Knowing

In her poem “Tablets IV”, Dunya Mikhail writes:

The homeless are not afraid
to miss something.
What passes through their eyes
is how the clouds pass over the rushing cars,
the way pigeons miss some of the seeds
on the road and move away.
Yet only they know
what it means to have a home
and to return to it.

During my morning practice of reading and a savoring a poem, this stanza gave me pause.  The “knowing” of the homeless Mikhail writes about is not a knowing we would envy.  The homeless know what it means to have a home because they miss having one. But the “knowing” of this poem made me instantly grateful for my home, my life, the bed I sleep in each night.

I’ve been writing a lot this summer. I haven’t posted as much on this blog because I’ve been carefully crafting a book proposal that I’m hoping will turn into my first book.  The book is about the “knowing” to which I have been led by people whose lives are wholly different than my own—prisoners, immigrants, LGBTQ+, persons of color. I should add the homeless. As a white woman of privilege I don’t know what their lives are like—in fact I am quite blind to and ignorant of this knowledge.  But I can know.  And I should. Because from knowing grows understanding.  And understanding builds relationships.  And when we are in relationship with each other we can begin to meet the needs of those who, for far too long, have been pushed aside by society.

[Feature Image: Patrick Marioné]

More Bass; Less Treble

I’ve started reading a poem a day from the Poetry Magazine to which I recently subscribed.  I keep the magazine on the nightstand beside my bed so I will reach for it as soon as my alarm goes off.  When I get the chance, I reread the poem throughout the day, sometimes out loud, to find and feel its rhythm.  Every morning I wake up craving my new poem.

In a brilliant panel on “Making Room for Essayist Thinking in Hard Times” at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, I listened to Heather Lanier quote pastor Rob Bell:

Progressive Christian pastor Rob Bell describes a yearning specific to our culture right now: “I call it the bass note,” he says. “We are craving bass notes right now. The treble is the squeakier, higher frequency note, and then there’s the bass note. And something about modern culture, and something about the way the Internet has worked on us,… the way in which blips and squeaks are coming at us faster than ever, the way in which news is sensationalized, the headlines that demean actual news and journalism and reporting, this TMZing of our world, it’s sped everything up so that everything is happening right here in this moment. Have you seen this snapchat? It can easily disconnect you from things that are older than five minutes. Life can become all treble, no bass.”[1]

At the end of her presentation, Lanier encouraged us to spend time with the bass notes—with things that resonate deeply and take a long time to make.  Like trees and books, Lanier suggests.  Like poems, children, art galleries and churches, I’d add.

How about you?  What bass notes do you crave?  What resonates deeply within you?

[1] Bell, Rob. “What is the Double Down.” The Robcast. May 14, 2017. https://robbell.podbean.com/e/what-is-the-double-down/

[Feature Image: Squeezyboy]

Poetry for the Nation

“Poetry comes from conflict,” the poet Dorianne Laux says. “If it’s all nostalgia and wonderful it’s a hallmark card. If it’s a political rant, it’s an essay. Poetry is somewhere in between.”

On this Independence Day, I need something in between.  So I was excited to discover www.lovesexecutiveorder.com where a poem will be posted every week during Donald Trump’s presidency.  Matthew Lippman, the editor and founder of the site, wrote this week’s poem–exactly what I needed to read today.

A United States of America Poem
by Matthew Lippman

The United States is still here.
That’s why you have to go kiss your kids before they head out to the school bus.
That is why you have to go out to the dead tree,
cut it down,
rip up the stump,
plant a new tree,
maybe a Japanese Maple
because the Japanese Maple is red
and America is still here.
It’s in the bedroom, under the bed,
next to the plastic bin with all the summer tee shirts,
the blue one with ponies on it,
the same ponies that run and up down hills in West Virginia and Cold Springs, NY,
the ones you rode as a kid
when the air smelled of sweet lilac and burgundy autumn.
You fell off of one once,
landed on America, and America picked you up
like a grandfather who still had his strength,
put you on his knee,
and rubbed your cheeks to make you feel new again.
That America.
It’s still here in the ignition of the car,
you’ve just got to go find the keys and fire her up,
4 cylinders or 6, it does not matter.
It doesn’t matter that the mudslide in Big Sur
which crushed Highway One
crushed Highway One,
you can still get America going again,
drive over the stones and smashed trees to the other side
where the ocean goes on forever,
where America says hello in waves and sea glass
and hints at revolution.
You know that revolution,
the one that means well for the guy at the farm-stand
and the gal in the office with the big windows,
the revolution of a man with no home
and the woman with no food
that still believes in the belly of the day,
that there is a word called yes, which will lead her to a door
and that she can,
with her last ounce of strength,
turn the knob and walk through.
It’s that America that is still here and it lives in your heart.
The one that beats so strong you have to kiss your kids
before they head out for school with the lunchboxes and lunch money
and provided lunch service—the apples, the apple juice,
the turkey sandwiches on wheat bread
with the crust cut off.
It’s an America for today, the most necessary today,
where Georgia and New York, Vermont and California and Idaho and Paris, Texas
have all gotten together like old friends reunited,
sitting at the river on cotton blankets
not talking.
Not even listening.
Just being united states under one sky.
It’s blue. It’s not red or white.
It’s a blue sky
and it’s here where it has always been.
You have to believe this.
You have to go outside right now and find it.
It’s easy.
Just look up.

If you need to read more poetry of resistance, visit www.lovesexecutiveorder.com and click subscribe to receive a weekly poem in your inbox.

[Image by Alex McClung]

Troubling the Tyranny of the Ordinary

Reading and reflecting upon Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss, has become my latest meditation practice. These words were perfect for me today:

“Heading home from work, irritated by my busyness and the sense of wasted days, shouldering through the strangers who merge and flow together on Michigan Avenue, merge and flow in the mirrored facades, I flash past the rapt eyes and undecayed face of my grandmother, lit and lost at once. In a board meeting, bored to oblivion, I hear a pen scrape like a fingernail on a cell wall, watch the glasses sweat as if even water wanted out, when suddenly, at the center of the long table, light makes of a bell-shaped pitcher a bell that rings in no place on earth.”

Earlier, Wiman writes that “the very act of attention troubles the tyranny of the ordinary.” His words called me back to life, to the specificity of each moment. It feels as if, over this past month when all I had time for was getting stuff done, I have been trapped in the tyranny of the ordinary. But Wiman, like a good prophet, shows me the way back to life through the pen that scrapes like a fingernail on a cell wall and the glass that sweats as if even the water wants out. These details in the most boring of board meetings point to the vitality and the ‘moreness’ of life that is available to us if we are paying attention, if we sharpen our minds and spirits to cut cleanly to the beating organ beneath its protective skin. God is not dormant in this poet’s world. Instead, God is everywhere—in every thing and every one—including me.

[Feature Image by Enid Martindale]

Contributing to the Cause

https-cdn-evbuc-com-images-26658337-197060628551-1-original-jpgOn this day of national activism, I appreciated this post by The Poetry Foundation.  It  shares a selection of poems that,

“call out and talk back to the inhumane forces that threaten from above. They expose grim truths, raise consciousness, and build united fronts. Some insist, as Langston Hughes writes, “That all these walls oppression builds / Will have to go!” Others seek ways to actively “make peace,” as Denise Levertov implores, suggesting that “each act of living” might cultivate collective resistance.”

On a morning when I was regretting not being able to go to a march myself, this post reminded me that there are many ways to speak truth to power, to promote justice, to work for change in our society. Each of us has been given different gifts and different ways to contribute to the common good. For reasons I sometimes find hard to fathom, God has gifted me with a pulpit and a platform and opportunities to share my words. The responsibility that comes with such a public platform overwhelms me at times. But I recognize my position as a privilege, as an opportunity to serve, and, hopefully, an opportunity to influence for good. On this day, January 21st, 2017, I am more aware than ever of the need for articulate, wise, respectful and well-informed voices in the public sphere.  As I watch the events of this weekend unfold, I am praying today for all those adding their voice to our national conversation as we collectively seek a way forward in this liminal, or ‘threshold’, time of political and social action.

Refusing to let God Vanish

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A poet friend posted this quote to Facebook last week. It was the anniversary of a difficult miscarriage and she posted this as a prayer that her grief enlarges instead of diminishes her.  This struck me as a beautiful sentiment and so typical of a poet. I keep turning to the poets for the way they enlarge life, for the way they take a magnifying glass to all that seems mundane. A good poet can create a whole scene (or deliver a whole sermon) out of a detail as small as the petal of a pansy. In this enlarging of life it seems that Hirsch’s point is well taken; that the poet’s job is to leave a verbal record as a way of refusing to let any thing—any detail or experience or person, for that matter—vanish.

As I contemplated Psalm 36 for an upcoming sermon, I began to recognize the psalmist’s job as leaving a verbal record of God. These ancient poets enlarged every detail of God. Psalm 36, in particular, enlarges the details of God’s steadfast love that extends to the heavens, God’s righteousness that stands like the mighty mountains, God’s judgment that runs like the great deep and God’s refuge that the psalmist emphasizes is for all people. Implicit in this poetry is a refusal to vanish and a refusal to allow God to vanish. It almost seems like an act of rebellion–an act of rebellion against all that counters love and justice, refuge and righteousness; an act of rebellion against all the pain, heartache, and grief that this world dishes out–to refuse to let God vanish.

This past holiday season all of the end-of-the-year reviews seemed to be ripe with heartache, tragedy and grief.

After the shooting in San Bernadino, California articles were written about how there had been more mass shootings this year than days—as of December 2nd, 355 mass shootings had occurred in 336 days. So much heartache has been caused by these shootings, and yet we Americans are so solidly entrenched in our culture of guns and our worship of guns that we can’t seem to do anything about this abhorrent violence. It breaks my heart to know that my 6-year-old not only knows the drills at her elementary school for tornado and fire, but also what to do when an active shooter is in the building.

hqdefaultAdding to my heartache this holiday season, I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness in preparation for a college trip I am leading where we will study the mass incarceration of our American men of color. What I learned in reading this book—about how our nation’s War on Drugs has strategically and systematically rounded up and locked up our impoverished, black males—blew me away and it made me understand the urgency of the #BlackLivesMatter movement all the more. Our societal imbalance and ‘disadvantaging’ of a whole population of people is a tragedy.

And then there’s the continued evil of groups such as ISIS, Al Queda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. There’s the insanity of Donald Trump’s popularity, our nation’s gobbed up political process, militia men taking control of a wild life refuge in Oregon, another black teen gunned down by police and a “Bible believing” man who walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic to shoot it up.

My God, it seems in the midst of all this heartache and grief, evil and tragedy that there is simply nowhere to turn. Everything is just so messed up.

So I am grateful for the Psalmist who leaves us a verbal record of:

Steadfast Love

Faithfulness

Righteousness like the Mountains

Judgment like the Great Deep

A refuge in which ALL PEOPLE may find shelter

By recording and enlarging these sacred details, the psalmist refuses to let God vanish in a world so full of heartache. The psalmist defiantly lifts up that which counters the insanity, grief, tragedy and evil of the world in which we live.

People of faith do the same every time we gather for worship. Have you ever thought of worship as an act of rebellion? I mean really, how dare we gather to read the psalmist’s words out loud, to pray bold prayers for peace, to sing hymns of hope when all that is taking place out there? It’s kind of crazy, really. But God will not vanish as long as God’s people gather to speak God into this world.

2301691623_7d9f87ac31_oWith the state of the church today—which is a state of rapid decline—I oftentimes think to myself where Christianity would be without the church? Or even, where Jesus would be without the church? If no one is gathering anymore to read the scripture, to sing the hymns, to pray the prayers and build the Body of Christ, then where does that leave Christ? I know this is kind of radical, but consider with me this question: If the church vanishes, then would Christianity, maybe even Christ himself, vanish too?  I don’t know my answer to this question yet.  But I want to ask it.  Because I’m afraid God would vanish if God’s people do not speak and act and live God into existence.

So I guess I want to encourage an uprising—a revolt against all that is terrible and terrorizing.  I want us to rebel against the heartache. I want us to be enlarged, not diminished by the grief. I want us to counter the evil, hate and bigotry with steadfast love, and righteousness, and justice for ALL who are welcome into the fold of God’s refuge. I want us to be God’s poets, refusing to let God vanish by leaving a verbal record.

Who knows, maybe this could be the start of something big? We won’t know unless we try.  And I think God is hoping, maybe even depending upon us to try.

 

 

 

 

 

What the Poets say about Mary

unnamed-8He tiptoes into the room almost as if he were an intruder. Then kneels, soundlessly. His white robe arranges itself. His breath slows. His muscles relax. The lily in his hand tilts gradually backward and comes to rest against his right shoulder.

She is sitting near the window, doing nothing, unaware of his presence. Ah: wasn’t there something he was supposed to say?[1]

Mary, chosen vase
Like any cup, easily broken
Like all vessels, too small.[2]

Her downcast glance
Asks the angel, “Why?”[3]

No one can know
How lonely it is
When an angel departs.[4]

 

[1] The Annunciation by Stephen Mitchell

[2] Nazareth by Rosario Castellanos

[3] The Annunciation by Samuel Menashe

[4] Annunciation by Anna Kamienska

 

[Feature Image: John Meng-Frecker]

 

Holding each Moment

10176739514_0aaa3f47d5_oI am growing accustomed to an annual end-of-the-summer episode of the blues. I am wallowing in this place now, grieving the passage of time. Mourning the loss of the summer’s long days when I read and write and giggle with my children. All this and the summer isn’t even over yet.

No stranger to anxiety and depression I create strategies to lift my spirit. I will manage my sleep patterns and avoid alcohol. I will schedule time each day for that which feeds me: meditation, writing. I will stop checking my email first thing in the morning. I will read more in the evenings and watch less stupid T.V. Just making this plan makes me feel better.

These steps to avoid a downward spiral feel healthy. It’s never good to get psychologically stuck. But part of me is wondering if my desire to avoid the darkness is a desire to avoid life itself.

Into my wondering a new book arrives; a book of poetry by a rabbi I recently met. In Waiting to Unfold, Rachel Barenblat has written a poem each week of her son’s first year of life. I got wrapped up in this book immediately. Barenblat’s writing is clear and honest, returning me poem by poem to the first year of my son’s life. I appreciate how she captures the beauty of her first moments as a mother. I appreciate more how she captures the pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum depression. Each week’s poem is new; a multidimensional, complicated mix of awe, joy, exhaustion, grief, amazement, mystery and change. Barenblat’s ability to convey the undulating highs and lows, emotional chaos, and heightened nature of new life makes for one great year of poetry.

Out of Barenblat’s dark moments poetry was birthed—poetry that spoke to, resonated with, and held deep meaning for this reader. So even though there are experiences of life that I am impatient to see pass—like this time, here, at the end of the summer—and experiences of life that I want to linger—like sneaking into my children’s bedrooms at night to risk waking them with too many kisses—all of life, all experience holds potential and promise. So perhaps I need to simply hold each moment, like a newborn baby holds bottle or breast, and drink deeply of all life offers.

 

 

[Feature Image: David Precious]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to Say: Master Class with Marie Howe

0001-37193920“We have nothing to say.” This was how Marie Howe began her Master Class at the writing conference I am attending this week. Her point was that words come to us, words write us, if we can open ourselves to receiving them. Marie, in her kind, encouraging manner, was determined to teach us something she believed we could all do—radical receptivity. “It’s kind of a relief,” she continued, “to know that you have nothing to say. Because it means you don’t have to be smart or interesting, or holy, or high. You just have to wait and see what comes out of your pen. Just pay attention and let go.”

When my favorite poet told me I had nothing to say, I’ll admit, it was kind of a blow. I mean, my blog is called Something to Say. But I received her point well because my process involves writing myself into what I think. I, oftentimes, have no idea what I am writing about until draft after draft has been scribbled off and I finally discover where the effort is leading me. “Look for the energy in your writing,” advised Marie. “Don’t look for ideas. Run your hand over the page. Where is the heat?” The whole process is, of course, incredibly spiritual.

She had us writing during most of the class. You could easily do the exercises on your own. Free write for two to three minutes on the following prompts:

I could not tell

I could not tell

Today I saw

Today I heard

From what you have written in these prompts, pull out the words and phrases that contain the most energy, the most heat, the most interesting combination of words and sounds. Then rearrange them on a separate sheet of paper. If you’re not surprised by what is pieced together, do it again.

Here are the words I received through this exercise:

I could not tell what my heart wants or needs

or how I feel without her beside me

voices of frustration, my inability to share

I had made for myself and filled my own cup

how could she stop

[adapted feature image: Darren Hester ]

Serious Business

I enjoy reading the Paris Review’s interviews of writers because they are often inspiring. I ran across their interview of Maya Angelou the other day and was particularly struck by this question and answer exchange:mayaangelouwriting

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

I love so many things about this quote. I love the vivid image of Maya Angelou writing poetry on a made-up bed surrounded by sherry, a dictionary, a thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. It sounds like a perfect hot mess of inspiration. I love that Ms. Angelou includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Zoroastrians, friends, lovers, and mothers in her statement about trying to be good. It’s the perfect inclusive nod to our human desire to be our best selves. Also, I love Ms. Angelou’s honesty and courage in naming that she is “trying” to be a Christian, but that she regularly blows it. I blow it too. So I appreciate her saying this. Because, of course, this means I’m not the only one.

Overall, though, I love that Ms. Angelou described her work at trying to be a Christian as “serious business.” I have all sorts of respect for someone who understands that a faith commitment is just that—a commitment. And that it can’t be done well, or at all, unless you take that commitment seriously.

When I spent a week on a Spring break trip with a few of our Muslim students and observed firsthand their ritual of praying five times a day, I noted how this worship ritual shaped their daily life and consistently called them back to God. I go to worship weekly and try to meditate daily for the same reason—to return myself to God and to my commitment to practicing my faith.

Faith is not a magic bullet, or a quick and easy pill we swallow upon our baptism (if we’re Christian). Faith is messy. Faith is doubt. Faith is challenge. Faith is comforting green pastures as well as craggy mountains to climb. To say faith is anything less is a misunderstanding or a misconstruing of faith itself. It is a day-by-day commitment to one’s self and one’s God. It is serious business.