Thursday, March 26, 2020

About “Never Thunders”

This poem began as a walk in the field with my high school chum, Dana P. This was my second year of college. I was living in Boyd House (a converted military barracks later torn down). I had recently returned from Princeton, NJ, and the end of a romantic relationship.

Dana had come to visit me, and we were walking out in the fields - somewhat lost in the stars and fog. Off in the distance, I could make out the flashing red lights of broadcast towers. That sparked the first line.

It’s likely Dana and I went back to my dorm room and started writing. We’d often do that, huddling on different sides of the room to write. Dana still thinks the poem is directed at him. It could as easily been directed at the girl I’d dated in Princeton.

Or, it could be directed to “the eternal feminine.”

There’s a sense in which this poem uses several  different methods. One is automatic writing, a technique developed by the Irish poet WB Yeats - it’s pretty much what it sounds like: you start free-associating on paper without worrying about meaning or structure. The poem also uses “paste up”, a sort of literary collage where you paste (in my case) song lyrics and fragments of other poems into your work. This is especially evident in the opening lines, where I quote the British poet William Blake (“mind-forg’d manacles”), a song made famous by The Brothers Four (“Greenfields”) and Bob Dylan (held mountains in the palm of my hand).

Another high-school friend, Gary, quotes Gregory Corso to the effect that to be considered a poet one need only write one great poem. This may be that poem for me.

It’s definitely a performance piece. I still remember the first time I read it to an audience - at the Library Bar in Norman - the MC said, “You got chops, man.” I’ve played with different musical selections to accompany my reading - the one you heard in the video, from Larry Fast's Synchronicity and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves - I’ve decided the Williams’ piece is too on the nose, and have stuck with Fast's tribal electronic music. I was once accompanied live by David Amran, a Beat pianist.

What makes it work? I think it’s the repetition - watching, waiting - and the occasional rhymes. 

What does it mean? Is it a love poem to Jenny (the girl in Princeton) or something Dana sparked, or praise to the Muse of the Eternal Feminine? Maybe all of the above.

Or maybe it’s the poetic equivalent of a shaggy-dog story, which ends with a little surprise - Greensleeves.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Hagiopoeia II

Samuel Clemens did not consider himself the author of "boys' books," or even humorous books.  He saw himself, first and foremost, as a newspaper man.  "Most of my life," he once said, "I've been a journalist.  As such, I was licensed to tell lies that would make Satan blush."

Before he became a professional liar, Sam was a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi.  "I had supposed - and hoped - that I was going to follow the river the rest of my days, and die at the wheel when my mission was ended."

Sam wrote a book about his time as a riverboat pilot, and he called it Life on the Mississippi.  It's a fine book, except for the muddy parts and the forced burlesque.  Here's a bit which Sam left out of the final work:

There was one boat I cubbed which had a captain - Captain Stubbleford - who insisted on testing everyone who worked on his boat, from the cabin boy to his first mate.  It was a brief oral examination of two or three or five questions.  Now, Billy loved the river and knew it like a fish.  Sadly, he lacked the intelligence which the Creator had given to that common animal, or even the wisdom of a fence post.  He also had only one good eye.  But he was a good worker, and we knew he'd be good for our crew.  So we told Captain Stubbleford that Billy was dumb, which is to say mute, and he would have to give his test in signs.

Well, the boys and I were prepared for the worst, even with that precaution.  Billy went to the Captain's quarters.  Five minutes passed, then ten.  After fifteen minutes, Billy stormed out of the room and ran off before we could stop him.  Captain Stubbleford came out after him, shaking his head.

"I am truly humbled.  That young man could be a river boat pilot, if only he could speak!  I held up one finger, to indicate there is one mighty river.  He held up two fingers, to indicate there should always be two on deck to face this river.  I held up three fingers to indicate there were three branches of the river at its mouth.  He then shook his fist at me, to indicate that all rivers are one:  the Mississippi is the Mother of all Rivers, the River that IS all rivers."

Shortly after the Captain left, shaking his head in amazement, Billy came by.  We nabbed him quick.  "Lemme go," he said, "Wait til I git mah hands on that cap'n.  He may be a good cap'n 'n' all, but he sure don't have no manners!  He holds up one finger, sayin as how ah jest got one good eye.  So ah holds up two fingers, sayin as how ah's glad he's still got two good eyes.  Then he holds up three fingers, sayin as how we got us three good eyes 'tween us.  Ah tell ya, ah got steamed!  Ah's bout ta reduce his good eyes by one when he wanders off.  Now, lemme at him!"

Soon enough, Billy forgot all about it.  Captain Stubbleford hired him on as a swab.  The crew all held Billy in high esteem, because the Captain told us how wise Billy was beneath his silence.

Adapted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps (Doubleday, New York)

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Surprised by God: an appreciation

If you’ve read the synopsis for Surprised by God, the story may seem familiar - especially at a distance: A young person declares herself an atheist, leads a bohemian (or hedonistic) life, then slowly discovers God. Danya Ruttenberg’s story fits into a genre I call “spiritual autobiography”; it shares that basic outline with C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Augustine’s Confessions. My own faith journey is strikingly similar as well.

The difference being that Ms. Ruttenberg is Jewish.

Danya was born into a family that was only moderately observant. Her mother observed a few holidays, but no one in her family regularly attended synagogue. By contrast, my family attended church every Sunday. I was baptized into the Methodist church in December 1956 - a year and one month after my birth. In my memory, the Methodist denomination did not require much of us - beyond children remaining quiet and still in church.

Like Danya, I came to reject the faith, and even question the existence of God. She declared herself an atheist in high school; I waited until my first year of college. Danya describes herself as bohemian: she partied til early in the morning; developed her own wild sense of style; had sex with women as well as men; and even drank absinthe.

Similarly, I drank to intoxication on a regular basis. My dress was unique, but not as outre as Ms Ruttenberg’s. I dropped LSD with alarming regularity. I was essentially celibate, but was attracted to a handful of men as well as most women.

Then, like Danya, I began to sense there was something more; that there was, to paraphrase William Blake, something beyond “the senses five.'' Danya was in college, and chose to major in Comparative Religion, with an emphasis on Christianity - as the dominant religion of our culture. In retrospect, I wish this part of my journey had been equally structured.

My journey began in 1988, when PBS aired “Power of Myth”, a series of interviews between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. I had read The Hero With a Thousand Faces shortly after I graduated high school, so I was already aware of Campbell’s work. But this was more extensive. The ideas were exciting; the presentation comforting.

This formed a confluence with other media: Leo Buscalia’s PBS series on Love; Elaine Pagel’s research into the Gnostics, originally serialized in the New York Review of Books; J.M. Cohen’s The Common Experience; and the Penguin Edition of the Word Bible, with collected selections from most of the world’s religions.

In brief, it was a self-directed course in Comparative Religion. Like William Blake, I believed “All religions are One”, and I strove to find a synthesis of these varied expressions of the divine. On my own, with no mentor.

In brief, I had a nervous breakdown.

Ms. Ruttenberg journey gained momentum after her mother died. She felt obliged to offer Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of morning, a practice she knew would have had meaning to her late mother. This required her to find synagogues where ten men would join the prayer. In Hebrew, a language as foreign to her at that time as it is to me now. Still, the ritual worked on her, embedded itself in her.

She chose to return to the tradition of her youth, even though she found some aspects to admire in the Christian tradition - she quotes Christian authors like Merton or Nouwen at least as much as she quotes Jewish writers like Heschel. If you follow her twitter account (@TheRaDR), you know she considers Judaism a culture as well as a religion. From which, I infer she chose Judaism because to do otherwise would be to reject her culture and its traditions.

Rabbi Ruttenberg often pauses in her spiritual autobiography to reflect on moments in her life, on what they mean, through the prism of her current understanding. As she grows in her practice of Conservative Judaism, she mentions that following Torah - which is typically translated as The Law, but could also mean The Way - is like living in a portable monastery.

I understand this to mean that one agrees to follow Torah just as one agrees to adopt a Rule of Life. In the monastic tradition, a Rule of Life is intended to draw you closer to the community and to God. Most Protestants are not familiar with this ancient tradition. But it can help give your life more structure, more of a foundation in the Eternal, than a Sunday worship service alone.

For example, in the Benedictine tradition, the monks pray four times a day: Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night. They work to support the common good. They share their possessions in common. The monks take vows of poverty and chastity (though there are now some orders which accept married people)..

As it happens, I had read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy shortly before reading Surprised by God. Rev. Taylor taught a class in Comparative Religion for several years, and she found something to envy in each of the world’s major religions. Like me, she envied the precision of Jewish tradition. By which I mean, having 613 laws to follow is less challenging, in its way, than Jesus’ Great Commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A Jewish friend recently told me that the 613 (or 618) laws exist to protect the Ten Commandments. And the Ten Commandments exist to protect the One. In other words, the Torah makes explicit, in minute detail, what it means to love God with your whole heart, whole mind, and whole being.

I found myself wondering, as I read Rabbi Ruttenberg’s excellent book, how different my practice would be if I had a Rule of Life that was clearly enumerated and sustained by tradition. I give thanks for her witness; I consider it both a challenge and an encouragement.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Finding Beauty in the Hard Places

I seek beauty in the hard places
in the dark night of the soul places.
I seek beauty in lost tears
in a forgotten promise.
I seek comfort in the cold places
in the last place you'd look places.
I seek comfort in a glance,
an embrace, the soft tremble
of a falling leaf.

About Tom Cole

Young Tom Cole
was the master of his soul
should you happen to ask him.
As he looked at his life
so free of strife
he would call no man his master.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

My Labyrinth Year: Introduction

When I reflect on the past year, the word which immediately comes to mind is “community.” And this seems appropriate, since the modern Christian labyrinth walk has its roots in pilgrimages, when new communities would form among the pilgrims as they traveled to Jerusalem, Santiago, or Canterbury.
In my life’s pilgrimage, there was a time when I thought I could walk a spiritual path alone. But now, I’m suspicious of those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” These people believe they can live a fully realized spiritual life alone, outside a community. I firmly believe life in a faith community is absolutely necessary for a spiritual life:

  • A community is comprised of people dedicated to the ideal of “mutual support”, to borrow a phrase from the marriage ceremony;
  • Members of a community may also challenge you:
    the First Letter of John asks how one can claim to love God, whom you have not seen, while hating your neighbor, whom you have (I Jn 4:20).

I. 15.July.2018

As I was training to be a labyrinth facilitator last May, I was already envisioning a presentation for my faith community. The priest in charge had resigned abruptly in April, with an resignation letter which implied that the community had prevented him from fulfilling his mission. I had been through a similar situation at a different church, and felt that community had not directly confronted its wounds, and suffered for it in the following years. I feared the same would happen in this community.

About a month following our training, the new priest in charge requested volunteers to lead a labyrinth experience for our community; this was expressly to give trainees an opportunity to fulfill the Veriditas licensure requirement. I waited for other trainees from our church to accept the invitation; when no one else had within a couple of days, I did.

I met with the priest in charge a few weeks prior to the presentation, and shared my ideas to confront any wounds within the community. She was not comfortable with the sort of confrontation I had envisioned. She suggested the presentation focus on transition instead, and mentioned her sermon that Sunday would also focus on transition. We discussed themes we might share and emphasize in her sermon and my presentation. She also suggested that I ask participants to meditate on what had brought them to our church, and consider what keeps them returning.

Because no one else had volunteered for the presentation, I thought I was on my own for all parts of the event. It did not occur to me to ask for help until about a week prior to the event. So a few details were forgotten, like whether people would need to remove their shoes prior to walking the labyrinth (only one of our four canvas labyrinths may be walked with shoes on): so there was lack of communication on that point.

From this I learned that I needed the group mind of the community to remember all the details that go into a labyrinth event. It was a successful event, largely because I had sought the counsel of our current priest in charge, and had placed her vision - and her perception of the community’s needs - above my own.

My Labyrinth Year II: 2.Dec.2018

The next event was facilitated by two women who had attended the same training as I.  It’s still not clear to me if either was the primary point person. Regardless, they had chosen to structure the experience around a form of Lectio Divina they were familiar with, and had previously used in other contexts. I was not familiar with that format, and was unclear on the terminology they used.

One woman, J,  had recently changed her email protocol, and was difficult to contact for coordination. So I primarily coordinated with the other woman, K. A third person was responsible for sending progress updates on our plans, but she was unfamiliar with the Lectio Divina format they were using, and transposed a couple of elements.

I’ll confess, this was confusing and frustrating.

Ultimately, J called me, and we talked out some details on the phone. I wish one of us had thought of this earlier.

The theme of the event was the Christian season of Advent. I was asked to serve three functions: guide people into the labyrinth; lead the group in “Light One Candle” by Paul Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary; and offer a reflection. As it happened, our event was the morning prior to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which is referenced in the song.  Included with this packet is that presentation, which incorporated a reading from Genesis and a reading from the Gospel of John.

All the participants in this experience were women.  I watched at the entrance to the labyrinth as they walked the path. A sense of calm came over me. All frustrations were forgotten.

This taught me the value, once again, of placing the needs of the community above my own ego needs (e.g., that the process follow my sense of order).

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

My Labyrinth Year III: 2.Feb.2019

My involvement with this event was unofficial, so I have not included support materials for it. Yet, my experience in assisting with the event reinforces what I have learned this past year.

C was the point person for this event. She had gone to the same training as J, K, and I. I was in the process of preparing a different presentation, which I will discuss in the next section. But, as part of that preparation, I had found wooden labyrinths about the size of a half dollar on Etsy. I had already ordered 50 for my presentation, and offered to donate some for hers.

I may have been awkward in my offer, because she heard it as my imposing on her plans. Although she was clearly upset, she still accepted my offer.  Yet, I sensed an uncomfortable energy between us.
I thought it best to support C to the best of my ability while keeping additional ideas to myself.  When the participants walked the labyrinth, I walked the boundary to maintain the energy. As the walk was ending, I prayed for all participants, using a set of Anglican Prayer Beads.  About that time,
C came next to me and asked if I thought a reflection was needed.

I was taken aback that she’d asked - perhaps I had mistaken that uncomfortable energy — but I said I thought it would be useful. She then asked if I would mind leading that.

I reflected on the experience of praying with the prayer beads while the participants prayed on the labyrinth path. I was praying especially for Jo, the last person walking the circuits. She was recently widowed, and walking a canvas her family had donated in her late husband’s name.

After sharing this story, I invited the participants to share their own reflections with each other in small groups. This generated positive energy among all the participants.

I hope I was able to suppress my ego in all this. I do wish I had found a better way to offer the wooden labyrinths, so there would have been no misunderstandings or hurt feelings.  But I put the needs of the community above any hurt feelings or awkwardness; and I believe I grew from it.

My Labyrinth Year IV: 14.Feb.2019

This presentation was for a professional organization, the Midtown Chapter of the American Academy of Professional Coders (AAPC); it would take place on a state college campus; and most of the audience would likely be Southern Baptist, and thus unfamiliar with the labyrinth (and might be suspicious of “Roman influence”). Wishing to be sensitive to these factors, I chose to downplay spiritual benefits, and reference the Roman Catholic Church as little as possible.

To accomplish this, I focused on health benefits, which are similar to the benefits claimed for mindfulness meditation. As I was researching the benefits of mindfulness meditation, I became aware of contrarian views - interestingly, from Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Since this was an academic setting, I included these critiques, and offered my own responses.

As you’ll see in the presentation, I also incorporated the health benefits of walking, which are less controversial.

The room the Midtown Chapter uses for their meetings would not accommodate the labyrinth I had available (60 x 60), so I made arrangements to place the labyrinth in an atrium on the same floor, several yards away from the meeting room. The meeting takes place at lunch, and most members are expected to be back at their jobs in a little over an hour, so only a handful walked the labyrinth.
I compensated for this by bringing the wooden labyrinths and sheets of paper with labyrinth patterns and instructions for making your own labyrinth.  I talked the participants through a simple meditation using the wooden labyrinths.

I had planned my presentation while considering  the needs of this unique community, and “The Health Benefits of Walking Around in Circles” was warmly received.

My Labyrinth Year: V. A Poetic Reflection

The way we tell our story tends to set our fate:
I have shared my story with my community;
I have heard others share their story.
We share our story as we share our path;
we make a new story as we circle into
the divine center which unites us all.
The space between us is holy;
the circle is holy;
the time is holy.
Do not our hearts burn?

The Holy One is here.
She whispers, but we do not listen.
He walks beside us, but we do not recognize him.
The Holy One speaks the name
we had before we were born.
The High Holy One is a circle;
in the center of a Venn Diagram
which overlaps the circle of you & the circle of me.
The Holy One brings us together;
She unites us at the center of the labyrinth.
He speaks counsel at the center of the center.
Do not our hearts burn?

You and I, we judge people from the outside in;
But Mr. God judges people from inside out —
Thus spake the young prophet. And I believe —
I believe it’s true:
the heart is weighed on the scale of love.
Each heart that has loved,
even in small measure,
is welcome.
Your heart is blessed, as is mine.
Even my enemy’s heart may be blessed –
For only the Creator of 10,000 things
is qualified to judge.
So let us walk in love
as the Holy One loves us.
Do not our hearts burn?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Idée d’jour

The truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is.
– Nadine Gordimer

Friday, November 16, 2018


I am a reliquary for my ancestors:
I carry their sacred bones
in my silken heart.

For their part, they embrace my soul
and carry it through the paths of eternity.

Today, as I eat my lunch,
I feel carried by Mom-mom.
I can taste Jello chocolate pudding
With a dollop of milk on top.

Later –

She blesses me when I meet
another grandmother
Enjoying the afternoon
with another blonde grandchild.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Elegy: for my brother


Born under the judgment
of an angry goddess
and her 5 o’clock hand

Born to suburban streets
you came of age
In hill & meadow

Born to darkness
born to light
before you knew your Name


His spirit was formed
before the dragons were born,
so he embraced the flame

I light this candle
in memory of my brother,
one year gone

I hear his voice
born of an owl’s wisdom,
echo from green rice fields

I light this candle
in his memory
for he hungered for justice

He loved justice
He lived mercy
He walked with integrity

I hear his voice
echo through the foothills
as I light this fire

I light this fire in this circle,
for my brother
now one year gone

His flame is not lost
it lingers in eternity
soaring on the updrafts

I hear his voice
I seek his justice, his
mercy, and his passion

He embraced the flame  


The lost little boy face in the mirror
Does not belong to my brother or my father

Those eyes are my father’s,
The tilt of my head my brother’s

That cracked grin is mine alone.

When I sing, I hear my father’s voice
When I teach, I hear my brother’s voice

When a dark voice condemns me
it is my mother speaking

I built this poem from my memories
what’s left are the stories I’ve been told

The true fictions that build a life
The ghosts that make a lifetime

And I carry these ghosts
in an old knapsack

I bought at the Army-Navy store
These old bones these old voices

This face in the mirror,
this face I carry before me

With my father’s integrity
and my brother’s courage  


Your spirit soars
On hawk’s wings
above the Texas foothills

Your eternal vision
Hitch-hiking the updrafts

Beyond the thin places
To where brothers embrace
Once again  

Work in progress

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ideé d’jour

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those to who evil is done
Do evil in return.
— W.H. Auden

Friday, February 09, 2018

Ideé d’jour

The trade of governing has always been monopolized by the most ignorant and the most rascally individuals of mankind.
– Thomas Paine

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Idée d’jour

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
– Isaac Asimov

Friday, November 17, 2017

Idée d’jour

Through others, we become ourselves.
– Lev Vygotsky, psychologist (17 Nov 1896-1934)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Idée d’jour

We have probed the earth, excavated it, burned it, ripped things from it, buried things in it, chopped down its forests, leveled its hills, muddied its waters, and dirtied its air. That does not fit my definition of a good tenant. If we were here on a month-to-month basis, we would have been evicted long ago.
– Rose Bird, Chief Justice of California Supreme Court

I think Brother Dave would have agreed with this.