Monday, July 27, 2009

there are no stars tonight

There are no stars tonight.
We see only clouds and
hear the storm gathering
on the edge of town like
bandits in a Western.

There are no stars tonight,
so we say, waiting for rain,
listening to the thunder,
cosmic talking drummers
telling an old, old story.

There are no stars tonight,
but there will be stars –
stars outshine storms;
light beats clouds every time:
paper, rock, scissors.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

great love

Because of some wonderful happenings in the lives of our Associate Pastor and her partner, I was the substitute preacher today. Those of you who read the blog regularly will see a few references to some recent posts, though they are in a new context. The passage was Mark 6:30-52. Thanks, as always for reading.


I’ve been trying to imagine what it must have been like to be a part of the crowd that day. Ginger and I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and saw the gentle slopes of land that come down to the water. The little lake is just not that big, though the geography around it makes for some formidable storms. I imagine the crowd being about like a good turnout for a Bulls game, so I have a hard time picturing a crowd that big gathered along the shore of a sea that small. I know what it feels like to be as hot, as I imagine the people in the crowd were after having hiked around the lake to keep up with Jesus. And I know what it feels like to get hungry, and then to get frustrated, annoyed – well – surly.

And there are other things. Jesus was speaking to a crowd of thousands without the benefit of any amplification. He knew how to use the natural slope of the hillside by getting the people to sit on the hill while he stood at the water’s edge and let the wind off the water carry his voice farther than he could throw it on his own, but I keep thinking about the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the folks in the back of the crowd while Jesus was delivering the Beatitudes say to each other, “What did he say? Blessed are the Cheese makers?”

Palestine, in those days as now, was a land of incredible need and crippling poverty. The people in the crowd, by and large, were not rich; they did not spend many days feeling as though all the bills were paid, all the kids were fed, and everything was going to be OK. Jesus used metaphors of bread and water often because he was talking to people who lived hungry, thirsty lives. Though they had grown up hearing stories about manna from heaven, yet they had not seen it happen in their lifetimes.

I wonder if the crowd that day was getting restless and Jesus knew he needed to feed them if he wanted them to listen. I wonder what it felt like to be at the back of the crowd, away from any awareness of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples about how to feed everyone. Mark gives us some sense of the frustration of the disciples and of Jesus’ insistence that they come up with something other than Reasons Why This Won’t Work. I wonder how the story about what happened was passed through the crowd after everyone had had enough to eat. I wonder if the folks in the back ever knew there was a miracle, or they just thought Jesus and the disciples were gracious hosts. What began as an exercise in frustration and desperation ended with twelve basketfuls of leftovers. And a crowd that still wanted more.

But the story doesn’t stop with supper. The meal caused so much of a stir that Jesus had to flee into the hills to get away. The disciples did what they most often did: they got in a boat – and we’re not talking a yacht here, but a tiny little boat. Here, again, is the account of what happened as translated in The Message:
As soon as the meal was finished, Jesus insisted that the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead across to Bethsaida while he dismissed the congregation. After sending them off, he climbed a mountain to pray.

Late at night, the boat was far out at sea; Jesus was still by himself on land. He could see his men struggling with the oars, the wind having come up against them. At about four o'clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them, walking on the sea. He intended to go right by them. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and screamed, scared out of their wits.

Jesus was quick to comfort them: "Courage! It's me. Don't be afraid." As soon as he climbed into the boat, the wind died down. They were stunned, shaking their heads, wondering what was going on. They didn't understand what he had done at the supper. None of this had yet penetrated their hearts. (Mark 6:47-52)
None of this had yet penetrated their hearts.

How can that be? They had been with him when he healed a woman who reached out in faith to touch the hem of his coat. They had seen him raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead. They had heard his parables and watched as he gave healing and hope to one after another. Now, even after watching him feed the crowd with a plate full of food, they still didn’t understand who he was.

None of this had yet penetrated their hearts.

I wonder, sometimes, if we aren’t in the same boat. We need help and we don’t always know what to do with the love of Christ when it finds us in need.

During my vacation last week, I reread one of my favorite novels, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop that tells the story of two priests, Joseph Valliant and Jean Marie Latour, who are sent to New Mexico to lead the Catholic diocese in the new American West that had once been part of Mexico. Early in the book, Father Valliant says, “Where there is great love, there are great miracles.”

In Cather’s book, the Bishop’s words are prologue, rather than summary: he says the words as they are beginning their ministry together and then, as the story unfolds, nothing dramatic happens other than they spend their lives loving God, loving one another, and loving the people around them. Lives were transformed. People were saved from what they saw as the apparent inevitability of their lives because of the love of these two men in Jesus’ name.

Paul, who traveled the Mediterranean much like those two priests wandered through New Mexico and Arizona, prayed for the folks at Ephesus to come to their own deeper understanding of the deep, deep love of Jesus:
My response is to get down on my knees before our Creator, this magnificent God who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask God to strengthen you by the Holy Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask God that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
And here is a glimpse into the fullness of God. A couple of Sundays ago, Brian Lord told me scientists have made a new discovery about our galaxy. They are expanding our vision of the universe by searching for amino acids in far away places, which would mean the possibility of life emerging on other planets. They found a molecule called ethyl formate in a gas cloud in the middle of the Milky Way. It is the molecule that gives raspberries their flavor; and it also smells of rum. The Milky Way is actually a raspberry daquiri.

The same creative imagination that put raspberries in space is the one who became incarnate in Jesus, who found a way to feed thousands with five loaves and two fishes, and who brings us together here to remember again that where there is great love there are great miracles.

When we look up and out and around, what do we see? Do we see beyond the daily needs and hungers of our lives? Are we blinded by the storms that trouble us? Or do we see food to share? Do we smell raspberries in the stars?

Do we see ourselves as people who are held by Great Love, who share Great Love, and who, then, will also be people of great miracles? Oh, I hope so – because that is who we are. We are people created in Love, who live in Love (even when we lose sight of it), who are called to Love as extravagantly as the Jesus we follow, and who, ultimately, will return to Love.

A friend wrote a song years ago that says it this way:
the depth of God’s love reaches down, down, down
to where we are until we’re found, found, found
a quiet word or none at all
pursues the heart behind the wall
and for those who wait with darkness all around
the depth of God’s love reaches down


Thursday, July 23, 2009

it's just the way my mind works

Driving through Birmingham, I passed a Jewish Community Center whose billboard encouraged its members to take a “J-cation” by using their facilities. We are all now familiar with the concept of the stay-cation, now so over-used by our media. Here, in the closing moments of my week away from work, I began to wonder what other possibilities there might be:

a weekend by the water would be a bay-cation;
an equestrian adventure could be a bray-cation;
another way to think of a cruise would be a buffet-cation;
potters might take a clay-cation;
those who live with depression hope for a dismay-cation;
rappers might take a Dr. Dre-cation;
activists could step away for a fray-cation;
and farmers take a hay-cation;
another way to think of a week in Hawaii would be a lei-cation;
a gathering of poets could be called a millay-cation;
dogs must dream of an obey-cation;
a weekend at the spa could be called an olay-cation;
a minister’s get-a-way would be a pray-cation;
and the chef’s, a sauté-cation;
a slow down for a serial killer would be a slay-cation;
Santa takes the summers off for a sleigh-cation;
an adopted pet finally gets a stray-cation;
an old school Vegas trip would be a Mel Torme-cation;
a break from a diet could be a weigh-cation;
vegans, it seems, would look forward to a whey-cation;
and I, now that I’ve finished this piece, will take a word play-cation.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

underneath another satellite sky

I was in ninth grade when they came to town.

The town was Nairobi, Kenya and they were Up With People. Members of the American community provided host homes for the group and so a couple of them stayed at our house, and in the homes of my friends from Nairobi International School. It was the fall of 1969; most of us were ninth graders, had guitars, and were completely consumed with playing music together. We were completely taken with this traveling band trying so hard to tell the world we were all connected:

if more people were for people
like people everywhere
there’d be a lot less people to worry about
and a lot more people who care
I still remember the songs. One of them came back this week as we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing. (Of course, in a wonderful bit of technological irony, I couldn’t get web access in my hotel room last night to write.) Up With People had a song called “John Jacob Sebastian Smith” that was about a little baby born the day Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon.
John Jacob Sebastian Smith took his first breath today
in a little river town in the middle of I-o-way
the day the train came down the track
the corn stood shoulder high
and it was just as the whistle blew
that papa first heard him cry . . .
The story line was the dad telling his new son he would see a world his father had hardly dreamed of, as he sang in the chorus:
John David it’s all yours
it’s a new world you’ve found
you can make it what you will
nothing can hold you down
The astronauts appear in the last verse, both as a way of dreaming of the stars and coming to terms with our humanity at the same time:
John David as you took your first breath today
others took the breath of life to a planet far away
someday maybe you’ll do even more
remember son it’s all about people
people like the folks next door
Nothing happens in a vacuum, even in space. While Armstrong was planting a flag that couldn’t fly on the moon, the big blue ball below him was in turmoil: the Vietnam war waged on; Woodstock was not so far away; LBJ’s Great Society had given way to Nixon, and the Civil Rights movement continued in the aftermath of the deaths of both King and Malcolm X, among others. Even the dream of reaching the moon was fueled by the competition of the Cold War: we wanted to beat the Russians to show them who was Number One. I read in the Birmingham News yesterday that the amount NASA spent getting to the moon was equivalent to more money than we spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan last year. Long before Christopher Cross sang about it, we were caught between the moon and New York City.

I know it’s crazy, but it’s true.

Another teenager a little older than I who stared into the sky an ocean away from Nairobi, was Mark Heard. A little over twenty years after the moon landing and, unfortunately, in the same summer that he died, Mark released a song, “Satellite Sky,” that still speaks to both the possibility and ambiguity of what it means to be alive in these days.
why do I lie awake at night and think back just as far as I can
to the sound of my father's laugh outdoors
to the thought of Sputnik in free flight

before I could fashion my poverty
before I distrusted the night
I must've known something
I must've known something
those were the times I live for tonight

why, why, why, I say why, mama, why?
why can't I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky

it can't be easy for my children
I'm hollow before my time
it looks like a desert here to me
where is the promise of youth for my child

where are the faraway kingdoms of dreams
we've been to the moon and there's trouble at home
they vanished in the mist with Saint Nicholas
they lie scattered to the ghettos and the war zones

why, why, why, I say why, mama, why?
why can't I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky

I want to stand out in the middle of the street and listen to the stars
I want to hear their sweet voices
I want to feel a big bang rattle my bones
I want to laugh for my children
I want the spark to ignite
before they find out what it means to be born into these times

why, why, why, I say why, mama, why?
why can't I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky
In these days when we can “Google” our way to most anywhere in the world (except, of course, in my hotel room last night) and see YouTube videos from all across the planet, we are also the ones who see fewer stars from our porches and windows than any generation to have inhabited the planet. Since Armstrong’s steps, we have run rovers across Mars and we have yet to provide clean drinking water for over a quarter of the people on our planet. I’m not making an either/or case here by any means. My question is the same as those who have come before me: how do we look up at the stars and look out for one another at the same time?

The early astronomers studied the night skies, finding gods and bears and hunters, in order to find their way across lands and seas. The stars told them where they were and where they might be going. The psalmist pulled theological questions from the twinkling darkness:
I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
Why take a second look our way?
(The Message)
Forty years after Apollo 11, we have pictures of galaxies far, far, away; we know our own smells like raspberries; we have driven on Mars and have plans to go farther; my MacBook is a stronger computer than anything the Apollo astronauts understood; the Red Sox have won the World Series twice; there are twice as many people on the planet today than in the summer of ’69 (and Bryan Adams is still touring); we are in another unexplainable war; we have an African-American president; and our planet is plagued with poverty and need that cripples us all.

Chet Raymo
wondered on paper years ago how there could be darkness at all when there were so many stars in the sky. He answered his own question by saying it was because not all of the light has gotten here yet. It’s coming. But not yet. The stars give credence to our UCC credo that God has light “that has yet to break forth.” I believe, with all my heart, we can still sleep in peace underneath a satellite sky, not so much because we walked on the moon, but because that’s what the stars say.


P. S. -- Here are my first Heard-inspired musings about satellite skies. And here's Mark Heard.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

in hopes of a sacred conversation

There are days my offerings on this blog are fairly finished pieces: I had an idea of where I was going with the piece when I started and was able to make it all come together nicely. Then, there are other days when I trust this space to be a place where I can think out loud, with some editing, and hope for a conversation to see where things might go. This is one of those other days. My experiences in Birmingham have set me thinking and feeling about race and, on a larger scale, about discrimination and the ways we define each other. Here, then, is a work in progress.

One of the best gifts Ginger ever gave me was a Byzantine Iconography course. I learned, from my marvelous mentor, Chris Gosey, how to write icons as spiritual practice. The point of iconography is as much the process as the product. The paint, for instance, is almost translucent, and required me to go over every line anywhere from twenty-five to forty times for it to be seen as it should. The patience and persistence were part of the prayer and practice.

I thought about those lines of love that came into view after dedicated repetition as I walked through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute because I saw in the pictures and words and sounds there that the history of humanity and, more particularly, the history of race in our country show we have been diligent about drawing lines and then going over and over them so decidedly as to make them almost indelible. It is most certainly the way we have taught hatred and prejudice. Go over and over the lines that define our differences – putting up signs, calling names, inflicting violence, paying disparate wages – and you can make darkness come through just as the relining of an icon opens a window to heaven.

Even as I write these words, I realize how hard it is to communicate how I was affected by my time in the museum without sounding sanctimonious or overly didactic or, well, just too damn emotional, and (not but) I couldn’t get past the intentionality of the violence and discrimination. People went out of their way, expending untold amounts of time and energy, to make sure others didn’t vote or get an education or get paid fairly for their work or get to sit down on a bus, and they did it year after year after year.

How could we hate so intentionally? How did we learn to let that feel normal?

In the opening pages of Willa Cather’s wonderful novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, one priest says to the other, “Where there is great love, there are always great miracles.” What I saw in our history laid out before me was where there is great fear and hatred, there is great damage -- and that damage cannot undone by taking down signs and saying, “We’re not prejudiced anymore.” We can’t so easily erase lines marked so indelibly into the fabric or our existence with a couple of quick washes or grand gestures. Perhaps, I hope, they can begin to disappear over time when we paint new strokes, day after day, and offer a new vision – a portrait of love – and, going line over line, redraw our hearts into wholeness.

In other words, repent.

Those of us who are white have to come to terms with the life we have come to know and except having been made possible, at least in part, by racial oppression. We are not clean, nor unaffected. I learned this week, for instance, from someone in Durham that officials in our city were planning to use hoses and dogs to stop protests there until the national attention to the events in Birmingham caused them to rethink their approach. They didn’t change their minds; they just didn’t want the negative attention. Boston didn’t integrate their public high schools until the Seventies and still deals with racism embedded deep in its story. The power grid that lets us turn on our lights, our transportation system, and most any industrial convenience we take for granted grew to success relying on the misuse and abuse of the less fortunate in our culture, which in many, many cases meant black workers were the ones put in the most dangerous jobs for the least pay. We may not have brutally abused workers, or supported segregation, or turned hoses on anyone, but we are not blameless; and we cannot be significant agents of healing until we confess we have been carriers of pain simply because of the history that lies in the DNA of our cities and streets and stories, whether North or South or East or West.

The final hallways of the museum hold stories of civil rights beyond race in America, pointing to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and then on to relational issues of the day that call us to draw new lines including immigration and equal marriage, both issues that seem to attract the same kind of fear and violence that burned crosses and led lynchings, far too often in Jesus’ name. (My conclusion, not the BCRI’s).

I watched and listened to self-defined “good Christian people” talk about how fair their discrimination of blacks was during segregation as if the primary points of faith were propriety and profit. I also watched faith in action as young people sat down at lunch counters seeking to leave fresh new lines for others to trace in order to change the picture of what it meant to be an American, and a Christian. Both lines are still there, in both country and church; which ones are we emphasizing?

I hope that question comes across as something other than rhetorical. When are congregations are predominantly white, we aren’t going to become more racially diverse by telling each other how open we are to nonwhite members and then going on about life as usual. The gays and lesbians in our communities, who have heard from most churches that they are on the wrong side of God’s grace, are not going to come flocking to church because we put out a sign to say we welcome all sinners. The undocumented folks in our communities need churches with Spanish classes and (helpful) lawyers and food pantries. If, as King said, we must choose between nonviolence and nonexistence, then we must open our hearts and minds and doors; inclusion is as nonviolent as it gets.

Can we be militantly inclusive? It sounds like the kind of paradox of faith that Jesus loved.
I hope this has been more conversation starter than sermon. Thanks for listening.


Friday, July 17, 2009

notes from the road

When we finished the closing session of our mission trip last night with the folks from Beloved Community UCC in Birmingham, Alabama, one of our hosts suggested we move the gathering down the road to a local coffee shop/wine bar. We got there to find they were closing at nine and to discover the Crestwood Tavern across the parking lot. The night was cool so we rearranged tables on the patio and made ourselves at home. The owner of the bar saw us moving furniture and came out to talk to us. We ordered drinks and began talking and laughing and he came out again, asking who we were. After all, the rest of the clientele was noticeably younger and, actually, a good bit quieter. When we told him who we were and what we had been doing, he said,

“That’s what this place is all about. I want it to be a place where people can come hang out and feel at home. It’s fun to look out here and see a bunch of weirdoes like ya’ll having such a good time. You’re cool.”

Take note, my friends, of the power of community. A singular weirdo is an outcast; a bunch of weirdos is a cool group of people. There is power in numbers – and good, hearty laughter. As the evening wore on and our eighty-five year old group member put a twenty on the table to go toward the next round of beers, a voice breezed through the speaker and across the patio as a young woman covered a Patty Griffin song:

just before the flood comes
just before the night falls
just before the blood runs
into the valley
just before my eyes go
just before we can't go any further
love throws a line to you and me
Our traveling Pilgrims ate breakfast at my in-laws house this morning before they began their trip back to Durham; Ginger and I are hanging around for a couple of days for a family reunion, some time with her folks and some other friends, and then a couple of days exploring together. Since I joined the group well into their week, I took this afternoon to trace their steps through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is built across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and on the very ground where Bull Connor and his men bombarded the children with fire hoses and attack dogs even as Ginger’s mother was giving birth to her just blocks away at the city hospital.

I entered the BCRI with a group of children and sat down to watch the introductory video, which, among other things, told of the role black workers had played in the growth of the mining industry that made Birmingham a significant city in the South. The narration was supported by an old Leadbelly song I didn’t know, but that stayed with me:
bring me a little water Sylvie
bring me a little water now
bring me a little water Sylvie
every little once in awhile
The music ended and the screen lifted to invite us into the exhibit hall – an amazing collection of artifacts, information, images, film, and music telling the story of the struggle that culminated in what we call the Civil Rights Movement. At various places along the way, you could hear sounds from two or three of the presentations, the words and melodies both cacophonous and harmonious at the same time. Here were the stories of people who realized, in as profound a way as I suppose is possible, the power of community. Together they sat at lunch counters, sat down on buses, boycotted the same buses, walked and sang and died, determined, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “to use the weapon of love.”

They were bound together by love and faith and determination and music. In one of the video clips, a man remembered, “The whole movement was like a musical.” From across one of the partitions, I could hear words I recognized:
got my hand on the freedom plow
wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
keep your eyes on the prize
hold on
I realized, as I got deeper into the exhibit, both me and the folks around me were moving slower and becoming more aware of one another, even as we bumped into each other because we were so taken by what we were seeing and hearing. Where we all stopped was in front of the large screen broadcasting “I Have a Dream.” From there we wandered among a crowd of plaster-colored statues all looking out the window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the four little girls were killed by the bomb.

There’s more, but the coffee shop is closing and my internet access is soon to be terminated. Today has been a musical of sorts. I’ll let Patty Griffin have the closing number: her MLK song, “I Went Up to the Mountain.”


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

smelling stars

I found them walking from Winchester High School one afternoon to meet Ginger at her church. A small handbill on the door of the Griffin Museum of Photography announced the showing of color pictures of the universe by David Malin. What I learned that afternoon, and in my subsequent trips with my English classes, was that Malin, who began as a micro-photographer (check out this book), had developed a way of photographing different levels of light, if you will, using different colored plates (I’m out of my league trying to describe this, you understand), such that he was able to give color and scape to what we can only see as small white lights or even darkness, if we can see them at all. This photograph, for instance, is the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion, the Hunter; I do well to find the stars that make up his belt on any given winter evening.

I thought about Malin on my way home from church because of a conversation I had during coffee hour. Brian, who would be able to understand what Malin was doing, told me – with great joy – about a recent discovery. It seems scientists have been able to isolate the largest molecule in the galaxy (so far) outside of our solar system. The cool thing is it is the same molecule that gives raspberries their flavor.

“So you see,” Brian said with a smile, “our galaxy has a raspberry filling. I love it. God has a sense of humor.”

They also found alcohol molecules. The Milky Way appears to be a giant raspberry daquiri. Now that will preach.

Though A Wrinkle in Time is the book that gets the most attention, my favorite volume in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet is A Wind in the Door. Before Malin started taking photographs, or scientists when berry picking, L’Engle was spinning a story of size and significance. Two siblings, Charles Wallace and Meg, face the same expanse of magnitude and minutiae as Charles Wallace has an infection in the smallest particles of his blood and Meg is fighting cosmic evil that is ripping stars out of the sky. (Did I mention it’s a science fiction story?) At one point in the book, Meg is taken to a planet where the mitochondria, the stars, and Meg are all the same size and she is told to remember everything matters and everything is connected.

In one of her nonfiction books, A Rock That is Higher Than I: Story as Truth, L’Engle wrote:

The secrets of the atom are not unlike Pandora's box, and what we must look for is not the destructive power but the vision of interrelatedness that is desperately needed on this fragmented planet. We are indeed part of a universe. We belong to each other; the fall of every sparrow is noted, every tear we shed is collected in the Creator's bottle.
That we are inextricably connected to one another is not a new idea. In fact, I think it borders on cliché, as often as we give lip service to it. (I’m not sure we are quite as accustomed to incarnating the connections.) Here is what has caught me with its freshness today: the imagination of God is so extravagant that God makes connections we can’t even begin to see, or smell. In the middle of the galaxy, in a place we cannot even recognize with our own eyes, are beams of light and gatherings of gas older than anything we can comprehend, and they smell like raspberries. The layers of the universe, from the indistinguishable micro particles we have yet to discover to the starscape whose oldest light has yet to even find us, are full of the love and limitlessness of our Creator.

The connections are as old as creation, and as fresh as our willingness to sharpen our senses and stretch our minds and hearts to find them. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
O, taste and see that the Lord is good. Smell, too.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

day job

I posted this earlier today and then spent some time reading Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook, which led me to do a little revising.

it was good he was so hard at work
there was much to do from where he stood
next to the bags of candy

while his mother browsed the stacks
of cards and books a good distance away
across the wide pine boards

of what was once a tobacco warehouse
now a coffee house and grocery store
he carried two bags at a time

shuffling his baby blue Crocs across the floor
his eyes beaming as bright as his smile
and not once did she ever tell him to stop

she simply received the shipments
from her determined and diminutive deliverer
and kept about her task

until their work was done and it was time to go
she put the bags back in their bucket
and they smiled their way home to a well-deserved nap

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

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

turn the page

Durham has a lot of good things about it, but a good independent radio station is not one of them. And so I spend my days in the kitchen listening to classic rock and hold the distinction of being the only one in the kitchen for whom the songs were my soundtrack for high school and college. One of the songs that plays daily for reasons I don’t understand is Bob Seger’s droning plea for the masses to have empathy for his rock star life, “Turn the Page.”

here I am out on the road again
there I am up on the stage
there I go playing the star again
there I go turn the page
I mention the song not because I’m in the mood to do a little Bob bashing, but because I’ve been reading and thinking about writing and wonder how different I am from Bob when I use this space to write about what it feels like writing.
here I am back on my Mac again
there I go blogging away . . .
What I’m reading these days is Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write (brought back into my view by my blogging buddy, Simon, who is always worth reading) and she is giving me much to think – and write – about. Here’s the latest paragraph that has hounded me:
[Writing] all the time, whether or not we are in the mood, gives us ownership of our writing ability. It takes it out of the realm of conjuring where stand on a rock of isolation, begging the winds for inspiration, and it makes it something as do-able as picking up a hammer and pounding a nail. Writing may be an art, but it is certainly a craft. It is a simple and workable thing that can be as steady and reliable as a chore – does that ruin the romance? (35)
Before I answer her question, I have to back up a bit. I have not written as much as I would like over the past couple of months because many nights I haven’t felt like I had something to say. Cameron got me thinking a week or so ago when she said,
Writing is about getting something down, not thinking something up. . . . We can either “think a plot up” or we can “jot a plot down.” We can either “think of something to write about” or we can write about what we happen to be thinking about. We can either demand we write well or we can settle more comfortably into writing down what seems to want to come through us – good, bad, or indifferent. (10-11)
She then quotes Henry Miller:
“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself.” (11)
Ginger and I have been working on the room in our house that is our shared creative space. A home office, perhaps; we prefer to call it the studio. The biggest task continues to be to find a place for everything, which means, first of all, we have to go through the stacks of stuff that have lived on the floor now for some time. I spent the morning and part of this afternoon going through stacks of papers and old journals and, with Cameron’s words ringing in my ears, realized I’ve had seasons when I have been a better listener to my life than I appear to have been over these days when I felt I had nothing to say. I learned – again – I am a better writer when I speak in concert with my listening and offer harmony to the melody that is already playing, if you will.

Yesterday’s poem provides a good example. I found this poem on the Writer’s Almanac several days ago and noticed it came from a book of poems by Charles Darling called The Saints of Diminished Capacity. I wrote the phrase down in my journal because it was so rich and because it seemed to describe those close to me who are dealing with fresh grief and are having to play hurt through these days. When I sat down to write yesterday, I understood – again – what Cameron meant when she said we write things down, not make things up. I just wrote what I saw and heard, and what I felt and then I spent some time doing my best to craft the words, to revise and edit, to make my offering an adequate reflection of what I had seen and heard.

One of the snippets I found today reminded me of an afternoon I was walking across Boston Common. A guy who looked as though he had spent the night in the park was standing up on a small brick wall playing his guitar and singing. As I walked past, he was singing these words by James Taylor:
everyday I wake up just the same
waiting for something new
every night I have myself to blame
for dreams that haven’t come true
especially today I’m feeling blue
If I had been writing the soundtrack for a movie I couldn’t have scripted it any better. Sunday, in her sermon, Ginger recounted an experience she and I had walking through Davis Square, one of our favorite Somerville haunts. There was a homeless man sitting on the curb and and as we passed he said, rather loudly, “Change.”

I blurted back without thinking, “I’m trying. I’m trying,” as Ginger reached for coins in her pocket.

Writing draws me because it is such a wonderful metaphor for living, as much as anything. Listening makes me a better writer; listening makes me a better human being, as well. You get the idea. Our choice of words make a difference. If I write (or live) feeling that I have a story to tell, I’m not sure that lasts very long. None of us likes to be told things very often. But from my listening to life, I have a story to share, the way we share sandwiches or rides or sunny afternoons, then I may be on to something strong enough to make you, well, turn the page.


Monday, July 06, 2009

saints of diminished capacity

I only saw the words written,
requiring me to infer tone;
to assume either compassion
or conceit; to decide if the poet
mimed quotation marks when
he said, “diminished capacity,” --
or saints, for that matter --
if he even said the words out loud.

Either way, the phrase is
fragrant with failure, infused
with what might have been,
what came and went,
what once was lost . . .
and now is found faltering,
struggling, stumbling,
still hoping, as saints do,
failure is not the final word.

Forgiveness flows best from
brokenness; the capacity for
love is not diminished by
backs bowed by pain, or
hearts heavy with grief.
Write this down: the substance
of things hoped for fuels
those who walk wounded:
we are not lost; we are loved.


Friday, July 03, 2009

this land is . . .

I know I've already mentioned Woody Guthrie this week, but he comes to mind for me every Independence Day because he wrote my favorite song about America, "This Land is Your Land." He actually wrote the song in response to "God Bless America."

Here is one of my favorite covers of the song by Bruce Springsteen singing all the verses -- even the ones they left out when they taught it to us at school.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

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

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

a handmade life

“It’s what’s inside the words,” she said;
“Inside heart there’s an ear and there’s art.”

After reading, I couldn’t help but look
for words among the bread and vegetables
that made up our simple supper last night,
both of us finally home after days
that felt longer than the time passed.
I couldn’t find God in the green beans,
or love in the tomatoes; no fun in foccacia;
not enough meal to make meaning.
But that's not the last word, is it?

The tomatoes tasted like the smile
of the brown baby at the farmer’s market;
the crisp sweet corn spelled summer
without letters; and the bread,
dipped in the olive oil we keep
for special occasions, was leavened
and flavored by all the suppers
we have shared together, fed
by the mystery in the mundane:
another day in our handmade life.


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

god's promise

The words are Woody Guthrie's; the voice is Ellis Paul's. I pass them both along to you with gratitude.

I didn't promise you skies painted blue
not all colored flowers all your days through
I didn't promise you sun with no rain
joys without sorrows, peace without pain

All that I promise is strength for this day,
rest for my worker, and light on your way
I give you truth when you need it, my help from above
Undying friendship, my unfailing love

I never did promise you crowns without trials,
food with no hard sweat, your tears without smiles
hot sunny days without cold wintry snows
no victory without fighting, no laughs without woes

All that I promise is strength for this day,
rest for my worker, and light on your way
I give you truth when you need it, my help from above
Undying friendship, my unfailing love

I sure didn't say I'd give you heaven on earth
a life with no labor no struggles no deaths
no earthquakes no dry spells, no fire flames, no droughts
no slaving, no hungers, no blizzards, no blights

All that I promise is strength for this day,
rest for my worker, and light on your way
I give you truth when you need it, my help from above
Undying friendship, my unfailing love

I promise you power, this minute, this hour,
the power you need when you fall down and bleed
I give you my peace and my strength to pull home
My love for all races, my creeds, and all kinds

My love for my races, my creeds of all kinds
My love for my saviors, all colors, all kinds
My love for my races, my creeds of all kinds
My dancers, my prancers, my colors, all kinds,
My saviors, my flavors, my creeds of all kinds.