Evening in a Vulnerable City

“At the core of every act of vulnerability is an honest desire and longing for connection.” — Brené Brown

It’s eight-ish in the evening, and I’m in the car at Alvarado and Sunset. The road work from earlier in the morning is clear, and the taco truck has taken up its usual place in the Car Wash parking lot at the southeast corner of the intersection. I went for a run around Echo Park Lake, and then made dinner. Now I’m out picking up an evening snack when Brené’s words leap from the radio and sit with me — in this temporary car, in this temporary house, in this temporary city.

Los Angeles is more beautiful to me than ever before, but I can’t tell you why — maybe I wasn’t ready for it when I lived here initially — maybe I didn’t have the eyes and heart for city living way back when —  maybe I looked for all the wrong things — maybe I lost sight of why I was in Southern California in the first place —

I would love to tell you Los Angeles is an amorphous body of dreamers, nine-to-fivers, liars, happy-go-luckies, poverty-stricken, wealth-afflicted, vitamin-D-worshippers, surfers, potheads, suburban crypt-keepers, apartment rats, tree-huggers, gas-guzzlers, shitty guitarists, dog-walkers, bar-hoppers, bros, ho’s and assholes. And then I would love to tell you the traffic is too crazy, the beach is too beautiful, and the average number of times people cite Instagram as a source of news and/or conversation is too fucking high.

But I can’t say any of those things; not with a sincere heart. Some of those things I mean, some of them I don’t, some of them I do but only half-way, some of them I do but I’m talking about something else. If I say those things about Los Angeles, I am perhaps many things — bitter, funny, observant, short-sighted, biased — but I am not truthful. Brené continues and tacks on this gem to the previous line of stone:

“Live-tweeting about your bikini wax isn’t an act of vulnerability.”

More words joining me in the rental car. The front seat’s taken, but they gladly take up occupancy in the back. My heart bounces ‘round, and as often happens, I wind up thinking about Story, about why I think the way I do. Good stories, are, for me, about vulnerability. Perhaps that extends to cities also — perhaps my opinion of a city changes based on how vulnerable I think its citizens are — about how the city views vulnerability —

You can get as much information as you want about someone living in Los Angeles. When you talk to someone, you can find out where they’re from, their favorite restaurant, who they follow on all kinds of social media, what show they’re binging on —

Stop. Just stop.

Apologies for the previous paragraph. Reeks of bullshit. I’m going to try this again.

***

Lord, Los Angeles works a strange magic on me — I never go through as many highs and lows in a day as I do here. Never do I feel so connected and severed, so belonging to everything and yet a part of nothing. Whatever I know, someone knows more. Whatever I do, someone’s already done.

Lord, never have I seen such a collection of hearts; each and every one of them broken. Loud and blasting, foaming at the mouth, cacophonous. A near-earsplitting heartache, over and over again. Sunrise, sunset. Heartache, heartache.

And yet the broken-hearted claim wholeness; through work, through relationships, through achievement, through perception, through objects. If broken, work to fix. If broken, use others to fill gaps. If broken, strive and overcome. If broken, lie-cheat-and-steal to seem whole.

Lord, you love Los Angeles as much as you love Philadelphia, and you work to redeem this city as much as you work to redeem Philos — you care for the people of Echo Park as much as you care for the people of Fishtown — you desire peace for the man who sells flowers at the entrance to Forest Lawn as much as you desire peace for the man who sells bean pies on the Girard St. Bridge.

Lord, I ask forgiveness for the earlier parts of this thing. Forgive me when I bullshit and talk cynical. Forgive me because it’s me hiding. If I’m honest I feel a weight and expectation about this place. This place is magic, but in the same way Tulsa is magic, in the same way Mogadishu is magic and the shores of the Caspian are magic — because you made them, Lord. You made Alvarado and Sunset, and you made the taco truck, and you made the Hollywood Sign.

Los Angeles makes me feel wholly loved and utterly alone. In my limits, I panic and prance and scream and shout and grind myself to dust. Los Angeles is a beautiful place, but only by your grace. You’re all over the place, Lord. If only we’ve eyes to see.

You, oh Lord, give me rest. You, oh Lord, bring me peace. As I travel on, I pray for Los Angeles. Be with The Angels, as you are with Brotherly Love. Amen.

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first corinthians fifteen, fifty-three thru fifty-five

To Henry; a baby, loved by God.

When you walk, you stumble like a pirate puppeted by rum. You rest on your knees and shake-rattle-jelly roll at the sight of your giraffe toy, or your mother, or a ping-pong ball.

You are beautiful, Bubbles. You are a drooling, pooping beautiful hope. Always an exhalation of joy, an affirmation and insistence on wonder, always an exaltation of praise and a delivering on the promise of God’s grace to this world.

The Lord’s grace is great and terrible, Henry, and so you are right to tremble.

But my belief in the Lord is stronger because of you, Henry. Because the ones who love you loved before they knew your face or your name. Because the past was nothing but loss, silence and fire. Because days from now, when you’re crying and haven’t napped; months from now, when you’re knocking over cups at a restaurant; years from now, when you’re a teenager and spilling out with rebellion, you’ll be a miracle.

Because of tragedy. Because of pain. Because of sadness.

Because grief has no more power than the grip your sausage fingers on a ping-pong ball. Because death does not make the ground shake more your stampeding knees and palms rumbling across our office floor. Because the Lord’s word does not come back void.

Because the miracle was and is and is to come.

The Father’s love is huge, Henry-baby. Huge like your cheeks, huge like the H in the Hollywood sign. Huge like gaps between your teeth and huge like your howls when someone cuts your hair.

In time, in grief, in grace, in tragedy and in miracle alike, you will come to know the hugeness and the wonder of His love.

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Learning the ABC’s – (H, K, S)

H is for Horse-shit. A friend and I were talking; her in the back seat, me driving and every few seconds making eye contact via rear-view mirror. We talked about church politics, about speaking one’s mind, about using one’s voice to express concern and care for the body.

She has a voice, and it’s a damned smart one. It’s powerful too, and when it swings it swings for the fences. But just because it’s powerful doesn’t mean she never has doubts or questions. And when she expressed doubt concerning the potency and appropriateness of her voice, I told her that if people didn’t listen to her because of some made-up cotton-candy excuse, that excuse was horse-shit.

She’s got the voice that swings for the fences.

K is for Kaleidoscope. A few years ago, I bought my sister and niece the same kaleidoscope. My sister’s a college graduate, and my niece was eighteen months old. Still, I thought both could find ways to use it.

The kaleidoscope reminded me of both of them, in different ways. Small babies and kaleidoscopes are both tightly wound packages of mystery and magic. My sister’s always been a goofy one, and she’s always appreciated whimsy. A kaleidoscope is another see to what you’ve always seen, just to see it in a new way.

This Christmas, my sister bought me an awesome kaleidoscope. She picked it up at a market in Seattle. It’s the size of a flask with a tube full of colored stones that you can spin and slide. The viewing slot’s on the other side, and the shapes change as you slide the tube.

One of my favorite things to do is to aim the kaleidoscope toward the sun and watch the stones glow.

S is for Shasta. Every year, a group of us from college pull together before Christmas and spend time together. We make gingerbread houses, decorate cookies, pay board games, make meals together, and sleep late.

This year, we stayed in Shasta, at the house of Ben and his wife, Hannah. There’s a baby on the way; quite-quite soon. There’s a peculiar gentleness to a woman who’s embraced pregnancy, to someone who’s had over thirty weeks to pray and care for the child inside of them. That’s a fierce tenderness.

We went out to a frozen lake, I had an awesome run one morning, and one night, even Santa came to our street, via the fire department. There was fellowship, and there was kindness. Time slowed to a crawl, to a peaceful current without rush or panic.

 

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eve

I hope you had a great Christmas, sir. I hope it was full of broken hearts and lots of people who prayed to you about how no one loves them and how no one wants them over the house because they drink too much and because they scare the kids.

I hope you lost sleep because of all the people on the streets freezing to death and unable to find a bed of their own. I pray lots of people sent you their well-wishes and I hope plenty others told you to fuck off and stop meddling in their lives.

I bet there’re lots of people who believe they know best, and I pray they told you how much better off they’d be if you’d shut up and left them to their own business. That would be better, they think. If you didn’t bother them so damn much, says them, they’d be a happier lot, and maybe they wouldn’t be so damn broken-hearted all of the time.

But instead they have you to contend with, and you have all these weird notions of love and how much you want to change their lives and all the things you want to do through them. There you sit, surrounded by all the ways you want to love people, and yet all these people don’t want your love.

Lord, I pray you had a wonderful Christmas. I pray there were lots of fires and tears. I pray O Lord, that the people of this earth welcomed your coming with their ache and their fire and their spit. I know you’re here, Immanuel. I believe you’re here, King of Kings, and I hope you get an earful.

I hope people forgot why they celebrated holidays in the first place, and I pray people spent lots of money and bought lots of shit for lots of other people, and they never talked to you about anything other than the goddamn idiot driving in front of them, other than Jesus, son of a bitch, the person who’s taking so long to make the coffee, other than Christ Almighty, all the people fucking up their days and nights, all the ways their life is not better and how there is no peace and no quiet.

Lord, I trust your Christmas season was full of death and dying and piss and shit and hospital bills, and I pray the people of this earth heaved up the prayers of a grateful and spiteful nation. I pray people acted out of fear, and I pray people hated each other and decided they were better than everyone else. I pray people made snap judgements about people they’ve never met.

I pray we forgot all the people freezing to death. I pray their breath never ever reached my plate of steaming Christmas ham. I pray that fucker never got close to me or my sacred little dinner.

Lord, I pray we don’t forget what you did on this earth so long ago. I pray we don’t forget the love and mercy you laid out in swaddling cloth that night. Father, forgive me. Forgive my arrogance. Forgive my pride. Thank you for your joy, and thank you for your peace. Thank you for the grace which arrives every day to meet my sin anew.

I pray you walk me, guide me and kick out my legs from under me, and after many revolutions, O Lord, I pray I find myself on a bed of straw, seated next to a steer at the foot of the manger.

Keep me still and silent, Father. Keep me still and reverent for the sake of the newborn child who’s cold and trying to sleep.

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120913 :: Jealous

I know my jealousy faster these days. Feel it collect at the back of my throat. Feel sit swish-slosh in the bowels of my stomach. Feel it course through my brain and stain my tongue. Feel it lock my lips and pour endless rotting waves over my heart.

No one will know the jealousy and the pride which eats and kills from Deepest Within.

***

Lord, I’m a jealous man. I’m petty.
I know, says the Lord. I love you.
Lord, all I worry about is myself.
I know that also, says the Lord.
Lord, I hate how soaked full of jealousy I am. I’m wet and ragged and dripping.
I can see that, says the Lord.
So what do I do?
Now you put yourself in my hands, and I will, in time, wring you out of jealousy.
That sounds like it’s going to hurt.
It might. In fact, it will. No use in hiding.
Lord, forgive me.
I forgive you. Put yourself into my hands, and I will press you of all envy.

***

My sister had a karaoke microphone. It was pink, and you could sing along with whatever song or melody it was playing. You could sing any kind of song, but every song made you smile, even if only for a second. After all, there’s not much else to do but smile when you’re singing into a pink microphone.

Today, I was jealous. Today I was all about me.

Which makes it the perfect day to write Christmas cards.

Today the Lord needed someone to write cards, to fill blank spaces with words of kindness and affection. And he chose s man who had neither element in great reserve. But kindness and affection were, by His Grace, multiplied.

Through Christmas cards, I direct my anger and bile and express it through loving words. My anger, on its own, is a pathetic, babbling mess. I know some recipients, but many others are new. The Lord continues to expand our family, and every single piece is beyond our control. And He shows me every single piece in every single Christmas card.

I don’t care how well you write and how good your penmanship looks on the card, says the Lord. You didn’t bring this person here. I did. I brought that person and this one, and the one you don’t even know about…that one…wow, that one’s going to blow your mind.

You can’t build a pyramid out of Christmas cards. Lord, help me direct all anger and jealousy and pettiness into tiny loving acts. Help me redirect all the hate in my heart and teach me to hug without pretense or desire to see it end.

Amen.

———————-

***

120113 :: How Does the Heart Climb the Ladder?
120213 :: The Moviemaker
120313 :: Birthday Girl
120813 :: Crowned

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120813 :: Crowned

A brain-scientist, also known as a neural-anatomist, studies the brain because her brother is schizophrenic, and she’s driven to learn of the chemical differences between a ‘normal control’ brain, and a brain afflicted by schizophrenia.

At some point in her study, she wakes one morning and realizes the left side of her brain is hemorrhaging. Her first thought is, “I’m having a stroke.” Her second thought is, “How cool is that? How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain while they’re having a stroke?” Her third thought is, “We need to get some help!”

Long story short, she has a transcendental experience in the ambulance, and achieves Nirvana. She sees herself as simultaneous Multitude and Singular. She is trillions of atoms connected to the Nature all around, and she’s also the one person; the scientist, the girl who thought it was really cool that she was having a stroke.

(Watch and experience her story. Absolutely worth it. — JILL BOLTE TAYLOR)

***

When I write, I’m committed to one story, and I’m committed to the characters in the story, and I’m committed to the hearts of the characters in the story, and I’m committed to the pasts, presents and futures of the hearts of those characters in the story.

When I write, it’s very easy for me to lose my place.

There’re times when I write and I know the words’ll never see the light of day. I know these words don’t connect to anything and I know the words won’t reveal anything deeper than an inability to write in complete sentences.

Those are the times where I hear voices; where I’m trying to be Multitude and Magnitude and Enormous and Wondrous.

The problem is that I’m none of those things. I’ve tried to be Multitude; to be Legion and Armada and Band of Brotherhood and Peace. But I’m not. I fall every time. When I try and transcend with my own hook and ladder, then I wind up building the Tower of Babel, and at a certain point, everyone starts talking different languages.

***

I can’t imagine there weren’t some decent people who were trying to build the Tower of Babel. I’m sure I’d be friends with some of these people. I’d have coffee with these folks, and I’d ask how the building was going, and what they planned to do with the building once it was finished.

I have done things so that I might be magnified. And that’s the worst part of it; is that it works, every single time. You want to be made known by what you do? Easy. That’s nothing. You have more ways to make yourself famous than you will ever know what to do with, so have fun.

Because if you want that crown, you’ll have it faster than you ever thought possible. And it will spoil like milk left on the counter. It will rust and rot and crumble and break to dust in the palm of your hand. I don’t care how much water and sun and treatment you give it. I don’t care how much love you show your crown, because that sonuvabitch is not long for the world.

Crowns are subject to time, as are we all. You can’t make a ladder out of crowns, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

No matter how much blood, sweat and tears we put into the mix, we’re still making wax wings. But onward we march. Our wings and our towers and our crowns for the taking and making and breaking.

The greater I strive to make myself more, the quicker I’m revealed to be less. Forgive me, O Lord, as I magnify. Forgive me, O Lord, as I climb. Forgive me, O Lord, as I ascend.

Lord, I am neither Multitude nor Legion. I am, at best, tenderness. I am fragile and susceptible to rust and decay. I get cold way too easily, and I get cranky if I haven’t eaten. I am minuscule and earthen and formed. The ground catches my knees as I fall, and my head cherubim-bows, holy-holy-holy, I am nothing but a tender collection. I am a ragged flag who waves; beaten by wind.

***

First snowfall in the city. The blanket rises up our steps, and the house grows quiet. I warm myself with tea, and I write and I pray, and my heart sits fireside with the Maker.

***

120113 :: How Does the Heart Climb the Ladder?
120213 :: The Moviemaker
120313 :: Birthday Girl

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120313 :: Birthday Girl

Today is the birthday of someone I used to care for. It’s also Chef Pam’s birthday. I don’t know Chef Pam from a hole in the ground, but nowadays, I know Chef Pam just as much as I do the person I used to care for.

From hereon in, the one I used to care for will be known as ‘Chef Pam.’ Of course she has an actual name, but nowadays it means as much as any other word: quinoa, albatross, screen, cocoon. She could, for the purpose of this writing, be called Quinoa. It makes no difference…

(…But of course it does. I know it does. So let us agree that it matters, and for a while, be gentle and lie with me.)

Not to say my care for Chef Pam was misplaced; not to say I was a fool to care about Chef Pam. Without question, however, I did act foolishly; said ‘I love you’ far too quick, tried to gloss over too many wrongs with not enough rights, and I held on long after I should’ve let go…or not.

Because where would I have wound up? Certainly not here. If I let go before I did, what would have happened? Certainly not this. I’d be elsewhere, doing something else with someone else for some other reason and in some other way.

Lots of ‘some’ and ‘other’ and ‘else.’

Today is the birthday of the girl who broke my heart, the first one to make me feel in turns like an astronaut and an anchor; weightless on the surface of the moon, drowning in the heart of the sea.

Happy Birthday, Quinoa,
Happy Birthday, Albatross,
Happy Birthday, Chef Pam,
Happy Birthday to you

——————————

120113 :: How Does the Heart Climb the Ladder?
120213 :: The Moviemaker

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120213 :: The Moviemaker

Nyeri’s two hours north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. Kenya’s in East Africa, the Equator striped across the midsection. For years, two dear friends of mine have worked and loved alongside a Kenyan woman who quit her job and opened at orphanage for those whose parents had died, or whose parents left them for dead.

Irene, a girl about to break into the teenage years, asks lots of questions. “Now I am going to ask you, have you ever eaten snail? Where did you and Kate meet? Do you know Casey? Have you eaten frog legs? Have you ever had maize?” She tilts her head like a bird and squints with her eyes when she readies to ask another question. “Now I am going to ask you, what do you for work?”

“Well…I make movies.”

“Hmm. What else?”

No amazement. No ‘ooh’ or ‘awwwe.’ No questions of whether we not I know any movie stars. No grand worship or applause. She listens, nods and then,

“Hmm. What else?”

“Oh…umm…well, I guess that’s it.”

“So it is easy?”

“Uhh…Yes, Irene. Very easy.”

For Irene, ‘I make movies‘ carries the same weight as someone introducing themselves and saying ‘I make chairs.‘ Both people make something to support themselves. Many people she knows make more than one thing in order to support themselves. I have the luxury of only needing to make one thing. Movies. Not chairs and bed frames and tables and desks. Just movies.

And for as long as it may take to make a movie, it vanishes in a breath. But for as short it takes, comparatively speaking, to make a chair, it might last a lifetime.

***

Moses, a young boy of three or four, is tired and wants to be held. I pick him up and hold him close. I hold more children in my time here than I have in a long time. I feel my heart changing in the company of younger souls.

Moses touches my face as if it’s the surface of the moon, like he’s never come close to anything like it in his entire life.

***

I’m hanging out with Rogers, and I’m looking at his hands. We review colors. My shirt. Red. His pants. Blue. He looks down at his hands. “My hands are black.”

I nod. “And they’re beautiful.” I take his right hand. “Look at these beautiful fingers.” I take his left hand. “Look at these beautiful fingers.” He looks at my hands. “How are my hands, Rogers?”

Rogers smiles. “Beautiful.”

This face, tired from days and nights of notes and critiques and egos and drama, is still like a wondrous alien planet. These hands, dirty and crooked from all the grimy movie-making, are still beautiful. Thank you Lord, thank you and thank you.

————–

120113 :: How Does the Heart Climb the Ladder?

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120113 :: How does the Heart Climb the Ladder?

And there he is, front steps of Union Station, the Capitol Building loud and proud in his rear view, winter’s crystal blue sky above with a cold sun shining.

He blows out “Great is Thy Faithfulness” on a golden horn, and I imagine him on New Orleans’ Pontchatrain shore, bare heels breaking seashells like peppercorn crushing, pants rolled twice above the balls of his ankles, water laps up and mats down the hair on his legs, and tender step by tender step he makes his way along Pontchatrain.

He plays, and then he sings, and he belts and unleashes his ribbons of fire into the sky, his voice streaking into night with a hot boil, each word drenched in seared blood of a broken heart, and he screams because the words’re red-hot-poker burning against his throat, and they scar and tattoo his insides from gut lining to the roof of his mouth, each syllable vibrant and vibrating with tilt-a-whirl fury and hope and hate and blind swinging desire that things could be different, that things should be different and each single word is an exploding thousand-flower-bloom of excitement and joy and ache and song and zealotry and compassion and revelry and agony and mercy and mayhem and rioting and stillness and torrent and breaking and building and breaking and building.

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with Thee.
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not,
as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.

Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided,
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

It’s clear and it’s cold but his brass won’t bend and his voice won’t break, and he won’t stop playing and he’ll scream the words if necessary, if he has to nail his trumpet to the door like Wittenberg, because the man must make his peace, draw his heart into the open and share for all the eyes and ears.

He’s looking for a way to share his heart with all venom and adoration, but how does he best speak his heart? How best does the heart lice and move and dance and make its way in the world? How does the heart throw its song to God with such melody to bend His ear?

How does the heart climb the ladder?

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Prayers from out in the Bleachers

Didn’t look like much when we pulled up in the parking lot. “That’s Tiger Stadium?” I thought. “Looks pretty bad.” Wasn’t too concerned though; my Oakland Athletics were playing that day, and I was more excited to see them play than I was to see the Tigers and their supposedly-hallowed grounds.

My father, brother and I were part of a tour group traveling from baseball stadium to baseball stadium. Memory escapes when it comes to order, but this trip included stops at Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, the Jake, Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium.

And, in the middle of a lonely lot, some misbegotten box called Tiger Stadium.

***

In future years, new ballparks would litter the landscape; Pacific Bell Park and its giant Coke bottle in left-center; pools in Arizona and Tampa. They would bring in fans, no doubt, but something about them seemed less ballpark and more theme park.

But Tiger Stadium; here stood a tabernacle, a tabernacle in disrepair and ill-condition, no doubt, but no less filled with Sacred. Take off the shoes and put on the cleats, for here was two-seam holy-ground.

The poles on either side pulled in tighter than the dimensions read, with the second deck in right field having a slight overbite, making it more probable for a ball to wind up there instead of the ground level. Center field pulled back-back-back, 440 feet worth, creating a Valley of the Shadow for anyone looking for the seats in Straightaway Center.

The walkways in belly of the stadium resembled gangplanks of a ship. Old steel creaked and moaned as if fighting back storms. Imagine if Alcatraz sold hot dogs and occasionally, the inmates turned double plays. Hope that helps.

I watched batting practice from the first base side for a few swings, and then I noticed an old man standing near the dugout on the third base side. I recognized him as the A’s radio announcer, Bill King. Imagine Ernie Harwell or Vin Scully, then combine the gentle frame of a watchmaker with the stunning facial hair of Dos Equi’s Sexiest Man Alive, and that’s Bill King.

I sprinted over and, with trembling hands, approached Mister King. I said ‘hello,’ and he smiled. I had the scorecard from the baseball program and asked for his signature. ‘Of course,’ he said, and, with a flourish, signed his name.

***

The game was unremarkable. A’s clobbered the Tigers, 12-1. Ben Grieve and Matt Stairs had stellar offensive days for the Green and Gold. Yeah, you heard me; Ben Grieve and Matt Stairs. Salad days, these ain’t.

I was thirteen when I walked into Tiger Stadium, and now I’m twenty-seven and it’s Game 5 of the ALDS between the Athletics of Oakland and the Tigers of Detroit. It’s a home game for the Swinging A’s, in a malnourished concrete edifice called the O.co Coliseum.

Let me be clear; I hope Sonny Gray and the A’s shut ‘em down, and shut ‘em down hard. I know Verlander’s pitching for the Tigers, and he’s meaner than the Philly sun at the end of July, but I believe, still.

***

I am warm with memory; the swirl of cheer and chatter, the shine of stadium light, the sound in the bend of my seat as I lean forward, give my glove a few pounds, and pray for the crack of the bat.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, play ball.

And let’s go Oakland.

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