There’s a very specific sort of sunset that happens here in the far, coastal Northwest that I don’t think you guys have seen on your visits. After a long, dark day of solid rain—the sky nearly black—the sun drops low over the Sound to the west, where the clouds stop along the coastline. A terrific golden lamp then blasts sideways into the dark room of our valley, as if God has lifted the edge of our heavy gloom, peeked under it with a glorious flashlight, and found us.
This happened last Friday night—as you and Sarah, Wuck, ate the first half of your pizza—as Rachel and Abram and I cruised west through slick fields to our friends’ farm house. The telephone wires, rows of cabbage, barns, and sleeping tractors were all ablaze with fiery light on one side, deep shadow on the other. The foothills thick with evergreens were half-brilliance-half-nothingness.
When we pulled up at Tara and Brennan’s house—Abram off immediately to a tire swing beneath a yellowing cherry tree with his four-year-old buddy Annabelle—Brennan grabbed his camera and ran past me. “It’s happening, babe!” he shouted to Tara over his shoulder. “Hold up!” I shouted after him.
My feet sloshed in the overgrown grass as I jogged between the still barns and half-picked apple orchard, making my way toward the edge of an immense, open field of perfectly combed soil. When I arrived—standing there in the gummy muck, the front of my body painted gold, my shadow forty-feet behind me—I got out my phone. I wanted to capture the scene for later: the black sky above and the bronze glow coating one side of every blessed thing in sight. I even tried a selfie out there. That’s when I saw my dark blue Dodger jersey peeking out from my coat, there in the mirror-screen. So I summoned my childhood hero Christopher Reeve, opened my coat a bit wider, and snapped another selfie for the guys on the Dodger Thread, figuring you’d all appreciate the jersey more than the light.
As I stood in the middle of that field, staring down at my phone, all the other guys began chiming in with their “Let’s do this” selfies, each of us from wherever the moment found us: reclining on couches, grilling in backyards, seat-belted into drivers’ seats in rush hour traffic, giving thumbs-up in bars, standing in WA fields—even holding babies in Brooklyn apartments. Our screens aligned as windows into our little habitats, head-tilting portals connecting us through a kind of half-magic.
Brennan found me standing in the field, my back to the light, texting. I explained the Thread to him, our group of friends, as we walked back to the house, through the slop grass and residual glow. The plan was to hang out in their wide-open garage, a cold weather compromise during this pandemic. Tara had set a table for the kids to carve pumpkins. Apologetically, I balanced my phone atop their freezer <quote-01>so that I could silently stream the Dodgers and Braves while our families enjoyed the evening together<quote-01>.
Brennan, however, offered his laptop: “You want a bigger screen?” This was extreme hospitality. See, this family doesn’t really own a TV. And they don’t follow any sports. He’s a junior-high science teacher who reads poetry by the wood stove at night. Tara helps elementary school teachers better engage childrens’ minds and spends her evenings knitting wool shorn from their sheep. They both blush about their “addiction”: compulsively planting too many trees all over their farm. Hazelnuts were this year’s obsession.
So as Brennan rushed to set up his laptop for me there in the garage—old computer speakers ablaze so we could all hear the game—and as I logged in to MLBTV with your password, Murph, Tara smiled upon this little frenzy and asked me a question.
“So, are you more of a baseball fan or a Dodgers fan? If you know what I mean.”
What an educator. Follow the kids’ line of interest. Get them talking with your added curiosity. Peek into their excitements.
Without a pause, I began telling her about <quote-02>how I hadn’t liked baseball for the first thirty-three years of my life<quote-02>. But then one of my childhood friends took me to Dodger Stadium six years ago on a perfect fall evening—the Los Angeles sunset sprawled behind palm-tree silhouettes in left field—and the spirit moved in the temple: Kershaw was mesmerizing on the mound, bending curveballs and catching line drives behind his back; Puig launched homers and gunned out runners at third base from deep right field; we clinched the division—confetti and fireworks and all—while the stadium pulsed with ritual music and applause. I told Tara it was a refresher course in evangelism. After the experience, my friends crowned me with a blue hat of belonging and plugged me into a text thread that buzzed in my pocket with fellowship all year round, daily communion with guys I otherwise wouldn’t see very often, some living a thousand miles away.
I was ready to go further, anticipating their reaction to my comparison of baseball and religion. It’s a tradition, I might have argued, with a deep canon of obscurities for backyard and bleacher rabbis to expound upon to young listeners or debate with grisly old scholars. I’ve also found baseball to be more liturgical than other sports: its gentle, cycling rhythms through the year, its high holy days in April and October.
I didn’t get this far, though, because Tara asked another, better question: “So what’s up with tonight’s game?” She seemed genuinely excited. “What’s at stake?”
I went back to 2017. I told her how the Astros—get this—in the World Series, used an illegal camera to steal signs from the catcher’s crotch, relaying the real-time information to batters at the plate by banging on a trashcan in the dugout. They knew what was coming before it left the pitcher’s hand.
<quote-03>Tara’s jaw dropped. What a good soul.<quote-03>
Tech-savvy baseball zealots, I went on, had compiled and released undeniable supercuts of evidence making clear the Astros’ treachery: we had been robbed of a World Series championship, victory stolen from under our noses. All of this came to light, I told her, just this past winter offseason. The league office had concluded their investigation within the same weeks of Trump’s impeachment. The results were similarly disappointing. The team was issued a minimal fine, and none of their conspiring players faced a single sanction. They kept their championship rings. And, I continued, because of the pandemic, the Astros have enjoyed a season in empty stadiums with none of the booing stored up for them around the country. What’s worse, the Astros were once again in the playoffs and winning.
“And in 2020, it feels bigger than baseball,” I said. “We’ve seen too many injustices on camera this year.”
“Hhyeah!” Tara’s nostrils flared.
Sadly, I concluded, the Dodgers were not poised to set things right this season. Actually, they found themselves down three games to one in <quote-04>the unfortunately titled NLCS<quote-04>, facing elimination before even entering the Fall Classic’s arena for vindication.
“Awwww shit,” Tara said, and pulled up a lawn chair. “Brennan, can you get the <quote-05>pizzas<quote-05> out of the oven?”
So we watched the first few innings around that laptop screen, there in folding chairs in their garage, one wall open to the autumn night, while Dustin May on the Arlington mound flashed his mane of orange hair like a sophomore Wuck. <quote-06>With all our friends into it together, even Rachel seemed to enjoy the game, rather than seeing baseball as a distraction pulling her husband away from the conversation<quote-06>.
A few innings in, their daughter Annabelle burst into the garage from the night outside: “Mama, did you see the owl fly by?” Both parents were on their feet. Annabelle asked if we could go owling. Tara and Brennan turned to me: “<quote-07>Are we at a place where we can take a break?<quote-07>”
“Totally,” I said. “It’s only the third inning. They’ll be here when we get back.” Baseball, like any good religion, <quote-08>recognizes there are larger wonders transpiring beyond its scheduled services<quote-08>.
I pulled Abram and Annabelle in a tow cart through the darkness as our families followed Brennan out to the barn. He told us how his friend had made him an owl box from scrap wood this year. I asked what an owl box was. His headlamp pointed up into the night and shone weakly against the pinnacle of the barn three stories above us. He lowered his voice to a whisper, and the kids listened. With fewer and fewer rotting trees around, and old family farms nearly extinct, owls are hurting. A simple movement has begun picking up momentum in rural places: cutting round holes in barn walls, like the one way up there, and affixing a three-walled wooden box on the inside where barn owls can safely nest their future. The kids and I felt the excitement in his voice.
Just then, Annabelle squealed and pointed to <quote-09>the silent, flapping silhouette swooping away from the barn<quote-09>, barely visible against the starless sky. Brennan said he didn’t know if that was the mother or the father. But right now, he whispered, there was a clutch of two baby owlets way up there.
I loved that: <quote-10>a clutch<quote-10>.
Brennan asked who wanted to go up and see them.
Minutes later, I was ascending the wooden ladder with Abram’s muddy little boots in my face. We got nearly twenty feet up, to the first rafters and landing, <quote-11>before Abram changed his mind<quote-11>. I went back up alone. Over thirty feet in the air, my weight bending a second ladder of flimsy aluminum lashed to the barn’s top beam, I did as Brennan instructed me from far below: I reached my left hand with the headlamp to shine its light through a small hole drilled in the far end of the owl box; then I leaned one eye to a second viewing hole right in front of me.
I think I expected to see a pile of nest debris and, maybe, to spot some little pink heads nestled in the corner.
Instead, I faced two softball-sized puffs of white and wiry feathers with round black eyes. They had curved beaks and reminded me of those creatures in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. They shifted their gaze inside a plywood cell now illuminated with an eerie, sideways light. They were so calm, so still. Though almost facing me, nearly nose to nose, I realized they couldn't really see me.
Maybe they heard me. <quote-12>I forget what I said to them<quote-12>.
I heard Rachel below say that this was the voice Chris uses with kittens or animals he encounters on our neighborhood walks. “He’s happy,” I heard her say. “He’ll be up there a while.”
The two white owlet puffs rested against each other. One hovered over its sibling, slowly sweeping its head back and forth as the other held still, tucked in beneath. It seemed as though neither blinked the entire time I balanced way up there on the ladder. They steadied me. The ladder was gone, like I was inside the box with them.
Why am I so drawn to hidden life inside confined spaces?
Earlier that week, I’d sat in a pew in the COVID-emptied sanctuary down the hall from my office, a videographer to my left, his big camera pointed at a man telling the story of his release from a state prison.
Wally began with the anxiety of sitting alone in his cell, wondering what would happen when he got out. He told the story of writing letters and slowly building trust with a handful of new people, a support community through our program. An hour later, we repositioned the lens and light toward his big brother, Tony, sitting in another empty pew. Tony explained how he and his little brother Wally were locked up in the same prison and had become cellmates for several months. They stuck close. They prayed together, talked in their bunks late into the night. Tony said they were kind of reborn in that space. He got emotional when describing the weeks before his own release: he didn’t want to leave his little brother Wally in there for two more years. He considered intentionally losing his good time (endless infractions to choose from) and staying longer. He knew that he himself could make it in the community but wasn’t sure if his brother would survive prison alone—that is, this new and unguarded version of him, since they’d both dropped out of the Norteño gang rank and file.
Looking at me—the camera lens and lights flanking us—Tony described the relief of discovering there was a team of folks out in the community that wanted to know and support and embrace his brother, write him letters, not let him get lost in there—a local One Parish One Prisoner team. He lit up when talking about how Wally’s small team had invited him, Tony, to join them, help them, teach them, as they all came together to bring his little brother home.
One of the team members, Erin—as pale as a childhood Wuck—was part of the video as well. She told stories of finding an unexpected connection with Wally in the first months of letters and then Sunday afternoon collect calls: how she felt safe disclosing to Wally her own self doubt, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, and time in a mental health hospital in her twenties. Wally could then talk freely about the voices he heard sometimes. On camera, Wally and Erin now both laughed about how they’d agreed to be “mental health buddies” during those months of prison calls. My eyebrows stayed raised the entire interview.
It was just the five of us in that empty church. But what we’d captured through the small aperture of that camera lens—what we’d later project to a hundred Pacific Northwest pastors we couldn’t see—might help men and women like Erin and these two brothers feel less alone in the years ahead. We shared our story so that more people out there, those who cannot necessarily see each other, might still crown each other with belonging, practice a better religion, all of us trying to find our way home.
The game was still on, of course, when we got back to the garage. After some more pizza, shouting, rule explaining, pumpkin carving, and cleanup, <quote-13>Rachel told me it was past Abram’s bed time<quote-13>, so we said our goodbyes before the game ended. We were losing to the Braves—again. A few more innings and the season would be over.
Even so, <quote-14>I kept the game streaming on my dashboard-mounted phone as we pulled out into the night<quote-14>; I can’t follow the Dodger Thread when watching like this. As we drove, Smith came up to bat. I brought Rachel into the moment the best I could, asking if she knew what a full count was. No more balls, no more strikes. Two runners on base. “He could do this,” I said in flimsy hope. “Just get on base, bro. Don’t be a hero. Just get one guy home, if you can.” <quote-15>That’s when Smith knocked it over the fence, and everyone stranded out there on the bases came home, and the dark series turned<quote-15>.
As Rachel actually joined me in the cheering, and Abram as well, I was aware of you guys. I couldn’t take my hands from the wheel to switch from the live stream to the Thread, but I didn’t need to. Across the dark and increasingly cold land reaching miles around us, I knew you guys were all out there, cheering, lighting up a different, unseen thread between us. I felt it even more without my phone, just looking out the windshield, over the night’s barely visible southern horizon.
That night, after putting Abram down, I got a text from Brennan: “<quote-16>Dodgers did it!!!!<quote-16>” They’d kept watching.
Two days later, having just concluded a Zoom session on cellular respiration with seventh graders—huddled, no less, in a homemade cedar sauna that now doubles as his home office—Brennan opened a small cardboard box that had just arrived in the mail. He texted me a shot of himself wearing the brand new blue cap—beaming.
“Welcome to the team,” I replied.
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