My Personal Anthology of Favorite Poems (Year-End Addition)

At the height of the COVID19 pandemic, as 2020 neared December, several news broadcasts began providing candid memorials, snapshot obituaries, to victims of the deadly virus.

This is good. Most of these I’ve seen pay tribute to first-responders and health care workers. I think networks should do this regularly even when the pandemic is conquered sometime in the future.

News obituaries tend to honor the famous or infamous. I learned long ago that obituaries published in major newspapers, especially those in the New York Times, provide a helpful resource for biographical research.

Incidentally, one of the finest documentary films I’ve seen is called “Obit,” which tells the story of the Times’ writers of obituaries, and claims—though this may have changed since the film’s release—the Times is the only paper with an Obituary Reporting Department. (You’ll find this documentary easily on YouTube.)

Obituaries (“obits” in journalism jargon) are important to our memory. Almost every story reported in the daily news is dependent on information from someone’s memory, frequently categorized in the phrase “eye-witness.” More formally, we call this history, and all history is comprised of memories. Such is the nature of time.

I started reading newspaper obituaries as a teenager, about the same time I began keeping a journal and writing my own poems. Perhaps I was motivated by the death of a high school classmate; I did write a poem about his friendship.

[I’ve taken the liberty of attaching to this anthology my poem about this friend who died.]

Billy Collins’ poem “Downpour” (From his collection Whale Day, 2020) has been praised as a love poem, and certainly the element of love comes across subtly in Collins’ low-key and clever manner. However, the root of the poem, in my interpretation, is that “Downpour” underscores the experience of death and one’s memories of those who have died.

Interpret it as you wish, but I offer it as a favorite because I want readers to share my experience of dealing with the death of someone close to me, and perhaps in the process underscoring the importance of memory that can be found when names of close ones who died are listed.

Here is Collins’ poem “Downpour,”
originally published in The New Yorker in 2019 and gathered in his 2020 collection Whale Day.

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Downpour

By Billy Collins

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the banana and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spillin, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.

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Here’s my poem: “A Shorthand Note for Alex,” published by the Maryland Writers Association (MWA) in its 2011 anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire, edited by Laura Shovan. April 2011.

 

     A Shorthand Note for Alex 

Dear Sir: this steno’s shibboleth

retrieves his brief, slender form;

Alex, my friend ripped from studies

 

in the banter years of boys confused

but captive to coy female eyes.

We entered class in perfumed air

 

as naive males, two isolated boys

growing in stature, growing familiar

with 15 girls decoding Gregg

 

and framing flirtatious gambits.

Alex died, and left me shorthand notes,

graceful curves he’d chased in class.

 

Could I revise, I’d frame a “Dear Sir” plea

to have him live my trials of afternoons

in shorthand stalled, in ecstasies begun.

 

 

Attacking Blogger’s Block: Meet an Inspiring Guide

You might note the non-existence of my October entries. My last posting to this blog was on September 17, a whopping 58 days ago (an eon in blogging lives!)

In the midst of COVID19, when one practicing social distancing and self-quarantining could expect time to blog becoming  plentiful and the impulse to put words into print manifesting itself explosively, I have failed to organize a single entry to post for two months. I might be overdoing my championing of faith at ease.

I don’t blame the pandemic, however, for my stalled pen; it seems I have been jotting lots of notes to myself, but simply have not organized anything I wish to bestow with ether wings.

So, I’m taking a simple route here in posting advice to myself, focusing on one particular note of inspiration.

Anyone stumbling into my posts over the past 13 years will discover I saunter in the direction of leisurely musings dominated by a desire to become better at poetry and prayer. Thus, I searched my notebooks for inspiration.

It was at this point during my pandemic-induced scrapbook searchings that Marilyn dropped into my life.

She didn’t arrive in any scurrilous manner you might think I’m leaning into; nevertheless, she has awakened me, taught me, and is slowly guiding my reading, writing, and spiritual travels, largely by modeling in her writings the wonder and beauty of bringing words to life (and, more specifically, by bringing life to words).

Enough of my snarky fantasy. You should read for yourself the writings of Marilyn Chandler McEntyre to understand better my pedestrian meanderings.

Begin anywhere among her published volumes, but here is my beginning chronicle:

It started when I read her book When Poets Pray (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019). She ensnared me with the opening paragraph of her introduction:

“In prayer, as in so many other areas of life, we ‘learn by going where we have to go.’ Many of us took our first steps on the path of prayer as children with lines we recited at bedtime or mealtime, or with innocent prayer lists that included blessings for guinea pigs and dolls [or for baseball players and country singers]. We may have come to prayer through crisis or loss, or through those who, when we didn’t even realize what we most needed, offered to pray for us.” [my insertion]

If you have an inkling of following my advice to read the reflections of this wonderful guide to life, and if you can appreciate God’s gift of skills encasing her prose, I suggest you begin with McEntyre’s collection called Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), where you’ll find entries for every day of the year coming from a writer who whispers inspiration in your ear as you read.

Trembling While Writing

I write; therefore, I tremble.

I want to record and recommend what I’ve picked up from Carol A. Wehrheim’s reflection on “Trembling Together,” from the devotional booklet, These Days, published by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation in Louisville, KY.

Think about “trembling.”

One might even consider it a sacred word for use with Centering Prayer or Lectio Divina. To be sure, we tremble before God in our weaknesses and fears.

Wehrheim reminds us that even the Creation, i.e., the geographic/geologic features of our lives force us to stand in awe if not to tremble with fear.

Think hurricane or tornado; think landslide; think flooding rains; think forest fires and damaging hail storms. Think of raging seas and blasting winds. [Think of missionary doctor Wilfred Grenfell stranded on floating pack ice off the coast of Labrador and facing the doom of death!]

The reflection Wehrheim wrote for September 12 (one day after the memorial recall of the terrorist skyjacking and suicide attacks on 9/11/2001) reminds us that trembling also accompanies great joy. I tremble with appreciation at the hospitality of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland on that day, when so many strangers “come from away.”

Recall parents who tremble at the birth of a new child, or think of the medical personnel who tremble when one in a coma blinks and murmurs back to consciousness, or think of the shivering explorer rescued from the grip of icy waters.

We need, the writer says, to remember God is a part of our trembling community, whether in times of fear or joy. Our relationship to God—be it in contact with the Almighty Creator, the Redeeming Son, or the Guiding Holy Spirit—causes us to tremble, perhaps in fear, but often in joy. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” writes the Psalmist, “I will fear no evil.” (Though, I may tremble.)

The traditional spiritual musical lament at the Passion of Jesus–“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”–repeats over and over in its chorus, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

The Christian journey inevitably passes through times of trembling.

Wehrheim tacks this little prayer onto her brief commentary:
“God of mercy, I pray that my heart and soul will be open and responsive to your work in the world. AMEN.”

As is my exercise in following the so-labeled Hemingway challenge to write six-word stories by attempting to reduce prayers to six words, here is my edit of Wehrheim’s prayer:
“I pray my heart be ready.”

And as I tremble: “I pray my pen be ready.”

 

Asleep in the Boat–A Reflection

A Reflection:

“. . . and he was asleep.” [Matthew 8:23-27]

I am more grateful than startled by this revelation in Matthew’s gospel story. Jesus sleeps through a storm!

As the grandson of two professional Newfoundland schooner captains whom I never knew, I have always been attracted to boats; alas, as a city slicker, I’ve rarely been aboard one.

I remember going on a first-and-only deep-sea fishing trip as a young man with a group of journalist friends in North Carolina; it was my first cruise on troubled waters. To everyone’s amazement, I hooked the first catch of the day, and reeled it in like a pro.

Once my twelve-inch sea trout was aboard, I stood and began to grow dizzy and stricken; I became seasick. The chartered boat captain, alone among my companions who wasn’t laughing, told me to go below and lie down.

I slept in the rollicking, rolling cabin for about an hour, and for the rest of the trip I followed the captain’s advice to keep my eyes on the horizon or the distant shoreline while standing.

There I was, aboard an ocean-going fishing boat for the first time, and I slept through a good part of the trip (retching over the side several times when I wasn’t at rest). My grandfathers surely were rolling in their graves, or perhaps rocking in delighted laughter from their heavenly haven!

However, I smile because ultimately, we are strengthened and cured with Jesus asleep in our boat!

Thank you, Lord Jesus.

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[This meditation grew out of a post written originally for an exercise in lectio divina for an online course I took offered through the The Center for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.]

[The selection from Matthew’s Gospel is analyzed in the course text by M. Basil Pennington O.C.S.O. Call to the Center: The Gospel’s Invitation to Deeper Prayer (3rd Ed. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press. 2003)—Pennington’s reflection is from the chapter, “In the Boat of Centering Prayer,” pp. 83-87).]

 

Ten Quotations I’ve Rediscovered

As a compulsive journal keeper, I frequently collect random bits of news, information, articles, and events (even memories) that find their way into my writing. Last week I uncovered a page of quotes I collected in the ‘60s or early ‘70s.

The four-page collection of 23 quotations reignited my reflections on themes and ideas I hadn’t journaled about; though; I may have dropped a line in here and there. Almost half of these are lifted from Garrison Keillor’s daily delivery of The Writer’s Almanac. But I’ll not resurrect those; If you want to see them, visit Lake Wobegon.

Here I list for your bemused browsing, several that jumped from the page for me as I read them standing in my home “office.”

1) Cited in an e-mail signature line from a former teacher colleague was this inspiring alert directed at educators and attributed to the Irish poet of the 1920s and ‘30s, William Butler Yeats:
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.

2) Daniel Russell is a senior research scientist at Google whose posts and lectures educated me in the strategy of web searching and information scavenging. In a lecture at the U. of California in San Francisco, Russell gave us this four-word nugget of advice:
Synonymization is your friend.

3) I used to do freelance editing for the National Governors Association in Washington, and it was there I came across a speech by professor Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley writer and entrepreneur, in which he said:
There’s no possible way that you could write down in a document, sitting in your office or your library or with consultants, what the real world looks like. The real world is chaos.

4) Paul Brians, the author of *Common Errors in English Usage,* gave us this challenge to ponder:
—Events may progress in time, but time itself does not progress—it just passes.

5) Here’s a touch of Latin, found on the shield of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and Labrador (where both my parents were born and raised) :
 —Quaerite Prime Regnum Dei (Seek first the Kingdom of God).

6) In his 1968 text, A Dynamic Psychology of Religion, the late Paul W. Pruyser, a Menninger Clinic psychologist, wrote:
—There is no focus without fuzzy edges.

7) The 18th-Century Christian writer and apologist G. K. Chesterton left us this habit of conversational prayer:
—You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

8) James C. Schapp is a retired writing professor at Dordt College in Iowa, a hotbed of Calvinist (Kuyperian) Dutch Reformed theology, and a faithful, frequently funny blogger at “Stuff in the Basement” (siouxlander.blogspot.com).
Schapp also is a rare Calvinist who attends to the words of “the little bride of Christ” in his book Reading Mother Teresa.
—We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.
—cited by Schapp in “Stuff in the Basement” in 2013.

9) Novelist and short story writer Anne Beattie penned this stunning observation:
 —What we hear by accident often has more credibility than what is said to us directly.
—-cited on the city guides website Matador Network

10) Finally, I offer a quote that I’ve frequently repeated by often mixing up details but retaining the punch line, as it were. In 2003, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published a profile on Tony Campolo, a sociology professor and evangelist at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. There can be little doubt it was the first time the magazine ever quoted a taboo four-letter word. Campolo told his audience:
—I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

Remembrance of Me

Engraved on the sturdy oak communion table
that sits in front of the raised pulpit
of Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn
are the words “In Remembrance of Me.”

Remembering is critical to faith–and,
I think, to understanding
the phenomenon known as life.

I can’t deny I often come back to journaling
when I want to think, to reflect,
and to record my thoughts. Journaling
has become a kind of communion table.

Ray Bradbury said, “Don’t think. Just write.
I don’t think, I just write.”
As for me, I go to my journal.

Again, Bradbury said, “You fail only if you stop writing.”
And he confessed, “I was too poor
to go to college (during the Great Depression)
so I went to the library three days every week.”
Where, undoubtedly, he not only read, but wrote.

Can a case be made for understanding
the passage of time as a life of remembrance?
We know nothing of the time that is yet to come;
we simply inhale its mysteries and revelations.

And we can only know the past if we record it,
or if we read some other’s recalled images,
often engraved in granite or marble.

The past is dead life; it can only be recorded;
mind is a scribe; thus, the past is embalmed.
The future is not-yet life.
We create it moment by moment.
Only the present is life. Time is life.

Living is a voyage into time.
So we have records and writings
to help us embalm the past, and we can write,
scribbling our attempts to imprison the present.
But we can only dream the future and wonder.

I’ve been late coming to many realizations;
always in the category of a “late-bloomer.”
Even in grade school, my teachers frequently
characterized me “a boy who should be on top.”

But what did those caretakers know about boys
who didn’t worry about being “on top”?
Why didn’t they teach me
the amazing power and joy of wondering?

Educators can only assess students
by examining past performances.
The wisest among them provide
opportunities for wonder, and
to do so they also must wonder.

Are we all, I wonder,
as centenarian poet Ferlinghetti suggests,
walkers on a tightrope
“constantly risking absurdity”?

And what did Jesus understand about life
when he “went apart from his friends to pray?”
Did he also do this in remembrance of me?

–2020

Father’s Day: Sharing an Introit

The self-isolation of the season of COVID19 has led to us worshiping via YouTube. 

I share the Introit of this Sunday—The Third Sunday After Pentecost—from the broadcast service of the Washington National Cathedral in DC:

(Incidentally, an “introit”—comes from the Latin verb introire, meaning to enter. Thus, in ecclesiastic language the Introit is the beginning of a service, particularly when the celebrants enter the sanctuary and a hymn or anthem is played or sung.)

 

The Introit at the cathedral on this Father’s Day  was “Come Sunday” from a composition called “Black, Brown and Beige” written in 1943 by Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974).

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COME SUNDAY

Come Sunday, oh come Sunday, that’s the day.

Refrain:  Lord, Dear Lord above: God Almighty, God of Love,

Please look down and see my people through.

 

I believe that God put sun and moon up in the sky.

I don’t mind the gray skies ‘cause they’re just clouds passing by.

Refrain

Heaven is a goodness time, a brighter light on high.

Do unto others as you would have them do to you:

And have a brighter by and by.

Refrain

I believe God is now, was then and always will be.

With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.

Refrain

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The Lord God be with you all.

Memorial Day During a Pandemic

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Remembering: A précis of Chapter 7 in Bryn Barnard’s book Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; originally published by Crown Publishers in NY. (2005)
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PURPLE DEATH WATCH: How influenza influenced war (Barnard, pp. 34-39)

World War I (1914-1918), the world’s first industrial war, introduced most of humankind’s efficient mass-killing machines: tanks; long-range artillery; machine guns; aerial bombardments; submarines; and poison gas.

Poet Robert Graves called the war “The Sausage Machine,” saying “it was fed with live men, churned out corpses, and remained firmly screwed in place.” An estimated 15 million people died, nine million of them in combat.

The war also introduced a new killer, Spanish influenza, the largest epidemic of the 20th century. Of the 100,000 American soldiers who died in WWI, 43,000 died from the Spanish flu. An estimated 20 million people died in India alone, and in isolated aboriginal villages in the Pacific and in Alaska, nearly everyone died.

The so-called “Purple Death” overwhelmed the ability of even the best-prepared governments to care for the living and bury the dead. Influenza forced the creation of global surveillance systems that eventually led to annual flu shots and discovery of the first antibiotic.

An estimated five million people died from this influenza before it disappeared in 1928. Many believe peace negotiations following WWI were so vengeful against Germany they paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the establishment of his infamous Third Reich.

Spanish flu was not so named because it originated in Spain, but because it was first reported in Spanish newspapers. Spain had remained neutral during the war and operated a national press. Other nations, the U.S. included, suppressed news about the disease, fearing it could provide aid to enemies. Nevertheless, the label “Spanish Flu” persisted.

In August 1918, a second wave of the deadly influenza appeared among troops stationed in Sierra Leone, France, and Massachusetts. The U.S. unwittingly took actions that spread the epidemic. Tens of thousands of young men lined up to register for the draft. Soldiers were shuttled around the country from base to base. By September, every major city in the nation was infected by the epidemic that lasted about a month.

Officials in San Francisco and Philadelphia, not prepared for the second wave, were stacking bodies in morgue hallways and ordering extra coffins. Understaffed hospitals and city morgues were overwhelmed. When the war ended, a majority of celebrants in public places wore gauze facial masks and chanted the rhyming warning:

“Obey the laws

And wear the gauze

Protect your jaws

From Septic Paws”

After the Spanish flu subsided, a worldwide flu surveillance network was developed to try to head off future pandemics. Several flu epidemics have been controlled since 1957.

Beginning in 2001, the US Centers for Disease Control stepped up surveillance programs and with the cooperation of scientists around the world was instrumental in dealing with SARS, another pandemic involving a flu-like respiratory disease.

In 1928 the antibiotic penicillin was discovered and became a major weapon in controlling bacterial diseases during WW2, but only in 1933 did scientists understand that influenza was a virus rather than a bacteria. By 1945, the US was producing enough penicillin to treat a quarter million patients a month.

The age of antibiotics had begun.

Random Thoughts in the Season of COVID19

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a Master.”                                 —Ernest Hemingway

If you’re having trouble during this time of social isolation with a concern that you are not washing your hands for the recommended 20 seconds, try washing each finger separately as you count “one thousand one; one thousand two; next finger!” And, of course, do this frequently.

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While my brain is in this neighborhood of fingers, here’s a keyboard sequence I’ll wager most of us never memorized in typing class:

! @ # $ % ^ & * (  )

And remember, “caps lock” doesn’t work with these! Also, don’t say you never use these keys. In the modern cultural world, e-mail demands you know cap2, and Twitter demands you know cap3. And, your bankers and merchants certainly insist you know cap4.

You might also be surprised to discover the technical name of a sometimes-called “and sign” (cap7) is ampersand. Many printers call it an amperzand; it’s also known as an “ampassy”; and in the original Latin, this symbol is a “ligature”; that is, a combining of two letters.

[By the way, make an effort to sanitize your keyboard!]

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Following is a little note from The Fairfax Grammar Book that explains this stuff better than I can:

      ligature:

In writing, a ligature is a combination of two or more letters  joined into a single unit. There were many ligatures used in English at one time, formed to make typesetting easier (known as typographical ligatures), but these were all discarded as printing became easier and less expensive. However, there are two other ligatures that originated in Latin and were carried into English as distinct letters.

[My note: One can’t make a ligature from a keyboard, but just think of AE  or CE run together as a single letter. To be fair, some keyboards offer these ligatures as “special figures” along with the hidden special-set collection that allows typists to insert a Spanish tilde or German umlaut or other oft-required accent marks. These generally are labeled diacritical marks. Many current keyboards use combinations of keys to enter an appropriate diacritical mark.]

While these two letters (AE and CE) were eventually separated in modern English (and eventually reduced to just E/e in American English), there is another Latin ligature that is used in English and on all keyboards today; that is, & (known as the ampersand mentioned above).

Finally, there is one other ligature that arose as Latin evolved over time and is now a part of the modern English alphabet: W (that is “double u”).

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The ampersand is also one of the most difficult ligatures to write; it looks like the numeral 8 with two small tails on its lower right (a challenge even to calligraphers). English penmanship often writes an ampersand as a script E with a vertical slash down through its middle. (Don’t say we never use ligatures! The dollar sign and the cent sign probably count as ligatures, By the way, the cent sign is rarely found on current standard keyboards.)

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To extend this bit of silliness, look up the word octothorpe! You can startle your friends on Twitter and Facebook with the query, “What’s your octothorpe?”

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Lastly, regarding keyboards: The most widespread English keyboard uses a QWERTY design and is named after the first six-letters of the top row of keyboard letter keys.

Also, one of the most beautiful and important six-letter words in the English language can be typed by using only top-row keys where QWERTY begins: That word is POETRY!

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Adios! (Yes, it’s Cinco-de-Mayo!)

Read some poetry while you drink your celebratory May 5 beer! Better yet, put down your drink and try to write a poem.

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National Poetry Month: Addition to Personal Favorites Anthology

April is National Poetry Month, a celebration largely subdued by the nation’s battle with COVID-19, but also an ever-present comfort in a time of social distancing. Reading poetry or writing poetry, like any creative art, is largely a solo activity, though readings of poetry can be lively and exciting times for gatherings and delight.

I am particularly aware of the anxiety associated with this deadly pandemic at this time because, as most are aware, the elderly are among the most susceptible to coronavirus. Yes, I am in the susceptible group, but I also have a sister 12 years my senior who is being cared for in an assisted living facility more than a 10-hour drive from where my wife and I are practicing social self-withdrawal. Fortunately, she has a son and daughter and grandchildren much closer than us.

My selected poem for this entry is the product of a contemporary troubadour. Merriam-Webster defines a troubadour as “one of a class of lyric poets and poet-musicians often of knightly rank who flourished from the 11th to the end of the 13th century.” The added definition is “a singer especially of folk songs.”

Keep in mind that during those “flourishing” times, most people could not read or write. Music became a companion of stained-glass windows in grand cathedrals and traveling dramatic shows in telling the stories of the times. Troubadours typically sang and played a stringed instrument, and often created their own tunes.

On April 7 of this year, one of America’s finest troubadours succumbed to COVID-19 at the age of 73. John Prine, considered by many to be one of the finest songwriters of modern times, wrote and recorded a song I think could be the challenge song of the age of COVID-19. Here are the lyrics to Prine’s song “Hello in There,” my selection for addition to my anthology of favorite poems:

Hello in There
By John Prine

We had an apartment in the city;
me and Loretta liked living there.
Well, it’s been years since the kids have grown
a life of their own—
left us alone.

John and Linda live in Omaha,
and Joe is somewhere on the road,
and we lost Davy in the Korean war,
and I still don’t know what for—
don’t matter anymore.

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
and old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day;
old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
“Hello in there, hello.”

Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more;
she sits and stares through the back-door screen.
And all the news just repeats itself
like some forgotten dream
that we’ve both seen.

Someday, I’ll go and call up Rudy.
We worked together at the factory.
But what could I say if he asks “What’s new?”
“Nothin’, what’s with you?
Nothin’ much to do.”

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
and old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day;
old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
“Hello in there, hello.”

So, if you’re out walking down the street sometime
and spot some hollow ancient eyes;
please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare
as if you didn’t care.
Say, “Hello, in there, hello.”

(Source: LyricFind)
Songwriter: John Prine (1942-2020)
“Hello In There”
lyrics copyright Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
[Layout & Editing: ARAndrews]

[To Listen to Prine in Concert, click this link: https://youtu.be/OVhA01J0Zsg ]

Submission in the Time of Coronavirus

— The writer in me has been at rest (or perhaps simply lazy) through a protracted season of self-quarantine.

But during this time, the notion of “archiving and browsing” came to life for me as I uncovered files of old poems and writings while sorting through portable hard drives, stacks of print-outs, and meandering through old journals, files, and shoeboxes.

I’ve rediscovered a trove of potential writing submissions. Some poems I’d completely forgotten writing, a few of them 40 or 45 years old, and several other essays and memory pieces I thought were lost forever or, truth be told, some written words I can’t remember ever writing.

Such discovery renews my conviction that writing includes revisions, edits, and simply wandering through journals and notebooks long boxed up and set aside. Not to mention the notion that a true artist works even when gazing absent-mindedly out a window or standing still and silent before the marvels of sunrise, sunset, seas, skies, and gathering storms! And listens in the silent times for the voice of God.

I also put some finishing touches on a brief memoir of a final exam I took at college during which I was taught a life lesson by a wise psychology professor who had a deep influence on my intellectual growth as a collegian. That piece of about 1100 words I may just publish myself.

This means sometime soon I must attend to the work of submission.

Isn’t it amazing that the same word often used to describe one’s life before God is the term used to describe the placing of our stories and poems before the eyes of some unseen stranger we know as an editor?

 

A Prayer For the Time of COVID-19

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.”

—From The Book of Common Prayer, (Daily Evening Prayer, p. 124).

A Jesuit Exercise: Conversing With Jesus

Father James Martin, SJ, who hosts an online forum of Ignatian Spirituality, suggests a devotional examination of consciousness, what Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, called The Examen.

Fr. Martin suggests sitting quietly and trying to imagine one is alone in conversation with Jesus about the experiences of one’s day.

I note for my Protestant friends, who understand historically that the Jesuits were militantly opposed to the Reformation, that Ignatius wrote his Spiritual Exercises during the heated and divisive years of the early 16th century. Nevertheless, his spirituality is much appreciated by some Protestant (and Evangelical) thinkers and theologians.

One of my favorite writers emerging in the 20th-century Evangelical-Holiness wing of Christianity that produced the Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA) denomination, was Aiden Wilson Tozer, better known as A. W. Tozer.

Tozer was a self-taught theologian, a powerful preacher, a gifted writer, and a rare evangelical who expressed appreciation of the writings of several Roman Catholic mystics.

One of Tozer’s biographers suggests his openness to thinkers and critics outside of the CMA did not please many in the denomination, and some were particularly suspicious of Tozer’s “generous use of the medieval mystics whose writings delighted him so.” (1)

Getting back to my exercise in Ignatian Spirituality:

Fr. Martin’s imagined conversation with Jesus urges me to pull images of seemingly minor incidents and memories from my day.

Here are the images that motivated my reflection and my pen that morning:
1) Reading Natalie Goldberg on writing memoirs; 2) The clerk at a UPS Store who handled the package I was returning; 3) The check-out cashier at the supermarket where I stopped to buy groceries; and 4) “The Unforgotten,” a British police mystery series on PBS.

Here’s my Examen reflection: my imaginary conversation with Jesus:

Jesus seems distracted by the ballgame on TV last night. “The Dodgers left nine runners on base and lost by a single run,” he says.
I try to sound religious. “Do you think any of those players are among your followers?”
“Oh, sure,” he responds. “But they are all my brothers, even if they don’t follow closely.”
“You think of them as needing you?”
“Sure,” he says. “It’s like that show we were watching on PBS before the game came on. What was it called? The one on PBS.”
I hesitate. Jesus always seems to know everything. “The Unforgotten,” I mutter. “The one about the detectives who investigate cold cases.”
“Right!” he exclaims. “They act as my Father taught. No one is alone; No one is forgotten. Those detectives are like disciples, working to show my Father’s love for neighbors and strangers.”
Father Martin interrupts to ask me: “Whom else did you speak with yesterday afternoon?”
I ponder my yesterday, and start ticking off my encounters:
“Natalie Goldberg, a Jewish writer, teacher, and Zen devotee. She offers a variation of Ignatius.” I’m reciting and not thinking about Fr. Martin or Jesus. “Sit, walk, write, and walk some more!”
“The clerk at the UPS Store! She said, ‘We’ll take care of this for you.” I thought I saw Jesus smile.
“The cashier at the market,” I recall again. “She handed me my receipt and said, ‘Have a nice day.’ That’s what Jesus said after he forgave my sins.”
I wasn’t listening, just recalling in a new light. “And the detectives of ‘The Unforgotten’ are also unwitting disciples of Jesus: They probe and discover a kind of healing.”
Jesus spoke again: “You can’t probe if you’re not willing to serve and to heal. And, unlike the detectives, lawyers, doctors, and counselors, you don’t get any pay for yourself–only rewards that can’t be measured.”
I closed my eyes and sat quietly. When I opened my eyes, I noticed both Father Martin and Jesus had gone off to talk to someone else, and I prayed that simplest of prayers, “Thanks!”

(1) Snyder, James L. The Life of A.W. Tozer: In Pursuit of God. Ventura, CA: Regal Books from Gospel Light. 2009. –Snyder notes that Tozer at one point carried on an extended correspondence with Thomas Merton, the famous writer, and Trappist monk.
Snyder also notes that near the end of Tozer’s life and ministry in Toronto, the preacher compiled The Christian Book of Mystical Verse (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute. Cokesbury, 2009) a collection of the writings of mystics Tozer admired.

Sauntering, Aging, Dilettantism, and Contemplation

“Retirement provides surprising pleasures, and one is the pleasure of sauntering.

Sauntering is a kind of relaxed and joyful walking, perhaps without intention or goal.

Someone I met at college referred to casual walking as “just kicking pebbles.” I think that captures the idea of sauntering.

Sauntering is not the compulsory activity of someone attempting to reach a desired destination, be it an exotic location, a higher vantage point, or any other physically or emotionally rewarding goal.

Sauntering is not compulsive hurrying toward pulmonary or muscular health; it is not a race toward a reward or a valued result of any kind; it is simply traveling along in the delight of ease.

Sauntering is its own end.

Sauntering may be the way of deep contemplation.

Sauntering is counter to hurrying, racing, or achieving.

Sauntering is embracing, enjoying, loving, relaxing, and learning.

Sauntering may be prayer in motion.

The famous American naturalist John Muir is reported to have proclaimed his dislike of the word “hiking,” telling a companion, “People ought to saunter  through the mountains–not hike!”

While this exclamation of Muir’s is not found in any of his writings, it is reported by a mountain traveler who met Muir on the trail and conversed with him about “hiking.” (1)

I’ve concluded while passing through my aging decades that I am an intellectual saunterer. I have at times been called a dilettante. That term, however, I think is often applied in a derogatory manner to someone who persists in raising questions and is mistakenly viewed as lacking any career vision or ambition.

Contrarily, I believe the term may describe many creative people who express countercultural viewpoints, and I have come to be at ease with dilettantism as a way of life, and perhaps an expression of godly contemplation in an age of self-absorbed consumption.

The late spiritual master Thomas Merton, in attempting to define contemplation, wrote:
“It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation . . . answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer.” (2)

Merton sounds a bit like a dilettante, Eh?

Be at ease, and pray to grow as a contemplative who saunters.

Notes:

(1) The full story has Muir saying, ” . . . in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre.’ To the Holy Land. And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
—See full article at:
https://www.etymonline.com/columns/post/john-muir-and-‘saunter

(2) In Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation, cited in Robert Ellsberg, Ed. Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books) 2008, p. 10.

New Year addition: Anthology of Personal Favorite Poems

 

Addition to my ***Anthology of Favorite Poems.***

“Theories of Time and Space.”
By Natasha Trethewey, in Native Guard
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006; p. 1)
========================

You can get there from here; though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry—tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture;

the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return.

======================

I have never been in Gulfport, Mississippi, nor driven that state’s highway 49. But I have been on a similar journey along the route described in this poem.

When I went off to college in Massachusetts, my parents moved to Noyack, a tiny village on the north shore of Long Island’s southern fork in the easternmost county of New York State. They built a retirement home on the coast of Little Peconic Bay, and in the ensuing years, I frequently made the six-hour drive between Massachusetts’ North Shore and Noyack (which locals continue to spell as Noyac).

Making this trip coming south offered two options: a longer and more tiring drive down Interstate 95 to New York’s Throggs Neck Bridge and then south through or around Brooklyn, which meant a two-hour trip on the Long Island Expressway (abbreviated as the LIE and scorned by locals as “The Big Lie” because it rarely was an “express” route). The LIE leads to New York State Route 27 (often called “The Sunrise Highway”) somewhere around Riverhead. It veers into Hampton Bays and over the Shinnecock Canal that allows vessels to sail from Great Peconic Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. After a few more miles, a driver arrives at Tuckahoe Village and must turn left onto North Sea Road (which was known to Noyac residents as the “blacktop road”). North Sea Road connects to Noyack Road, and a half-hour along this road leads to Noyac.

The blacktop road is two lanes on which I frequently drove at night for forty minutes without dimming my headlights. The eyes of many small creatures on the berm of the highway reflected my beams as I approached. These drives are burned into my “tome of memory” that Trethewey resurrects.

A second trip option driving home from New England to Noyac involved leaving Interstate 95 in Connecticut and driving into New London to catch the ferry that crossed the Long Island Sound in a quiet and relaxing hour to New York State. After disembarking at Orient Point, it was always for me the “everywhere” that was “somewhere you’ve never been before” on the eastern tip of Long Island’s northern fork.

From Orient Point to Noyack involved a half-hour-plus of driving west on NY State Highway 25 to Greenport to catch the tiny ferry to Shelter Island’s northern ferry slip, and then driving across Shelter Island to its south ferry slip, crossing to the southern fork of Long Island and driving another twenty minutes through North Haven to Noyac.

 

On none of the ferries did anyone offer to snap my photograph, though, I suspect I took many myself in New London and while aboard the Sound Ferry Crossing.

The state roads I drove were kin, I believe, to Trethewey’s Mississippi 49, roads leading, in the mystery of time and space, to a place I’ve never been before no matter how many times I’ve driven the route.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

What strikes me from the poem is that any pictures of me would be pictures of who I was before. In the truest sense, photographs capture discrete instants of time. We may have learned to call our cameras “instant cameras,” but instant is an ironic label for a split-second of time and space. We must, from the mystery of memory, supply any context to the photos.

This mystery applies going forward as well. “Everywhere you go will be somewhere/you’ve never been.”

I suspect this also captures something of the mystery we call “eternity.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Natasha Trethewey is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Atlanta’s Emory University. Native Guard, a collection of 26 poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2006), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007. In 2012 and 2013, she was the Poet Laureate of the United States. She is a native of Gulfport, Mississippi.

Miscellanies 1: Concerning the Mundane Life of Jesus As a Boy

Did Jesus ever worry about crooked teeth? Did he sneeze into his elbow? Did he sniffle? Did he brush or comb his hair every morning? How about his sandals? Did he have to clean and re-string or re-stitch them himself?

Before he went into the synagogue to discuss the Scriptures with the rabbis, did he clean his face and wash his hands? Did he ever spit in public? Did he have pimples to squeeze or wipe away? At the end of his special journeys, did someone feed the donkey that carried him, or did he attend to that himself?

Was our Lord ever annoyed with buzzing insects? Did he ever as a teenager talk back to his parents? If you answer, “Never”, then what did “I must be about my father’s business” sound like to the anxious, searching Mary and Joseph? Did Joseph teach him how to shave?

Did his mother say bedtime prayers with him and tell him the story of Bethlehem. Did he fall asleep to the tales of Wise Men and heavenly hosts, shepherd’s visits, and angel’s songs? And did some memory of the fragrance of myrrh and frankincense waft over him as he slumbered?

Could Jesus, or any disciple-fisherman among his companions, swim? Apparently Peter could not.

Did Joseph ever change his son’s swaddling clothes? What is Hebrew or Aramaic slang for human waste? Did Jesus or his disciples ever pause during their wanderings and exclaim, “I have to pee”?

You think these things when you’re an aging father and dealing with an enlarged prostate.

When he woke each day, did Jesus spring to his feet and get right to the business of the morning? Did he wear some kind of pajamas? Did he stop to wipe sleep from his eyes? Did he try to recall his dreams? Did he brush his teeth? Did he worry about his weight? Did he drink his morning milk straight from the jar? Did he have regular chores to attend to before he went to play?

Come to think of it, did he play?

Did he yearn for a hot morning cuppa; or a taste of mama’s fresh bread cooling near the fire?

Did he gaze into the night sky and ask, “Can you hear me, Father?” Did he ever spot a falling star and exclaim “Awesome!”

God, what am I asking when I pray I want to be like Jesus?