Tuesday, January 31, 2012

letting lola go . . .

Today we said goodbye to Lola, our eldest Schnauzer, who lived life with determination, never flinched from speaking up when she thought something (or someone) was wrong or there was a chance for a snack, and loved with her whole being. Life finally wore her out and we had to let her go on to a place where she can rest, see again, eat whatever she wants, and continue to comment on what needs to be corrected. I'm glad she was our pup and we were her humans.


Monday, January 30, 2012


How to live with the adjective inconsequential?
That’s the way John Berger posed the question as I sat with his book a couple of days ago in the coffee shop waiting for time to start my after school job. He was talking about the role of the artist and writer in the face of the violence which has dominated our world for centuries. What good does it do to write poetry and sing songs and make whatever art we can to wage peace and speak truth to power when the someday when we shall overcome never gets any closer on the calendar?
So one asks oneself: Do words count? And there must sometimes come back a reply like this: Words here are like stones put into pockets of roped prisoners before they are thrown into a river. (79)
The news talked this morning about a couple of cities, including nearby Charlotte, where the last of the Occupy campers were being evicted by police. The tone of the newscasters came across as one of the now-we-can-be-done-with-that variety. The criticism has been that the folks who lived in our parks for so long weren’t focused enough and didn’t know what they were protesting for, but I think that criticism misses the point. As Berger continues,
One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds. To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. (79)
Though I was miles away from any of the camps, I was encouraged by those who took to the streets and the parks because they reminded me to not give into my cynicism. I have allowed the political process in this country to reduce me to feeling like a zero. I have let myself believe that the lobbyists have had the last word by buying off our alleged leaders leaving me, well, inconsequential.

And I’m not sure I’m wrong. The truth is the One Percent have most of the money and the power and they continue to tilt the game their way. The truth is, as John Stewart commented the other night on The Daily Show, “the poor have shitty lobbyists.” The truth is the candidates will spend enough money on their campaigns to fully fund Head Start programs across the country but will instead waste the cash on the political equivalent of a playground fight. Yet, the protestors in the park call me to a different view, as does John Berger. They call me to ask a better question:
How to live with the adjective inconsequential?
The adjective is temporal. Perhaps a possible and adequate response is spatial? To go closer and closer to what is being redeemed from the present within the hearts of those who refuse the present’s logic. A storyteller can sometimes do this.
The refusal of the protesters then becomes the feral cry, the rage, the humour, the illumination of the women, men, and children in a story. Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories when heard stop the unilinear flow of time and render the adjective inconsequential meaningless. (80)
As I hear the feral cry of the Occupy-ers, I wonder where are the feral Faithful? The voices crying in the wildnerness, “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord”? For those who have been called to proclaim liberty to the captives, we have been far too silent. Or, at least, I have.

Last week, I had the honor of going with Ginger to the annual meeting of Durham Congregations In Action where Ginger was installed as president for the coming year. DCIA is a strong voice of protest and promise in Durham and I’m proud of both Ginger and the group. The keynote speaker was William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, another essential voice of faithful protest and hope in our state. He spoke with the power and poetry of a prophet, and asked a good question of his own:
Do you know who you are?
At the close of the service, Ginger was called to offer the benediction. She asked us to turn and face each other from either side of the hall and then each side took turns asking the other, “Do you know who you are?” with as much attitude as we could muster. We volleyed the question back and forth four or five times, the emphasis changing as we spoke:
Do you KNOW who you are?
Do YOU know who you are?
Do you know who YOU are?
I know who I want to be. I know, most days, what story I want to write with my life and I far too often let myself forget and fall prey to feeling inconsequential. I know it is far easier to define myself as not being one of those whose actions I hold in contempt than it is to define myself and tell my story. Jesus knew what he was doing in calling us to love our enemies because that love takes away any chance of using them as fuel for our arrogance and righteous indignation. The real story is there is no Us and Them, only Us. In that context, do I know who I am?

To you Occupy-ers, I’m sorry I am late to the game as far as speaking up and offering an encouraging word. You are speaking truth to power because you are telling a story: your story, our story. Perhaps parable would be a better word because, like the ones Jesus told, the point is not that easy to figure out yet there’s something in there worth digging for. What you are doing reminds me of words that matter from one of my favorite stories, King Lear:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. (V,iii,322-323)
Words count. Actions matters. Faith works.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

making mistakes

Over the past few weeks I have been editing a book manuscript for someone I don’t know. When I grade student essays, I know whose paper is in front of me, which colors how I both read and comment, but this time I am not being asked to teach, only edit. The hardest part, in many ways, is not being able to picture who put down the words that are now looking back at me. Microsoft Word’s “track changes” mode has made the unfortunate choice to use red as the color of the altered text, which I fear carries all the baggage of every corrected essay the writer ever received along the way. I don’t know how she will read the red, my trail of wounds to her words, even as I struggle to find a way to infuse each stroke with some kind of encouragement.

In between editing sessions, I am still reading John Berger, who continues to amaze me. He is writing about being at the National Gallery in London on Good Friday and deciding to draw the figure of Christ in the Crucifixion by Antonello de Messina. He finds the painting, and then realizes he will have to work stealthily around the guards who wander from room to room. Here’s the paragraph that caught me:

I start drawing. Correcting error after error. Some trivial. Some not. The crucial question is the scale of the cross on the page. If this is not right, the surrounding space will exert no pressure, and there’ll be no resistance. I’m drawing with ink and wetting my index finger with spit. Bad beginning. I turn the page and restart. I won’t make the same mistake again. I’ll make others, of course. I draw, correct, draw. (52)
As I worked my way through the manuscript, I wished for a better way to explain myself, because I made lots of marks and changes. The commas are scattered across the page like confetti after a parade and I have to help sweep them up. In some places, the writer was so caught up in the emotion of the passage that they lost track of the tense and I had to call them into consistency. Then there were the places where the author moved from A to G or H without showing the reader how to follow, leaving rather philosophical potholes in the middle of the page big enough for said reader to get lost or give up. I recognized the errors because I have made them myself.

I worked in short shifts, seeking to stay fresh enough to be encouraging. I learned from my days of grading stacks of student essays that I had to pause every few pages and remind myself I needed to wield my pen with some measure of gentleness, rather than using the opportunity to demonstrate my expertise. I remembered that some days better than others. The word from which our word error comes meant wandering, as though the idea of an error or mistake carried with it the idea of having wandered off course. As I have been reading, I have carried that image, seeing the author out in the middle of a field, off the path they were shooting for, chasing an idea that had gotten away and dropping commas like bread crumbs, it seems. My choice was between correcting in a voice that sounded like a frightened parent (“Where have you been? You had us worried. Don’t ever wander off like that again.”) or a fellow traveler (“I’ve missed that turn myself; let me show you the way back to the path.”) As I edited, I became aware I was making mistakes of my own. When I got ready to send the manuscript, I spent an evening composing the letter to go with it, making sure the author understood the story didn’t belong to me and that my task was to offer suggestions and create a conversation.

As much as I wanted to throw pillows to soften the blows, I also know there is great value in failure. I took my job seriously and I mean what I wrote as I deleted and added to what had been given to me. Part of the way we find our way back from our wanderings is through those who have the courage to say, “You’ve made a mistake and have wandered off the path.” For the manuscript to be all that it can be, much needs to change. The writer needs to wrestle with what they wanted to say and what ended up on the page for the book to be ready for others to read. I expect to go through it again once the author responds, looking for more ways to improve it. To paraphrase Berger: write, correct, write.

One day, I hope, I will get to meet the author and hear the story behind how the book came to be and, perhaps, how they felt seeing my fingerprints all over their pages. Till then, I hope they can see beyond the red marks and hear my encouragement: the manuscript is worth revising.

Write, correct, write. How else will we learn?


Sunday, January 22, 2012

first followers

I do wonder what was
left out of the story.
Jesus would walk up and
say, “Come follow me”
and people just walked
off from fishing boats
and families to catch
people, be puzzled by
parables, and remain
gainfully unemployed.

Part of me is curious
about what was not
worth remembering.
Most of me marvels
at their unflinching
faith, which feels far
from familiar, for
I have promises to keep.
Go ahead, Jesus –
I’ll catch up later.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

it begins like this . . . .

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived early for my shift at the computer store, so I got a coffee at the Barnes and Noble next door and sat down at a table to read a little of my John Berger book. The chapter I opened to started:

It begins like this . . . .
Just as I was settling in, a woman moved between the crowded tables to the only vacant one available. She was middle aged, as best I could tell, Asian, a little tired, and quite determined to make sure she got a table. She was carrying a large satchel and a stack of documents on top of it. She pulled out one of the chairs and placed her things in it. Then she opened the bag and retrieved some paper towels and began to wipe off the table. She cleaned it like it was her job, wiping away any remnant of those who had left only moments before she had arrived.

At first, I assumed she cleaned out of fear, determined to not be exposed to any lingering germs, but there was not an iota of anxiety in her movements. The more I watched her (trying not to appear as though I were studying what she was doing), I began to see that she moved with an artist’s flair. Rather than wiping anything away, she was creating cleanliness, if you will, laying it down like paint or polish, a varnish of intention preparing the table for the moment for which it had been created when she would sit with her tea and her notebooks in the light of the last of the afternoon sun.
It begins like this . . . .
I kept rereading Berger’s opening sentence as I looked back and forth between the words on the page and the woman at the next table who had finished her preparation and had seated herself to begin that for which she had prepared a place. I took out my Moleskin notebook and began writing down details so I could repaint the picture at a later time. She opened the satchel and pulled out a stack of about ten greeting cards, all still in their plastic sheathes. She carefully opened one of the envelopes, pulled out the card, and laid it on the table. As she turned to sip her tea, I read the card:

“Thank you for being special.”

That’s all of the story I was able to get. My time was up and my shift ready to begin. I wished for the freedom to lean across the chair between us and tell her it had been fascinating to watch her lay down her layer of intention, but I would have been the only one talking across tables and she had never turned in my direction during any of her work. She was also not the only story in the room; she was the only one I noticed. I marked my place in my book with the receipt from my coffee and made my way out of the store, wondering about the beginning I had seen unfold.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to like to make up stories about people we saw in airports and such. OK, I liked to make up the stories; Miller was kind enough to listen, since we were the only audience each other had during our family travels. As you might imagine, my image of who the strangers were leaned toward the fantastic and intriguing. Everyone was a spy or some sort of exotic vagabond. It never crossed my mind to say, “The man in the overcoat is lonely and wishing his daughter would call to see how he is doing,” or “The girl in the corner has kept a journal everyday for seven years – and it all rhymes.”

I keep thinking about the woman and the table and the card and wondering how the story played out. It begins like this: on a winter afternoon, she prepared her heart and a table to make time and room to write the filling for a card whose outside read, “Thank you for being special.” Perhaps it was an expression of unflinching gratitude. Maybe, they were words that needed to be said to span a breach or heal a wound, but they weren’t words that came easily, so she had wiped the table and laid down a layer of love and a blanket of forgiveness in which she could wrap her words and write what she felt rather than what she ought to say. Then again, maybe she was a spy and the whole thing was a brilliant cover.
It begins like this . . . .
Berger was talking about being asked to restore a painting a friend of his had found in a junk shop that was worth something, though quite deteriorated. She had asked him to see if he could repair it and he worked to find a way to connect to the moment in the past when the painter had laid brush to canvas. After a couple of days of anguish, he wrote
I paint freely, inspired by the longing of what is there on the canvas. I discover how in the corner of a small room the light, falling on two peeling walls and half a dozen throw-down flowers, is a kind of promise from some distant, unimaginable future.
The job is done. There it is, a painting by Kleber, 1922.
A moment has, for a moment, been saved. This moment occurred before I was born. Is it possible to send promises backwards?
As I look back to my recent past and the incidental encounter with the woman at the next table – an encounter known only to me – I wonder why the image of her preparing a place hangs so fresh in my memory, why it matters I tell it tonight, or why I am moved by Berger’s idea of sending promises back in time as I think of her and her table and her greeting card.

I have better questions than answers.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

an earring of hope

Today is Steve Earle’s birthday.

I’ve been listening to his songs all day, which is not so different from many other days, just more purposed. I love both his music and his story: he is a living testament to hope and redemption. One of my favorite tunes is “Some Dreams,” which was used as the theme song for The Rookie and embodies his tenacity and determination.

The chorus says, simply

some dreams
they never come true
they never come true
yeah, but some dreams do
As a recovering addict, he knows of what he speaks. As I listened to it this week, the two middle lines were the ones that hung with me: some dreams never come true. Life, often, doesn’t go the way we plan or even hope for. There are dreams we can taste and see, things we know how to bring into being if things were to fall a certain way and those things don’t fall. We have worthy ideas and good plans and, still, some dreams . . . .

I know. Aren’t you glad you read this far?

Please keep going, because I did. As I kept singing the song, something hit me in a way that it had not before – and I can express it best in a paraphrase of the same chorus:
some dreams
they never come true
they never come true
yeah, but someone’s do . . . .
On the heels of MLK Day and the countless repetitions of his “I Have a Dream” speech (which never gets old), I am aware in ways I was not before that dreams come to life – and death – in community. Whatever a dream becomes is born out of togetherness. AS long as I’m paraphrasing, there is no “I” in d-r-e-a-m. (Now you will quit reading.) Dreams have a chance to come true when community congeals around them; when mine don’t, I then have the chance to find meaning and healing in a dream that belongs to someone else in this shared adventure we call life together. I get to help your dreams come true or, perhaps, we will stand together in our magnificent defeats. That’s good news all on its own.

When I was in seminary, I pastured a small rural church in Central Texas populated, mostly, by farmers and ranchers, most all of whom planted some sort of hay each spring. When it came time, harvesting was a communal exercise. We all showed up at whoever’s farm ripened first and helped them cut, bail, and haul the hay into their barn. By the time we were finished, someone else’s field was ready. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we worked our way around four or five farms. My contribution was to bring out a couple of my large seminary friends who knew how to haul hay. We worked hard, ate well, took care of each other, and came away with some good stories to tell. Occasionally, a mistimed thunder storm would mean the hay that was cut but not yet bailed was going to be lost on one of the farms. Again, I saw the power of community as the ranchers took care of one another.

And they would all plant again the next year.

John Berger is a writer and artist who inspires me. I am in the middle of his latest work, Bento’s Sketchbook: How Does the Impulse to Draw Something Begin? is stretching both my mind and heart. In a chapter that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here, he makes this statement, describing the work of another artist:
A sense of belonging to what-has-been and to the yet-to-come is what distinguishes [us] from the other animals. Yet to face History is to face the tragic. Which is why many prefer to look away. To decide to engage oneself in History requires, even when the decision is a desperate one, hope. An earring of hope.
I smiled when I first read the last sentence. The two little silver rings that have lived in my left ear lobe for twelve or thirteen years found a new shine and significance in his words. These are days around here – and by here I am drawing a larger circle than our address – where pain and grief and loss feel as common as weather. Things we thought would happen will not. People we hoped would stay have gone. Here, in between the what-has-been and the yet-to-come, we are working hard to engage. Were it a matter of saying, “I must go on,” I’m not sure many would do so. But even as we face the tragedy that is life, we are also being offered invitations by those around us to remember we belong. Some of the invitations to dream beyond ourselves are as small as trusting we can get to lunch or carry on a conversation. Others offer the chance to see dreams come true in everything from supporting midwives in Guatemala to opening an urban farm in East Durham to making music and writing books. And that’s just here in Durham. I don’t mean to make it sound as though the strings well up at sunset and everything is hunky dunky, and yet I do catch a glimpse of something in the midst of my melancholy, a flash of promise.

An earring of hope.


Sunday, January 15, 2012


if I had a nickel for every song
written about how hard life is
out on the road singing I’d have
enough to buy the record and sing
along with the self-indulgence
and understand how the beat of life
(kick-drum-karma?) molds a melody
out of misery in search of a sing-a-long
to the click track of daily existence

or maybe those songs come to mind
late at night as I stare at a blank
computer screen looking for words
to describe how hard it is to write
when I have stayed away from
the page long enough to lose
confidence or any sight of the
resonance with the readers

I imagine are on the receiving end
could it be these words and music
are less self-indulgent than simile
(living my life is like real life)
offered with a hint of interrogative
verses in search of a chorus
of folks who recognize the tune
and know the words but are kind
enough to let me feel original