communal prayer. Emily Serven showing emotion in the tiniest facial muscles as she talked about her family
79. Sunrise pervading the spring sky. This poem about the Boeing 777:
81. My choir kids leaning over Jeffrey Blair’s shoulder at KMFA
87. John talking about Paris- the boulevards and the monuments and how he used to go into restaurants and talk to the owners when they were closed
99. Sitting in noon service. Cold chairs. Small organ and the rumble of heavy rain.
112. Tears in service. Urban walking/prayer with Bethany and Cara. Football huddle with choir kids after rehearsal.
118. Community walk in Clarksville led by a vibrant and energetic woman who cares about Urbanism and this city.
132. Walking A&M with Dad and hearing stories about his college years
135. The way Joshua says “humongous distinction”
138. Laughing around the Lills’ tiny kitchen table
143. Thudding over the white iron bridge in montopolis. Whiteness and the sensation of drumming
149. Joking with Geoffrey in our TPPF conference room– he smiles honestly around me now
166. Two American Airlines employees in Raleigh thinking hard and working together to get me home to Austin
168. Unbelievable red extravagance of a plum cut and bleeding sweetly on a plate
174. Holding sway over a choir of VBS kids, conducting them through Rutter and them smiling back at me
180. Going through the taco cabana drive thru to get one 35-cent tortilla
188. Camaraderie in the office; Emily holding her chin in her hand as she listens
193. Mars Hill cello, a description of Charles Williams, and use of the word “posit”
197. In the very early morning hours, a long and healing conversation. Alternatively talking about serious pain and laughing at it.
217. Tumbling with Brooke, holding Lily, squeezing John Mark, singing to Amber
227. The slow ordering of cleaning supplies and the patient consideration of homemaking
234. Anna knowing me so well in ikea
236. Lived vision and visceral love at community first village
245. Caroline telling me about her lessons in pterosaurs
247. An afternoon with Dad: planting a garden and watching a documentary about Wendell Berry afterwards
260. Meagan’s early Sunday morning soliloquies on the nature of the good, true, and beautiful as she seasons crockpot curry
264. Hill country clouds in soft colors; conversations about handed-down and aspired-to faithfulness with my family in our favorite vacation cabin
275. Two little girls waving joyously at my train as they roll beside us in the back seat of a black convertible
285. Joonho sight reading a Billy Joel song at the Ahrens’ house and trying to help me sing along
306. Biking through the HEB tunnel, seeing the light at the end fill more and more of my sight; the lovely, silly, cruel, innocent world opening to me again as it always does
308. Hearing a south Dallas developer talk about his investments as farms that he commits to for life…knowing I was born for this work
324. Walking up lavaca with Nina and Josiah, talking city and economics and the reformation and laughing like crazy college kids
334. Meagan in a garishly adorable sweater dress, sewing and telling me how to do archival research
339. Roo Panes’ Little Giant album and 59 degrees
342. Austin commuters exiting the train and sliding down the icy platform ramp- some joyously, some with trepidation
358. Breathlessly singing Christmas carols on my bike to and from church on Christmas Eve
363. Sitting at a hospitable and homely Ethiopian restaurant with Aubrey, flavorful food eaten with hands, rich-smelling coffee, and sensitive conversation
364. A doubled waffle recipe and an impromptu breakfast party
365. T S Eliot in cherrywood coffeehouse: “take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.”

reading list 2017

Books I read in 2017:

Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers (insightful and full of clarity- probably the book I recommended most often due to its relevance)

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

The Way of the Modern World by Craig Gay (I need to read this again, but it was an excellent treatise on post-modernity and made me think)

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Why Business Matters to God by Jeff Van Duzer

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Blue Horses by Mary Oliver

Parzival: The Quest of the Grail Knight by Katherine Paterson

Middlemarch by George Eliot (a novel full of wisdom and gentleness)

On the Mother of God by Jacob of Serug

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Night by Elie Wiesel (this shook me seriously)

Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler

The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges

Knowing God by J.I. Packer

The Martian by Andy Weir

How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz

Evicted by Matthew Desmond (“without stable shelter, everything else falls apart” — highly, highly recommended)

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Welcome Homeless by Alan Graham (the written companion to Mobile Loaves and Fishes and Community First Village here in Austin)

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (this book tried and didn’t quite succeed– struck me as a failed attempt to be The Book Thief)

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (a wealth of beauty here- even better than his prose, which I didn’t think was possible)

Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

On China by Henry Kissinger

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff*

For the Time Being by W.H. Auden

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Robert Moses, The Master Builder of New York City by Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

* previously read


This morning I resolved to ride my bike- just in the neighborhood, to check its alignment before I frighten drivers on busier streets. But now rain streaks my windows and drools out of the gutters, so I sit squinting at IRS forms and thinking of poetry.

You asked why I don’t write more poems.
Quite actually, you didn’t, but there I’ve beaten you to it,
and in bending the truth thus, accomplished that subtle
weave of fact and feeling that I associate with poetry.

But I undid the threads. The truth is, I have internalized Rilke
when he said that perhaps we are here simply to make lists:
House. Bridge. Fountain. Gate. Pitcher. Apple tree. Window.
To say things as they are in their integrity, without embellishment.

So every night at 9:50 I add to a list: Train going by in the dark.
Small singers’ hugs. Kitchen table. Two hawks. Dent in my car.
One huge arched cloud trail. Skeletal trees.

I notice the way the rain envelopes and becomes the sky, content to sink through the earth and change its form, abandoning flight and keeping me indoors, where I sit like a reservoir of simple things, making my lists when I ought to be doing my taxes. Rilke says we ought to speak the lists aloud, or write them, as the most fitting beginner’s form of poetry. “There are the hurts,” he writes. “And, always, the hardships. And there’s the long knowing of love – all of it unsayable. Later, amidst the stars, we will see: these are better unsaid.” So I write: the soft way light reaches through the window to rest in stripes on a girl’s brown hair during church. A friend talking about Paris. Unexpected meetings and free food and my hand out the window to feel the warming air and, of all things, Call Me Maybe on 95.5.

These are no more than fragments that I, in listing them, weave into a body. Rilke, again: “And the things which, even as they live, pass on – understand that we praise them. Transient, they are trusting us to preserve them – us, the most transient of all. As if they wanted our hearts to transform them into – o endlessly – into us. Whatever we are.”

I cannot yet call that transformation Poetry. I slowly fulfill my human duty to name things, but it is ironic that I have no name for the Opus that results. There is great and solemn joy in the mystery. To all the spoken and word-upheld world, I say: be.

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I weave through the city.
The squirrels keep up; they understand
the urge to race in the dappled light.

A recorded voice drawls out, slow and Texan:
“The walk sign is on to cross 24th street at Lamar,”
and the woman at the crosswalk repositions her earbuds.
She runs north, and I, south– past Shoal creek looking rocky
and innocent, as if it did not flood west downtown just last year
and the year before that.

A girl’s dog pulls her to the ground straining to greet me.
“He’s excited to see you,” she pants. I understand
the urge to run toward the new and the strange.

The silvery exhale of a bus
matches the uneven pulse of
my breathing as I see my city’s skyscrapers
like a collective shout, loom over the 15th street bridge.

Living in a city is like lying eye level with the grass,
watching it grow.

reading list 2016

Books I read in 2016: the latest in a string of consecutively shorter lists.

(following asterisks denote previously read)

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card
Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred by Philip Bess
The Small Rain by Madeleine L’Engle
Hamlet by William Shakespeare*
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Postmillennialism by Keith Mathison
Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers
Antigone by Sophocles
Bold Love by Dan B. Allender
The Essential Rilke selected and translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton*
Passion and Purity by Elizabeth Elliot
A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Harvest Poems by Carl Sandburg
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling*
Heidegger in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
What’s Best Next? by Matt Perman
The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth by Wendell Berry
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers
The Confessions of Saint Augustine*
The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats


urban light

This week I sit curled up next to family, watching small siblings opening gifts. I lie on carpet squinting at economics and algebra textbooks, and watch the pilot episodes of a couple of shows people have instructed me to see, weighing whether I can sustain the commitment to finish their stories. I wake up late. I run. I sit cross-legged on my bed in the temperate glow of my single strand of Christmas lights and ponder things. What am I looking for? What do I need to manufacture for myself vs. find outside of me? What duties/joys am I shirking and why? Where am I needed? I read T.S. Eliot:

The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.

There are things you lose when you pursue a career: Worship as an obvious chief vocation. Time to be still. Motivations unaffected by the hope of rising higher.

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

I have lost the easy stride of a worshiper. I am like my brother who, untrained at piano, can play hymns in full harmony by ear– but when I straighten his bench and sit down to teach him note names and fingerings, inspiration is forgotten and he languishes in a tangle of thumbs and accidentals.

I am that child. Learning technique. Questioning my choice of direction and reminding myself what I leave behind. And still, still drawn to my work. But the work and the life get confused often because I think about density and walkability and sustainability and ecology and community and bake myself into a buzzword pie but forget to till my own land and speak to my own neighbors.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them.
Many desire to see their names in print.
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of God,
Much is your building, but not the House of God.

And the wind shall say:
“Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”

I fight suburban sprawl and automobile-oriented environments. But imagine I win; who am I then? A decent godless person: her only monument the pedestrian-oriented streetscape and a thousand lost souls?

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

So I hear the questions and I am afraid because it turns out I am not good at walking this path, but I refuse to turn back. Like a fool, I wander forward into the unknown because I just want to HELP, but I don’t know if I will. I want to be important, but I’m afraid it would destroy me. I want to be independent but I don’t want to be alone. I want to worship AND be accepted in a secularized city. So it’s a mess. But I believe I’m meant to wade through it.

In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.

I believe Jesus will be faithful to complete a good work in and through me. Halfway in and halfway out of the dark, I will keep Christmas.

The work of creation is never without travail;
Lord, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order.
And intellectual pleasures of the senses?
The Lord who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creating.

(Poetry taken from Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock”; I recommend the entire poem.)

a future for I-35 in atx


Austin’s major arterial highway is over 50 years old and ready for a makeover. Every rush hour, commuters get to look forward to driving on the second most congested highway in the state. People may envy Austin’s tacos, but no one envies our traffic. Congestion and ageing infrastructure necessitate reconstruction and as the Texas Department of Transportation reviews options for I-35’s downtown Austin stretch, Mayor Adler has asked Austinites to support one specific concept: lowering the highway between 15th Street and Cesar Chavez, adding 2 lanes in each direction, and creating the possibility of a cap over sections of the lowered lanes.

Mayor Adler is joined by multiple urbanist organizations and architects in the quest for a reconnected urban corridor. That is one goal of depressing I-35 through downtown: increasing community and connectivity between the east and west sides of our city. For many years, the highway has served as a barrier between East Austin and Downtown by impeding foot traffic and serving up a hearty helping of exhaust and noise for humans so unfortunate as to stray in its vicinity without a car.

As the mayor and the Downtown Austin Alliance write, the lowered highway option for I-35 will benefit our community by:

  • Adding capacity for vehicles on I-35, including toll-free express lanes for transit vehicles. Having protected lanes for buses to bypass traffic will encourage the use of public transit, which will help to remove vehicles from Austin’s busy roadways.
  • Improving safety and mobility for pedestrians and cyclists
  • Enhancing east/west connectivity for both vehicles and pedestrians
  • Reducing noise pollution from the highway for the area surrounding I-35
  • Creating the opportunity for “cap” infrastructure along the downtown corridor of I-35. This will provide residents and stakeholders the opportunity to create an iconic, privately-owned deck park above the state’s most congested highway, benefiting future generations of Texans.

Take a moment to watch this concept video of the proposed lowered highway:

This option gives Austin the ability to reconnect its east and west communities, forming a more complete and sustainable city. The “depressed” highway began to gain popularity years ago, but there are still many of us who have no experience with the idea. An example close to home is Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, which is always a highlight of my trips to the DFW metroplex. The park is full of vitality: urban adventurers of all ages lounge on the grass, stroll the sidewalks, and squint at the many food truck menus. In the midst of the park’s greenery it’s hard to believe there’s an eight-lane freeway beneath you!


Depressing the highway has reconnected Dallas’s downtown core. Connection and community are about much more than financial prosperity, but Dallas has certainly benefited economically because of Klyde Warren Park. D Magazine’s Christine Perez wrote, “When the 4.5-acre deck park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway opened in the fall of 2012, no one could have predicted the profound impact it would have on the Dallas commercial real estate market.” An early impact study estimated that the park could catalyze $350 million in new development. But the real number has risen to over $1 billion as of January 2016.

Lowering I-35 prepares Austin for future development in a way that modifying the existing concept cannot. Below is a video of the Texas Department of Transportation’s other option: widening I-35 without lowering it. This proposal allows for no more traffic capacity than the first option, and leaves the east and west sides of the highway permanently divorced from one another.

With this model, the highway bisects a potential community, hindering connection and property value. Conversely, the lowered option gives Austin the opportunity to grow back together, allowing the highway to serve the city rather than blight it. Let’s make Austin more than a great place to eat tacos.

If you want the Texas Department of Transportation to lower I-35, use this form to send an email to James Bass, TxDOT Executive Director.



Hello, struggler, wisher, thirster-
I meet you at the well to wonder,
to ponder, and possibly to fight for
what it is to be alive.

Both of us are drinking from the same cistern.
We created it; the cracks refused to seal
and the water refused to heal our parched souls.
Goodness knows we have looked in all those cracks
for answers and heard enough echoes
to reassure us we are alone.

But what of the music that we didn’t make?
We hear it shake the ground sometimes
and we analyze the sounds that aren’t our own.
O great unknown, you sing to us
and call to us in open roads
and feather-leafed mesquite groves
and in places that are kind or bleak to us-
you are deeper than our well goes.
O Otherness beyond our echoes,
you have a voice that fills us
in the emptiness of subway halls
and other people’s flawless love.

Mend our cisterns! we cry,
and you reply,
Leave them dry. I will supply parched lips
with my munificence and drench
you in my providence.
O holy Christ, your voice is stronger
than the torrents tempting us to take
the earthy waters; human potters mold more vessels
but you call us-
like a wave: one but recurring.
Beyond words, beyond our singing
you are matchless:
to have tasted of your depth
is to know Already and Not Yet
and greater love and greater debt.

call and response

stretch out your hand in trepidation

open your palm with your frightened eyes shut

do you trust the gifts you’re given?

neither do I, yet we both risk the touch

often our reaching has brought us to ruin

there have been serpents disguised as doves

like a fisherman, your sight is blocked by the surface

like a fish, you so seldom look up

in your chest is a heart and each pump starts a pulse

your body is water; your heart is a stone

a stone splashes once and the ripples convulse

every vein channels rhythm and urges the flow

your pulse is a call to you: open your hand

gifts may betray but will not fail to teach you

I once wished for love and got wisdom instead

each gift you accept is a bite you can’t chew

you will swallow the bitterest dose of reality

you will wish you had never unfolded your fist

even in pain your pulse will keep beckoning

you are constantly summoned to open your gifts

stretch out your hand in trepidation

open your palm with your frightened eyes shut

do you trust the life you’re given?

neither do I, yet we both risk the touch


[this post appeared first on Torrey Gazette]

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