Along for the Ride
Two things from my morning drive to work.
First, I turned up the heat in the car for the first time this fall. I always love this first. Something about that warm air cutting the cold, the smell of the heater, ah! I only run it a bit, because I actually prefer the cold.
Second, I did a little weeping.
When Noah first entered preschool, I drove him to school each day. At first, I considered this a hassle, because it meant I had to leave earlier each morning, and that meant less sleep.
As the days and weeks went along, I realized what a boon I’d received, and cherished those precious quiet moments with my young firstborn son.
We laughed, and talked, and enjoyed one another.
When that year came to an end, I reflected how lucky I’d been, and grieved the passing of the blessed moment in my life.
Skip ahead a little over a decade, and Noah is attending High School on the same campus, and it fell to me, again, to be his ride. So, for all of last year and the first few weeks of this, I’ve spent ten morning minutes with nearly grown Noah each school day.
Particularly toward the end of last year and beginning of this, the rides haven’t always been smooth. I wasn’t the one driving, and he was just a beginner.
Some near misses, jumped curbs, honked horns, and missed lights. To my dismay, also a good bit of yelling on my part.
I’m a terribly impatient passenger, and probably not the best driving instructor.
A couple of weeks ago, we had one of those tough rides, where I was correcting everything Noah did wrong on the road, and it dawned on me.
Your morning rides with this precious child are almost at an end. Shut up, and love him.
Today, we had a couple of near collisions and missed yet another light. I joked that Noah wanted to make this last morning ride memorable.
I prayed for him, thanked God for my precious son, and also for this second surprise season of daily rides in the car.
A little less than thirty years ago, I was riding shotgun in my pops old beat up ford pickup, and I felt tired. I’d been landscaping each summer for my dad, and it was grueling (though satisfying) work.
I was contemplating a job change, and quick.
Then, I looked across at my dad, who, despite the general social exuberance he was known for, was often reticent on those rides. We were between the nursery and a job, carrying trees, mulch, and plants.
Every Friday, his off day from church, we worked together in the soil.
How many young adult men get to hang out with and work alongside a dad they love and respect, every single Friday?
This was a blessing to be savored.
The breeze coming in through my rolled down window was tempering the effects of an Oklahoma summer day’s heat. I smiled, thought to myself – I’ll enjoy these days a little longer. Once they’re gone, they may be gone for good.
John Wayne Kilgore left us too soon, already a decade and a half ago. Those truck ride Fridays are some of my sweetest memories.
This morning, I cried some tears, partly because another good, blessed gift of time with my son was over.
These were also tears of joy, for though we had some tense moments, mostly we enjoyed one another’s company and got to know each other better.
This week, I read a heartening poem by William Stafford, former poet laureate of Oregon, entitled “For People With Problems About How to Believe.”
He talks there about this kind of awareness of the passing, momentary blessings in our lives-
“…a quality of attention has been given to you: when you turn your head, the whole world leans forward. It waits there thirsting after its names, and you speak it all out as it comes to you; you go forward into forest leaves holding out your hands, trusting all encounters, telling every mile ‘take me home.’”
This morning, after feeling the car’s first blast of heat, after wiping those sweet tears, I rejoiced in the grace I’ve received to savor the fleeting beauty of this life.
There is suffering all around us, yes, but there is also beauty, and joy. I hope some will lean forward into your day, and I hope you’ll be attentive, “holding out your hands.”
50 for 50!
I don’t want this post to be about boasting, or complaining.
My purpose in this note is to encourage someone.
I hope it will encourage me too.
I turned 50 this year, woah! Anyhow, for those of us who have been nearing this threshold and for all of those who are ahead of me on the race, we know about types of loss that only build momentum. Losses that are physical, emotional, and communal.
Sometimes we see it coming.
Other times we get blindsided.
This is not an essay about loss, though, thankfully. I just wanted to contextualize my small little celebration. It’s a reminder, first to myself, but maybe to some of you too.
There is not much we can control in this world. We can, however, choose what we’ll do.
We can choose to press on.
On April 14th, 2014, I sent my first story out into the world. I submitted it for The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction in Nimrod International Journal, which is affiliated with the University of Tulsa.
What can I say, I thought I had a good story that would surely win, and part of the prize was the opportunity to speak at their writer’s conference in Tulsa in October. I thought – 3 for 1 – I’ll win the prize money, get my first official publication, and also see my family, during the fall, my favorite season. Maybe I’d even get to watch a Sooner football game. Win-Win-Win!
On June 28 of 2014 I received the issue in which the prize winner was included (my fee included the issue). My story was not included = no write/no call rejection!!!
Luckily, by then, I had already tasted rejection. I’d submitted a second story – “Choice” - on 5/14, a Wednesday. I received the following reply on Thursday, 5/15-
“Thank you for sending us "Choice". We appreciate the opportunity to read your work. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us at this time. All of us at -------- Literary Review wish you the best of luck in finding a home for this piece. Thank you for your submission…”
This is what those of us in the lit business call a “form” rejection. I’ve seen many variations of this standard “cool you tried, but nah.”
Thankfully, “Choice” was accepted for publication (my first ever) on November 3, 2014, just five months after I began submitting. I was ecstatic! It had only been rejected fourteen times :)
That first piece I’d submitted to the Nimrod International Journal was called “Alder Street.” It was finally accepted on June 6, 2017, a mere 947 days and several revisions after it was first submitted.
My second acceptance, of “Something Great and Lofty,” arrived on May 2, 2015, 181 days after my first. It was nominated for an award, an encouragement I desperately needed.
By then, see, I’d added 10 short stories and 4 poems to my submission ledger, and these had collectively accumulated over one hundred rejection notices. Lord, have mercy!
There have been many ups and downs with my writing. I was once blessed to receive three acceptances in just a few days. This was followed by 133 days without a single acceptance.
I’ve had three stretches of over six months without an acceptance. Those long periods without a ‘yes’ can be discouraging, but more so when there is a steady stream of ‘no’s coming in week after week, if not sometimes once every few days.
I’m setting the stage for my big triumph, here, and I hope you are still with me.
This week, I received my contributor’s copy of Flint Hills Review. My poem therein – “Every Apocalypse is Not the Same” – is my fiftieth publication! I have a weird thing with numbers, so receiving my 50th pub soon after my 50th birthday seemed worthy of observation/consideration.
There has been a lot of discouragement in the world these last few years. Some days, it is hard to ignore or look past all the loss, in my life and in the lives of people I love. My guess is there are a few of you out there feeling the heaviness.
The life of a writer is one of rare peaks of joy (publication-it's out in the world to read!) punctuated by sometimes long valleys of rejection, some of it polite or encouraging, much of it painful. I won’t say how many times I’ve been rejected overall, but the number is many.
Nevertheless - fifty times editors from literary journals have read my poems or essays or stories and said, “yeah, this is good, let’s publish this.”
That would not have happened without those other days, when they said “sorry, bud, this isn’t what we want.” It would not have happened if I stopped doing something I loved just because it wasn’t recognized or praised.
A lot of days we feel like we are not what the world wants. At least I do.
That is not everything, though. I can keep working, keep revising, keep striving, and most importantly, keep believing. I can press on.
I hope you will too.
P.S. – Last week, I received notification of the acceptance of another poem, which will be 51. Keep grinding, friends.
P.S.S. – We lost a great writer this week. Frederick Buechner will be missed. One of my favorite writers, he had great humble faith, literary skill, and wisdom. Last summer I read “Godric.”
Here is something Godric (Buechner) said about rejection and the renewal of hope-
“As a man dies many times before he’s dead, so does he wend from birth to birth, until, by grace, he comes alive at last.”
When We Don't Have the Strength
A long time ago, when I was a newbie teacher at Madison Middle in West Tulsa, I had a sweet, yet blunt student, who, after looking me up and down, asked -
"Do you have a mirror?"
"Yes," I replied.
Looking me up and down again, more incredulous this time, she asked a follow up question -
"Do you look in it?"
I'm no fashionista.
Most days, I wear plain corduroys and a simple tee. My wardrobe only includes a few items, circulated continuously until (and sometimes even after) they become threadbare, at which time, they are replaced by more of the same.
There is one governing factor in the selection of my attire – comfort.
This means that on many occasions I am underdressed, a fact for which I make little to no apology.
A few years ago, however, I was contemplating the priesthood, and my then priest invited me to his home to meet our Bishop. I had been hiking earlier in the day, and much to the dismay of my host, arrived for the meeting sweaty (likely stinky), and in shorts. He was embarrassed, and for this I was sorry.
This stuck with me, and so I’ve usually tried to wear either a nice sweatshirt or a button-down shirt to church each Sunday, over my tee. To this end, I carry a button-down shirt in my wife’s car and then put it on after I’ve parked. As soon as church ends and I’m back at the car, the button-down comes off, is folded, and goes back in the trunk.
This past week, I attended a retirement party and so my button-down (I only have one or two in circulation;)) had been transferred to my car for the event. Later, on Sunday, half-way to church (a 25 minute drive) I realized that I’d never brought my button-down back to my wife’s car, the one we take to church.
To make matters worse, when I looked down at my tee, I saw a nice big juicy coffee stain right in the middle of my chest.
Later, in the pews, I wrestled with my inadequacy. Should I go for communion in a coffee-stained tee? The audacity and presumption!
Now, I don’t really think God gives a good rip about this, but others do, and part of our duty in this world is to cause as little pain to others as we are able. Also, I was embarasssed about the stain.
I didn’t want to offend, but I needed the Bread and Wine.
As I walked down the aisle, looking up at the icon of Christ on the inside of the Dome, I was reminded of the harlot washing the feet of Jesus, and the naked and beaten thief on the cross, who we remember in every communion prayer, the Samaritan woman at the well, and all of the lepers and demoniacs who ever encountered my Savior.
My former priest was in attendance, and I explained my circumstance to allay any embarrassment. He chuckled, said simply – “we are all stained.”
This past week we reached the mid-point between Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost. If you have never attended a Paschal liturgy, I think you should, that it would be a blessing. It is essential in the Orthodox Church. A marathon, it is rich with meaning.
Anyhow, I always question everything, and lately, usually (perhaps especially), I question my faith.
For brevity, I’ll just say I didn’t want to go to the Paschal service. It begins near midnight. I was tired.
Yet, while I was sitting over my sink, about to take my contacts out and go to bed, my two middle sons – Luke and Christian – rushed in, urged me to take them, plleeeeasssse!
Looking for any excuse, I asked Christian to explain why he wanted to go, thinking he just wanted a reason to avoid going to bed, and then I could go to sleep.
He said that "even though we are tired, that going would be hard - isn’t that what faith is about, believing when we don’t have the strength."
Again, he entreated me to go, and Luke joined the chorus, begging to go to church.
I was seconds from popping out those contacts, looking at myself in the mirror, wondering what kind of father suffocates the faith of his children to appease his pitiful flesh.
We went, sat in vigil at the grave of our Lord, walked about his tomb three times, chanting our sorrow and hope, and then joined the joyous threefold refrain when the stone was rolled away –
“Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
I thanked my boys, told them that we need each other, and that on that night, I’d desperately needed them.
Sometimes even leaders - the strong or wise (or simply the poor frail folks in positions of responsibility) - need to lean down on others, like Moses, whose arms were uplifted by Aaron and Hur while the Israelites fought to survive.
We get weak, tired, and all of us are stained.
And sometimes, like the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda,
we need someone to carry us.
He Lived in Each Sentence
Several years back, when I got really serious about writing, I began a quest for written words that resonated deep down in my soul. One of the early bell-ringers I encountered was D.R. MacDonald, a thoughtful writer, a doubter and a believer, who wrote many tales originating in Cape Breton, at the far eastern edge of the Canadian Atlantic.
I went right to Amazon and ordered several of his books and collections, including one called “Running the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada.” Only when the book arrived did I realize it was a collection of many writers and there was only one MacDonald tale, one I’d already enjoyed. I was irritated with myself for not reading the description more closely.
It turned out to be one of the great and providential mistakes in my quest for excellence. I found several great writers, including Alistair MacLeod, a Catholic writer who I now remember daily in my prayers for the dearly departed.
On my annual trek to Tulsa, I always stop at Gardner’s Used Books and Comics, armed with a list of writing greats to guide my search. Probably about 6 or 7 years ago, I had MacLeod on this list, even though I had not yet read anything he’d written. I found his novel – No Great Mischief, purchased it, and set it aside.
One of these days I’ll write a review of that work, but here I’ll just note that reading that book was revolutionary for me as a writer. Here was someone who showed me you can write about life and faith and sorrow, intertwining hope and melancholy with honesty that acknowledges the full experience of living.
An aside: as a history teacher and general observer of the world, I sometimes wonder how our historical heritage shapes us (as opposed to just our present circumstances). At least some of my ancestors were Scots (Kilgour) and most of the characters MacLeod (and MacDonald) created had connections with Scotland. I did not seek these writers because of this, but when I found them, something deep down felt like home.
Anyhow, after being bowled over by my pure satisfaction with No Great Mischief, I ordered Island: The Complete Stories, by MacLeod. It is everything he wrote – 16 short stories. I’ve just finished the last of these. While I’ve been grinding through countless works of the great writers over these past several years, I’ve been spreading these 16 gems out to make them last.
I do the same thing with my father’s journals, reading only a bit at a time, saving some future epiphanies, some delightful surprises for the remaining days (hopefully years or even decades) of my life.
Many writers spill their thoughts onto the page as it comes, and then spend countless hours revising. I am one of these.
MacLeod, however, is said to have mulled each sentence for as long as necessary, and when it was finally perfect, move on to the next. He lived in each sentence, and then lived in the next.
MacLeod was not prolific, and for this I am sad. But I wonder if I would enjoy his work as much if he hadn’t shown such care.
I also think this is how I should live, in each small minute of each day, in each phrase or vantage point or verse. It is so hard, and yet, I think we might draw nearer to our own souls if we slow, pay close attention.
I think God is in those hidden places right before our eyes, perhaps with a wry smile.
Alistair MacLeod wrote about particular people in particular places and times. He wrote in a way that recognized the individuality of people groups and their languages and cultures and tribes, but he also showed how we are all the same.
I am not sure who MacLeod wrote for, in his mind.
But I will tell you that MacLeod certainly, without a doubt, wrote for me.
Writing is grueling mental work. I’m not talking about pop writing, though I won’t disparage fun. I am talking about those writers who grind to try and produce something that might hold up another soul for just another step or another night and day, through another disappointment or betrayal, through another bout of despair.
Alistair MacLeod’s writing has done that for me these past several years, and for that, I am deeply grateful.
For those who take the time to read my words, I pray they lift you, add to your hope, put a smile on your face, give you a chance to slow down and wonder.
I’ve only just nearly finished An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis, which I purchased over two decades ago. It sometimes pays to invest that far into the future.
Delightful in many ways, not the least with the wit and charm of his writing, Lewis has challenged me to become a better, more literary reader. One of the key concepts he describes is what he calls egoistic castle-building.
In this sense, a particular reader takes in certain texts or art, not for the pure experience of art, but to use the piece for their own fantasies. I do not do this with books anymore, but I think we all struggle with the desire to live with certain illusions of our own exceptionalism.
Lewis describes a division between ‘users’ of art, and ‘receivers.’ I hope I will always remain in the latter group.
In one of Lewis’s last chapters of the book, there are a few fine quotes that I will place here for consideration, as I think they are just wonderfully perceptive and hopeful.
“…I can never see anything exactly from the point of view even of those of whom I know and love best.”
Isn’t this true, and yet we continue, on a regular basis, to lump and define so many we hardly know. These categorizations often lead to disregarding or villainizing the classified “others.” This is damaging to us, and to society.
The next sentence Lewis offers is more hopeful.
“But I can make at least some progress toward it (understanding their point of view).” Parenthetical comment is mine
This statement has in it a bit of hope, and humility. If we are committed, we can draw nearer to understanding and building connections with our neighbors, our friends, our families. Even then, we must recognize that we may only make “some progress.”
This requires, even after all our effort, that we withhold judgment.
We must always be merciful.
Later in the same chapter, Lewis uses a metaphor to address whether or not one should make this effort at empathy and compassion, given its attainment can only ever be partial.
“If I can’t get out of the dungeon, I shall at least look out through the bars. It is better than sinking back on the straw in the darkest corner.”
I am an introvert. Many of us (introverts) are constantly wrestling with self-doubt and depression, longing to attain greater self-awareness and also intimacy with others.
Yet, we have learned that our eccentric personalities sometimes make us difficult to befriend.
So, we face the real temptation to sink back into “the darkest corner” and engage in “egoistic castle-building.” This is a lie that harms us by robbing us of others, and therefore, love. It also robs those we did not battle hard enough to love.
I like to play video games, and indeed, this is where some of those silly castle-building exercises occur. However, some gaming writers are thinkers and artists, and occasionally their work can ring the alarm.
One quest from a game called “Dragon Age” has the hero entering a castle that is undefended against certain villainous and overwhelming magical attacks. The powerful ruler of the castle is nowhere to be found.
Eventually, your hero finds a magical portal, into which this ruler has gone and never returned. They have been lulled by a demon who has created an illusion of beauty and perfect peace.
If this person is unable to break the spell, and exit the portal, come back and fight for the castle, it will fall, and they will be enslaved forever.
Even if they do return, they will find the battle is already lopsided, and will have to struggle against the results of their own drawn-out period of illusion.
Your hero's task is to convince them to fight.
One of the most significant spiritual illnesses mentioned by the desert fathers and the monks of Athos is called “forgetfulness.” This is a state where we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the magnificence of God, and His great love for us, and so we sink into delusion, depravity, and ultimately despair. Forgetfulness is subtle, and yet it is a gateway to all kinds of destruction.
I believe that part of our desire for castle-building (which can take all sorts of forms, including some which might be regarded as right and good) is about forgetfulness.
When we've lost faith, we start to play god.
Because we are vulnerable to forgetfulness, we must cultivate a remembrance of God.
Sometimes, like in the metaphor shared by Lewis, we feel like we are living in a dungeon. Often we've put ourselves there, but at other times we feel we've been harmed by circumstances or people.
I’m always amazed by stories of people sent to prison erroneously or unfairly, who, despite such brutal trauma, persevere in their faith. I have a feeling they were at the bars of the window, looking for sunrise.
Here is a poem about forgetfulness from my recent book, Leviathan. “Dead Decades” first appeared in riverbabble, in their spring 2017 issue. I hope you enjoy.
The other self - the one with power and hunger,
lays daily offerings at the feet of his gods.
He lies, calling them innocent names – distraction, pleasure, duty.
But my strength is gone, talent stolen.
When I question, he smiles and sings a lullaby.
I sleep then, waking years later, ghastly and faint.
In time the cycle of slumber widens, synapses become wintry,
dead decades are buried under snow.
There remains a far glimmer; I yearn for its warmth.
Talons run through my hair, soothing.
Drooling fangs are shadows in the blizzard.
The other self fled, abandoning me
alone to face the beast, falling night.
I must hammer, shriek, weep, flee! But I dare not sleep.
The earth is moving round, and
dawn will come.
Near the end of 2021, I started seeing several people posting lists of books read during the year, with recommendations from those lists.
I was blessed to have a great year reading myself and finished more than I have since I was a single man with spare time on my hands (back then I thought I was busy).
I am thankful for encouragement I receive from all the great writers through the years, who inspire and challenge me in every facet of my life.
Among the excellent books I read was a repeat – Animal Farm, by George Orwell.
A few years ago, I started a semi-regular space of time where my boys and me gather round the dining room table for what I call “book hour.” We all read or write or draw, but only must be still, and engaged wholeheartedly in whatever task we choose.
Only Seth is allowed to sometimes wander.
Two summers ago, in conjunction with “book hour,” we started reading Watership Down.
Sadly, when school began, we got busy and did not finish. We all enjoyed the sometimes-dark title, and I hope to tackle it again with the boys in the future.
So, I partly chose Animal Farm for its brevity, hoping this time to complete the work begun, and I can happily say that just before the New Year, we finished - hoorah!
<Spoiler Alert> (About Animal Farm, which of course many of you have read, but if not, now you know)
The other reason that I wanted to read this story with my boys is because I wanted them to be reminded more succinctly how deceptive politicians, “patriots”, “revolutionaries” and “comrades” can sometimes be.
I want them to always think critically about how what they see with their own eyes is being portrayed, and to assess whether a source is reliable, or not.
As we read together, the frequent visitations of Squealer (press secretary for Napoleon, a pig who is the arch-villain of the tale) to the faithful citizen-worker animals of the farm made an impression on me and my boys.
Throughout the tale Squealer revisits events and rules that all the animals (at least early on) lived through together. Each time he addresses these issues, he changes the version of the story a little more, emphasizing the heroism of Napoleon, explaining away his deficits, and increasingly debasing any who opposed his rule.
The animals sense they remember a truer version, but, because of their devotion to the cause and their leader, and because of fear (also stoked by Squealer) of their enemies, they allow themselves to believe the progressively overt lies.
Only on the last page, when it is far too late, do they see how terribly they’ve been deceived.
(As an aside, I’ve already found myself racing to finish even more books this year, and somewhat rushed the first finished book – Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank - which I thoroughly enjoyed. It is also a book about how a society destroyed itself, nearly. I may have robbed myself of some joy in my hurry. I guess having a long list of completions gives me, and perhaps some of the rest of us, a feeling of control and accomplishment we might need in these crazy times.)
So, anyhow, one of the books I’d hoped to add to my 2021 list was a peculiarly delightful and unique book called Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. It can’t be read hurriedly, and so it remains in-progress for my 2022 list now 😊
Captivating, Spoon River Anthology is a collection of poems written by the many deceased lying beneath the headstones near and around the fictional Midwestern town of Spoon River.
One such postmortem poem is by a local newspaperman, “Editor Whelan.” Here is an excerpt-
“To be on every side of every question;
To be on every side, to be everything, to be nothing long:
To use great feelings and passions of the human family
For base designs, for cunning ends
To wear a mask like the Greek actors-
Your eight-page paper – behind which you huddle,
Bawling through the megaphone of big type:
“This is I, the giant,”
Thereby also living the life of a sneak-thief,
Poisoned with the anonymous words
Of your clandestine soul.
To scratch dirt over scandal for money,
And to exhume it to the winds for revenge,
Or to sell papers,
Crushing reputations, or bodies, if need be,
To win at any cost, save your own life.
To glory in demoniac power, to ditch civilization,
As a paranoiac boy puts a log on the track
And derails the express train. (emphasis mine)
To be an editor, as I was…”
Media today is well beyond the "eight-page" local country newspaper described by the fictional editor in Spoon River and is mostly controlled by entertainment industry in the form of television, and ever more, social media.
A number of politicians red and blue have ceased to govern, and merely tweet and share their social media performances as well as those of allied political “influencers.”
A few years back I decided to watch a bit of C-Span, thinking this would cut through to the real actions of politicians, without the editorializing of the big media corporations.
To my dismay, it was immediately apparent that many of our elected leaders, on both sides of the aisle (can we add another aisle and put some moderate independents in the middle, please?) were giving speeches which were not aimed at progress. Their talk was a collection of sometimes incoherent sound bites meant to garner attention, and “shares.”
Thursday was a notable anniversary, and a fearful one.
I’ve made a zealous attempt to remain apolitical on this blog, and I hope to remain so nearly always.
Democrats and Republicans and Independents all need to be saved, but spiritual answers and hope do not lie in the realm of politics. I want to wrestle out those issues which might bring us salvation and peace, not fuel angst and division.
(My apologies for this diversion from my normal fare)
I am, however, a member of this particularly historical society (I’m an American), and something happened in front of our faces, for a variety of reasons that are complex and rooted in blame that extends wide.
I am troubled by the “Squealers” of our story, who have been doing a bit of revising in the intervening months.
On January 6th, 2021, at our capitol, the actions taken by those rioters were plain, and before our very eyes. There was not a drop of ambiguity in that moment.
It remains whether we will believe our eyes, or like Animal Farm's tragic, ever faithful Boxer - whose two mottos were “I will work harder,” and “Napoleon is always right” - will we allow ourselves to be used and discarded for the ignoble, and ultimately destructive cause of deceit.
Why poetry, Blake?
I have written enough short stories for a collection (you might see this in the next few years 😊), I have written a novella (expect this relatively soon), and I have written a historical novel (this is not quite ready, but close).
Why would the first thing I publish be a collection of poems, when poetry is such an obscure and oft neglected art?
While it is true that poetry is sometimes an ignored or even avoided art, I think this is, at least partly, for a couple of good, honest reasons.
First, poetry can come off fancy or uppity, and that can be a major irritant for readers. No one wants to be talked down to. Sometimes poets can seem like wannabe philosophers or know-it-alls, and ain’t nobody got time for that.
My pops called unnecessary garnishments “frilly-nillies” and poets sometimes run the risk of putting a few too many of these in their poems.
I will say for my part, this disgust with put-ons is ingrained in my psyche. Nevertheless, if a few “too cute” lines slipped through in my collection, I apologize.
The second reason people sometimes turn from poetry is because it can seem too mysterious. People want to enjoy beauty, sure, but they also want to comprehend what they are reading. For me, this was a turn off for a long while. It made me feel dumb.
I will confess right here and now that I read poems every day, and frequently, don’t understand all that I read. So, this is the dilemma for the poet and the reader.
Ted Kooser, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, and just a tremendous poet, wrote a guide for beginning poets called The Poetry Home Repair Manual. If you have a desire to write poetry that is accessible, I highly recommend. In it, he offers innumerable critiques and lessons that are invaluable.
He observes –
“We’ve become accustomed to being confronted by poems that confuse, baffle, embarrass and intimidate us, and for a lot of people, reading poetry is a dreadful experience, that is, an experience full of dread.”
I’ve tried to make my poems good houseguests for you (Kooser’s analogy), and I hope they will warm the home of your heart.
Later, Kooser offers the following phrase, which for me, is the answer to your question about why I’d publish poetry-
“a poem is a way of assembling a bit of order amid chaos.”
This is the reason my poems have value for me, and hopefully, for you too.
I am a history teacher, so I will not say that our time is the worst, or most chaotic. I’ve written some things in previous posts to suggest that there have been other, perhaps worse, eras.
Yet, we are all going through nearly daily upheavals, and some of them (related to the massive development of social media tech, gaming, and entertainment) are new to the world.
I have more access to news of the entire world than ever before, but this tends to bring more uncertainty and anxiety.
Social media has us in a constant battle for the peace of our souls. We can incessantly compare ourselves with others, and this can be damaging, whether by infecting us with false pride or debilitating depression.
We are tempted to project onto others, to group them and name them, reduce them to tribes of “ally” or “other.”
It gets harder and harder for us to be patient with those we disagree with, to treat them as children of God, and to listen to their deep fear and uncertainty with empathy, to show them love.
We are exposed to an onslaught of quips and memes about self-awareness via social media feeds (mine, at least). Yet, I suspect most of us wrestle with our souls still, not only with great difficultly, but with increasing weariness.
We are living “amid chaos.”
I carry poems with me everywhere I go. Not mine. I carry the writings of other poets, because in them I’ve found someone, a human brother or sister who is actively using language to wrangle hope, stability and even joy out of sorrow and oblivion.
King David committed many villainous crimes in his day. He also had many victories, both as a political entity and as a human being. He imperfectly loved and sometimes selfishly destroyed. He was obstinate, and repentant. A real person, complex in every way, just as we are.
The Sermon on the Mount aside, the most read scriptures in the Bible are likely the Psalms. There, David tried to assemble a “bit of order amid chaos.”
I am so grateful for his willingness to sit in his pain and despair, in his remorse and doubt, in his elation and hope, with spiritual and intellectual diligence. He paid attention, and used the inadequate tool of words to try and find an anchor, and the produce of those efforts has been a lifeline for so many, for thousands of years.
Perhaps people will be reading my poems in a thousand years 😊 haha!
Well, I hope you will buy my collection, and carry my poems with you, and read them, enjoy them, and may they give you a sense of camaraderie in this life, a sense that someone else has been trudging through, trying to find a way to believe, to press on.
Toward the end of my poem “The Throbbing Hypnotism,” I have written the following lines, which describe the poet, among other faithful wanderers –
“A laborer climbs the ladder and weeps, presses ear to beam, knocks hammer along frame, searching for the wound. She has vigilance, and a steady gaze, and so she can heal.”
I believe we all need poetry, desperately, and so I’ve made this offering.
I hope you’ll purchase Leviathan, and I pray it will bless you.
I was home these past two weeks, first to care for my eldest son Noah, who tested positive for Covid, and also to monitor the learning of his three younger brothers, who had to be quarantined.
Then, two days in, I got sick, and the next night, my wife Jessie fell ill. So, we spent two weeks sniffling, coughing, medicating, resting, and praying.
My colleagues at Pond Road Middle buoyed our spirits by delivering fresh meals each day this last week, and their kindness and compassion for us has been overwhelmingly grand. Thanks, Pond Fam – you guys/gals are awesome, and I’m lucky to work beside you.
Being ill is scary, and for me, more so as the years go on and my body lets me down. Sometimes, I let my body down too.
There is, however, a sort of healthy humility that gets focused when your frailty is manifest.
I participated in martial arts during my mid to late twenties. It was great fun, hard work, and I am grateful to have spent such great times with excellent teachers, who are also wonderful human beings.
During that time, I earned a broken nose, broken toes, bruised ribs, and more than a few shiners and busted lips. My head was once put through a plaster wall by “Big” Steve Whitaker :)
During one promotion, I decided to show off by performing my breaks without spacers in between the wooden boards and injured my wrist terribly. It has never been the same.
Anyhow, I like the martial arts. Boxing, Wrestling, MMA.
So, the social media algorithms picked up on this, I guess, and occasionally suggest videos with fighting, and some of the videos show real fights.
Yesterday, I scrolled over a video which captured my attention, and then sucker-punched me with sorrow.
Two women viciously assaulted one another in a public space, and the children accompanying the one taking the brunt of the violence helplessly watched their guardian being pulverized. For what seemed an eternity, the people in the video, the bystanders, just watched.
The savagery of the violence was compelling, but what stabbed my heart was those poor children watching their mother or aunt or sibling being injured and humiliated.
I don’t know what led to the altercation, but for the sake of those kids, I desperately wanted someone to intervene, quickly, but it took too long. Every additional blow to the guardian was a blow to those kids.
There was so much pain in that video.
The woman who ‘won’ the fight fought with a brutal ferocity that suggested rage, but also fear. It was violence born of desperation, and it seemed she wanted to kill.
The humiliated one, the traumatized children, and even those paralyzed bystanders were all deeply wounded. The fella who finally intervened had a look of bewildered horror on his face.
We hurt each other, and often, we don’t even know why. The reasons are sometimes buried. We are all carrying pain, and sometimes, through action or passivity, we transmit that hurt to others, often those we love most dearly.
This week I read “The Wizard’s Tide; A Story” by Frederick Buechner. It is a simple and straightforward book about how devastatingly traumatic our actions can be.
Told from the perspective of a young lad whose parents are suffering through the financial struggles of The Depression, you feel every critical remark, untoward action or mean look that passes between them. They were shifting their hurt to one another, but that was not all.
The little boy doesn’t fully understand their tensions, but he is burdened by them. You feel his sadness as you read, and wish his parents, who dearly love him, were more cautious.
The book moved me to repentance. How much injury have I inflicted on my boys by careless angst toward my wife, myself, the world?
I read “A Sacred Journey” by Buechner in August, and much of the fictional tale in “The Wizard’s Tide” is based upon the great writer/pastor/poet’s real childhood suffering.
A wise and mature thinker, the older Mr. Buechner was still sorting through the tangible grief inflicted during his youth.
In the district where I teach, there was a big blowout during a Board of Education meeting this past week and emotional harm was inflicted.
This is happening all over right now, and sometimes those arguments turn violent. I wonder at the gloom and fury that has been unleashed by our shared sufferings these past many months.
We must ‘hold on to the good’ in each other, certainly, but also in ourselves.
We never end an argument.
The lady who “won” the fight on that horrid video I watched didn’t finish anything. Instead, she inflamed so much anger and sorrow that already existed in her own heart, and in those around her.
And now those little children have been wounded, perhaps in a new and abiding manner that will follow them throughout their years. They will be tempted to inflict their shock or unforgiveness or uncertainty on others.
I pray they’ll know healing, and mercy, and most of all, love.
Lord, have mercy!
Rejoice, and Be Glad!
Sometimes those FB memories be killing you.
Two days ago, I got the notification of this post, from 2011-
“Noah's first day of school - excitement mixed with sad - thinking how sometimes time seems still but then you turn around and it seems to have vanished - here's to my little scholar!”
Yesterday was the first day of school, and I put my youngest son Seth on the bus for kindergarten. Noah started tenth grade last week. In a couple of weeks, we’ll go get his driver’s permit. My middles are in 5th and 6th, Christian having just moved up to the middle school. Luke is the big dawg of the elementary.
I’ve been up early in the dark, walking in the quiet cool of the mornings. Most days, when my feet tread the sidewalk near the bus stop, I am unmoved; it is just another few feet to walk and pray.
Today, when I neared that stretch, if felt like sacred ground.
Yesterday, mostly due to township construction on main roads during the first day of school (bureaucracies :|), the buses were late in the morning and afternoon, so I spent, all in all, about two and a half hours of my life pacing that small stretch.
In the morning, Christian, my 6th grader, went first. I took his picture from the car so he wouldn’t get embarrassed. Luke, my 5th grader, begrudgingly allowed his photo, and finally, my baby Seth went on his first big bus.
On the walk home after school, we saw his old 'tiny' bus, and he was able to chat with Scott and Donna, who had been the driver/aid team for our three youngest, investing mornings and afternoons with our kids for nearly a decade.
In the afternoon, it took longer, and I thought it might, so I brought a book. I read the first two chapters while I was waiting, a full 61 pages.
The book, “For the Time Being,” by Annie Dillard, took me to Ancient China, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Ancient Israel, and elsewhere. So far, the book is asking all the important questions about our short time here, and what it means, and also, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?
When I was in high school, I had a crush on a friend, and we went on a few dates, not many. Anyhow, in my recollection, I can remember bringing her home and walking her to the front door. I think I might have met her mother and father, but if so, it was only once or twice, and fleeting.
Yet, I have met them again here on social media, and particularly her father, who has been battling sorrows and sickness with courage, and faith. My friend posts glimpses of his time on earth, and hers, and their story is one of great, audacious hope. Belief in something bigger than all this, that is magnified by how we tread this world.
My MaMa, who I’ve mentioned before, turned 102 this past week. She is one of my heroes, and part of the reason is that she if she worries about anything, she rarely lets it trouble her very long. She takes things as they come, good or bad, with the same grace and contentment. Her senses are nearly gone. Her soul is present, and still filled with joy.
Football season is back, and boy am I glad. Boomer!
When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish exit their locker room, they touch a poster that says “Play Like a Champion Today.”
In my house, as you walk down the stairwell, we have a similar frame, which, like the golden-dome footballers, I touch on my way out into this world. It reads-
“This is the day the Lord has made; Rejoice, and be glad in it!”
Taking Out the Trash
I heard the grinding machine of the garbage truck at the corner at the end of our street.
Then, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I rushed out the door, peered down to our curb, my blood pressure gathering steam.
Ah, relief! My son had faithfully fulfilled his chore; our cans were full, and in their proper places.
As I took a morning stroll around the neighborhood, the garbage truck followed, its panic-inducing crunching and whining an alarm, rousing neighbors to their windows and doors. I saw two sets of neighbors overburdened by bags and cans of trash, hobbling at breakneck speed down driveways, like delinquent children trying to catch the bus.
Labor shortages and a change in our local waste management company have led to recent delays, where the refuse and recycling piled up for weeks. Oh, the stench!
Every year I teach the fall of the Roman Empire, and one of the familiar sightings in that decline is the steady breakdown and then collapse of government maintenance. Thankfully, at least for now, we’ve avoided the Apocalypse here in Burlington.
Sometimes, we forget to put out the trash.
We’ve just returned from our summer trek to Oklahoma.
This trip is always a blessing to me on multiple levels, because I get to see family and friends that I love and trust dearly, and this year all the more because my kin were whole, joyous, holding tightly to the good. Some, like me, were struggling, but we're also headed in the right direction. It was a hopeful sojourn.
I also benefit from the driving. Usually four days of solid road trip (2 there-2 back), averaging about 10-11 hours each. This year we visited my Aunt Pat in Ruston, LA, which added a worthwhile fifth day.
Many people wonder that we can do this trip year after year. All those dragging days, humming over the interstate, meandering from state to state (18 this year!). It is harder on my back and knees and hips than it used to be. Yet, I am grateful for those days too.
I have time to evaluate my life, in relative silence, on an annual basis. Sadly, every year, I recognize there are things that need readjustment, and some things have to go.
We get busy, and the clutter piles up in the corners of our heart.
Anger, resentment, despair.
Pride, sloth, gluttony, lust.
About a week before our trip, I was blessed by two providential lifelines.
I’d been drifting, badgered by despair, seen daily, around the world and in the darkness of my own heart. I was afraid for my faith, and the feeling was not unlike that panic of hearing the garbage truck, a desperate feeling I’d miss my chance to be made whole.
So, I took out my prayer rope, and began to insistently meditate on Christ. It was a sort of flailing act of war against my doubts, an anchor against the tide carrying me away. It was a willful act of faith and hope, and it carried me through the storm.
Second, a friend counseled me to carefully and purposefully build patterns around the things I valued, and weed out those that choke, and to do so with the urgency of the farmer, who will starve if he does not tend.
Yesterday, I weeded my front beds, which had become a small jungle while we were in OK, and it brought me back to the days when I worked for my Pops. I went in with gusto, soil up to my elbows, and earned a thick layer of dirt under my nails.
It was good, satisfying to see the piles of debris I’d removed. Thing is, those nasty little stranglers will be back, just like my doubts.
It’s in our nature to sink, to regularly allow hurt and ego to strangle out the good things we love, rob us of gratitude and joy.
I’m removing the clutter from my heart, again, and it is work.
I pray blessings on you, that you would begin or continue the work of trimming and pruning all that hinders your wholeness.
"Examine all things; hold on to the good."
-Saint Paul the Apostle