Friday, December 30, 2016


I was a big fan of the HBO show, Boardwalk Empire, having watched every episode. I remember a lot of it, even now. But one tiny scene from it, however, struck me then and has stayed vividly with me.

In Season 3, Episode 7, titled "Sunday Best," it is Easter Sunday, 1923. Richard Harrow, a paid assassin, who was badly injured in the War (World War I) removes the mask that hides his disfigured face to eat his Easter dinner. He is alone in the kitchen, away from others who might be disturbed by his appearance. Before eating, he bows his head and asks to be mindful of the needs of others. Always. This is, lest I have not made myself clear, a paid killer, praying. Praying!

I myself have gone years and years without saying grace.

In Marilynne Robinson's wonderful novel, Home, Glory Boughton, a preacher's daughter, ruefully confesses to her less-than-believing brother that even at a public lunch counter she feels she must stop a moment before eating to utter a silent blessing.

Saying grace is a practice that I believe even atheists should welcome. Even if you don't believe in a creator, you must know that the earth brought forth whatever you are about to eat. You must know that people worked to bring this food to you. So be thankful; be mindful of all that. For heaven's sake!

So why have I not made this practice my own? Just as a habit of grace was hard to dislodge from Glory and, apparently, Harrow, it has been equally hard to instill in me.

Last June, I decided to take up this very worthy practice of saying grace before meals. Setting a goal of two weeks, I made a brightly colored card and clipped it to my place mat, where I could not miss it. The card fell off the deck, got rained on, was always returned to its spot of remembrance. I couldn't fault myself for lack of intention. Two weeks of being reminded in bright green to say grace would surely establish the habit in me.


I sat down to meal after meal with the card in plain sight and still almost always forget to pray. Now, seven months on, I am finally remembering to say grace at some meals. But it is not consistent. Though frustrated, I keep trying.

Does praying grace before my meal matter to anyone? Are my efforts God-driven? Am I being thwarted by forces of darkness? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but I do know that when I remember to pray, I feel a deeper tie to all God's creation. I remind myself that I am privileged to have enough food and a safe place to eat it. I am aware that I may one day not be so blessed but that I will be blessed in other ways.

Meanwhile, I can have fun with all this humility that is forced upon me. I can see my meager efforts for what they are. I can laugh at myself and my Type A goals and my longing to be able to pat myself on the back for achieving them.

But when I do remember to say grace, I say it in earnest. I find myself in a very holy spot, able to speak to God about my day, creation, food, work, troubles, blessings. Like Richard Harrow, I also bow my head and ask to be always mindful of the needs of others. And sometimes I even take off my mask.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Now They Are All on Their Knees"

This is my final posting this Advent. It is more of a Christmas poem, but not one you'll hear from the pulpit or recited in a Nativity pageant. 

The Oxen
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
                                                                       by  Thomas Hardy

At some point in his illustrious career, this poet, to his regret, lost his faith. I often wonder why this happens to people and, if the loss saddens them, why they can't recover it? Hardy lived at a time when the Age of Enlightenment had massive sway over people's thinking. Suddenly there were explanations for everything, and humankind seemed almost supremely powerful. We had science. We had machines. People suffered in great numbers while barons of industry amassed wealth. Maybe this was just all too disheartening for him.

His novels, Tess of the D'Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure, in particular, show the failure of religion and, especially, the clergy. What gets people to where they must be in these stories is a grim determination for survival. When things end well, it is only a thin and meager wellness. 

Sp what prompted Hardy to write this poem of longing, of holiness that is just out of reach? Here he is ensconced in a comfortable pub with townspeople who recall the legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals worship the newborn Savior, yes, even in those modern times. Wherever they are, they fall on their knees, so great is their collective memory of that night of Nativity. All he would need is a word of encouragement to rush to the barn and see the oxen at prayer. Just one word. Which he does not get.

Friday, December 16, 2016

I have swept and I have washed

Either Mary Oliver is the worst housekeeper under heaven, or these are all metaphors.

Making the House Ready for the Lord

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice; it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

Mary Oliver

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Chooka - chook

Let there be childhood memories. Let there be shabby old Christmas tree ornaments in dusty boxes. Let there be 100 year old cookie recipes. Let there be faded photos and old worries. Remember the kitchen, the hall, the aunt, the uncle. Remember the rug and the sounds and the sofa. Nobody does this remembering so well as Irish Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. (1939-2013)

Just FYI, I clearly recall playing this exact game with my many cousins on any sofa we could commandeer.

A Sofa in the Forties

All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest,
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train

And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door
Our speed and distance were inestimable,
First we shunted, then we whistled, then

Somebody collected the invisible
For tickets and very gravely punched it
As carriage after carriage under us

Moved faster, chooka-chook, the sofa legs
Went giddy, and the unreachable ones
Far out in the kitchen floor began to wave.


Ghost train? Death-gondola? The carved, curved ends,
Black leatherette and ornate gauntness of it
Made it seem the sofa had achieved

Flotation. Its castors on tiptoe,
Its braid and fluent backboard gave it airs
Of supernatural pageantry:

When visitors endured it, straight-backed,
Where it stood off in its own remoteness,
When the insufficient toys appeared on it

On Christmas mornings, it held out as itself,
Potentially heavenbound, earthbound for sure,
Among things that might add up or let you down.


We entered history and ignorance
Under the wireless shelf. Yippee-i-ay,
Sang "The Riders of the Range". HERE IS THE NEWS,

Said the absolute speaker. Between him and us
A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation
Reigned tyrannically. The aerial wire

Swept from a treetop down in through a hole
Bored in the windowframe. When it moved in wind,
The sway of language and its furtherings

Swept and swayed in us like nets in water
Or the abstract, lonely curve of distant trains
As we entered history and ignorance.


We occupied our seats with all our might,
Fit for the uncomfortableness.
Constancy was its own reward already.

Out in front, on the big upholstered arm,
Somebody craned to the side, driver or
Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air

Of one who had run the gauntlet. We were
The last thing on his mind, it seemed; we sensed
A tunnel coming up where we'd pour through

Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
And be transported and make engine noise.

Seamus Heaney
from The Spirit Level 1996

What a gift he was to us, and, of course, still is!
Want more?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Country Roads

It's something of a cliche for poets to write about the countryside. Nature in all its bucolic glory, winding woodsy paths, sturdy country folk at work, all these have been done pretty much to death.

Some of the finest poetry, however, celebrates the rural life and scene. The two poems that I'm sharing today elevate the genre beyond the sentimental. One is about a sermon and one is, if you stretch the point just a bit, itself something like a sermon.

The Chapel

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

                                                                                   R.S. Thomas
                                                                        from Collected Poems 1945-1990

After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be one or two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough,
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the owrld of hoary grass.
It melted and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend,
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load and load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what would trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone.
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

                                                                                     Robert Frost
                                                                              from North of Boston 1913

Friday, December 9, 2016

Have Pity on Those Whose Chances Grow Thinner

For me, this is the perfect Advent poem.

People get ready there's a train a-coming;
Don't need no baggage you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming;
Don't need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.

So people get ready for the train to Jordan,
Picking up passengers coast to coast.
Faith is the key. Open the doors and board them;
There's hope for all of those who love the most.

There ain't no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own.
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner,
For there's no hiding place against the kingdom's throne.

People get ready there's a train a-coming
Don't need no baggage you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming
Don't need no ticket. You just thank the Lord

                                                                             Curtis Mayfield 1965

I was in college when this was released and I memorized every word. I'm quite certain that it was not the theology of the piece that made me fall in love with it, but, rather, the buttery tones of Mr. Mayfield's voice. Nevertheless, the theology stands up to my notions today and to the season of getting ready that is Advent.

So, come on, don't be shy, sing along with me...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Make the World Continue

I can say with humility that I have a regular, though extremely imperfect, prayer practice. Prayer is one of the vows I made as a Julian affiliate so I take it very seriously. I also think about prayer a lot. I wonder what it does, what it means, even what it is, the catechism answers notwithstanding.

God asks for prayers; this is well attested in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Our prayers are always heard and even answered in some manner. But God is a mystery and withdraws from our purview. We also walk away. It's complicated.

The poem below by Anna Kamienska is about prayer. As you will see, she is praying for things that are already happening and that recur endlessly and predictably. Is this legitimate? Is there a note of sarcasm in her words, or is it a bitter surrender to God's will? Is God getting a grudging free pass? "Well, you won't answer my real prayers, so here are some that you will answer, [expletive deleted]."And, most importantly: Is it OK to pray like this?

A Prayer That Will Be Answered
by Anna Kamienska

Lord, let me suffer much
and then die

Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green
so that frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee's head

Of course it's OK. God doesn't evaluate our prayer, testing it for attitude, grammar or devotion. God just listens. So it's an idea to pray like this once in a while. "Let the grass stay green" versus "thank you for making the grass green," or even "send rain to make the grass green."

Incidentally, this poem was part of the materials for a poetry workshop given in St Paul by Christian Wiman in May of 2015.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Two Songs of the Open Road

What is this urge to travel? What is this beckoning that some feel so strongly and yet is entirely foreign to me?

I am pairing two different poets here. A chardonnay with brie; a ruby port with a dark chocolate. But which is which?


in the stillness
of a bare canyon
I'm a scarecrow
with a cigarette
tied to its face

I'm an incident
in a tumbleweed's travels
on a backroad
a dustcloud in a lizard's eye


at the edge of a desolate plain
lies a graveyard
neat as a postage stamp
mailing this bleak postcard
to the afterlife

and every highway
wears on its shoulder
a wandering dog
struck dead


As I stepped out the front door of the hotel, a dust devil
big enough to swallow a car came spinning across the
parking lot, lifting its collection of dirt, papers, dead weeds,
30 feet in the air, until it collided with the carport roof
to die in a shower of debris, except for a small feather,
which wafted toward me and was about to alight on my
raised hand when the final gasp of the whirlwind snatched
it away to go dancing gaily over the top of the building
and I hurried around the hotel to claim the splinter of
grace that was meant for me. But the moment had passed.

Roger Parish
from Lines Written Near Marguerite Street
2006 Red Dragonfly Press


from "Song of the Open Road"

Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth, I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querrulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.


From this hour I ordained myself loosed from limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

Walt Whitman
from  Leaves of Grass

Roger is a dear and long time friend of mine. He is also a poet, though, being a persnickety old cuss, rarely releases a line. Whitman, on the other hand, well, you couldn't shut the man up. Yet the desire to see other vistas, to be part of other landscapes, infuses both. Roger has spent months and months wandering the trackless wastes of the American southwest and barely produced 200 words.
Whitman, I get the feeling, had his entire poem, of 224 lines in his head before he'd even reached the corner of his block!

Are you a traveler? What does it mean to you?


Friday, December 2, 2016

But Then We Were Children

My poetry-only Advent has never been about poems specifically relating to the season, or even particularly religious poetry. I like religious poetry and seek it out, but other poetry works just as well for me. If it takes the top of my head off, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, it's good enough for me.

Today, however, I am on an Advent message and will share some lines from W.H. Auden's marvelous work, For the Time Being, a "Christmas Oratorio" which was never actually set to music. This long poem covers the story from before the Annunciation through the Flight into Egypt. Even though it was never fully performed, either spoken or sung, the reader can still hear voices raised in song, can still see movement of characters across a stage. Or maybe it's just my imagination.

The piece I am sharing today is from the first section in which Caesar's world is portrayed, and there is no better passage in all literature that so well describes the utter and endless tedium of a world without Christ. Auden plays with time so that modern references are intertwined with ancient ones. He plays with mood as well, transposing his 20th Century angst with the overwrought Empire of the 1st Century. This "dark night of the soul" is as easily viewed in any godless world or person.

But it was not entirely godless. God's people were there with "the fern's devotion to spatial necessity," going through some sort of motion. It was more that any reaching toward God had been so worn thin by reaching elsewhere. Sound familiar?

The Narrator of the oratorio:

If on account of the political situation,
There are quite a number of homes without roofs, and men
Lying about in the countryside neither drunk nor asleep,
If all sailings have been cancelled until further notice,
If it's unwise now to say much in letters, and if,
Under the subnormal temperatures prevailing,
The two sexes are at present the weak and the strong,
That is not at all unusual for this time of year.
If that were all, we should know how to manage. Flood, fire,
The desiccation of grasslands, restraint of princes,
Piracy on the high seas, physical pain and fiscal grief,
These after all are our familiar tribulations,
And we have been through them all before, many, many times.
As events which belong to the natural world where
The occupation of space is the real final fact
And time turns itself in an obedient circle,
They occur again and again but only to pass
Again and again into formal opposites,
From sword to ploughshare, coffin to cradle, war to work,
So that, taking the bad with the good, the pattern composed
By the ten thousand odd things that can possibly happen
Is permanent in a general average way.

Till lately we knew of no other, and between us we seemed
To have what it took -- the adrenal courage of the tiger,
The chameleon's discretion, the modesty of the doe,
Or the fern's devotion to spatial necessity:
To practice one's specific civil virtue was not
So impossible after all; to cut our losses
And bury our dead was really quite easy: That was why
We were always able to say:"We are children of God
And our Father has never forsaken His People."

But then we were children: That was a moment ago,
Before an outrageous novelty had been introduced
Into our lives. Why were we never warned? Perhaps we were.

More about Auden here