Monday, July 31, 2006

blind and toothless

Years ago, when I was teaching at Charlestown High, we got in to a class discussion about fighting. It had nothing to do with the book we were reading. There had been a fight in the school that day and I asked the kids what happened. As we talked and I continued to ask questions, one of the students said, “Mr. B-C, you never hit anyone in your whole life, did you?”

He was pretty close to right. Other than Johnny Pike’s challenge to meet him on the playground after school to settle an argument over our sixth grade science project (of course he won – his name was Johnny Pike and I’m called Milton!) and a couple of shoving matches with my brother along the way, I’ve never taken a swing at anyone. Violence doesn’t make sense to me – and not because I think I would mostly end up on the losing end of the battle. Violence is not a solution to anything.

I know some of you think I’m na├»ve or idealistic. Violence is a part of life and there’s no way around it. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. It’s in the Bible. To take an Edna St. Vincent Millay line completely out of context,

“I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”
I drove to church yesterday morning to the news of the Israeli air strike on the Lebanese town of Qana. At least fifty-four people were killed and over half of them were children. They were hiding in the basement of the building to get away from the bombing. Israel’s explanation was they believed rockets were had been fired from that building into Israel. Israel announced a forty-eight hour halt to the bombing so humanitarian aid could get in, people could get out, and an investigation could begin, but then said the bombings would continue since "the extremists will rear their heads anew.”

While most of the world is calling for an immediate ceasefire, Bush and Rice refuse to do so, saying they want to assure something more permanent, which I read as a not so coded message to Israel to get in as many shots as they can. A ceasefire of any kind makes sense because it means both sides stop the madness. There’s plenty of blame to go around on all sides. There is plenty of tragedy too. The way to peace is not to say, “You guys keep fighting while we figure something out.” All that means is were hoping someone can open a big enough can of Whupass to wipe out the other one and none of us will have to take peace seriously.

I mean, come on. Peace? Seriously?

On another occasion at Charlestown High, when I was new and working still as a substitute teacher, I took a student to the Dean of Discipline because he was swearing profusely in class – mostly at me. The woman who was the Dean was good at her job and known for her straightforwardness and her – how shall I say? – earthy approach. The student sat down across from her and I explained what had happened. She looked disgustedly at the student and said, “What the fuck are you swearing at Mr. B-C for?” and she gave him detention.

I wasn’t sure that was the best way to get her point across. All he knew was she could swear and he couldn’t. The real lesson was when you’re in charge you can do what ever you damn well please.

Living by “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” will leave us all blind and toothless. (Thanks, Ghandi!) We don’t start saving eyes and teeth by telling the ones with less power they are wrong, or saying an army can exact the same kind of violence as the insurgents but it’s OK for the army because they are an official government organization. It’s the same lesson: get enough power and you can do anything you damn well please. Maybe peace is unrealistic. But how realistic is it to think the solution is in continuing to bomb and fight?

That’s worked so well thus far in human history, hasn’t it?

In George Orwell’s 1984, the government’s promise of the future is “a boot stomping on a human face forever.” As inevitable as violence appears to the human condition, I refuse to assume it is a foregone conclusion.

“I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, July 27, 2006

chacarero

Ginger and I went into Boston today for doctor’s appointments. Mine was in Copley Square and hers in Kenmore, so she dropped me off and took the car with her. The point of my trip was to talk to my doctor about my antidepressant and whether or not it was doing what it could or should. She had some ideas of ways to help it work better, but wanted me to talk to a psychiatrist about it first. The wonderful woman at the front desk started working on getting me an appointment and got me one within the hour at the same Kenmore Square office where Ginger was. I rode the Green Line to the Fenway and, after a productive meeting with the doctor, met Ginger. She was headed to a lunch meeting with a couple she is marrying this weekend; I was headed to Downtown Crossing to eat my favorite sandwich in the whole world.

Chacarero is a Spanish word that means farmer or peasant. It is also the name of a restaurant and the sandwich they make. Back when I was teaching at Charlestown High, I would go to Downtown Crossing every afternoon with my laptop to write in the Borders coffee shop – and I would, most afternoons, have a Chacarero for my late lunch. Back in the day, there were two guys selling them from a pushcart. The sandwich consists of a wonderful homemade bun, not as thick as a burger bun, about eight inches in diameter topped with grilled beef or chicken, steamed green beans, tomato slices, pepper sauce, avocado spread, and salt and pepper – all for about $6.50. Even when I got there at two-thirty there was still a line. There was also a good chance they were sold out of either the beef or the chicken.

I ate there enough that they recognized me. One day, the older of the two men told me his story of coming to America and starting his food stand. He talked about how his business had grown and how that helped him bring over family and friends from Chile. He also told me he was moving up: he was going to move into the side of Filenes, the big department store, where he had more space and could be out of the weather. He moved and his staff grew. For years now they have been making sandwiches from eleven in the morning until six at night. And there’s always a line. In fact, there are two: you stand in one line to order and another to pick up your sandwich. In the eight or nine people working in the small kitchen, I can still see the guys who used to be at the pushcart. Now, I hear, they even have a sit down restaurant. I think that’s great, but I wouldn’t know how to eat a Chacarero if I wasn’t sitting outside in Downtown Crossing after standing in line for my sandwich, which I have been doing now for a decade.

I don’t really have a big finish here other than to say Chacarero is food at its best: homemade, well done, and feeding people. I love how it feels to go there. I love how it makes me feel. I hope it’s still fun for the folks behind the counter. They are doing great work.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

miracle

I’ve had a simple goal since I wrote last Wednesday: read a novel.

There are times when a small act of defiance reverberates in larger ways; reading a novel from beginning to end for the first time in a couple of years felt like a profound gesture for me. As we headed into Boston yesterday, I knew I was going to have some waiting time, so I decided to read something other than the outdated copies of People and Sports Illustrated that I was sure would be in the waiting area (they were). The nest task was choosing a book. Since the number of books in our house rivals the number of CDs and I have any number of unread novels calling out to me, the choice took a little time. What caught my eye of the book I picked was the title: The Miracle. What sold me on my choice was the author: John L’Heureux, whose novel The Shrine at Altimara is one of the most tragic and most beautifully told stories I know. I opened the book to the flyleaf where I always write my name, when I bought the book, and where we were living at the time. My inscription said: Milton Brasher-Cunningham, October 2003, Green Harbor.

L’Heureux’s inscription read: “Choose life.” Deuteronomy 30:19.

The story, set in the 1970s, centers around Paul LeBlanc, a Catholic priest in South Boston who loved being a priest and loved testing the limits. His rebel steak gets him moved from Boston to a small parish on the New Hampshire coast where he works with Father Moriarty, who is in the final stages of ALS. Rose, their housekeeper, has a daughter called Mandy, who is a drug user and a troubled child. Mandy overdoses and, by the time LeBlanc, Rose, and the paramedics get to her, she is dead. Rose asks everyone to leave the room and begins to pray; Mandy wakes up and asks for an aspirin.

Paul LeBlanc knows he has seen a miracle and doesn’t know what to do with it. He does the best he can by ending his homily about Lazarus with the statement: ''On the last day we will be asked the only question that matters. . . . 'Whom have you loved back to life?' ''

A few days later, Mandy is killed in a motorcycle accident, which rips the scab off the crisis of faith and identity that was at the root of LeBlanc’s restlessness to begin with. But, for me as the reader, was strengthened by the circumstances, not invalidated. I looked at some reviews online to see how others read the story and found this from Bruce Bawer:

The truth that he has stumbled upon -- and that the author plainly wishes to underscore -- is that human love can restore, renew, revive. If Rose is magical, it is simply because she is human, and because she loves.

To be sure, as L'Heureux reminds us on nearly every page, people are imperfect, lacking in willpower, infirm in their beliefs, their lives cluttered and unfocused, their character traits largely impervious to change. (''Why can't I be humble?'' Moriarty asks. ''Why can't pigs fly?'') Yet love can work through them to effect wonders. The human soul is the seedbed of the miraculous; it is primarily through one another that we mortal millions encounter the divine. (New York Times, October 27, 2002)
I have a miracle story of my own. My parents went to Africa as missionaries in 1957. To get from Texas to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia meant first getting to New York to catch a ship and then sail for thirty-one days around the Cape of Good Hope to Beira, Mozambique. I turned one on the voyage. A couple of months before we left, I came down with double pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. When the doctors said it was safe for me to travel, we drove to Oklahoma City to see my grandmother. While we were there, a man who was a pharmacist told my mother he had some medicines to send to one of our mission hospitals and asked if she would carry it, since mailing it was not reliable. She took the package, which was an irritation for the rest of the journey.

On board the ship my parents met the Emmanuels, who were from Bulawayo. Dr. Emmanuel convinced my parents to drive on to Bulawayo (we had our car with us) after we docked rather than spend the night in Beira. They knew the way, so we followed them on our first journey in Africa. We settled into our house and the next morning I had a relapse of the pneumonia. My parents called the Emmanuels – the only people we knew – and told them what had happened. Dr. Emmanuel showed up at the house with a colleague who was a respiratory specialist and he confirmed what my folks already knew. Then he said, “I’m afraid your baby is going to die. He needs pediatric acromyacin and there is none in this country. If we send to Johannesburg, it will take five days to get here. He cannot last that long. I’m sorry.”

In their shock, my father said, “We have a box of medicine we have been carrying for the bush hospital. Let’s open it and just see.”

The only thing in the box was pediatric acromyacin.

I didn’t remember the story; it was told to me over and over. I’m grateful it was and I don’t always know what to do with it. I don’t feel a need to explain it anymore than I want to theologize about it. I’m truly thankful I got to live longer than a year and I think part of the reason I internalized that love was earned and I was not always worthy of it is because I didn’t know how a miracle baby was supposed to grow up. The story is wonderful, but it is not the best story in my life. I think that’s why LeBlanc’s question – who have you loved back to life? – resonated so deeply. I have been loved back to life over and over again. LeBlanc and the others spoke to me because I got to see how they lived after the miracle and after the tragedy; both were defining moments for all of them, which they lived out in their daily routines.

I finished the book this morning – a small miracle in its own way. As I finished, Gracie, climbed up on my arm and slapped my cheek, which is Schnauzer for, “It’s time to kiss.” I put the book down and picked her up and she licked my face with abandon. I am alive because of a miracle; I stay alive because I am loved.

I am really, really loved.

Peace,
Milton

Monday, July 24, 2006

chance meeting

In a different chapter of my life I was a high school English teacher. I started as a building sub at Charlestown High School in Boston and worked my way into a job, staying there for seven years. I loved being with the kids, but the bureaucratic tag team of the School System and the Teachers’ Union bludgeoned me until I headed for the suburbs. I taught for three years at Winchester High School, in the town of the same name, where Ginger’s church was. I stopped teaching when we moved to Marshfield because I didn’t want to commute across the city everyday, I wanted to write, and I was exhausted from the paperwork. Once I stopped being exhausted, I found out I was depressed.

Ginger and I were in Boston today. We were through with our tasks and I told her to wait in the lobby of the building while I went to get the car out of the parking garage. I stepped on to the elevator with a woman who looked familiar to me. About halfway to my floor, I realized who she was, or I thought she was – I hadn’t seen her in at least ten years. When she got off on my floor, I decided to chance it.

“Excuse me. Are you Dania?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, a bit puzzled and then her expression changed. “Mr. B-C!” she said and gave me a big hug. We stood and talked in the parking garage for ten or fifteen minutes. We talked about what we are both doing and some of where we had been since we saw each other. She also talked about our class acting out Much Ado About Nothing together and how she still goes to see Shakespeare plays when she can because of how much fun we had together.

It was fun. Our class was about sixty percent nonnative English speakers, so the Bard’s language was a challenge. I was new to teaching and desperate for ideas, so I tried most anything. We learned how to stage sword fight with dowel rods. We developed an ear for Shakespeare’s words by hurling insults at each other. Most of all, we didn’t read the play, we acted it out. At the end, the students had to do projects to show what they had learned. Audalio told the whole story in rap. Dania memorized a scene and performed it. When we were done, they understood what they had read and they were proud of it. I was too.

Dania is in television now. She asked if I was still teaching and I told her I was a chef. She started talking about food and how much she loves to cook. “There’s something about being in the kitchen that’s good,” she said.

She’s right. The kitchen, whether at home or at work, has been the one Depression Free Zone in my life. Something about the tactile work of cutting and chopping, the aromas of the sauces and spices, and the promise of food to share keep the monster at bay. Being in the kitchen is good. I came home to find some things in the garden ready to harvest, so I brought them in and went to cooking a Swiss Chard Bisque and what I call Turkabama Squash Croquettes. We ate well tonight.

What I miss about teaching is being in the classroom with students, talking about things that matter, being a part of helping them discover who they are, laughing together, learning together, and helping them live through high school. But I couldn’t live through high school from my end. I lost more ground than I gained each day. What I love about being in the kitchen is making something out of whatever it is I have, filling up the house or the restaurant with promising smells, creating meals that bring people together and feed my friends and family. Making dinner may not change lives in the same way as teaching did, but if feeds rather than drains me.

As I try to discern what the next chapter for me will be, I’m grateful for a chance encounter on the elevator to help me remember what has been.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, July 20, 2006

lights from other windows

When the room gets too dark to see, the best thing I can do is stack up the words of others so I can climb up to look out the window for little flickers of light. In these days when I’m daunted by books, I’m even more grateful for poems. Small as they are, they stack up big; a few choice words well placed make the light easier to find.

My stack today started with Stephen Dunn, then W. S. Merwin, then William Stafford, and then Naomi Shihab Nye.

Lights From Other Windows

Driving west tonight, the city dissolves behind us.

I keep feeling we’re going farther than we’re going,

a journey that started in the deep inkwell

out of which all our days are written.

Nothing is said to indicate a monument,

yet I perch on the edge of some new light.

The hills could crack open and a pointed beam,

like the beams on miner’s hats, could pick us off this road.

Signals blinking, we arrive in a bright room

of greetings and hands. But when the stories spill,

I feel myself floating off alone into the night we just left,

that cool black bag of darkness, where black deer

nibbled invisible grasses and black fences divided one thing

from the next. A voice in my earliest ears not this, not this
and the lit windows of childhood rise up,

the windows of houses where strangers lived,

light slanting across black roads,

that light which said what a small flicker is given

to each of us to know. For seconds I dreamed their rooms

and tables, was comforted by promise of a billion other lives.

Like stars. Like knowing the Milky Way

is made of more stars than any naked eye can count.

Like having someplace to go when your glowing restlessness

lifts you out of rooms, becomes a wing,

takes you farther than you will have traveled

when your own life ends.
Sometimes Ginger and I walk down to the beach at night. We are fortunate to live far enough away from the primary sources of ambient light in our area to be able to see lots of stars. There is a row of large houses along the sea wall, most of which are only inhabited in the summer time. I get frustrated when we get to the beach and one or two of the houses have left their outside spotlights on, washing out my view of the stars. I don’t always want more light. They have their reasons for the lights being on; I have my reasons for wanting them off. Neither of us is particularly concerned about the other.

The earliest helpful definition of depression I remember being helpful defined it as “anger turned inward.” Over the years I’ve come to understand turning inward is the primary motion of depression, regardless of what is turning. Whatever depression is, it is overarchingly self-focused. Part of that comes, I think, from not having the energy to look out and from seriously needing help without always knowing how to ask for it. But the lie is that there is no energy. It’s there. Since it can’t get out, it bores deeper into the darkness inside, pulling everything with it like an emotional black hole. As the depth of the darkness increases, so does the call to stack up whatever I can find so I can keep looking out the window – outside of myself – for lights from other windows to pierce my darkness and help me see something else.

Gracie woke me about six-fifteen this morning and I came downstairs with the pups so Ginger could sleep a bit longer. I let them out and fed them and, after a few tosses of various toys, Gracie and Lola were ready to sleep again. I was awake with only infomercials, music videos, Walker: Texas Ranger, and the news channels to keep me company. Though most of the news outlets were talking about Lebanon, all they were talking about was us. The reporter on MSNBC asked someone from the State Department who was working with evacuating Americans, “How long before you will be able to get all the innocent people out?” She was speaking only about the Americans, as if all the Lebanese were not innocent.

I could not ask for a better example of the destructive power of a self-focused life. The battle raging in the Middle East is not about us, no matter how hard we try to make it so. As long as we insist on making ourselves at the center of attention, we will not be a part of bringing any kind of redemption to the situation.

I’m working hard to take those words to heart in my own life. I’m depressed and struggling. In comparison with life in Beirut, my struggle hardly registers. Both things are true. The only life I can live is my own. I am not the center of things.

I need light from other windows.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

books and friends

I learned something new about the impact of my depression yesterday: I’m not reading.

I’ve collected books around me like CDs for as long as I can remember. I wanted to be a writer because I was, first, a reader. I learned about the power of language from writers who knew how to focus that power into a series of heart-exploding moments, creating characters that have walked with me through life like friends, moments full of life-affirming resonance, and sentences that stand like granite altars in my life, giving me somewhere I can return to be reminded of who I am and what matters most.

But I’m not reading.

I make my way through my weekly editions of The Nation and The Economist, and take my time during the month to read Harpers and The Oxford American (thanks again, Jack), but I don’t have the energy or resolve or whatever it is to make the journey through a novel anymore than I’ve been able to be a present tense friend to the people I love most. I push myself to write here, my words making marks on the prison walls so I can remember what day it is and feel like I’m doing something. But I am losing contact with the larger narrative of my life, I fear. I’m struggling to remember the story.

I’m not reading.

Yesterday the heat was oppressive here, so Ginger, her parents, and I spent the day at the local air-conditioned mall, eating lunch, seeing a movie (Superman Returns), and hanging out. I took a book to read (The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte) and made it through about twenty pages. I realized this morning that I left it next to my chair at the movie theater. I don’t remember ever doing that before.

Being a good reader is hard work. If you’re going to read a story, you have to be willing to enter the world of the novel, to let the characters come to life; you have to push the writer to tell you everything he or she can about this created world; you have to relate and interact, respond and dream; you have to befriend the characters you encounter.

I ate lunch with a good friend, Christy, on Monday. She has been wonderfully tenacious about pursuing me, continuing to call or email, asking when we can get together. I’ve had the best of intentions and just about the worst of follow through. After months of invitations, we shared ribs and enchiladas this week. I had a couple of other calls from friends yesterday that I’ve not yet returned. As I looked for my novel this morning and listened to voice mail, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m not leaving friends like books in a theater as my depression shuts me out and shuts me down.

I’m not reading; I’m not befriending.

This past weekend, my friends for Nairobi International School days got together in Washington State. Ginger and I had the trip on our calendar for months, but I dropped the ball on the details and by the time I finally got around to trying to find plane tickets it was too expensive for us to go. I’ve got wonderful friendships with deep roots in the story of our lives, friendships I trust and depend on and I don’t feel like much of a friend these days. That’s hard for me because I’ve always seen being a good friend as one of the things I like about myself, along with being a voracious reader.

I’m not reading; I’m not befriending.

I am not myself.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

investing wisely

Soon after Ginger and I moved to Boston, we were walking in the Cambridgeside Galleria one evening when we were stopped by a local news reporter who said he was doing a story on married couples and money. He asked us who handled the finances in our relationship and Ginger said, “I do” at the same time I said, “She does.” Then I went on to say a sentence that got us on television: “If it were up to me, I’d invest everything in CDs – and I mean the kind you listen to, not the kind they keep at the bank.”

Over the course of my life, I’ve invested heavily in music. One of the joys of iTunes is I can dump those CDs into my computer and then sell the used CDs at Newbury Comics to create a little spending money for some of the new music I want. In other words, I can still invest in CDs without it costing us too much. I will admit parting with the discs doesn’t come easy, but it’s a lesson I need to learn. Some of the literature about depression says those of us who live with it tend to be collectors. We find comfort in surrounding ourselves with stuff, not so much in the acquisitional sense as – I think – for the sense of belonging that comes with having something familiar and tangible to hold on to.

The combination of my depressive condition and the oppressive heat sent me to the store with about a dozen used CDs to swap for Something New. I came home with two new discs I’ve been hoping for: Separate Ways by Teddy Thompson and American V: A Hundred Highways by Johnny Cash. I heard the Thompson record on a listening station at Barnes & Noble the other day and was knocked out; the Cash disc is a posthumous collection of his last recordings, including a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” It’s a whole new song.

I was driving Ginger’s Jeep Wrangler, whose CD player has a mind of its own and shuffles the order of the songs at will. When I put in the Thompson CD, the first song that played was “I Should Get Up”:

depression looms
I’m such a miserable fool

I stay in bed

I don’t wanna go to school

but I see the sun
is beating down
no excuses from the clouds

I should get up

I should go out
I’m sure there’s something

I can’t do without

I should get up
I should get up

I should get up
No wonder I was drawn to his record. I listened to the song two or three times on the drive back to the house and then I put in Johnny Cash. The surprise I found here was Hugh Moffatt’s song “Rose of My Heart.” I sang along the rest of the way home, waiting for the chance to play if for Ginger.
we're the best partners this world's ever seen
together as close as can be

sometimes it's hard to find time in between

to tell you what you are to me.


you are the rose of my heart

you are the love of my life

a flower not fading nor falling apart

if you're tired, rest your head on my arm

rose of my heart


when sorrow holds you in her arms of clay,

it's rain drops that fall from your eyes.

your smile's like the sun
come to earth for a day,

you brighten my blackest of skies.


you are the rose of my heart

you are the love of my life

a flower not fading nor falling apart

if you're cold, let my love make you warm

rose of my heart


so hard times or easy times, what do I care

there's nothing I'd change if I could

the tears and the laughter are things that we share

your hand in mine makes all times good


you are the rose of my heart

you are the love of my life

a flower not fading nor falling apart

you're my harbor in life's restless storm

rose of my heart.
One of the CDs living in our player this week is Kate Campbell’s very excellent Monuments. The song that has hung in my head from that record is “The Way Home.” The simple claim, beautifully sung without irony, speaks deeply to me.
if you’re ever in the richmond jail
with no one around to go your bail

if you’ve lost your way it might help to know

Jesus is the way home


if you’re trying to put that whiskey down

and you realize you’re losing ground

you don’t have to walk that road alone

Jesus is the way home


you don’t have to worry where you’re at

or why you’re there he knows all that

you just let the good book be your map

Jesus is the way home


if you think nobody understands

and life’s not going like you planned

there’s a friend who’ll show you how to go

Jesus is the way home


there’s a garden down in alabam’

not too far south of birmingham

painted signs and crosses by the road

one says Jesus is the way home


for the bible tells me so

Jesus is the way home
These are the words and music getting me through these days. Maybe my investments in CDs are paying off after all.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, July 13, 2006

word play

Think Tank Pundits are messing with my mind.

I keep trying to imagine what songs are on their record. I think the first single will be “Cheney’s Fools”: “Che, Che, Che/ Cheney’s fools. . .” I could go on, but I won’t – for now.

I was helped on my semantic sojourn by the linguistic stylings of two blogging buddies: Jeff and Spookyrach. In his comment on my post yesterday, Jeff mentioned his favorite new brand name: Dieselfitters (as in "dese'll fit her!"). He made me laugh. Spookyrach messed me up something wicked awful with these words:

I bought a new eye shadow called Aubergine Queen. I really like it, but that name has become an ear worm. All week long I’ve been singing a bastardized version of Billy Idol’s Caribbean Queen in my head. Over and over and over…

Aubergine Queen
Now we're sharing a purple dream
And my eyes they blink as one
’Cause my makeup is done.
I spent much of the day humming Billy Ocean songs as I cooked. I probably gave someone food poisoning. All of the wordplay led me back to my favorite sentence of the summer so far. When we were in Germantown, Tennessee for my nephew’s graduation, my sister-in-law’s parents arrived after having driven for about twelve hours. Mary said (here it is – get ready):

“I’m so tired I feel like I’ve been hit in the back with a dead rabbit.”

Nobody knew how tired that was, or why a person had to get hit in the back with a dead rabbit, or a rabbit of any sort for that matter. When we were in Jackson on the Mission Trip, it was my job to go to the grocery store early every morning to get food for the crews going to the coast. They left at six, so I went to the store at four-thirty. By Friday, my last morning of Krogering, I had an epiphany: I was so tired I did feel like I had been hit in the back with a dead rabbit. I still have to call Mary and tell her I understood.

Words, when gathered together in certain groups, are as much about rhythm and melody as they are about meaning. I’m convinced that Sheryl Crow ended up writing “Everyday is a Winding Road” because she came up with the opening line – “I used to ride with a vending machine repairman” – and it was too good to let go; she had to write a song around it. Then there are the sentences that you never expected to hear.

Many years ago, Ginger and I were at a youth camp for a group of churches where one of the adult leaders was teaching a class on massage (gives you an idea of how camp went). I happened to be walking through the room when I heard her say, “Now reach down and grab your partner’s elbow skin.” I stopped and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have to mark this moment. I never in my life expected to hear someone utter those words.” I’ve never forgotten the moment or the sentence.

Sometimes, I just like the sound of the word. As I passed by the TV this morning, someone on one of the morning shows used the word deleterious, which made me want to figure out a way to use it myself. Put the word together with the aforementioned ear worm and you’ve got something to work with: Billy Ocean’s music has a deleterious effect on humanity.

I don’t have a burning point to make other than, perhaps, to say Jason Mraz is right: it is all about the word play.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

brain strain

I don’t know much about the architecture or the geography of the brain. I know the left and right brain thing (I would favor the right side) and I know a couple of names for different regions. My favorite is the hippocampus, not because I know what it does but because it has the word hippo in it and makes me picture a whole bunch of my favorite animals going to college together: the Hippo Campus.

I learned more by reading The Nation this week where college student Sarah Stillman of Yale University wrote the winning essay in the first-ever Nation Student Writing Contest. Her essay is titled, “Project Corpus Callosum.” I learned the corpus callosum is the part of the brain that connects the left brain and right brain, enabling our analytical and imaginative sides to coexist and communicate. She talked about listening to a lecture on the effects of removing the corpus callosum from the brain of an epileptic patient.

As I listened to my professor describe the devastating effects of extracting the corpus callosum – for instance, one exasperated patient pulling up his pants with his left hand as he pulled them down with his right – it occurred to me that this might be the ideal metaphor to describe the split-brained status of my own generation.
(She goes great places from there. Make sure to read the essay.)

My day had little to do with being an activist. It was, however, quite active. I left home for the restaurant about 10:30. When I got to the Red Lion, thinking I was heading into a normal Wednesday (which is pretty slow), I found out we had a group of eight women who were having a baby shower over lunch – and they were early. I got busy setting up the line and getting their meals ready when the ticket printer started going. The short version is we served about sixty-five people between 11:30 and 2. Did I mention I was the only cook working with one bartender and one server? I must say we all rose to the occasion and everyone left full and happy.

On the way to work, I listened to On Point, a call-in show on NPR. where Tom Ashbrook was interviewing a couple of think tank pundits (doesn’t that sound like a punk band: “And now the new song from Think Tank Pundits. . .”) about what our course of action should be in Iraq. Some of the callers had good questions, but most all of the answers sounded as if they had been put together in a tank far away from the realities that gave birth to the questions. The guys talking were nice enough, and earnest too, but they just didn’t say anything that mattered or would move people. They talked about Iraq as if it was nothing more than live action Stratego.

On Point is aired live in the mornings and then replayed in the evening. The way my day played out, when I turned on my radio on the way home from work, one of the TTP’s was answering the exact same question he had been answering when I turned my radio on going to work. The replay didn’t make him any more relevant because he didn’t have anything creative to say.

I want to hear someone who has something to say. I want to be led by someone who is captured more by his or her passion and conviction than by the latest poll results. I want leaders who use their imaginations to do more than try to hide what they are doing so they can stay in office.

Can you tell I’m excited about midterm elections?

(Yikes. I’ve written myself into a corner. I wasn’t planning on ranting this way. The slope of my frustration is far too easy to slide down. Let me try and climb back to a better vantage point.)

Part of what I must come to terms with is I can go days without thinking about Iraq; or Somalia; or those who were victims of the tsunami, Katrina, and Rita. At least the Think Tank Pundits can say they think about stuff like that everyday. (It’s what made their record so good.) Stillman closes her article prophesying of a time when her generation will begin “a much needed mission to restore the space within our collective conscience where our radical imaginations meet our commitment to everyday action.”

I’m both pulled and convicted by the words “everyday action.”

Ranting about what Bush is doing in Iraq holds as little creativity as his decision to bomb Iraq into freedom. Turning up the volume on the argument is not imaginative; it’s disturbing. Having to figure out how the way in which I spend my day affects the rest of the world is a puzzle that calls me to be both imaginative and analytical. It’s hard work. But I unless I decide to do it, Bush and his buddies are going to be content to put on their headphones, turn on their iPods, and do nothing but listen to Think Tank Pundits all day long.

Peace,
Milton

PS – Don’t you think the Hippo Campus is beautiful this time of year?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

choosing our words

Ginger and I moved to Boston in August of 1990 and settled in Charlestown, the neighborhood of Boston that is home to Bunker Hill and the USS Constitution. We had not been in town long when we started going to neighborhood meetings about the impact of The Big Dig, which was the nickname given to the tunnel they planned to build under Boston so I-93 could run under the city rather than through it. The reason we were having meetings was the highway would come back above ground in our neighborhood.

In 1991, even as meetings and protests continued, they broke ground on what has become the most expensive public works project in American history. When we were going to meetings, they said it would cost $2 billion; by the time they said the tunnel was finished in 2004 (even as construction crews have continued to work), it cost $15 billion. The builders were The Bechtel Corporation, who have friends in high places which has helped them land lucrative work rebuilding along the US Gulf Coast and in Iraq – all at far more than bargain prices.

The point of this strange little history lesson is this morning at 3:30 am, a car was traveling through one of the tunnels on the way to Logan Airport when a couple of Bechtel’s concrete ceiling panels, weighing a couple of tons each, broke loose from their steel ties and – to use one journalist’s verb – “pancaked” the car. A woman in the passenger seat was crushed and killed; the male driver was able to crawl out of a twelve-inch hole on his side because the panel fell at an angle. The tunnel and that section of the Mass Pike remained closed all day, as they will tomorrow, and traffic became more of a nightmare than normal. Our State Attorney General announced he wanted to file manslaughter charges and was treating the closed tunnel as a crime scene. All the local news outlets have been filled with stories of speculation, suspicion, and accusation. The politicians and government officials have tried to act as though they cared about the mismanagement of the project all along. Everyone is making lots of noise trying to explain, and no one is saying much of anything that matters.

And I keep thinking about the random tragedy of one car in the tunnel at three in the morning who, in one horrible moment was exactly where the giant piece of concrete fell. Five seconds later and she would have been the one on the news talking about a near miss. Instead, a thirty-eight year old woman is dead.

What do we do with that?

Years ago, my mother, whose sense of predestination would make John Calvin look indecisive, was booked on a Delta flight to somewhere and changed her plans at the last minute. The plane crashed.

“God really took care of me,” she said.

She found great comfort in her statement. I didn’t because, for me, it carried with it an inseparable corollary: God didn’t take care of the others. I don’t see how you can claim one half of the equation without the other. I also don’t think God works in that your-number’s-up kind of way. In the case of the woman in the tunnel, God was not the one dropping the concrete at just the right moment because it was “her time to go.”

Tomorrow Ginger is leading a funeral for a wonderful man from Marshfield named Bob who dropped dead this week at thirty-four. They are still trying to figure out what happened. Bob was co-owner of a skate and surf shop here in town and, from every account, was one of the most kind and loving human beings around. He had a huge heart, an adventuresome spirit, and an open door. He will be deeply missed. They are expecting over five hundred people to gather in the Skate Park for his service tomorrow. The autopsy report will come in the days that follow and answer some questions, but it will not help anymore than saying it was God’s will.

When it comes to tragedy, explanations don’t help one damn bit. The only words that can find us are those who speak to our souls. I “placed my grief in the mouth of language,” wrote poet Lisel Mueller, “the only thing that would grieve with me.” We explain to assuage our fear, or to focus blame; there is another language for sorrow and hope.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World
(Adam Zagajewski)

Try to praise the mutilated world
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew,
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in through to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
Jesus' words about tragedy were about God knowing when a sparrow fell. He did not say God pushed the sparrow on cue, nor did he say God caught the little bird before it hit the ground. He said God was present in the midst of even one of the smallest tragedy imaginable.

"I sing because I'm happy; I sing because I'm free," goes the chorus to one of my favorite songs. "His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me."

Let us praise our mutilated world.

Peace,
Milton

Monday, July 10, 2006

slow leak

I’ve been fishing for metaphors again.

I’ve had to fish like it’s my job because my depression has decided to see what summer is like in New England. The first step, for me, in dealing with it is naming it, which means finding a way to describe what is happening, which sends me fishing.

Sometimes it blows in like a storm front. I can see the gathering gloom on the horizon, smell the rain in the air, feel the change in barometric pressure. The lightning flashes and the thunder rolls, both giving me fair warning that the flood is coming and I can do little to stop it. The best I can do is put on my life jacket and ride it out.

Then there are times when it feels like a trap door. Without much warning at all, the floor opens up and I free fall into the abyss, grabbing for anything I can find to hold on to so I can stop my fall. I have also thought of it like the ending of a silent movie, where the frame closes down to a pinhole in the center of the screen and then goes completely dark; my task is to run toward the shrinking light so it never completely disappears.

Sometimes it’s claustrophobic: the walls closing in and the air seeping out, leaving me feeling suffocated and overwhelmed. It’s also like a dead weight on my chest both crushing me and squeezing the life out of me at the same time.

This week it has been like a tire with a slow leak. The lack of air pressure is not so noticeable at high speeds, but once I stop I find I’ve got a flat. I fill it up with air and keep going, but it keeps running out. I came home from Mission Trip exhausted, helped with Vacation Bible School at Marshfield (I’m the music guy), went back to work at the Red Lion, and began dealing with my resignation at Hanover being public. Life for me, has been at high speed. I have pumped up when I needed to and then collapsed; there has not been time to fix the flat, only moments to hook up the air hose, which means the leak grows and the air escapes more and more quickly.

Realizing I was more than tired has helped. Learning again that depression has some creative power, in that it finds new ways to invade is both empowering and disconcerting. It morphs like one of those viruses that learns how to beat the crap out of the latest antibiotic, sending the researchers back to find new medicine. With each new face, my depression calls me to live with profound creativity and determination, to not just rage against the dying of the light but to call it by name and force it to make room for all of who I am, so I can be more than depressed. Depression is part of me, both emotionally and chemically, but it is not all of me, regardless of how much of me it wants to claim.

Anytime I sit down to write about it, the other metaphor that comes to mind is that of a broken record: an annoyingly endless repeating loop that forces the listener to leave the room. I have to keep naming it to stay alive; I’m trusting there are at least some who are willing to hear more than the same thing over and over.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, July 09, 2006

open space

Since the Round of Sixteen began, I have not gotten to see one World Cup game until today. I got to watch the Final this afternoon. For all of the other games, I was either in Mississippi or in the kitchen at the restaurant. I made sure my schedule was clear today so I could watch France and Italy play. And play they did. For those of you not keeping score at home, Italy won on penalty kicks after the two teams were still tied at the end of the overtime period.

Soccer has provided an important metaphor for me of late, thanks to a story I remembered as we were flying to Memphis for my nephew’s graduation. When my brother’s family lived outside of Akron, Ohio, Ginger and I went to visit. Our nephews were in the eight to ten range then, I guess, and both playing on soccer teams. Scott, the youngest (who graduated this year) had a game, so we went to watch. Soccer for eight year olds often gets called “herd ball” because everyone on the field is in a clump around the ball. Scott’s team was leading the league because of one thing the coach said to them in particular: “Run to the open space and let the ball find you.”

The reason the story came to mind somewhere over Maryland is my life has little open space to speak of. I’ve had a sense that change was on the wind, but I didn’t know how to catch a glimpse of what was coming or what it required of me, because I couldn’t find any open space to let God find me. I’ve felt unsettled for a while, even pulled, as if the various claims on my life were each pulling me in different directions and I was about to come apart at the seams. I’ve also kept returning to something Ken, my spiritual director, said to me soon after I started seeing him last October: “Decide what it is you want to stand for, what it’s going to cost to make that stand, and then pay the bill.” July has come and I’m still coming to terms with his words.

When I began interviewing for the Associate Pastor position at the church in Hanover, my biggest concern was not being able to go to church with Ginger. I love being able to worship with her and I love being the pastor’s husband. I also felt a pull to Hanover. The search committee offered that I only had to be in the 10 o’clock worship service on the one Sunday a month that I preached. (We have an early service at 8:30; I’m there every week and then duck out to Marshfield on my non-preaching days. At least, that’s how it started. Two things happened. One, the job grew. There were more and more reasons to stay for church – good ones – and the equation sort of flip-flopped: I was getting to Marshfield about once a month. The second thing was I realized I couldn’t be an effective pastor and be in worship one Sunday a month. My feeling of missing Ginger has done nothing but grow.

Two weeks ago, I offered my resignation at Hanover. My time there will come to an end on October 1, 2006, which will give me time to wrap things up well and leave things in good shape for the one who comes next. I’m making my move into open space.

Here’s where the soccer metaphor matters most: the coach said, “Run to the open space and the ball will find you.” I’m not running away, I’m running toward. I’m still trying to figure out what I stand for, in Ken’s words. Here in the final months of my fiftieth year, I’m moving to open space where God can find me and I have room to listen.

What I do know is I want to be with Ginger, so the primary direction of my move is toward her. Vocationally, the move is less precise. I keep thinking it’s something with food. The parish house at Marshfield has a good kitchen and great space; we could be feeding people. I want it to be something with writing, so I will keep posting regularly and sending my words out into space of their own. I need it to make some money, which is the hard part since I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body. What all of that means is not only will the ball need to find me in the open space, but also some teammates as well. None of us tells a story with only one character, nor do we tell stories where we are always the central characters. I’m breaking into open space; I don’t know who or what will find me there, I just know it is time to find open space.

I also have a sense my questions will not be answered quickly. I’m on a transformational journey as much as vocational one. Most every job I’ve had in my life has found me. Someone has come and said, “You’re good at this and we need this done.” I could feel useful and appreciated (both important to someone who grew up learning love was earned), so I took the jobs. (Pardon the over simplification and the overuse of parentheses.) I’ve never taken the lead in this dance, and now I’m seeing I must if I’m to be true to myself and my God.

In his book, Life Work, Donald Hall (our new Poet Laureate) recounts a conversation with his friend Henry Moore, who had just turned eighty. Hall asked him, “What is the secret of life?”

With anyone else the answer would have begun with an ironic laugh, but Henry Moore answered me straight: "The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possible do!”
His words speak to me in profound ways and I have no idea of what it feels like to so consumed by One Thing. At least I know the next fifty years are going to be full of surprises.

Peace,
Milton

PS -- There are new recipes.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

life sentence

Ken Lay died yesterday of a massive heart attack.

The news of his death sent my mind in two directions. First, it sent me back to my belief that the corporation is one of the most insidious inventions of modern life. The giant Greed Machine that is Capitalism gave birth to the corporation the way Rosemary gave birth to her baby, creating a monster beholden to no one with an insatiable appetite for growth and profit. We have been trained to believe that corporations are somehow entities in themselves, so that none of the human beings that make them up are ultimately responsible for anything the behemoth does. A “corporate response” to any issue sees no need to respond ethically or with any degree of humanity because profit is the only measure.

CEO’s of major companies make, on average, 525 times the wage of a production worker. In June, when the stockholders wanted to ask questions about the executive pay package, Home Depot’s Board of Directors didn’t show up for the annual meeting and no one could do anything because that’s how a corporation works. Much of the economic disparity in our world lies at the feet of the multinationals. They somehow have millions to pay athletes for endorsement deals, but only pennies to pay the people who actually make the shoes.

Enron made the news not because they were that different, but because they were the ones who got caught. A jury of people other than members of Congress and lawyers declared the emperor naked and found Lay guilty for what his corporation had done. The verdict came down in May, yet Lay was not to be sentenced until October (you know – it’s the same way it works for all the poor people who get convicted; they get time to go to their vacation homes before they go to prison, too).

Ken Lay dropped dead in his vacation home in Colorado. One news account said it might have been caused by the stress of the trial and the verdict. Evidently, he felt little stress in committing the crimes, which leads me to my second thought.

His death demonstrates the uselessness of the death penalty: Ken Lay is dead; nothing had been made better. He laid waste to the lives of thousands of employees, violating their trust and using them like toilet paper. He destroyed lives and families in ways worse than many who are sitting on death row and he made money doing it. This week the federal prosecutors asked the judge to make him give up the forty three million dollars he made on the crimes of which he was convicted. They were too kind. I think they should have asked for every penny, every piece of art, every house, everything he had except for one change of clothing and a tin cup and left him to beg on the Houston street corner where that slanted E sculpture stood outside what was once his building. Of course, that’s my need for revenge talking.

One of the stories that came out of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was of a woman who saw her husband and her son killed in front of her by the same Afrikaans policeman. When he was convicted before the commission, they asked the woman what she thought his punishment should be.

“I was once a mother and a wife and now I am neither,” she said. “Let him come to visit me so I can be a mother to him.” She then rose and embraced him as the man wept uncontrollably.

Most possibilities for redemption for Lay and many of the former employees of Enron died with him yesterday, as they do with any criminal whom we see fit to kill. Death solves very little, if anything at all. I do wish they had taken every last penny he had, but I wish they had made him personally deliver it to the people he harmed, door to door, so he could see who Enron crushed when it collapsed.

I didn’t want his heart to stop; I wanted it to break.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

patriotic melodies


It was the second night of two sold out concerts at the Cotton Bowl in the summer of Born in the USA and Reaganomics. I had been to both and had watched Bruce Springsteen hold the crowds in the palm of his hand for over four hours each night. When he came out for his fourth encore, he was alone; the E Street Band had stayed in the back.


"Bruuuuuce," we screamed.


He laughed and said, "Sit down," and he began to talk about Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land is Your Land." Guthrie wrote the song in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which he saw as overly self-focused and naive. His original lyrics differ a bit from the campfire versions we learned over the years. I woke up thinking about them this morning.

This Land is Your Land

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me
On a cold, cold winter's night twenty years later, I heard Steve Earle sing, "Christmas in Washington," another great patriotic psalm:
It's Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Gettin' into gear for four more years
Things not gettin' worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, 'He cannot seek another term
They'll be no more FDRs'

I sat home in Tennessee
Staring at the screen
With an uneasy feeling in my chest
And I'm wonderin' what it means

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

I followed in your footsteps once
Back in my travelin' days
Somewhere I failed to find your trail
Now I'm stumblin' through the haze
But there's killers on the highway now
And a man can't get around
So I sold my soul for wheels that roll
Now I'm stuck here in this town

There's foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You'd think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It's going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barracades are goin' up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We're marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now
"Blind faith in your government will get you killed," Bruce told us that summer, as Guthrie had said before him and Steve Earle after.

It's still true.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, July 02, 2006

miss to mass

We all made it back from Mississippi safely last night and most of us made it to church this morning to tell of what we had seen and done and experienced. The week was full of good things. Even though I was there, I found the refelctions of the young people full of surprises. Their capacity to make meaning out of the world around them feeds my faith. The church was full (an unusual experience for a summer service in New England) because, after three years of trips, our people know the reflection service is not one to miss.

During the week, we used a song as our theme that was the first song Billy Crockett and I ever wrote together, now over twenty years ago.

here's another picture of life
all of us together with Christ
it's an open heart
it's a work of art
it's the basic stuff
that makes another picture of love
I came away from the week reminded again that incarnation is the cornerstone word of our faith: God with skin on. I saw one picture after another of love incarnated in the actions of our young people and adults, as well as in the way we were received by the people of Mississippi.

One afternoon we took a prayer walk through the neighborhood around the church. I was walking at the back of the twenty-five white kids and adults as they strolled down the street and at least twenty-five black kids came running out of their houses to greet them because they knew them from Vacation Bible School. As I watched, I realized that in my life time a group of white people that large walking in an African-American neighborhood would have been coming to kill somebody. Because of the love incarnated everyday by the people of Calvary Baptist Church in their faithful determination to minister to their neighborhood and because of the willingness of our young people to walk in heat they were not used to in order to learn more about the kids they saw each day, those little children came running without fear.

That's the basic stuff that makes another picture of love.

Peace,
Milton