Friday, October 30, 2009

Pen or Keyboard?

Chris Sullivan over at More Than Fine last week asked his readers whether they used a keyboard or pen or whatever to write, and got a broad array of answers. Chris and I had an email exchange about it, and I got inspired. With this:

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I faced a rather unnerving dilemma. Come September, I would be enrolling in my first journalism course. You had to know how to type. And I didn’t.

So, I asked my parents for an early birthday present, an electric typewriter. I found a self-teaching plan that seemed easy enough to follow. I worked during the day, and every night, I sat at my desk, my teaching plan open, my hands poised over the keys.

I had no social life that summer.

The main thing I learned was where the keys were. Finding the right letters on the keyboard would turn out to be a critical piece of knowledge in Journalism 51, because one typo, one misspelled word, not to mention one style error or one grammatical error or one factual error – one of any of those things – earned you an automatic F on the assignment or the test. “Accuracy’s important,” the instructor would shrug after the class started. Seventy percent of the class was gone by mid-terms.

But that summer, it was me and the typewriter. I learned to hate it, but I kept slogging away. The ultimate result was – voila! – I didn’t learn how to type properly. To this day, I use my two forefingers and my right thumb, and very occasionally some other finger. But primarily those two fingers and a thumb. And I can type about 90 words a minute if I have to.

The sight of this amuses my wife. She knows how to type properly.

However badly I taught myself, it turned out to be sufficient for my journalism classes. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that my journalism school hadn’t invested in technology in quite some time. The typewriters in our classes were – old (really old) Royal manual machines. You could type easily on those old Royals, as long as your fingers were HAMMERS and you trained yourself to return the carriage at the end of the sentence. And we had to do timed assignments and tests on those things.

They were teaching us early that journalists have to suffer and, as a result, hate anybody who doesn’t have to suffer as much as journalists think they themselves do.

My typing abilities, such as they were, stood me in good stead through college and my first several years in the work world. That is, until I was assigned to write a speech at the company I was working for. I did my research and then started typing on my IBM Selectric (for those of you too young to remember, IBM Selectrics were like dying and going to heaven after the purgatory of manual typewriters). The writing went okay for a while, but then I started running into trouble. I’d type and I’d type, and then it would fall flat. I’d read what I’d typed, and then say it out loud (it was a speech, after all), and it seemed off.

So I wandered off with what I’d typed on paper and then read it aloud. At some point, I realized what the problem was (whatever the problem was), and I stopped, found an available chair and started writing the changes and the text by hand. And it worked.

I don’t know why, but I discovered that my writing of speeches was greatly helped by a combination of typing and writing by hand. The typing parts were the more basic, fact-oriented parts. The handwriting parts were the emotional, more “rhetorical” parts.

I have done this ever since. And now it’s carried over into poetry which, when I consider it, is not so different from writing speeches – both focus on language and sounds, rhythm, “movement” of words, choosing the exactly right word or phrase, and pulling disparate thoughts and pieces of thoughts into a cohesive whole. I write all drafts of a poem by hand. Only when I think it’s about done do I type it. I’ll do very minor editing once it’s typed. But all of the hard work (and it is hard work) is done with a pen. Some poems go through 10 drafts or more; a few are ready to go after only two or three. But most take a lot more. (I also didn’t understand how much “research” often needs to go into a poem, but that’s another story.)

So I can’t really explain all the reasons why, but I’ve found that I write differently when I use a computer and when I write by hand. One is more utilitarian; the other is a more free-flowing, emotional way to write. For me, anyway. The pen allows me to add comments, scratch-outs, add marginal notes. I know Word can do something like this as well, but it takes too long and I find the “Track Changes” feature to be totally confusing.

So in some cases, the pen is quicker than the keyboard.

(This was written almost entirely on a keyboard, except for the first draft of paragraphs two and three.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reflection on a Tweet Party

Several of us participated in a Tweet Party (poetry jam) on Tuesday night. Most of us tweeted by design, and three accidentally stumbled in. You can see the completed edited version of the jam at TweetSpeak Poetry, under the title of "Love at the Masquerade Ball." The theme was “Love in Character,” and it used famous fictional and not-so-fictional lovers as the starting point (Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Yuri Zhivago and Lara, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, and so on).

I have a dual role in these jams – I participate and I edit the final version. Editing (for me) means following the jam via Tweetdeck with a search open for the #tsp hashtag, Twitter open, and Microsoft Word open, so I can copy and paste from Twitter. The jam lasts for an hour, and sometimes the tweets are flying so fast and thick that I find myself almost breathless while I’m tweeting, reading, copying and pasting, commenting – well, it’s busy. But great fun. The #tsp hashtag is important for capturing all of the contributions, because not all of the participants follow each other on Twitter.

Here are a few of my own contributions to the jam.

Antony: I remember you before the asp.
Cleo: I remember you before the sword.
We danced in the sand
Under the light of the pyramid moon.
She turned to fortunetellers
To see the lines of the sand.


In John's England did I
Find myself
A proper lady.
They said I was spectacle,
Eye-catching of courtiers.
The redness of mine,
The whiteness of John's,
Our skins peeled together.
The courtesies of courtiers
Were like sharpened knives at the table.


So said Delilah, she of the Philistines.
He wanted stars
But was blinded by pokers of light.


Frankly, my dear
I wish for hand of lilac scent
To touch my brow.
Will you remember me, tomorrow, Rhett?
Another tomorrow, another day,
With pride, with prejudice, perhaps with love.


Of all the famous loves I've known
Across the pages of imagination,
None surpasses my own true love


My green earth
My good earth,
The soil of my love.


As the sun fair doth rise in the east
As the moon most pale doth set in the west,
Strangers when they met,
Bonded souls when they parted.
In the cold mist did
Yuri touch
The pale cheek of Lara.
The reds and the whites,
He thought,
Were no longer wines but soldiers.
The trees,
All aspens,
Sang of love and Russian nights.
Was Lara the Russian Guinevere?


For another view of the jam, see L.L. Barkat’s Ticket to Party.

And Maureen's Tweets of Love at the Masquerade Ball.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Athol Dickson's "Lost Mission"

Athol Dickson’s novels always seem to include at least a touch, and often more than a touch, of the apocalyptic. In River Rising it’s a flood. In The Cure, it’s a town under siege by desperate alcoholics. Winter Haven, perhaps the least apocalyptic of Dickson’s works, still portrays a sense of unease and then menace and impossible, almost paranormal things happening. And now there’s Lost Mission.

Lost Mission is apocalypse, Southern California style, crossing two centuries – the late 18th century, when missions were being established by the Spanish from Mexico (New Spain), and the 21st century, with its eclectic and politically/socially explosive mix of wealthy Americanos and illegal aliens. Layer on both eras the rigidity of religious belief (Franciscan Catholic in the former and evangelical Christian in the latter), and you discover some fascinating parallels.

You also find an incredibly good story.

In the late 18th century, three Franciscans, Abbott Guillermo, Brother Alejandro and Brother Benicio, travel with a contingent of soldiers to Alta California to establish Mission de Santa Dolores. They gain early converts among the native population, but Abbot Guillermo’s rigid sense of propriety and order, and his inherent condescending attitude, soon begin to work against the goals of the mission. Brother Alejandro is ordered to paint an altarpiece, a triptych of paintings, so that the converts can visualize the crucifixion of Christ and related events.

In the 21st century, Guadalupe Soledad Consuelo de la Garza leaves her small shop in Mexico to preach to the pagan Americanos. She is given a triptych, kept safely locked away by the local priest, to help lead her onward. She will need to enter the United States illegally, and she is helped by Ramon Rodriguez, crossing into the United States to find work. She wanders in the desert, until she is found by Tucker Rue, a seminary graduate spending 40 days in the wilderness to understand his calling. Eventually, Tucker established Sanctuario to help illegal aliens and their families, and Lupe goes to work for Delano Wright, a wealthy Californian who lives high atop a mountain and who will eventually develop a plan for a Christian enclave, separated from the world.

The enclave, of course, occupies the same site as the old Spanish mission. And the old mission was destroyed in an attack by the native population following a long period of plague. And plague, under certain conditions, can remain dormant.

The author credits his agents for slogging through “an ugly early draft” and his editor for her work on the novel. Whoever is responsible for the final outcome did an extraordinary job – Dickson tells the two stories as one, moving deftly from one to the other. And gradually the reader comes to understand that one story is actually being told.

Lost Mission is the work of a master writer, a good story told incredibly well.

(Attention Federal Trade Commission: I purchased this book from No one gave it to me. I have received no compensation from it other than the pleasure of reading a really good novel.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


In the dawning
Will come the battle,
The last for
Our house, for
Our families, for
My father’s name
And position and
Rank and favor and
Crown, the crown
Already long lost.

In the night eve of death,
Across the campfire
I see his eyes, staring,
Filled with anger,
Stilled with hate.
He stares through
His madness at me,
The surrogate.
My treason is I
Loved my friend.

That day on
The hillside,
That day when
He slung the smooth
That day when he held up
The giant’s head,
That day, my
Heart knitted
To his.

I knew then,
Just a boy,
I knew then my
Father’s fate.
I knew then my
Friend would
Be given, one day,
The crown my
Father intended for
My head.

We became men together,
Two beings, two minds,
One heart, one soul.
My father would not understand
What I did, what I said,
What I knew.
His anger with,
His fear of my friend
Was measured out
In fury to me.

After this night eve of death,
I will die
In the dawning,
Near my father but
Not next to him.

Monday, October 26, 2009

From Cicadas in the Wilderness to Erfurt, Germany

I’ve been reading The Wisdom of the Wilderness by Gerald May, as part of an online book group discussion over at the High Calling Blogs led by Laura Boggess. This past week, we read chapter 4 – Cicada Song.

May spends time in the wilderness as a kind of healing therapy, including experiencing some extreme conditions like below freezing cold, isolation, a bear in front of the tent, and hearing voices. In this chapter, he's a bit more conventional and talks about listening to the cicadas, including a mating pair. (Listening to the mating calls of insects in the wilderness – not my dream vacation but it’s his story so I let him tell it.)

At one point in the narrative, he says this: “I am lost now, lost into the firelight’s flickering on the tree leaves, warmth mingling with cool night star sparkles, all into the cicada song; I have been shown the way into the joining, I have been guided in a harmony path, to a oneness within which I am, once again, freshly and absolutely alive.”

Those words could easily be structured into a poem; they sound poetic. But what really struck me about the passage, especially that last line about “a oneness within which I am, once again, freshly and absolutely alive.” Something like that happened to me, but it wasn’t in wilderness. Or maybe it was in a kind of wilderness.

In 2002, I was part of a three-man communication team sent by our church to Eastern Europe. We had Jack, the video guy; Steve, the guy who did all the logistics and planning; and me, the writer. Our charge was to meet with missionaries in Hungary, Czech Republic and Dresden in eastern Germany, interview them, and then use the resulting videos and stories in a variety of communication media – newsletters, videotapes and as “live reports” the missionaries could send back to their home churches and supporters. Our church had never had a short-term mission team quite like us, and for a while we were quite perplexing. The missions program coordinator who’d championed our team told us one thing that stuck in my mind: have your detailed plans and itineraries, she said, but be prepared to go where the spirit moves.

As we waited in St. Louis for our flight to Chicago (and then Frankfurt and Budapest), we saw on CNN that a shooting had occurred in Erfurt in eastern Germany – a shooting in a high school that sounded like a German version of Columbine. Several people had been killed. We saw the story but it didn’t register with us as a game-changing event for our trip. We’d no plans to be anywhere near Erfurt.

When we landed in Budapest Saturday, we were greeted by our missionary host with this: “They want to send you to Erfurt.” While we had been crossing the Atlantic, phones calls between our church in St. Louis, our denomination’s headquarters in Minneapolis and the Eastern Europe mission headquarters in Budapest had been occurring, with the discussion about the communication team switching gears and heading for Erfurt, to record what was happening and to help a young pastor. All we really knew was that this pastor had been counseling the families of victims – both the dead and the wounded – almost non-stop. What we didn’t understand was how we could help.

Jetlagged though we were, we talked about it for hours. It would clearly wreck the carefully planned (and packed) schedule. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do, and no one could really tell us. And then we remembered what the missions coordinator had told us weeks before – be ready to go where the spirit moves. So we did. Driven by Gary, one of the mission staff in Budapest, we traveled to Dresden, arriving late Sunday night. The next morning, we met with a local pastor and a missionary couple as we had planned, and then left for Erfurt.

Erfurt was where Martin Luther had attended seminary. It’s close to what had been the border of West Germany, but all those years under communism had left a spiritual wilderness. We drove down the autobahn; the pastor of the church was waiting for us just off the highway.

His name was Mattias, and he and his wife were originally from Hamburg. He was pastoring a small church in Erfurt constructed from a former communist social hall (there’s something delightfully ironic in that – a communist social hall converted into a church). As we'd planned with all of our other meetings, I rode with Mattias and the rest of our party followed. This allowed some time for me, the writer and interviewer, to introduce myself and talk a little bit about our team and what we were doing.

As soon as I sat in the passenger seat of Mattias’ car, a strange thing happened. We looked at one another and began to laugh for no discernible reason. We just started laughing together. It was as if we had known each other for a long time, and then found ourselves in an odd situation. As he drove and we talked, this strange feeling kept reinforcing itself. We didn’t openly talk about it, but it was there.

We drove to the church. From the outside, it didn’t look like a church. But the inside was definitely a church, including the smell. The design was contemporary – light-colored wood, royal blue carpeting. We toured the building and met two other church members.

We set up the interview in the sanctuary. Our logistics guy and driver wandered off to explore. Jack started filming, and Mattias and I started talking. And in the course of that 40 minutes, something profound happened.

Mattias was close to physical and emotional exhaustion. The shooting had happened on Friday; for three days he had been meeting with and counseling and praying with family and friends of the victims. He had been going on virtually no sleep, and hadn’t seen his wife and children in all that time. There weren’t a lot of pastors around to help; Mattias had been pretty much on his own. I asked questions, and he talked. And then we talked together. And in those few brief moments, the three of us became as one. I can’t explain it. But never have I felt as “freshly and absolutely alive,” as Gerald May described his cicada moment. The interview ended with all three of us in tears. Jack and I knew what Mattias had been experiencing because we were now going through it with him, as one with him.

Steve and Gary reappeared and could see something had happened. But not one of us could adequately explain it. I could only offer Steve what Mattias had said during the talk: “God is in this place.”

The four of us then went to the school, where thousands of people had gathered. Thousands of people – and almost total silence. I think we were the only Americans there – and we were recognized as Americans, as “people who know what this is like,” a reference to Columbine.

The last thing we did before we left Erfurt that evening was to lay our hands on Mattias and pray for him. We did this on a street corner. And then we left, driving back to spend the night in Dresden. I said very little during the drive.

A few days later, when we arrived back in Budapest, we were having dinner. I tried to explain to Gary what had happened in Erfurt, but I could only come up with a rather lame description.

Finally, I said this: “I don’t know what happened. But I came from America and unexpectedly went to Erfurt, and found I’d come home.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009


She sits before her
Brushing her long hair,
Three, four, five.
She hears him
Move behind her.

She married above,
They said,
Surprising all
Including her,
Child of immigrants
Fleeing the German
Peace of Alsace-Lorraine.
Married above
To linen-and-lace Irish.
He’d searched for love,
Finding it first
In drink
Until he saw her.
Displeasing his mother,
Fearful for her only child,
Fearful for her
Own position,
Displeased he
Chose below,
Married below,
Married at all.

She sits before her
Brushing her hair,
Forty-one, forty-two.
She hears him
Move behind her.

The glass reflecting
Catches the slow
Fifty-three, fifty-four.
Willy? Willy?
He looks down,
Staring at his hand,
Drops the knife
In tears.
The drink, he says,
The drink.

His mother, too late,
Sends him for
The cure;
Sends her home
To her father,
Seventy-six, seventy-seven.

She sits before her
Brushing her long hair,
Ninety-one, ninety-two,
Waiting for her
Aching to hear him
Move behind her.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Love Affair with Chad and Jeremy

(From left, Anita from Albuquerque, Chad Stuart, my sweet wife Janet, Jeremy Clyde, and Nancy Emrich of LilFest in Chicago.)

Last night, about nine months of planning, anticipation and work by my sweet wife came to fruition with a concert by Chad and Jeremy at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis.

If you’re not familiar with Chad Stuart and Jeremy Clyde, they are a singing duo who were part of the “British Invasion” of the 1960s. My wife met them when she was 12, after a performance at the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport. She’s been in love with them ever since. I understand, and I am not jealous. I also know the words to all of their songs, because I’ve heard them enough over the years. If I knew how to sing, I could probably do the karaoke version of everything they ever recorded.

They broke up in the late 1960s. Jeremy went to pursue an acting career (playing lots of villains, oddly enough) and Chad pursued music. Today Jeremy lives in London and Chad in Sun Valley, Idaho, and they get together several times a year to perform.

We’d seen them in St. Louis in 1986, when they were touring as part of the “British Invasion Tour Part 2.” I remember it well because we were early for the event. I mean, like an hour early. So early we were first in line at the door. If you think I’m emphasizing “early” because we’re usually late for everything, you’d be right. Chronic lateness in my family is not a problem; it’s a condition. You can’t solve it; you have to endure it.

In May 2008, I had to give a talk in Chicago at a conference, and it happened to be right before Mother’s Day Weekend. And guess who was doing three concerts in Chicago? My wife found about this from the Yahoo message board on Chad and Jeremy, where she was also meeting fans like herself all over the country. Coordinated by Nancy Emrich of LilFest, the duo did a house concert in Wilmette, which was the coolest thing ever, then an auditorium concert, also in Wilmette, and finally one at Bill’s Blues Bar in Evanston. My wife was thrilled, so thrilled she began to work on how to get them to St. Louis. And she knew the perfect venue, too.

She knew one of the marketing people at the Sheldon Theater through an old neighbor of ours. She contacted him, and then connected him to Chad and Jeremy’s booking agent. It took some period of time but one day, there it was – they were coming to St. Louis Oct. 23, 2009.

We saw them again in Chicago this past May, and our next-door neighbors in St. Louis joined us for the concert at Bill’s Blues Bar (they have grown children in Chicago; he’s also an gifted musician). Ever since, my wife’s been plotting how to help the Sheldon promote the guys who recorded “Summer Song,” “Distant Shores,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and a bunch of other songs that spoke directly to my wife’s teenaged heart in the late 1960s and continue to speak to her heart today. She worked tirelessly, handing out and posting flyers on every bulletin board in St. Louis, tweeting it on Twitter, bugging me to retweet and post on Facebook. Me, I go along for the ride. It’s magic to watch my wife be transformed into a 14-year-old again.

And magic reigned at the Sheldon last night. The theater seats 700; about 600 people were there, an unusual number, given the economy, according to the people who know this stuff. And it was a wildly enthusiastic audience – you could literally see the audience energize Chad and Jeremy and vice versa. And I watched all the concerns my sweet wife had for this being a success melt away, and she became a fan again.

That’s about as cool as it gets.

James David Jordan's "Double Cross"

James David Jordan’s new suspense novel Double Cross (B&H Publishing Group, $14.99) is one part Terminator, one part Dirty Harry, one part Wonder Woman and all parts page-turning.

A sequel to the novel Forsaken, Double Cross continues the adventures of Taylor Pasbury, who runs her own private security firm. With the first few pages, Taylor’s mother shows up after an absence of more than 20 years , a friend believed to be embezzling from a televangelism ministry seemingly commits suicide, and Taylor has a policeman flattened on the floor. And it never slows down.

Jordan has created a strong female figure in his lead character. She takes enormous physical risks; she’s not afraid to use a gun; and taking on two thugs at the same time is no big deal. But she’s also human, almost tragically so, with real human flaws and problems; she’s a recovering alcoholic and makes poor choices with men. Really poor choices.

The novel falls into the “crossover” category, with an easy appeal to non-Christian readers. The “message” is there but it’s muted. And Taylor herself is not a Christian, although she does tend to pray when she’s in one of her many tight fixes.

Double Cross reads fast – so many things continue to happen that you’re often left breathless. It’s also one of those suspense novels that are hard to put down, because you have to keep reading to see what happens next.

(Note to Federal Trade Commission: Even though some groups are already raising constitutional issues with your new rules for bloggers, and you yourself are already backpedaling on what the new rules mean and don't mean, in the spirit of openness, I would like to say that I received this book from the publisher specifically to review it.) (However, I will not sell my soul for a $14.99 book. Just so you know, FTC.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Katrina Stories

While I was in New Orleans last week, I was able to visit a bit with family, like my cousin Donna. Donna is a few years older than I am and has lived in the New Orleans area her entire life. The summer after Katrina (2006), she told me how fortunate she and her husband had been with the flooding. “We only had six inches,” she said. Dramatic pause. “On the second floor.” And then she laughed.

The line and the laugh epitomize Hurricane Katrina for me.

She lived in “the parish,” which for native New Orleanians means only one thing – St. Bernard Parish, the low-lying area below the eastern half of New Orleans and adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward of the city. More than 90 percent of St. Bernard flooded. The levees channeling the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet disintegrated from the tidal surge; the levee break in the Industrial Canal that flooded the Lower Ninth also brought water into St. Bernard.

My cousin lived in the little town of Meraux. Several of her married children lived not far away. As the storm approach, her children left early. Donna and her husband stayed until Sunday morning, and then decided to leave. They picked up our then-86-year-old aunt from her house in the Lower Ninth and went to my then-82-year-old mother’s house in the western suburb of Metairie. The two elderly sisters decided they wanted to stay. After all, they had ridden out Hurricane Betsy in 1965, hadn’t they? And Camille in 1968?

You can’t imagine my reaction when I heard my mother and aunt had decided to ride out the storm. Well, maybe you can.

Donna and her husband drove on to Baton Rouge to stay with her sister. Almost 20 people were in the house, and it turned out they stayed there for several days. With no electricity, because Baton Rouge lost power for a time as well.

Five weeks after Katrina, my cousin was allowed back into St. Bernard for a short visit. The town of Meraux had not only been flooded; an oil refinery not far away had also leaked, spreading a fine sheen of crude oil everywhere, including inside the flooded homes. Water, muck, mold and crude oil.

By this time, Donna’s company (and her job) had moved temporarily to Houston. She was given a furnished apartment, with utilities and phone included, and a long weekend twice a month. She and her husband would drive to Baton Rouge on Friday night, stay with her sister, and then drive down to St. Bernard early Saturday morning. With two huge tubs of water and bleach. And all the necessities for cleaning muck, mold and crude oil, to try to salvage what could be salvaged.

This went on for months.

Donna found her china cabinet moved several feet by the water but upright and intact. All of her dishes and her collection of Depression glass were intact, if covered in yuck. That’s what the tubs of water and bleach were for. Her furniture and appliances were a total loss. Refrigerators could be replaced. The album of her wedding photos could not. Most of their important papers had been hurriedly yanked out of filing cabinets and pitched into plastic trash bags, and thrown in the car when they fled the storm.

She had six hand-decorated eggs sitting on her sideboard when the storm struck. She found one in an upstairs bathroom, and a second one underneath the ruined living room sofa. Both intact and unbroken. The other four had disappeared.

They decided to gut the house. During the times they weren’t there, migrants moved in. One night, a neighbor who had been cleaning her own house called Donna. “Your house is on fire,” she said. “It’s on fire.” It was. Someone left a smoldering cigarette in a mattress. It took the insurance company four months to complete the investigation, because Donna’s husband is a retired firefighter. “You know how to put them out,” she said, “you know how to start them.” Donna and her husband had just arrived in Baton Rouge when they got the call.

One of the worst parts of the storm, she says, was the bureaucracy. FEMA. The insurance company (“Was the flooding caused by rising water or was the water driven by the wind?”). The local parish authorities. Her retired husband lived on the phone, fighting bureaucracy. Donna and her husband fought. A lot of other people, emotionally destroyed by the storm and its aftermath, gave up.

Then there was the FEMA trailer. Their trailer was located in Mississippi; Donna was not going to live in front of the ruined shell of her house. The trailer sweated condensation. Donna got sick. But she refused to give up or give in. My cousin is a fighter.

Eventually, Donna and her husband moved into a new house across Lake Ponchartrain. They’re finished with St. Bernard. They stay in touch with friends from the old neighborhood, and they still own the vacant lot where their house stood. But they have to keep it mowed to four inches or less, or be fined $125 a day, the parish says.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by Katrina. Donna is only one of those stories.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Slowing at Faulkner House Books

It’s just a living room,
And part of a hallway
Of an old house
On an alley
Made famous by pirates.
Cheerful yellow
Inside is
Another world,
A world of slow
A silence of almost reverence.

Books on tables,
Books in shelves
Stacked to tall
Fourteen-foot ceilings.
Books aching
To be touched,
Handled, lingered
Over, loved.

In the hallway
Is the poetry.
Two large shelves
Of rhyme and not.
Dylan Thomas
And Eliot.
Lowell. Dickinson.
Plath. Updike. Gluck.
Whitman. Keats. Milton.
The Moderns.
The Contemporaries.
The Sonnets.
A feast of words.

Two slender
Volumes selected, at last.
Full price here,
No discounts or
No sales tables
Or price-cut specials.
Full price in
A small space.

Are you a poet?
He asks.
I write some, I
Are you a poet?
He asks, again.
Yes, I nod as
He smiles, finally.
I walk down
The alley made famous
By pirates, next
To the cathedral,
In wonder,

(Photo of the Faulkner House Books, Pirate's Alley, New Orleans.)
(Part of the slowing for the Random Act of Poetry. My five slowing words: slow, silence, reverence, linger, poet.)

Home Again

We spent the last week in New Orleans. The daughter of good friends of ours got married, and it was a great “New Orleans wedding,” this one held at Houmas House, a plantation home on the River Road upriver from New Orleans. We also got to see family, and partook of the four basic food groups: fried shrimp poboys, fried oyster poboys, muffalettas, and beignets (French Quarter doughnuts). I also worked in a couple of different crab dishes. And the café au lait, oh, boy, the café au lait…

Last Wednesday, we were in the Louisiana State Museum in the Cabildo on Jackson Square, when I started being “direct messaged” on my phone like Armageddon was underway. The reality was that my Twitter account had been hijacked (along with a lot of other people’s) and used to alert people how to make an extra $300. I was hours from being able to access a computer, so I emailed a colleague and asked her to change my password, which she quickly did, and that was that. Again, my apologies for the inconvenience.

The wedding at Houmas House was fantastic. The ceremony started at four and was held in the front yard of the plantation home, with the home as the backdrop (see the photo above). The weather was absolutely spectacular: sunny, unseasonably cool, a little windy but outstanding. The clouds floating past the home, framed by gigantic live oaks, made the entire scene look like a painting.

After the ceremony, we walked through the house and then to a back room, where the guests were given a cup of crawfish-corn-curry bisque on the way to the cocktail hour. I could have stayed right there with the bisque and died happy. We sat drinking wine around a fountained pool, then on to dinner and the official reception. Incredible event and an incredible place to have a wedding.

We’ve known the parents of the bride for (gulp) 39 years. My wife and the mother of the bride met their first day of college at LSU, and were bridesmaids in each other’s wedding. Last November, they flew to Phoenix for our oldest son’s wedding, and we were able to reciprocate this past week with their daughter’s.

It was a great week.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trust: The Long View

(Peter Pollock and Bridget Chumbley have started a regular blog carnival, inviting bloggers to post on an assigned one-word topic and then link to their sites. Two weeks ago, the word was obedience, and the various submissions were amazing in scope, diversity and strong, creative writing. This time, the word is trust.)

We hunger for it, this trust thing. We want to be able to trust, and we want to be trusted. And yet our human experience shows us exactly how fragile trust is – so hard to achieve, so quick to be damaged or destroyed.

We’ve all got examples of how our trust has been betrayed, and if we’re honest with ourselves, how we’ve betrayed others’ trust. Trust is born over a long period of time but can die in a flashed moment of violation or hurt – a comment, an implied criticism, a raised eyebrow, a confidence shared with someone else. That’s all it takes.

Why do we believe, and why do we know, that trust is so important? Why is there such a hunger for it?

I suspect it has to do with how we’re constructed. And I suspect it also has to do with related needs and desires – fellowship, belonging and security. In other words, it’s the desire for relationship that God wires into each of us, a desire that can truly be met in only one way, because everything human will always fall short, will always disappoint.

And in that sense, trust requires the long view. Look at Jesus and his disciples.

Jesus picked the 12 disciples. He knew their shortcomings and frailties. In Gethsemane, the darkest night of his soul, they couldn’t even stay awake. And what a record of achievement they had. One betrayed him into the hands of the authorities. One denied him, three times. All of them disappeared and hid after his arrest. They had walked with him and been taught by him and loved by him for three years. He had poured his love and trust into them. And they vanished at the first sign of trouble.

We’d do exactly the same thing. And Jesus knew that – he knew that about his disciples and he knows that about us. But he loved them, and he loves us, anyway. As untrustworthy and unfaithful as we are, he loves us anyway.

It’s because he takes the long view. He knew what his disciples would ultimately do, and he knew how many of them would willingly go to their deaths for him. (And think about Paul – not one of the 12, but about the last person one would trust with the critical mission of reaching the Roman world.) Jesus knew that his teaching and encouragement and love for the disciples would ultimately change the world.

When we fail someone’s trust, or when someone fails us, perhaps we, too, should take that long view.

It Was Lone Elk Park, But It Was No Lone Elk

I’ve been reading The Wisdom the Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature by Gerald May, as part of a feature on The High Callings Blogs being led by Laura Boggess . It’s a book about a lot of things, including May’s experiences in the wilderness, naturally, but it’s also a lot about healing.

We’re on the third chapter, “Night Fear.” May describes what it’s like to be camping by yourself in a remote part of a remote wilderness-like state park, and what you hear and think you hear at night (like bears, voices talking in an odd language, footsteps – all of the things that would drive me straight from a tent to the vehicle with locked doors). Only the bear was real, but the other things, well, you have to read the book to see how May comprehends and then understands them.

But what this chapter most brought to mind was something that happened to me, and it helped me understand and identify with what May was writing about. (Let me say here I am no fan of camping by myself in the wilderness. My idea of roughing it is having to stay at a Ramada.)

I was on the board of a bird sanctuary group in St. Louis. We’d meet at different places for our meetings, and one November we met at Lone Elk State Park in the far western suburbs. The park is adjacent to the Tyson Research Center, where the bird sanctuary is located. It’s beautiful terrain – tall hills, isolation from the metropolitan area, dense forests.

Our board meeting was in the ranger’s station at Lone Elk. You had to drive quite a distance into the park to reach it, and it was at the bottom of a little valley surrounded by hills on all sides. You parked in a small lot, and then walked a good half-block or so to the station. The meeting went on for some time, as board meetings tend to do, and I finally had to leave about 8 p.m.

Outside, it was pitch black. No light at all. I hadn’t walked 10 feet when I knew I was in the midst of something, something large and numerous and alive and not human. I froze. It was a moment of perfect fear, the kind May describes in his book when he discovers a bear outside his tent. It was terrifying, yes, but it was almost exquisitely terrifying.

I couldn’t move. I think I was afraid to because I couldn’t see anything. I could only sense that something was there, right in front of me.

At that moment, the ranger returned in his vehicle from seeing another board member through the park’s locked gate. And in the headlights I saw what was all around me.

Elk. Lots of elk. The park was called Lone Elk State Park, but someone lied. There must have been close to a hundred in the herd, and they were quietly resting all around the ranger’s station, which is what the herd generally did at night. And a fully grown elk is big.

The ranger had seen me frozen in the headlights, and laughingly made his way through the herd with a flashlight. He escorted me to the parking lot, and assured me this happened all the time, and no one had yet been attacked, trampled, eaten or accidentally squished. Of course, only the park staff was there after dark, too – this is not a park for camping.

It made a great story to tell – the best ones are always the ones where you are the butt of the joke/victim/city bumpkin. But that thrill of fear, that fear that lasted only for a few moments but seemed much longer, was followed by exactly what May described in his book.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

I Grew Up in 100 Years of Solitude

Once, when I was in a masters program in St. Louis, I took a seminar on the Latin American novel. The course introduced me to an array of authors and books – including Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who’d won the Nobel Prize for his writings. One Hundred Years of Solitude is perhaps the most well known of books by Garcia Marquez, and it was the first one we read for the class.

When we met to discuss the book, it was clear that a lot of people had been put off by it. I should say that the class was older adults – I was likely the youngest and at the time I was in my mid-30s. The professor was surprised by the reaction. So what was the problem? he asked. The class wasn’t bashful in responding. Totally unrealistic – who ever heard of people on flying carpets (outside the Arabian Nights) or babies born with the tails of pigs? And that seemed to be the general consensus about the novel most connected to the idea of “magic realism.” Magic, yes. Realism, no. What is this weirdness?

Then I said something that startled the professor and the class.

“It sound perfectly believable to me,” I said. “In fact, it sounds a lot like where I grew up.”

Dead silence in the room. “And where was that?” the professor asked.

“New Orleans,” I said. “Born and raised.”

He thought for a moment and then nodded. “That makes sense. New Orleans is the northern rim of the Caribbean culture; Garcia Marquez’s Colombia is on the southern rim.”

People looked at me rather oddly after that. But the fact is that New Orleans likely invented magic realism long before Garcia Marquez was born – or perhaps the whole Caribbean culture invented it. How else can you describe Mardi Gras?

No, we didn’t have flying carpets and babies born with pig tails in New Orleans. But we had a lot of stories like that, stories that were true, if not real. As a child, I heard about Inez the Crazy Woman roaming the streets (“And no one knew why,” my mother lamented, “because she came from such a good family”). I heard a lot about children dying; child mortality was far more common in the 1910s and 1920s than it is today. People rode in “streetcars” and it sounded like magic, and then one day I got to ride in one, too, and it was magic.

Each summer, from when I was 9 to when I was 13, I spent a week with one of my aunts, Aunt Tean (pronounced “teen”) or Aunt Gee (hard “g”), both of whom lived in the Ninth Ward, the lower Ninth Ward for those familiar with the geography of Hurricane Katrina. Aunt Gee had four children, two of whom were on either side of me chronologically. Aunt Tean and her husband were childless; he was retired Navy. Aunt Tean was the family historian; she traced one branch of the family back to the 1350s in southern France. She also had lots of pets – several dogs and cats. She had a name for each and, when they died, she buried them in the backyard and found replacements. My younger brother called her yard the pet cemetery, and perhaps that fig tree there did bark at night. If you listened hard enough, you could hear it. Aunt Gee’s family, on the other hand, told wild stories about something called nutria roaming the levee of the Industrial Canal at night, looking for children to eat. I believed them. Nutria were real; the eating of children wasn't. But the stories were still true.

My mother came from a large New Orleans family. She was one of six – five girls and a boy. The girls all got married and had their own families; the boy waited until he was in the Army and stationed in Germany before he got married. But it seemed like we were always going to weddings. Big weddings. Lots of food and lots of dancing. Lots of stories. And then, later, lots of wakes and funerals, and lots of stories.

When I was 13, I was staying with my Aunt Tean, and my uncle decided I needed to ride with him to see another uncle. It was a Sunday night, and the real purpose of the visit was for my two uncles to drink something called rock-and-rye. The older uncle finally looked at me and said, “This boy needs his own glass.” The younger uncle nodded, and “poured two fingers” of the brownish liquid into a glass. I eyed it with some concern. “You have had a drink before, haven’t you?” the older uncle asked. I nodded. “Dad fixed me a VO and 7-Up last year for Christmas,” I said. “Thank God,” my uncle said. “Even if it is a sissy drink.” The rock-and-rye burned and tasted nasty. I never told my parents. My mother would have been furious; my father would have laughed.

My Aunt Tean, on the other hand, made something called cherry bounce. It was a fermentation of cherries and sugar and whisky that the entire family loved. My father was inspired enough to try making it himself but left it to ferment too long and the bottle exploded on our back porch. My mother was not pleased. I suspected the failure to ferment properly happened because my father was not from New Orleans.

I went to school with people who had last names like mine – recognizable in any American context – but also names like these: Boudreaux, Charbonnet, Melancon, Toups, Bordelon, Bonvillion, Cassienne, Lorio, Barrilleaux, Ribaldo, Vienne, Chenova, Russo and Rousseau, Aucoin – lots of French and Italian names – along with a lot of German names. You didn’t really think about it, and I only notice it now when I visit, but people in New Orleans generally look different, reflecting a French and Italian heritage, with just enough German and Irish to keep things interesting – all of the immigrants who came to the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s. Dark-haired, sometimes of darker complexion, they seem more Mediterranean than American.

But they talk like they’re from Brooklyn. The only Southern accents in New Orleans are those that moved here from some other part of the South. The New Orleans accent sounds a lot like Brooklynese; I’ve noticed pockets of similarity in St. Louis. It’s all over my mother’s family, and, in fact, my mother and my older and younger brothers have versions of it (older had a stronger and younger has a lighter). Me? Well, somehow I missed it, and no one knows why. And I was the oddity in the family. New Orleanians always thought I was from somewhere in the Midwest.

No, we didn’t have flying carpets or babies born with pig tails, but we did have Mardi Gras, exploding cherry bounce and a story about two dogs fighting each other so long that eventually all that was left was their two tails going at it. And it was all totally believable because it was true. It still is.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Gratitude of a King

Strings of a lyre,
Plucked, strummed,
Picked with skill
Learned on a hillside
Of sheep.
Soothing sounds,
Notes of calm,
Melodies to quiet
The only way
To silence the demons
Plaguing a king.
As the musician moves
His fingers
Of balm,
In gratitude
The king throws
A kiss,
Or a spear.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hidden in Annie's Red Cloak

Only untended
Graveyard remains,
The village long
Taken for wood.
Even the church;
Once moved by, now
Vanished with, Spirit,
Its steeple gone
For a horse trough.
Only the mute stones,
Barely legible,
Remain to testify
Of what was once.

A found rose,
Scarlet splash arching
Forgotten grave,
In this quiet place of
Weathered words.
A rosehunter called it Annie’s Red.

She lies here now,
The rose a crown,
Each flower a story only
Annie’s Red could tell.

A young wife
Pioneering the Pecos,
Bringing her rose
From the east, a memory
Of left behind;
Taken in childbirth,
The rose planted
By a grieving husband.

The saloon girl
Who loved her
Petticoats of red,
Moving too close to
A drunken gun,
Petticoats forever
Stained red.

The seamstress, perhaps,
Who rode the train west,
Primly adorned
In ribboned hat
To find new life;
Only found the fever.

The farmer’s sister,
Pining for a lost heart,
Kicked by a raging stallion.

A hundred gentle stories,
Or a hundred violent stories,
A hundred women
With hopeful hearts.

But the expert
Triumphantly declaimed
No found rose,
No Annie’s Red.
The rose thriving
Across Annie’s sleep
Was Cadenza, wearing
Annie’s red cloak,
Born long after
The grave was forgotten.
Not 1860s child,
Not the memory
Of the civilized East
Planted in the uncivilized
But 1960s child,
Wild and arrogant,
Untamable, overreaching,
The cloak removed, Cadenza
Vapored inventions
Into disappointments.

Sstill a mystery
Whispered by the stones:
By whose hand planted,
By whose hand sprouted
And tended?
The cadence of the
Whispers and sighs
Circles the imagination.
Only the stones know.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Short Novel with a Big Idea

I read Ian Cron’s novel Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale because a lot of people from Nashville and suburban Franklin, Tenn., follow me on Twitter, and I follow them.

It started with Thomas Nelson Publishing showing up as a follower one day. Hey, a book publisher wants to follow me, I reply in kind. Then it was Nelson’s CEO, Michael Hyatt. Then some people associated with Compassion International and a ministry called Recreate. Then came several people connected to Crosspoint Church.

One of those people is a guy named Randy Elrod (@recreate). I used (with his permission) a photo he took of the bottle of Chardonnay that was at the heart of the movie “Bottle Crazy.” Not too long ago, Randy posted a couple of tweets about a friend of his named Ian Cron and his book Chasing Francis. Cron is an Anglican priest who lives in Connecticut, and his novel was published in 2006 by NavPress. I looked it up on Amazon, thought it sounded interesting, and added it to a book order I was making.

I finished it last night. And while it is the story of a pastor having a spiritual crisis, an evangelical pastor who’s led to try to find Francis of Assisi, it is also something far more than that – a short novel with a big idea.

The big idea: Francis of Assisi might – just might – offer a way to revitalize and transform the church – the evangelical church in particular and the larger church of God more generally.

Francis of Assisi? St. Francis who lived 800 years ago? St. Francis the Catholic?

Yep, that St. Francis. The aristocrat who renounced his fortune, gave it all away (to the point of stripping himself naked in public so that it was clear he owned nothing), and lived a radically different vision of faith. I had previously read two biographies of Francis – the one by G.K. Chesterton entitled simply Francis of Assisi and God’s Fool: The Life of Francis of Assisi by Julien Green. But Cron’s book goes after Francis in an entirely different way, a fictional, yet no less real, way.

The spiritually-at-sea pastor is named Chase Falson (pay attention to names here), and he enters into a kind of pilgrimage to find Francis, specially, to learn what Francis might have to teach him. Falson reads book and biographies; he visits churches and monasteries associated with Francis and the Franciscan order; and he consumes large amounts of Italian food and beverages (i.e., gelato and expresso). And helped by his uncle, a Franciscan priest, and several others of the order, Falson begins to find what he’s looking for – which turns out to be less about Francis and more about his own spiritual struggle. And there’s a larger story here, too. Perhaps faith and the church should be less about theology and head knowledge and the appeal to the “rational” (a modern notion, that), and more about hearts, and deliberately seeking to encounter God.

Falson, and by extension the reader, comes to examine five aspects of the faith of St. Francis: transcendence (encounters with God), community, beauty, dignity and meaning. The summary speech the minister makes at the end to a meeting of his church explores it all – but you need to read everything that leads up to it.

So perhaps with all the ferment that is the church today, and especially the church in America – emergent vs. traditional; house church vs. “church church;” physical church vs. online church; the music wars; seeker orientation vs. edifying believers; the cultural relevance debates – perhaps all of this is a distraction, the noise drowning out God speaking to our hearts.

Cron is up to simple stuff here – simple, radical stuff, like the transformation of the church. If you doubt that, check out the study guide at the end of the novel. A lot of Christian novels had study and discussion guides today; it’s almost standard operating procedure. But this one is detailed, goes chapter by chapter, and it’s 40 long. This is no ordinary discussion guide at the end of the novel for book discussion groups to use.

That’s serious. And like the novel itself, just possibly convincing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Words That Pierce and Shatter

Bonnie Gray over at faithbarista posted Friday about the importance of “whitespace” in our lives, the times when we can break the frenzied patterns of day-to-day living and take a walk, sit calmly, or perhaps wander around aimlessly. These times are critical, she points out (based on scientific studies, not to mention common sense), for things like creativity. And relieving stress. And mental health.

For the last two months, I’ve been doing something I never thought I would find myself doing – writing poetry. It’s been a kind of therapy: lots of organizational changes at work, trying to help a lot of people deal with the changes, trying to deal with them myself. I think I turned to poetry as a new way to find some whitespace in my life. And I’ve met some neat people as a result – people I’ve never met in person but whom I consider to be friends – the people I’ve met via blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

A couple of weeks ago, one of those friends, L.L. Barkat at Seedlings in Stone, asked for help from several of us with a book giveaway project. The book was The Real Mary by Scot McKnight, and it moves beyond all of the Catholic vs. Protestant controversies to look at who Mary really was.

I was pleased to be asked to help, and came up with the idea of writing three poems about Mary to be published on this blog over the week of the giveaway – one on Friday, one on Monday and one on Thursday. In the flush of theological and marketing enthusiasm, I collectively called the Mary poems a “triptych.” In the middle of working on those poems, I was also developing a poem about “The Real _____,” a subject of our choice, for the Random Act of Poetry section of the High Calling Blogs, and a blog post on obedience, part of Peter Pollock’s “one-word challenge blog carnival” at Rediscovering the Church.

I wrote the four poems and the post on obedience in this order: (1) Mary poem #1, “May It Be to Me;” (2) Mary poem #2, “He Had to Be;” (3) “The Real Poet;” (4) Mary poem #3, “Your Son, Now;” and then (5) the blog post on Obedience. Looking at them collectively, I can see they are all pieces of a whole.

Something happened to me in this process, something I didn’t expect. It’s called pain. And something else I can't explain yet.

After writing the first two poems on Mary, I grew quiet and pensive. Something was bubbling around, and I didn’t quite understand what it was. I sweated out (figuratively) “The Real Poet;” when my wife read it later after it was posted, she came to me and said, “No one will know the pain that’s behind that poem,” proof (as if you need any) that your spouse always knows what’s behind the camouflage.

My response was a nod. By that time, I had written “Your Son, Now” and the obedience post, and the pain was no longer hidden. As I worked “Your Son, Now” over and over, I reached a point where I almost couldn’t write. The enormity of Mary’s sacrifice as a mother, and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, overwhelmed me. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with either. But something was happening in the writing of it that suddenly made it immediate, almost urgent, as if I was there. As if I was helping pound the nails. I broke down at one point, but still kept writing.

Afterward, via email, I asked my friend L.L. Barkat about what had happened, and she said that sometimes a poet can be pierced by his or her own words. I felt pierced, all right; I also felt shattered. The comments left about the poem told me that a few people, at least, had a glimpse of what had happened.

The post on obedience was written in the aftermath of all that and in a way is a kind of quiet distillation of the four poems into prose. Since then, I’ve written some prose posts for the blog and edited the Tweet-Party poem now posted at There’s also a poem I wrote before all of this that I haven’t yet posted.

But I haven’t written any more poems since the Mary Triptych. I’m not sure why. What started out as a way to help a friend became something else, taking on a meaning and result that I’m still wrestling with. I think there are more poems coming, but right now, I’m in that “whitespace” Bonnie Gray talked about in her blog post.

It’s a good place to be.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Editing a Twoem

It started as something of a lark. L.L. Barkat, Eric Swalberg and I, with a little commentary from Bradley Moore, decided to do a poetry jam on Twitter. Only L.L., Eric and I actually participated in the first session; Bradley had to take a shower after cleaning out horse stables all day for a project at work (I am not making this up).

We had a great time, talked it up a bit, and then started making plans for the second. At some point between the first and second sessions, L.L. suggested creating a site to house the Twitter poems and do other “poetically related” things like recommend books; Eric said he would be up for setting the site up; and I volunteered to edit and manage content. And just that fast, was born.

Pulling all of the tweeted contributions together into some kind of coherent whole was relatively easy for the first two jams. The number of participants was three or four; we had gotten to know each other and each other’s writing through Twitter, Facebook, our blogs and email.

With the third session, things had begun to change a bit. From a contributor’s perspective, the “Twoems” (Twitter poems) are becoming wonderfully more varied and creative. And they’re also becoming more complex. More poet/tweeters are involved (a good thing), all write extremely and creatively well (another good thing), and all get involved in the jams in very individual ways (a third good thing and what makes the twoems so creative). But it makes for some challenging editing.

What helps is how certain themes will repeat themselves. In the third poetry jam, held Sept. 30, various kinds of fruit trees kept popping up, and I was able to use the idea of orchards to frame the twoem, entitled it “The Orchards of Desire.” For the last one, held Oct. 6, the phrases “ruby moon” or “ruby-red moon” kept recurring, and provided considerable help in editing the eight pages of printed tweets that became "The Poems of the Ruby Moon."

The editing process has its own mystique. I’ve edited a lot of documents during my professional career – speeches, news releases, articles and stories, even book manuscripts. But I haven’t edited poetry contributions tweeted on Twitter in a poetry jam. And it’s a collection of contributions that are made at different levels and different entry points, and with different perspectives on where things should go. And then you add our tendencies (including mine) to interject comments and asides, and it gets quite complicated.

What helps is to love the language. To see what comes from our poetry contributors, writing in short bursts of 140 characters, is absolutely amazing. Many of these contributions are startling, almost shockingly beautiful, and you just think “Wow!” when you see them appear on the screen.

I resist the urge to edit the words. That’s an urge common to all humanity, and especially lawyers. But I resist it. I may add a comma or semi-colon; I may move an entire line or two to another place because the fit is better. But I leave the words alone. I even leave the words of my own contributions alone, even if I see where I can improve them after the jam is over. That kind of editing goes against the spirit of a Twitter poem in the first place – writing tightly and quickly within that 140-character limit. So in spite of all my editing and structuring, there is still a sense of spontaneity – joyful spontaneity – about the finished whole and its component parts.

It’s tremendous fun. And more than that, it’s humbling and instructive to work with such talented writers.

(This article is also posted today at If you haven’t visited our poetry journal before, please do so. I hope you enjoy reading it even half as much as we do creating it.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Karen Kingsbury's "Every Now and Then"

ATTENTION FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION: No one gave me this book. I bought it myself, with my own money, at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore in a suburb of St. Louis. I even have the receipt. I have received no compensation for this blog post, nor do I expect to. So, if in your infinite wisdom you would hold book reviewers in the traditional media to the same rules on book reviews that you’ve got now for bloggers, then we could all be unhappy and outraged together. But at least it would be fair. I don't don't have a problem with transparency, even mandated transparency, but I do have a problem when you set rules for one group but not another doing the same thing.

If you haven't followed the news on the new FTC rules, suffice it to say that the FTC is now requiring blogger "endorsers" to disclose whether they received any kind of compensation at all, including a free book to review. I don't have a problem with that. But I don't really see a difference between a book review on a blog and a book review in the newspaper. Ths may shock people, but 99.99% of newspapers and magazines don't buy the books they review. The books come (gasp!) free from the publishers. And there's no disclosure.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

I’m not much into “branded” authors. You know, the ones whose name on a book cover magically makes the books fly off the bookstore shelves and the aisles in Amazon’s warehouses into consumers’ hands. The ones whose books are in the top 10 on Amazon’s list months before they’re published. There are the secular fiction brands like John Grisham, James Patterson and Stephanie Meyer, not to mention Don Brown, and there are the Christian fiction brands like Jerry Jenkins, Beverly Lewis, B.J. Hoff, and Terri Blackstock. And, if we were all honest with ourselves, every wannabe published writer secretly desires to achieve brand status. Alas, only a few every make it, but that's the appeal. That, and the money.

I don’t usually read the branded authors. No particular reason or bias, I just find myself interested in other kinds of writing. Usually. Last year, I picked up one branded author’s book because it looked interesting, but I was disappointed. It just wasn’t written very well. Others he had done were better written, but this one was, well, just off. Leave it at that. Everyone has a bad day sometimes.

So here I was at that bookstore mentioned above in my FTC rant, looking for some interesting things to read in Christian fiction, and came to the Karen Kingsbury section.

Karen Kingsbury is a brand. She’s written a lot of books. She gets her own section of shelves – three of them, in fact – at Barnes & Noble. That amount of space at Barnes & Noble is for brands – authors who sell lots of books. But hey, this is a business, and the brands make a lot of money for booksellers and publishers, and if Karen Kingsbury helps Barnes & Noble stay in business then she deserves three shelves.

I almost went on to another section, but heard this little voice in my head saying "Snob! You're biased and probably jealous, and acting literary doesn't fool me!" So I stopped and looked through the Kingsbury books, and found one (there were others) that looked appealing. It was called Every Now and Then and was part of Kingsbury’s 9/11 series of books based on the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in 2001. This book is set several years later (it was published in 2008), and it’s about Alex Brady, a young K-9 officer in southern California whose fireman father died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Alex has neither forgotten nor forgiven, and he has become almost like a machine in seeking to eradicate evil from the streets.

Okay, I thought, it’s part of a series. The author has written some 50 books or so. It’s probably OK, not great but OK. The story idea sounds interesting. And, and I’m being candid here, the bad guys were environmentalists, of the radical, destructive variety, the fringe types who set off bombs and set fires to protect the environment from humanity even if they have to destroy humanity to do that. Being in business, and watching how movies and TV programs and novels always, always demonize business people, this promised to be at least different. As in refreshing.

It was more than different. I underestimated Kingsbury. Every Now and Then is a good story, and it’s told well. The book required a lot of research, and she did it, and it’s believable and credible and makes the story come alive. And the appeal is both to women and men; in fact, this story may more appeal to a male audience because it’s action-packed and suspenseful and it’s good versus evil and the dialogue is mostly guys talking to guys and it’s got a raging fire and people getting shot. Well, you get the picture. Sure, there’s some romance in it, but it fits the story and isn’t the heart of what the story’s about. It’s a great read.

So I learned something. And that is, the “brands” can deliver just as good a story as anyone else. It's not just about being a brand. I don’t know what the rest of her writing is like, but Karen Kingsbury’s Every Now and Then is a satisfying read. The lady knows how to write, she knows how to tell a good story, and she delivers.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mary Triptych (Part 3): Your Son, Now

The book giveaway contest concludes tonight at Seedlings in Stone at 6 p.m. Eastern time. A winner will be picked at random to receive a copy of Scot McKnight’s The Real Mary and have the opportunity to write a guest post for BeliefNet. So you still have time to leave a comment and be automatically in the drawing.

Here’s the third of the three “Triptych poems” I’ve written about Mary, the mother of Jesus. In a few days, I’ll post some thoughts about them. The first two, "May It Be to Me" and "He Had to Be," seem to have struck a responsive chord; they’ve also taken me to a place I never expected to go – the place of writing as pain.

Your Son, Now

In upper room,
I sit with disciples, praying
With Simon Rock and
Brother Andrew, James,
Doubter, Publican
And Beloved.

Each day I walk
To this place with Beloved.
My son, now;
His mother, now.
Since that day when he said.

That day I saw
The other,
Brow pierced by thorns,
Back lashed, body bruised
From Roman beatings.
That day, the life
Washed from his eyes,
The eyes looking at me
As he suckled,
The hands reaching for me,
The arms clasping my legs.
The life now washing away.

On that hill, I thought
Of Cana, oddly.
Not my time,
He said to me, Mother,
Not my time.
But changed the water anyway.
And he danced,
His robe flowing
Like a wind song;
Joy upon his face.
But that day, it was his time.
No water, they laughed. No wine.
Only gall.

I sit and pray in upper room
With disciples.
My Joseph taught him
To saw, to cut, to
Plane, to shape
Wood into usefulness
And sometimes beauty.
My Joseph guided, his
Hand on Jeshua’s hand.
Yeshua knew what
My Joseph had done.
He stood next to me
When we buried my Joseph,
He wept tears of love
For the man who loved us both.
But on that day,
That day of heavens torn
Like the temple curtain,
That day
We buried Yeshua.
I knew the desolate solitude
Of seeing him born and
Seeing him die.
The only one.

Later I saw him
Who did not look like him,
But the for the eyes, living now
With a different life,
A life I could barely glimpse
And not imagine.
I rushed to hold him but
He pointed to Beloved.
Your son, now;
His mother, now.

My son is not my son, now.
My son is my savior,

The Crucifixion Triptych, Rogier Van Der Weiden, ca. 1440, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Real Poet

For the Random Act of Poetry (RAP) at the High Calling Blogs last week, managing editor L.L. Barkat provided a prompt for the next Rap: "The Real _____." It could be The Real Noah or Cleopatra or whatever you might choose to fill in the blank. Poetry's been on the mind a bit lately; we had another poetry slam last night on Twitter; so here's my contribution for the RAP.

The Real Poet

All ministry begins at the ragged edges of our own pain.
-- Ian Cron, Chasing Francis

Appearance: of quiet.
Silence, assumed to be
With, perhaps,
A slight touch of arrogance.
You know too much.
You do too many
Things well.
But more a silence
Of understanding,
Deep and prophetic,
Afflicting the comfortable.
Corporate rebel.

Substance: of doubt,
Self, faith, friends, God.
Not defining,
Not lasting,
But sparked by
A question, look,
An exclusion;
Tempered by
The gift of faith
In the face of doubt.
All these contradictions.

Substance: of longings.
A father’s touch,
A friend’s voice
A spirit’s breath
If ever so slight.
A walk through wilderness
Is not solitary,
After all.

Substance: of words.
Shape-shifting tools
Of prophets,
Liars and kings.
Words for mouths
And ears,
Words to herald,
Words to remember,
Words to persuade
Or give the impression
Of persuasion.
Words to bury,
Words to apologize
Without admission;
Words to admit
Without apology.
A life constructed
Of constructed words.

Then, new words,
A new way to lay
A road to Golgotha,
The street of sorrows
Paved with sharp,
Tearing stones
That bruise and
Pierce and hurt.
Words that redeem
Even a poet.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Cost of Obedience

Over at Rediscovering the Church, Peter Pollock is hosting a blog carnival. He suggested that readers and fellow bloggers post today on the exact same one-word topic – whatever they wanted and however they wanted to do it. The word Peter selected was obedience. The idea of a carnival sounded like fun, so here’s my contribution.

The Cost of Obedience

Two weeks ago, my younger brother and I were exchanging comments on Facebook about what we called our “family curse” – we tend to be contrarians. Like when the Elder Board votes 16 to 1 on the new building program – you know who the 1 is. Or you sit in business meeting after business meeting about The Next Great Thing and you ask an embarrassing question. Or you think elected officials should be held accountable and hold open meetings and uphold sunshine laws. Or you wonder how your church denomination can pointedly ignore Biblical teaching and embrace heresy because it’s the cool cultural thing to do.

The curse is not a fun thing to endure. All three of us boys in the family have it – older brother, younger brother and me in the middle. We know where it comes from, but since my father’s not here to defend himself, we’ll just call it an inherited family disorder.

If you know me, you would think I would be about the last person to rock a boat – I’m generally quiet, with a tendency to the shy. My worst nightmare is having to go to a cocktail reception where I know no one. The problem is that people mistake quiet for acquiescence.

I’ve spent a lot of time over many years thinking through this – because it comes at a cost. You may save people a lot of money; you may prevent a disaster; you may stop people from doing something that’s really stupid – but they’re not going to like you for it, even when they know you’ve helped.

It’s the cost of obedience.

Many years ago, I was a church elder, and my fellow elders and the pastor were determined to undertake a new building program. (This is an old, old mantra. Success = growth, and if you build it, growth will come.) We met as an elder board to discuss it (many times, in fact), and then we met jointly with the deacon board to discuss it. The plan looked sound, but it was a little convoluted and would require a temporary flip of gym and sanctuary building while construction was underway. Everything seemed fine. But something nagged at me; something didn’t seem quite right. I read through all the papers at least two or three times, but things seemed in order.

It was a small church, and the program was going to cost a lot of money. A lot. We had considerable discussion about the need to step out in faith and follow God’s call. And we had a lot of prayer. But still something nagged at me.

I struggled with this. I couldn’t raise a serious objection based on a feeling, and it was clear that I would likely be a minority of one, always the “fun” position in any organizational setting – the resident hair shirt. And yet I knew something was off. I knew I could be mistaken, but my conviction was growing. So at the final meeting, the combined meeting of elders and deacons to vote together on the project, I started asking questions. Should we get an inspection of the buildings, making sure we could do what was planned? Had we checked the infrastructure – audio and sound, electrical, even the bathrooms? The meeting dragged on. I felt awful, because everyone wanted to go home and I was obviously the obstacle in the way. I unintentionally offended the pastor, a good friend. The final vote was 28 to 2 to approve the project. I had managed to convince only one other person. I felt terrible. A few days later, I stepped down from the elder board, not to send a message but because it was clear to all, including me, that I had a serious problem: I couldn’t get with the program. To be fair to me, that was really the only time that happened while I was an elder. I had played a key role in mediating a serious personal dispute between two elders; I was the recording secretary for the board; I went to all the meetings and work days. But this was big, and they all thought I had lost my mind.

A few weeks later, as things started getting underway with the new program and the facilities were “flipped,” the local municipality did an inspection. The sanctuary itself was apparently usable, but the associated classroom space and bathrooms around the sanctuary were not. Part of the building was actually condemned, although I believe other language was used. That inspection – which should have been done prior to the decision to go forward – stopped the building program cold. Had the church gone forward (and there was debate about the need for an inspection), the costs to fix the problem would have likely been far more than the church could have afforded. As it was, it created chaos for a time, but not financial chaos.

So, there was something wrong, after all. But this didn’t make me feel better. Nor did it make anyone else feel better, although people were relieved at having missed what could have been a financial disaster.

Usually, this “contrarian” thinking in my head is based on far more than “something just doesn’t seem right.” I bristle when I see elected boards, like a school board or a city council, for example, abuse their power or treat people badly and the media ignore it because they want to keep access to the officials or they agree with the decision that was made. Or when justice gets miscarried. Or when rules are applied differently for personal reasons.

So when I’m the 1 in the 16 to 1 vote, I’m being obedient, but to whom or what? My own inner muse? My conscience? God? The real answer is, I often don’t know. Sometimes it’s clear, but sometimes it’s not. And in the times it’s not, I have to trust that a major part of faithfulness is obedience, especially when it costs.

But it hurts.

Mary Triptych (Part 2): He Had to Be

The book giveaway contest continues over at Seedlings in Stone until Thursday at 6 p.m. Eastern time. A winner will be picked at random to receive a copy of Scot McKnight’s The Real Mary and have the opportunity to write a guest post for BeliefNet. Just leave a comment here and you’re automatically in the drawing.

Here’s the second of the three “Triptych poems” I’ve written by Mary. The third will be posted on Thursday.

He Had to Be

Passover feast
In the city of peace.
Somber time,
Tinged with joy,
To celebrate salvation,
From the angel of death
In Goshen, in all Egypt.
My Joseph paid the price,
Bought the lamb,
Brought the lamb
To the priests.

Home, to Galilee,
Traveling the day.
I look for the child.
With you, Martha?
Hannah, with you?
With you? With you?
My heart, frozen.
We go back,
My Joseph and I,
Back to the city of peace,
The now feast-less city.

Three days we
Seek, seek
No child; vanished.
A tiny whisper, then;
A small rumor,
A torrent of reports,
An explosion of wonder
At the child
In the courts of the priests.
Sitting with teachers,
Listening to rabbis,
Questioning priests,
Amazing with his answers,
His truth before truths.
My Joseph and I knew.
I had to be
In my father’s house,
He said to us I had to be.

A bearded man, he
Amazed crowds
With words, miracles, healings
Of body and soul.
We heard the whispers,
The muted voices,
The low roar,
The rising anger against him.
We came to warn,
To stop,
His brothers and I.
Like everyone else
We wanted to touch and be healed.
And protect.

You are my mother
And brothers, he said
To others.
In his dark eyes,
The eyes of my child,
I saw the depth
Of the infinity
Of the truth he spoke.
And my son was
Not my son.

Triptych with Virgin and Child, Anonymous, Late 17th century, Ethiopian, Walters Art Museum, New York.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Book Review on Work, and TweetSpeak Poetry

A few weeks back, my friend Bradley Moore asked if I would be interested in writing a book review for his blog. Bradley is a business executive in the Northeast, who writes about business and spirituality at Shrinking the Camel. He writes cool stuff, raising questions that stimulate, provoke and make you think. This morning, he posted the book review I wrote for his blog, on Alain de Botton's The Joys and Pleasures of Work.

Last night, just my wife and I were getting ready to go to a concert (Dee Dee Bridgewater, if you're interested), an email arrived from one of my online poetry co-conspirators, Eric Swalberg. He was letting me and Laura Barkat, the other main co-conspirator, know that TweetSpeak Poetry was live and ready to rock. This is the place where we'll be placing all of the "twoems" from our twitter poetry jams. (Laura invented the name "twoem," for Twitter poem. I invented the name "twepic," for twitter epic, which is what one of the twoems turned into.)

Our first jam was Sept. 9; our second on Sept. 22; and our third and most recent on Sept. 30. Other online poets have joined us from time to time, and we've collected all of the tweets at @tspoetry (when we remember to use the hashtag) and on this blog, where I've taken all three and edited them.

We had a technical glitch last night (that means we've really, really arrived) but the site is back up; I posted the first "twoem" this morning. It's entitled "At the Oasis, The Camel on Caravan," in honor of Bradley Moore, who wasn't able to participate.

A poetry journal launched, a book review published -- I thought Sundays were supposed to be quiet.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Hopper Painting Poems

In the last week, I’ve posted three poems on paintings by the American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Critics and art historians generally classify his work as “realism;” some consider him the iconic painter of America.

I’m not an art critic; I just like his paintings, and always have. I also like the fact that while he didn’t get established as a painter until his 40s, he resisted all of the trends and fads of the art scene and stuck to what he knew he should, the kind of paintings he was most comfortable with. Today you can see one of his paintings in a museum and know without checking the little card on the wall that it’s an Edward Hopper. His work looks like his own work.

Last year, my wife and I were in Chicago for a long Mother’s Day weekend. I had a speech to give at a conference on that Thursday, and she had learned that a British singing duo named Chad and Jeremy were doing three concerts in Chicago that weekend, including a house concert in Wilmette in the northern suburbs. My wife’s longstanding love affair with Chad and Jeremy’s music is another story, but suffice it to say that we splurged on tickets for the Friday night house concert, she got to talk with them face to face and the lady who organized the whole thing was able to squeeze us in to the concert for Sunday night in Evanston. I watched my wife become 12 years old again.

On Saturday, we caught the next-to-last day of a “mega-exhibit” at Chicago’s Art Institute. The exhibit was a “two-fer” – a double show of the works of Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. The Art Institute is the home of Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” painted in 1947 and one of the most famous paintings in modern American art. I liked the Homer part, but I loved the Hopper exhibit. I had seen some of his paintings before, but never so many in one place. The Art Institute and its cooperating museums had done a stunning job of curating the exhibit. I bought the exhibit catalog and a mammoth biography of Hopper by Gail Levin.

While I wandered into the poetry closet this summer on this blog, I happened to start looking at the exhibit catalog, and for whatever reason, the painting “Room in New York” caught my eye. And I began to write some thoughts, and then more thoughts, and then I suddenly I was looking at the rough draft of a poem. That rough draft eventually became this.

In the case of the Hopper paintings, I’ve found that the poems are another way to look at the art, as one of the comments on the “Blackhead, Monhegan” poem pointed out – art plus text. I used a similar approach with the poem for “Early Sunday Morning.”
Hopper’s work is usually sorted into three categories – interiors, landscapes and streetscapes. I’ve now done a poem about a painting in each of the three. I’m thinking about doing others, but I may be content with what I’ve done so far. As I said, I love Hopper’s work. (I also like the look of his paintings against the black background of the blog.) But he painted a lot of stuff, and I’d be occupied for a long time to come if I tried to write a poem for each. And – don’t let anyone kid you – poetry is hard work. Lots of drafts. Lots of chewing on single words. Lots of paper tablet sheets. Over and over again, and you’re still never really finished.

For now, the poems for the three works stand as a tribute to the artist. And then I really like "New York Movie," and "Summer Evening." And there’s "Hotel Room," and "Gas," and "Sunday," and "Drug Store." And, of course, "Nighthawks."

Okay, we’ll see.

Related: Edward Hopper and his painting at Artsy.

Edward Hopper, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 1925-1930, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.