Friday, September 28, 2007


Yesterday was our Schnauzer Lola’s seventh birthday and my brother’s forty-ninth. (I suppose that makes them the same age.) Today, my friend Doug is fifty years old. By coincidence, today also marks my four hundred and fiftieth post since beginning this blog on December 27, 2005. Eliot said we measure our life in coffee spoons; I’ve measured mine in recipes and blog posts for the past couple of years. I think of the posts a little like the marks my dad used to make on the door jamb to let us see how we had grown. I didn’t always feel taller, but the marks gave me external evidence that I was growing and changing.

Marking this milestone borders on being overly self-congratulatory, I think, and is also worthy of note, for me at least. Like Doug’s birthday, my blog count marks a place on the journey I have never been before. As much as measurements are about what has been, they are perhaps even more about what is possible. Doug has never been on the planet as long as he has today. I’ve never written as much as I have now. Each new moment is uncharted territory for us all.

The Romans’ numbering system grew out of notches they made as they counted. They weren’t thinking in letters; they were making marks to show their progress. Now we use them for tombstones, the periodic table of elements, the Super Bowl, and Wrestlemania. Go figure.

One of the books I go back to from time to time is Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings. He was Secretary General of the United Nations, among other things in his life, as well as a man of deep faith and integrity. Here are a few of the marks he left for us:

He who has surrendered himself to it knows that the Way ends on the Cross — even when it is leading him through the jubilation of Gennesaret or the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.

Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible — not to have run away.

Never, "for the sake of peace and quiet," deny your own experience or convictions.

Never measure the height of a mountain until you have reached the top. Then you will see how low it was.

Respect for the word is the first commandment in the discipline by which a man can be educated to maturity — intellectual, emotional, and moral.
Respect for the word — to employ it with scrupulous care and in incorruptible heartfelt love of truth — is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race.

We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours.

For all that has been — Thanks. For all that shall be — Yes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

down the long road

One of my tasks in preparing to move is to go through my CDs and transfer the bulk of them to my MacBook instead of boxing them all up to head south. I’ve invested a lot of money in CDs over the years, collecting a good bit of interest, though not of the monetary kind. I’ve spent the better part of the day in the D through G section of our collection and have downloaded music from almost one hundred of the silver discs, finding some old friends, bringing up some wonderful memories, and raising some interesting questions. (Who is the Willard Grant Conspiracy and why do I have one of their records?)

Cliff Eberhardt
is a singer/songwriter I learned about soon after moving to Boston, thanks to David Wilcox’s covers of a couple of his songs. I hadn’t listened to The Long Road in a long time. The title track is a wonderful duet with Richie Havens (one of the best voices ever) and the lyric says:

There are the ones that you call friends.
There are the ones that you call late at night.
There are the ones who sweep away your past
With one wave of their hand.

There are the ones that you call family.
There are the ones that you hold close to your heart.
They are the ones who see the danger in you
Who won't understand.

I can hear your voice in the wind.
Are you calling to me, down the long road?
Do you really think there's an end?
I have followed my dream
Down the long road.

You are the one that I met long ago.
You are the one who saw my dream.
You are the one, took me from my home
And left me off somewhere.

Somehow I feel you are here
And you are waiting in that dream.
And somewhere down this road we will awake
And be at the start again.

I can hear your voice in the wind.
Are you calling to me, down the long road?
Do you really think there's an end?
I have lived my whole life
Down the long road.

I gotta find you tonight.
Are you waiting for me, down the long road?
Do you really think there's an end?
I have lived my whole life
Down the long road.

Are you waiting for me?
I can hear your voice in the wind.
Are you calling to me, down the long road?
Do you really think there's an end?
I have lived my whole life
Down the long road.
In these days of change, when some things are moving faster than we can keep up with and others not moving at all (anyone want to buy a house at the beach?), the question in the song is haunting:

Do you really think there’s an end?

I think I have lived my whole life down the long road. Now, it stretches out again and turns so quickly and so sharply that we can’t see much more than a few steps ahead. We are going to have to make some important and difficult choices without knowing how the terrain is going as we make the turn.

Ginger did a great job on Sunday shedding fresh light on Peter and John’s encounter with the man at the gate. “We don’t have any money,” they said (I’m with them so far), “but what we have we’ll gladly give. In the name of Jesus, get up and walk.”

What healing work can we do in Jesus’ name, is the way I heard what she was saying.

When I was in seminary and John Claypool was preaching, I heard someone criticize him by saying, “The only people who relate to him are the walking wounded and those trapped in adolescent rebellion.”

Without really thinking, I looked at the guy and said, “Who’s left?”

We have all spent our whole lives on the long road. The most consistent daily act of healing we can do in Jesus’ name is to get up and walk: walk into the middle of our families and friends and work places and schools and wherever else we walk and offer ourselves.

I can hear God calling our names.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Our burning bush
is just starting
to singe around
the edges.
Before long
without smoke
or fire, the leaves
will blaze brilliantly
without burning up
and fall to the earth.

We talk about
colors, yet name
this season
for the letting go,
the breeze-ride
down from life
into death.

How can it be
so energizing
to see what was
once verdant
and vibrant
flame and die?

I try to listen.
I want to hear
what the leaves
are saying
as they burn
and fall.

All I can do
is go barefoot.


This poem was written in response to prompts at Abbey of the Arts and Writers' Island.

Monday, September 24, 2007

red dirt girl

On the way home from church to go to work, I heard the end of this interview with Emmylou Harris on NPR. She has a new boxed set out of rare tracks and unreleased material that I am now coveting in the worst way. One of the songs she sang during the interview (accompanied by Buddy Miller) was "Boy from Tupelo":

You don't love me this I know
Don't need a Bible to tell me so
I hung around a little too long
I was good but now I'm gone

Like the buffalo
That boy from Tupelo
Any way the wind can blow
That's where I'm gonna go
I'll be gone like a five and dime
It'll be the perfect crime
Just ask the boy from Tupelo
He's the king and he ought to know

The shoulder I've been leaning on
Is the coldest place I've ever known
There's nothing left for me round here
Looks like it's time to dissapear

Like the buffalo
That boy from Tupelo
The old wall down in Jericho
Maybelle on the radio
I'll be gone like the five and dime
It'll be the perfect crime
Just ask the boy from Tupelo
He's the king and he ought to know

You don't love me, this I know
Don't need a Bible to tell me so
It's a shame and it's a sin
Everything I could have been to you

Your last chance Texaco
Your sweetheart of the rodeo
A Juliet to your Romeo
The border you cross into Mexico
I'll never understand why or how
Oh but baby its too late now
Just ask the boy from Tupelo
He's the king and he ought to know

In looking at the play list for the songs on the CDs, I found this one, which seems worth passing along. It's called "Prayer in Open D."

There's a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done
And the shadows filling up this land
Are the ones I built with my own hand
There is no comfort from the cold
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul

There's a river of darkness in my blood
And through every vein I feel the flood
I can find no bridge for me to cross
No way to bring back what is lost
Into the night it soon will sweep
Down where all my grievances I keep
But it won't wash away the years
Or one single hard and bitter tear

And the rock of ages I have known
Is a weariness down in the bone
I use to ride it like a rolling stone
Now just carry it alone

There's a highway risin' from my dreams
Deep in the heart I know it gleams
For I have seen it stretching wide
Clear across to the other side
Beyond the river and the flood
And the valley where for so long I've stood
With the rock of ages in my bones
Someday I know it will lead me home



Friday, September 21, 2007

a day of peace

Thanks to Tess at Anchors and Masts, I saw the video below and learned about the work of Peace Direct and that today, September 21, is the United Nations International Day of Peace.

At one point in the short film, as Gill is putting on her artificial legs, the text reads, “Gill believes in the power of the individual and that everyone can make a difference.” What struck me as I worked on this post is the strength to be peace builders comes not from individuals, but individuals committed to community. I’ll demonstrate what I mean.

As I said, Tess led me to Peace Direct and to the UN Peace Day site. In a parallel journey, Randy’s post on scorn led me to Bill and Grant’s words on the same subject, all of them speaking in their way to what it means to learn to wage peace. Bill defines scorn as the feeling or belief that someone or something is worthless or despicable; the verb, is to feel or express contempt or derision for someone or something.

Randy confesses:

It is all too easy for me to take a position of scorn relative to someone else. If I think he is dumb, I express scorn. If I think he is obtuse, I express scorn. If he doesn’t agree with me, I express scorn. If he doesn’t drive like I want him to, I express scorn. If he makes my job more difficult, I express scorn. If I don’t like the way he looks, I express scorn.

Scorn makes me ugly.
Me, too. As long as I was dealing with definitions, I looked up peace and was struck by one word in two of the definitions:
  • the normal, nonwarring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world;
  • the normal freedom from civil commotion and violence of a community.
Peace as normal. What a concept.

Again, still dealing with words and borrowing ideas from those around me, I remembered my friend Don pointing out in a Bible study that our words listen and obey come from the same root.
c.1290, from O.Fr. obeir, from L. oboedire "obey, pay attention to, give ear," lit. "listen to," from ob "to" + audire "listen, hear" (see audience). Same sense development is in cognate O.E. hiersumnian.
I’ve also been reading the blog of a former student who is enrolled in the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

I had just sat down to write this morning with peace swirling all around me when the wheels fell off. We got word that our realtor had scheduled two home invasions (as I like to call them), one today and one tomorrow. She also suggested we rearrange the furniture in the large room that is both our living and dining area because the way we have chosen to live is “too unconventional” for most folks who are looking to buy a house.

I knew nothing of these people who are looking for a new home, but I felt scorn nonetheless. I felt better than them. We walked into this house seven years ago and it was a mess. The colors were atrocious, the house was a mess, and there were holes in the kitchen floor dug by the two large dogs who lived here along with the woman who owned it. To even think about buying it required at least enough imagination to see beyond her living in the space. And now our house won’t sell because the dullards who are looking can’t get past the dining table and the couch being placed in a less than conventional manner?

Screw peace. I wanted to open a can of whupass on somebody. It was time to beat some imagination into these idiots. (Now I understand why realtors don’t want you to be home when people come by.) When we got through moving the furniture, I came back to the computer to find all the peace links I had already saved in preparation for writing. I read what Randy and Bill and Grant and Jane and Tess had to say. I watched Gill climb up on the block seat and attach her artificial legs. I looked into what is now the living room to see Lola climb up in her usual perch on top of the couch cushions, nonplussed that she had been moved. And I felt silly, small, and sinful.

My anger is about being displaced. I don’t get to live in my home anymore; I live in a house that’s for sale. I don’t get to feel settled anymore because we are moving. The apparent lack of imagination that exists in the minds of today’s homebuyer is not the source of my rage, just an easy target. If I’m going to be a peacemaker, then easy targets can’t be a part of the equation. It can’t be about targets at all. Somehow, it’s about moving beyond the scorn and the rage and all the types of violence that pervade my life and listening to the solidarity of our humanity. Rather than seeing them as idiots, I’m called to listen and learn to see those folks who will walk our floors this afternoon as people traveling the same road we walked seven years ago and will walk again across floors in Durham in the weeks ahead. I’m called to listen to a larger world where my sense of displacement pales by comparison with those in Sudan and Iraq and Gaza and Indonesia and Burma and New Orleans who have been cut off from home and history by violence I know nothing of on a personal level. If I listen well, my rage can become resonance, which is something peace can be built upon. Bill quotes Paul from Philippians 4:8:
Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.
In the Peace Direct video, the text says, “For us, peace is about strength, courage, determination, and action.” We are all crippled by the violence done by and to us. Everyday, it seems, feels like International Violence Day. We were not created to destroy one another, but to listen and to love, which both matter most in the most basic of relationships.

I heard the call to peace today while reading blogs and moving furniture. I’m praying for the courage to listen and obey.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

hope and heartbreak

Somewhere around April 20, give or take a couple of days, the Red Sox moved into first place in the American League East. On April 20, we were two games ahead of the Yankees. Today, September 20, we have a game and a half lead over the Evil Empire with nine games left to play. All season long it has looked like we were going to win our division for the first time in a decade; now, even though we are going to make the playoffs, our first place finish is not a given. Don’t get me wrong – I still think we’re going to win it, but we’re just going to have to sweat more than we imagined doing so.

One of the things the Sox gave up with their loss last night was their claim to the best record in baseball. The Angels and the Indians now lead them by a half a game and yet those teams have lost four out of every ten games they have played this season. Baseball is as much about losing as it is about winning; that’s why I love the game.

In six months, the Sox, like all the major league teams, have had only eighteen days when they weren’t playing a game. That’s less than a day off a week. The game requires they show up night after night, inning after inning, and pay attention to every ball and strike. After one hundred and fifty three games, they lead the Yankees because of the scores of two games. Two games. Life hinges on the details. There’s the big picture, the leagues standings, the playoffs and then there are the balls and strikes.

As October brings the baseball season to its glorious finish, so it will end our time here in Massachusetts. I long for the poetry of a Red Sox World Series Championship to send us on our way, but who knows. Lots of things have to fall in place for that to happen, just as lots of things need to fall in place, both big and small, for us to get out of town. Our timing is way off on needing to sell our house, which makes some of our other decisions hard to make. All we can do, for now, is show up everyday, just like the Sox, and take our swings.

Out of thirty major league teams, only nine have any real hope of making the playoffs, yet all thirty still have a week and a half of the season to play. Some of those games will figure into the final outcomes, but many will not. Yet, the Orioles and the Rangers will still play, and play hard. Beyond October glory, there’s something that matters about showing up and doing your job. (Yes, their ridiculous salaries make it easier to show up, I suppose, but the hope I find in baseball transcends the capitalism.)

I got to go to Fenway last week and was in the park when Big Papi hit a walkoff homerun to win the game. Two nights later, I watched him pop out in the same situation. Based on the Red Sox’ history and baseball in general, chances are I’ll get my heart broken again this October and will then start counting the days until Spring Training. It’s never over. It is, however, about baseball.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve not given up. We have a great team. I’m counting on them sending us off with a World Series win. And, whatever happens, I’m a lifelong citizen of Red Sox Nation.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

skip the oj for breakfast

Gracie, our youngest Schnauzer, woke me up early this morning and I turned on the television as I was trying to gain consciousness just as all three morning shows were cranking up. The lead story on all of them was about O. J. Simpson. In fact, over half of the first thirty minutes of Today was about him. I kept watching, thinking they would actually tell me what was happening in the world sooner or later. No such luck.

I don't care how much they talk about him, it's not news.

Things are happening and they are things we don't hear about, such as these stories I found on several international news outlets. These things actually matter and yet our media choose not to tell us much, if anything at all.

The situation in Darfur continues to deteriorate. For all the supportive rhetoric that has come from Western governments, the genocide continues.

The Israeli government has declared Gaza a "hostile area," which could lead to Israel cutting off electricity and water to the region.

Severe floods all across Africa
have devastated several countries, leaving many homeless, cut off, and threatened by disease.

There are also important things happening in Burma, Indonesia,
Cambodia, Nepal, and India.

How can we consider ourselves, as a nation, to be the world leader when we have no idea what is going on?


Tuesday, September 18, 2007


In our first summer
I started feeding birds –
you'll have to feed
all year round,
our neighbor said,
or they’ll die in winter

I thought
I was doing them
a favor.

Now they congregate
in the crisp autumn air
and wait like worshippers
for me to fill the feeder
while the wild geese
fly overhead

I wonder
if both instincts
are true.


P. S. -- You can check out other poems at Writer's Island.

Monday, September 17, 2007

god is growing

Growing up Southern Baptist meant growing up with an image of a Very Male God.

Whatever images of God were given to me, one thing was always clear: God was He. Of course, Southern Baptists by no means had a monopoly on the pronoun, but the universe of faith I grew up in had no room for God to take on a new orbit. Somewhere along the way (college, I think), I came across a little book by J. B. Phillips called Your God is Too Small, which pushed me to think in some new ways, even though his images were exclusively male. One of my regular college exercises was rereading The Chronicles of Narnia. Two scenes, in particular, have stuck with me (though I can’t find the references just now). One is the warning in Dawn Treader that Aslan is “not a tame lion.” The other is Lucy meeting Aslan on the children’s return to Narnia and stepping back when she hugs him, startled that the lion is bigger than she remembers. “When you grow, I get bigger,” he tells her.

When Ginger started reading the passage from Luke 15 yesterday before her sermon, I was reminded of pivotal those parables have been in allowing my God to grow. I don’t remember when it happened, but I do remember the wonderful feeling of surprise and hope I felt when I realized Jesus was telling a story in which God was a woman: God, the tenacious housewife. (I know the parable doesn’t say anything about her being married, but that’s the way I understood the story at the time.)

The woman in the story was not one who had, as we say, disposable income. She had ten coins – the equivalent of ten day’s wages – and she lost one of them. Living on nine-tenths was not an option. She searched the house with a tenacity that grew out of desperation: she had to find the money. She moved furniture, tossed couch cushions, opened and reopened drawers. Nothing. Though the parable is short, I imagine the search was not. Who knows where she finally found the money. It was, I’m sure, as my mother always says, “in the last place she looked.” (Isn’t that always where you find something?) In that moment, her torment turned to joy and relief such that she spent the rest of the week’s grocery money throwing a party to celebrate finding the coin.

The parable is sandwiched between the story of a shepherd, also a social outcast and an odoriferous one at that, and a father. I realized in the sermons I had heard growing up that preachers said God is our shepherd and God is our father, but God was like a woman searching for a coin. But that’s not the way Jesus tells the story: God is a poor, desperate woman who is as relentless in celebrating what she found as she is searching for what she lost.

As I was rereading the passage this morning, I was struck by the verse that introduces the parables:

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends." Their grumbling triggered this story. (Luke 15:1-3, The Message)
If our God is too small then our image of humanity is diminutive as well. If God represents only power and might (by that I mean if our image of God is white and male), then only the powerful and mighty will matter. If we take the Incarnation seriously, then God is not only a shepherd, a poor woman, and a longing father, but God is also an undocumented immigrant, an AIDS patient, an insurgent, a gay man, a lesbian, a Darfurian refugee, a Katrina victim, a family farmer, a troubled teenager, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the description of a straight white male.

For the past six years I’ve been an hourly worker in restaurant kitchens. I’ve averaged bringing home around $20000 annually. Yet, when I walk into a store or a restaurant or pretty much anywhere, no one questions my right to be there. When I’m in downtown Boston, where public restrooms are hard to find, I can walk into the swankiest hotels and ask where the bathroom is and they tell me without assuming for a moment that I am not a guest. I don’t get followed around in stores to see if I’m going to try and steal something. I’m not held suspect because of my skin color or my accent. I have the run of the place because I’m The Man.

What I love most about these parables is Jesus’ message is clear: God is not The Man.

I used to get complaints from my English students because I wouldn’t let them use a male pronoun to stand for everyone. From time to time, they would argue from tradition. “It’s like the Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal.”

“You’ve made my point,” I would answer. “When they wrote those words, they meant all men, not all people. In fact, they meant all white men who own property.”

If we want our words to include everyone, we have to choose them carefully, which is not easy work. We have to expand our vocabulary intentionally. We have to teach ourselves to think and feel new things in order to effectively articulate the reality in which we live. So it is with our image of God.

By the end of Luke 15, everyone from the single sheep to the big brother has been invited to the party. Our untamed, unabashed, unfathomable God has invited everyone. including the people who make us squirm. “When you grow, I get bigger,” Aslan told Lucy. Perhaps God is saying to us, “I’m bigger; now you grow.”


Friday, September 14, 2007

happy new year

One of my favorite images from scripture is that of God coming to walk through the garden each evening with Adam and Eve. There’s something about time being kept only by the rhythm of our steps that makes walking a sacred activity. Ginger and I walked our usual loop around the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, ending up on the beach since the tide was out. As we walked, we could see various sized footprints and paw prints in the sand, evidence of how others had marked their days. The tide has since come and gone, erasing those marks and preparing the beach for a new day, for new walks, for a new time.

Last night, we went to our friend Robin’s house to share in her Rosh Hashanah dinner. Ginger met Robin several years ago at the Interfaith Seder at Robin’s congregation and they became fast friends. Robin has been kind to include us in several of the Jewish holiday feasts along the way. We sat around a big table and Robin lighted the candles and those who knew the prayers said them together in Hebrew; Robin then repeated them in English. As we began to eat, each dish had significance both in taste and in shape. The round Challah, rather than braided, to represent wholeness and community. The bread was sweet and full of raisins. Sweet was the operative word for the meal: we ate apples dipped in honey, chicken soup with matzoth balls, chicken with a cranberry balsamic glaze, noodle kugel (that tasted of cinnamon), and tzimmes (slow-cooked carrots, sweet potatoes, and prunes). The meal finished with a multitude of wonderful desserts. As one web site noted:

The Holiday's food reflects this pensive, contemplative and hopeful mood not only by using symbolic ingredients throughout the meal but also by avoiding others. Sweetness - which symbolizes hope for good things to come, is presented throughout Rosh Hashanah's food. The main meal, which is eaten on R/H eve, always starts with either apple or a piece of challah dipped in honey. Any bitter or sour flavors are avoided.
Food is important in celebrations, I think, because it is both temporal and archetypal at the same time. We were eating dishes steeped in history and tradition and we were eating a meal prepared that day for that moment; the eternal and the fleeting share the same table. We sat around that table for almost four hours telling stories and sharing ourselves witih one another. It was truly a sweet evening. I sat next to a woman who was also a Gentile. Robin said she had invited herself to dinner when she heard it was Rosh Hashanah by saying, “I need a new year.”

Starting a new year in the fall fits the rhythm of life better than January. The harvest is in, the leaves are turning, and we are moving into a time of rest and anticipation. In New England, it will soon be time to plant the bulbs we want to see bloom in the spring, an important exercise in delayed gratification and, as E. B. White said, “calmly plotting the resurrection.” As we talked, laughed, and listened, I could feel the roots of our conversation reaching deep into a tradition and history that has known almost four thousand more new years than mine, a faith that has fed my own, and a way of marking time that starts with, “In the beginning, God . . .”

When we got home, I had one more walk to take. The pups were quick to remind me they had not made their daily trek to the water, so I grabbed the leashes and we trailed off into the moonless night. The tide was out and the beach was empty, so I let them off their leashes and they scattered off down the sand and quickly turned into shadows. I stood under the starlight sky, naming what stars I could, drinking in the Milky Way, and listening to the waves marking time as the encroaching tide prepared, once again, to erase our footprints and bring another new day, another new year. After a few minutes, I called their names and Lola and Gracie emerged from the darkness ready to go back home. As we walked, I heard Tom Waits singing in my ear:
and its time, time, time
and its time, time, time

and its time, time, time that you love

and its time, time, time

Thursday, September 13, 2007

who benefits?

The food we use at the restaurant comes from several different sources, most of which are local. Our oysters and mussels come right out of Cape Cod Bay. Our pasta provider makes it all just a few miles from us. Our produce company, though local, picks up the fruit and vegetables from the market in Boston, so, unfortunately, some of it is well traveled by the time it ends up in our walk in refrigerator. This past week, our tomatoes were Canadian and our spinach Californian. Most of our dry goods and some other hard to find things are brought by a huge national food distributor whose trucks, I’m sure, crowd the streets where you live as well. They bring everything from pizza boxes to tomato paste to anything else we ask for. For a price, of course.

Once or twice a year, the distributor has a food show where the merchants they represent set up tasting tables and work hard to show how they can make our lives easier. For the most part, the displays are piled with pre-made things designed to cut labor time and make us “look good” to the customer. With the right kind of budget, you could open a restaurant and only have to have a microwave, a warming oven, and a Fry-o-lator to get the food out. The clam strips are already breaded, the turtle cheesecakes are pre-sliced, the soups need only to be reheated, shrink-wrapped salmon filets, each one identical to the other, are ready to hit the pan and then topped with a pre-mixed sauce.

The experience was the foodservice equivalent of a shopping mall: once I stepped inside there was no identifying context. Regardless of where you live, once you walk into the mall and stroll between the Gap, Abercrombie, and Linens-N-Things, you are nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The shirts on the shelves in Seattle are the same as those in St. Louis. Send it to your cousin in Albuquerque and, if he doesn’t like it he can exchange it at the same store in the mall in his town.

The restaurant business these days, at most any level, is fascinated with “mini” or “baby” anything. Today I saw (and tasted) mini-éclairs, mini-quesadillas (rolled up in little cones), mini-hamburgers (one inch across), baby ravioli, and chicken cordon bleu bites. The buzz on the bite-sized products was they made good bar food. I suppose the vendors were right on some level: some of the stuff tasted pretty good and the convenience is not for nothing. But it wouldn’t be any fun to make or interesting to serve. What would I say: “Here, I warmed this up for you?”

Food has to have a soul. It is flavored by relationships and stories, not by convenience or ubiquity. Not that I haven’t eaten my fair share of drive-through (excuse me – drive thru). The people I met in the room were nice and appeared to care about what they were selling, and somehow it didn’t feel like food to me.

A number of years ago, a friend was taking a class on Shakespeare. The professor entered the room and wrote in large letters across the board, “Who benefits?” He went on to say the question was at the heart of every action and every character in the Bard’s plays. If you wanted to see where things were headed, ask the question of what is happening at the time. The question came to mind as I was approached with pre-packaged everything. When the discussion about the viability of a menu item centers on speed, price, and fashion, who benefits?

Speed, as a promise of progress, is deceptive. Faster, when it comes to food, is rarely an improvement. Instant anything pales in comparison to the real deal. Price finds its way into most any discussion. Perhaps cost is a better word. Prepared foods may be more cost-effective from a money standpoint, but what is the price of including phenodexelwhamalamadingdongzephedrine in my diet for no apparent reason other than convenience? Fashion, in any arena, usually has all the staying power of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It’s one thing for a chef (or a person who likes to cook) to discover a dish or an ingredient and learn how to use it; it’s another thing for most every restaurant to add chipotle-something to their menu because we were all at the same food show.

When we were in Greece and Turkey last year we ate some amazing food. I bought cookbooks and learned how to make Pastitsio (Ginger’s favorite) and Imam Bayildi (my fave). I’m not sure how authentic my versions of these dishes have become, but they are full of memory and meaning for us and I’m really glad I can find it in the frozen food section at our supermarket. For most of the years we have lived in the Boston area, we have lamented the lack of good Mexican food. The reason for its absence was simple: there were very few Mexicans in the area. Over time that changed and we have a wonderful place that opened not far from where we live. The owner, Ezekiel, works hard to make good food and his staff – also Mexican, for the most part – greet everyone with a big “Hola, amigos” and a smile. I didn’t see him at the food show shopping for the “Santa Fe Quesadilla Bites.” I’m not sure he would have recognized them.

Then again, if he’d had a table of his homemade Pork Carnitas, he could have brought the whole show to a standstill.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

imaginary estate

If you want to sell your house, they say,
make it look like you don’t live there.
People can't imagine themselves living
in the space if you are still present.
I don’t know how to disappear, I say.
I can’t erase myself as I leave every day.
How can I leave this house to someone
without imagination enough to see it?
Just three years shy of one hundred,
our house stands on stones and stories;
it can’t be a blank slate anymore than
we can act like we don’t live here.
Our laughter and longing have colored
the walls and settled into the carpet.
Our feet have worn down the stairs;
our hands have fixed what we have broken.
Real estate is measured in square feet;
the imaginary estate belongs to those
who can see themselves sharing space
with all who helped build their home.


Monday, September 10, 2007

what god joins together

Sometimes, our lives are like a joke, or at least the opening of one.

Yesterday, Ginger and I performed a wedding together that included a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, and a lapsed Presbyterian. She looked at the gathered crowd of friends and family and said, “It sounds like we should all go into a bar.”

The setting was amazing. We were standing on a hillside on the grounds of the Beach Plum Inn on Martha’s Vineyard, the late summer sun shining down like a spotlight. The ceremony began with the groom, a Pakistani, and all of his extended family parading down the hill with him under a colorful canopy, banging drums and cheering. Not long before, many of them had cheered as Ginger and I got to the Inn. At 10:45 that morning, we had walked out of our worship service early (with appropriate explanation) and driven the fifty-three miles to Wood’s Hole to catch the Vineyard Ferry, which left at 12:15. We got there with seven minutes to spare. We docked in Vineyard Haven where they had a guide for us to follow to the Inn, where we arrived at 1:45 – in time to put on our robes, drink a glass of water, and start the ceremony at 2:00.

We had lots of reasons to cheer. Almost two years ago to the day, the groom was beginning chemotherapy; we weren’t sure if he was going to live. Almost six years ago, after the fall of the Twin Towers, he answered a knock on his apartment door one evening and was greeted by two FBI agents who interrogated him for several hours without allowing him to make a phone call or even get up and go to the bathroom simply because he was from Pakistan and his name was “suspicious.” As of yesterday, this week in September will now be remembered as a week of celebration because their wedding far outshines those former fears.

The couple, and most of their gathered congregation, defines their spirituality different from mine. We are not without commonalties, but (how do I say this?) they would be tentative in places where I might be more emphatic when in comes to Christianity and Jesus in particular. And they called and said they really wanted Ginger and I to perform the ceremony. When the four of us met together, we had great discussions not only about the details of the wedding but also the spiritual significance we found there. Though Ginger and I were challenged, at times, to find the vocabulary to give voice to our diversity, what happened as we stood in the Vineyard sun was filled with the winds of the Spirit.

One of the things the couple wanted to do was to have everyone touch the rings before they put them on, as a symbol of the connectedness with and the support they felt from everyone there. Ginger and I had been trying to figure out how to make that work all week. As we sat on the ferry going to the Island, Ginger said, “I’ve got it.” We worked out the details together.

At the appropriate time, Ginger took the rings and walked out into the middle of the congregation. She explained what the couple wanted and then explained how we were going to adjust their idea to make the same point. She invited those closest to her to put their hands on her shoulders and then the next layer of people to touch the shoulder of the person nearest them until we were all connected. The contagion of contact rippled all the way up to where I was standing with the bride and groom. The visual image was startling and sumptuous. “Now,” I said, “when you look at your rings in the days and years to come, you will be reminded of the promises you made here and you will always know that you’ve got people.”

Sara Miles talks about marriage in her book as well. (Yeah, I thought I was through quoting her as well.) She and her partner were among those who were married in San Francisco when the mayor made provision for equal marriage, and before the state voided them all. She describes a scene where the priest at her church calls on those gathered to bless the marriages in much the same fashion as Ginger called us to bless the rings. Miles says,

The marriage of a couple, I understood then, was more than personal: it was a rite binding people into community and, beyond that, pointing to the union of all humanity with God. A marriage such as ours prophesied the politically inconvenient but spiritually resonant truth that the unlikely and outcast were part of God’s creation, in all ways. It was like communion: when some people were shut out of the rite, the picture couldn’t be complete. (234)
As the afternoon wound down, one of the co-best men and the Pakistani equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite, sang a karaoke version of Journey’s “Open Arms” that only his closest friends could truly appreciate. With consuming passion and complete disregard for pitch or melody, he blared,
so, now, I come to you
with open arms

nothing to hide

believe what I say

so here I am
with open arms

hoping you'll see

what your love
means to me

open arms
We couldn’t have asked for a better punch line.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

hearts broken into

Yesterday I sang at the funeral of a man I had never met and I cried.

He sounded like a great guy – someone I would have liked and would have shared a great deal in common. His family loved him. The line that killed me was his son-in-law saying, “I’m so grateful that my children got to be his grandchildren.”

I had to sing after that. He loved Elvis, so they asked me to sing "an Elvis song". I chose an old gospel hymn that he covered:

there will be peace in the valley for me someday
there’s gonna be peace in the valley for me, dear Lord I pray

there’ll be no sorrow, no sadness, no trouble I see

there’s gonna be peace in the valley for me
Sharing in the grief of his family and friends connected me to the reservoir of sorrow that floods all of humanity. One of the linchpins of the Incarnation is that Jesus was “acquainted with grief,” which I think is poetic understatement. For him and for us all, grief is a lifelong companion. Loss is one of the necessary threads in the tapestry of our existence. As I drove from the church to the restaurant, trying to shift gears so I could work, an old T-Bone Burnett song rose to the surface of my memory and I sang as I drove:
there’s a river of love that runs through all time
but there’s a river of tears that floods through our lives

it’s starts when your heart is broken into

by the thief of belief in anything that’s true

but there’s a river of love that runs through all time
Until I read the lyric at his website, I always thought the line was, “It starts when your heart is broken in two,” as in pieces, but he’s singing, “broken into,” as a thief would do. The rivers of love and tears fill the same banks.

Tonight, as I sat down to write, I learned that Madeleine L’Engle died on Thursday. One of the lights of my life has gone out. When I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Reedy, my teacher, enticed us to get our work done by promising to read from her favorite book at the end of the day. That book was A Wrinkle in Time. I went on from there to read most everything Madeleine wrote from the rest of the books in what became The Time Quintet to her young adult novels about the Austin family to her nonfiction works. Some time in the eighties, I wrote her a letter that began, “Dear Madeleine, you are one of my best friends but you just don’t know it.” I told her about Mrs. Reedy and what her books had meant to me. She wrote me back (I found the letter just this week as I was packing up my office to get ready to move) and we corresponded intermittently until her husband Hugh (who was Dr. Tyler on All My Children) died. I got the form letter she sent out that said, “Hugh got sick around Epiphany and he died just after Pentecost.”

Madeleine L’Engle taught me how to mark and keep time.

I never got to see her in person. Once, while we were corresponding, I wrote to say I was going to be in New York City and asked if we could share a meal. She wrote back saying she was going to be at Crosswicks, her family home, for the summer, and included her phone number in New York if I got there another time. I called once and spoke to her granddaughter. Then I decided the reason I wanted to meet her in person had more to do with hero worship than relationship; I could keep our friendship in my reading. That’s how I knew her.

On the afternoon she died, I was sitting in my favorite Boston (actually Somerville) pub, the Burren, with two dear friends who I got to know when I was teaching in Winchester. When I think of people who have helped me keep and mark time while we have lived in New England, Jack and Jenn are in that group. I love the combination of Jack’s adventuresome nature and compassionate heart and Jenn’s artistic eye and unflappable spirit. I am ten years older than Jack and he is ten years older than Jenn and we are friends. When we arrived on the planet doesn’t matter nearly as much as we gotten to share time together over the past several years.

Madeleine is dead, but I can go upstairs and find her by pulling one of her books off the shelf and letting her words come alive. I imagine that those who really knew and loved her don’t share my consolation. They, like the family at the funeral yesterday, are dealing with the physical reality of her absence. She’s gone. She will not be there for dinner or for holidays or for whatever she was always there for. However deep their pain, they don’t know what it feels like to walk out of the Burren and realize Jack and Jenn and I have only a couple more afternoons like that to share.

In her book, Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine wrote:
When we make ourselves vulnerable, we do open ourselves to pain, sometimes excruciating pain. The more people we love, the more we are liable to be hurt, and not only by the people we love, but for the people we love.
Ginger and I spent this morning in Charlestown, the neighborhood of Boston where we used to live. Our breakfasts were seasoned with the tears and laughter that resurrect memories as our hearts were broken into once again. We sat for a couple of hours, holding past and present, talking about the things we carried and some of the things weighing us down in these days. Madeleine used to talk about being every age you’ve been at the same time, life stacking itself up like altar stones, our experiences singing out in chorus rather than speaking one at a time.

And so I am a fourth grader hearing A Wrinkle in Time for the first time, twenty-something writing Madeleine a letter, thirty-two seeing Ginger for the first time; I’m sitting in the Burren with Jack and Jenn, walking through Charlestown with Ginger, watching the Schnauzers bound down the beach in the moonlight, making dinner for whomever comes to eat, singing at a funeral, packing boxes to finish our time here and start new things in Durham.

Truly, there’s a river of love that runs through all times.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

will dream for food

I’m not one of those people who remember dreams, for the most part. Something about the way I wake up in the morning makes my mind work like an Etch-a-Sketch, erasing whatever was created during the night as I shake myself into consciousness. But I think I had a dream last night that refused to go away, one that has taken all day to break the surface, one with a haunting quality that I don’t think plans to fade away anytime soon. It’s pretty straightforward. There aren’t any symbols to unpack or metaphors to mine. I’m sharing it in search of resonance. Somewhere in the world, someone is already doing what I dreamt; I don’t have to reinvent the wheel (or the stove) to see my dream incarnated. Someone out there knows whom I need to know. Therefore, trusting in the connections of grace that bind us together, I share my dream.

I dreamt I had a restaurant – a diner, actually – that was open for lunch Monday to Friday. The inside of the place was filled with round tables that sat six or eight people. There were no tables for twos and fours. In the kitchen was a team of good cooks, people who were serious about making good food to draw people together. Each day we prepared a plate lunch: salad, entrée, sides, and dessert. The menu changed depending on what we could get our hands on to cook. Regardless of the ingredients, we made comfort food, community building food, food made to be eaten together.

The doors opened at ten-thirty or eleven, and people found a seat wherever they could as they came in. The point was to break bread with people you knew and some you didn’t: to break barriers and open hearts. When folks sat down, we brought their drinks and then started bringing their food. When the meal was over, those who could paid for lunch and those who couldn’t, well, didn’t. Some learned to give out of their abundance and paid for more than one meal without making a big deal about it. Some paid by joining the staff of the restaurant and doing what they could to help feed folks. When the food ran out, we closed the doors for the day and started working on what we were going to make the next day.

What we learned, over time, was there was a way to feed people’s hunger for food and community and make a living doing it. (Here’s where I need to know who has figured out how to actually do this.) There has to be a way to create excellent food and make it available to anyone who is hungry, not just those privileged enough to afford it. I dreamt of a place Isaiah described:

Hey there! All who are thirsty, come to the water!
Are you penniless? Come anyway—buy and eat!

Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.

Buy without money—everything's free!

Why do you spend your money on junk food,

your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?

Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,

fill yourself with only the finest.

Pay attention, come close now,

listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.

(Isaiah 55:1-5,
The Message)
What I dreamt is real. Someone out there is living my dream. Please tell me who they are. I need to learn from them; I need them to feed me.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Monday, September 03, 2007

fiddlehead faith

Yesterday was Ginger’s last Sunday of vacation, so I spent the morning, once more, reading Sara Miles. The heart of her book is about starting a food pantry at her church in San Francisco. In the process of telling her story, she says some profound and confrontive things about faith and action.

As a grateful member of the United Church of Christ, I’m a part of a denomination that willingly owns the labels “liberal” and “progressive.” Words like justice, peace, and inclusiveness are a regular part of our vocabulary. Someone has said if Christianity were a neighborhood, the UCC would be the last house on the left. When I read about Miles’ Episcopal church in San Francisco, I imagine her congregation is not so different from the ones I’ve known in the UCC: mostly well-off and well-intentioned white people whose faith matters to them and who as averse to being made uncomfortable by their faith as anyone else. I think we do want our faith to matter to us and what we do with our lives to matter to God and to others, and it’s hard to break out of our patterns of faith, action, and relationship to be converted and transformed by the Spirit.

As Miles talked about the growing pains and gains of the food pantry, she said, “We were all converting: turning into new people as we rubbed up against each other” (138). I immediately thought of fiddlehead ferns. (Didn’t you?) To clean fiddleheads before you cook them, you put them in water and rub them up against each other. The dark outer layer – dirt, skin, whatever – comes off leaving a beautifully bright green skin that sparkles in the sauté pan. They don’t clean up well one by one; they have to rub up against each other to be transformed.

As she began to get to know the people who came to the food pantry and then volunteered to help run it, Miles writes,

Where had all the people like Nirmala been, all the years that St. Gregory’s was holding services and trying to entice worshippers, one or two at a time, into the experimental liturgy?

The people who came to get food at the pantry had been, to regular middle-class churchgoers, basically like Jesus – that is, invisible. We knew they were there, but we couldn’t see them, and their sufferings and loveliness were imagined, not incarnate in a specific body.

But as I got to know them, I started to ee more clearly now the people who came to the pantry were like me: messed up, often prickly or difficult, yearning for friendship. I saw how they were hungry, the way I was. And then, I had a glimpse of them being like Jesus again: as God, made flesh and blood. (128-29)
I picked up my pen and wrote in the margin of my book, “How do we make church more physical, more visceral?”

Chef made a mistake during service last night. He knew we were going to be busier than usual for a Sunday because of the holiday weekend, but he only put one dishwasher on the schedule. Since Sunday is usually Chef’s day off and he worked, he left about eight-thirty. As Ashad and I were cleaning up after service, he commented on the huge stack of dishes that faced Leonardo, our Brazilian dishwasher who leaves work at eleven or so to go to his second all night job.

“We should help him,” Ashad said.

I finished wiping off the counters and headed back to the dish room. I started rinsing things out and stacking them so Leo could begin washing. Ashad joined in a couple of minutes later and began putting away the things that were clean. By staying an extra twenty minutes we had cleared the dish area and kept Leo from being there for a couple of extra hours. Sous saw what we were doing and had a couple of cold beers waiting for us to say thank you. It wasn’t about doing the dishes nearly as much as it was about helping Leonardo. We work together, we rub up against each other; we are being transformed.

This morning, my friend Jay, who is staying with us for the weekend, told me about a story he saw on the Today Show about an organization called Kiva that makes micro-loans to people around the world who are trying to get out of poverty. Since the organization was founded in 2005, they have loaned almost $11 million from 94,000 lenders to fund almost 15,000 loans averaging about $650 each. The repayment rate on the loans is 99.72%. The average lender gives in $25 increments. I found this Frontline documentary, which gives a more personal picture of the process:

The first week Sara Miles and her friends opened the food pantry they served thirty people. Now, on average, they serve 500 families a week. The food is set up in the sanctuary of the church and people come in, ten at a time, with grocery sacks and “shop” for what they want. The pantry is staffed almost completely by people who were once standing in line to get food. They have become “The Church of the One True Sack,” as she calls it. Miles, again:
This is what gets left out, I was realizing: not just left out of the national public debate but also left out of religious discourse. Politicians talked about welfare – usually to blame and scapegoat – and occasionally made speeches about poverty. There was no shortage of talk about the poor and social service from church leaders off all stripes. But the experiences of people such as my volunteers, the texture and specificity of their incarnate lives, were missing from the story of what Christianity was like now in contemporary America . . .

The thing that astonished me sometimes – listening to tales of terrible damage, psychosis, loss – was not how messed up people could be but how resilient; how, in the depths of suffering, they found ways to adapt and continue . . .

You can’t hope to see God without opening yourself to all God’s creation. (216-17)
At the last church I served, as part of my sermon one Sunday I had people get up and physically change seats as a way of encouraging them to find a new perspective. At deacons’ meeting the next week, one person was less than complimentary of the sermon. “I don’t do come to church to be made uncomfortable,” she said.

As easy as it is to demonize her, when I look at my life I have to admit I understand her sentiment. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that a truly incarnational faith is messy work. Bumping up against one another is uncomfortable, even painful. Christianity would be easier if it were only about ideas and concepts. Perhaps that’s why we emphasize and fight over orthodoxy more than orthopraxy. It’s not so much about believing the right things as it is doing the true things:

Feed my sheep.
Bear one another’s burdens.
Forgive and forgive and forgive.
Love one another.

Ouch and amen.