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The Foolishness of Faith

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

– Hebrews 11:1

The other night I received a call from an old friend whom I’d not talked with in a couple of years. Over the course of the next hour, we played cross country catch up on the intervening period since our paths last crossed.

Then Josh, my friend, asked me a question that caught me off guard: “Are you still doing anything with film?”

Two summers ago, not long before the last time we’d spoken, I’d flown out to Los Angeles to study for a few weeks under a modestly successful filmmaker there who was offering takers the chance to make their own short films while soaking up an industry insider’s perspective, and for dirt cheap. People from all walks of life showed up: some already working in the industry; others wanting to break in; some already enrolled in good film schools; and even one socially active senior who wanted to raise awareness on a neglected population living within his community by making a documentary.

The philosophy of our instructor: “Just do it.” Start making film, as nowadays you shouldn’t have to go to an expensive film school in order to enter the industry and do good work.

A few years earlier, I couldn’t have imagined such a wild lark. And even when going, the idea of the LA Dream Factory was not all that appealing to me. On paper, as a recent graduate from a counseling program, it almost didn’t make sense. Yet having time in my schedule as I was unemployed, and offered an invitation that spoke to something deep inside, I headed to LA.

But to my friend’s question—with the brief exception of beginning a screenplay turned novel last year—I answered with a quiet “No.” That that part of my life is on the shelf for now.

On one hand, it wasn’t easy to hear Josh’s words because they elicited an ache. An ache underscored by feeling called to live a certain way over the last eight-plus years which for the most part has been hard and had relatively few outward signs of success, where there have been many brick walls, disappointments, distractions, and temptations while seeking to honor this sense of call.

But this isn’t a story about film; it’s a story about desire. And being invited into my story by a friend who knows me—who sees me, and gets me—was a great kindness. Though recognizing my difficulty, Josh was glad that I have not deadened myself to desire. That I still live with it.

As I put it to him, I’m at a place in my life where there are certain things that I have no other possible way to reckon them now but by faith. They just seem too impossible, and out of reach. Foolish.

To live by faith is to live with the ache of desire. It is the calling to live as an artist—seeing into being those things which do not yet exist, carried by what William Blake called a “firm persuasion.”

When drawn into territory where there are no clear road maps, can you be a fool? Will you be a fool?

I’ve often been tempted to be too practical for my own good, and at some of the worst possible times. But due to the apparent foolishness I’ve succumbed to in recent years, why begin now?

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Last night I happened upon a Travel Channel special, “Donut Paradise,” that took me on a welcomed trip down Nostalgia Lane as the spotlight was shone on one of my old haunts—Top Pot Doughnuts in Seattle, Washington.

Variously described as the “Donut Lounge”—and with its hip Modernist architecture, likened to a cross between a library and wine bar—patrons of Top Pot get more than great doughnuts. They get an experience.

I know full well. I first stumbled onto Top Pot in late 2004 when Seattle area Starbucks started offering some of their items. I was impressed, but did not yet know of the true wonder of a fresh doughnut from the source. (NOTE: Some Starbucks outside of Washington have started offering Top Pot, but in my experience so far, these both look and taste pretty poor.)

Then I took a job a couple blocks away from Top Pot’s downtown store on 5th Avenue. Walking by it daily to and from the bus stop, eventually I dropped in one morning.

Oh. My. Gosh.

Sometimes, there are little pleasures in life that deliver ridiculously far more than we should expect. But for only $1.63, a Top Pot Old Fashioned Glazed Doughnut sent me to a very happy place.

Less than a year after my initial Donut Lounge experience, I moved into an apartment nearby in Lower Queen Anne. Once in awhile, I would plan an afternoon walk some eight blocks away for no other reason than the pleasure of just sitting for awhile at Top Pot and enjoying an Old Fashioned Glazed off a plate.

I may as well have been dining with royalty; doing Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room; or fed pureed truffles intravenously. In those moments, it was my little slice of heaven.

Inside and outside, the Donut Lounge was a fully integrated experience. The good vibes of store and staff, the clean architecture, the lighting, the music, and “hand-forged doughnuts” never more than a couple of hours old guaranteed a blissful experience repeatable every time. And while I sometimes met friends there, Top Pot was one of those places I did not mind going to alone; it only allowed me more space to distill the experience to its true essence.

When weather was good, sitting at a table outside added another dimension to my delight. What could possibly be better following several days of Seattle rain than soaking up the sun and fresh air while sitting under Top Pot’s signature neon sign? This, along with an Old Fashioned Glaze Doughnut on a plate, of course, parceled out to as many bites as I could extend it. The whir of the monorail overhead every few minutes. The honking of cars and buses that seemed to recede into the distance once doughnut victuals began…

I really miss you, Top Pot.

“I always thought that the spine of the character is awe and wonder.”

– William Shatner

I’ve been reading in the Psalms recently (28-31). The one place at present where my heart seems able to show up in coming to the Scriptures. I love David’s naturalistic lens for experiencing God. Particularly 29:3-10. The NIV Study Bible, not always reliable with its reference notes to the questions coming out of my reading, nevertheless suggests in v. 29 that “the temple” may refer to all of his creation being his temple.

In watching Earth’s Wonders on the Travel Channel the other day about the world’s best places—showcasing many which I’ve had the privilege to see—all the more I get the sense of how it was meant to be. And say, “Yes! The whole world is Your temple.” And then with some amount of bafflement, marvel at many of the people filling churches on a Sunday morning, at those who’ve never felt inclination to step out into the world and experience the God of the Wild. And sometimes wonder just what and who it is that they may be singing and praying to.

The self-revealing God of the Hebrews perhaps hidden once more in plain sight. Or out of sight, as may be the case here—as hearts on pilgrimage, or going up to Zion, or to the temple—seem so apparently not so in some cases, but settling for something far less instead. Cartoonish, childish even, when considering the spirit whom they seek to commune with.

Like those strange cargo cults of the South Pacific; or the people encountering an ominous message from a mysterious “V’ger” in an otherwise horrible Star Trek: The Motion Picture; or the intrusion of a Coke bottle into the lives of Kalahari Bushmen and the misadventures that follow in The Gods Must Be Crazy—where the divine transmission has apparently gotten jammed—one wonders, Where is God in all of this? And Why don’t they want to see Him in his earthly temple?

John Muir understood this, whose naturalistic spirituality was infused with a rich biblical depth, and of whom stories are recounted of scrambling up into tall trees to experience a storm’s power. Maybe some of these places are the wonders that for some of us God one day hoped to be the settings of our encounter with him, like Moses and Elijah in the wilderness before us. Or like that guy Jesus even, who spent a lot of time retreating there.

But instead of the God of Holy Fear and Wonder, we settled for that old god of stern harshness and legal-moral asceticism. And we settled for the old god of the fertility rite—only castrated and retrofitted with religious garb and ecstasies of another sort, people falling all over themselves in a “I can’t get enough of this stuff” swooning fervor.

Perhaps some of this sounds unkind. I don’t mean to say God doesn’t show up in some very similar-appearing circumstances. God after all is God, whose redemptive history has seemed much about giving us a long time to figure that fact out, and not to confuse Him with the things, circumstances, and practices we make Him out to be in—attractive or not.

For one thing, God seems to have a penchant for showing up in the dirt—where we’d least think or want to find him—in the seemingly pointless desert wanderings of a young nation; or the example of a naked prophet; or whoring of a wayward wife; or piss and dung-soiled straw of a small Judean stable.

But the element that seems missing for me toward the people in question here: Where is the courageous stepping out to meet such a God as found in these other places? Or the at-once terrifying but ultimately transformative showdowns? Like Lt. Dan during the hurricane in Forrest Gump, or before him, like Job putting on his best bluster before God humbled him in silence.

Like C.S. Lewis once said, it’s like God has invited us to a holiday at the beach, but instead like children we have settled for making mud cakes out of a puddle.

Go figure…

Storm Coming on the Patagonian Steppe / Brian Bragdon

Vanilla Sky

The other day I was coming out of LA Fitness, when I was surprised with a visual feast—a late afternoon sunset following the cloud break of a recent shower.

Now Florida already has some great sunsets. And due to the fact that most of the state sits between two coasts, the collision of moist air currents can make for some spectacular storms. But to say it was a beautiful sunset doesn’t quite capture the encounter that led me to take another way home just so I could stretch out the experience a few moments longer.

It was a quality of light that some artists have been known to chase after. Pacific Northwest photographer Mary Randlett probably says it best: “I have always called it Toledo Light [for the dramatic sky in El Greco’s noted painting Storm over Toledo]. We have wonderful liquid light in the Northwest.”

Liquid light. That is what I experienced on the drive home that evening. Back at the house, the sun now safely hidden behind the trees, its effect could still be seen in the clouds above—carrying a luminescence that seemed almost unnatural. Around that time, my roommate stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, as he settled into the comfort of a lounge chair. He cracked a wide grin and nodded his head upward.

“Vanilla sky,” he said.

I nodded in mutual admiration of the moment, about something touching on the transcendent in an otherwise day-is-done routine. I have a huge capacity to be stirred by nature, which is why I’m grateful every now and again to be jolted like this.

I’ve other moments very similar to this one in its quality of light: the late afternoon ride back to Seattle from Vancouver with my friend, Rob, following the breaking of another storm; the surprise of the sun managing to peek through gloomy skies shrouding the slopes of Chile’s Mount Osorno; and the brief penetration of light through a veil of valley mists following a soggy afternoon in Dorrigo National Park, Australia. Experiences of the holy breaking into the now.

I’m reminded of John Eldredge’s statement: “The world is overflowing with beauty. God seems to be rather enamored with it. Gloriously wasteful. Apparently, he feels that there ought to be plenty of it in our lives.”

Gloriously wasteful is right. I don’t always notice. But in moments like this that I do—Wow.

The Glowing Veiled Forests of Dorrigo / Brian Bragdon

Dorrigo Mists / Brian Bragdon

Late Afternoon Light Near Osorno / Brian Bragdon

The other day I went to a networking lunch here in Orlando. It’s one of the better such meetings I’ve been to, enabling me the chance to have a few conversations of substance, and not just that sense of a whir of faces sizing me up as if to say “I wonder if you are of any value to me… Next please.”

At the end, I struck up conversation with a realtor, each of us sharing a bit of our stories—how we got to Orlando—and weathering the current economy among other things. After a time, he surprised me a bit with a couple of his comments, which he meant to be taken as compliments.

He said I had a “Zen quality” about me.

He also said I seemed “entrepreneurial.”

Perhaps they seem at odds. But taken in context, I totally tracked with him.

I had explained my love and experience of international travel, and well as living in far flung places such as Seattle and the South Pacific prior to coming to Orlando a couple years ago. And a quality of living that only comes by, well… getting out there and living.

That’s what he meant by entrepreneurial. Not afraid to experience life. And where things have not been all that, allowing the experiences to shape me for the better, nonetheless.

That’s where the Zen thing came in, contrasting what he described as my easy-going demeanor with his own edginess, which—normally taken as a good thing in business circles—he felt to be a disadvantage at times.

My new acquaintance was also talking about how he recognized a Zen demeanor does not always sit so well within the super-charged atmosphere of business circles.

Yep. I just laughed a bit, and quipped, “Poets vs. Engineers.” Or (true) entrepreneurs vs. technicians—living in tune with larger cycles and rhythms to life and not just the bottom line. Or artists vs. business people… Name your cliché; you get the point.

Of course, each has their place. But try telling that to the guy or gal who’s convinced that theirs is the most important thing in the world. Ever. Now let me charge you $500 for that advice. Or if I’m an artist, will you pay me peanuts for this thing of beauty now so that one day you can brag to your friends when it’s worth a $1000?

Beauty will save the world

The Blog Vacation

Hi Everyone,

I’ve been on vacation lately. A blog vacation, that is.

I know. I know. These are not welcome words, particularly coming from the fingertips of a writer—where among other things—consistency is key in branding ourselves.

How many times, for instance, have you come across a website where you find someone already claimed a domain name you felt to have great potential—only to see that most unspeakable of horrors… Only one or two entries, and then nada!

A dead blog. And nothing posted in months or years since the initial enthusiasm that gave birth to the only evidence that someone somewhere even bothered to create it in the first place. Which is right up there with “This web page is parked free, courtesy of …” or “Under Construction” or “Coming Soon!” and other dead ends in cyberspace. The internet equivalent of commercial building projects gone belly up in the real world.

Now on the positive side of things, it’s not as though I’ve stopped writing. Far from it, in fact. It’s just that publicly I’ve been largely incognito, save for an occasional article, and now—Tweeting. Most of my writing has been behind the scenes: journaling, business or ghost-writing assignments, and thus, off the grid.

I like being off the grid, actually. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, because when I am, chances are very good that I’m playing in fine style: exploring a new city, a new country, a new wilderness escape, or a new art museum.

But in this case, not so much. I just got behind. Busy. Distracted. Pulled in many directions, which ironically, has included looking for writing opportunities. And even lacking in inspiration some days to write here while attending to all these other matters.

Ahhh… WWJD? What would Julia (Cameron) do? My Morning Pages Muse.

Okay, so maybe not all the best reasons in the world. But hey—this is my confession.

Anyway, good to be back. And I hope to be checking in with you a little more often.

See you soon,

Brian

Gone on Walkabout

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