Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" (1930)

Paint, seven
Layers of color
Stacked in Sunday

Morning blue
Sky; then
Shadowed eaves,
Then becurtained,
Ledged windows
Facing from
The yet asleep,
The almost awakened;
Yellow. Black, white
On red, perhaps brick;
They still used
Brick in 1930.

Then layer of floor
And ceiling, bottom
And top
To separate the
Sleeping from
Empty stores, all
Commerce ceased.
They still closed stores
On 1930 Sundays.

Sand-colored sidewalk,
From sand-colored street
By thinnest of
Shaded rises.

And what of
Pudgy hydrant,
Fat with ready
And ribboned pole
Of barbers?
Vertical incongruities
Amid the horizontal,
The exceptions
To suggest a rule,
They, too, cast
Their horizontal
Shadows, the rule
Flowing even
From the exceptions.
Or do the shadows,
Transparent stains
On sidewalks,
Cast hydrant and pole?

Early Sunday morning
Of angled sun and
Horizontal emptiness.
Empty street, devoid
Of movement;
Empty sidewalk,
Devoid of feet;
Empty doorway,
Devoid of welcoming
Empty windows,
Devoid of faces
Welcoming the day.
Empty sky, devoid
Of clouds or birds.

Only the shadows
Break the silence.

Early Sunday Morning (1930) by Edward Hopper; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Wisdom of Wilderness and a Little RAP

Starting Monday, Oct. 5 over at The High Calling Blogs, author Laura Boggess will be leading an 11-week discussion of The Wisdom of Wilderness by Gerald May. First published in 2006, the year after May’s death from cancer, the book is about the idea of experiencing the healing power of nature – and seeing the wilderness and wildness that is in each of us. I decided to read the book and follow, possibly join in, the discussion. More details from Laura are here.

Boggess recalls visiting her father before she left for graduate school and, learning he wasn’t at home, went for a walk in the woods. And what she found in the stillness was the presence of God.

It’s been longer than I care to think since I went hiking at Shaw's Arboretum, a 2400-acre preserve some 35 miles west of St. Louis. (Okay, the Arboretum is the old name; it’s now officially "Shaw Nature Preserve" but we St. Louisans don’t give up familiar names that easily.) The arboretum has a number of trails, one of which takes you down to the Meramec River. There are some old, old trees there; the trunk of one is wider than three of us touching fingers to fingers could fit around.

The most remarkable thing about the place is, as Boggess found in her own stretch of woods, the stillness. There are many places to sit and think in the Arboretum, and many places just to sit. It’s where you can “empty out” and just listen.

I’m looking forward to the discussion, I know that nAncY over at the Just Say the Word blog is participating, too.

And I may have to find a way to take another hike. Soon.

A Little RAP

For L.L. Barkat's Random Act of Poetry this week, we've been asked to write a short poem based on something from a poet we've been reading. I've been reading Wendell Berry's A Timbered Choir, which, oddly enough, does relate to the themes and ideas of The Wisdom of Wilderness. So, here's my submission for the RAP:

Walking in Mr. Berry's Woods

I walk within woods,
At river's edge,
Seeking my talisman,
My trunked
And branched guide,
Pointing a way forward,
Signaling a way back,
Stopping time and
Enveloping my heart
In a sweet moment
Of solitude and
Sabbath stillness.

Monday, September 28, 2009

John Blase's "Touching Wonder"

It’s been told so many times, in so many books, movies, plays, in so many sermons, that it’s fallen into almost the status of cliché. So is it possible to tell the story of the birth of Jesus in a way that’s fresh and compelling, that might even recapture the original meaning, which just might take our closed eyes and jaded hearts and open them to the incredible thing that happened in Bethlehem?

The answer is yes. John Blasé does exactly that in “Touching Wonder” (published by David C. Cook; 128 pages; $12.99).

Blasé combines the verses of Luke 1 and 2, Psalm 29 and John, with fictional accounts by Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds to breathe life into our understanding of what happened at the birth of Jesus. He then adds his own handwritten pleas and prayers.

And the result? We’re there. We’re there when Zachariah is struck mute, and Elizabeth goes off by herself to relish her pregnancy of John the Baptist. We’re there with Mary when she hears the angel tell her what is to happen, and she says, “Let it be so with me.” We share Joseph’s frantic desperation as he pounds door to door in Bethlehem, trying to find a place for Mary to give birth. We’re there with the shepherds, who hear the angels singing and do something shepherds would never do – abandon their sheep to see what has happened. We’re there when the baby Jesus is presented to Simeon and Anna in the temple, and Simeon knows he can now die and Anna, old Anna, suddenly sings with the joy of a young girl. And we’re there when the author unburdens his heart in simple prayer letters to God.

It is a Christmas book, the kind you see piled on the tables at Barnes & Noble beginning int helate fall. But it's also more than that, a kind of devotional from a writer who felt compelled to tell the story of Christmas in a different way, a writer who sees himself as part of the story. And that's what we often miss -- we are part of the Christmas story.

“Touching Wonder,” all 128 pages of it, is a treasure. Well done, Mr. Blasé.
Photo of book cover courtesy David C. Cook Publishing.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Edward Hopper’s Blackhead, Monhegan (1916-1919)

Late summer
Sun, declining,
Scatters rays
On hills rounded
And worn,
Another place,
The hot-cool
Blue-gold hues
Of Provence.
It is something
In the French style,
After all, yes?
Not quite
Nor closeted cubist;
More like
Cezanne arguing
Mont Sainte-Victoire
On to canvas
Repeatedly, never
Quite succeeding.

The mountains
Slip Into golds
And oranges
Against a front
Drop of blue.

Dying colors wash
Across an ocean,
Thrusting against
An island broken
From mainland.
Fading blue held
Back at shore’s edge,
Cutting itself on
Jagged rock,
Bleeding white.
Fading orange
Paling into
Sunset yellows.
If only it had been
Before the war;
Colors were
Stronger then.
Now they disappear
Into the power
Of the western sun.

Dark shade divides;
Always a division.
The waves still
A beach of stones.

Blackhead, Monhegan (1916-1919), Edward Hopper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Robin Parrish's "Offworld"

It's fascinating to read a novel, a science fiction novel like this one, and be able to follow the geography because you yourself have lived it.

It’s 2033, and four U.S. astronauts are returning from the first expedition to Mars. They’ve been gone almost three years. The exploration went well, except for the time when the commander, Chris Burke, was lost and should have died from lack of oxygen. But he remembers little of what happened.

As the team of four approaches Earth, they find they’ve lost contact with Johnson Space Center in Houston. Then the ship’s systems fail, and the ship crashes at the Kennedy Center in Florida. The four survive, but then find the center devoid of people. Accessing a laptop, they begin to check for the rest of the area. And learn that people have disappeared. All people. Worldwide. Ten billion people are gone. And so are the animals and insects. And whatever happened, it was sudden, as if in a single moment. The team can also see that an incredibly bright light emanates from Houston, and it is to Houston they decide to go.

It doesn’t take long for them to learn they are not alone, after all.

Robin Parrish could have chosen any number of possibilities for what happens in his novel Offworld. He chose what is likely the most challenging one, and then framed the story in one wild, action-packed, the tension-never-lets-up narrative that sweeps the reader along the top of a giant wave of suspense.

Offworld could be a movie. No, it should be a movie. The writing is that descriptive and vivid. The reader is there, with the astronaut team, every step of the way. That takes some skill, and Mr. Parrish pulls it off.

The geography of the novel arcs from central Florida to Houston. When I was a baby, my family lived in Florida, but then returned to New Orleans. The four astronauts of Offworld travel from the Orlando/Kennedy Center area to the Florida Panhandle, through Mobile and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Beaumont and then Houston. I have lived, played, vacationed and/or visited every single one of those places. I nearly came out my chair when the author mentions North 11th Street in Beaumont (my first job out of college was in Beaumont, and I lived in an apartment on N. 14th St.) and Beaumont's Parkdale Mall (I edited a lot of stories about Parkdale Mall for the Beaumont Enterprise; I was there when it opened).

And the big bridge on Interstate 10 in Lake Charles, where a major development in the novel occurs? Well, if you've been on that bridge, you know exactly what's happening. And the Medical Center and Rice University in Houston, two more of the action scenes in Offworld? I lived near there as well, and commuted through the Medical Center to reach work in downtown Houston. I went to college in Baton Rouge, lived in New Orleans, and spent a lot of time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The geography of Offworld rings true. If Robin Parrish didn't travel that geography in writing his novel, I'll be shocked. It's that close.

Photo of front cover of "Offworld" courtesy of Bethany House Publishers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Edward Hopper’s "Room in New York" (1932)

Evening deepening.
He’d slumped, exhausted,
Into the comfort
Of the stuffed chair.
Then leans forward
To pretend keen interest,
Devouring the p.m. newspaper,
Already a relic of time lost,
The flip of a nickel
To the corner newsboy.
Intently, he
The Babe’s latest
Or the little mayor’s
Brooklynesque speech
Or another
“Cannery Idles 300”
As he silently
To a freeze-frame stop.
Anything to avoid
The emptiness
Of the closed door.

She, too,
Taking refuge in words
And notes,
Toys with ivoried
Sheets of music,
A Portuguese sonnet
In reverse.
A song, or movie,
Even an automat
Anything to escape
The room of her day.
A half-turn away
Knows the half-expected,
The fully hoped for
Has dissipated
Into another
New York night.

In the museum,
We look through
The curtain-less
At the separation
Of desires spoken
Yet unmet,
Understood, yet
And know
The title
Should have been
The Red Dress.
Room in New York (1932), Edward Hopper, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Short Update on the Twepic

The "twepic" (Twitter epic poem) (the result of our Twitter poetry bash on Tuesday night) seems to have caused something of a minor stir. Even people at work who follow me on Twitter were asking me about it today. Yes, they think I'm decidedly odd. Poetry on Twitter?

To answer a couple of questions: First, no, I wasn't working on it at 4 a.m. Thursday morning. This blog is hosted on a server in California and posts are recorded on Pacific time. So it was actually 6 a.m. where I live (and that was early enough).

Yes, it did take some time. I had to make sure I had collected all of the tweets, which was easier said than done because we (including me) were somewhat inconsistent adding the #tsp hashtag. Fortunately, I follow all of the poets involved, so I could go back and collect the tweets. If I missed a couple, they'll let me know, and I'll work them in. After collecting what I believe were all of them in a Word document, I then went through that, cutting and pasting in roughly chronological order. I had to move some contributions around, because some of us like to think before we post (although that's not a problem for me).

We will do another one and will post the date and time on our blogs, Facebook and Twitter about it. @TchrEric has set up a blog site especially for this, and we will eventually be posting everything there -- the collective results and well as the contributions by individuals. And we'll also be using the blog to note and promote poets, poetry books and such. (@TchrEric and I have been joking by email about incorporating as a new industrial/poetical empire, with @llbarkat as CEO.)

Finally, I was the one who, in the middle of the jam, suddenly found myself being followed by a "big bad vampiress." Exactly the same thing happened two weeks earlier with the first poetry jam -- same follower, in fact. So while fellow poets were contributing, I checked the profile of the vampiress, and discovered it was (1) a man who (2) is an author (3) in the final phases of checking page proofs for his novel about (4) a big bad vampiress. Yes, I felt better. Two porn sites and a get-rich-quick-on-Twitter scheme also suddenly appeared as followers, but I blocked them and kept the Vampiress.

Who knows, maybe she'll join the next poetry jam.

A Tabloidian Twepic

It was supposed to have been a poem, but you know what happens when you get a bunch of poets together on Twitter? They tweet away, is what they do. Boy, do they tweet. So what was to have been a "twoem" (Twitter poem) took on overtones of a "twepic" (Twitter epic), and the result is below.

We're establishing a new online space to house the various twoems, twepics and twodes; in the meantime, you can read it here. The first one - "Who Were You in My Dream?" - can be found here.

Tabloid News
By @llbarkat, @TchrEric, @arestless heart, @redclaydiaries, @doallas, @mhsteger and @gyoung9751, and a slight contribution by @shrinkingcamel. Officially published by @tspoetry.

The Regret of the Camel

Shrinking Camel
With other execs
Cleaned out crap
In the horse stalls
All day
At a therapeutic
Horse farm;
He still smells.
I might
Miss your lovely
At 30 and nine
Into twitterish
“You will
Be missed,”
Says the teacher.

Calm Before the Twoem
By @TchrEric

Silver metal sheet glistens,
yellow-white rays of sun bounce off its surface
giving imperfect views
of reality that is not real

The Charge of the Twoem
By @tspoetry

Quotes to come,
from John Leax's book Tabloid News.
All poems inspired
by tabloid headlines.
"I Want to Have A Space Alien's Baby."

"Leaping Turtles Invade US":
Your first thought would be
The thought of war
And your second would be of soup."

@gyoung9751: Space Alien’s Baby?
@TchrEric: Not sure what she has on her mind tonight
@gyoung9751: How about/Midget nun/Sights Elvis/In space alien's/starship?)

And So It Begins

"Baby born with Antlers,"
tenderly exploring his small
body, her hand touched a tiny hoof--"

Brad and Angelique
Adopt Baby
With Antlers;
Like Elvis
In a UFO
Eloping with Jen;
Carried to the stars.

Taking a Serious Turn

A flute
With golden tones,
Soundings from
Space echoes
In a universe of expansion.

Do the stars play flutes,
Do they dance like deer
Or maybe they twitter
Softly to alien hearts,
Whisper past fear.

Liquid phrases from
Red clay
Welcomes the rising stars.

The Vampiress Stalks

The vampiress
Is following me

Vampiress stalks
Midwest businessman
Seeks the pulse
Of poetry to calm
Her alien nights.

Watch out
The tracks of the vampiress
Are thick with clay;
Red night banishes her;
She hides behind stars.

nights too long gone
she stalks words
giving comfort where marauding moons play
among the planets

Midwest business
Man pitches
Rope of garlic bulbs;
Vampiress escapes with Elvis


@llbarkat: LOL
@gyoung9751: Capitol poet/Stunned by bizarre/Musings in space
@doallas: pray tell/who might receive/tender comings and goings below/the marble monument to nonsense)

Donuts and Laughter

from "World's Fattest Twins
Arrested for Stealing
World's Fattest Cat":
"He is full of donuts
and laughter."

She cuts a wedge of cake, stuffs it
in her mouth and chews.

Glazings of flour
Yeasted in oil,
Baked in heated
Furnace of life.

She used to want blood
a thin neck
beating pulse
but now her heart
aches for donuts and cake
no one would give her
the stake for this.

(Minor Interruptus: @llbarkat: Go @redclaydiaries. I'm laughing!)

Vegas is glaze
a furnace of alien

4 a.m. at the Krispy Kreme on the strip
she sits,
desire satiated
with a sugar glaze
hiding bitter truths;
Failing embers
Light a face
Of expectation and grace.

Air So Light In Space for Fauns

so light in space
leaves business man
aching for that touch that says,
I'm here
night lifts her gown.

A child says "Asia"
While a train rumbles
And a cricket screams
And a fire dies.

to find
the tiny hoof
that began this all.
Was it grace
that planted the hoof
knowing this alien world
was just now in need
of a shy faun?

fawning faun
do make for Dancing with the Stars
a most surreal experience.
A dance surreal
Of antlered centaurs.

When her gown
set fire
he could only say
God, she is more lovely
than Asia.

Bathed with grace,
Touched with the breath
Of heaven.

Stars beckon
To a time,
A place of permanence and lightness,
Light with light,
The Word breathed across
A galaxy,
Star system of fauns.

At Tokay I Exited

At Tokay
I exited the plains
And entered the hilly country.

I walk across the stars,
The piano keys tuned
And traveling the plains, the hills
Of fire
Glazing the forests of petrified wood.

the golden thread
brings us
full circle
Liberace rises again
crushing us with his glitter

She stripped/her desire
down to the last layer
of glaze
wondered should
she lick it with fire.

Liberace's fingers
danced like fauns
o'er hilly country
laced golden desire
through night-glazed trees.

delay, not!
such is glaze on wood
faun's foot sticks
like Vampiress's lingering drops.

Lingering drops
Of golden desire,
In silvered night
Fall on my hand.

make for heavy going
when speed we through spaceto hilly country;
what planet be?

The Fallen Angel

From "Duck Hunters Shoot Angel":
'Sonabitch,'/he pointed, 'You killed yourself/a male angel.'
'Shut up,' I answered.

Interruptus3: @gyoung9751: Each time/we turn to/seriousness,/A sprite of pastel artist/Injects a tabloid of stones. @doallas: his points be taken well/or not/I dare refrain from saying/what I really think of this. @gyoung9751: It is a time/Of laughter and smiles,/Cares pushed aside/To enjoy/A fellowship of words/And heart.

Through the stars
he came/falling;
silvered holiness
died on my hand.

pebbles more like it
for angel lacks the strength
to carry your burden
on his wings

His light
Rose again
On my hand
And in my heart,
Coursing life to a sublime rebirth.
He is too busy
Trying to understand.

Wouldn't you swear too
if by chance
or hidden desire
you culled an angel
from the stars
with smoke and buckshot.

A single tear remained
upon my calloused palm
as his light
glistened and rose
to return to that
which we all
unknowingly desire.

Laughter and smiles
and shy silvered holiness
grasping care and courage to
between blasts.

had he known which end was up
and how long to smoke't.

“The sheriff said he couldn't see
I'd broken any laws. Angels ain't
protected or anything, but I don't know."

(Minor Interruptus2: @gyoung9751: The teacher/And restless teller/Of stories and words/Joined in the terrible beauty of light/and life.)

Shouldn't there be laws
against angels flying
during duck-hunting season?
Well, if 'ya ask me
there should be.

Liberace caught his sleeve
on angel's rubbed-raw wing
and music then did end
throughout this space.

end was beginning and
up was
long wept away as smoke
and angels conquered and taught
laws that should not have been/broken.

He’d sent the angel
To bring justice to the unjust,
to teach,
To conquer hearts with tears.

Too busy laughing
too calloused for desire
he ignored smoke
wings/the lifted gown.

it's rabbit season,
you know
which the sheriff forgot
and angels have wings, not/long

and Vampiress made a killing
selling bright orange vests
on back of which she quoted teacher,
"I'm no target/for alien abduction.”

I used to believe
only other people
that was before I saw
that even an angel
could fall.

With his dying breath,
The Fudd looked up
And shook a fist of bile at the Wascally Wabbit.

calloused angels? Oh
no - they must be soft
of heart, if they were
not just themselves!


And thus,
in the final minute
To be continued…

He: to she who claims
she is not a poet
your wit bring joy and light
to an area drenched with tragedy.

She: Thank you.
I soak up encouragement,
unlike saturated
Georgia clay,
thrusting rivers
over their banks.

"I spent a night beyond the moon
one time. Aliens are wonderful lovers."

An Aftermath of Conversation

Doallas: "That was surreal" and a blast. Thank you!
gyoung9751: This will be/One bizarre poem/When knit of vampires,/Angels,/Stars and Elvis,/Donuts and aliens/With floppy ears.
arestlessheart: wonderful fun - thank you - will not be so late next time!
llbarkat: I can't think of a better way to have spent my evening. You guys are poignant, funny, deep, quick-witted. Ah. [sigh of contentment]
redclaydiaries: Fudds and alien/angels with callouses/rub wing and rifle/seeking to stake/vampiresses with donuts //So fun! Thx for invite!
TchrEric: @llbarkat Thank-you for offering up a wonderful creative topic for the evening.
gyoung9751: OK, I've saved almost all the tweet verses in one document. Now to make some sense of it all. I feel like the Cat in the Hat.
arestlessheart: @redclaydiaries what a fun dream, though - I love it!
TchrEric: Here's to all the #tsp writers tonight! Thanks for a fun, creative evening! ♫
redclaydiaries: Goodnight all. Poetry is done for the night. Now, sleep.

Exeunt all, joining a camel’s slumber.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Corn Fields

Brimmed hats, sweat-stained,
Moving among rows of
Golden green, thrusting tall
In growing dusk.

Small fingers on leaves,
Reaching to shrouded grain,
Like larger hands above,
Pressing, probing, testing, hoping.

A glance to sky
Of brilliant blue,
Fading into non-whiteness
Edged by heaven.

Imitating larger boot,
Smaller kicks
At powdered dirt,
Swirling dryness into dust.

Gabled house, broad porch,
Resting on flowered hillside,
Built of generations
And weathered pine.

Aproned, watching, wrapped
In barn dance memories;
Hands on growing life,
Sleeping child within.
Photo 2009 by Monsanto; Common Share file on Flickr

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Update on the Twoem

Well, it was one bizarre poetry jam on Twitter tonight, what we call a "twoem." The starting prompt was to write in tabloid headline-ese (i.e., Nun and Brad Pitt Flee with Elvis in UFO) and we went all over the place. You can see the chronological results at #tspoetry.

I'll be taking the "tweets" and attempting to edit them into something coherent, which is going to be a challenge, since half the time we were laughing at what we were posting. A quick glance tells me we actually have several poems instead of one long poem, but we'll see. I plan to post the (edited) results on Thursday.

Thanks to @llbarkat, @TchrEric, @arestless heart, @redclaydiaries, @doallas and @mhsteger for their participation, and to @shrinkingcamel for sending poetical regrets (he was still smelling like a horse barn, the camel says, but that's another story). And now @gyoung9751 is signing off and heading in the direction of sleep.

Reviews, Reading and a "Twoem"

I finished a draft of a book review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton. It’s a guest post for another blog, and I’ll provide a link once it’s been accepted and posted. But de Botton is an interesting writer and a very effective speaker. I first ran across him via a YouTube video. A colleague at work saw the book on my desk and began waxing eloquent – evidently, he’s a huge fan of the author.

In the meantime, I’m waiting on the arrival of two books I’ve been asked to review (kind of cool, that), one of which is a Christmas story and the other which is an edgy, speculative novel. While I’m waiting, I’m reading Offworld by Robin Parrish and published by Bethany House. It, too, would fall in the speculative fiction category, although so far it’s more like science fiction, very well written science fiction. I’ve seen it criticized on a few blogs for not having enough of a “Christian message;” one blogger even complained about how it disappointed the need for edification. Well, I’m not far enough into it to speak to either message or edification, but I can say it is one gripping, fast-paced story, and Parrish writes extremely well.

There’s another “twoem” or poetry jam on Twitter being planned for tonight at 9:30 p.m. eastern, 8:30 p.m. central. You can check #tspoetry on Twitter for any updates and I’ll be tweeting it and posting on Facebook as well.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Email Surprise

Tonight, I received an email from a poet. She'd read my "Sunday Morning Rain," and was inspired to write this. It caught me with all my message points and cue cards down. I truly don't know how to respond, or respond adequately. And what a beautiful thing she had done -- and written.

So where did "Sunday Morning Rain" come from?

I woke early yesterday, earlier than I had to, and was sitting in my office reading from the book of Proverbs. I’ve been participating in a group reading of Proverbs on Twitter, where each day you tweet a verse, something that strikes you, or how something speaks to you (check #SCLPRO for all the various tweets). It was started by Jon Acuff over at the Stuff Christians Like blog, and he’s got a book in the works that sounds like great fun. As I was reading, I gradually became aware of the rain striking the gutters and rattling around the downspout that’s right outside my window. I listened and read, and then the thoughts, images, phrases and words started crowding in. I knew a poem was trying to be born. I reached for the pad I usually draft poems on and began to write.

The thought occurred that I couldn't recall a single example of rain happening in the gospels. I checked the concordance, and sure enough, there are only two references, both in the Gospel of Matthew and both in parables. I pondered that for a bit, and thought about synonyms for rain. And then the idea of "tears" went on like a light bulb. And the only reference to Jesus' tears is in the Gospel of John, as he stood at the tomb of Lazarus.

I worked the draft over several times; the last line was one of those abrupt things that just happened, and it changed the entire poem. I stared at it, started to edit and rework it, and then stopped. No, I thought, this is what it's meant to be.

I've had online friends mightily encouraging me in my "poetry doodling," as L.L. Barkat calls it. My wife encourages me, too, even when she knows a lot of the poems are about her. She's a private person and isn't totally comfortable with all of my online writing. But she encourages me anyway.

Check out Maureen's poems at Writing Without Paper. She's good.

Errant Tomato

Appears in defiance,
Tiny husk of promise
In winged flight
Or carried
On flowing current.

Lightly bathed
In mere slivers of sun,
Sheltered from heat,
Tender eruption
Of green.


Riotous growth
Small bells
Fruited yellow,
(Photo taken Sept. 19, 2009 of the actual tomato plant that appeared from nowhere but decided it liked where it landed on the side of my garage. It's one plant/jungle measuring approximately seven by three feet.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Morning Rain

Drops echo lightly,
Watery ricochet
Becoming flow,
Spouting down
To nature’s thirst.

Odd that it never rains
In the gospels,
As if Noah was enough.
Only the tax collector
Cites a short word, or phrase,
Perhaps two,
Mere remnants of rain,
Like the short shower
Left behind by the storm.

The disciple He loved
Tells another kind,
A saving rain,
A baptizing downpour,
The soaking salvation
Of love called
Jesus wept.

Christina Berry's "The Familiar Stranger"

I tend not to read the acknowledgement pages in books, at least before I read the book. I’m not sure why, exactly; perhaps because I don’t know all the people being thanked and it’s often hard for the reader to understand how all these people are involved. But I made a point of reading that page in Christina Berry’s The Familiar Stranger. I wasn’t surprised to see that the first paragraph acknowledges the help she received from medical professionals, and that’s because medical information is critical in this story – injuries, surgery and amnesia. Amnesia, in fact, plays a critical role in the novel.

The story: Craig Littleton is ostensibly preparing to go hiking on a Sunday morning while his wife Denise and their two sons are preparing for church. That’s the first problem – Craig is a church deacon, and he’s skipping church. The second problem is that Craig and Denise are having marriage problems; how Craig and Denise think about each other as they get ready speaks volumes. Third, it becomes clear that more than a hike is involved – Craig is clearly bent on leaving his family and disappearing.

Then there’s a car accident. Craig is severely injured. When he awakens from an induced coma, he has amnesia. And he begins to fall in love with his wife and family. But there are too many lingering questions, and the mystery that is Craig Littleton begins to deepen and then unravel.

As I said in my review on Amazon, this is a story about betrayal, amnesia and, ultimately, grace. But it’s also a mystery, and Berry keeps taking the reader deeper and deeper into it, unfolding one surprise or twist after another, much like someone suffering from amnesia would begin to see and relearn his or her world, until memory is recovered. The author moves the story back and forth between “his and hers” viewpoints, and it works – the tangling and untangling, and the failing and possible saving, of a marriage is deftly described.

As Berry said in the interview I posted yesterday, she’s put some of her own personal history into The Familiar Stranger. And the pain shows.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Interview with Christina Berry

Christina Berry’s debut novel The Familiar Stranger is a corker of a story about betrayal, amnesia and, ultimately, grace. I’ve posted a short review at Amazon and will have some additional thoughts tomorrow, but Christina answered a few questions about the novel and her writing life that put the story in an interesting context.

Christina, what’s the plot of The Familiar Stranger?
Craig Littleton's decision to end his marriage would shock his wife, Denise -- if he knew what he was up to. When an accident lands Craig in the ICU, with fuzzy memories of his own life and plans, Denise rushes to his side, ready to care for him. They embark on a quest to help Craig remember who he is and, in the process, discover dark secrets. What will she do when she realizes he's not the man she thought he was? Is this trauma a blessing in disguise, a chance for a fresh start? Or will his secrets destroy the life they built together?

Where did you get the idea for the story?
In the summer of 2006, two stories appeared in the newspaper. One was a huge, national story; the other a smaller, local-interest item. I wondered what it might look like if those two stories conceived a child. Boom! I had the entire plot for The Familiar Stranger. It will be interesting to see if readers can figure out which stories inspired the book.

Though the plot of The Familiar Stranger came from news stories, I’d been looking for a fictional vehicle to express the lessons I’d learned regarding forgiveness in my own marriage. I knew no one was interested in reading my particular story, but I still felt God had given me something to say. My husband and I worked through a major issue six years ago and found a vibrant, completely renewed marriage on the other side.

However, seven months ago, that same issue broke our bond. Now as a newly-single woman, I’m in the midst of promoting a book that touches far closer to home than I would have ever dreamed. If no one else ever reads it, I’ve been convicted and encouraged by my own words. If that isn’t a gracious God at work, I don’t know what is!

What kind of planning do you do before writing a novel?
My previous writing has been heavily plotted and I’ve known almost everything about the characters before diving into the story. Writing with a co-author, Mom and I both need to know exactly how a character looked and his or her history. We wrote out each scene’s main plot point and point of view character on index cards and posted them on a large corkboard. We also found catalogue models that looked like our characters, made collages of the pictures, and slipped our character interview in the back of the plastic sleeves.

With The Familiar Stranger, the first scene came to me like a movie. Once the first chapter was written, I took a few hours to write down how I saw the story progressing. Then I numbered each main point and called it a chapter. All told, I had just over one page of plotting. To keep everything straight, I made notes about the characters as I went along. A very different experience to write by the seat of my pants, but I’m working through my current book in the same way.

Some Christian writers argue that fiction is first and foremost entertainment and decry any "agenda driven" stories. What do you think?
I say we're all writing with an agenda, whether we recognize it or not. Maybe it's to show what a godly romance looks like, maybe to draw attention to child abuse, maybe to attempt to understand why people are capable of such evil, or ... With this book, I felt called to share what God has taught me about forgiveness. However, if the story is not presented in a highly entertaining way the agenda will never be accomplished because the reader will toss the book down if she gets bored. The real skill—and I am by no means saying I'm setting the watermark with my writing—is to so thoroughly wrap the story around the agenda that it becomes unrecognizable to the reader. I'd love to hear other’s opinions in the comments.

What takeaway value do you hope readers receive after reading your novel?
The recent changes in my life—losing my husband, facing finding a “real” job, selling my home—have done nothing but solidify what I hope to be the theme of the book and my life: Live Transparently—Forgive Extravagantly. If reading The Familiar Stranger makes even one man or woman be more honest with his or her spouse or delve into trust issues in a healthy way, I’ll consider it a success. Maybe there’s a hurting heart that can find a new path to forgiveness because of the story.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Developing a Poetry Habit

Over at High Calling Blogs today, the Random Act of Poetry feature is about developing a habit of reading (and perhaps writing) poetry. And there are links to several delightfully beautiful poems, including:

I told L.L. Barkat (managing editor of the High Calling Blogs) that this poetry "thing" of mine is starting to get serious. I have two more that I've finished and that I'll be posting next week, both with a kind of "vegetable" flavor to them -- one on a tomato plant and one on corn fields. It's hard to imagine writing a poem about a tomato plant, but that's what I've done -- a tomato plant that started growing all on its own, in the most inhospitable place in our yard, and now looks like a jungle.

Such are the things that inspire poets.

Early Fall Leaves

Early fall leaves
Shimmer red and yellow.
Air crisps
To an edge
Hollow and sharp,
Cool portent
Of ice to come.

Long forks pull
Through grass,
Gathering chaos
Of leavings
Into mounds
Of order and disposition.

Profusion of color
Fades into
A funeral shroud
Of clouded gray,
Dulled brown,
Preparing for a tombstone
Of bareness.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Dog, Part 2

So we brought our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel home from Emmett, Kansas, and life would never be the same.

He might have been home all of two days when we learned that he liked to bark at dogs in general, but would imitate the ferociousness of a pit bull when it came to Golden Retrievers. Reason: unknown. It just happened. Cody has never thought of himself as a small dog, and will never back down from a barking contest with any other kind of dog. Especially Golden Retrievers.

His first few nights home, he did two things. First, he ate the cardboard box we placed in his crate for a bed (he was just under four pounds and we bought the crate for a fully grown dog, even if he was small). Second, he cried. For several nights, it became a ritual: puppy put to bed; sons put to bed; Mom and Dad put to bed; puppy cries; Dad gets up, scoops the puppy up; Dad lies on the sofa with the puppy going to sleep on his chest. I know, it was the totally wrong thing to do. But it only lasted a few nights, until Cody figured out the routine (I never told my wife) (maybe I just did).

After a few months, we enrolled Cody in obedience classes, which he enjoyed but the lessons weren’t very long-learned. Mostly because of the fact I rarely did the homework. Still, as I liked to proudly point out, he was salutatorian in the agility classes (OK, so there were a total of four dogs in the class). (Cody did not graduate at the head of his class in obedience.) My most memorable moment from the classes was when we all sat in a circle and passed our dogs to each other, to familiarize the dogs with people other than their owners. The first dog passed to me was a full grown Doberman pinscher, who stared at me with a look that inspired a vision of me lying on the floor with a snapped neck. The dog’s name was Toby. Instead of snapping my neck, he licked me in the face. I looked like someone had thrown a bucket of water on me, but I was totally thrilled. Or relieved, whichever came first.

Cody settled into the family. Dogs are creatures of habit and routine, and Cody is the stereotyped rule for that. He knows the precise time he should be walked in the morning, at lunch, before dinner and at bedtime. If the schedule slips, he lets us know, usually by licking and rattling his food bowl. He eats dinner before we do, but he knows to expect a snack or “second thing” once we finish eating. It doesn’t matter what the second thing is, as long as it materializes.

Cody has lived up to the breed’s reputation for friendliness and sociability around children. He doesn’t complain (unless it involves his food routine). For a long time, he liked to eat anything, and we had to be careful about what landed on the floor (a stray piece of pepperoni from a pizza taught us that lesson). One of his favorite “snacks” was to eat the small cardboard tags attached to the youngest’s Beanie Baby collection, which, my son pointed out, destroyed the collection’s value (as if there were any).

The breed is prone to two physical ailments – heart murmurs and ear infections. Our Cavalier has somehow managed to escape the heart problem (“He has the heart of a five-year-old dog; he’ll live for years yet,” the vet tells us cheerfully, pleasing me but totally discouraging my wife). But Cody has the market cornered on ear infections – long ears and small ear canals are perfect characteristics to keep the veterinary pharmaceutical companies profitable forever. Cody’s ears alone have likely been responsible for many executive bonuses.

Like most dogs, Cody loves naps. He knows about Sunday afternoons. He fully expects a nap with Dad, positioned right between Dad’s feet, for precisely one hour. If I decide to go biking instead, I get a look of abject heartbrokenness. This dog knows how to inspire guilt.

Last year, he became a college man, and moved into the fraternity house with our youngest. He became a major attraction, especially for college students of the female persuasion. His photo was included with the fraternity composite, he has his own Facebook page and he claims to have hazed some pledges, if walking a dog three times a day constitutes hazing.

He’s now back at home. However you calculate the formula, he’s really old – ancient – in dog years. He has arthritis and is increasingly deaf. Getting up and down the stairs is more and more a problem. He’s also more crotchety and tends to show some temper now and then (“leave me alone inside, will ya? Guess what that puddle is on the hardwood floor?”). He’s sleeping more, and his totally precise biological clock doesn’t work as well as before. But when it’s time to eat, he’s still a brand new puppy and can move like greased lightning.

One day, I’ll have to face “life without the dog,” but, well, maybe not. My wife is less concerned about the impact on our youngest and more about how I’ll react. I don’t know why. There’s no need to worry about it, because I can’t imagine it. It can’t happen. And it won’t. So there.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who Were You in My Dream?

After last week's poetry jam (or "twoem") on Twitter, I extracted my contributions and then reshaped them a bit, although "my contributions" turn out to have been highly influenced by my fellow contributors. So, a deep bow of thanks to @llbarkat and @TchrEric.

Who Were You in My Dream?

I was the lateness in the night
That passed through the pane
Of glass.
I was the wind
That teased the candle flame.

I was the drop of wax
Aside the candle,
On the golden fork,
The gold reflecting shards
Of a shattered window.

I was the memory lying
Behind the departed,
Beyond the cluttered table,
To remain still,
Quiet in slumber,
Unworried by morning
Crossing my brow
Or furrowing my mind.

I was the black hole
Filled by grace,
Rimmed in pastel
With crimson morning.

I was the morning
Pushing past the curtain,
Mourning the night
By shouting the day,
The sun that awoke my heart
To the new day.

I was the wholeness
That became the holy,
As walls of dreams
Surrounded the clocks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Dog, Part 1

I’ve been following my online friend Marcus Goodyear’s tweets and posts about the death of the family dog. I realized I haven’t talked about my dog in this space before. He’s getting up there in age, and after reading those comments by Marcus, I’d rather talk about my dog now than do the eulogy later. Except, as I constantly tell my wife, the dog is never going to die.

His name is Cody. His breed name is bigger than he is – a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. He’s been with us since my youngest was in third grade. My youngest is now in college. That makes Cody old, in human years.

It took my youngest some considerable period of time to convince his mother that we needed to get a dog. His older brother never seemed to care for pets; he was too busy at baseball, soccer, football, basketball and any other sport available. We knew we had a problem with our oldest when, at five years old, he would get up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays and watch golf on cable.

But the youngest wanted a dog, and gradually he wore his mother down. But she had a plan of her own – she wanted a contract, signed by him, that said he would take care of the dog. She was also nobody’s fool; she had my son’s co-conspirator – me – co-sign the contract.

I began to research breeds. My wife’s instructions were relatively simple: small, good with kids, no shedding, no nervousness (what she calls “yippiness”), and a minimalist barker. I read a lot of dog magazines (this was before a lot of stuff available online). I talked to friends and people at work. A woman at work told me about her dog – a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – and told us to visit. She lived all of two blocks from our house, so we visited. And fell in love with the dog.

The breed fit almost all of the requirements: small, great with children, no nervousness, and relatively light on the barking. Only one requirement was missing – these dogs shed. I mean, they shed, as in big tumbleweeds of hair blowing through the house. But I could point to several comments in dog magazines about “minimal shedding.” I didn’t point to the fact they were mostly lies.

The next step was identifying a breeder. At the time, breeders of these dogs were few and far between, and deliberately so – that’s how the price stayed as high as it did, by restricting supply. Ours cost about $200 – a pound. There was a breeder in the St. Louis area, but she didn’t have any puppies currently available. My friend from work suggested her breeder – a woman who lived on a farm in eastern Kansas.

And that’s what we did. It became an event in my relationship with my youngest child. Early on a Friday afternoon in October, I got him out of his third-grade classroom early (that alone made me a hero) and we drove from St. Louis to Topeka, planning to spend the night there, before going on another 35 miles to St. Mary’s, Kansas, and then a few miles north to Emmett. Except there was a hot rod convention in Topeka, and there was no room in the inn. Any of the inns. So we backtracked to Lawrence and stayed at a Holiday Inn that my youngest still remembers because the lobby contained a putt-putt golf course.

The next morning, we drove to Emmett, which was rural. Rural as in, you get off the county road on to a dirt road for a few miles until you come to the log bridge (real logs, included the bridge floor) over the creek. The farm where the breeder lived was just past the bridge.

It was a good place to breed dogs. This was a farmstead, and the breeder supplemented the family income. There were nine children, so these dogs and their puppies were around kids all the time. We first met Cody in the arms on a three-year-old, or at least one of the arms of a three-year-old, who was carrying the puppy around like a bag of groceries. Papers, dog and cash exchanged hands, and we were officially dog owners.

Before we left the farm, we sat in the family mini-van and looked at our newest family member, sitting quietly in a small box on my son’s lap. Cody (the name was selected by the youngest) began to cry a little bit, and my son stroked his head and calmed him down. Then he looked at me and said, “Dad, we are so blessed.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Touch, Barely

A touch, barely,
On bare arm,
Whisper of warmth,
Slight notion of tenderness.

A murmur, quietly,
From quiet lips,
Suggesting some
Slight embrace
In the small space
Between desire and possession.

A touch, a murmur,
A heart, soaring,
Equivalence of worlds conquered,
Heroic deeds done,
From a touch, barely.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chris Fabry's "June Bug"

I think I’ve decided to stop reading the blurbs publishers put on covers of books.

I noted this in the review I posted this morning over at Amazon, but when I first saw this one on the cover of Chris Fabry’s June Bug, my mind went on autopilot: “Fabry’s retelling of [Les Miserables] is a stunning success.” I say my mind went on autopilot because, as I began reading it, I immediately began to look to the connections to the Victor Hugo novel.

It’s understandable. When you seen the Broadway production of Les Miserables two or three times; when you’ve saved the Susan Boyle rendition of “I Dream a Dream” to your favorites on YouTube; when you’ve listened to the soundtrack enough to sing along even with the more obscure songs, well, you know you have a case.

And that became a problem with reading June Bug. Because it’s not a simple retelling of Les Miserables. There are similarities, to be sure, but June Bug is a separate work in its own right, and it’s a terrific story. I bought the book because I had read Fabry’s Dogwood over Easter weekend this year and loved it, particularly with how he posed an immediate problem for a novel published by a Christian publisher: A man’s in love with a woman who’s married with three children.

I stopped reading June Bug and started over, determined to read it for its own merits and ignore trying to figure out how Fantine could be Dana or that the sheriff wasn’t anything like Javert. And where, by the way, was the street revolution?

I’m glad I did. June Bug is a great story. Fabry gets inside the heads of his characters and lets them speak in an authentic, believable way. That’s no small feat when you consider the characters range from a grieving grandmother and a local sheriff to a former Navy SEAL and a 9-year-old girl. And the story has a hook similar to Dogwood – the little girl was kidnapped as a toddler, and the man she calls “Daddy” seems anything but a kidnapper. As you see where the story is headed, you begin to fear what’s going to happen to the father. And you wonder, how is this going to be resolved?

It’s a great story. Don’t let allusions to Les Miserables confuse your mind about it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Movie, A Photo, Some Tweets and a Poem

This is a story about Twitter, and poetry, and a movie. And how the human mind works.

Based in Tennessee, Randy Elrod is a speaker, consultant, chef, wine connoisseur, artist and general all-around culture creator. Last Saturday, he and some friends were concluding a Napa Valley winery tour. He had been tweeting the tour and posting pictures on Twitpic, inspiring the grand old sin of envy in any of us who had been following his progress. He posted a photo of a special bottle of wine – a 1973 California Chardonnay that changed the course of the wine industry and wine history. And he pointed out that this was the wine that was featured in the movie “Bottle Shock.”

My wife and I had seen that movie and enjoyed it. I retweeted Randy’s comment with the photo. L.L. Barkat saw my retweet and said she loved that movie. And then Shrinking the Camel chimed in – he had seen it and liked it as well.

And here’s what developed. “Recreate” is Randy’s Twitter name.

recreate - If you've seen the movie "Bottle Shock," this is the bottle that changed the world

gyoung9751: Cool movie RT @recreate: - If you've seen the movie "Bottle Shock" this is the bottle that changed the world

llbarkat: @gyoung9751 I LOVED that movie 'Bottle Shock.'

shrinkingcamel: Me Too! Saw a couple wks ago. RT @llbarkat: @gyoung9751 I LOVED that movie 'Bottle Shock.'

gyoung9751: Like minds? RT @shrinkingcamel: Me Too! RT @llbarkat: @gyoung9751 I LOVED that movie 'Bottle Shock.'

llbarkat: Okay @shrinkingcamel and @gyoung9751 this feels like a party now. :)

gyoung9751: It does indeed. Camel should write a poem. RT @llbarkat: Okay @shrinkingcamel and @gyoung9751 this feels like a party now. :)

shrinkingcamel: On the phone for 2.5 hours so far with Dell OnCall helping fix a computer bug. I planned 4 hours. Helps to plan for the worst. Almost done!

shrinkingcamel: A poem? While I'm on the line with Dell? And Tweeting? That's way too much multi-tasking. (Plus I'm making a sandwich)

gyoung9751: Camel's too slow For @llbarkat & @shrinkingcamel Flickering screen/Reflecting/Golden liquids;/Binding friends/Not met but real.

shrinkingcamel: @gyoung9751 @llbarkat AMAZING. Flickering screen/Reflecting/Golden liquids;/Binding friends/Not met but real.

llbarkat: RE: Camel's too slow for @llbarkat . Okay @gyoung9751 and @shrinkingcamel , you two officially inspired next week's RAP. :)

gyoung9751: @llbarkat & @shrinkingcamel Sounds like young and camel will be singing a RAP song about Chardonnay. Signing off.

llbarkat: @gyoung9751 @shrinkingcamel Sounds like young and camel will be singing a RAP song about Chardonnay. Signing off.<<<> wait and see.

A “RAP” is a Random Act of Poetry, a weekly feature on The High Calling Blogs that’s written and managed by L.L. And she was true to her word (or threat) – our exchange helped inspire the RAP article posted yesterday on how people bind together after tragedies like 9/11. And then, in the comments, RAP participants spontaneously began writing poems. Here is the column and the comments.

The fun thing is – shrinkingcamel got bit by the poetry bug. "Shrinking the Camel" is the name of a blog on faith in the workplace. Shrinkingcamel is the Twitter name. The person who does the blog and the Twitter account goes by a pseudonym; all we know is that he’s a business executive who lives in the northeastern United States. There is a real name somewhere behind the curtain (or underneath the camel). I keep things simple by referring to him as Camel.

So a photo of a bottle of wine connected three online friends to a movie, inspired a short poem, produced a column on poetry and 9/11 AND led to a camel writing poetry. Only on Twitter. Incredible. And our thanks to Randy Elrod for (unknowingly) setting the whole thing in motion.

My poem, as composed on Twitter and recomposed by L.L. Barkat for the RAP:

For @llbarkat and @shrinkingcamel

Flickering screen
Golden liquids;
Binding friends
Not met but real.
– by @gyoung9751, while drinking Chardonnay

L.L. added the Chardonnay bit. I wasn’t drinking Chardonnay when I wrote it, but what the heck, it sounds like I should have been.

Photo ©Randy Elrod, Sept. 5, 2009. Used with permission.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Day We All Became New Yorkers

I was an independent consultant, and had just arrived at my small office in downtown Kirkwood, the suburb of St. Louis where I live. Kirkwood is a time-warp kind of place, or so it seemed then. Founded in 1857, blocks of beautiful old houses, a farmer's market, a still working train station and a community attitude that there is no better place to live on the face of the earth. A friend of mine (who doesn't live in our suburb) once said, "Kirkwood isn't a community; Kirkwood is a religion." And he was not too far wrong.

I turned on the computer, sipped coffee, preparing for another day. And then I saw the photo of the World Trade Center, with one tower aflame. I flipped on my little portable televsion. I then did what was the natural thing for me to do. I called my wife. "Turn on the TV," I said. "But what--" she said, before I interrupted. "Turn on the TV." I couldn't speak what I was seeing on my tiny screen. Together, on the phone we watched our television screens. And then the plane hit the second tower.

"Come home," my wife cried. But home had become a different place. And it would again. One night, less than seven years later, a crazed gunman walked into the Kirkwood City Hall during a council meeting and started firing. People died. People I knew and had talked to. City Council members. Two policemen. The mayor died many months later, after seeming to recover from his gunshot wounds.

America met evil on Sept. 11, evil on a colossal scale. Kirkwood met it on a cold night in February, 2008. Everything changed.

There are many online friends who are posting today, and I will update this as they do. Here are a few ways America is expressing its grief, its memory and its resolve about the what happened on the day we all became New Yorkers, we all worked at the Pentagon, and we all crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

L.L. Barkat, whose husband was supposed to have been working in One World Trade Center that day: The Curator Magazine; The High Calling Blogs; Love Notes to Yahweh.

Billy Coffey, who stared up into a 9/12 sky and saw only clouds and birds: What I Learned Today.

Katdish, who asks what were you doing eight years ago today? Hey Look a Chicken!.

Time Magazine: Photoessay.

Joan Ball, remembering a firefighter: Flirting with Faith.

Mashable: Remembering 9/11 Through Social Media.

Matthew Warner at Fallible Blogma: Remembering 9/11.

Vitamin Z: A Couple of Haunting Photos on 9/11.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Update on Last Night's "Twoem" Poetry Jam

One of our number participating in last night's poetry jam on Twitter ("Twoem") has extracted her contributions and turned them into a really fine poem over at Green Inventions Central. L.L. Barkat and Teacher Eric (llbarkat and TchrEric on Twitter) are the practiced poets in last night's group; I was something like a wildly enthusiastic amateur. But I had great fun.

So now there's talk of continuing the Twoems, and L.L. has set up a Twitter account for the purpose: @tspoetry. Check it out from time to time to see when the next session is scheduled. There are also vague rumors of a blog. We'll see.

Poem for Shrinking the Camel

Last night, three of us likely shocked a few followers with a series of 49 tweets on Twitter that were a kind of poetry jam. Suggested by L.L. Barkat, this jam or “twoem” lasted slightly over an hour and included TchrEric and myself. There had been the possibility of a fourth, our friend Shrinking the Camel, but, alas, another commitment took him away from the oasis. So in his (absent) honor, we have this.

At the Oasis, The Camel on Caravan
By llbarkat, TchrEric and gyoung9751

Who were you in my dream?
The mermaid asked,
Herself the tears that feared to live.

I was the snow white hart, leaping from the touch.
I was the fish the mermaid shadowed.
I was the story in the burning book.
I was the fork, golden and shining.

I was a clearing
Ringed and shadowed
With evergreens.
I was the altar flickering blue,
The moonlight ringed by heaven,
The ever in the green.

I was the candle burning lonely.
I was the panel of glass,
The wind that knocked at the glass.
I was the lateness in the night.

I was a drop of wax aside the candle.
I was the sound of shattering of gold.
I was the chattering night, wishing sweet dreams.
I was the kitchen fire, the fire hearth,
The flame that laughed at goodbye.

I was the camel that knelt
At the eye of the needle.
I was the memory
That lay behind
The departed.
I was the threatening slumber.
I was the memory
Cluttered with stars.

I was the awakening of the stars
To a new day.

I was the twittering
That arose from dark corners.
I was the black hole,
Filled by grace.
I was the crimson-laced grace.
I was the curtain that brushed your face.
I was the morning
Mourning the night.

I was the oddness
That twisted the light.
I was the wholeness that became the holy.
I was the mourning
That wept.
I was the tears,
Coursing down cheeks.
I was the clock
That ticked near the wall.

I was the wish
For a teacher and a camel,
Who instead became
A pastel artist
Of prayers and seedlings
And green inventions.

Who were you in my dream?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

St. Louis Media Halls of Fame

If I told you my wife said I had to post this, I would not be telling a lie.

Back in March, I received an email from the St. Louis chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, announcing the opening of voting for the St. Louis Media Halls of Fame/Advertising and Public Relations section. The Halls of Fame program started in 2002 for radio; television and print journalism were added in 2006; and advertising and public relations in 2007. Different groups vote to select winners in the different sections.

There were a whole bunch of nominations in Advertising and PR, like 30 or so, and we could vote for a total of seven. So I scanned down the list to see who had been nominated. And right there at the bottom (it was in alphabetical order), I found my name.

My first thought was, someone made a mistake. My second thought was, I'm not that old. The list of people named in 2007 and 2008 have a lot of "emeritus" types of titles. I've never been named emeritus anything, at least not yet.

One of my colleagues at work distributed the email across the department -- there were three people connected to my company on the PR list -- one deceased, one retired, and me. I looked at the people who had been elected in 2007 and 2008, and there were NAMES, names like Al Fleishman and Bob Hillard, as in the founders of Fleishman-Hillard. Oh, boy.

Votes were sent in and tabulated, and then, a long period of silence. I had forgotten about it (seriously) until I was called in late June and asked for a photo and a bunch of background information. Oh, boy. I was one of five St. Louis PR people named in the class of 2009.

The web site for the Media Halls of Fame is maintained by the Missouri History Museum, and the list of new inductees was just published in the St. Louis Journalism Review. If you want to see my brief summary description on the web site, it's here.

Yes, my wife made me post this. But yes, I think it's kind of cool, too.

But I still don't think I'm that old.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Circuit Race

Comes a swarm
Of color on pavement,
Flowing, rolling blur
Repeating hopes, ambitions and dreams.
The hive sounds a buzz
Of calves and machines and gears
Moving almost as one.

It curves a corner,
Straddling first left
Then right,
Accelerating to the line
Of memory and desire.

Channeled forward
By barricades of applause,
Applause struck by wonder,
The rainbow streaks
To a cacophony
Of completion.

(Photograph: Tour de Missouri, Stage 1, St. Louis, Mo., Sept. 7, 2009)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Photos from Stage 1, Tour de Missouri

A professional photographer I'm not. My wife (rightfully) even questions my amateur status. But I had a great time Monday taking photographs of Stage 1 of the Tour de Missouri held in St. Louis, posting a few tweets on Twitter about the race, and soaking up the great weather with my wife and daughter-in-law (son was working).

Stage 1 was a 10-lap cicuit race, the cyclists riding the same 7.5-mile lap ten times. For most of the race, three cyclists led the peloton by a good 50 to 55 seconds. Gradually, the peloton grew closer to the three, and by the final lap had absorbed them back into the group. The race became a wild, mad ride to the finish, with the sprinters jockeying for the win. And Mark Cavendish of Team Columbia-HTC pulled it off. He's the cyclist who won six stages of the Tour de France and is becoming known as one of the best sprinters in the world.

In the top photo, the peloton is passing St. Louis City Hall. Yes, I know it looks like a haunted mansion, sitting Gothic-like in all its glory. If you look closely, you'll see it actually has two different building materials - a rose-colored stone on the bottom floor and a more sand-colored stone on the upper floors. There must be a story there, but like most St. Louisans, I've never bothered to ask and simply accepted it. The building was designed in 1890, completed in 1904 (just in time for the World's Fair, which is still something the equivalent of a religious cult here), and roughly resembles the City Hall in Paris. The interior is something else -- a vertiable explosion of marble staircases, balconies and arches.

A great day and a great race.

Adam Blumer's "Fatal Illusions"

In April, I posted a review of Adam Blumer's Fatal Illusions on I liked it -- a lot. It scared me silly -- as I said in the review, don't read it right before going to bed -- but I like particularly what the author did with the characters and the plot line.

The characters: Marc Thayer, a pastor who's been counseling an unstable woman; she stalks him and shoots him. Gillian Thayer, Marc's wife, who's grieving the loss of stillborn twins and finds herself growing ever more distant from her husband. Stacey James, who shoots Marc in Chicago and stalks him again in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Crystal, the Thayers' daughter, who has a beautiful singing voice and becomes the object of the main stalker in the story, an amateur magician. Waydon Owens, the magician, who keeps killing teenaged girls, thinking he's killing the same one over and over again. Chuck Riley, a newly retired police detective who's determined to find the serial killer.

Blumer shapes his characters with a deft hand. They're so real you'll recognize them from your neighborhood or church (okay, not the stalker or the serial killer, but you get the point). Even the minor characters are drawn well -- County Sheriff Dendridge, for example, is immediately recognizable, warts and all.

The Thayers, thinking they're in the Upper Peninsula for rest and a sabbatical, instead find themselves stalked and attacked. And they fight back, with Gillian assuming a particularly heroic role.

The author particularly gets the reader inside the minds of the magician and Stacey James -- no easy trick, because Owens' mind is perverted and distorted while James' mind is increasingly unhinged and struggling for sanity. The reader doesn't feel sympathy for either of them, but Blumer has crafted them with understanding.

As events begin to move faster and faster, the reader speeds along the plot line, hoping that this is going to end well but not quite sure what the author is going to surprise you with next. And Blumer does surprise -- remember that the villain here is a magician with an almost cult-like worship of Harry Houdini. And Houdini got himself out of some impossible places.

I can't call this great fun, but I can call it a great , suspenseful, read.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Making Good Tables

In church this morning, the sermon was based upon Luke 19:14-27, the parable of the nobleman who is made king of a distant country, and he gives money to 10 servants to invest while he’s away. What he gave each was a mina, the equivalent of three months wages. One servant has earned 10 minas with the original one; he gets 10 cities to rule. The next earns five from the original one, and he gets five cities. A third kept the mina hidden in a piece of cloth, because he knew the king was a hard man. His mina gets taken away and given to the main who earned 10.

The sermon was about the value of work, but it could just have easily been about working for someone you don’t like, someone who “takes out what he didn’t put in, and reaps what he didn’t sow.” The third servant, the king points out, could have at least put the money on deposit and earned some interest. While that is an interesting discussion for another day, I want to focus on what the pastor said about work: that it’s a trust we are given, a calling we are to respond to, and a destiny we inherit.

Think about that. Work is a trust, a calling and a destiny. And it’s not that only for those with advanced college degrees, but actually for everyone: "Both the preacher and the plumber can work to the glory of God.”

The pastor quoted the writer Dorothy Sayers and what she said about work. Actually, to call Dorothy Sayers a writer is an understatement. She was a writer, a playwright, a theologian, a translator of Dante from the original Italian, a mystery writer (the Lord Peter Wimsey novels), a noted speaker and a lot of other things. She was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, and I suspect she could have more than held up her end of the conversation with them or anyone else.

In an address entitled “Why Work?” delivered at Eastbourne on April 23, 1942, she said this: A man must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation. “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter,” she said, “is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”

In other words, work is a vocation, and a sacred one.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dining Out

Loudness surrounds
A protected, paired island,
Sitting in shyness
As a thousand times before.
Each a repetition,
Each a first time
Of two sharing one,
Being one.

Refractions of crystal,
Shinings of silver
Dance off porcelain shimmers,
Reflecting a repetition of glances.
A murmured grace,
A whispered thanksgiving
While fingertips touch, linger,
Hunger still.

Disguise lines,
Sculpt folds,
Repeating appearances
Of a first time.
Silent music threads
Slight smiles.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When Apples are Optional

Today at High Calling Blogs, there is a post entitled "When Writing, Apples Are Optional," written by poet and artist L.L. Barkat. The first poem I wrote and posted on this blog, "Night, Near A Garden," is the featured poem, sort of today's "Random Act of Poetry," and another one, "Summer Light," is listed via a link.

I learned from L.L.'s post that I'm a "poem doodler," along with two others she knows of. A poem doodler writes poems and fragments of poems in meetings, during church sermons, while you're waking up in the morning -- generally any time you would normally be doing something else. "Poem doodler" is OK, but I think "poetic multi-tasker" is what it really means (that's the corporate business side of me poking through).

It is a great blessing, and a great encouragement, to see my poem on The High Calling Blogs.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Work-Faith Thing

My friend Bradley Moore over at Shrinking the Camel blew my socks off this morning with his post, “Lord, Wilt Thou Not Leadest My Blog to Reach 1,000 Page Views per Day?” (Great title, by the way.) He’s asking a question, though it’s not stated that way, and it’s a question that has dogged me my entire professional life: How does this thing called faith work its way into and out of this thing called work?

At least a few of us struggle with this. I’ve been in a workplace of one sort or another since 1973, and if I count all those summers in high school I worked at my father’s printing and mailing business and the two years I worked at the college newspaper, it goes back even longer. But since 1973, at every place I worked, I’ve had to wrestle with the very questions Brad raises in his post.

What’s the spiritual purpose of my career and work? What about the inevitable conflicts with ambition and drive? How do I live my faith in an environment when the pressure to conform is almost unbearable, and I see older, wiser and more mature believers than me buckle under that, and leave their faith at the office door? And what about the office politics – how do I live my faith but not be consumed by what goes on all around me, but still somehow survive it? How do I deal with stress and burnout (and I’ve had to deal with both over the years)?

There aren’t many how-to books on this. For a long time, I thought I was living a kind of monkish, solitary life in the workplace. It was lonely, and I struggled with that loneliness. I worked at a newspaper for a short time, then a Fortune 100 oil company, and then a Fortune 100 chemical company. Except for a short, three-year stint as an independent consultant and almost a year working for an urban school district (one in total, chaotic crisis), my work has been defined by what we know, or believe we know, as corporate America.

About 10 years ago, I worked with a career coach for a few months. And she was good; she knew her stuff. I went through a number of exercises, long talks, assignments, more talks. Somewhere in the middle of process, she expressed amazement. “How have you managed to work in corporate America for as long as you have? They usually force people like you out early on – the antibodies go to work and attack the mutant.” She had a point.

I came to where I work today as an “independent contributor” – hired to do a very specific set of things and manage a very specific set of issues. It was generally stuff completely different from what everyone else in the department did. After about a year, I was pulled into fixing a problem with a speech, right at the last minute (“I fix problems” should probably be the at the top of my CV). That led to doing some speeches for the next year-and-a-half, while still doing my original job. Then I was asked to sub as corporate web site editor while the department searched for a new one. That was a blast, but I was still doing my original job and the speeches, too. A few months later, I was given two people to lead, from a completely different area. That year, the two became five, became 8, became 10. I hired a consultant to help us figure out how to be a team. Things began to hum and then soar. The whole department was then expanded, and my 10 became 24. And, oh, what work we have done, and what results we have achieved!

It’s worked the other way, too. Sometimes being too successful isn’t the best course. Sometimes responsibilities are taken away or redefined. Sometimes you go back to where you started.

Through all of this, I’ve wrestled with issues of faith. How do I respond? What do I do, or not do?

I don’t have definite answers. If I did, I’d write a best-seller and be paid astronomical fees to give speeches full of profound thoughts. But instead of answers, I keep finding myself with more questions. And it doesn't get easier with age and experience.

But I know this: I can’t be who I’m not. I have to be who I am, warts and all. Like my friend Brad, my calling isn’t to distribute tracts to my co-workers or pitch Bible verses across cubicles. Nor is it to give in to the sweet siren song of "leave your faith outside the workplace."

I’ve learned this: to take a genuine interest in people; to live your faith regardless of how you struggle with that and how much you mess up; to treat people with the dignity and grace they deserve because, like me, they’re made in God’s image and are valuable simply because of that – these are a little of what faith in the workplace may be about. But just a little.

Brad’s going to be posting additional thoughts on all of this, and I suspect it’s going to be a fine series of reads.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Poetry Closet

Yesterday, one of the best writers I've run across -- both print and online -- posted this on one of her three blogs, Seedlings in Stone. When I read it, my ears burned.

I've talked before about L.L. Barkat's book, Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places. This is the one I read straight through during the night I spent in the hospital after learning the results of my bike crash -- three broken ribs, a fractured fourth rib and a partially collapsed lung. Since hospitals are no places for rest, I abandoned all hope of sleep and instead read this wonderful book. And she has a new book coming in 2010 from InterVarsity Press, God in the Yard: Tending the Soul in Small Places.

Yesterday, I had an email exchange with L.L. about how I got into this "poetry thing." I've read a lot of poetry over the years but would never have called myself a major poetry reader or even a minor fan. In high school, I liked the English poets of World War I, like Rupert Brooke, possibly because of the Vietnam War going on at the time. I liked the modern poets the best -- T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas -- and have also read a number of contemporary poets -- Richard Wilbur, Billy Collins, John Ashberry and Brendan Galvin. I learned that just about anything written by Wendell Berry sounded like poetry. And my background, training and experience and experience as a speechwriter had required me to be as mindful of words sounds, rhythm, cadence, language -- all the proper domains of the poet. But me thinking about writing poetry? Not.

I can actually pinpoint when this poetry "thing" started: Sunday, July 5. Okay, so it's confession time. I was sitting in church, listening to our senior pastor's sermon on John 3 -- the scene with Jesus and Nicodemus when Jesus speaks to being born again. What caught my attention was one of the overlooked parts of the story: Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. As I listened to the pastor, my mind wouldn't let go of that. It was at night. Nicodemus came at night because he didn't want anyone to see him talking to Jesus.

I started taking what looked like notes (my wife was pleased I wasn't nodding off) but were really images and thoughts and ideas. I listened to what the pastor was saying and let what he said form images in my mind that somehow changed into something else when I wrote (the order-of-worship sheet soon looked like a mess). During the next two weeks, interrupted by my bike crash and hospital stay, I worked on what eventually became this.

Then, a month later, came this, based on the story of the crippled man by the pool who's not fast enough to make it into the water when it ripples. That was inspired by another sermon -- same pastor, same situation, similar scribbles all over the order-of-worship sheet. When I posted the first poem, no one had noticed or at least commented. This second one, though, prompted some comments, including one by L.L., welcoming me to the poetry closet.

Was I in the poetry closet?

I'd been following L.L.'s weekly RAP (Random Act of Poetry) on The High Calling Blogs site. This is a weekly invitation for poets to right about a particular topic, and L.L. had been doing a series on rooms in a house. The final room in the series was the closet, and I decided to try it. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done -- 20 or 30 drafts, constant reworking and fiddling with words, most of the drafts written in long hand until I finally typed it and then kept working over individual words. And this poem is SHORT.

The result was "Testimony (in the closet)." It prompted a number of responses and reactions. I had some comments on the blog, but also emails from people, including at work. Perhaps the best response was from my wife. Just as I was falling asleep, she came in the bedroom with tears in her eyes. "It's my wedding dress," she said.

I've done two more since then, "Knows" and "Summer Light." I'm reading more poetry online, from poets like Marcus Goodyear (see "Eve's Second Garden") and Jim Schmotzer. Marcus and L.L. have "introduced" me (electronically) to another whole group of poets who particpate in the weekly RAP. And then I'm finding incredibly good writers and poets like {this restless heart}.

I suppose this means I am indeed in that poetry closet.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Summer Light

Light diffuses
Through cloth shade;
Extends its way
To strengthen day.

Light dances on
Partially bare shoulder,
Partially concealed
By white cotton thinness.

Light moves
Across soft skin,
Arches roundness,
Stings my eyes.

Light filters, slices through
Particles of dust,
Touches smoothness,
Slips round, pours round,
Flows round toward completion,
Disappearing into folds
Of the smells of morning sleep.

Light fractures
By a single touch
To softness bathed,
Softness cleansed
By light.