Friday, November 30, 2007

hey, that's for me!

We found this sign hanging off the front porch as we drove up to the house yesterday. I wish you could see the individual notes written all over the banner.

I do feel welcomed. Thank you.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

the last leg

As we got ready to leave Birmingham last Sunday, I quickly made a couple of CDs for the road while we were packing the cars, almost randomly picking tracks -- mostly I picked artists I wanted to hear. Looking back on yesterday, it appears I picked a pretty good soundtrack.

put the message in a box
put the box into a car
drive the car around the world
till you get heard

-- World Party

This was going to be the day: we were driving to Durham, to our house (OK, our rent house), to park in our driveway, and sleep in a room that didn't require us to check in at the desk. The day played out with a few hitches, the biggest of which was we couldn't get into the house we were renting until this morning; we were trying to get home, but it seemed to be a moving target. We left Chattanooga late in the afternoon, determined to get to as far as we could and we made it all the way, walking into the lobby of our last hotel (for awhile) at 11:47 pm.
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

-- Cliff Eberhardt
Our last day in Chattanooga that left us with a couple more stories to tell. After I took Ginger back across the bridge to get some tennis shoes at Fast Break, we decided to find some lunch and came upon the Between the Bridges Café, a small lunch-only place with a whimsical flair. We were the only ones in the place since it was almost closing time (they’re only open from 11 to 2:30) and we got to talk to two of the three women who are the co-owners. We learned they were all former teachers (as am I) who wanted out from under the burden of school work to do something they enjoyed and something that allowed them to set boundaries they wanted to live with. One woman described how her school administrator had caused her to decide to leave teaching.

“She was crazy,” she told us. “I think on the application it says, ‘Are you crazy?’ and if you answer, ‘Yes,’ they put you in charge.” There was more to the story. “But that crazy lady saved my life.” She went on to tell us of having a mammogram soon after she quit teaching (“I would have put it off until summer.”) and finding breast cancer, even as they were planning to open the restaurant. “I kept trusting God and coming in here. Some days all I could do was sit; other days I felt better and I did what I could.” The small café has gotten some good buzz and the women look like they are having fun chasing their dream together. Sounds like a pretty good deal all the way around.
he’s eight years old with a flour sack cape tied all around his neck
he climbed up on the garage
figuring what the heck
he screwed his courage up so tight
the whole thing come unwound
got a running start and bless his heart
he headed for the ground

he’s one of those who knows
that life is just a leap of faith
spread your arms hold your breath
and always trust your cape

Guy Clark
On the way back to our cars at the hotel I invited Ginger to ride with me on the electric shuttle so she could get a taste of the experience. The driver was the one I met my first night riding and he recognized me, even remembering my hotel. About halfway through the route a short, sturdy woman got on the bus and plopped down beside me. The seat cushion let out the same exhausted wheeze as she did when she dropped into the chair. “How are you doing today?” she asked. I said I was fine and reciprocated with the question. “Oh, I feel turrible,” she said, “just turrible.”

She was dealing with the headaches and stuffiness that come with a sinus infection and was quite animated and descriptive as she told us about it, which she did with both a dramatic and humorous flair. Ginger and I both laughed along with her at one point and she slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Now how about that – I got both of you laughing and I feel turrible. That’s pretty good.”
I’m a stranger here, no one you would know
I’m from somewhere else, well, isn’t everybody though

I don’t know where I’ll be when the sun comes up

until then, sweet dreams, goodnight America

-- Mary Chapin Carpenter
We left this friendly city behind knowing I-24 connects to I-75, which connects to I-40 and that would get us to Durham. We drove out about four o’clock, which let us enjoy part of Chattanooga’s traffic and a good amount of Knoxville’s as well. It also put us winding through the mountains between Knoxville and Asheville on roads we didn’t know in the dark. Tennessee and Carolina don't simply glide into one another, they crash, leaving a wreck of winding, climbing, diving roads that left me feeling (as I drove in the dark up and down a road I did not know) like the driver in some bizarre version of Space Mountain, going up and down the mountains, all the while navigating the giant trucks, those moving canyons of steel and wheels bearing down all around us, fueled by gasoline, gravity, and capitalism. Somewhere in the middle of it all, we crossed into North Carolina, one step closer to home.
dark and silent late last night
I think I might have heard the highway calling
geese in flight and dogs that bite

signs that might be omens say I’m going , going

I’m gone to Carolina in my mind

-- James Taylor
As we got out of the mountains and most of the trucks, the songs came round again and I smiled and cried as the words filled the spaces in the car not occupied by boxes and bags. About sixty miles out, Durham started showing up on the mileage signs and we both began to realize our journey was almost through.
there’s a highway rising in my dreams
deep in the heart I know it gleams

for I have seen it stretching wide

clear across to the other side

-- Emmylou Harrris
Just before midnight, we pulled into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express where we stayed not long ago when we were traveling with the pups. A gracious and welcoming Indian woman checked us in and said with some surprise, “You’ve stayed with us before,” as though we somehow belonged. By the time we got to our room, it was Thursday – today – the day we will get to move in to our house, the day Ginger will go to her office for the first time as the pastor, the day we start living here. I queued the last song up on purpose:
dust in our eyes our own boots kicked up
heartsick we nursed along the way we picked up
you may not see it when it’s sticking to your skin
but we’re better off for all that we let in

and I don't know where it all begins
and I don't know where it all will end
better off for all that we let in . . .

-- Indigo Girls
The driving is done; the journey continues . . .


P. S. -- I couldn't help but add this little early nineties video treat.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

the way home

John Wendland, my best friend in first and second grade, had horses. He was the youngest child in a big family and his two oldest sisters, both in high school, said they would take us riding. Mary, the oldest, pulled me up on the saddle behind her, told me to wrap my arms around her waist, and off we went. John was riding with his sister, Sarah. The horses moved gently across the field and then among a small stand of trees as we rode for about twenty or thirty minutes until Mary said, “I guess we’d better head home,” which apparently in horse language translates as, “Get back to the barn as fast as you can.” The animals broke into a dead run and I hung on for dear life, scared to death. I was still squeezing Mary when the horses stopped.

As Ginger and I are on the cusp of completing our one-way journey from home to home, I’ve thought a lot about horses, both those I’ve ridden (not too many since that frightening afternoon) and those I’ve watched run for the roses on television. In most races, the horses find a new level of effort, a different gear, when they make the club house turn and head for home. It’s language with meaning beyond the racetrack: it’s what matters most in baseball; it’s where the cookie is at the pig races at the State Fair (my personal favorite); and it’s almost always in a circle. This time, however, we aren’t going back home, we’re going to home. The reliable circle is taking on a new shape, following I-40 across Tennessee and Carolina, until we stop some time tonight in front of our new address.

Last night, as Ginger and I walked back to the hotel from a wonderful dinner, a woman stopped us on the sidewalk. She was small, maybe five feet tall, with glasses and grey hair kept in a long braided ponytail that exuded an elegant simplicity. “I’m a street poet,” she said. “May I share a poem with you in exchange for some money so I can find a place to spend the night?” Ginger and I looked at each other and then back at her and nodded. She started reciting a list of things I thought was the poem, only to find out, when she finished, that it was simply a list of topics on which she was willing to recite. Ginger was fooled as well. We tried to think back on what she had said.

“Did you say ‘philosophical’?” I asked, grasping at straws.

“I said ‘positive,’" she answered.

“Positive is good,” Ginger said, and the woman began to speak in a quiet, rapid rhythm. I’ve been trying to come up with an adjective to describe how she came across: resilient. Yes. Resilient. She is probably someone who has gotten more good news than bad, who appeared (to Ginger’s well-trained sensibilities) to be probably dealing with some sort of mental illness, and who stood on the street with the poise of a poet to risk sharing her words, hoping for a compassionate response. Her voice was soft enough that I couldn’t get most of the words, but I do remember, “we are all children of God,” as one of the lines.

I don’t think I’m belittling her condition to say I found some resonance with her homelessness as we stood together on the sidewalk. These past three days, when people find out we aren’t from Chattanooga, they ask, “Where are you from?” I respond with a longer answer than they were expecting, I’m sure: “I was living outside of Boston and I’m moving to Durham, North Carolina for my wife to start a new job.” I’m between addresses. I’m heading for home, but the road doesn’t go in a circle this time.

My coffee shop du jour is Greyfriar’s. (Chattanooga is a good coffee town.) I rode the shuttle from the hotel with a new driver who told me Durham had a great NASCAR track (speaking of ovals) and a new set of characters and found a great cup of coffee, a wonderful cranberry-cinnamon scone, and a wall plug by the table. The barista came by the table to see how I liked the scone and we talked about scones for far longer than most people would consider normal. The three guys at the table next to me are spending more time talking about chess games than I consider normal. The latest arrival at the table is the most vocal, with the look of one of those guys who plays speed chess in a New York park. He’s reading from a book on chess and has been reading aloud such that I can’t help but hear. He talks with the rhythm of a street poet in a poetry slam, determined to win with his words. He’s talking faster than I can write down what he says, or even understand it, except for this sentence: “The more you learn about playing chess, the more you realize what you don’t know.”

I’ve not ridden many horses since that second grade afternoon. One afternoon in Mexico, where Ginger and were on vacation, I agreed to go riding because Ginger wanted to ride horses on the beach and the desk clerk at the hotel assured me the horses stayed in line the whole time. No one would bolt for the barn. When we got to the starting point, the man put Ginger on a small horse and then said to me, “Hermano grande! You need big horse,” and put me on the Mexican equivalent of a Clydesdale. The ride was uneventful until we got to the beach, where my horse decided not to stay in line but to trot into the ocean, walking parallel with the others but with water over both his legs and mine. I could hear Ginger behind me, laughing. All I could do was hold on and keep saying, “Be nice, Big Damn Horse, be nice,” until he came out of the water and turned toward home.

Life, this time around, looks more like an opened paper clip (you know – where the outside leg kicks straight out) than a racing oval. Tonight we will stop driving and stay awhile in Durham; a long while. In moments like these, the soundtrack of my life seems to rise up, over even the guy next to me who is still talking about chess:

The Way Home

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
Thanks to Kate Campbell for the song, to Chattanooga for the welcome and rest, to family gathered in Birmingham, to all those back at home in Massachusetts, and to those waiting at the home just down the road in Durham. We’re making the club house turn.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

baby got background

Ginger and I are officially in The Week of Transition between Marshfield and Durham, so we snuck away for a couple of days together in a town where neither of us had ever been: Chattanooga, Tennessee. Yesterday, we spent a good bit of time at the amazing Tennessee Aquarium and found a pretty good burger and a great shake at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Today, as we often do on vacations, we chased different muses. Her favorite form of relaxation involves wraps and massages; mine has more to do with bookstores, street food, and aimlessly wandering around town. Tonight, we will find each other for dinner and have a chance to swap stories and relax together.

We are staying on the outskirts of the rejuvenated downtown area. The city has a free electric shuttle that runs well and frequently, which I have made good use of – particularly today. I just got settled in at a great coffee shop this morning when I got a phone call that required of me to deal with transition issues, so I rode downtown and back to the hotel twice with the same shuttle driver who gave me a little history lesson on each trip (did you know Coca-Cola was invented in Chattanooga, not Atlanta?).

I also learned about the social makeup of the city from the people who got on and off the shuttle as I rode. The publicity for the shuttle makes it sound as if it is primarily a method of transit for tourists; in reality, it provides a free and safe way for street people to get around. Most of them, it appears, keep a fairly consistent schedule. My driver knew all of their names and made unscheduled stops when she came to the places where those folks needed to get off the bus. Since I was the new guy, they were happy to tell stories, give directions, and provide reviews for most any institution or activity in the downtown area. I had conversations about grandmothers who dipped snuff and how things weren’t like they used to be. One guy swapped Thanksgiving recipes with the bus driver. A woman got on wearing a Winnie the Pooh hoodie, so we talked about Pooh for a couple of blocks.

My favorite interaction was between two women who were new to town. One was a large woman with boxed blond hair that was passed its prime. She was wearing bejeweled sunglasses and had a silver post puncturing her bottom lip. Her companion, Wendy, was slight and mostly silent. She had mousy brown hair that fell on both sides of her face. She sat timidly, clinging to her shopping bag. They got on the shuttle with me on my second trip downtown.

“I cain’t (that’s how she said it) believe this bus is free,” she repeated three or four times.

“You’re not from here?” asked the bus driver.

“Well, I am now. But I’m from Memphis and then I lived the last seven years in Nashville.” She spoke with the authority of a traveler who was well acquainted with life on the street. “Ain’t nothin’ free in those places.”

She then began to ask about a bar and grill she had seen the night before. We all started saying names of places as we moved down Broad Street, only to find out the bar she was looking for was on Market, one street over. My hunch is she wasn’t up to walking over there. She changed her focus. She and Wendy were going to the Convention Center to look for work.

“With my background,” she said, again with confidence, “I can get a job at the Convention Center.” Then she asked the most wonderful question: “Wendy, you got a background?”

“Yes,” said Wendy, without giving anything away.

My first stop, after a killer chili dog at Chazzy Dogs, a street vendor near the aquarium, was the Hunter Museum of American Art. The woman who gave me my ticket had a sort of Jessica Tandy sensibility about her and gave me a wonderfully lilting explanation of the collection that left me welcomed and hopeful as I made my way among the paintings and sculpture. I recognized a few names, saw a couple of Hopper watercolors that did my heart good, and found a thoughtful exhibit on museum architecture that also included information on Chattanooga’s background: downtown was not always like it is now, to say the least.

I walked across the Walnut Street Bridge (now only for pedestrians) to the North Shore neighborhood of shops and restaurants, mostly because I was in search of a new pair of sneakers. I’d worn out the ones I was wearing. The woman at The World Next Door, a fair trade shop, pointed me to Fast Break Athletics, where I received service like I had never had in a shoe store. The man who waited on me was the owner and told me the story of the shop as he fitted my feet with new shoes. My hot dog was history, so I walked (comfortably) a couple of blocks down to the Mud Pie Coffee House, which appears to be going through a transition of its own. What drew me in was the menu in the window that announced “new Cuban dishes.” The place was under new ownership, who were Cuban, so they were adding a bit of their background to the storied little haunt. If everything tastes as good as the “Cuban Tamale” I had, they are going to do well.

I kept walking in no particular direction after lunch and saw a barbershop. Normally, I would see no need, since my head is shaved, but I packed my beard trimmer in a box I have yet to find, so I went in to inquire as to the possibility of getting my mustache and beard shaped up. A southern version of Lorelai Gilmore was happy to help and made me look a little more presentable for the grand price of three dollars. New shoes, a sharp beard, a full stomach – what else could I need but a good cup of coffee and wifi? That was to be found two blocks up at Stone Cup Roasters, a funky little dive overlooking the Tennessee River; they are hosting this post, even as I write.

Cities that don’t know me have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. (I wrote a poem about them some time back.) I’ve slid into town as a traveler on the way to Somewhere Else, using this place as a way station and respite in my journey. I’ve walked up hills and down streets and in stores, wondering at times what it might have been like if this were going to be home, if this were going to be the place where I let myself belong, all the while knowing I am only passing through.

The sun is setting now, outlining the Walnut Street Bridge as its giant lighted snowflakes begin to twinkle. In the background I can see the aquarium and some of the other buildings on the southern shore of the river. My bus driver has finished her day. Some of the people I rode with are probably bedding down on the back porch of the library where a number of homeless people sleep, as last night’s driver pointed out. The chances of any of us ever seeing each other again are slim. Tomorrow night, we will drive into Durham intending to do more than pass through; we are going to make a home there. The prospect is as daunting as it is promising. A good bit of our lives gets lived out like the shuttle bus, full of incidental contact and anecdotes, each of us getting on and off without much regard for our fellow travelers. Home starts to happen when we sit down together and ask, “You got a background?” and then listen and wait to what needs to be said beyond, “Yes.”


Monday, November 26, 2007

once-in-a-life time

highway eighty-four ran due east across the
Central Texas night, I remember the moon
rising over the top of the telephone poles

the road was lonely enough for me to turn
my headlights off in deference and drive
in the dark to the light as if I would reach it

every Sunday night after, I drove and waited
for the moon, but it happened only once
how does one keep once-in-a-life time?

all the sands in the hourglass aren’t enough
to make a beach to hold a tide to pull
the moon close again, close enough for me

to turn off my lights and trust what I can’t see
to find myself lost in the night and light
I don’t drive that way much anymore

down all the days, could it be enough now
to say, one night I drove into the moon
and not need it to happen ever again?


*this poem was prompted by the Poetry Party at Abbey of the Arts.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

get out the map

I woke up before everyone else in the house this morning, thanks to Gracie, our youngest Schnauzer. I started the coffee pot and then started looking for something to read, having already devoured the latest issue of The Nation yesterday morning. I remembered packing some books among the pots and pans that have traveled with me, so I dug around in the garage and found The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime by Miles Harvey that had been living in the still-to-be-read pile that stayed in the kitchen in our former home. I poured my coffee and opened the book. I made it to the end of the introduction when I found my writing prompt for the day and set it aside to turn to my MacBook:

Filling in a life, it turned out, was like filling in a map, and my search for Gilbert Bland soon transformed from an investigation into an adventure. (xxii)
In a world where we can dive into Google Earth and see most anything from space, the idea that our known world was been “one of the dark places,” as Marlowe sets out at the beginning of Heart of Darkness, is something we let quickly fall out of our consciousness. The closest we get these days, I suppose, is gazing into the images of deep space Hubble sends back to us, leaving us to make the same sort of conjectures as those of people like Gerard Mercator’s 1569 image of what he thought made up our planet. Harvey describes it:
Gazing at Mercator’s chart, I see a planet strikingly different from our own, a world full of blank spaces and never-never lands. North America turns into an amorphous blog that reaches so far west it is almost joined to Asia at the hip. South America has an unaccountable protrusion from its southwestern shores, a topographic tail feather that makes the continent look something like a giant waterfowl. This beast is, in turn, perched upon a peculiar nest – a huge polar landmass, many times the size of present-day Antarctica. Known as the Great Southern Continent or the Unknown Southern Land (or, to more optimistic cartographers, the Country Not Yet Discovered), it was a place ancient geographers had dreamed up to complement their belief that the Earth was perfectly symmetrical.
The inclination to draw the map and then go exploring seems to be deeply rooted in our human nature; we do our best work, perhaps, in pencil, eraser at the ready. Our need for maps, in a more metaphorical sense, speaks to our need for certainty, as if life were some sort of cosmic mall (God forbid!) and we stand in need of the diagram with the “X” and the arrow that says, “You are here.”

Harvey’s book reminded me of another, this one a novel: A Mapmaker’s Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice by James Cowan. Mauro is a monk who sets out to draw a map of the world without ever leaving his cell. He does so by relying on travelers and adventurers who come and tell him what they saw and experienced. His world, if you will, is overturned when he meets a Muslim mapmaker who is drawing the world from the perspective of those who come and talk to him.

Same world, different maps.

Where Harvey’s words took me first, however, was back to the conversation around the table Thursday night as Ginger and I sat and talked with all of our parents. When I read, “Filling in a life, it turned out, was like filling in a map,” I saw my father sitting at the end of the small table in the kitchen telling stories of his adolescence I had never heard, or at least did not remember. His words called me to go back and redraw my map of him, filling in some of the dark areas I had, until now, filled in based on my own assumptions. I also had a chance to describe what it was like to live with diagnosed depression over these last seven years in a way I had never been able to talk to them in the past, giving them the chance, I suppose, to do a little corrective cartography of their own.

I haven’t lived in the same town as my parents in over thirty years. I know a great deal about them and we talk regularly, but I don’t know how they live on a daily basis, or who their friends are, save a few who have been around for many, many years. I don’t know most of the books they read or the places they eat, what they talk about over dinner together or what they do for fun, beyond what I remember about them from the days when I did see them daily or what they tell me when we talk in our couple of hours of phone conversation each week.

My parents are my example here because the scene around the supper table is what set me to thinking. In most any arena in our lives, I need to be reminded my maps need revising. When I was teaching high school English, one of my colleagues made a comment about one of the students he was struggling to reach. The student was not making it easy for him to do so. The teacher, in frustration, was ready to write him off. I knew the kid from church youth group and was able to fill in a few of the dark places in my colleague’s map of the kid. “What I have to work to remember,” I said, “is I see these kids for forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, on my turf and working on my agenda. I’m fooling myself if I think I know who they are based on that little slice of life we share together.”

“Faith,” says Frederick Buechner, “is a journey without maps.”

What I have always taken from his words is God calls us to a life of trust rather than certainty. There is no way to nail this thing down, to find the “X,” to know for sure where we are headed next, other than, like Jesus, we have come from God and we are going to God. I can do pretty well with that when it comes to living out my minister to teacher to minister to chef life story (that’s the abridged version), yet I think I’m less flexible when it comes to mapping those around me. I can far too easily label people and use them as road markers to help me stay among those I agree with most easily. Like Fra Mauro, I have mapped too many folks based on what someone else has told me and made assumptions far beyond what is right or fair.

What I heard in my dad’s story the other night was not as much something new as it was something more. At this point in our lives, we’re both pretty good at letting each other be who we are and sharing both a deep sense of affection and appreciation. He just filled in a little more of his map and gave me room to do the same.

Now that’s something to be thankful for.


Friday, November 23, 2007

on beyond kingdom

When my family gets together, the conversation eventually turns to church. On my Cunningham side, it’s the family business going back three generations and we love to talk. On my Brasher side, I married a minister who dives into her faith and her profession with both head and heart; we all have a lot to contribute to the discussion. Somewhere in the course of the afternoon or evening – I think it was after the first round of pie – I climbed up on one of my soapboxes to wax on about how much energy churches spend perpetuating themselves as institutions as compared to time and money actually spent on ministry. My father responded by quoting my brother, who was not with us, who summed it up by saying God is most able to use us when we see ourselves not as a part of the church, or a church, but as a part of the Kingdom of God: churches, as institutions, come and go; our calling runs deeper than doing what we can to keep the doors open; we are called to invest our lives in the Kingdom of God in the world.

I woke up thinking about my brother’s words and realized I resonate deeply with the theology and struggle with the terminology. Yes, I know the words go back to Jesus and even into the Old Testament and are translated from the original languages in which our scriptures were written. As a person who has spent most of my life fascinated by how words and how the way we say things empowers and inhibits what we think and feel and do, I think faith often floats on metaphor and the way in which our word pictures can expand our imagining when we try to incarnate what it means to be created in the image of God. I take issue, therefore, with kingdom as our working metaphor because I don’t think it works very well for most people. OK – for me.

When I was in seminary, I went on a mission trip into the interior of the Yucatan peninsula. Our job was to dig wells to help the subsistence farmers in that region to survive. One morning, I walked out into the rocky field to see a man with a small pouch draped over his shoulder walking among the stones with a pointed stick. He would wedge the stick in between the hard places, looking for the tiniest invitation from any sort of soft spot, and then he would drop a couple of seeds in the hole and cover them up. Most of the seeds he planted had about as much chance of growing to fruition as I have of breaking the world record in the 100 meters at the Olympics next summer. The next time I read the parable of the Seeds and the Sower, I saw it in a whole different light because I had seen an incarnation of the story in the Mexican man poking his way across his field. The metaphor made sense in ways it had not to me and my shrink-wrapped-produce-watching-International-Harvesters-as-I-drove-down-the-highway world. If the stories are going to maintain meaning, we have work to do, both to reach back and understand the world in which Jesus told them and to reach deep into our own world for new metaphors to help the stories travel well across time.

I searched this morning for modern day kings and queens. Here are some of the folks I found:

Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, King of Bhutan

Margrete II, Queen of Denmark

Abdullah II, King of Jordan

Letsie III, King of Lesotho

Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin ibni al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud, King of Malaysia

Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva, King of Nepal

Harald V, King of Norway

Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden

George Tupou V, King of Tonga

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom

Best I can tell, all of the ones listed hold a mostly ceremonial office, other than King Abdullah II of Jordan. We don’t have many monarchs in our modern world who are credible examples of leadership. The words king and queen are anachronistic and archaic. In the days of the Hebrew kingdoms, where the ruler sat as God’s representative, they knew how to think of God as the Ultimate Emperor. In Jesus’ time, as the Romans exacted empire on the world around them, the metaphor of God’s kingdom rang true because of its stark contrast to the government under which the people were forced to live. No to mention that much of the language we use to talk about the historically significant monarchies of the past is a language of violence and conquest (a discussion for another time).

Even as I write, I’m mindful that one of the most moving pieces of sacred music I know is Jane Marshall’s arrangement of the ancient Latin poem, “My Eternal King.”

My God, I love Thee;
Not because I hope for heaven thereby,

Nor yet because who love Thee not must die eternally.

Thou, O my Jesus, Thou didst me upon the cross embrace;

For me didst wear the nails and spear, and manifold disgrace.

Why, then why, O blessed Jesus Christ, should I not love Thee well?

Not for the hope of winning heaven, or of escaping hell;

Not with the hope of gaining aught; not seeking a reward;

But as thyself hast loved me, O ever-loving Lord!

E'en so I love Thee, and will love, and in Thy praise will sing;

Solely because Thou art my God, and my Eternal King.
And so, all of my meanderings thus far are leading me to questions rather than one particular point. I don’t have a substitute metaphor to champion – I don’t think this is an either/or discussion -- and I’m not trying to say those who use kingdom language are erring. I wonder, if we were to work to find new word-wrappings for the foundations of our faith to speak alongside of the language we already use, might we not invite more people to join in the journey? (I realize my thought is in no way original; it’s just what I’m thinking about today.)

I remember my father preaching a sermon years ago, as he was challenging the church he then pastored to dream and vision beyond their walls and ultility bills, and he read to them Dr. Seuss' On Beyond Zebra. The story begins with a young boy's pride at having learned all twenty-six letters of the alphabet. The other kid congratulates him and then tells him it's only the beginning: the alphabet doesn't stop there. Those of us who populate the planet right now are the only ones who have seen the picture taken from space that let us see the whole world at once. The Psalmist could only gaze into the night sky. Jesus never got more than a day’s walk from his birthplace. We can see deeper into space than we even know how to comprehend. Yet, it seems, that those who scattered seeds by hand and washed dust from their feet had more expansive imaginations with which to think and talk about God. We cannot allow ourselves to be content with words that have been handed down, however packed full of meaning they were for those who came before. We don’t need to discard them; they are treasures for sure. And we need new metaphors on beyond kingdom: inclusive, insightful, intimate, incendiary words that will pull us beyond our complacency and committee meetings, even beyond our good intentions and dutiful service, where we can be lost in wonder, love, and praise and found kicking it up in the valley where the dry bones dance.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

christian names

As Ginger and I looked through the Yellow Pages last Saturday trying to find a phone number for Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, I began to notice the names of the churches as sort of a "found" poem. Here, then, is what we found:

Christian Names

First, Friendship
Galilee, Grace, Gethsemane
Mounts Calvary, Carmel, Sinai, Zion
New Canaan, New Hope, New Testament

Upper Room, Open Door
Bridging the Gap
Deliverance of Truth
House of Refuge, Nest of Love

Earnest Chapel, Redeeming Grace
Lamb of God, Prince of Peace
Beloved Community
Church Without Walls

Highways and Hedges
Good News, No Condemnation
Ebenezer, Integrity, People's Church
Million Dollar Lake Church of God

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

what it takes to get ready

Though it is only Tuesday, today is the day I start working on the turkey. I’m writing from the café at Whole Foods Market in Birmingham where I called last week to reserve my bird: free range, fresh, never frozen. “I want one of those birds who spends all day running and playing and sitting on the couch eating ice cream every evening watching Andy Griffith reruns,” I told the woman who took my order over the phone.

“A happy turkey,” she responded. “That’s all we have.”

I’m picking it up early today because I like to brine the bird before I cook it. Brining, which means soaking it in salt water, prepares the bird. The big-breasted white turkeys we all buy these days are not the most flavorful of birds, to be honest. Brining helps them retain their moisture and gives them some flavor.

Here’s what I do: I take two big Reynolds turkey-sized browning bags and put one inside the other. Then I mix a gallon of water, 1 cup Kosher salt, 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, and a handful of black peppercorns and stir it until the salt and sugar are dissolved. I then stand the bird bottom side up in the bag and pour the brining mixture over it. Seal the bag tightly and refrigerate or, if you’re working with limited refrigeration space, put it in an ice chest and pack with ice. Close the lid and leave it alone until tomorrow morning at least (eight to eighteen hours). (When I open the bag tomorrow, I have a second soaking for my turkey you can find here.)

I guess the brining is on my mind because I’m having a hard time getting ready for Thanksgiving on a personal level. Though I’m happy to get to be with both sets of parents, I’m in the wrong town, I’m shopping in the wrong stores, and it’s too damn hot.

A Boston friend who also just moved from the Hub but who is back for the holiday, left voicemail for me this morning saying cheerfully, “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” I know he was working to reconnect, since this is the first Thanksgiving we have not shared together in many, many years, yet his sentimental elation was not helpful for me. I was standing in a hot kitchen wearing shorts and a t-shirt, trying to figure out how to get dinner ready when I can’t use my front porch as a refrigerator. I need to go soak in something to get ready for our shared day of gratitude. I need something to help remind me that life is flavored with much more than grief and uncertainty in these days, because I know it is. I just can’t taste it.

And so I’ve been sitting here stewing in Whole Foods, posting a few more recipes (see the post below) and working hard to taste the gratitude. Actually, it’s less work than it is simply cleansing my palette, if you will. I’m getting to spend some good time with my father-in-law, whose Alzheimer’s is progressing steadily. This may be the last Thanksgiving that he knows who I am and we are here together. Last night, a couple who are my some of my in-laws’ truest friends came by to visit and to see us. They brought their nineteen-year old granddaughter with them who is mentally handicapped because of chemotherapy she received as a baby. She is full of joy and spent most of the evening looking at me and laughing.

My mother-in-law, Rachel, was amazing with her. At one point, she asked if I would get my guitar and sing for Hailey. I sang a couple of songs and then her grandfather asked if I would play and sing her favorite song, “Amazing Grace.” I started to sing and she began to sing along in her own way. Regardless of my pace, she sang a couple of words behind me the whole way, adding powerful punctuation to the end of each line. When we finished, she laughed at me again and said thank you.

It’s easy for me to get the turkey ready for Thanksgiving Dinner. I know what I’m preparing it for and how to prepare it. I don’t always know how to get ready for life. For all the love that has infused the Brasher household over the years, they were not prepared for Alzheimer’s. All nine months of her mother’s pregnancy could not have prepared Hailey’s mom for, well, motherhood as it is incarnated at her house. For all the weeks that have passed since we said we were moving to Durham, and all the boxes packed, and all the things passed on to others, and all the dinners and cards and hugs and goodbyes and smiles and tears and miles, for all that has been and all that will be, I don’t much know how to get ready for what is to come except to keep singing:

through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come

‘tis grace that brought me safe this far

and grace will lead me home
I don’t imagine the dinner the first pilgrims shared so many Novembers ago looked anything like the spread I’ll stretch out in a couple of days anymore than I think the dinner was much more than thanksgiving for not being dead yet. We’re a week away from joining another band of pilgrims in Durham with much more for which to give thanks than our ancestors. As I look at the days ahead, I can’t see any farther around the bend than they could, so I will follow the same path, tracing their footsteps through the forest of faith. They were faithful because they soaked in the Spirit, allowing God to infuse them with grace and gratitude to sustain them for the journey.

Maybe I can be ready for Thanksgiving after all.


new to our turkey table

Here are a few of the new recipes I'm trying out this year. Some have already been checked out in the Don't Eat Alone Test Kitchen, others we'll all taste for the first time on Thursday. I think they'll all measure up just fine.

Here are a couple more vegetable ideas:

And for your dessert table:
Happy eating.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

state of grace

Today was the first of two Sundays Ginger and I get to share together between her pastorates, if you will. Next Sunday – the first Sunday in Advent – she will lead worship for the first time in Durham as the pastor at Pilgrim UCC. I will admit to leaning toward going nowhere to church this morning other than to a coffee shop to hang out with the woman I love, but I asked her anway.

“I thought we might go to Sixteenth Street in the morning,” she said.

On April 16, 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. made public his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” in which he articulately and incisively called the white church leaders of Birmingham to take seriously God’s call to equality, justice, and compassion:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society . . . Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Ev
ery day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust . . . [p]erhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom . . . [t]hey have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.
On May 9, 1963, Ginger was born in Birmingham just down the street from where Dr. King was incarcerated. Her parents drove through the demonstrators and the police officers to get to the hospital. This stuff is in her DNA.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands not far from the jail and the hospital. On September 15, 1963, the church was bombed by people who would be called “terrorists” in today’s parlance, ripping holes in the side of the church and killing four little girls. Today, November 18, 2007, we sat among the other worshippers in that room that is more than an historical site; it is a church. We sat down and were immediately welcomed by the woman who sat behind us, as well as by a number of folks who got up from their seats and crossed the sanctuary to say hello. The service began with choruses, and then we sang,
this is my story, this is my song
praising my savior all the day long
As the pastor stood to voice prayer requests, he mentioned the family of Rev. John Cross, Jr. who was the pastor in 1963 and who died last Thursday. The pastor spoke of Cross’ decision to respond to King’s challenge and make Sixteenth Street a rallying point for the Civil Rights Movement, which, he said, “was almost like a death sentence.”

As he sat down, the youth choir sang,
when the spirit of the Lord comes upon my heart,
I will dance like David danced,
I will pray like David prayed,
I will sing like David sang
Then the pastor rose to read the scripture passage for the day: Isaiah 6:1-8 --
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and sai
d: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."
The pastor began to theologically and theatrically dissect the passage, masterfully stating the obvious message in compelling fashion:
If birds can sing for God; if fish can swim for God; if stars can twinkle for God; and the sun can shine for God; shouldn’t we be doing something to the glory of God?
Forty-four years after those little girls were killed, the bomb still leaves a mark. Ginger went downstairs to find the bathroom and realized she was in the part of the building where the little girls were when the bomb exploded. When I saw the pictures of the small memorial nook, I realized where we were standing in the sanctuary when we met the pastor after the service was underneath the window that was blown out. Four decades later, what exists on that site is not a mega-church, nor is it a museum. It is a group of Christians coming together to live out their faith in these days, carrying both the weight of memory and the hope of the future.

“I’m tired of coming to church to come to church,” he said at one point in his sermon. “I’m tired of people coming to church to find the errors in the bulletin or to catch up on the gossip. We come to church to experience and encounter God. Before we can serve God, we have to see God.”

The vision of God that speaks most profoundly to me is an incarnational one. Along side the story of Jesus, I see God in Doug who stayed late to pack (and all the others whose fingerprints are all over our boxes), in Dawn who told me I was overwhelmed and just needed to get out of town and leave all the trash in our house for her to clean up, in the painful compassion I see in Ginger as she cares for her father and his Alzheimer’s, in the woman who was effusive in her welcome to us as we entered the sanctuary this morning, in the little kids who danced and squirmed as they sang in the service:
showers of blessing
showers of blessing

overflowing down in my soul

there are so many blessings

I can’t count every one

Lord, I bless you

Lord, I praise you

for what you’ve done
As many times as I’ve heard the Isaiah passage, I think I’ve mostly heard God’s question and Isaiah’s response as having to do with duty: here is the task at hand; who is going to do the work? But as we wallowed in glory and gratitude this morning, sitting among the scars in that old church building, I got a glimpse of a God who calls us not to do our duty, but to respond to our destiny. Had those four little girls lived, they would be in their fifties, like me, or maybe a little older. They might have been the women who welcomed us so warmly this morning. Their grandchildren might have been singing in the choir today. They are not here, but I am.

I am. We are.

I offer yet another one of the voices that has been a part of the soundtrack for my sojourn, Pierce Pettis:
well I'm up and down
and I'm left and right

rich and poor

black and white

I am not alone

I am not ashamed

to make my home

in a state of grace
In this week without an address, where else can I call home except the intersection of God’s call and our response to incarnate the love and grace we’ve been given. Wherever the mail is ultimately delivered, this is where I need to live.


*the banner was hanging in the basement of the church.

ideas for turkey day

I made it to Birmingham all in one piece; both me and my Cherokee were weary and heavy laden. Though still in transition, at least Ginger and I are in the same place, which is my in-laws' house. Next week, my parents are coming to Birmingham and we are all going to celebrate Thanksgiving together. With that in mind, I thought I would go back through my recipes and index some I think might be worth looking at as you gather around your table of gratitude.

Here is a turkey recipe that has proven to be a favorite for years now.
I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with a couple of soups:

Moving on to breads:
Here are a couple of vegetable ideas:
OK, so I need to cook something other than brussels sprouts. Here's a recipe that combines squash, apples, and onions:
In the tuber department, try these:
And in our miscellaneous department:
I have a few other recipes we are trying out in our Don't Eat Alone Test Kitchens and I know I haven't posted any desserts. Stay tuned -- more on the way.


Friday, November 16, 2007

itunes and interstates

According to Google Maps, my journey from Marshfield to Birmingham is 1201 miles – all of it on interstate highways. The path I chose to drive has taken me through one-fifth of our United States: yesterday I saw Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania; today I added Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. And I’m still not to Birmingham. I got so sleepy I had to stop ninety miles short of Ginger.

I’ll be up early. Trust me.

These kinds of road trips are best suited for college students and not fifty-year olds, I think. Somewhere around Wytheville, Virginia my hips started to petrify so I decided to stop and walk for a bit. I went to the visitors’ bureau to find out what was around and discovered the Appalachian Trail crossed I-81 just south of where I was. I added a few miles to my journey and got off the interstate, winding my way up the side of a hill, only to find the park had closed about fifteen minutes before I got there. I looked around and saw the trail going up the hill on the other side of the road, so I parked the car and headed up the hill. I wasn’t too far away from the road when I realized there was a thin layer of snow on the leaves. I kept walking for about twenty minutes when I realized the sun was falling quickly behind the mountain and I wasn’t in the mood to participate in a casting call for the road company of The Blair Witch Project. I retraced my steps and continued my journey on wheels.

My friend Doug commented this week that the way we travel these days is unnatural. To be able to fly across country (or countries) in a matter of hours, or drive through ten states in a little over a day are actions our bodies and our minds don’t know how to translate. I’ve known a couple of people who have walked the Appalachian Trail from end to end, which is something like a six month venture. They started in the early spring in the south, so they could get ahead of the heat, and finished in early fall up in Maine, hopefully a little ahead of the winter. They made plans for shoes and supplies to be mailed to them along the way. And then they took off walking, taking in each step of the journey, feeling every bump of the trail.

My friend Billy and I used to make mix tapes whenever we got together. (We didn’t live in the same town.) When I talked to him yesterday and mentioned a mix CD I had made off iTunes, he asked if it was as fun as making a tape. It’s more efficient, but it’s not as fun. Making a cassette meant we had to record in real time – we had to listen to the songs. He and I would take turns choosing songs to add, making the mix a conversation of sorts, each song responding to the one before it and issuing a challenge to the song to follow. We never knew what we had made until it was completed. iTunes is the interstate of mixing: I compiled some great traveling music and I blew right by all the conversation.

Had I not stopped to unfreeze my hips, if you will, I never would have met the dear white haired woman in the visitors’ center who showed me where the Appalachian Trail was and I never would have walked among the tree skeletons, their fallen leaves crunching under my feet and their barren limbs reached skyward receptively.

I’m grateful for the highways that make it possible for me to have a late breakfast with Ginger tomorrow, which we will have to share with the Schnauzers. I understand there are some journeys that need to be mapped. And – I pray for more days lived in human time, sacred time, full of wander and wonder, listening and waiting for the next song.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

don't travel alone

As I was working to find ways to get the last few things in the back of my Cherokee so I could head out of town, I found a mix CD I know I must have made but don’t remember doing so entitled, “Durham.” I put it in the small bag of things that was to sit next to me in the car and finished up. I had just reached the Mass Pike in the pouring rain when I remembered the disc and slipped it into the player. A couple of songs in, Cat Stevens sang from deep in my memory:

I listen to the wind
to the wind of my soul
where I’ll end up, well
I think only God really knows . . .
Last night, I went with my friends Betsey and Trisha to walk the labyrinth at the Hanover church. Don, the pastor (and also my dear friend) and Sue, his wife, were there also. Don had built a fire in the heart of the labyrinth and lined the perimeter with lanterns. The rows of stones delineating paths now covered with fallen leaves grew out of conversations some years ago after Betsey and Trisha went to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and walked the labyrinth there. Among the many meanings carried by the stones, one of the most important for me is they stand as a testimony to faith among friends.

Betsey and I walked at the same time and I became quickly aware of the power of the metaphor that lives in the ancient practice. As we both followed the turns in front of us, we would pass close to each other and then, almost instantly it seemed, be on opposite sides of the circle and then back together again before we both ended up seated in front of the fire. We stayed there a long time, re-membering our friendship with tears and gratitude, sitting among the stones we once thought might never be stacked and straightened.

“This gives me hope,” Betsey said, “because it came true. Most things don’t come true.”

I heard then the same words I listened to as I drove today, sung by one of my favorite theologians, Steve Earle:
just because you’ve been around
and had your poor heart broken

that’s no excuse for lying there

before the last word’s spoken

‘cause some dreams

don’t ever come true

don’t ever come true

aw, but some dreams do
While I was in Hanover, my friend Doug was back at my house packing. He and some others had come over to help in the afternoon and when it came time for me to leave he said he was going to stay and work. That was at five-fifteen. When I called the house at nine, he answered the phone. When I got to the house, I found he had finished everything that needed to go in the Pod so the movers could take it. We loaded the last of it together, cleaned up the driveway, and then went back to his house for well-deserved beers and sleep. I felt him riding along side me as another of my favorite spiritual advisors, James Taylor, sang:
the secret of life is in opening up your heart
it’s ok to feel afraid

don’t let that stand in your way

‘cause everyone knows that love is the only road

and since we’re only here for awhile

might as well show some style

give us a smile . . .
I called my friend Billy to catch him up on my journey and to catch up on his. He talked about pulling an old book off the shelf – Anthony de Mello’s Song of the Bird – and finding an inscription I had written when I gave the book to him about two weeks after we met in 1984. We spent about a half an hour moving seamlessly between past and present finding ourselves close together on the journey, even across the miles. The rain and the Berkshires conspired to drown the signal from my phone, but the Indigo Girls provided the perfect soundtrack:
why do we hurtle ourselves through every inch of time and space
I must say around some corner I can sense a resting place

with every lesson learned a line upon your beautiful face

we’ll amuse ourselves one day with these memories we’ll trace . . .
I found my brother along the road once the storm cleared and we talked across two state lines. It has taken a lot of years and miles for us to learn how to be fellow travelers; that we have learned how is one of the things in my life for which I am most grateful. One of the reasons I called him is to say to him what I have been saying about him to others over the last couple of weeks as I have had occasion to have a few extended conversations with one of my nephews – his son. He has two and both of them live with a sense of confidence an integrity that is undergirded by a sense that they know they are trusted. Miller and Ginger (yes, his wife is named Ginger also) have did a great job raising boys and have done an amazing job incarnating love and grace as trust so that the boys have been able to grow into young men. They don’t treat the guys like kids anymore; they treat them as though they believe in who they are and who they are becoming. What an amazing gift. Guy Clark sang for all of them about the time I hit the Pennsylvania line:
you’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
love like you’ll never get hurt

you’ve got to dance like nobodys’ watching

it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work
All across the five states on my sojourn, I talked to Ginger, updating her on my progress and trying to articulate the thunderstorm of emotions I’ve felt over the last few days in particular. The longer I live, the more I trust that grace means I’m not required to prove myself before God, or anyone else, in order to be loved. If, however, there is some sort of final accounting and I’m asked what I made of my life, I will simply point at Ginger and say, “I was with her.” I won’t have to say anything else. That we have had two decades together in New England and are now moving together into a new chapter is full of great things mostly because we are together. And so my travel day ended appropriately with Billy Joe of Green Day singing one of Ginger’s favorite songs:
so take the photographs and still frames in your mind
hang it on a shelf in good health and good time

tattoos and memories and dead skin on trial

for what it’s worth it was worth it all the while

it’s something unpredictable

but in the end it’s right

I hope you had the time of your life
Betsey’s right: life is full of things that don’t come true. Today, however, I have been carried by those things that are: faith, hope, and love. And Paul is right, too: the greatest of them all is love.

I am not alone, in my going out and my coming in.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

buenos noches from an empty room

There will be more words from the road tomorrow; there is much to tell. For tonight, a final picture of me in our home.

Milty doesn't live here anymore.


Monday, November 12, 2007

farewell casserole (aka last supper)

I worked my last shift at the restaurant last night. About a week ago, I asked Chef if I could cook supper for the staff as my goodbye present. He prepares a "family meal," as he calls it, from time to time. Now it was my turn. For our last supper, I chose to prepare one of my favorite dishes growing up: King Ranch Casserole.

The King Ranch was a giant ranch that took of most of Texas that lies between Corpus Christi (the city of my birth) and Brownsville. It was a cattle ranch, so there is some question as to whether they really invented a chicken dish. Texas Monthly ran an article some time back that expanded on the origins of the casserole:

No one seems to know who invented it. The casserole may have come to King Ranch, but the descendants of Captain Richard King prefer to tout their beef and game dishes. "Kind of strange, a King Ranch casserole made with chicken," noted Martin Clement, the head of the public relations for the ranch. Mary Lewis Kleberg, the widow of Dick Kleberg, admits that her heart sinks every time a well-meaning hostess prepares it in her honor. Most likely the dish got its name from an enterprising South Texas hostess or a King Ranch cook whose preference for a poultry doomed him to obscurity.

Yet King Ranch casserole's general origins are easy to discern. Certainly it owes a deep debt to chilaquilas, which also contain chicken, cheese, tomatoes, tortilla chips, and chilies--the staples that campesinos often combine to stretch one meal into two while retaining a semblance of nutrition. But the dish owes as much to post-World War II cooking, when casseroles made with canned soups were the space-age cuisine. Because they could be made quickly and made for later use, casseroles liberated the lady of the house. " The perfect entree for a minimum amount of time in the kitchen for the hostess," the McAllen Junior League cookbook notes. The recipe made its way from one woman's club to another, networking in its most fundamental form. " It was one of those recipes that everybody just had a screaming fit trying to get," Mrs. Joe Gardner of Corpus Christi recalls.

If the women of the fifties loved this recipe because it freed them of the family kitchen, their children love it because it takes them back there. They have adapted it to their taste, of course: Trendy cooks now substitute flour tortillas for corn, while the truly convenience-crazed use Doritos. Purists doctor the recipe for sour cream--a move back toward Mexican authenticity. Houston's Graham Catering has come up with a low-salt version. Even that bastion of Junior Leaguedom, San Antonio's Bright Shawl lunchroom, has changed with the times. Chef Mark Green has followed the lead of the late Dallas gourmet guru Helen Corbitt by dropping canned soups; he now adds his own "roux" of milk, shredded cheese, garlic, and sliced mushrooms. "It sells good," he says. "It goes fast."

My version is more like Mark Green's than my mother's; I didn't open any cans. I made enough for at least twenty; the twelve folks working ate it all. I posted the recipe here.

I timed the serving of our meal to happen before the dinner service got busy, so we all stood around in the kitchen with our bowls and talked and laughed. "The reason I cooked dinner tonight," I told them, "was to say thank you. This has been my favorite kitchen to work in and, even though it's been a short time, I'm sad to leave. Thanks for our time together."

At the end of the evening, they gave me a card, a Red Sox lottery ticket with a chance to win season tickets for life (it wasn't a winner), and bought me a couple of Guinesses for the road.

"We'll miss you," one of the servers said. "You're nice and you can cook; do you know how hard that is to find in this business?"

I was grateful for the compliment.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

scranton/wilkes-barre is . . .

the home of the Penguins

the home of the Yankees
(I wonder if they suck, too)

the home of the Pioneers

the home of The Office
(Steve Carell is from Marshfield)

and, for tonight (or what's left of it), our way station after leaving Marshfield tonight with our U-Haul trailer and the pups. I fly back on Friday to close up the house, but we are officially in transition -- and spending the night in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007


hardly four days have passed since
we stopped trying to save daylight
and let it sink all too quickly into
autumn’s mid-afternoon sunsets

dawn breaks; how can daylight
be anything but a lost cause?
then again, darkness falls and
suffers the night in silence

I am awake wresting an idea
who refuses to become a poem
it was yesterday when I started
the longer night hasn’t helped

when I am waked by the first chards
of daylight against my window
I will see these words and it will
dawn on me what I wanted to say


Monday, November 05, 2007

the kindness of not having to be alone

There’s an old joke about a preacher standing up one Sunday and saying, “Today we are going to confess our sins to one another and find forgiveness.” Members of the congregation began to stand, tentatively at first, and tell their secrets. The pastor would respond, “Thank you. You have confessed and you are forgiven.” As the service continued, the confessions became bolder and more outlandish. When one man spoke of his relationship with some of his farm animals, the pastor said, “Oh, brother – I don’t believe I would have told that one.”

From time to time, I come across culture watchers and social commentators who lament the loss of privacy in our society, pointing out (and often pointing at the blogging world) that we are giving our privacy away more than it is being taken from us. The question is a live one for me as I sit down to write: how much do I tell? In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says if you want to be a writer you have to write as if your parents are dead. I understand her point about getting past some false internal filters and I don’t want my parents’ deaths to be the prerequisite for my being able to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?).

So “how much” is not the first question. What comes before is I must ask, why am I telling the story of my life? Needing to speak or be heard, or feeling as though I have something important to say are not adequate reasons on their own, I think. A quick trip through my Bloglines feeds each day reminds me my voice is not more important than another’s. At the bottom of it all, I write to connect – and by that I mean something beyond having folks comment on the posts (though I like reading the comments); I mean working to be one of the voices that pulls people together rather than one of those that tears things apart.

One of the relationships in my life that has found a way to stretch over the miles and years is with my friends Joy and Mark, who live in Iowa and both teach at Waldorf College. Joy is also a writer. Their first son was born with multiple birth defects; he is now sixteen. She wrote a book about their lives so far called Involuntary Joy. This week, in response to my Playgrounds & Pain post, she sent a wonderful email message, part of which said:

I've just returned from a small book signing. A few women--who have already read Involuntary Joy--shared comments that will be helpful as I attempt to move forward with finding an agent/national publisher. Everyday I see my son's joy over things that I might miss if he had not taught me how to look. I've explained that reality the best way I know how: Involuntary Joy. However, asking others to share the journey through reading makes for a bold invitation. The ones who accept are rewarded from the ride that is that portion of our life's journey. But I'm finding that some start to read and nearly quit because our life's pain is too much. (The ones who've talked to me have not quit reading, but admit they almost did.) One woman--who said she loved the book--suggested that it might be necessary to not tell everything in order to find other readers. I'm extremely open to such. In fact, would welcome the opportunity to have someone attempt to define what parts of our lives aren't necessary to share. But I have this lingering wonder: What kind of journey would they be taking with our family then? Can the rewards of a less intensely painful read be as great? Would the concept of life's involuntary joys become as fully known?
Her questions sent me first to Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem, “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.
Joy and Mary’s voices harmonize to remind me when we share our despair with one another we give birth to joy – and kindness. In a recent post, Jen Lemen, another scribbling woman* who speaks to me, wrote:
We float on the sea of otherness together, our differences folded into the kindness of not having to be alone–no matter how young your sorrow or how old your hope.
I know there are days I have written out of my loneliness, craving comments and community; at my best, however, I work to write in solidarity rather to feed my need to not feel by myself. I dig into the words as one among many who are mining our pain and circumstance hoping to strike the veins of joy and kindness that sustain us all. As I sit solitarily at my computer, I learn again (even as I change metaphors) that I am one voice in the great cloud of witnesses and participants in our shared humanity – even today I have quoted Joy, Mary and Jen. I close with the words of Bob Bennett’s song, “Hand of Kindness.”
I’ve no need to be reminded
of all my failures and my sins

I can write my own indictment

of who I am and who I’ve been

I know that grace by definition

is something I can never earn

but for all the things that I may have missed

there’s a lesson I believe that I have learned

there’s a hand of kindness
holding me, holding me

there’s a hand of kindness
holding me,
holding on to me

forgiveness comes in just a moment

sometimes the consequences last

and it’s hard to walk inside that mercy

when the present is so tied up to the past

in this crucible of cause and effect

I walk the wire without a net

and I wonder if I’ll ever fall too far

but that day has not happened yet

‘cause there’s a hand of kindness

holding me, holding me

there’s a hand of kindness

holding me, holding on to me
“There is no joy in eating alone,” it reads at the top of the sidebar on this blog. There is great joy and kindness in not having to be alone even as we eat and write and pray and grow and live holding on to one another.


*with an ironic nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne who lashed out at "those damned scribbling women" whose books often outsold his.