Saturday, June 30, 2007

cry wolf

“Forget about fairy tales,” she said
as we entered Wolf Hollow.
“They will make you frightened
of the wolves,” she said, as though
we were looking at docile dogs
through two layers of tall fence.

Gracie our youngest, descendant
of the wolves I’m told, is frightened
by the early freedom thunder
of fireworks a couple of blocks away.
She shakes as though she might
wear out her skin from the inside
and lays down on my feet

while I’m trying to write.
“Forget about the fireworks,” I say.
“They are too far away to hurt you.”
She is not convinced and flinches
with every rocket red roar. I can’t
fence out bombs bursting in air.

Fear can look foolish on the face
of another. Incredulity can incite
insensitivity. “Be not afraid,”
we say, like Gabriel to Mary,
an unmarried, pregnant teenager
who hid his words in her heart.

Faith can look foolish, too.
Making believe was hard work
in the face of her fears, both real
and imagined. It looks easy
when we tell the story now
because the angels are long gone.

I can’t forget about fairy tales or fear
anymore than I can stop making
believe. That woman knows her wolves
as well as Mary did her angels.
Gracie and I can only hear the boom
in the distance and wonder what’s next.

living in time

I am more and more convinced that time doesn’t move in a line.

Even as I make that statement, I can recall one of my seminary professors waxing eloquent about the linear view of time being something that made the Judeo-Christian worldview stand apart from the others: history was going somewhere rather than going in circles.

But here’s the deal: in the middle of our youth mission trip this past week, I got an email message from, Deana, who was in my youth group twenty years ago catching me up on her life and saying thanks for helping her through some hard times. Two decades later, how I feel about teenagers and how I interact with them is not so different. Time has moved, yes, but not in a line. I need a different metaphor. The idea that history, whether public or personal, simply moves from Point A to Point B makes something with more layers than lasagna sound two dimensional. Time is a dimension of its own, with room to move, as the old Sesame Street song used to say,

around and around
around and around

over under and through
In the summer of 1984, my friend Gene (who can be found here) invited me to go to youth camp with his church as camp pastor. One of the things we did was to set up a sound system so we could make announcements and provide a soundtrack for the week. Each morning, he and I got up early and found our way to the microphone to sing an intentionally irritating version of “Morning Has Broken,” which is probably the reason Cat Stevens quit singing and converted to Islam. In the twenty-odd summers since, I’ve kept waking kids with that songs and others, such as this (with apologies to Minnie Ripperton)
waking you is easy ‘cause I’m beautiful
and every time that I do

I just love waking you
And yes, I hit the high notes – which leads me to one of my favorite moments on our trip. The last morning everyone was moving particularly slowly, so I kept singing as I went about my tasks. One of the kids, who woke up not feeling well, came up to me and said, “Your voice is magnified like ten times in my head.”

“Wow!” I answered. “That must be awesome.”

Sometimes I crack myself up. One of the other things I learned from Gene that summer that has stayed with me was the practice of writing affirmation cards. He showed up at camp with enough cards for everyone to write everyone else at least once (and there were three hundred of us), and we did. I’ve parted with a lot of things over the years, but I still have almost every card I’ve ever received. They are treasures.

One of the kids on our trip built an outdoor labyrinth at his church for his Eagle Scout project. The spiritual practice of walking the labyrinth is something that speaks to me and something I’m still learning about.
The use of the labyrinth is older than Christianity and carries in it a sense of time that can carry all the layers. The first time I walked one, I was struck by how I moved all over the circle as I worked my way to the center. I would be walking next to someone and then we would both make turns and be on opposite sides of the circle, moving both together and separately, both ultimately aimed at the center. As long ago and far away as those days at Camp Ozark seem to me, all it takes is one turn singing in the morning and Gene and I are walking side by side once again. Writing affirmation cards draws me close to Deana and others with whom I have shared love and encouragement. To walk a straight line on our planet would bring me back to where I started; I’m not sure time is any different. Whether we’re spending time, saving time, making time, marking time, losing time, or finding time, we go out where we came in: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

One of my favorite singer-songwriters from my college days was B. W. Stevenson. His self-titled album is still one of the best things I own, even if it’s still only on vinyl. When I lived in Fort Worth in the mid-eighties, I saw he was playing in a little club called The Hop. His few radio songs were long gone and he made a living doing small gigs, mostly in Texas. It was a weeknight and I was one of only a handful of people in the room, but he sang like it was a sellout. During a break between sets, he sat down at a booth by himself with a beer and I walked over to say a few words of affirmation. “I’ve been following you since college,” I said.

“Oh!” he replied. “You’re the guy.”

We talked for a bit and I got to say thanks for the songs that meant so much to me. I stayed until he wouldn’t sing anymore and went home. I never saw him again. He died a couple of years later, at 38, of complications after heart surgery. Here’s what he said about time:
well, sorrow brings you loneliness
and pain can bring disgrace
at twenty-one the world
is written on your face

got no one to turn to -

the road is long and low
just look on up to Jesus,
and He can let you know.

you've got to save a little time,
save a little time,

save a little time for love.

save a little time, save a little time,

save a little time for love.

life can bring misfortune
and it can bring you strife,

your mind may want to lash out
at the friends you find in life.

take hold of your senses,
the devil takes his toll

just look on up to Jesus,
and He can let you know.

you’ve got to save a little time,

save a little time,

save a little time for love.

save a little time, save a little time,

save a little time for love.

well, if you see your brother,
and he's without a friend

take hold of his heart and soul
and walk him to the end.

take his mind and try
to make him understand

that man is only man,
but he does the best he can.

you've got to save a little time,

save a little time,

save a little time for love.

save a little time, save a little time,

save a little time for love.
Time is, most of all, the dimension in which love thrives.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

artful analogies

One of the things I have been turning over in my mind for the last couple of days is this post from Back Road Journey:

This past Sunday in worship we were asked the question, “What is the opposite of war?” and before I could even think of the standard response of “peace,” we were offered a refreshing response, “art is the opposite of war.” Art. Art… How does this work? The pastor continued, “the opposite of destruction is creativity.” Well of course. I rather like this way of thinking.
The analogy takes me back to SAT days:

war : violence :: peace : creativity

Whatever violence is, it is not creative. As I wrote in response to the post, creativity begats life; violence begats violence. Whatever shape it takes – war, destruction, personal attacks, abuse, power plays (the list is by no means exhaustive) – violence doesn’t offer hope or humanity. War is destruction, regardless of the reasons for waging it or the spoils collected from winning it. When we fight, we become cannibals, feeding on ourselves. The people on the receiving end of our destruction are not “them”; they are us. The only way the enemy stays an enemy is for us to give them a caricature rather than a face.

We are created in the image of God, the Bible tells us almost from the first, which means we are spitting images of the One who dreamed up whales and wallabies and gave us minds to dream up whipped cream, wall paper, and wine. (I was trying to stick with w’s.) I realize there are several stories in the books that follow that tell of God telling the people to invade other lands (Canaan in particular). I’ve often wondered if what they heard and what was said was the same thing. Even if they heard right, the violence was not creative for very long. Finding the lineage from life in Gaza these days back to those biblical scenes is not so far fetched. But I digress: I’m not trying to write a treatise on nonviolence as much as I want to talk about how the post intersected my life this week.

One of the realities of any youth camp or mission trip is there is going to be a Last Night. Our group had worked hard and had endured several days of temperatures in the nineties and they were tired, but that didn’t stop them from planning to stay up as late as they could last night. We, as the adults on said trip, had to decide how to respond factoring in we were staying in someone else’s church, we had to drive the vehicles home this morning, and the kids would be able to stay up later than we could. That may seem a far cry from war and violence, but bear with me. If creativity is the opposite of destruction and violence, then we are talking about more than war: to teach creatively, speak creatively, work creatively, relate creatively, even write creatively means to do so without violence, without doing damage.

We could have waged war against the all-nighter, as have many youth workers over the years, but Ginger had a more creative idea: why not take everybody out to eat at an all night diner? It’s a pattern we have followed on many youth trips: take the thing that carries the most potential for destruction and turn it into a creative act. If they were going to be up late (and they were), why not make a memory out of it. When we had finished our evening session and completed the beginnings of our packing and cleanup, we piled in the vans and drove to the Goldroc Diner, an 24/7 Hartford institution. (We did call and tell them we were coming.) At fifteen minutes after midnight, thirty-five of us sat down to breakfast, lunch, or dinner, depending on the person and we ate and talked and laughed until nearly two o’clock when we go back to the church. Though some still wanted to watch a movie, no one stayed awake long and no one had to play night watchman.

creativity : destruction :: all night diner : last night of trip

During the Balkan war, I remember hearing a story about cellist Vedran Smajlovic:

In the spring of 1992, a mortar shell hit a bread line in Sarajevo, killing 22 people. The next day, Smajlovic put on his work clothes - black tie and tails - and took his cello to the bomb crater and played Albinoni's Adagio. He continued to play one day for each of the dead. After that, he played at sites of bombings throughout Sarajevo.

creativity : destruction :: cellist : bomb

One of the best things about getting away on a trip as we did is you get some days where being together is the primary way of being. The news that mattered to us was what we did together that day. We worked together, played together, ate together, lived together. Creativity thrives in community. As the various cars pulled out of the church parking lot taking the kids back to their various homes, the bond we forged couldn’t help but unravel somewhat. We are no longer together. We are back in our lives, bombarded with violence. Creativity can still thrive, but not without intentional commitment. We are still together if we choose to be, and we have room for others to join the circle. If we allow ourselves to believe that separating violence is the status quo, then we lose sight of the One in whose image we are created and we lose sight of ourselves.

Violence is a far easier path to take than the creative road because it’s what we think of first. Creativity is not a knee jerk reaction. It is thoughtful, intentional, tenacious, resilient, inclusive, inviting, faithful, and foolish. In a world full of violence, it’s hard to believe that which way the world goes depends on an all night diner or a cellist.

The best way to get through the night together is to go to breakfast.
The only way to play in a bomb crater is to believe it makes a difference.

diner : cello :: love : hope


P. S. -- Creativity also surprises. I have a new recipe that grew out of a mistake.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

asylum hill

once upon a time
or even below one
there was an asylum
somewhere here
on asylum hill
there had to be
everything is named
after it: asylum this
asylum that

all the doors
and windows up
and down the street
have bars to keep
people out, not in
like the old days
when you knew who
was crazy up here
on asylum hill

our high school
inmates are running
every chance they get
on a mission
crazy with excitement
and teenage faith
that’s crazy enough
to believe they can
change the world

or at least change
the way life feels
for those living on
asylum hill
so they are digging
in the dirt, planting
friendship and flowers
hoping love takes root
and blossoms

I was crazy once --
it all comes back
when they come into
the church kitchen
to fill their plates
and my ears with stories
of faith run amok
and I feel at home
on asylum hill


Sunday, June 24, 2007

on a mission from god

I'm off to Hartford on our church's youth mission trip and will be back on Thursday. I don't know how often I will get to post in the days ahead, but I'll do my best.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

yard sailing

Since I grew up in Africa, one of the American phenomena I have struggled to understand is the Yard Sale. In Nairobi or Lusaka, the thought of selling stuff we were no longer using made no sense; we gave it away to any number of folks around us who needed it and more. We weren’t making some sort of moral choice, really. No one thought of having a yard sale. It wasn’t a part of the cultural lexicon. All these years later, I showed my Americaness (Americanity?) and dragged all kinds of stuff out into the driveway to try and convince someone else they needed it and could have it for a bargain price.

The occasion was nothing more than Ginger and I attempting to dispossess any number of items we have managed to accumulate over the years, from various Sponge Bob paraphernalia to a couple of antiques to bookshelves to kitchen utensils. Since Ginger is away, it fell to my mother-in-law and I to price our treasures and get them ready to sell. Ginger called a couple of times during the day and asked how things were going. When I told her what had sold she asked how I had priced it. In most every case she said, “You’re selling things cheap.” I realized about thirty minutes after we opened shop and the yard sailors began to dock in the driveway that my inclination was still just to give it away. I was trying to get rid of things more than I was trying to sell them.

Needless to say, the end of the day saw us a little less encumbered and not much richer.

When we first moved to Charlestown in 1990, we were newly married with very few possessions and very little money. Rosemary, the woman who helped us find our first apartment, said if you need furniture or things for your house, just drive around on Sunday night and you can find lots of stuff on the curb.

Monday was trash day.

She was right. Over the years we saw some amazing stuff on the sidewalks in our neighborhood. Curbside Stuff Swapping is a regional sport in New England. Here in Marshfield, I often see different pieces of furniture at the end of a driveway with a “Free” sign attached, only to drive by an hour or two later and find them gone. If the Yard Sailors are the ones who pay, perhaps these might be the Yard Pirates. Aaarrgh!

One of the interesting things I have learned – OK, relearned – about myself getting ready for today is, though I’m not necessarily an acquisitional person, I have a hard time letting go of things I have. It’s not so much stuff as status as it is collecting as comfort. Since home is not a geographical location for me, perhaps the trinkets and toys provide a sense of place: I belong here because my stuff’s here. There’s also something about depression that drives people to hang on to things. For all the stuff I did manage to get in the driveway, I didn’t part with any books or CDs, though both herds need to be culled. Certainly, there are a good number of both I want to keep, but, after all these years without hearing it, can I not dump my Hothouse Flowers CD (from 1988) into my computer and let that record go?

Then where do I stop: the Hooters, the Housemartins, the Rainmakers, Del Amitri, Mister Mister? And those are just the late eighties bands. (Yes, I’ve invested a lot in CDs over the years.) When I feel most fragile, it feels like the thread that unravels the whole blanket. I need the things as tangible evidence of the memory that life doesn’t always feel dark. My in-laws are here for a month or so and my father-in-law’s Alzheimer’s is slowly worsening. The present tense is no longer reliable for him. Tonight we sat around the table for thirty minutes after we finished eating telling stories from our past about different jobs we’ve had, then we talked about pets, and then we talked about crazy relatives, which is where any conversation with the Brashers always seems to land because they’ve got a collection of kin worthy of Flannery O’Connor.

His past remains trustworthy; it still recognizes him. He can go sailing on the bounding main of memory without fear of getting lost or capsizing in an unexpected storm. Tonight our sails filled with the spirit of our conversation and took him to the places he knows and is known. His eyes sparkled the way only his eyes sparkle and he laughed his big earthquake of a laugh as he traveled across time. When we got back to the present, he sat back down in the recliner and went to sleep.

Somewhere on a ski slope in the spring of ’86, I remember sliding off the chair lift and heading down the slope with some of the kids in my youth group just as Richard Page’s voice began to sing:

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night
The whole eighties production with walls of guitars and monster drum sounds along with layers of background vocals, coupled with the spectacular spring skiing in Colorado gave me wings as I came down the mountain. And in the dark valleys that have followed, I’ve held on to those words even without the melody: Lord, have mercy.

Some of the folks who navigated our driveway today were paying about as much attention as tourists on a cruise ship. Others were sailing a specific course. A young woman stopped with her father; they were looking for stuff to furnish her college apartment. They bought a book case I stained myself, a small cabinet Ginger fell in love with one summer afternoon, a couple of lamps, and a vase or two that once held flowers I gave my wife. They paid me about forty bucks and sailed off in their pickup to make new stories with our stuff. I wish I’d had presence of mind to ask her if she needed any music.


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

Friday, June 22, 2007


when darkness falls outside
and inside at the end
of a pretty good day
I have turned on the music
I know – songs that have
lighted many nights
with the slide of fingers
along steel strings
fingers picking a pattern
of sorrow and sadness
as comforting as the wind

and as old as my childhood
afternoons spent sitting
in the grass trying to make
my fingers move like his
until I put down my
guitar and sang harmony
while he sang melody
and I knew he was telling
the truth, just as he
is doing again tonight
ain’t it good to know

I bought that record
in ninth grade almost
forty years ago – in days
when I was still learning
how to play guitar, to be
a friend, how to be me;
one harder than the others
four decades have drawn
new lines and old ones
I still can’t play like him
but I can sing the harmony


Thursday, June 21, 2007


Summer arrives in a few minutes
announced only by the estival breezes
and the clacking of the wooden
blinds in our room. The sun filled
the room with light just after five
this morning and won’t retreat
until nearly ten.

This is the longest day.

Somewhere around ten I watched
the taillights of the Wranger
disappear around the corner
as you left for a week of work
in another town. We will sleep
under the same moon, but
not in the same bed.

This is the longest day.

I picked lettuce for lunch
from the garden and I can’t let
this beautiful afternoon pass
without a walk on the beach.
These are things we do
together, you and I. Today
I will go alone.

The Mayans were so connected
to the seasons and the sun
that they knew exactly when
the first light would break into
their temple at Solstice
and they gathered to pray
and to feast.

I am connected to you
across the miles and meadows,
in the wind and wishes that
swirl around me; we’re connected
and so you feel as far away
as the shortest night is from
this summer afternoon.

This is the longest day.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

cheers for church

This has been one of those weeks where Ginger’s schedule and mine leave us feeling as though we live in different time zones, so I rode with her to her meeting on the other side of Boston just so we could have time in the car together both going and coming back. While she went to work, I spent a couple of hours in the Cherry Tree Pub in West Newton, Mass. – and it was time well spent.

The room was lit mostly by the two giant flat screen HD TVs that have probably never been on any other channels than ESPN or a Sox game. The left half of the shotgun room was taken up by a long wooden bar and the kitchen (in the back half of the room); the right side had a few booths. One woman, whose name was Pam I quickly learned since I was the only one who entered the bar without calling her name, was the server for the front of the house and there was one cook in the kitchen. They had almost as many different kinds of draft beers as they had customers at the bar. Pam knew what everyone was drinking the minute the walked in.

What mattered most to me was they had Guinness. I spent my evening with a big black beer and a cherry tree (with apologies to KT Tunstall). Sitting in a neighborhood bar in Boston, I couldn’t help but think of the theme song from Cheers all those years ago:

making your way in the world today
takes everything you've got

taking a break from all your worries

sure would help a lot

wouldn't you like to get away

sometimes you
want to go
where everybody knows your name

and they're always glad you came.
you wanna be where you can see

our troubles are all the same

you wanna be where everybody
knows your name

you wanna go where people know

people are all the same

you wanna go where
everybody knows your name
From the time I first heard that song, I’ve thought (like many others) the sentiment expressed what church should be: a place where you belong and everyone knows your name. Don’t we all wish we could walk into the church building and be greeted like Norm when he walked into the bar every afternoon? Which reminds me of my favorite exchanges on the show.
Sam: "Hey, what's happening Norm?"
Norm: "Well, it's a dog eat dog world Sammy, and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear."
Last night I spent about an hour longer at a church planning meeting than I spent in the pub tonight. Everyone in the room was in a place where everybody knew their name. We had come together to talk about our plans for the near future and to dream about what we hope might (or might not) happen in the days farther out than we can see from here. We are a congregation that has worked hard to learn how to communicate openly and forthrightly with one another. We’ve done a pretty good job of diffusing any pew side bombs that may have been lying around. We like each other. We love our church. We want the best for our congregation in the days to come and we want to reflect Christ’s love in what we do and say. Even so, coming to consensus is often about as easy as herding cats.

To find togetherness in a Boston bar, all you have to do is love beer and the Red Sox. This review of the Cherry Tree makes my point:
Went here on Friday night. I can't say the bartender was friendly, but it was a decent pub. It’s a long story about how the night ended, but the bar was ok. EDIT- I am moving this up to 4 stars cause me and the bartender are cool now...actually both bartenders. Typical Boston, ya know? Everyone is all cold at first, then they get to know you, and you're in like Flint. What does that mean, anyway? (holly m.)
Well, Holly, according to World Wide Words, the phrase is “in like Flynn” and “It’s suggested by some writers that the phrase really originated with another Flynn, Edward J Flynn — “Boss” Flynn — a campaign manager for the Democratic party during FDR’s presidency. Flynn’s machine in the South Bronx in New York was so successful at winning elections that his candidates seemed to get into office automatically.”

As I’ve mentioned before, we, like many UCC churches, begin our services with someone saying, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” I love those words and, tonight, I’m struck that the reason church can’t be just like Cheers is because we have more at stake when we gather. If it were just beer and baseball, or if it were just being welcomed, we’d all be in like Flynn, but what we were saying last night was even more profound, I think: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you belong here – or at least that’s what we’re shooting for.”

That’s hard work.

As the meeting wore on last night, I could see the issues on which belonging hinged for different people; they weren’t the same for everyone. What made one passionate left another passive. What seemed urgent from one point of view was almost unnecessary from another. Long range church planning is a paradox on the cusp of a conundrum: it’s crucial work that can’t really be done with any specificity short of saying, “What we want to do for the next fifty years is follow Jesus.”

When we brush up against the mysterious ambiguity to which we are called, the institutional spontaneity, the faithful irreverence, the communal disquietude, then we are truly a place where our names are known, where we belong, and where we can most certainly find someone willing to go out for a beer when it’s all over.


Monday, June 18, 2007

music for a summer day

Summer has finally made it's way here: the day is clear and we're going to hit 80. (I realize that's spring for you Texas folks.) Since I wrote about "Angel from Montgomery," I've had songs on my mind and have now spent the better part of the morning perusing Youtube to see what I can find to share of some of my favorite songs and performers.

"Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen

I love this song because of the experience of seeing him live and getting to sing along with "Show a little faith -- there's magic in the night . . ." This ranks up there as one the best ballads around.

From one Bruce to another, here's Bruce Cockburn's "Lovers in a Dangerous Time."

The video shows quickly that the album came out in the Eighties; the lyrics are timeless:

Don't the hours grow shorter as the days go by
You never get to stop and open your eyes
One day you're waiting for the sky to fall
The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all
When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

Following the lovers theme, here's an amazing clip of John Hiatt singing "Have a Little Faith in Me."

Hiatt's touring partner this summer is Shawn Colvin. "I Don't Know Why" is one of her most beautiful melodies.

I don't know why
The trees grow so tall
And I don't know why
I don't know anything at all
But if there were no music
Then I would not get through
I don't know why
I know these things, but I do

Those words are true for me. Mary Chapin Carpenter's "The Moon and Saint Christopher" is one of those essential melodies, covered here by Mary Black.

Pierce Pettis has made a point of covering at least one Mark Heard song on each of his CDs since Heard's death fifteen years ago. "Nod Over Coffee" is at the top of the list.

If we could see with wiser eyes
What is good and what is sad and what is true
Still it would not be enough
Could never be enough

So we nod over coffee and say goodbye
Bolt the door it's time to go
Into the car with the radio on
Roll down the window and blow the horn

The video begins with a very old clip of Pierce playing the song with Mark.

Here's an old clip of Nanci Griffith and John Prine singing his song, "The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness." He must be a great songwriter -- he rhymed surly and curly.

One last song. Emmylou Harris wrote one of her best songs out of her grief at Gram Parson's death. This song, "Boulder to Birmingham," lives deep down inside me.

I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
I would hold my life in his saving grace.
I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see, I could see your face.

Perhaps the words feel a little melancholy for a summer day, but they're music to my ears and my heart.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

meme, meme, meme -- it's all about meme

Since I started blogging about eighteen months ago I’ve passed on most of the memes that have come my way (OK, all of the memes) mostly because I use this forum to work on my writing. This week, however, I’ve been tagged several times for the “Eight Random Things” meme and it’s Saturday morning and I’ve got an hour to kill before I pick up a friend at the train station and why not?

I’m what is known as a Third Culture Kid.
I grew up as a missionary kid and lived in four different countries in Africa – as well as a couple of years in the US – by the time I was sixteen. From kindergarten to twelfth grade I went to ten different schools in six different cities. I’ve lived in over forty different houses. Finding my way home is no easy task.

I have an irrational disdain for Celine Dion.
I don’t want to hear her sing or talk. I don’t want to see her on television. She is the only black mark on what I see as Canada’s otherwise impeccable record. The Mark of the Beast is somewhere on her body, I’m sure of it. She is the reason for most of the problems in our world today. (Remember, I said my disdain was irrational; please don’t try to convince me otherwise.)

My favorite song is “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine, songwriter extraordinaire.
The person I most love to hear sing the song is Bonnie Raitt. My favorite story about the song is I was singing it at a coffee house one night and introduced it by saying I identified with it more than any other song I knew. Then I sang the first line: “I am an old woman named after my mother . . .”

As long as we’re talking about music, Christina Aguilera is my guilty listening pleasure.
I know my cool quotient probably crashes here, in alt-country acoustic terms, but I like her music. “What a Girl Wants” is fun to hear. I also like her cover of “A Song for You” on Herbie Hancock’s album of duets.

I feel called to help raise other people’s kids.
I have never felt called to have children of my own. Neither has Ginger, which has worked well for us. We have always felt our call was to have an open door for anyone who needed a place – and there have been several over the years. I love working with teenagers. Babies always seem to smile at me. I think it’s because we have the same haircut.

If I could figure out how to get paid for it, I would go to school for a job.
I love taking classes and learning. I don’t really care what the class is, I just want to go. Sometimes I think about pulling into a community college and asking what class is about to start and enrolling. I’m not particularly concerned about a degree or even credit; I just want to go to school.

I’m an incredibly average athlete.
My brother got the sports genes in my family. He also got the knee injury, unfortunately. In tenth grade, a kid who had a leg injury beat me in the hundred yard dash. I’m arguably the worst basketball player on the planet. Who else can only shoot a two-handed set shot? The one sport I can play well is volleyball.

I think Guinness may be the best liquid ever invented.
It is the nectar of heaven, the ultimate substance, the drink of all drinks. Great – now I’m thirsty.

Those are the first eight things that came to mind. I will leave you to decide whether or not you want to meme.


Thursday, June 14, 2007


once in seventh grade I think our teacher gave us a page of words without punctuation or capital letters and we had to figure out where the sentences were and how to make sense of the words the words could be divided up in more ways than one sort of like how my life feels right now when unemployment and alzheimers and marriage and schnauzers and friends and stopping at the post office all run together and I’m not sure which one starts the sentence and which one ends it whether the night is sandwiched between two days or the day between two nights or how time flies whether or not you’re having a good time with my second cup of coffee I’m waking up a bit here in the coffee shop maybe that’s why I’m typing so fast and watching the lady with her baby who is here every week with her friend for her afternoon out of the house and the baby is vocalizing like a rabid soprano not the TV kind maybe she likes being out of the house as well who knows how life gets punctuated certainly not in passive voice we punctuate life I think without having a chance to see the whole paragraph or even the whole sentence before we have to decide on a period or comma or when we’re really feeling adventurous a semi-colon how I long for some parentheses from time to time but they don’t seem to keep as much out as I would like I didn’t expect them to be translucent they look so strong on the page a period of time is not a full stop it has room to move around while I figure out where to go next then again maybe I’ll just sit here awhile longer and listen to the baby she has a grammar all her own punctuating the air with untranslatable exclamations I wonder what would happen if I tried a few of those myself the guy behind me would spew his soup and I would be asked to leave and I have to go home anyway time for dinner new recipe


Wednesday, June 13, 2007


an abandoned house
falls down from neglect
it’s true
I’ve seen it happen
loneliness rots the wood
emptiness eats away
the foundation
like a termite

keep a house
habitated and it won’t
wear out
as long as there are
feet on the floor
voices in the hall
reasons to
stay home

the one who first
drove nails into wood at
our address
couldn’t have known
we would paint
the kitchen floor
blue with purple
puppy paws

when we tore out
the plaster and lathe
I wondered
what escaped in the air
trapped in the walls
the stuff that kept
the house from
falling down

this week our home
has housed old friends
my in-laws who have come
to stay the summer
our well-worn house
is alive and
very well


Monday, June 11, 2007

seven summers at the beach

that would be a good title
for your book about depression
she said, as if it were something
I could come home and put
into words that could one day
be pulled from the shelf

she knows I have it in me
my darkness has ebbed
and flowed like the tides
each season sometimes quiet
sometimes lashing against
the sea wall throwing stones

when we walk together
we stop at the same spot
and look out over the water
we gaze from the same place
but the view is different
every time we stop

seven summers at the beach
and I know my ebb
and flow, the gathering
storms and the quiet seas
and I have survived
like an old seafarer

one day my view will change
I will not see the sea
when I stop to find myself
she will be beside me still
that’s how I will know
where I am

and she will take my hand
and say, remember our
seven summers at the beach
oh yes, I’ll say and we
walk home together
as sure as the tides


Sunday, June 10, 2007

what god sounds like

I know what the voice of God sounds like.

I heard it at church this morning when our pre-kindergarten and kindergarten age children led us in our prayer of confession as a part of our worship service celebrating our children. Five or six little munchkins stood at the front of the church and said together, “Let’s pray” with more energy than I’ve ever heard in such an invitation. Then, in unison, we all said:

God, we’re sorry for the things we did that were wrong. Help us love one another better. Help us love you better. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Then God spoke in the children’s voices:

God’s love is so big! We are forgiven! We get to try again! Thanks be to God!

And everyone said, “Amen.”

When I was a kid, Samuel was one of my favorite biblical characters. I loved the story of him going to wake up Eli because he thought the old man was calling him. When I pictured the priest, I saw him like my father who woke up in the night whenever my brother or I made a noise and then, as long as he was awake, would wander down the hall to the bathroom from which one of us was exiting because that was why we had made noise to begin with. In my mind, Eli was standing in the middle of the hall in his boxer shorts, his hair standing up in all directions, squinting and saying, “What are you doing up?”

“You called me,” Samuel said.

“You’re dreaming,” said the old man. “Go back to bed.”

When it happened a second time, I imagined Eli was a bit more perturbed and a little less sleepy. When Samuel came down the hall the third time, Eli was awake enough to realize what was happening.

“Samuel, you’re hearing a voice that’s not mine. The next time you hear it, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.’” (I learned the story from the King James.)

When I animated the story in my mind, I never had a clear idea how God sounded. I never really bought into the booming bass voice that blows out the woofers. And, I guess, I never spent a lot of time trying to imagine how God sounded at all. But this morning when the children proclaimed, “We are forgiven,” I knew that’s what God sounded like. I really felt forgiven.

When I caught up on my reading tonight, I found this wonderful poem at Anchors and Masts:

God Says Yes To Me
Kaylin Haught
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
About three lines into this wonderful poem, I could hear the kids reading the words. “Yes, yes, yes,” is best said by energetic kindergarteners, don’t you think? Alongside of how it sounds, the voice of God reads like a Mary Oliver poem, for one. One of my favorites is her work simply titled, “Poem”:
The spirit
likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers,
ten toes,

shoulders, and all the rest
at night
in the black branches,
in the morning

in the blue branches
of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather

plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
it needs
the metaphor of the body,

lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body's world,

and imagination
and the dark hug of time,
and tangibility,

to be understood,
to be more than pure light
that burns
where no one is --

so it enters us --
in the morning
shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;

and at night
lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body
like a star.
The watchword of the United Church of Christ is “God is Still Speaking.” What else would God be saying but, “Yes, yes, yes.”


Thursday, June 07, 2007

the wonder of birds

I came home from writing yesterday to find a small box addressed to me in the mailbox. Inside were four CDs of a band I knew only by name and a note from a wonderfully caring person who talked about what the music of The Innocence Mission had meant to her and how she hoped it would resonate with me. I started with their self-titled record and have yet to get to the second one. The music is haunting, meaningful, and resonant.

Here are the lyrics to the final cut on the record, “The Wonder of Birds”:

we keep our hands above the water
we know that, someday, we will fly away
with all the wonder of birds
with all the wonder of birds

we keep our voices as guarded secrets
wait for a while
and we will surely sing
with all the wonder of birds
with all the wonder of birds

we make a sky where we may be
we build a home with windows to fly through
windows to fly through

we learn to dance with broomstick partners
grace will be ours

when we will grow our wings
with all the wonders of birds
with all the wonders of birds
Sometimes around sunset, the bay near our house stills and the surface of the water smoothes to mirror the last flames of daylight as the turn to embers on the horizon. There is a medium sized bird, whose name I don’t know – who starts high and dives down, leveling out inches, perhaps centimeters, above the glass surface and glides without moving so much as a feather from one side of our little inlet to the other, pulling up at the last minute and climbing back into the sky, often circling to do it again, perfectly.

The wonder of birds. Grace will be ours.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

sand in my eyes

Some days writing is pulling teeth. Other days, ideas come falling out like old toys from an overstuffed closet. Today is one of the latter.

The trail of my thoughts goes something like this: I started at The Upward Way Press, which led me to this article on the weight of the Internet. Here’s a short sample:

How much information—all the Web pages, instant messages, video streams, and everything else you can imagine—passes through the Internet as a whole? Not an easy number to track down, but finally we got our answer from Clifford Holliday, author of Internet Growth 2006 (published by the telecommunications consultancy Information Gatekeepers). He estimates the total amount of Internet traffic by looking at the activity of end-user connections, such as dial-up modem lines, DSL, and fiber-optic connections. Broadband connections to homes and businesses, like DSL and cable modems, are responsible for generating most of the load, which also goes a long way toward Holliday’s discovery that 75 percent of all traffic on the Internet is due to file sharing, with 59 percent of that file sharing attributed to people swapping video files. Music tracks account for 33 percent of the file-sharing traffic. E-mail, it turns out, accounts for just 9 percent of the total traffic. And that total is... a staggering 40 petabytes, or 40 x 1015 bytes: a 4 followed by 16 zeros.

Taking Holliday’s 40-petabyte figure and plugging it into the same formula that we worked out for our 50-kilobyte e-mail results in a grand total of 1.3 x 10-8 pound. At last, after much scribbling (and perhaps a little cursing), we had our answer: The weight of the Internet adds up
to just about 0.2 millionths of an ounce.

Love letters, business contracts, holiday snaps, spam, petitions, emergency bulletins, pornography, wedding announcements, TV shows, news articles, vacation plans, home movies, press releases, celebrity Web pages, home movies, secrets of every stripe, military orders, music, newsletters, confessions, congratulations—every shade and aspect of human life encoded as 1s and 0s. Taken together, they weigh roughly the s
ame as the smallest possible sand grain, one measuring just two-thousandths of an inch across.
Here’s what a grain of sand looks like up close – real close:

They closed their article with a passing reference to “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake . Here are the first four lines:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
I then remembered I’d written about sand before.

Google was my next stop, where I typed in “grain of sand” and found a Dylan song called, “Every Grain of Sand”:

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed.

There's a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere

Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake.

Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master's hand.

In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear.

Like criminals, they have choked the breath
of conscience and good cheer.

But the sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way

To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.

I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame

And every time I pass that way I always hear my name.

Then onward in my journey I come to understand

That every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand.

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night

In the violence of a summer's dream, in the chill of a wintry night

In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space

In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me.

I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan

Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.

(I picked the Nash cover because I could understand the words and I’m trying to learn the chords.)

The other person I found was Wislawa Szymborska, to whom I was introduced yesterday, because she has a book of poetry called View With a Grain of Sand. She weighed in with these words:
Some Like Poetry

Some -

thus not all. Not even the majority of all but the minority.

Not counting schools, where one has to,

and the poets themselves,

there might be two people per thousand.

Like -

but one also likes chicken soup with noodles,

one likes compliments and the color blue,

one likes an old scarf,

one likes having the upper hand,

one likes stroking a dog.

Poetry -

but what is poetry.

Many shaky answers

have been given to this question.

But I don't know and don't know and hold on to it

like to a sustaining railing.
The title of her book is also the title of a documentary about three women in Afghanistan.
Shot in the sprawling refugee camps of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan and Kabul, Afghanistan, View From A Grain of Sand foregrounds the individual voices of three Afghan women, each dramatically affected by the different regimes of the last twenty-five years. Principal taping began almost a year prior to September 11, 2001. At that time the issues of Afghan women’s rights were of little interest to the international community. Subsequently returning to the region in November 2001, the director was uniquely positioned to portray the extraordinary shift, which had taken Afghan women from being a forgotten population to becoming a focus of global outcry. Through the personal stories of these women, the broader history of Afghanistan (since the late 1970s) is elucidated, offering a first-person perspective on the socio-political context behind the situation in which the refugees now find themselves. The documentary follows the three women over a period of three years: 2000, 2001 and 2003, to form a continuum through a period of dramatic change going from one year before the Taliban fell, during the time of their fall, and one year after.
Here is the trailer.

When I left the house this morning, the wind was blowing in from the ocean. Some of the sand from the beach was blowing past my head, no doubt, each grain large enough to carry everything I found today and more. And I thought sand in my eyes was a bad thing.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

I don't know

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, Look! This is something new? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
-- Ecclesiastes 1:9, 10

If I had to pick one book of the Bible as my favorite, Ecclesiastes would be the odds-on favorite. The Poet’s sense of what it means to be human, with its rich mixture of hope and despair, has always spoken to me. Like a lot of folks my age, my first introduction to the Poet’s words was in a Byrds’ song. Turn, turn, turn.

Speaking of music, it was forty years ago two days ago that Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, perhaps the most original rock record ever made, first took to the airwaves. I still have the original vinyl record, complete with paper cut-outs, that I purchased as a ten year old. On June 3, twenty years ago, I bought the CD as soon as the record store opened. The BBC aired the first part of an anniversary documentary where they recruited musicians to go into the Apple studios and remake the songs using the same equipment as the Beatles did in 1967, which is less powerful technologically than the Garage Band program that came with my MacBook. The narrator commented that some of the artists recruited dropped out because it was too complicated. What was done could not be done again.

It was forty years ago today that the Six Day War began between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I’d never noticed the chronological proximity of the two events until this afternoon. I don’t know of even one of the forty years since when the fighting has not continued. NPR is in the middle of an excellent five part series on the causes and consequences of the war. What was done is being done over and over and over.

Thanks to Cynthia, this story from USA Today was new information to me:
Three years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, only one major U.S. building project in Iraq is on schedule and within budget: the massive new American embassy compound.

The $592 million facility is being built inside the heavily fortified Green Zone by 900 non-Iraqi foreign workers who are housed nearby and under the supervision of a Kuwaiti contractor, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report. Construction materials have been stockpiled to avoid the dangers and delays on Iraq's roads.

"We are confident the embassy will be completed according to schedule (by June 2007) and on budget," said Justin Higgins, a State Department spokesman.
Here are few more details from The Nation:
On the other hand, the latest is that the facilities for the 8,000 people scheduled to work in the vice-regal compound will be completed on time next year. Doubtless the cooks, janitors and serving staff attending to the Americans' needs and comforts in this establishment, which is said to exceed in luxury and appointments anything Saddam Hussein built for himself, will not be Iraqis either.

According to Knight Ridder, "US officials here [in Baghdad] greet questions about the site with a curtness that borders on hostility. Reporters are referred to the State Department in Washington, which declined to answer questions for security reasons." Photographers attempting to get pictures of what the locals call "George W's Palace" are confined to using telephoto lenses on this, the largest construction project undertaken by Iraq's American visitors.
Our government’s assessment that a fortress is somehow the way to freedom leads me to my best new thing of the day: discovering poet Wislawa Szymborska, also thanks to the folks at NPR. (Here are some of her poems.) She was born in Poland in 1923 and has lived in Krakow since 1931, living through World War II and the Soviet occupation. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Here’s part of what she had to say in her acceptance speech:
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they "know." They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don't want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments' force. And any knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
Regardless of the angle from which any of us views the state of affairs in our country and in our world, we have those who would call themselves leaders proclaiming their superior knowledge of The Thing To Do as reason why they should be in charge. We have allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the definition of a leader as one who does something (anything), rather than one who thinks and discerns. Szymborska continues:
This is why I value that little phrase "I don't know" so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don't know," the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself "I don't know", she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying "I don't know," and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
I don’t know. Those are not merely words of ignorance, weakness or failure. On the contrary: they are words of hope, relationship, and imagination.
The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? We just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.
There has always been wars and arrogant leaders and death and disease and love and hope. In our turn, turn, turn what is new is us. This is our time. Perhaps we could do something other than repeat what has come before by saying we don’t know what will happen next.

I don’t know.


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

Monday, June 04, 2007

blessed are the cheese makers

I’m now deep into Barbara Kingsolver’s new memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and have been fed so many wonderful things that I’m struggling to know how to write about them. I have three or four things bouncing around in my head, so I’m going to try and blend them into something both interesting and nourishing, like a good recipe.

The first ingredient is this story of hers about “saving” time:

When I was in college, living two states away from my family, I studied the map one weekend and found a different route home from the one I usually traveled. I drove back to Kentucky the new way, which did turn out to be faster. During my visit I made sure all of my relatives heard about the navigational brilliance that saved me thirty-seven minutes.

“Thirty-seven,” my grandfather mused. “And here you just used up fifteen of them telling all about it. What’s your plan for the other twenty-two?”

Good question. I’m still stumped for an answer, whenever the religion of time-saving pushes me to zip through a meal or a chore, rushing everybody out the door to the next point on a schedule. (124)
Why is it that life feels harder to live with now that I have any number of time-saving devices. I used to lose time waiting for phone calls, or talking on the phone unable to multitask because the cord was too short. I typed my term papers without spell check; I went to the library to look up stuff on the card catalog. I reheated and thawed foods without a microwave. I got letters in the mail that were actually something other than credit card applications and notifications of what I might have won. Though I’m also quite grateful for answering machines, cell phones, and wifi, none of them has helped us use our time in a more meaningful way. They’ve trained us to believe that life is 24/7/365, that we are indispensable, and we have to keep moving. Granddad’s question stumps us all: what’s our plan?

Perhaps we could use the extra minutes to sit down for a meal.
If I were to define my style of feeding my family, on a permanent basis, by the dictum, “Get it over with, quick,” something cherished in our family would collapse. And I’m not just talking about waistlines, though we’d miss those. I’m discussing dinnertime, the cornerstone of our family’s mental health. If I had to quantify it, I’d say 75 percent of my crucial parenting effort has taken place during or surrounding the time our family convenes for our evening meal. I’m sure I’m not the only parent to think so. A survey of National Merit scholars – exceptionally successful eighteen-year-olds crossing all lines of ethnicity, gender, geography, and class – turned up a common thread in their lives: the habit of sitting down to a family dinner table. It’s not just the food making them brilliant. It’s probably the parents – their care, priorities, and culture of support. The words, “I’ll expect you home for dinner.” (125-26)
Meal times matter a great deal to me. (In the early days of the blog, I wrote about them here and here.) I love preparing the meal and sitting around our table as long as folks will stay and I love going out to eat with folks when the point is to be together. One of the not-so-subtle messages of Communion for me is “the congregation that eats together grows together.” Though the message is clear, we mostly miss it. Ginger and I keep imagining congregations who would intentionally decide that committees could only meet one night a month – all of them on the same night – so people could have time to get together for something other than institutional reasons, or not have to miss another family dinner because of another church meeting.

When church is That Place We Go On Sunday and our jobs are The Place We Go Everyday, and meals are What We Do On The Way To The Next Thing, life turns into a train of barely connected compartments in a runaway train. When suppertime connects to scholastics and church to companionship, poetry sneaks in like the aroma of a fresh baked pie, making room for rest, filling our souls, and reminding us living as though we are enough and we are together is a quotidian exercise, rather than a quixotic one.

The connections are crucial.
Modern psychologists generally agree, noting that workers will build a better car when they participate in the whole assembly rather than just slapping on one bolt, over and over, all the tedious livelong day. In the case of modern food, our single-bolt job has become the boring act of poking the thing in our mouths, with no feeling for any other stage of the process. It’s a pretty obvious consequence that one should care little about the product. When I ponder the question of why Americans eat so much bad food on purpose, this is my best guess: alimentary alienation. We can’t feel how or why it hurts. We’re dying for an antidote.

If you ask me, that’s reason enough to keep a kitchen at the center of a family’s life, as a place to understand favorite foods as processes, not just products. It’s the prime motivation behind our vegetable garden, our regular baking of bread, and other experiments that ultimately become routines. Our cheese-making for example. (131)
First, of course, I have to get this out of my system: blessed are the cheese makers.

In two working days, my package of cheese-making supplies will arrive and I will begin my attempt at mozzarella, ricotta, and – eventually – cheddar and friends. When Ginger learns I have a recipe for queso blanco, a white Mexican cheese used in chile con queso, I know I’ll be making that regularly. I can already taste the salad of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes from the garden, and basil picked from the window box, even though the tomatoes are weeks away.

And while I wait for the tomatoes to grow and the cheese to cure (is that the right word?), or even for dinner to finish cooking, I’ll be saving time: redeeming time, that is. How did Isaiah put it? “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.”

Ah, yes: blessed are the cheese makers.


Sunday, June 03, 2007

I want to be famous

I couldn’t help but notice the teaser on the AOL homepage as I logged on to check my email: “What happened to Lindsay Lohan?” To top it off, they included this picture from her Parent Trap days. For those of you not keeping score at home, 20 year old Lohan was arrested for being high or drunk or both. I read the question twice. At best, it’s satirically rhetorical; at worst, it’s cynically stupid. My hunch is the latter. (Why is no one busting the club owners for serving an underage person?)

Some time during my late night TV viewing, I came across a BBC documentary called The Human Face starring John Cleese. The segment I saw was called “Famous Faces” and had to do with fame, which, as far as Cleese was concerned, is overrated in our modern culture. He ended the episode standing in a newsstand surrounded by magazines covered with pictures of movie stars and models. “All of these people are famous and they don’t have an idea between them that will be of any help to you.” As he walked out of the shot, the camera panned back to show a whole row of magazines with his face on the cover.

When I looked in Roget’s Thesaurus, it made a distinction between “widely known and esteemed” and “widely known and discussed.” What I heard in Cleese’s commentary was what appears to matter most in our culture is simply to be widely known; being esteemed carries very little currency these days. Being famous has been reduced to the lowest common denominator of the tabloids and, worse still, has turned us into cultural cannibals with voracious appetites for the salacious and the stupid. That’s what happened to Lindsay Lohan: we chewed her up and spit out nothing but bones.

In 1999, Ron Howard made EdTV about the ridiculous concept of someone putting his life on camera 24/7. Eight years later, in our reality show world, EdTV seems sentimental and naïve by comparison. Our twisted sense of reality means more people in our country know about Sanjaya than the Sudan.

I’m stating the obvious.

Since I saw Cleese’s piece, I’ve been thinking about my favorite Naomi Shihab Nye poem. I know I quoted it in the early days of the blog, but it feels essential word right now in reminding us what the word means:


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,

which knew it would inherit the earth

before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds

watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,

more famous than the dress shoe,

which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it

and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men

who smile while crossing streets,

sticky children in grocery lines,

famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,

but because it never forgot what it could do.
The other day when I was downtown waiting in line to get my sandwich, a homeless man stumbled my way. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and was clearly drunk, even though it was just after noon. He started staring at me from several yards off and began veering my way as he stumbled along. As he got close, he said, “You’re bald,” and then he grinned. I smiled back, wondering what was going to happen next. His grin got bigger and he said, “And you’re AWESOME.” Then he went on his way.

Thanks to my crystal ball of a scalp reflecting the sun on an early summer day, I was fleetingly famous to a guy on the street. I smiled back and thanked him, but my fame was neither substantive or sustainable. I met a woman this week who is a social worker in Framingham working mostly with homeless teenagers. She talked about making an extra sandwich when she makes her lunch everyday and making sure she always has an extra pair of socks in her bag when she goes out to find the kids. They are always hungry and they need the socks because they don’t have any kind of access to do laundry. She may never get a movie deal or snort coke in the back of a fancy limousine, but she’s famous, I tell you.

As a buttonhole.