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Sidetracked by three authors in August

Monday, September 4th, 2017

Call me a peruser of books.

Typically, I survey a book for at least fifteen or twenty minutes before deciding I wish to read it. Then it goes into a pile or on a list where it might languish for weeks or months before I engage it again. My Kindle Reader app contains five or six times as many “free samples” as it has purchases.

August surprised me this year because three books I encountered kept me reading after a first perusal to the point that I knew I wanted to engage fully what these authors address. Here I merely introduce them to your consciousness.

Sidetrack One: Reinvestigating Children’s Literature:

Serendipity led me to Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, (New York: Simon & Schuster. 2017) a reminiscence by Bruce Handy, an editor at Vanity Fair (and, more importantly, a father who recalls reading to his children). His book appears packed with surprising wisdom and anecdotes.

Go back, as Handy does, and read the growing-older Christopher Robin’s sad announcement to his Pooh in the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner. Young Robin knows he is soon to leave for a faraway school:

“I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.”

“Never again?” Pooh responds.

“Well, not as much. They don’t let you.”

When it comes to Children’s Literature, I have been a sampler: a little Pooh, a little Spock, a little Silverstein, a little C.S. Lewis, a little E.B. White. In perusing Handy’s engaging handbook, I wanted to drop everything and dive into the genre like an enthusiastic graduate student. I’ve already put on reserve at my public library Handy’s recommended In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, by Bette Lord.

I remember from my studies as a graduate student of psychology the lesson I learned reading Gail Sheehy’s comments after her book Passages became a runaway best-seller. She confessed that her first task before starting to write was to go to the children’s section of a library and read everything she could find on her subject.

To quote the greatest book, I urge all researchers, “Go Thou and do likewise.”

Sidetrack Two: Truths Leaked from the Classroom:

Each month, despite my lapsed subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style, I am offered a free online book from the University of Chicago Press. In September, that book is The Secret Lives of Teachers (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press. 2015), written by an anonymous New York teacher. He calls himself Horace Dewey, and he works and writes at the fictitious East Hudson High School (which probably means he teaches somewhere in Manhattan or Yonkers or farther upstate on the same side of the river that still houses the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the village of Ossining).

By remaining anonymous, the author gives himself room to seriously critique schools, students, colleagues, parents, curriculum, administrators, school boards, and politicians.

Anyone who has taught school, be it public or private, surely harbors a suppressed voice of criticism of our nation’s educational systems. Thus, our anonymous New York educator, a “leaker” in one sense of the word, can speak the truth outside of the institution and thus unveil the secret lives and dreams of teachers.

As one who harbors deep criticism of the personnel- and economics-centered policies that rule most schools at the shameful expense of student-centered and humanitarian efforts, I am reading Anonymous closely. I hope to report my conclusions around the time school lets out for Christmas holidays. And remember Christopher Robin’s words about doing nothing: “They don’t let you.”

Sidetrack Three: The Holy Eucharist as an Ambush.

Perhaps I should list my third sidetracking as more of an ambushing. The book, which is about a decade old, has been lying around our house for years. My wife swears she once raved about its importance and significance, but it was just last month I discovered it (in my wife’s bedroom bookcase). Thus, I consider myself ambushed by this story published more than a decade ago.

In a way, the book, Take This Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first Century Christian (New York: Ballantine Books. 2007), itself relates a kind of ambushing.

Its author, Sara Miles, is a product of an atheistic, socialistic family that encouraged her to read The Sunday Edition of the New York Times rather than bother with any thoughts of going to church. About Jesus, she learned from her father that some believe he was a god, but many believe he was a really, really good man.

Miles attended a radical Quaker college and learned the life of a restaurateur in a New York City kitchen and then went to work as a researcher with a human rights advocacy group. She wound up in Mexico, Nicaragua, and several other international trouble spots, where she became embroiled in revolutionary politics and warfare, learned to eat where there was little food, was shot at, fell in love, got pregnant, and returned for safety to San Francisco, where her daughter was born.

That’s all introductory.

Miles, at the age of 46, one day, while her daughter slept, strolled unintentionally and curiously into the sanctuary of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco and took a seat with about twenty other people there for a service.

At the appropriate time, Miles went to the altar with the others after hearing a woman at the altar table say, “Jesus invites everyone to his table.”

Soon, Miles reports, “someone was putting a piece of fresh crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”

Talk about being ambushed!


I am a Window

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

As a child, I spent many quiet hours, especially on rainy days, sitting atop a living room radiator that stood as an extended sill in front of the window of our second-story apartment. Through the framed glass I could observe the street below, and watch the daily movements that passed before my eyes.

Cars splashed up the avenue, sometimes stopping, parking, and discharging occupants and drivers. Many were those who visited the bar and grille next door or the barber shop across the avenue. Most rushed forward, racing to beat the next traffic signal, flashing before my vision for a few seconds and then disappearing with a steady roar and the slick sound of rainwater thrown up behind their wheels.

On the cross street further down the block in front of the park, a two-way scene hurriedly danced up and down the boulevard: autos, trolley cars (later replaced by buses), delivery trucks, taxicabs, patrol cars, bicycles, and strollers beneath colorful umbrellas, some pushing canopied baby carriages.

As the rain slowed, pigeons and starlings began to dart across the gray sky above, soaring to treetops or the protection of gables and cornices on the neighborhood roofs. And periodically a commercial airplane, its engines roaring, its landing wheels already lowered, descended loudly and swiftly along its glide path into nearby LaGuardia Airport.

Overnight visitors to our flat often bolted awake, startled by the roar of the planes as they passed overhead, seemingly coming in on the roof of our building. To me, they had become night rhythms that accented peaceful sleep.

Similarly, a loose sewer cover in the middle of the street outside our building–the same one we used for home plate in our street games of stickball–would rattle like a cannon when a car or truck rolled over it, often startling guests, but providing me a melody of my urbanity.

When the rain stopped, and the window through which I was watching had become streaked with rivulets sliding to some hidden and mysterious pool below the sill, I began to see pedestrians. Salesmen and delivery boys emerged, making their rounds; housewives scurried along soaked sidewalks to get to market before the rain began again, which often it did. Children, many of them my playmates, had been banished to the indoors, perhaps like me, looking long, aimlessly, and hopeful at the scene outside their windows.

Trees appeared greener. Parked automobiles shone as if they’d returned to the showroom. The asphalt and concrete pavement seemed friendlier, cooler, thankful for the relief to its dry and hungry pores and the scrubbing of auto and animal grime from its face.

Unconsciously and wisely, the window framed life for me. Framing is a photographic artist’s primary tool. He or she sees the world through a magnifying window and works at reducing or expanding what is seen. So too, the writer always peers through some imagined or constructed window frame.

I recall reading encouraging words from some critic whose identity I can’t remember but whose words entered my soul: “Never accuse a writer who stares out a window as being lazy or negligent; every artist who peers for long periods through a window is quietly at work.”

An art professor I knew confessed he could not begin a painting or the assemblages on which he’d built his reputation and career as a collagist until he had spent time shopping for the right frame he would then push himself to fill imaginatively.

Jesus used prolific metaphors–traditionally identified as parables–in the gospels. In a way, the gospels are a metaphoric window to the mysteries of the Spirit.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called a metaphor a “surplus of meaning.” That is, a metaphor is not constricted into one meaning, but overflows with nuances and suggestions.

I am a window, and when I place my frame around my vision, my dreams, my experience, and my imagination, I am compelled to transform what I behold through that metaphoric window into words that provide a surplus of meaning on a page.

And being a window transforms me into becoming a pen.


Emma Lazarus and Trump’s Immigration Policy

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

The Statue of Liberty became a subject of a White House press conference on August 2.

Reports of that press briefing brought attention to the poem inscribed on a plaque that adorns the pedestal of the statue, a poem composed in 1883, almost twenty years after France gave the statue to the United States to celebrate the centennial of America’s independence from England.

The poem had been solicited from Emma Lazarus, a well-known New York City socialite and writer, to be auctioned for funds to help build the pedestal on which the statue now stands.

At the White House news conference on August 2, Jim Acosta, a CNN reporter (whose father, he told the speaker, was a Cuban refugee), challenged the speaker, senior advisor Stephen Miller, who was outlining President Trump’s proposed immigration policy.

“What the President is proposing here does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration,” Acosta said. He went on to quote the lines from Lazarus’s poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Miller’s ranting, ad hominem rejoinder entailed a pedantic history lesson that correctly noted: “The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

Despite his pompous attempt to separate the poem from the statue, Miller, known for his supra-nationalist and anti-immigration perspectives, was incorrect in identifying the poem as “America Enlightening the World.” The French entitled their gift to America “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

The Washington Post characterized the heated exchange between Miller and Acosta as “a symbolic tug-of-war that has been particularly important on the far right, where the longtime mission has been to cut the statue free from immigration.”

As the Post went on to outline, Lazarus herself has been a target of anti-socialist, anti-semitic, and racist arguments, citing Rush Limbaugh, David Duke, and Richard Spencer as attackers of her and her poem.

Lazarus died at 38, a year after her poem was introduced at the dedication of the statue in 1886. Though her poem was read aloud, women were not invited to the Bedloe’s Island ceremony. She witnessed the dedication with a group of women aboard a vessel in the harbor.

The poem, largely ignored and forgotten until 1903, became famous when a plaque containing it was attached to the statue’s pedestal. From that day on, almost every school child in New York City learned to recite her most famous lines–the same lines Acosta quoted in his exchange with Miller at the White House.

Lazarus called her poem “The New Colossus,” and a careful reading of its opening lines indicates she was trying to separate America’s symbol of liberty from the arrogant, defensive view of the Greeks who erected the original “Colossus” at Rhodes.

Her response to the invitation soliciting the poem was to say she couldn’t write a poem to a statue! What Mr. Miller seems to have missed is that while the poem is separate from the statue as an icon, it augments the idea of liberty that the French recognized in the American Republic.

The poem remains unmistakably attached to the statue’s symbolism of “liberty for all” as surely as the Bill of Rights girds the Constitution despite those amendments being enrolled at a later date to the ratified Constitution.

Lazarus wrote the poem to honor the freedom found in the United States by Russian-Jewish refugees in New York City, many of whom she taught. She understood that the statue was more important as a symbol of welcome to refugees than as a defensive warning to approaching ships. She framed the accurate appellation on the statue: “Mother of Exiles.”

The real problem here as I see it is that Mr. Miller exhibits a disrespectful attitude toward poetry. I cheer Mr. Acosta for quoting lines from a memorized poem in attempting to challenge a mean-spirited immigration policy.

Unfortunately, the defenders of poetry in contemporary political life are few and far between–and that includes many in the world of journalism. (I intend to explore this problem in a later post, citing former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers as an ally.)

Judge for yourself. Here’s Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, The New Colossus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Allow me to call readers’ attention to a post of mine written in October 2011 that offers a memory of my being born and nurtured in Brooklyn, New York. Importantly, many of the streets in which I played, grew, and became educated provided views of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. As I note, during my childhood, the statue was my neighbor. (“Mother of Exiles at 125”):


Signs, Slogans, and Sermons

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

1) From a bumper sticker on a car at a refueling station in Columbia, MD:
“I get my comedy from Fox News and my news from Comedy Central.”

–This clever twist on the news expresses what researchers are learning about the so-called Millennial Generation, those between the ages of 18-34, and how they consume news. Most studies show a heavy reliance on social media.

Researchers at The American Press Institute, for example, suggest young adults in America approach news in a manner that does not follow patterns of their elders yet remains informed and aware. (a)

2) From a billboard on Interstate 95 in North Carolina:
“Real Christians love their enemies.”

–This suggestion arises directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 5:43-45):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Its admonition raises a serious challenge to any Christians calling for stronger restrictions on immigration or any demanding the annihilation of terrorists. At its root, it challenges anyone defending nationalist aggression; it distinguishes Christian faith from any nationalistic allegiance; and it places love of neighbor/sojourner above any tribal, familial, or creedal priorities other than the love of God.

Incidentally, as a roadside billboard, it reminds us that loving one’s enemies must trump our road rage.

3) From a coffee mug at my son’s house:
“Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.”
–Soren Kierkegaard.

–What can I say?
Faith@Ease and Josef Pieper ( find an ally in an existentialist Dane! And a recommendation of two cups a day of caffeine apparently is gaining favor among health nutritionists. (b)

4) From Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. HarperCollins. 2006:
“Jesus’ followers and even those Jews who chose not to follow him would have agreed with such basic assertions as that God is our father, and that his name should be hallowed, and that the divine kingdom is something to be ardently desired.”

–Required reading for Christians!
Levine, if confronted with the billboard referenced above, might suggest that Christians can’t be “real” until they know and appreciate the Judaism of Jesus.


a) American Press Institute

b) Medical News Today





Growing an Anthology of Favorite Poems: Four More

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Summer arrived in the northern hemisphere on June 21 this year when the sun stood above the Tropic of Cancer and seemingly “stopped” before beginning its return toward the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn where it will bring summer to the southern hemisphere.

A new season seems a good time for me to share more of my collected favorite poems. I began this listing back in January and promised to recommend a few more as the year went by periodically. Six months later, I’ve determined that each change of season is a good time to add to my anthology.

For anyone interested in my inspiration for building my collection of favorites, I recommend poet Robert Pinsky’s 2014 book, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. New York: W.W. Norton.

My previous postings in this exercise are available at and Here are four more, added for Summer 2017:

  • “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish. From Collected Poems 1917-1982. Houghton-Mifflin, 1985.

For me, MacLeish was the first poet I read who defined poetry. His opening and closing lines capture the notions of metaphor and being: “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit,/ . . . A poem should not mean/But be.”


  • “A Shropshire Lad: XIII” by A.E. Housman. The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman. Public Domain. This version is from “The Writer’s Almanac” on Public Radio broadcast on March 29, 2017.

I was introduced to this poem in college when I was “one and twenty.”  Housman struck a chord for a young man working hard to study and keep my fancy free.


  • “Flock” by Billy Collins. From The Trouble with Poetry.

–Collins introduces this poem with a note regarding the Gutenberg Bible from an article on printing. The spiritual power of the ending will catch you off guard.


  • “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye. From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995.

–Almost every poet at some point writes what poetry teachers call a list poem. Nye’s is one of the best in that form; it defines the notion of fame as no lexicographer could imagine. That’s why we need poetry!


A Reflection for Father’s Day, 2017

Friday, June 16th, 2017

The Posture of Loving God and Being Loved.

Jesus Cleanses a Leper (Mark 1:40-41–NKJV)

Now a leper came to Him, kneeling down to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.”

My parents raised me in New York rental dwellings whose floor plans gave them the label of “railroad apartments” because their rooms lined up like train cars stretching from backyard to street.

To walk from the dining room that overlooked our backyard to reach the living room or my bedroom facing the street, one had to pass through two other bedrooms, one of them my parents’ master bedroom, with its load-bearing wall opening widely to a large living room and my tiny adjoining bedroom.

The master bedroom thus provided a thoroughfare for pedestrians. One closed door and heavy curtains to cover the opening to the living room provided privacy for my parents, but I frequently had to pass through en route to and from my bedroom.

My father, an ironworker, went to bed early and rose every morning before sunrise and headed for a subway or bus trip to some skeleton of a skyscraper going higher somewhere in Brooklyn. Each night, usually when “I Love Lucy” or “Red Skelton” or “Tennessee Ernie Ford” or “What’s My Line?” was signing off, he stepped into his bedroom and readied for sleep.

And as I tiptoed back and forth, the indelible image I retain is my pajama-clad father kneeling beside his bed, his steely hands folded and his head bowed, as he silently engaged in private conversation with God and undoubtedly recited the prayers he learned in his Methodist childhood and taught to my older siblings and me.

So, as I read about St. Mark’s leper imploring Jesus, I hardly attend to the conversations exchanged; I am impressed by the kneeling, the stretching, and the touching. These provide dancing expressions of need, hope, and love. In these movements, Jesus and the leper share desire, willingness, and hope.

So too, my father in his prayerful liturgy–on his knees, hands folded, head bowed–left me images of compassion and healing and modeled for me a skyscraping posture of love.

“Give It Away”

Monday, June 5th, 2017

I was enrolled in an online Devotional Writing Workshop through the Lifelong Learning Center at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia,  when I wrote this reflection.

For a long time, I have been developing a criticism of seminaries for their lack of courses and programs aimed at teaching future clerics the craft of writing. In my experience and research, writing courses offered at seminaries across the nation almost exclusively teach writing as a handmaiden to preaching or model a typical graduate school research course, emphasizing the mechanics of academic writing and manuscript preparation. Future pastors would be better served by studying creative writing, I think.

Emphases are changing in scattered institutions that train clergy. Some are beginning to explore writing as a form of ministry–thanks be to God.

I think writing poetry and creative fiction demands a place in the curriculum for future pastors, and I think I’d find support for this idea from one of my favorite writer/clerics, Frederick Buechner, who gave much to establishing a place for creative writing students at King University in Bristol, Tennessee.

I joyously learned that a former professor of mine wrote a book in his retirement concerning the biblical tales told in the writings of Flannery O’Connor. He has been teaching this subject part-time.

(I’ll get back to that after I’ve finished his book. If you’d like a head start, it’s Passing By the Dragon:  The Biblical Tales of Flannery O’Connor, by J. Ramsey Michaels, Wipf & Stock. 2013.)


Here is a sample example of my devotional writing from the workshop:

“Give It Away”

“When Jesus heard that, he said, “Then there’s only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor.”

(Luke 18:22a; The Message)

   As my wife and I approached the entrance of a supermarket, I pulled some bills from my wallet and gave them to her so she could buy a birthday card for our daughter-in-law on our way to the party. We planned separate routes as we entered the store: she would seek the stationery while I dashed up the aisles headed for party nuts and birthday candles.

   “Can you let me have two dollars?” asked an unknown woman standing at the market’s entrance as I nearly bumped into her in my haste.

   I stopped, and my wife walked on. The woman, about as tall as my six feet and not at all disheveled, wore a black T-shirt with the bold white letters of Christ’s Church emblazoned across it.

   “What do you need two dollars for?” I asked, thinking she might be soliciting for her church and swallowing my instinctive “Excuse me,” as we stood nearly face to face.

   “I’m going down to Sander’s to get something to eat,” she said.

   I slid two dollars from my billfold, handed them to her and asked, brazenly sounding like an interrogator, “Where is Christ’s Church?”

   Unspoken was my judging thought, “Why don’t you go to your church for aid?”

   I never actually heard her response, but my sudden thought staggered me: “I am Christ’s Church.” And then, “Give it away!” I heard my faith say.

   My children at times when we’ve been traveling call me a sucker for anyone soliciting money who hastens between columns of cars halted by a red light. My fatherly retort has been: “We’re not called to judge their need, and I can’t know what they intend to do with the money.”

   I put two bills in the woman’s hand as she said, “God bless you,” and stepped away toward sunlight. I started toward party nuts and birthday candles, mouthing a similar blessing for her, and strode up the aisle still squeezing my billfold.

   “Give it away,” I again heard my faith whisper.


Sanctuary: A block of wood full of words

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Demolition workers felled the 50-year-old chapel at the turn of the century on the campus of my alma mater to make way for a new educational building (work crews built a larger chapel at a different location). The crews carefully removed the oak flooring and cut each board into 3”-by-2.5” blocks, later stained and stamped with an engraving of the chapel and mailed to alumni and donors urged to help pay for the new building. Sitting and gazing at that block of wood that now decorates my bookcase provokes good memories of choirs, and weddings, and talented schoolmates.

During my matriculation, students attended mandatory daily chapel services. The services, not always spiritual, introduced us to many guest speakers, several preachers who thought themselves entertainers, and several entertainers who thought themselves preachers in this venue. We heard faculty deliver non-academic talks about themselves as seekers and believers. We occasionally watched a short film or slide show and also listened to our eloquent dean of the college make weekly reports on administrative matters. I don’t remember much from his talks, but he taught me a word I’ve never forgotten: he always reminded us when services ended to “egress” through the appropriate exits of the building.

I recall spending time alone in the building with its stained-glass windows, split chancel, and a table displaying an open Bible and a small golden cross. I didn’t visit the empty chapel for prayer or personal devotion, but rather to be in a quiet place for reading and reflecting in silence—a sanctuary—not something readily available on the bustling campus, not even in the library or a dormitory.

Sometimes I listened while some student music major practiced on the electronic organ. We never spoke. The practicing musicians typically left when they finished through a side door just behind the organ bench; I walked to the rear of the sanctuary and egressed through the narthex (another word I learned in this building; though, most at that time referred to it as a lobby) to the main door.

I did get to the point of leaving my copy of Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament in one of the book racks of a front pew. I was studying German at the time and found this a quiet retreat, einer Zugfluchsort [refuge, shelter; a “flee-to spot”], or eines Heiligtum [sanctuary, shrine; that is, “a holy place”]. Its silence helped me grapple with the conjugations and cases of a foreign language that I’ve never fully mastered.

I wrote inside the book’s cover, “Please do not remove from the chapel.” Gratifyingly, no one ever did for four years.

And now a block of wood still transmits and upholds for me an experience of quiet and ease.

Two Favorite Writers Who’ve Snared Me Again

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

In the past month, two writers I absorbed in my middle years and then set aside in my ensuing busyness presented theological and psychological wisdom I rediscovered in their works.

The first, Frederick Buechner, is enjoying the twilight of a fruitful career, and his writings have slowly and significantly shaped my theological musings.

While visiting with my sister- and brother-in-law in Philadelphia earlier this month I picked up a book on their dining room table and in about two minutes I was hooked. The Faces of Jesus (first published in 1974; reissued in 2005) became my latest guide to the mind of Buechner (and Jesus).

Just a few days later, while browsing in the new books section of my local public library, the thrill of discovery overcame me again as I picked up Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy  (published in 2017) by Anne LaMott.

Candidly, I admit I haven’t kept up with Buechner and LaMott. I estimate I’ve read about a third of what they’ve produced. I’ve shied from Buechner’s fiction, but as a young adult, I devotedly read (and reread) his casual and careful theological musings. LaMott simply snared me with her early Bird by Bird (published in 1994), and I think my devotion had lagged by the time she published Stitchings (in 2013).  But her often snarky single-Mom reflections have snared me again with sneaky spiritual insights in her rediscovery of mercy.

I emailed thanks to my sister- and brother-in-law for their wisdom and mercy in leaving reading material around their kitchen and dining room. I confessed that I found Buechner’s reflections on the gospel through his deep looks into the face (i.e., faces) of Jesus to be among the most profound guides to reading the Bible I’ve encountered.

For spiritual surprise and growth, you should dive into these two authors. Below, I offer some dangling bait to get you to swim around as I did:

From Buechner’s Faces of Jesus:

  • “. . . piety always runs the risk of saying too little or saying it wrong.”
  • “God makes his saints out of fools and sinners because there is nothing much else to make them out of.”
  • “If the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is paradoxical, it is only because the experience was paradoxical first. Much as we may wish it otherwise, reality seldom comes to us simple, logical, all of a piece.”

From LaMott’s Hallelujah Anyway:

  • “The Northstar that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah. . . . he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose: ‘What doth God require of thee but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?'”
  • “What Micah is talking about is grad school curriculum, while, spiritually speaking, I remain in junior high school, superior and cringing at the same time.”
  • “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, . . . But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

Good Friday’s Poetic Solemnity

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Easter 2017 has passed. Lenten sacrifices have been completed. The celebration of the Christian Holy Week is over until next year (to be celebrated secularly in 2018 as April Fool’s Day). I confess that the most solemn and meaningful Holy Week service this year for me occurred on Good Friday.

The Book of Common Prayer provides a proper liturgy for that day that focuses on solemnity.

For Christians, Good Friday is the day of recalling and meditating upon the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and from beginning to end the liturgy is solemn, and celebration is subdued.

The rubric of the opening of the Good Friday liturgy instructs that “ministers enter in silence.” By custom, the clergy dresses entirely in black. The altar is stripped of any colorful seasonal dressings, and the clergy and lectors enter and kneel before the altar.

The service is comprised of readings from the Old Testament, especially the words of the prophet Isaiah describing the suffering servant. Then a Psalm is read or sung, often the text of Psalm 22, which contains the transliterated Aramaic words expressed by Jesus on the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The epistle to the Hebrews is read to remind Christians of the priesthood of Jesus “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” A lengthy reading of the Passion Gospel of St. John follows Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed and arrested. The narrative continues to the place of the skull, Golgotha, where Jesus is nailed to a cross as a criminal, and to the unused tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, one of the followers of Jesus, where our Lord is laid to rest.

Typically in the Good Friday liturgy, a meditative sermon is preached, often on one or several of the words Jesus spoke from the cross, and an offering to be distributed to the poor is collected.

The remainder of the service is comprised of prayers while the people and clergy kneel or stand. With the prayers completed, clergy and congregation exit the sanctuary in silence.

Impressive for me this year were the two hymns we sang. I offer the lyrics here as two examples of solemn poetry marking the crucifixion of Jesus that took place outside Jerusalem on so-called “Good Friday” (which many scholars believe derives from “God Friday”).

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died,

my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the cross of Christ, my God:

all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet sorrow and love flow mingled down!

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown!

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small;

love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

The above hymn, written by Isaac Watts in 1707, is in part a paraphrase of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (6:14).

The second hymn, considered by many to be the quintessential poem celebrating Holy Week, is believed to have been composed in either the 9th century by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, or in the 11th century by Arnulf of Leuven, a medieval poet. The text was first translated into English in 1752 by a British Anglican vicar, John Gambold. In 1899, Robert Bridges translated it into its more modern English.  It is most familiar sung to a tune that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for his St. Matthew Passion. (I provide only the first stanza.)

O sacred head sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn;

O kingly head, surrounded with mocking crown of thorn:

what sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower?

O countenance whose splendor the hosts of heaven adore!

The text and music of both these hymns appear in the Hymnal 1982 of the Church Hymnal Society at numbers. 474 and 168 respectively.

And what do these Holy Week penultimate liturgies and texts provoke? The glorious declaration of Easter: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”






Spring additions to my Personal Anthology of Favorite Poems

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Earlier this year I borrowed from the poet Robert Pinsky the notion that students of poetry should create anthologies of favorite poems, not by simply collecting them but by hand-writing each of them before placing them in a collection.

(My first posting about this method can be read at

I’ve developed my method of following Pinsky’s valuable instruction by printing out the text of a favorite poem with each line containing triple-spacing before the next line. Then, in the wide spacing, I rewrite—with a favorite pen–the entire poem.

Each time I do this little exercise, I’m reminded of the words of the famous American calligrapher, Edward Johnston, who taught me that “The hand thinks!” An idea, I’ve come to understand, explicated by the Deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida.

As Spring of 2017 begins, I here offer the latest additions to my personal anthology of favorites:

  • More a poem of winter than spring but nevertheless memorable is Mary Oliver’s poem “First Snow” a description marked by the memorable phrase “its white rhetoric everywhere calling us back to why, how, whence such beauty and what the meaning”.
    –From American Primitive. Little, Brown, 1983.
  • “Christ Climbed Down,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A poem of my early adult life that captivated me and encouraged my own life in faith and poetry. I recommend the entire collection of Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind.
    –From A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions, 1958.
  • As a retired journalist, I am particularly drawn to poetry triggered by the daily news. A recent example, the poem “Children of Aleppo,” which reflects on the “men inside the sky” who launch bombardments on a helpless Syrian city, is written by a Vermont poet, Chard deNiord, and was originally posted on the Poem-a-Day website of the Academy of American Poets on January 25, 2017:
  • “Susanna” by Anne Porter, provides the wisdom of an elderly immigrant woman “out of a little country/Trampled by armies” who awakes briefly in a hospital to share a truth spoken to her by her mother: “There’s not a single inch/Of our whole body/That the Lord does not love.”
    –From Living Things. Zoland Books, 2006.


Mistakenly waltzing in slow time

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

When I was about nine or ten years old, my sister had me stand on her feet as she waltzed us around the living room to whatever record she had chosen to play on her wind-up portable Victrola.

I remember that Victrola by RCA, with the symbol of a dog gazing into the cone of a megaphone speaker atop an RCA turntable and the emblazoned slogan written beside it: “His Master’s Voice.” My sister Sylvia–our family called her Sis–probably got the turntable as a birthday gift.

I remember the Victrola had to be cranked by inserting a specially shaped handle into a slot in the front of the machine just below the turntable. It took 12 or 15 cranks to get it up to enough torque to handle a three- or four-minute 33-1/3 rpm disk.

Years later, when Sis was no longer a bobbysoxer, and I was a pre-teen becoming enamored of pop music, I recall cranking the turntable myself and listening to some of the records from Sis’s collection.

The machine had two speeds: 78 rpm and 33-1/3 rpm. The slower speed was for playing larger vinyl discs that were called “long-playing,” and one could listen to an entire collection of pieces on a single disc with a good cranking. In fact, I became so adept with the machine that I could crank it even while a record was spinning and the needle was doing its job in the groove.

But here’s the rub: I didn’t quite understand that large did not necessarily mean slow and that many records were larger but still designed to be played at 78 rpm, records such as those contained in my sister’s boxed collection of Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker Suite.

The discs were larger, so when I played them, I set the rotation control, not at 78 rpm but 33-1/3. Thus, I spent several afternoons listening to the Waltz of the Flowers and other wonderful pieces of Tchaikovsky’s suite running at less than half-speed!

I seem to recall it took me two or three days of determined listening before I figured out why the “classical” music dragged. When I listened to it at the proper speed, I became enchanted and began to understand what my seventh- and eighth-grade teachers were trying to get across to us during “music appreciation” classes.

Incidentally, I seemed to know at that point that whether I waltzed slowly or fast on the turntable of life, I still could attend to the Master’s voice.

Memoir 2: A Brooklyn Kid, High School, College, The New York Times, and Donald Trump (of Queens).

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Despite my juvenile resistance to her urgings, I have to credit my junior year high school English teacher, Gaye Kelley Crocker, a flamboyant and frustrated actress who came to life in our classroom by insisting those of us under her tutelage would become devoted (by requirement) readers of The New York Times. She especially pressed upon us the columns of Brooks Atkinson, the renowned theater critic, who wielded his pen and opinions for 35 years as The Times’ judge of good and bad drama on and off Broadway.

I was a kid in Brooklyn, the youngest son of immigrants, a rabid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and enrolled in the closest high school of our neighborhood, Manual Training High School. As an institution at that time struggling with its erroneous association with trade schools, Manual sat in the then diverse neighborhood of Park Slope where the predominant students were sons and daughters of immigrant laborers and tradesmen who had little thought of, or encouragement toward, academia.

During my tenure there, the school slowly became earmarked as a “tough” school that harbored teenage gang members and had little standing as a place deemed college-preparatory. Its faculty seemed young and transient, and its curriculum seemed weighted heavily toward vocational and technical training with a few teacher-saints who fought the good fight for the liberal arts in English, Drama, and Art. Even Manual’s athletic teams were mediocre except for its talented swimming and diving squads.

Miss Crocker seemed a misfit, even in her literary specialty. But she taught us, through demand and determination, to turn to The New York Times for our submerged appreciation of drama and art.

In my working class family, the only newspaper my parents brought into the home was the New York Daily News. Its subtitle probably spoke best to its popularity with my parents: “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” Neither of my parents was an active reader, but I often saw them perusing the Daily News.

For me, as a high schooler, the only access to The Times was the school library or my frequent trips to the Brooklyn Public Library just to read the newspapers. Of course, if Miss Crocker assigned a particular column of Atkinson’s, it cost me only a few cents to buy that day’s copy of The Times. (And I seem to remember she always had several copies of the newspaper–or at least clips of Atkinson’s columns–strewn about her desk.)

Thus I was introduced to the wider world of The New York Times, but it was in college that I got simple, step-by-step instruction in “How to read The New York Times,” from a young history teacher who stepped in for another teacher on Sabbatical to teach a sophomore elective class in current events.

Dr. Arno Willi Fred Kolz had grown into a pre-teen recruit of Hitler’s Youth Corps in Nazi Germany, but his family escaped and relocated to the United States during Kolz’ teen years before World War II erupted.

The opening week in Kolz’s class on current events was spent taking us through a guided tour of the massive edition of The Sunday New York Times, which in those days weighed in at approximately five or six pounds.

Kolz unwrapped the stack of newsprint and held up the front section of the folio paper with its signature gray front page of assorted headlines, subheadlines, and photos with captions. Then, with little fanfare, he folded back the front page and announced, “Always begin on page two!”

Along the bottom of page two, Kolz drew our attention for the next 50 minutes to the index of stories in the entire newspaper. The index gave capsule descriptions of every story and article in the paper. He taught us in 50 minutes how to read an entire edition of the Sunday Times and to become careful readers of important articles. (I think of Kolz and this lesson every time I scroll through the online Google News or the digital version of The Times.)

I recall thinking to myself after that first day in Kolz’ class, “Wow!” And from that moment I became an ardent fan of The New York Times. Later, I recall reflecting on what a wonderful gift this newspaper had become to this transformed German history teacher and how even more impressive was his passion for sharing this passion with his students.

Now, with Gaye Kelley Crocker and Arno Kolz waning memories, and my 40-year career as a journalist in “retirement,” I find myself driven to encourage others’ appreciation for The New York Times and its related family in “the media.”

[Currently, I’m motivated chiefly by the twittered rantings of another New York kid from Queens who seems to have never learned how to read the gray lady or any other good newspaper in this nation that honors and upholds the freedom and integrity of the press].

Memoir: Music and Me, with special Thanks to PS154

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

I’m not a musician; although, I have sung throughout my life in church choirs, college folk groups, and as an entertainer of my children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and others’ children.

As the child of immigrants from an outport in northeastern Newfoundland, I learned endless versions of sea shanties and comic folk tunes. I retain the choruses of “I’se the B’y”, “Lukey’s Boat,” and “Squid-Jiggin’ Ground,” taught to me by Newfoundland aunts and cousins.

As a 12-year-old, I sang two solos at my only sister’s wedding; 25 or so years after that I sang the same songs at the wedding of my only niece. I sang the “Anniversary Waltz” at a celebration of my parents’ 25th anniversary when I was 13.

Despite growing up in Brooklyn, I secretly became an avid listener to country music broadcast from New Jersey throughout my teens. I learned the songs of Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Faron Young, Jimmy Rodgers, and Webb Pierce, and later the songs of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Don Williams, Ed Bruce, and several others. As I often tell friends, I learned about five chords on the guitar and about 1000 country songs.

As a collegian, influenced by the folk revival, I favored The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Judy Collins. Later, I became a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, and Odetta. Even later, I was a connoisseur of more obscure folk purists such as Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett, and Ann Mayo Muir, along with John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and the Nova Scotian Stan Rogers. Also, when my wife and I began our family while living in Northern Vermont, Canadian television introduced me to Raffi, Fred Penner, Connie Caldor, and the Alberta cowboy that Ian Tyson had become.

In my senior year of college, I did folk concerts with a five-member group called “The Cellar-Dwellers and the Girl Upstairs” (four guys and a girl accompanied by a guitar, an upright double-bass, a tambourine, and me on the baritone ukelele).

Alongside this country-folk bias, I kept up with the songs of rock ‘n’ roll, and I never forgot most of the gospel songs I learned in church that were favorites of my mother and father. So my adult tastes moved understandably toward bluegrass gospel sung by artists such as Doyle Lawson, Joe Val, The Seldom Scene, and Ricky Skaggs along with Tony Rice.

I have entertained children and others with my almost verbatim renditions of “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” “The Rock Island Line,” and “The Ladies of the Harem of the Court of King Caractacus,” and I can do a decent job on “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” which my father loved to hear.

But this litany of my music favorites obscures the most significant musical experience of my life: sitting in “Music Appreciation” classes at PS 154 in Brooklyn, also known as the Windsor School (located in Windsor Terrace). Under the tutelage of my upper-grade teachers, M. K. Seward, Sylvia Bradley, Ethel R. Convery, and two other lower-grade teachers whose names I forget but who served as skilled accompanists and tutors, I absorbed the wonders of classical music.

In this class, our instructors used “lyric pneumonics” to aid our learning of well-known classical pieces. Thus, decades later I still listen to and repeat by singing:

–“Barcarolle, from Tales of Hoffman, written by Offenbach, bum-bum“;
–“Morning was dawning, as Peer Gynt was yawning from under a statue of Grieg”;
–Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act 3 of his opera Lohengrin:  “Lo-oh-oh-engrin came to wed the fair Elsa . . .” [they never played the bridal chorus in class!];
–the subtle “Largo” from the second movement of Symphony No. 9 from “The New World,” by Anton Dvorak, which our teachers repeatedly played and to which we sang “to a rose, to a rose, to a wild, wild, rose”; and
–Handel’s magnificent organ piece of the arrival of the Queen of Sheba, for which we had no lyrics, but the organ was a singular giveaway for our identification of this classic.

Incidentally, I spent an hour or two reviewing these pieces as I wrote this memoir, and I noted my teachers’ preferences for wedding music!

And, of course, they did surrender to our childishness in allowing us to bounce in PS 154’s auditorium seats as if mounted on stallions as we galloped to the not-so-subtle “Finale” from the William Tell Overture by Rossini. Most of us recognized this piece because of our familiarity with that masked cowboy hero of radio, The Lone Ranger. For this, our teachers did not employ pneumonics, but lots of shushing as spontaneous exclamations of “Hi-yo Silver, away” rang out around the auditorium.

I have to conclude that music, while not my profession, is embedded in my consciousness, and that my eclectic taste is rooted in Newfoundland, cowboys, hippies, church choirs, balladeers, troubadours, and The Windsor School’s music appreciation classes.

Thanks to you all!

Building a personal anthology of favorite poems

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

In all of his classes, poet Robert Pinsky insists that students assemble a personal anthology of poems. These are not to be simply photocopies of favorites; instead, each student is instructed to write out every poem in longhand, or type it out line by line, word by word. Pinsky argues this is the best way of learning one’s favorites, absorbing them, and perhaps living them forever.

I think he is right, and in the spirit of a Pinsky student (though I’ve never studied with him) I began my anthology with a few poems I’ve admired but haven’t memorized, titles that spun immediately to the top of my head.

Without writing them out here, let me just mention them for any reader to track down.

First is T. S. Eliot’s, Journey of the Magi.
–Eliot wrote this dramatic monologue in 1927, a year after he became an Anglo-Catholic. Many critics suggest Eliot’s poetry diminished after his conversion, but I suggest quite the opposite. One must reflect on the Incarnation to grasp the depth of Eliot’s reflection, and most of his critics just disdain such reflection.

–Second in my collection is Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter, which, set to music, has become one of the most beloved of Christmas carols. As did Eliot, Rossetti, a Victorian Christian, reflected on the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ and concluded, Our God, heaven cannot hold Him,/nor earth sustain.

–My third choice comes from an anthology designed for children and a poem I’ve written of previously, Rebecca Kai Dolitch’s poem My Brother’s Shirt. I think it is one of the gentlest, and saddest, anti-war poems I’ve read.

–One more for the time being: Dana Gioia’s 1991 poem, Planting Sequoias. I was introduced to Gioia’s poem by the late Larry Kooi, the head of a private Christian school at which I taught for a brief time. I’ve written about its significance in an earlier post.

I’ll attempt periodically to update the building of my favorites anthology.