Wednesday, April 30, 2008

in the garden

I went to work at five this morning so I could leave early to get to a funeral. A dear soul in our church, Bryant, who was, as his son said, both a gentle man and a gentleman died last Friday. Ginger said the family had asked for someone to sing “In the Garden,” which I was happy to do. Growing up Baptist meant growing up with that song and, for most of my early life, I thought it was kind of schmaltzy until William Reynolds, the guy who knows more about hymns than anyone I know, explained who is really singing the words: Mary Magdelene (john 20:15). This is an Easter hymn imagining what it must have been like for Mary meeting Jesus in the garden where she had gone to anoint his dead body only to find he was alive.

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses

and he walks with me and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share as we tarry there
none other has ever known

he speaks and the sound of his voice
is so sweet the birds hush their singing
and the melody that he gave to me
within my heart is ringing

and he walks with me and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share as we tarry there
none other has ever known

I’ll stay in the garden with him
though the night around me is falling
but he bids me go with a voice of woe
his voice to me is calling

and he walks with me and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share as we tarry there
none other has ever known
C. Austin Miles, who wrote the hymn, spoke of his inspiration this way:
I read the story of the greatest morn in history. The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet very dark, unto the sepulcher. Instantly, completely, there unfolded in my mind the scenes of the garden, where out of the mists comes a form, halting, hesitating, tearful, seeking, turning from side to side in bewildering amazement. Falteringly, bearing grief in every accent, with tear-dimmed eyes, she whispers, 'If Thou has borne Him hence.' He speaks, and the sound of His voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing. He said to her, "Mary!" "Just one word and forgotten are the heartaches, the long dreary hours, all the past blotted out in His presence.
I also found this video of Dwight Yoakum singing the hymn at the funeral of his friend and mentor, Buck Owens.

I guess I had never really thought about it as a funeral hymn, other than singing it because it was a favorite of the person we were memorializing. But tonight I find comfort in it’s poetry and melody, thinking of Mary finding Jesus in her grief and hoping for the same kind of encounter for friends I know who are grieving tonight.


Monday, April 28, 2008

out in the eye of the storm

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to Mark Heard as I’ve gone about my business here in Durham. For those of you who don’t know of him, Mark was a wonderful songwriter, thinker, and singer who died way too young and left an enduring legacy of music (much of which is available at emusic). For those of you who are familiar with him, then you know it does a heart good to tune in to his songs from time to time.

The record I’ve given the most play is Eye of the Storm, which I can remember buying while I was doing my CPE training and dealing with grief and death on an almost daily basis. The title track opens with a wonderfully infectious acoustic guitar lick and Mark begins to sing:

when it’s dark outside you’ve got to carry the light
or you’ll stumble and fall like stumbling dice
it takes a steady step, it takes God-given sight
just to tell what is the truth, what is wrong, what is right

in this world thunder throbs in the darkness
out in the eye of the storm
the friends of God suffer no permanent harm

when the night sky glows with the red fires of war
and the threat of annihilation pounds at your door
you don’t have to pretend you’ve got nerves of steel
to believe the love of the Lord is actual and real

in this world thunder throbs in the darkness
out in the eye of the storm
the friends of God suffer no permanent harm

when the daybreak comes with a trumpet blast
and the true fruit of faith is tasted at long last
when the darkness dies and death is undone
and teardrops are dried in the noonday sun

in this world thunder throbs in the darkness
out in the eye of the storm
the friends of God suffer no permanent harm
The irony that the person singing those words dropped dead at 41 is not lost on me. In fact, as much as the song pulls me, it causes me to question. As the friends of God, do we really suffer no permanent harm? Is the thought that our suffering is ultimately temporary truly comforting when the passing pain we live with carries such a wallop? How do I learn to look beyond today’s pain to grasp life’s larger promise?

Ginger and I went exploring in Carrboro, North Carolina this afternoon – “the Paris of the Piedmont” it’s called, we were told. We found a couple of great coffee shops and several restaurants to come back to. We also found one of those card shops/art galleries that had all kinds of magnets with cute sayings that included:
My life has a wonderful cast, I just can’t figure out the plot.

Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.
The quote made me smile – and hope – and then wonder if the end would be OK. We’ve had two deaths in our parish this week. Since North Carolina is next in the primary line, we are being inundated with all the things that don’t matter and being told that they do, leaving me to think that even at the end I will still live in a very broken nation that squandered its gifts and resources. I got home and spent some time reading my copies of The Nation that were delayed in their arrival due to our address change. I read about the tragedy and pain of the food shortages around the world and the painful reality that one in three of our military personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with brain injuries and/or psychological trauma. And then I found this quote in one of the book reviews in which Martin Luther King Jr. called us to live in “divine dissatisfaction”:
Let us not be satisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.
He spoke those words in August, 1967. It appears we have yet to hear them and take them to heart. I moved from paper to screen to get caught up on my blog reading. Bobbie at Emerging Sideways led me to this post by Clarrisa Pinkola Estes, which contained the following poem:
Refuse to fall down.
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled,
and it will be filled.

You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting
your heart toward heaven -- only you.

It is in the midst of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says
nothing good came of this,
is not yet listening.
Her words were still ringing in my heart and head when I began reading The Official Thomas Bickle Blog where Sarah, Thomas’ mother has faithfully shared all that is painful and not OK as her little boy lives with a brain tumor. The end is approaching and it doesn’t feel OK, yet Sarah knows something about the eye of the storm because she writes about more than her world turning to shit. She is someone who has refused to stay down and continues to lift her heart – and mine – heavenward. You see, I first met Sarah leading a youth camp when she was in high school. Neither of us knew we would find each other again so many years down the road, me with my depression and her coming to terms with watching her little boy live his short life in unspeakable pain.

I’ve spent my share of Southern Baptist Sunday nights singing about the roll being called up yonder and just passing through this world that is not my home and I never really took to the idea that our days on this planet were the equivalent of sitting in a cosmic Greyhound station waiting on the Big Bus. If these days don’t count, then the pain and suffering that it takes to live them feels like a cruel joke. There was one other hymn that I loved --
but I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able
to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day
because it told me hope lived in the truth that we were created to do more than wait and hurt; we are called to make meaning of these days with the help of our God who lives in the middle of the pain – in the eye of the storm -- with us. Pain is real and hard and even deadly, but it is not the final word.

However long the pain may last, Love lasts longer.

Perhaps, as one who has food to eat and is not having to help my child face pain and death, I run the risk of sounding like I might find a career writing magnet slogans. But understand I’m sharing what I learned from Paul and Martin, from Mark and Clarissa, from Sarah and Thomas, all of them friends of God, all of them out in the eye of the storm, so I’ll say it again:

however long the pain may last, Love lasts longer.


Friday, April 25, 2008

ella's landing

Moving into our new home here on Iredell has been different than moves to Charlestown and Marshfield for any number of reasons, but one most significantly: we didn’t have to redo the house from top to bottom to get in it. The folks we bought it from did that for us. We have done some minor things (that aren’t so minor), namely building a closet, and have repainted a couple of things, but the place is pretty good as it is. Yesterday, however, I embarked on a small construction project to try and make the back yard more accessible to Ella without our having to leave the back door standing open. At the suggestion of Mark Cool, the musician who built our closet (how often do you get to use that phrase?), I installed a screen door that has a puppy door built into it, but the door was too high for the stairs and would have required Ella to become an Olympic gymnast to get in and out of the house. Therefore, I built a small deck yesterday, or, as I like to call it, Ella’s Landing.

It was my first attempt at such a structure. I got a good bit of help from the plans and advice I found online, some advice from the guy at Lowe’s when I was picking up materials, a little pick-me-up from the cold Harpoon IPA mid-afternooon, and – finally, this morning – the satisfaction of seeing our little dog go up and down the stairs. Sometimes, life is brightened by the smallest things.


P. S. -- There are new recipes here and here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

coming up short

The assignment was simple: meet at the catering shop to pick up the food and then go to the site to cook dinner for eight people:

curried crab cakes with cucumber yogurt dipping sauce
endive leaves with roasted beets and bleu cheese

Salad of pea shoots and mixed greens with dill, chives, and mint with a sherry vinaigrette

Pecan crusted loin of lamb
Potato and artichoke gratin
Asparagus, roasted peppers, and pearl onions

Strawberry shortcake with vanilla ice cream and strawberry sauce
The way things are supposed to work is the folks at the shop prepare as much as they can ahead of time and then pack up the stuff I will need to do on site. What I assumed that meant was the potatoes would be done and simply need to be reheated and the lamb would be about halfway done and need to be finished.

I was wrong on both counts. The problem was I didn’t do enough checking beforehand and was, therefore, also late getting the meal out because things weren’t ready when I thought they would be. On a night when the task was easy and I should have done well, I turned in an average performance. We got the meal served and I think those who ate it were OK with things, but I felt like my performance was substandard. I did less than my best. Whatever the shop might have done differently, I didn’t do my job well tonight. And I don’t do well when I feel like I haven’t done my best.

It derailed me. I could feel it happening. I apologized to the staff that had to serve the meal. I could hear myself continue to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t do well tonight.” I know part of that was longing for someone to say, “It’s not the end of the world.” No one did. I could feel the grace leaking out of the room, being replaced by the suffocating sense of my unworthiness, which is all too familiar. Can it be that my self-worth swings on whether or not the potatoes are cooked?

Short answer: yes.

I’m a good cook. I’m a passionate cook. I’m intentional when I’m in the kitchen and I work hard. Tonight, I didn’t do well. I missed some things I should have caught and put out food that was less than what I want to present and all of a sudden I feel as though I’m only judged by that damn lamb and those crunchy potatoes. I felt devastated, defeated, depressed.

As I drove back to the shop to drop off the dirty dishes and leftovers, I began trying to talk myself back into sanity. Wynne and Glen were at the shop. Wynne is the pasty chef at the restaurant and someone I’ve gotten to know a little; Glen is the guy who smokes all our meets and makes the sausage and is someone I’m just getting to know. They asked how the evening went and I told them. They both did a great job of listening and helping me find a sense of myself again. I made some movement, but the real progress was made on the walk I took with Ginger and Ella once I got back to the house. Ginger listened well and asked great questions and, as we turned from Broad Street on to Knox, I could feel my feelings beginning to shift. Part of what helped was being able to articulate what I learned tonight that will help me not make the same mistakes again. The other part was simply getting enough distance from the event to realize the dinner may not have been the best, but it wasn’t the end of the world. It was then I remembered one of the staff had responded when I had apologized for my cooking tonight. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll get another chance.”

She’s right. I cook again Friday night and twice on Saturday – and that’s just this week. I don’t get tonight’s lamb and potatoes back, but I can also let them go. (And I wrote those sentences as if the present realizations that are easy for me to incarnate.) A half a century into my life and I remain encumbered by a sense of self-worth that is inextricably tied to my feeling useful. For Descartes, it may have all been in the thinking, but for me, “I do, therefore I matter.” I desperately want to trust that I matter, by the grace of God, because I’m breathing. I certainly believe that’s true for everyone else. Yet, one botched meal and I feel like a failure, two or three days without posting and I think people will quit reading.

I grew up being taught that we are all headed for judgment before God. The image that has stayed in my mind is standing next to God while we watch a movie of my life and the whole time God is groaning and taking notes making me question whether or not I would get out of that room and get to heaven, whether I would measure up or be enough.

Judgment has become far less significant in my understanding of God over the years, though the scene above still has its hooks in me. When I’ve tried to picture it differently, I’ve often moved to a scene where God says, “Good job,” or something similar, but that doesn’t really make it any less about being enough or measuring up. In my breakthrough moments, I picture Jesus meeting me and, opening his arms, simply saying, “Welcome, Milton.” No measures, no tallies, just welcome. As if I belonged.

I want to believe the last scenario. Lord, help my unbelief.


Monday, April 21, 2008

well-worn love

Eighteen April 21sts ago, Ginger and I were married in the First Baptist Church of Irondale, Alabama, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and a wedding party whose picture rivals the cover photograph of The King Family Christmas.

We got engaged on August 12, 1989 at the Hard Rock Café in Dallas (when there was a Hard Rock Café in Dallas). Every August and April since, we’ve been in a Hard Rock together, which has been relatively easy because we lived in a city with a Hard Rock. A quick search this week let us know the closest café was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a mere three and a half hours away.

After opening the Dunkin’ Donuts this morning and dropping Ella off to be spayed, we got in Ginger’s Wrangler and headed east and making a couple of stops along the way, arriving at the pyramid shaped restaurant about 4 o’clock.

We ate what I guess we could call dinner, took a couple of fun pictures,

drove down to the beach for a bit, and then drove home.

And a good time was had by all.

Several years ago now, I wrote a song lyric with Ginger in mind (that I have referenced before). The chorus says:

and this is the story of two common hearts
that started out young and grew old

they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love
I’m not ready to be counted as old just yet, but I will say I know more of love than I did eighteen years ago, thanks to Ginger.

And I plan to keep on dancing.


putting the DD in durham

Today is a significant day in the Brasher-Cunningham household, since it's the day we invented the Brasher- Cunningham household eighteen years ago (more about that later).

The importance of the day is enhanced because Dunkin' Donuts opened its doors this morning at 5 a.m. -- and we were the very first customers. I've got the cup to prove it.

Perhaps we should now say we live in DDurham.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

satellite radio

april gave us springtime and the promise
of the flowers and the feeling that we both
shared and the love that we called ours but
I can’t help but have my suspicions ‘cause
I ain’t quite as dumb as I seem; tell me how
can you stand there with a broken heart
ashamed of playing the fool but isn’t that
the way they say it goes just forget all that
and give me the number if you can find it so
I can call and tell them I’m fine and show I’ve
overcome the blow; doctor my eyes have seen
the years and the slow parade of tears without
crying now I want to understand; no, I can’t forget
the feeling or your face as you were leaving but I
guess that’s just the way the story goes, baby
come back any kind of fool could see I was
wrong and I just can’t live without you.


Friday, April 18, 2008


I’ve heard tell of those who rolled cigars
in Havana and how they would choose one
to read each day, the others making up his
share of the quota so they could hear stories
that took them beyond the little rooms where
they rolled leaves for the pleasure of others.

I live in a town built on the stories of those
same leaves. Tonight, in one of the rooms
where they stacked and sold tobacco, I cooked
dinner for those who had stories of their own
to share with one another. And I brought
leaves of my own—basil, fresh and verdant.

I gently pinched to stem off each leaf, and,
as I was taught by those who told me kitchen
stories, I stacked the leaves and rolled them,
much like the Cubans, I suppose, and then
sliced across my herb cigar, letting the leaves
fall in tender strips as the blade rocked

back and forth, releasing the fresh smell of
sunshine and friendship. Even on the drive
home, my hands carried the aroma, the
smell almost indelibly infused into the
crevasses of my fingerprints. I breathed
the story in once more, and then exhaled.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

what's for dinner

I like to know what’s next as much
as possible, so when they call and say,
“We need you to work a dinner Saturday,”
I wish they would tell me the occasion
and the menu, just so I have an idea of
how to prepare myself to prepare the meal.
I think differently for salmon than sirloin.

Catering, for the most part, means cooking
blind: going to the gig to finish what those
in the prep kitchen have begun, following
their list, counting on them to have done
their jobs, relinquishing any wish for control
or simply being informed. I don’t know
what’s for dinner until I start cooking it.

In the restaurant, the menu means I know
what I’m cooking, but not for whom, leaving
me with an equal measure of uncertainty.
Fair warning is not an ingredient in most of
life’s recipes. Still, I know my hands and my
heart, I know how to get ready and remember
the key is not ingredients, but intention.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

waiting for the plumber

One could wish for a day that was carbonated,
words rising effervescently, even effortlessly
to the top, bubbles of hope bursting on the
surface. Today is not that day; nor yesterday.
I’m waiting for the plumber to come find the
block on our main drain, somewhere between
here and the street, underneath the growing
grass and the nascent hasta, underground
where the words are trapped in the sludge,
unable to bore their way to the surface, or to
flow through to the drain under the street.

One would think, in these days so full of
friends and family and meaning, the real
struggle would be to keep the words from
coming; how could I keep from writing?
My life goes on, breakless and brakeless,
trading exhaustion for expression, even as
my heart fills up and overflows. My body
stops and my mind races on; my brain
finally tires and I toss and turn. Be still,
I say, but I can’t. Instead, I pace the house
looking for words, waiting for the plumber.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008


if it’s going to be fresh
then it must be done
everyday: today and
tomorrow and the day
after that. most of what
we think of as life and
cooking is preparation,
or at least that’s what
we call it. in fact, the
chopping and peeling,
the slicing, marinating –
all of those things we
think of as “the getting
ready” are really the
show: one long act of
love and labor that
puts the plate on the
table or makes room
for the moment when
we get to say, “I love you”
to one another -- fresh


Tuesday, April 08, 2008


I turn down our tree-lined streets,
the empty branches reaching skyward
yearning skeletons just now beginning
to show signs of new life, the groans of
creation tuning up like an orchestra
preparing to play a new symphony.

Yet, the trees have not been silent all winter.
Their shadow song is harder, but a melody
nonetheless. The strains of pain and silence
are not easy playing or listening, yet an essential
movement to inform the resurgent joy that
comes with recreation, reawakening, rebirth --

and I am Nicodemus, wondering how we, as
collective Creation can carry all our weight
and worry back into God’s womb and come
forth singing a new song. Biology breaks down
in ways melody does not. We aren’t going
back, but forward, from womb to womb,

birth to birth, song to song, from God to God,
moving symphonically from stark to lush,
from solo to emsemble, from pianissimo to
forte and back again. Newborn babies cry –
as do widows and orphans, the homeless and
the hopeful: tears are our shared melody.


Saturday, April 05, 2008


Brilliance with numbers is a curious thing. Paul Erdos, a Hungarian who died in 1996, used to travel the world and stop briefly at the offices and homes of fellow mathematicians. “My brain is open,” he would announce as, with uncanny intuition, he suggested a problem that, without realizing it, his host was already halfway to solving. Together they would find the solution. (“Let’s Talk About Figures” The Economist, March 22, 2008)

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24: 30-32)


I got lost when the numbers changed
to letters and Mrs. Gibbs refused to give
me directions: “I don’t answer stupid
questions,” she said, and closed my brain.
I can still hear her shouting down
my attempt to understand algebra,
or seeing it as a way of understanding.

I was on the other side of the desk
when a student said of Shakespeare,
“This is like algebra,” without closing
her brain or her heart. She was right
and I was already on the way to seeing
that “to be or not to be?” was not
a stupid question, nor a solitary one.

Jesus walked the Emmaus Road and
asked, “What are you discussing?”
and they began explaining the algebra
of resurrection, even though most
of the equation was still unsolved.
Jesus broke the bread in two and
their hearts open and on fire.

Conventional wisdom would assume
a poem should be a bit more algebraic
than this one, I suppose. It reduces
rather quickly to wonder what we
might find when we see questions
as serendipitous rather than stupid
and answer, “My heart is open.”


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

what april means

A poem is like a ball park
(or is the park like a poem?):
some precise measurements –
the height of the mound,
the length of the base paths,
the size of the ball –
yet each park is its own,
each outfield shaped by
Green Monsters and short
porches; the rules apply and
no two are exactly the same.

The batter who can hit one
out of every three balls is a
success; true, also, of the poet:
one out of three ain’t bad.
And, every so often, the
right words come, lining up
the way Manny locks in
on a high fast one and swings
for the fences, dropping
his bat and watching in
wonder before he runs home.
Pure poetry.


P. S. -- There are new recipes here and here.