Tuesday, November 30, 2010

advent journal: mothers of metaphor

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet people die miserably every day...
...for lack
of what is found there

-- William Carlos Williams
Today I hit a wall I didn’t see coming.

I ran into people who couldn’t see the metaphor sitting right in front of us. They weren’t stupid or belligerent or intractable; they just didn’t see it. And I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was sitting in a coffee shop somewhere in Pakistan trying to carry on a conversation and I was the only one who didn’t speak Urdu. I knew what I wanted to say, but none of the words I had seemed to work.

I think I was so flummoxed because talking about faith means talking about poetry: it’s all metaphor. Let me say here that I learned something from my conversation, so I want to clarify: to say it’s metaphor is not saying it’s something other than true. Poetry, for me, is our best chance at truth telling. For the sake of definition: metaphor is comparison – using one thing to talk about something else.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
OK, so technically it’s a simile because Jesus used “as,” but he wasn’t claiming to be a hen as much as using the metaphor to talk about the ache in his heart. The word metaphor can be traced back to the sixteenth century:
lit. "a carrying over," from metapherein "transfer, carry over," from meta- "over, across" (see meta- ) + pherein "to carry, bear"
A word bridge, if you will: to carry over, to bear across. This is the way truth travels. When I was looking up the word origin, I came across a philosopher who was new to me: R. G. Collingwood. His introduction was this quote:
It is a commonplace that all religion expresses itself in mythological or metaphorical terms; it says one thing and means another; it uses imagery to convey truth. But the crucial fact about religion is not that it is metaphor, but that it is unconscious metaphor. No one can express any thought without using metaphors, but this does not reduce all philosophy and science to religion, because the scientist knows that his metaphors are merely metaphors and that the truth is something other than the imagery by which it is expressed, whereas in religion the truth and the imagery are identified. To repeat the Creed as a religious act it is necessary not to add "All this I believe in a symbolical or figurative sense": to make that addition is to convert religion into philosophy.
I don’t know much at all about Mr. Collingwood’s faith perspective, but he’s on to something when it comes to realizing that the language of faith is one where “the truth and the imagery are identified.”
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:19-20)
Jesus’ words are crammed full of metaphor, still when I take the Bread and the Cup in worship there is more going on than figurative language when Ginger looks me in the eye and says, “The Body of Christ.” And it is with the same sense of full contact poetry that I hear one of my favorite Advent quotes (and the one at the center of the conversation that started this post):
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be Mothers of God. -- Meister Eckhart
When we come back to the story that birthed our faith, we usually see ourselves among the shepherds working our way to the manger and staring up into the starlit night to hear the angels sing. Sometimes, we journey with the Magi, or perhaps come to terms with our inner Innkeeper. Still it seems to me the heart of the story is in the young peasant girl who carried the baby to term and then gave birth to the Incarnation. Eckhart calls us to engage the story as viscerally as it is possible for truth and imagery to collide: hurt and push and scream and struggle and labor to do what it takes to let our lives give birth to Love in the middle of our world. We are all meant to be mothers of God, being created in the image of God who is Mother to us.

A neighbor sent an email on our listserv asking if anyone had a copy of the movie Ishtar. It has never made it to DVD and she said she was one of the few who liked the movie and really wanted to see it again. I was happy to let her know there were at least two of us in the neighborhood and I was glad to let her borrow my copy. The song at the heart of the movie begins,
telling the truth can be dangerous business . . .
As goofy as the song is, truth is dangerous business – dangerous and wonderful business. I don’t mean the kind of truth that becomes a weapon or a measuring stick, but the truth that gives birth in us to a sense of what God can do if we, like Mary, are willing to say, “Let it be.”


Monday, November 29, 2010

advent journal: it's about time

Madeleine L’Engle would have been ninety-two today.

I think of her every Advent (and a number of other days as well) because she is the one who taught me about the Liturgical Year – through her writing, that is. I never got to meet her, though I had a couple of near misses. If you click her tag in the sidebar of this blog you can get a sense of the way she has been a mentor to me in faith, life, and writing going all the way back to my fourth grade year when I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time.

I said I think about her, but that’s not the right verb. She haunts me during Advent the way a spirit haunts an old house. I’m not trying to conjure up a spooky vibe, but haunt is the right verb. In these days of brilliant darkness, the night is full of shadows and saints, the substance of things hoped for brushing up against us in the hallways, their whispers sliding down the banisters and slipping into the corners of our hearts. Thin places the Celtic Christians called them, where the divine and the human can touch.
There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation. (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)
Her statement is so over the top that it captures the subversive nature of Jesus’ birth. To celebrate God with us is to grasp to all that is good about being human. The Word became flesh on purpose, with purpose, and it was good. Then Jesus walked from town to town, eating and drinking, talking and healing, as if he had all the time in the world. There was no strategy to employ other than to love people face to face. In A Wind in the Door, my favorite of the Time stories, Meg Murry has this interchange with Progo, a cherubim.
"Progo,” Meg asked. “You memorized the names of all the stars - how many are there?”
“How many? Great heavens, earthling. I haven't the faintest idea.”
“But you said your last assignment was to memorize the names of all of them.”
“I did. All the stars in all the galaxies. And that's a great many.”
“But how many?”
“What difference does it make? I know their names. I don't know how many there are. It's their names that matter."
We had a discussion around the dinner table the other night about what the word “normal” means and whether or not that word is useful or helpful. For me, it depends how its used. If it is used to describe what can be expected in a given situation, it offers something of value. However, when it is a means of comparison, the word does far more damage than it does good because it becomes a semantic weapon: I am normal (meaning straight, white, and male – or whatever the dominant power group) and the rest of you don’t measure up. No need for names because the un-normal don’t count. In the face of normalcy, Jesus came from the very womb of the Great Unwashed and turned a feeding trough into an altar where everyone is welcome.

And the angels called him by name: Emmanuel – God with us.

Two of the central callings of Christianity are to wait and to remember. Both require us to come to terms with time, which is the quintessential thin place. In A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Murry says, “Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” Madeleine talked about the moments in our lives stacking up on one another, like an altar. She said it this way in Walking on Water:

I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be... This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages...the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide...

Her image stayed with me such that in one of my rare forays into short fiction I wrote about a man in a doctor’s waiting room:
I am fourteen at my brother's military funeral;
I am seven putting a tooth under my pillow;
I am twenty-eight and my son has survived the surgery;
I am sixteen pulling out of the driveway for the first time;
I am fifty-four holding my first grandchild;
I am thirty stretching to touch a name on the Wall;
I am nine going to the principal's office for cutting off Sally Jeffrey's pigtail;
I am twenty-five laying down next to my wife for the first night in our first home;
I am seventy-two being pushed down a colorless hall to a semiprivate room;
I am eighteen registering for the draft;
I am forty-five with my Christmas bonus;
I am sixty-one at my wife's funeral;
I am thirty-seven waiting to hear the results of my brain scan.
Remembering is putting the stack of time back together again; waiting is being content to sit in the thin place as though time were more essence than schedule, more holy than hurried. When time stands sacredly still, waiting and being are the same thing and I can see the shadows and saints that haunt me with their hope.
and you beneath life’s crushing load
whose forms are bending low
who toil along the climbing way
with painful step and slow
look now for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing
o rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing

Sunday, November 28, 2010

advent journal: the night is far spent . . .

The night is far spent . . .

Yes, there’s another half to that sentence, but it’s too early to write it down. We still have weeks of days growing shorter, of darkening afternoons, of lying down to sleep in the middle of all that is not yet. While the new year we mark with our shared calendar comes with countdowns and confetti, the new year that begins with Advent starts with a pregnant pause and silence as thick as the dark.

We are waiting: preparing, anticipating, getting ready.

Last night, Ginger, Jay, and I walked down to Fullsteam, our neighborhood pub, with Ella, our most social Schnauzer, in tow. She was the hit of the bar. One guy came over to pet her and stayed to talk to us. His wife is eight and a half months pregnant. “This is my last night out before the baby comes,” he said, with more excitement than regret. He was already marking time by the birth.

I got home last night and realized today would have been my friend David’s fifty-ninth birthday had he not died suddenly last December. He was one who incarnated the presence of Jesus as much as anyone I know and he died for no good reason. When I sat down to write tonight, I got word that the son of a friend here in Durham died on Thursday. He was born only two weeks ago. Even as I prepare for Christ to be born again in my time and in my culture, I am marking time by who is not here, by whom I have lost, by death. As we talk about Advent as a season of waiting in the best sense of the term, I realize I am waiting for and watching as my father-in-law disappears due to his Alzheimer’s. He walks the halls of our home, lost in the short passageway between his room and the sunroom where he watches television, lost in the corridors of his mind, trapped in the excruciating pause that is now his life. Sometimes when he’s moving down the hall, we ask where he’s going and he says simply, “I don’t know,” and then waits for further instructions. This is some of the pain I know of, and I am barely scratching the surface of the shared pain of humanity.

The night is far spent and its taking names.

Our Hanging of the Greens service, which marks the beginning of Advent, centers around the various traditions that Christianity appropriated over the years to make them part of our expression of the hope and faith we find in Christmas. As the holly, evergreen wreaths, poinsettias, and lighted trees were brought in and we heard the stories, I realized I am a part of a faith tradition, a citizen of a country, and a speaker of a language all of which have thrived on appropriation, by which I mean they have found ways to take what they find interesting around them and make it part of themselves as a way of improving and growing – and, sometimes, conquering.

The particular point in the service where it hit me was when two children brought in the poinsettias. The legend, which came from Mexico, told of a little girl who had nothing to bring the Baby in the manger, so she picked a plain branch. By the time she gave it to Jesus, it had blossomed into the beautiful flower we see at Christmas. The story has the same magic realism as a good Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, where healing happens because something is transformed by hope, or pain, or tears, or love.

The Gospel passage for today wasn’t pointing to Bethlehem quite yet, a reminder that endings are prelude to beginnings. Jesus was talking about the end of the world, using a break-in as metaphor:

But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
Whether with a bang or with a whimper, the world ends with about as much warning as Reuben’s Alzheimer’s or the little girl’s flowering branch. The world ends over and over everyday all around us without much regard for purpose or preparation. We know the thieves are coming and we can’t stay awake because we’re exhausted.

The night is far spent and has dragged us with it.

Ritual, as an act of faith, is meaningful repetition. The words we read and the songs we sing invite us to move with the sacred and subversive muscle memory of all those who have come before us lighting one candle at a time in the face of the gathering dark, telling the stories over and over, sharing soup and bread and hope, and waiting as the world ends again and again for another beginning.

The night is far spent . . . .


Saturday, November 27, 2010

a christmas story

A couple of years ago, I recorded a story I wrote some years before that for a Christmas Eve service at our church in Marshfield, Massachusetts. I have some of the CDs available for purchase, should you wish to share them, or have one for yourself. Paypal says you can buy one by clicking the button below.

You can read the text of the story here.

Gift message


Sunday, November 21, 2010

sunday sonnet #14

When it comes to spiritual metaphors, kingdom is problematic for me. I’ve written about it before. Thus, my sonnet offering for today.

When Jesus talked of God, he spoke of shepherds and of kings –
the metaphors held meanings people knew;
they’ve survived the centuries when we speak and when we sing,
yet the original meanings struggle to get through.
So let us ask why, when we’re trying to speak in present tense,
we chose to cling to things that are archaic?
When we see that no one’s laughing, it certainly makes sense
‘Cause we keep on telling jokes in Aramaic.
With any of the parables, the reader has to work,
and that labor deepens with distance from the telling;
our interpretations must be more relevant than rote,
less compliant, more subversive and compelling.
Jesus wasn’t kidding when he warned about new wine,
New eyes and new wineskins are needed by design.

P. S. -- In preparing for Thanksgiving, I also offer new pie recipes here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

sing to the night

I don’t remember the first time I heard a Bob Dylan song. I do, however, remember the first one I learned on my guitar. It was 1970, I was a ninth grader with a new guitar, and my friend Jim had the words and chords:

come gather ‘round people wherever you roam
and admit that the waters around you have grown
and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
if your time to you is worth savin’
Dylan’s words and music have been part of my soundtrack ever since. An email from a friend offered a new stanza to the refrain a few nights ago: could I go with him to sing Dylan songs for a friend?

The man in question has throat cancer that has cost him his voice and is bringing him to terms with his mortality faster than the rest of us fifty-somethings. He also loved to play and sing Dylan, but the latter was no longer an option. So my friend, who plays harmonica, invited me to be the voice for the evening. I said yes to my friend, yes to Dylan, and yes to more than I could imagine.

The man met us at the door just as we climbed the stairs up to the deep wooden porch of his home, his neck bent slightly forward and wrapped in a white bandage, making it look as though he was wearing a turtleneck out of season. The old, restored home was illuminated by the quiet, personal light of various lamps around the room; the couch and chairs were circled in anticipation of our evening together. He sat down and began typing on his laptop, which vocalized for him:

“I have Stephen Hawking’s voice.” Even the computer seemed to smile as it spoke.

“Have you seen any new universes?” asked my friend.

“Of course,” said the voice.

We then faced our first challenge: how to get started. Of all the songs available to us, which one would we do first? My friend and I deferred, and the man chose “Girl of the North Country." I realized, as I began singing, that every word was infused with the hope and futility of our circumstances.
well if you’re traveling to the North Country Fair
where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
remember me to the one who lives there
she once was a love of mine
Dylan’s lyrics are a catalog of love and loss, of mystery and misses, and we sat in our small circle of couches and lamplight – the eye of the storm, if you will – hearing new things in old words and melodies. We sang songs we knew from muscle memory (Hey, Mister Tambourine Man, play a song for me/ In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you”) and even had a few moments of unabashed enjoyment:
whoo-ee ride me high
tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come
oh oh are we gonna fly
down in the easy chair
We were four or five songs in when I began to catch a glimpse of the grace into which I had stumbled. The man’s wife pulled a chair into the circle just as I began to sing
they say everything can be replaced
yet every distance is not near
so I remember every face
of every man who put me here
I see the light come shining
from the west down to the east
any day now, any day now
I shall be released
She sat next to me, singing quietly in whispering hope, like the old gospel song, and I was captured by a sense of the sacred, a serendipitous thin place that opened because my friend had trusted me with his friends, and his friend’s pain; a thin place that opened onto a field of gratitude that I was privileged to sit in this circle of longtime friends, for I was an interloper to their intimacy, invited in to sing.

For over two hours, we played and sang and talked. As the evening progressed, so did the man’s exhaustion, despite his best protests. Still, he was unrelenting. My turn to choose, so I picked my favorite of Dylan’s catalog, though I didn’t see what I had unpacked until I got to the last verse:
I’ll look for you in honolulu
san fransisco ashtabulah
you’re gonna have to leave me now I know
but I’ll see you in the stars above
in the tall grass in the ones I love
you’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.
When we finished the song, I looked at his wife, her eyes glistening. “Thank you,” she said.

“For what?” I wanted to respond. For answering my friend’s request because I love to play and sing with him? For stumbling into sacredness with my song choice? For being fortunate enough to be in the room to bump up against the well-worn love they shared? Instead, I said, “You’re welcome.”

Her request before she left the circle was “Forever Young.” We all joined in without irony.
may God bless and keep you always
may your wishes all come true
may you always do for others
and have others do for you
may you build a ladder to the stars
and climb on every rung
and may you stay forever young
Together, in a room where most of those requests fell empty to the floor, where the hope that filled the room like the lamplight could not chase all the darkness away, we sang. It was what we could do. And I left thankful for a friend who trusted me enough to invite me to help carry some of the burden.


Monday, November 15, 2010

faith at full steam

I’m a regular.

If Fullsteam Brewery were casting a remake of Cheers, I’d be in the running for the role of Norm. I don’t drink nearly as much as he did, but when I walk in, they know me. And I love it.

I’m also a regular at my church.

My friend, Jimmy – AKA my favorite carpenter-beekeeper-teacher-pastor-libertarian-crazy man often wonders aloud why we in the institutional church don’t get that we would reach more people if we were more, well, pub like. As long as I’m referencing Cheers, you remember the theme song:

sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name
and they’re always glad you came
you want to go where people know
our troubles are all the same
you want to go where
everybody knows your name
A Texas pastor friend of Jimmy’s was with us for our now regular Friday afternoon gatherings at Fullsteam and said, “They accused Jesus of being a glutton and a wine bibber and then, when it came right down to it, what did he tell us to do to remember him? Eat and drink.”

His point is cute, clever, and fairly well-worn, even in the Baptist circles where he abides. I can’t claim much originality either in the analogy between pub and parish. Still, finding my way to Fullsteam has brought it alive for me again. Something about the room makes people want to gather there – and they do, in all sorts of connections. Our neighborhood, which backs up on the brewery, had a happy hour there last week, inviting also the Only Burger truck to join us, and we had over fifty folks, along with children and dogs, talking and chewing and drinking and relishing the time together. And I felt there like I want to feel when I walk into coffee hour at church.

No – I felt there the way I wish people felt when they visit our church and walk into coffee hour.

I love going to church and I love that is a place where I feel known and feel connected. But there is a difference between parish and pub and I think that difference is akin to trying to write a good poem when you’re carrying an agenda: it’s not that you can’t, but it’s damn hard work. At Fullsteam, the point is to get together; church can become getting together for a point, or a project, or something that feels heavier than simply being gathered together.

I am not required to think much about how to keep the doors open at Fullsteam while I’m there. Listen to the conversations at most any church coffee hour, and a fair amount of them – especially during this traditional stewardship season – revolve around how to keep our beloved institution going. The conversations are well intentioned and even necessary, to a point, and we can end up creating a place where it can feel as though you don’t want everyone to know your name because they will assign you to a committee.

A couple of Sundays ago in church, one of our members made a presentation of an historical church document she had found and had also taken the care and initiative to restore and reframe. Apologetically she declared, “I just did it. I didn’t go through any committees or boards.”

A knowing laughter rippled through the congregation.

In most every church I’ve been a part of, we do a weird thing when it comes to stewardship: we start to talk about the church as if it were not us, as though it were a foreign entity – an institution: “Give to the church,” we say; “If we want the church to be able to carry on,” we add, as though we weren’t the church itself, but instead are giving to something akin to the Red Cross or NPR. One church where I served led into the weekly offering by saying, “For the work of the church . . .”

And yet, our children sing,
I am the church
you are the church
we are the church together . . .
Sounds more like a pub song than an institutional anthem to me.

We are the Body of Christ, the incarnation of God’s love for these days called, as Ginger invites us to do each Sunday, to breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God. We are the hands and feet and eyes and ears and arms and legs of Christ – of the one who ate and drank with people and rarely formed committees. The community we are creating is one born of the kind of explosive joy and grace that would choose an unknown peasant girl to bring Love into the world, drawing in everyone. And, in the week by week living out of our community, we often become connected primarily by the responsibilities we put on one another and church becomes serious business.

And church as business becomes the working metaphor.

I will be the first to admit business is not my strength and I’m not trying to throw the accountant out with the bath water, yet I wonder what we are missing when we think of church as a business – an entity other than ourselves – when it comes to how we share our money with one another, because that is what it means to be the Body of Christ: to share, rather than to give. We share our dreams, our sorrows, our ideas, our mistakes, and our money. We do it best, I think, without using last year’s giving records as a reference, or depending on the government to give us a tax deduction. When we give, we give to God, to one another: we are funding faith, not donating to charity.

We are the church. Together.

It wasn’t the room that made Norm feel at home at Cheers, but the way they called his name, and the way he knew they would be waiting for him. Of course, it was also a chance for him to toss one of his great one-liners – my personal favorite:
Sam: “Norm! How’s it going?”
Norm: “It’s a dog eat dog world, Sammy, and I’m wearing Milk Bone underwear.”
Aren’t we all. Here, on the cusp of Advent, I want to walk into Fellowship Hall and remember the Body of Christ that inhabits our stack of cinder blocks is born of extravagance, of brilliance, of unabashed creativity, of unrestrained inclusivity, of resilient hope, and redemptive failure. I want to remember that Jesus wasn’t joking when he said, “Consider the lilies.” I want to live thankfully, congregationally, joyful and triumphant. I want to share our gifts, our belongings, and our faith at full steam.


P. S. -- I'm on a roll: here's another new recipe.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

sunday sonnet #13

The text today was Isaiah 65:17-25 and Ginger's sermon ran the gardens from Eden to Woodstock. Here's where it all took me.

The sermon was a mash up of Isaiah and Joni's words:
how looking back can tell us where we're going;
that the good old days were best is prophetically absurd --
nostalgia sets our cataracts to growing
so we can't see much else but the way it used to be
and we lose sight of the prophet's call to action;
to feed both the famine in the heart and the hunger in the belly
calls for us to do more than maudlin redaction.
By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong --
but then we traded our ideals for MBAs;
true faith's not idealistic, but clings to hope that does the long
hard work of courage in the living of these days.
What defines our days of glory
depends on how we tell the story.

P. S. I can't pass up the chance to let Joni sing. Also, for the first time in a long time, posted new recipes here and here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

it's you

In the Grand Scheme of It All,
truth rides in on small things –
the way a shooting star
defines the Universe
in a fleeting gesture
of magnificent futility.

In the Giant Medical Center,
we stood beside the bed,
the small room stuffed
with relatives and machines,
neither saying much
of anything.

We came bearing Cupcakes:
chocolate, at his wife’s request –
our small gesture of
confectionery compassion.
My wife asked the ailing
octogenarian to

Name three highlights . . .”

“That’s easy,” he said
and then he reached out
his hand across the bed rail
and took her hand
so familiar, and said,
“It’s you.”


Sunday, November 07, 2010

sunday sonnet #12

The lectionary it seems uses the last few weeks before Advent to dish out some difficult passages. This morning's came from Haggai.

The children sang, “If you’re happy clap your hands”
and Ginger gave a nod to “Glory Days,”
We sang “Wayfaring Stranger” with piano – not a band
and then wrestled with the prophet’s turn of phrase
as he talked about the Temple and replacing old with new,
that we’ve been called to what we can’t expect;
clinging to control we, as the faithful, cannot do
and still hope our dry bones God will resurrect.
Haggai hits hard with a simple proclamation:
Glory Days, they’re gonna pass you by;
for memory is more than the seed of resignation,
the future more than a mansion in the sky.
Temples built of volition and intention
host folks filled with compassion and redemption.

P. S. Since it made the sermon, I might as well let it end the post as well.

Friday, November 05, 2010

the greens of yesterday

This is the week of found poetry for me, or perhaps I should call it delivered poetry: words given to me. Here’s a comment from my friend, Mitch, on one of my recent blog posts.

hey milt:
up above, you wrote "the chards of the past" . . .
just wanted to point out that what you MEANT to write was "the SHARDS of the past." glass that breaks is spelled "shards;" the vegetable is spelled "chard" (i.e. "swiss chard").
so, unless you were referring to the greens of yesterday, i think you meant "shards."
Here’s to the chards of the past -- and to kind and friendly editors.
the greens of yesterday
(shards of chard)
start by breaking the rainbow
stems at the bottom of the leaves
stack them like wood
and chop them into dice
toss them against
the side of the sauté pan
sizzling with acceptance
as they slide through the olive oil
be patient
tenderness takes time
lay the leaves flat
one on top of the other
like scrapbook pages
and then roll them up
tightly from one side
the way Cuban women
once rolled cigars
while readers unwrapped
novels to pass the time
and share the stories
slice the leaves
across the rolls
chiffonade is the name
which must have a story of its own
the chard segments fall
first in tiny spirals
and then unravel
like a good story falling
into layers of meaning
shards of suggestion
on the cutting board
like unread tea leaves
when the chard first
hits the pan it makes
a sound somewhere between
applause and anticipation
the moisture evaporates
shrinking the size of the leaves
distilling flavors
memory reduced to essentials
to how we want to remember
to what we want
to carry away with us
when we leave the table.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

jazz like blue

Somewhere in the middle of my morning, Ginger sent me this text:

sitting outside the doc listening to old school jazz watching the rain fall on the maroon and amber leaves and wishing we were together
I couldn't help but hear the poem already at work, so I set out to find it. Here's what I found.
jazz like blue
the strains of
the music started
in a windowless studio
where they kept time
like promises
turning old school
improv into melody
that seeps now
like strong medicine
into the waiting room
jazz like blue
rain keeping the beat
and wondering off
to tap the leaves
maroon and amber
until they let loose
and fall into the song
the same song
I know your heart
hears looking out
some other window
keeping time for me

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Some years ago, Ginger and I were walking along the sidewalk in Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. when we passed a homeless man sitting in a doorway. Just as we drew even with him, he barked, “Change!” loudly enough for the people across the street to hear him.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any,” Ginger said.
“I’m trying, I’m trying,” I pleaded.

Same word, different ears.

The story came back to mind over the last few days, as the election hysteria crescendoed, along with the predictions of the Democrats’ demise, and most of the news analysts couldn’t complete a sentence without talking about change. And I wondered about their working definition of the word. It can mean to alter or transform; it can also mean to swap out, as in exchange. Then, of course, there’s the pocket-full-of-change variety, or as far as this election was concerned, the truckloads full of change.

I found some comfort in looking up the word, though I felt I knew the definition, because it helped me come to terms with the reality that the “change” our politicians talk about, particularly when they are the ones out of power, is about the swapping out and the change I dream of has more of a revolutionary edge. Our political process is more pendulum than promise, more vengeance than virtue, more hubris than hope. Based on their track record, to see tonight’s election as profound change in Congress makes as much sense as thinking it’s a whole new ball game because two football teams swapped ends of the field at halftime.

When I look at the rest of the world, I am amazed that we move from one party in power to the other with little or none of the violence that plagues some nations. Then again, none of those nations have the resources we do. And we can only see our process as relatively violence free if we ignore the way we talk to each other. This election season has been a verbal bloodbath. We have little to be proud of. We are angrier, meaner, and more extravagant in both our budgets and belligerence than we have ever been. And we are obsessed with elections. Everyday is election season. By Monday, people will begin announcing they are running for President in 2012 so we can all pick sides ands scream at each other some more.

Politicians and special interest groups whose donors remain anonymous spent more money and aired more attack ads than just about any other election. I heard one party pundit praise his candidates for “not getting mired down in talking about the issues.” Mitch O’Connell made a point of saying his top concern is to make sure Obama is a one term president. Not the war in Afghanistan. Not the economy. Not anything other than win, win, win. And he’s far from alone in his sentiment, on either side of the fight.

I voted today, and I also wondered if my actions did anything more than perpetuate the system. I work hard not to shop at Wal Mart because of the way they have chosen to run their business over the years. Why do I keep participating in a system that is invested in making sure people with money have the most influence, holds a warped view of power and what it means to be in charge, and has no appetite for transformation?

The question is not rhetorical. Neither is it a cheap cynical shot. It’s very alive to me. Whatever the issue – immigration, poverty, nuclear arms, foreign policy, health care – shouting each other down is not the same thing as a meaningful discussion. Making political or parliamentary maneuvers to block legislation is not the same as honest dialogue. Well-financed sound bytes are not legitimate substitutes for substantive articulation.

And simply repeating the regurgitation is not reporting, either.

I have no illusion that anyone beyond the fellow members of my neighborhood board listen to me, when it comes to politics. I’ve no money to give, no constituency to offer, even if I am a straight white guy. But speaking up does not feel as futile as voting to me because I believe words do change things – transform things. And I trust what I see in the life of Jesus and in the gospels: real change is not instigated by the powerful, or by appealing to them, or, perhaps, voting for them.

I’ve made several attempts at ending this piece that have moved from overly sincere to sanctimonious to sappy, none of them satisfactory. So I think I’ll go for small. I can’t fix the big issues, so I will choose to look into faces. Anar, a man who works at one of our local grocery stores, works with Bhutanese refugees moving to the area and needs Target gift cards to help them set up house. I can do that. We teach English classes on Wednesday nights at our church for local Latino immigrants. I can do that. I can cook for whoever I can find. I can keep making Kiva loans. I can help my students live through high school. I can love my wife. I can have a lifetime of hope and opportunity by choosing to meet the needs in front of my face.


What do you hear?