Friday, April 18, 2014


Krista Tippett on Civility

The following are notes from a presentation given by Krista Tippett, the host of "On Being", on April 8, 2014, at the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, OK. These notes are a reflection of what impressed me in her presentation, and are not expected to be an accurate representation of what she said.

Distinction between public life and political life. The word “civility” is inadequate, for it seems too demure, prim and proper; but it's as close.

We find the big questions of the 20th century are being re-imagined for the 21st century; e.g., marriage, beginning of life, etc.

This requires the reformation of all institutions

The most needed innovation is to recognize how our individual vulnerability is linked with others on the planet (all beings, all creation)

Anxiety about change in public life looks like anger (especially via "news" media) rather than fear.

The next needed innovation is to be conversational entrepreneurs; to see conversation as means to seek shared values rather than means to persuade, to win. This will plant seeds of the civil society we long for.


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Sunday, April 13, 2014


Peace to those who mourn

Went to a funeral for a friend's son yesterday. He died a week ago, at a relatively young 35. I knew him only as a small boy; there's a chunk of his life unknown to me. Just hints from the slide show displayed on the church wall, and comments from the minister.

I went as a support to his mother, who I haven't seen in almost 30 years. She looks much the same; I have less hair.

As I held her after the funeral, she kept saying how kind I was to drive 30 minutes south to attend the funeral. Don't know if it was kind; it was the right thing to do.

Saw a few old poetry friends at the ceremony. Somehow, seeing those people, and seeing the photos of the young boy I briefly knew, conjured ghosts of a sort. I felt haunted and on edge the rest of the day. There are echoes this morning.

Pray for Blake; pray for his father, currently in a far distant land and unable to be at the service. Pray peace to Lissa, the mother who has survived her only son.


Friday, April 11, 2014


Idée d’jour

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
— Galileo Galilei


Thursday, April 10, 2014


Idée d’jour

Imagination is the key to my lyrics. The rest is painted with a little science fiction.
— Jimi Hendrix


Saturday, April 05, 2014


Finger Labyrinth

I have a finger labyrinth
which I trace
from time to time
circling into the darkness
into the cave
where ego dwells
circling circling
a cosmos collapsing
into the darkness
where I am empty

I'm not here
but I'm not gone

I have Celtic prayer beads
upon which I count the weeks
a circle of stones
I trace the perimeter
I pray the center
I bless the days
the days bless me

I'm not gone
but I'm not here

I trace my return
from the labyrinth's dark center
I count the courses
the expanding universe
circling stars
greeted here by Whitman
embracing dark & light
greeted here by the angel
with fiery sword
welcomed to new light

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Saturday, March 29, 2014


What Was Said

What the turnstile said
to the whirlwind
under the snow-full moon

where the pilgrim's eyes
were opened
Jacob's well

Standing stone
infinite circle
where water overflows

Sunset a door
a thin line
on the horizon

Dreams beyond the beyond
an infinite circle
in the pilgrim's eyes

A thin skyline
a bottomless well
echoing whirlwind

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Friday, March 21, 2014


Idée d’jour

An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.
— Spanish proverb

Each can do an equal amount of good, or ill.


Saturday, March 15, 2014


Finding Humility After a Sacred Walk

St. Jerome, that great holy crank, is often pictured with a lion. The Desert Fathers welcomed cats to their loosely aligned communities. It's likely the cat was useful for reducing vermin, but I think those felines great and small were also prized for another reason: humility. A cat teaches its human companion humility better than any other creature I know.

Living in community can also be humbling. If done with honesty, clear self-assessment, and integrity, it can be a spiritual discipline. Always I find myself balancing my needs against those of others. The goal, on the sacred path, is to put the needs of others first. But this is balanced by recognizing my own needs. For example, my need for alone time with God — just as Jesus would often step away for private prayer.

As an introvert, it's quite challenging to strike that balance. I'm most comfortable alone, with my own thoughts. The delusion of my perceptions, the delusion of self.

This is part of what I brought with me when I went to walk the labyrinth last Saturday at a Quiet Day at St. Paul's.

I had actually been on the fence as to whether to participate. I had, after all, walked the Healing Path just a few months ago. The deciding factor came on Ash Wednesday. No acolytes had been scheduled for the 7:00 p.m. service, so the Eucharistic Ministers were pressed into service. When I arrived — about 10 minutes before service — I was informed that I had been volunteered to carry the Gospel book.

I don't think I've ever carried the Gospel before; if I have, it was when I was a teenager, over forty years ago. Carrying the Gospel involves bearing it in procession — both at the beginning & end of the service — and holding it for the deacon as s/he reads from it. The Gospel book used at St. Paul's Cathedral is oversized — about as big as the average coffee-table book — and bound by an engraved metal cover. It's surprisingly heavy.

The Gospel expresses an ideal of human living. The life story of Jesus is a plumb line, against which the faithful measure their own manner of living. It calls the listener to judgment. This is why, in our faith tradition, we stand when the Gospel is read.

A hymn is traditionally sung as the Gospel is brought into the midst of the congregation. The crucifix and a pair of torches proceed the deacon and Gospel. The book is presented to the deacon, who finds her place then hands the book back to the acolyte. The acolyte holds the book as the hymn is sung. On this occasion, the hymn seemed especially long, at least six verses.

I stood there, facing the deacon, as the Book grew increasingly heavy. And I was struck by what an honor it is to carry this particular book. How I so often fall short of the ideal, yet am still worthy to hold and carry it in religious ceremony. It was a prayerful moment.

That feeling of prayer was a thin place; a moment when I was aware of the divine. I longed to return to that place, and knew the labyrinth was a way to enter a similar thin place.

I was one of the last ones to enter the labyrinth Saturday morning. I was taking my time. I was praying an Anglican rosary, using a prayer a friend had shared on Facebook: “Keep darkness out, keep light within; keep fear without, keep peace within; keep hatred without, keep love within.” I was two-thirds through the rosary when I noticed I was among the last pilgrims, and decided to complete the rosary as I walked the labyrinth's circuits.

As I've said before, one often meets the companions one needs on the Path. On this day, the first person I met was John, a Viet Nam vet who, I believe, suffers from PTSD. I stepped to one side so he could pass; we bowed to each other as he walked by: “The sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you,” to paraphrase the Hindu prayer.

This stepping to one side to let others pass was something I frequently did that day, mostly as a courtesy. It was also a way to honor my sense of personal space — to allow a bit of breathing room between my body and all those other bodies. The lanes were narrow, and only once did I turn to one side to walk the same circuit as another person — who was walking the opposite direction.

In time, I was the last person in the labyrinth. In time, most of the other pilgrims were heading downstairs for lunch. There were three facilitators walking at the edges of the labyrinth to support our prayer with their own. In time, I came to believe people were waiting for me – possibly my fellow pilgrims, certainly those three facilitators. There was also the possibility I'd be late for lunch, and would not know where it was being served. I was very near the entrance; no more than two or three circuits to go. I was at point where I could easily step over one border and enter the lane leading out.

So I did. I walked back to my chair, quickly jotted down a few notes, and put my shoes back on. I started to join the others, but as I walked down the stairs, I was aware the noise was painful. I had to admit I needed a few more minutes to transition from the sacred to the mundane.

I didn't think much one way or the other about my actions. I wasn't consciously thinking, “Man, I'm a really spiritual person. I've spent all this time in prayer, and I've been so considerate of my fellow pilgrims!”

I suppose that element of pride was there though, lurking in my subconscious.

I drove straight from church to the grocery store. It didn't take long to collect and purchase my paltry supplies — no more than 15-20 minutes. Returned to the car, put the bag in the trunk, started the car.

I couldn't pull out because another car was directly behind me. The driver, a woman with a young child, was waiting for a car on the opposite side to pull out. I wasn't really feeling impatient. I was listening to This American Life as my car ran, and was relatively content. I looked in the rear-view every so often to see if the woman had moved yet.

Our interaction became a silent movie, with each of us projecting dark voices (I suppose) onto the other. At some point the woman saw my eyes reflected in my rearview. I didn't think I was looking that often, but perhaps she thought I was getting impatient. She might have in my place, as I had no way of leaving (there was a car parked in front of me).

I don't know why she didn't pull back so I could exit; then she could have pulled into my former parking space. There was no way to communicate that option.

I was aware of her looking back at me, noticing my eyes in the rear view. I tried to think of a way to communicate I was in no hurry. So I drummed my fingers. Mistake — she read that as greater impatience. I could see her lips move; she was gesticulating to the space she'd been waiting for. Her lips moved some more.

I can't read lips, and that's the point I which I did become impatient. I unbuckled my belt and left the car, hoping we could speak like adults. However, she wouldn't roll down her window. All I could do is say, almost at a shout, “I'm just waiting, like you. What's your problem? There's no problem.” Felt altogether impotent and silly. I returned to my car.

Clearly, I had not made a full return from the mountain top. I was not ready to deal with other people. It's well and good to be courteous to people in your faith community, people you've come to know and care for. But the real test is how you treat the stranger.

I'm not sure I earned a passing grade as I confronted that woman in the grocery store parking lot. I went home, so my cat could teach me greater humility.

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Bukowski on Writing

There's nothing to stop a man from writing unless that man stops himself. If a man truly desires to write, then he will. Rejection and ridicule will only strengthen him. And the longer he is held back the stronger he will become, like a mass of rising water against a dam. There is no losing in writing; it will make your toes laugh as you sleep; it will make you stride like a tiger; it will fire the eye and put you face to face with Death. You will die a fighter, you will be honored in hell. The luck of the word. Go with it, send it. Be the Clown in the Darkness. It's funny. It's funny. One more new line ...
— from The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship

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Thursday, March 13, 2014


Idée d’jour

Humans think they are smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars, etc., and all that dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish, and play around. Dolphins believe that they are smarter for exactly the same reasons.
— Douglas Adams


Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Idée d’jour

Conceive of Nothing While you live And I give you Heaven.
— Jack Kerouac
Happy Birthday, Ti Jean

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Saturday, March 01, 2014


Idée d’jour

What is wanted now is not simply the Christian who takes an inner complacency in the words & example of Christ, but who seek to follow Christ perfectly, not only in his personal life, not only in prayer & penitence, but also in his political commitments and in all social responsibilities.
— Thomas Merton


Thursday, February 27, 2014


Idée d’jour

To draw, you must close your eyes and sing.
— Pablo Picasso


Sunday, February 23, 2014


Playing on the Old Banjo

Consider, for a moment, the humble banjo. Folk I travel with are fond of such jokes as “You know what you got when you throw a hundred banjos in the ocean?” The banjo is almost ridiculous in appearance, when compared with its cousins, the guitar & mandolin (add a bass, and you've got a bluegrass group). It has a loud brash sound, which cuts across the dreadnought guitar, chopping mandolin, and the dancers' feet.

Dave Bonta considers the banjo with just the right mix of seriousness and humor in his latest chapbook, Breakdown: Banjo Poems (Seven Kitchens Press). These poems take the reader on a little history of the instrument, both literal and imaginative.

The collection begins with the ominous sounding “Banjo Apocalypse,” which borrows heavily from the Book of Revelation. This may seem irreverent, and the more tender and easily offended reader may close the book immediately. It would be a shame if you did; you not only miss the fun of this first poem, but the fun journey of the poems which follow.

An “apocalypse”, of course, is a story of the end times (I write this on the supposed date of Ragnarok). And it seems odd to begin a collection with thoughts of the end times. The poem begins by giving the angels of John's vision seven banjos rather than seven trumpets; this seems right — the banjo blares & blasts (in its way) like a trumpet. After an imaginative breakdown of the banjo's construction, the poem closes with these lines:

And the seven angels
which had the seven banjos
prepared themselves
to sound.

This suggests that what is to follow are the sounds of those banjos, for the angels' trumpets sound in John's vision prior to the opening of the scrolls which describe end time events. Immediately, the collection turns from future end times to history — the fraught history of the banjo, which reflects our American history.

For we can't fully consider the banjo's history without addressing the issue of slavery. The banjo was stolen, in a sense, with its owners when European nations kidnapped people from Africa and brought them to the U.S. It's a troubling history; this collection does not shy away from it.

The fourth poem, “Catskin Banjo” is especially telling and (compared to other poems in the collection) relatively graphic. The narrative revolves around a cat, but it could also be about a female slave. The cat's fear could also be a slave's fear.

I don't want to give the impression that the collection dwells on this early history — just the first few poems directly reference the banjo as a slave's instrument. Other poems reference early minstrel days (five have “Medicine Show” in the title). One of the poems in the “Medicine Show” set reminds us that Shackleton took a banjo & banjo player to the Antarctic.

As a watch-repairman's son, I especially enjoyed “Open-Backed Banjo”, which compares it to “our only god the clock”, asking

Where's the balance wheel?
The escapement?
The gear train?

There's nothing there “... but a bare rod / & the smell of rain.” The ghost in its machine calls the narrator to make his hands those of this time-keeping machine, to

Play it, son!
Make it ring like a hammer on steel
& rattle like a Gatling gun
until it smokes.

Bonta's irreverent sense of fun returns with “Banjo Proverbs”, which "steals" from the KJV translation of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, substituting "banjo" for "fool" or "foolish" in the original. Perhaps it's just me, but the banjo here seems more than merely foolish — it “mocks at sin”. A player returns to it as a dog returns to his vomit. “Forsake the banjo,” we're told in the final stanza, “and live”.

Many poems deal with the origins of the banjo, from the gourd in “How Jefferson Heard Banjar” to the mechanisms detailed in the opening poem and “Open-Backed Banjo”. One of my favorites is “Banjo Origins (3): Jesusland”, a playful imagining of how banjos might grow on trees. And how the banjo once followed the Grateful Dead. Side note: Jerry Garcia was a bluegrass fan, as detailed in the documentary “Grateful Dawg”.

Although the collection is headed “Breakdown” there is no other reference to bluegrass in the collection. Elsewhere, Dave has said he prefers the claw-hammer style to Earl Scruggs' new-fangled style. Earl Scruggs is best known for his partnership with Lester Flatt, but he began his career with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys; it was Scruggs' banjo which gave the genre its distinctive sound.

A breakdown may be an instrumental (e.g., Foggy Mt Breakdown) or a break in a vocal song. This collection is an extended piece, with theme & variation — history, dream, myth, wonder. It's a charming collection, a worthy co-winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize.

The chapbook is worth its $9 cover price. I also encourage you to preview the series on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa site, where they are prefaced (or presaged) by a series of Moving Poems.

Order a copy of Breakdown: Banjo Poems from Seven Kitchens Press.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Haiku: 5.Feb.14

Crystalline breath
Lingers on western sky
Quiet pink sunset

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