Wednesday, September 30, 2009

celebrate the poet

I have been in poetry mode all this week, so it seems only fitting that I should discover, here in the dregs of this day, that today is W. S. Merwin's birthday. In honor of his celebrating another year on the planet, I offer two or three of his poems. The first two I found reading the transcript of an interview with Bill Moyers.

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
I know he packs his poems with so much that it is perhaps a bit unfair to line them up one after the other, but you can come back and read them again.

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father's hand the last time

he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
have to
just because I'm here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don't want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

The last poem I offer as my part in celebrating this wonderful poet is one I have posted before but keep coming back to myself.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
Tonight, I am saying thank you.

Happy birthday, Mr. Merwin, and thank you.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

late september

there was something in the autumnal air
to begin with: not a chill, an awakening
as soon as I stepped out of the house
I breathed in the crisp chill of possibility
and, as I turned toward the car, I saw
the sky – cloudless, clear, and colored in
open invitation blue; all that was missing
was a soundtrack, which I added once
I started the car and drove into my day
(new indigo girls, if you must know)
would that the day had stayed as clear,
that something more materialized than
the rhythmic restlessness of routine,
but I saw more stove than sun – still,
as I drove home in the dark and parked
in the same driveway where I had seen
and felt joy sidle up like an old friend
I could still sense the shadows of hope
lurking in the last vestiges of the garden
waiting for daylight; this is not over yet.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

prayer time

at our church means saying where
it hurts, or who it hurts, out loud
we call the names of those we love
and those we know who are sick
or dying or have lost someone or
are just lost and our pastor tells us
God is not waiting for her to repeat
the requests -- our joys and concerns
do not require pastoral ventriloquy.

today, in the midst of the litany of
loss and light came a voice – a wise
voice – of one who chooses her words
and her moment well and she asked
that we pray for our country because
we seem to have forgotten how to be
respectful to one another and I thought
wait a minute she’s praying for God
to change us and for us to be willing

to change, to let go of the need to be
right or important or right and to
listen and be kind as though the
other one is as important as we think
we are, as essential as we imagine
ourselves, as valuable as we deem
ourselves to be too many prayers
like hers and, God help us, we might
begin to think we could change.
God help us.


Friday, September 25, 2009

story time

a story has an arc, the teacher told us
and drew a line like a colorless rainbow
on the blackboard -- you remember, right?

exposition, rising action -- fueled by conflict
the climax at the top, and then falling action
falling so far that we spoke French: denouement

resolution to you and me and I wondered what
would happen if I changed one letter: arc to ark
and the story became a journey rather than a

rollercoaster, crammed full of critters and no map
there might still be conflict, but everything would
rise and fall on how well we learned to live together

whose turn is was to row – and to cook, how long
the doves would be gone and, without a doubt,
what we would do if the hippos got restless


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

birth day

Ray Charles was born today.
My parents had an old LP of his,
“Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music,”
that I played over and over and
I remember how I could feel
"You Don't Know Me" tearing up
my insides; I was seven, maybe.
That song still kills me.

Bruce Springsteen was born today.
My senior year in high school he made
the covers of TIME and Newsweek with
“The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle.”
A decade later, I saw him at the Cotton Bowl –
both nights – and sang at the top of my lungs,
“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,”
which I still do, every chance I get.

Burt Burleson was born today
and he has been my friend for a little
less than half of my life -- the kind of
friend that stays with you like a good song,
the melody deep in my muscle memory
and as close as his voice on the phone
that feels as though he still lives down
the hall and is waiting to play guitars.


Monday, September 21, 2009

a pollenmic(?)

so I ask myself this question
it’s a question I often repeat
where do allergies go
when it’s after the show
and they want to find something to eat?
Paul Simon, “Allergies”

There once was a man who grew weary
Of the pollen that made his life dreary:
"I’ve tried Netis and steam
Plus antihistamines
And I’m still mostly stuffy and teary."


Friday, September 18, 2009

life is a lyric

Part of my morning ritual right now is chipping away at Jimmy Webb’s book, Tunesmith, which is about the art and process of song writing. Webb is one of my favorites. In the chapter, “It’s Only Words,” he talks about the songwriter’s task, different than most any other written art form is “technological haiku,” being governed by forms and rhymes and music and time such that “Every word, every note must count”

What it means is that we have been challenged with accomplishing an almost impossible task exquisitely. We are the Swiss watchmakers of music and literature. (38)
A bit later in the chapter, as he cautions against easy rhymes and clichéd connections, he goes on to say,
By varying our word choices and being biased slightly in favor of the unusual, by giving our listener the benefit of the doubt in our assumptions of his or her intelligence we grant ourselves the potential to create original and significant works. (57)
That sentence written by a man who rhymed adios with morose in a song that will bring you to tears. He knows of what he speaks, and, I think, he speaks of more than songwriting.

One of the significant works, as far as movies go, for Ginger’s and me is Serendipity, the John Cusack-Kate Beckinsdale love story that came out seven or eight years ago and now shows up, it seems, at least once a week on a cable channel somewhere. And we watch at least for awhile most any time we come across it in our channel surfing. (The same goes for French Kiss.) Tonight I found it as I was looking for something to watch between innings of the Red Sox-Orioles game, and I came in just where Jeremy Pivens’ character, an obituary writer for the New York Times, is challenging Cusack to follow his heart, though the search for his soul mate feels futile, by quoting the Greek philosopher Epictetus:
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
Once the game and the movie ended, I came in to check my blog roll before writing and to see what poetry was posted by the folks from the Dodge Poetry Festival, which is one of my Friday traditions. Tonight, they introduced me to Simon Armitage, an accomplished poet who was new to me. As you can hear for yourself in the clip below, his first poem recalled a science experiment he did in middle school when challenged by his teacher to go out and measure the size of the human voice without instruments. He stood still in the school yard and had his friend start walking away, shouting, both of them having decided when he could no longer hear the shouts they would know the size of the human voice. They lived in a small village, Armitage notes, and they ran out of village before they ran out of voice. They never found its limits that day. Here is the poem, written in reflection:
The Shout

We went out
into the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face

I don't remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice:
he had to shout for all he was worth,

I had to raise an arm
from across the divide to signal back
that the sound had carried.

He called from over the park - I lifted an arm.
Out of bounds,
he yelled from the end of the road,

from the foot of the hill,
from beyond the look-out post of Fretwell's Farm -
I lifted an arm.

He left town, went on to be twenty years dead
with a gunshot hole
in the roof of his mouth, in Western Australia.

Boy with the name and face I don't remember,
you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you.
Much of my life these days doesn’t feel much bigger geographically than the little village Armitage describes. I can walk to the Durham restaurant; I drive three miles to Duke. Our church is hardly a mile beyond that. I buy one tank of gas a month. My work schedule from Sunday to Thursday keeps me in the kitchen for so many hours that Ginger and I joke about it being as though I have an out of town job and I come home on Friday and Saturday. There is much about what I do for a living that I love and I’m aware how easy it is to fall into a routine that makes me sort of put my head down on Sunday afternoon to get through till Thursday so I can “come home” and have a couple of days off. It feels like the existential equivalent of settling for tired rhymes. I want to do more with my days than rhyme moon and June over and over again.

I realize my situation is neither unique nor overly difficult in comparison to most of the people on the planet. The majority of the guys I work with have second jobs that keep them in kitchens even on the days I get to come home to Ginger. Still, the voices I heard today challenged me to remember I am called to do more with my life than settle into a routine, and I am called to be more than someone who allowed himself to forget he is called to make a significant and exquisite offering of the days he has been given. The routine is, as it were, the song form – the melody that calls for my lyric, for my contribution, for my foolishness. I wonder if that isn’t what got lost in the life of the one in the poem who was once filled with enough wonder to wander out of town trying to see how big a voice was, only to end up in suicidal despair.

Webb says a good song is one that opens with an invitation and knows where it is going. He then quotes a Gibb brothers’ song to prove his point. It begins
There’s a light, a certain kind of light
That’s never shone on me . . .
and ends
You don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you
To know where a song is going means doing the work, the research to figure out what story you are trying to tell: listening, watching, taking notes till you have the raw materials to craft the song – and keeping a good rhyming dictionary close by.

If my life is a lyric, what then, can I learn by listening to what I feel inside and to what is going on around me even in the midst of the routine? As far as where my life is going, what comes to mind first is John’s description of Jesus as he prepared to wash the disciples’ feet (a verse I know I have mentioned before): “Knowing he had come from God and was going to God . . . .” Or, as Andrew Peterson sings so beautifully,
And in the end,
The end will be oceans and oceans of love
And love again
Each day, then, becomes a line in the lyric of my life, a chance to say something exquisitely about what it means to find that love in ordinary things; a chance to rhyme and resonate with my collaborators, if you will; achance to improve, to live full of joyful foolishness.

Now – what rhymes with colander?


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

life is a restaurant

Part of what makes working in a restaurant kitchen interesting is you never really know who is coming for dinner and when they are planning to come. At the Durham restaurant we take reservations, so we do know the answer a good bit of the time, yet last Sunday night we had reservations for forty and we served ninety by the time the evening was over. More than half of the people just showed up to become part of that evening’s story.

The Duke restaurant is even less predictable because our major client base is the student body and, even though we are a fairly spiffy sit-down restaurant, we are, in their minds, a dining hall. Who needs to make reservations for the dining hall? One night last week a group of seventeen walked in for dinner. They were followed by two groups of seven, two groups of six, and three groups of four, and all of them were seated within fifteen minutes of each other.

In what has become an unintentional series of blog posts, I thought I might add life is a restaurant to the list: you spend most of your time getting ready, you don’t know who is going to show up or how long they will stay, and the point is to feed people and let them enjoy being together. Not bad.

The idea has set me to thinking about the people who have wandered (wondered?) into my life, though I have to say the metaphor breaks down a bit here because the ones who came to mind were people who fed me as much or more than I did them. They came to mind because of what is going on at our church. We are getting ready for a big celebration of our own in early October marking the tenth anniversary of our congregation’s choice to be intentionally Open and Affirming, which is to say we welcome everyone. Period. The O&A designation has particular significance to the gay and lesbian communities because they are not always sure where they are welcome, when it comes to church. We wanted to make it clear.

I grew up Southern Baptist, so I know all the arguments and verses folks use to say gays and lesbians have to straighten up (pun intended) to be acceptable. I’m not writing to pick that fight. I started to write, “The conversation is difficult because no one comes in willing to have their minds or hearts changed.” Here’s the thing: I’m writing about this metaphor because it’s how my heart and mind were changed.

I’m chasing a metaphor, remember?

In the restaurant that is my life, I’m grateful for more people than I can count who have dropped in, but tonight I want to point to four people – four gay men – whom God used to shape my life. The first is my friend, Jay, who was my first gay friend. I don’t mean he was the first gay or lesbian person I ever met, but he was the first one with whom I developed a long-lasting friendship. When we lived in Boston, he came up from Texas every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas for about a decade and then, when he moved to Boston, he lived with us for a year while he was finding work and getting on his feet. We share history that connects us and stories that bind us together as intentional family. I’m thankful for Jay who has helped me learn to be a better friend.

The summer before I turned forty, I fell into an existential crisis about writing. I had said for years I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t feel like I was writing anything. So I signed up for a summer session at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, which is where I met Timothy Findley. I worked with him in the workshops that week and then he served as my mentor in a one-year correspondence course to write a novel. (Yes, I did write a novel. No, it has never been published.) In conversations during the week, Tiff and I talked about writing and faith and life. He had started in the theater and was working in a play with Ruth Graham and Thornton Wilder when he published his first short story. Graham read it and told him to write. We made a strong connection with one another and continued writing after the class was over. Tim was an excellent writer, a thoughtful and faithful person, and he was gay. I’m grateful for Tiff who helped me recognize I am a writer.

My favorite Christmas gifts over the past few years have been experiences rather than possessions. Ginger does an amazing job of finding things for me to see and do that last long after the events are over. One of the best gifts she ever gave me was a class in Byzantine Iconography. I don’t mean to learn about them, or to admire them, but to paint (actually, the verb they use is to write) icons. For a week one January, and then weekly for many months to follow, I sat in the studio with Chris as he invited me into the spiritual practice of iconography. I learned ways to pray I had not known before. I learned so much about the history and significance of the images we were creating. I learned I was pretty good at writing the icons. And I found a real friend in Chris as well, whose gentle and vulnerable spirit was as much a window into heaven as the icons were. And he is gay. I’m thankful for Chris who showed me I am an artist and taught me how to pray with a brush.

The summer after we moved to Marshfield, I feel into a deep depression. I’ve written about it any number of times in these pages, so I’ll spare you the story now. One of the people who helped me find my way and make meaning of those dark days was Ken, who began as a my counselor and became my spiritual director as I sought to shift from looking at the depression to trying to find a more holistic perspective. Ken and I share a love of poetry and, on more than one occasion, he would end our session by saying, “I have a poem for you,” and he would hand me a photocopied sheet of something by Mary Oliver or Rumi or who knows that appeared to have been written just for me. I don’t know anyone else who incarnates the grace of God anymore than Ken. And Ken is gay. I’m grateful to Ken for helping me see life is full of meaning, even when I was depressed.

All four people helped shape my life and my faith. God has spoken to me through them, God has incarnated grace and love and hope and faith in their words and actions. I am the person and the Christian I am today because of the love and care of these four men. These four gay men. Don’t get me wrong. They don’t get all the blame. There are many others, gay and straight, whose love has carried me. Still, in the restaurant that is my life I could not feed those who drop in had it not been for the nourishment offered me by these four friends.

Every Sunday at our church, Ginger begins by quoting a UCC slogan:

Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey,
You’re welcome here.
Yes, I know it’s the UCC and that we are the liberals whose theology, as one Texas Baptist pastor used to say, “killed the Church of England.” (Another friend says it this way: if Christianity were a neighborhood, we’d be the last house on the left.) I also know, at the very bottom of it all, it’s about what you do with people way before what you do with Bible verses. One of the choruses I learned in youth group in the Seventies we sang last Sunday:
we are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord
we are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord
and we pray that our unity will one day be restored
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love by our love
yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love
Come, the table is now ready.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

a song for pete

When I first met Pete Cernoia, he was a mailman.

No, that’s what he did for a job. Let me start again. From the first moment I met Pete Cernoia I was glad I knew him. We shared a common love of music and guitar playing, as well as rather skewed senses of humor, but what made Pete shine was more than those commonalties. Pete Cernoia was as true an incarnation of joy as anyone I have ever met. He loved life the same way he played guitar: percussively, energetically, whole heartedly in that Springsteen-tramps-like-us-baby-we-were-born-to-run kind of way. And he never met anyone he didn’t want to help.

Our lives intersected when we both lived in Boston, he in Somerville and I in Charlestown, and then we both moved, he to Gardner, Mass. and I to Marshfield. Though we kept incidental contact, the heart of our friendship was for a season. I haven’t seen Pete in many years, though his fingerprints still feel fresh on my heart. We got word through mutual friends a few months back that Pete had lung cancer. The same friends sent word this morning that Pete died last night.

There are many, many people who knew Pete better than I did. All of us, no matter how well acquainted, were fortunate to feel his love at full volume. Tonight, I remember one night he and I sang together at the Coffee House at Cambridgeport Baptist Church. He asked me to sing one of his favorite songs, “Breathe Deep” by Lost Dogs. It has stayed one of my favorites down all the days.

Pete, this one’s for you, my friend.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

I don't know what to say

to a member of Congress
who yells, “You lie” at our
President, like a drunk fan
yelling at a referee, or

a pastor who spews hate
from his pulpit, wishing
our President would die
a natural death because,

“We don’t need another
holiday.” The comments
are connected across
our continent by one

thing, one thread, one
ugly truth that is hard
to call out by name:
they are racist words --

all of them. I know
such claims don’t make
for beautiful poetry,
but I don’t know what
else to say.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

just give me something

I still remember the Christmas morning when, after unwrapping most of our gifts, my mother pointed to two cards stuck on the tree, one with my brother’s name on it and one with mine. A string ran from each card, leading us in different directions all over our house until we came to find our guitars.

For almost twenty-nine years I have had a six string of some sort. Mom and Dad hired a guy to give us lessons, but I lasted with those about as well as I did with the piano lessons in the second grade. But I did sit on the side of my bed and try to play along with my records, learning chord shapes from my friends and how the chords went together from listening to people I loved to hear. Like any guitar-toting teenager, I dreamed about being a singer or being in a band, but I wasn’t one of those who spent his afternoons learning licks and doing whatever it took to be a musician.

For me the magic of the guitar was that it always seemed to come with a group attached to it. I learned how to play because there were a group of us at Nairobi International School who all had guitars and we brought them with us and sat around during lunch (and some classes) playing and singing together. I have always had the good fortune to have friends who were better guitar players than I and who were wiling to teach me. In college, I found friends in my Baylor dorm who loved to sing and play and so we did, night after night. As a youth minister, I played and sang with my group because I loved how it made us feel connected. University Baptist Church was known for its youth choir, so the kids could sing well, so we sang every chance we could and they would find harmonies to add to what we were doing. When I play some of those songs, I can’t help but hear them still:

and the depth of God’s love reaches down, down, down
to where we are until we’re found, found, found
I’ve sung and played in a lot of church settings. When I wrote songs with Billy Crockett I sang back up for him a time or two. Then there was the weekend in Baton Rouge where he had a gig at the LSU BSU and I drove over to meet him. He was flying in – and was delayed. So someone there who knew I wrote with Billy suggested I sing until he got there. Of course I couldn’t sing any of our songs; he was going to do that. I took my guitar and sang everything I could think of. For and hour and a half. It’s still my longest gig.

Boston was a big Open Mic town. There were lots of little clubs and bars that set aside nights to let folks come in and take their shot. Club Passim in Harvard Square, one of my favorite rooms anywhere, had one on Tuesday night and I used to go and run sound. I thought about getting up there, but I never did. Actually, I never got up on stage in any club for Open Mic on any night in any town until last night.

I found out a couple of months ago that the Broad Street Café, just a block away from our house, has an Open Mic on alternate Wednesdays. Ginger and I have walked over a couple of times. The way an Open Mic works is those who want to perform show up at a given time (7:30 at Broad Street) and sign up for a time slot. Some places make you draw, others just take you in the order you show up. At 7:30, I was in the middle of the dinner rush, but I had remembered it was Open Mic and decided it was time to go and play. Part of it was I am singing and playing with my friend Terry on Saturday for a benefit and I wanted to feel ready for that. Part of it is I am working eleven hour days right now and feel like all I do is go to work and come home and I didn’t want to feel that way. Mostly, it just felt like it was about damn time I got up there with my guitar and sang for a room full of people who didn’t know me.

I called Ginger and asked for a date to walk over after I got home from work. By the time I got home and showered and we got to the café, it was working on ten o’clock and I only had to wait about three performers before I closed the evening. The two guys who sang before me called themselves “Lila” (not sure why), did a sort of acoustic hip-hop thing, and were both high.

I didn’t sing for a room full of people. I think there were ten or twelve. Fifteen if you count the dishwashers and the bartender. I didn’t care. I plugged in my guitar and started the intro to John Hiatt’s “Through Your Hands,” which in one of the songs we are doing on Saturday. It was hard to hear and it was my first public performance of the song and it was, well, a little rough. I did alright, but no one stopped their conversations to listen. Each performer gets to sing two, so I chose a more familiar song – no, I chose my favorite song for the closing number. I don’t remember when I learned the song, but it is one that lives deep in my bones, that moves me in ways I can’t articulate.

The song is John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”

The first time I ever played it publicly was at a church banquet in Winchester, Massachusetts and I led into the song by saying, “I relate to this song more than any song I know.” Then I sang the first line:
I am an old woman named after my mother . . .
Last night I didn’t say anything. I just started playing the introduction and then singing the words and it felt good and I didn’t care that the high guys were talking almost as loud as I was singing because I was singing. At Open Mic. After all these years.

The lines in the last verse that has always killed me snuck up softly as I stood there after my eleven hour day, just a couple of phrases away from ending the evening of performers I didn’t hear:
how the hell can a person go to work every morning
and come home every evening and have nothing to say
“That’s why I’m here,” I thought. “It’s been a long day, but I still have something.”

I finished my short set and stepped down to talk to Ginger and to pack up my guitar. As we were walking out, I turned to one of the high guys and said, “Good job tonight.”

He smiled and said, “You, too, sir.”

“Just give me one thing I can hold on to,” says the song. Last night, for me, that was it.


P. S. -- And here's the person who taught me the song.

Monday, September 07, 2009

life is an independent film

A week or so ago we did some catching up on our movies and finally saw The Visitor, an amazing and well-told story captured and the intersection of privilege and despair. I would tell you to stop and go watch it now, but I want you to read. So, finish reading and then go watch it.

The film is of the small, independent variety – Sundancey, if you will – which also means it is full of space. There is not a soundtrack that fills up every second, there are not any noticeable special effects or computer generated beings. There’s a lot of walking around and talking and just getting through life. Which led me, hot on the heels of my last post on metaphor, to this conclusion:

Life is like an independent film: low budget (at least in our case); character driven; no big stars to speak of, but a lot of people you look at and think, “I’ve seen them in something else”; and; for the most part, nothing happens. You just see their lives from Point A to Point B and then everyone goes their separate ways.

Life is a movie where nothing happens for the most part, where all the action is in the details, where we share the experience of being human at some of the most surprising intersections, where our laptops suffice for what computer generated aid we get, and where there are few special effects and even fewer stunt doubles. Somewhere in the stack of stuff that belongs to me is a greeting card with a quote by Ashleigh Brilliant (her real name) that says,

My life has a superb cast, but I just can’t figure out the plot.
Life is that kind of movie.

One of the things I love about indie films is the lack of focus on one person, usually. If we’re talking Sundance flicks, we’re talking ensemble casting: it takes a village to tell a good story. Regardless of how much the star making machinery tries to tell us who matters in the world, the great stuff doesn’t really happen on a grand scale. What matters most happens everyday, over and over: people find ways to dream dreams and love one another and build things and tear them down and hope and fail and lose and find, all in that layer of the universe where it matters if you can find a parking place, or when pay day is, or what you are having for dinner. In this movie, we are all small players with a few scenes, all of which matter because they are the story.

What does it mean to the story that I have peeled and diced more pounds of onions and carrots than I could even begin to count for soups that lasted only a day or two and then were forgotten? There’s a question underneath that one, though, that might begin to offer an answer: how did I dice and chop?

How have I grown and changed in the middle of the mirepoix? Who have I become? Have I let the details of life become drudgery that have soured me into cynicism? Do I think more about what I am doing without than who it is I am working with? Can I, as I wrote once in a song, hear the music through the circumstance, or am I simply going through the motions?

The answers are as daily as the details. It may depend on which day we’re shooting the scene, if you catch my drift. Some day the movie metaphor may fall from independent project to boring instructional video or, perhaps, absurdist foreign film. A great deal depends on how well I’m listening because that’s the first act in paying attention and responding well.

Last night at the Durham restaurant, I walked out into the dining room to get a cup of coffee. We were about twenty minutes from the end of service on what turned out to be a very busy night, and I was tired. A man and woman were being shown to their table just as I got to the coffee pot.

“How are you?” I asked.
“Ready to be impressed,” he said with a big grin.
“Cool,” I answered. “Thanks for being ready. That makes things so much easier for us.”

I already knew he was going to have a great meal because he was ready for one. And I don’t mean that simply as some sort of positive thinking projection technique to imagine my way into a new reality. What I mean is he came in expecting we were going to play the scene well. Knowing he was already pulling for us made the scene a lot easier to play. I was working on the nightly order sheets by the time they left the restaurant.

“How did we do?” I asked him.
“It was everything I expected,” he said, and we both went on to our next scenes and, not too long after, I let the credits roll on my evening.

Today at work, my phone rang about 4:30, as it does most afternoons I’m at work, because Ginger calls right before service just so we can have a chance to talk. It is one of the details that demonstrates her love for me. I know the scene by heart and I never get tired of playing it. Life is the kind of movie that gets told in those kinds of details – in calls and touches. Redemption rides on small gestures and simple acts; forgiveness has fingerprints.

Just watch this closing scene from Big Night. If you haven’t seen the movie, all you need to know is the two brothers who end up in the closing shot had both hurt each other deeply the night before. Do notice the whole five minutes is done without an edit. About as real life as it gets.


Friday, September 04, 2009

life is a poem

The last three weeks have been a bit of a blur for me. The restaurant at Duke reopened with the new semester and there were still things to do at the Durham restaurant beyond my usual responsibilities, leaving me with one day off in the last twenty or so days until today. Things have gone well. Business is better at Duke than it was this time last year, our staff is working well, and I’m feeling good about the way things are going – and I am going non stop. In the meantime, my writing has been more private than usual, consisting mostly of my doing my best to stick with my Morning Pages; far too many nights I have chosen to sleep rather than post here, which is not an easy choice because it leaves me feeling lopsided and out of balance.

Mary Oliver says, “Writing a poem is making and keeping appointments between the heart and the learned skills of the conscious mind.”

By that definition, life is poetry: it’s all about keeping those same appointments between head and heart, between being and doing, and stepping into the traffic of the intersection where all those things meet to see how we might keep things flowing, rather than ending up in gridlock.

I’m aware these days, in my aching feet and tired bones, of the unity of our created beings, the oneness of body, mind, and spirit that give our words physicality and turn our actions into language. How I am able to think and feel and write is never separated from my body, even when I try to disconnect them. Oliver, again:

Language is rich and malleable. It is a living, vibrant, material, and every part of a poem works with every other part – the content, the pace, the diction, the rhythm, the tone – as well as the very sliding, floating, thumping, rapping sounds of it.
Ginger and I took Ella, our youngest Schnauzer, out for a walk this afternoon. Actually, I should say I joined the two of them on their regular outing since I was not at work. Walking has been a connecting activity for us over the years. There’s something about talking about thoughts and feelings as your feet pound the pavement that is both literally and figuratively grounding. We were talking about some of the choices we are making these days and how they are making us feel more responsible. She used the word first and it brought back something I have either heard or read (the source now lost in the file cabinets of my mind) about the way that word breaks down: response + ability – the ability to respond. The dictionary says the seven hundred year old roots of respond lie in answer, reply, and promise.

To live responsibly, then, we might say is living in a way that lets me keep my promises. When I let life get lopsided, I lose sight of the way in which, like poetry, every part of life works with every other part and I am not able to respond appropriately, by which I mean to answer life as an integrated being who has a sense of what is at stake in the slightest of encounters.

After our walk, we dropped Ella back at the house and took ourselves to dinner at Chubby’s Tacos, to use up the remnants of a gift certificate. The woman who appeared to be the manager, based on all the stuff she was trying to do during a very busy dinner rush, was task-oriented and terse, as I have experienced her on our other visits to the restaurant. She was not rude or unprofessional, but she seemed to be wearing her best relational Teflon so nothing would stick to her for long. The restaurant is small and our table was right next to the cash register. The manager was taking orders and we could see a large tattoo of a large dog on her calf. The woman stepped away from the register to do something else and Ginger asked if that was her dog.

“Yes,” she said. “We have four of them at our house.” The next thing I knew, the nonstick coating had fallen away and the woman came over to our table with some pictures she had pulled out from under the counter to show us photographs of her dogs, all of which had been rescued in one way or another. Ginger’s question had given the woman room to respond, to keep the promises we make to be human to one another, even as Ginger had kept hers by asking in the first place.

“The goal,” says Mary Oliver, “is to write memorably.”

Another +able words: able, in this case, to be remembered. The call, in this poem we call life, is to live memorably, responsibly – to keep our promises by fleshing out the details in such a way that the content, pace, diction, rhythm, and tone make more of our days than a recitation of what is wrong or what we wish would happen, and offer a slice of the story that belongs to and connects all of us.

When my life gets lopsided, I lose sight of my ability to respond, to answer, to play my part in the call and response of our existence and too easily convince myself that I am a solitary poet, composing a life that is mostly about me. The rhythm of life too quickly sounds more like metronome than melody and my words monosyllabic. When I choose to keep my promise to respond to the God who breathed me into existence, to Ginger who loves me unfailingly, to my singing Cuban dishwasher, to my tail-wagging Schnauzers, to those I pass in the traffic of life, I begin to remember I have one small part in a far larger work of poetic genius that calls me to be responsible, to keep my promises, and to live memorably.