Monday, December 31, 2012

Haiku: 31.Dec.2012

Brave blades break the ground.
How can I tell the jonquils
The sun is lying?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Playing with the end of the world

Actors lined at the edge of the stage
and, look! there at the end it's Meryl Streep!
She's wearing a pair of big dark-rimmed glasses
you know the kind - that only women can wear.
It was a play about the end of the world
how the tribes gathered by the standing stones
at 5:41 a.m.
where the shy sun rises from the deep blanket of night.
The tribes, the children of Abraham,
Adam's forlorn kin,
gather at the edge of dawn
and pray for the end of the world.
And Meryl had this profound monologue
about the quality of mercy;
it was a solemn pieta
the last blessed mother
mourning the last broken child.
I don't remember how the play ended
but I awoke to scattered applause.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Idée d’jour

It all begins with small numbers. A few more drops of precipitation, a little more wind, a slight rise in the sea level, a couple of degrees difference in the elevation of the moon. Great forces are born in small numbers, in the increments of existence, the mathematics of our physical being. And as with the natual, so the spiritual. A tiny bit more kindness, a single hope, a small increase in giving, a few more prayers, another moment of patience. Great souls are not instant in being, but being made up of instants. Life without and within, lived in the small things that count. — Bp. Stephen Charleston

Friday, October 12, 2012

Idée d’jour

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself. — Henry Miller

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Idée d’jour

I have some never-prayers, God. Please never let me grow too old to lose the delight of a child's imagination, never too disappointed in life to stop believing each morning is a new beginning, never too concerned with my own burdens to fail to help another whose needs are so clear and pressing, never so busy making a living that I forget what living is about, never so certain that I have all the answers that I stop enjoying the questions, never with so much to say that I don't be still and listen, never so far from you that I do not hear your voice when you call me home. — Bp. Stephen Charleston

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Dream of the Prophet

Previously titled "Black History Month"; original lyrics posted below.

Idée d’jour

Knowledge once received is not wisdom. We learn best not by memorizing what others tell us, but by stretching our minds to discover the meaning of truth as we put it to work in the fields of hope around us. We were made to question. Made to think. Made to test the truth by a Mind that never ceases its endless quest of creation. How sad when some entomb their thoughts in a faith too fragile to wonder. We were made to breath cleaner air than dust in a museum. Tradition will hold us back if we run too far ahead, but we will never catch the Spirit if all we do is stand still.
— Bp. Stephen Charleston

The Rt. Rev. Charleston is former Episcopal Bishop of Alaska, and recently Interim Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, Oklahoma City, OK. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bp. Charleston is currently Visiting Professor of Native American Ministries at Saint Paul School of Theology, Oklahoma City University.

He recently published a book collecting his daily meditations, Hope As Old As Fire.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Black History Month

From the halls of Trevon Martin
to the shores of Rodney King
we will share our nation's blindness
and our lost belief.
We will shore up the broken levies
along the shattered shore
where we'll dream of peace & freedom
and fellowship no more.

From the hidden Tubman railway
To Lincoln's bold brigade
we will tally all our losses
and the errors that we've made.
We will sing beside the fires
as we watch Atlanta burn
and offer solemn prayers
for the way the lesson turns.

Oh, the dreams of Frederick Douglas
and the life of Malcolm X!
We await another prophet:
Who will be murdered next?
And we bathe by water cannon
And we love the happy dogs
And we think we see our freedom
Beyond the tear gas fog.

Take a sip of Big Bill Broonzy
and a draught of Bessie Smith,
the love supreme of Coltrane
and Satchmo's swinging scat;
you can call with your mourning
or your low-down blues
I've got a Robert Johnson heartache
and my harp's just for you.

Work in Progress.  “Black History Month” is a working title only

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Behind the Curtain: A Loveless Marriage

This is probably the first poem I've written in a while that almost demands an explanation.  In fact, it's possible that the process will prove to be more interesting than the poem itself.

Except for a few stray phrases, this poem began on Wednesday, September 4, the 100th anniversary of John Cage's birthday. The NPR story mentioned that at one point, John Cage determined the motifs for a piece of work by throwing the I Ching; this was his way of removing his ego, and introducing an element of chance. I wondered whether this might be done with a poem.

Over the previous weekend, I had watched a documentary on William S. Burroughs, A Man Within. Burroughs, of course, is best known for his "cut up" technique — which was initiated by his friend Brion Gysin. This I Ching experiment seemed perfect for cut up.

I've also been reading John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks. There are several phrases and images in this text I've found arresting, "poetic", no doubt because they are "foreign" to my experience.

So the last piece was to throw the I Ching. I couldn't find my copy, so I found a website that would virtually throw the coins. I asked the question, “Who is the blue man?” The "blue man" is a figure from Black Elk's vision. The resulting hexagram was number 54, Kuei Mei, which the website translated as “A Loveless Marriage” (another source translates it as "Converting the Maiden"). I pulled some phrases and images from the hexagram and individual trigrams (top & bottom) and wrote them on an index card. I had already written snippets related to Burroughs (Bill Lee) on an index card, and images from Black Elk on another index card

I assigned each card a value of Yin, changing; Yang, changing; Yin; and Yang. I simply copied out lines from each card, in order, as determined by whether the corresponding part of the hexagram was Yin or Yang.

The resulting poem seems to me fragmentary, but there are moments when the juxtaposition of fragments seem to point to a “meaning”. But clearly, this is a case where any meaning will be assigned by each individual reader. It's a fun process, which I may try again.


Addendum: I went to the second hand bookstore yesterday, thinking I might pick up a copy of the I Ching. There was a hard cover copy of Wilhelm's translation for $7.99; inside was a book mark from a family-owned bookstore I used to work for. Carl Jung believed the I Ching was an expression of synchronicity. This could well be an example. I didn't buy it, but I still might (the weekend is still young).

Thursday, September 06, 2012

A Loveless Marriage

Morning thunder
Bill Lee said, It's a Bardo World
Groom draws no blood from the sacrifice
We're the monsters
Bride's basket remains empty
I've been dreaming

under a blood cherry moon
upon the red earth
crawling between earth & sky
A halt now proves tragic
Ride the china white train
walking east

Geese like arrows
the silver rails
Black-billed bird

The silent chains
Pebbles on heaven's shore
Grandfather Earth

Lightning in their wings
Old Bill Lee said, We're the monsters
No blood from the sacrifice
Crawling between spirit & flesh
Bride's basket remains empty
Grandfather Sky

Sunday, July 29, 2012

It Ain't Me Babe / Big Girl Now

I've been doing new videos of some of the tunes I've posted to YouTube, hoping for recordings where the guitar is less distorted. My voice may seem a little distant here, but I think it's still better than the first posting.

Some reason, I think these two songs go together. They seems to tell a story, though they were written about ten years apart: "It Ain't Me Babe" appeared on Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in 1964; "You're A Big Girl Now" appeared on Blood on the Tracks, releaed in 1975.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Gun Control: Another View

This comes from Brother Dave:

Jac —
While I have a different view regarding particulars, in general I agree. Having said that, I am not sure the problem of US citizens killing each other, all at once or one by one, would be reduced as much as many would hope should either of our prescriptions be adopted...

There is, I firmly think, such a thing as “national traits” or a “national character.” Those things are, in my view, simply extensions of that which defines a society; its traits and shared beliefs. As such, this country has certain very deeply entrenched, very dysfunctional national traits. Our national immersion in violence has fed on itself for many generations and it does not seem to me that those traits can be up-rooted by more rational training and qualification requirements for firearm ownership (obviously, it would seem, they have effectively mitigated against such requirements be adopted). Such measures would most likely greatly reduce accidental homicide with firearms – a non-trivial accomplishment, to be sure.

It seems to me all but certain that we will not be able to test my assertion as the chance that this event, any more than all the other headline-grabbing, sensationalized similar events in the very recent or even more distant past, will lead to any meaningful and rational changes in firearms ownership requirements.

I responded:

America may not have invented the gun, but we certainly have perfected it and use it more (per capita) than any other developed nation. You may be right about extreme violence, particularly of the gun, being a part of our national identity.

I read an editorial this morning which essentially argued that these violent events can be traced to our greater immersion in our screens (which separates us from our fellow humans), and "shooter games" in particular. As you probably know, some studies demonstrate that our mind makes no distinction between killing a virtual person and an actual person, with the result that we become as desensitized to killing humans as a recruit fresh from boot camp.

Does Pop Culture Inspire Murder? by Owen Glieberman

Brother Dave's response:
While I doubt the assertion that our minds do not make such a distinction, I am persuaded that interactive video games, most importantly that class referred to as “first shooter” games, do play a role in desensitizing the individual to acts of violence as the “victims” return to “life” with the next playing of the game. The game also can instill a reflexive “pulling of the trigger.” I was much influenced in my views on this particular matter by the academic work of a retired US Army Lt. Colonel named David Grossman. He published his academic work in a popularly-accessible book titled On Killing. His research centered on his discovery that, prior to the American War in Viet Nam, the rate at which combat troops actually took part in killing had been quite low. He began to inquiry with WW I where he found rates as low as 5-10%. The “non-killers” might not fire their weapons at all or might fain taking part by firing in the air or the general direction of the enemy. He then traced the incremental change through WW II, the Korea to Viet Nam by which time the rate of participation had increased to 85%. His analysis turned to the training methods employed across those decades and he found the increase in killing participation rates tracked very closely to the increasing use of operant conditioning techniques in military training. The final chapter of the book turns to the role of certain of the techniques used in that training in entertainment, with special concern for the the violent video game. One of his more compelling observations was that while in a military context those trained to kill (over coming the strong, deeply instilled taboo) were under “adult” supervision and that violence directed toward approved targets (no commentary on the morality of that target selection), no such supervision was available for those young folks, many of exactly the same age as the military recruit.

I am going to append the comments of a man I know in Austin, Alan Pogue.... whom I respect tremendously. Alan has been a professional photographer, living in Austin, since his return from Viet Nam where he served as a field medic. Like me, almost as soon as he got back home he signed on with VVAW. Unlike me, ever since he has committed his time, his energies and his considerable talent as a photographer in the fight for social and economic justice and against wars of aggression. He has produced a body of artistic documentation of the lives and trials of others around the world engaged in such struggles to survive, rather than as a matter of moral conviction. With that context, Alan's thoughts on the latest mass shooting:

The shooter picked the best media moment to commit his crime insuring the maximum media coverage. He could simply have placed bombs in the theater and escaped undetected. He wanted public recognition. He picked the most public media moment. He allowed himself to be arrested. He placed himself at the vortex of violence idolatry and he called his shot at public recognition with precision. Our violent culture gave him the recognition he wanted. Our President has a kill list. Romney will have an even more refined eugenics plan. Why should a freelancer pass up his chance at fame? If he were only a Blackwater mercenary nobody would know his name. Now he has a shot at joining Charles Manson ad a household word. All because we worship violence.

Drones kill people every day. If our outrage was real we would be calling for an end to drone murder....

He could have planted a bomb and walked away, never gotten caught, but he didn't want that. He carefully chose the best media moment and dressed for the part, still has his Joker orange hair for court appearances. He stepped into America's love affair with violence and obtained the recognition he craved. The AR15 is far from the crucial element. It jammed anyway. The 12 gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot is the better close quarters weapon and it will never be banned. He was a Ph.D. student in neuroscience. He could have used nerve gas. The whole point for him was to be caught and achieve fame. Now the media is his servant as is the whole culture. When there is a call for a ban on drones let me know. Our president has a "kill list" in his pocket. Where is the outrage? I'm sure Mitt Romney has a eugenics plan for us. The guy in Aurora was channeling the moral tone of the country. Blackwater/Ze/Academi kills more people every day but not in middle class white neighborhoods. Nathan Van Wilkins shot 17 people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on July 18th. Did anyone notice? Since he didn't manage to kill anyone, used an unexciting weapon (the AP story did not bother to mention the type or brand), and it was at a bar and not opening night for a Batman movie the media didn't care. Not a good production and no body count.

Meanwhile back in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia the Predators drone on. Will Obama and Romney call a halt to them? They are saner than the man in Aurora, right?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gun Control

Here's my 2¢ on gun control: there should be an exam for gun ownership. We have exams and driver's tests to legally drive cars. And god knows, we love our cars almost as much as we love our guns. And one gun can kill a lot more people than the average car can.

A gun is an elegant machine made for one purpose: to kill. It is a machine that demands at least as much respect as a car.

Ideally, the exams would demonstrate a knowledge of gun care, and proficiency in their use; a psychological exam seems warranted, as well.

It's human to want to blame; it's related to our desire to prevent future tragedies. We want to blame the NRA. We want to blame violence in media. Some will blame it on our nation's loss of “Christian Values” (as defined by one Republican Senator & the Westboro Baptist Church). Some will say tragedies such as the one in Aurora, CO, is the price the nation pays to maintain the freedom to bear arms.

I believe the NRA's excessive influence, and radical position on gun ownership plays a part in gun-related tragedies. At one time, the NRA had the reputation as an organization that promoted responsible gun ownership. It now has the reputation as an organization that refuses to consider any restriction on gun ownership.

The most troubling element of this latest tragedy is the fact that all the weapons and ammo were bought legally.

I know my proposal will not end gun-related violence. I know dedicated people will still find ways to buy guns outside the legal system. I only hope we can reduce the incidence of gun-related violence by raising the bar to ownership a bit higher.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Poetry on the Radio

You may recall I told the story of how I sent a poem to The Story a month ago.  It seemed appropriate; a story had aired about a Chinese poet, Liu Xiaobo, and his translator, Jeffery Yang, which had really touched me.  I wrote about it here.

My poem has now broadcast nationally; it appears in the last five minutes of the program (the play button follows the text). I'm very honored, and quite thrilled, that they aired my poem.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Soar on the Wind, Part Two

If my words be true, they would swirl off the page and surround you. If my words be true, they would catch you up like a feather on the storm. If my words be true they would open the sky to reveal the stars dancing across the great dome; they would bring the clouds, and invoke the storm.

My words are only hints. They are almost false; they are at best well-intentioned lies.

My words try to catch the wind, but the wind blows them away.

When the whirlwind speaks, it is not gentle. It confronts. It challenges. It does not distinguish between good and bad, dark and light.

My words are only hints, and bad hints at that. Do not ask me directions; I am most times lost myself. The wirlwind blew the map away.

If my words be true, if the wind could be conjured within this rectangular confine, the letters would dance over the page. They would lose their meaning and change partners. The alpha and omega would do-se-do. The f & the s would do a grapevine step. The r & the y would bow to each other, and waltz.

When the whirlwind speaks, it requires no translation.

I can only make shadow puppets. Mere puppets, to be blown away by the wind.

How shall I catch the wind? It will not be caught. I may struggle with the wind; I may seek to harness it; or I may join it.

Breath in: I welcome the wind to my small walking home. Breath out: I join the wind in its travels.
Breath in: I invite the Spirit to renew me. Breath out: I release all that separates me from the divine.
Breath in: divine light breaks into the wounded places. Breath out: all fear departs.

This I pray in the name of the Eternal One: the Creator, the Companion, the Comforter.
So be it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Soar on the Wings of the Wind

In the beginning, the wind moved upon the face of the water (Gen 1:2).  In the beginning, the Creator breathed the spirit of life into the clay. (Gen 2:7) In the beginning, the same spirit brooded upon creation as a hen gathers her chicks.  The psalmist says the Creator soars on the wings of the wind (Ps 18:10).

The Master taught, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). In his last days, the Master breathed upon his disciples that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22).

The wind is a reminder that the Creator, though unseen, surrounds us.  Our breath is a cousin to the wind.  Our breath is a reminder of that first breath, when we were filled with the spirit of life. It is a reminder of how the Spirit continually renews us. Ideally, each breath should be a prayer of thanksgiving.

One day, a pilgrim heard the reading from Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17).  He heard this as a personal message from the Creator.  He sought all over the country for one who could teach him this method of prayer.  Finally, he found a master who taught him a method to pray without ceasing, so his prayer would be as close and constant as his breath.

This method is called breath prayer.

I will now teach you a simple prayer form using your breath. Create a quiet space; that is, no TV, radio, or MP3 player. Sit with your back straight and both feet on the ground. Inhale through your nostrils, drawing the breath as deep into your gut as possible. Purse your lips as if to blow through a straw and exhale slowly. Do this three times. Be sure to focus on your breathing; ignore all fleeting thoughts.

This method is called “straw prayer”. Once you feel comfortable with it, you can also apply it when you're stuck in traffic, and even when you're waiting in line.

Breath deep, and soar on the wings of the wind.


The above was written for a presentation on the Four Elements.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Behind the Curtain: West TX, 4.June.2011

Here's the exciting news: My poem will be broadcast on The Story program probably sometime next week.  I emailed it to them, and a producer wanted to record me reading it over the phone. She asked me to talk about what inspired me to write the poem.

The following is based on some notes I wrote as prep.

I heard the promo for the episode either during my morning or evening work drive.  The story of dissident poet Liu Xiaobo caught my ear, and I thought it could prove a worthwhile listen.

I woke early Tue - sometime between 2:30 & 3 - unable to get back  to sleep, I listened to the podcast through the PRX Radio Ap on my iPod Touch.  The discipline of an elegy a year impressed me; the story of how the book came to Jeffrey Yang also impressed me.

Jeffrey Yang used the phrase 'In the middle of the desert', and it caught my ear. The phrase brought up associations - how the desert seems a barren & forbidding place, but it also can be a retreat (e.g., for the Desert Monastics), a way to enter deeply into your self, or to connect with the universe or the divine.  I had an intuition that Jeffrey Yang used it as a way to connect with Liu Xiabo.

I think of this type of poem as an "emotional photograph".  I'm thinking of  Ezra Pound's imagist poetry, or Jack Kerouac's American Haiku - where the goal is to inspire an emotion with as few words as possible.

As I now reread my poem, I wonder whether there's enough there to speak to someone who has not heard the story. I hope so. One advantage of the internet is one can link to a source, so I linked to the appropriate page on The Story's website when I posted the poem here. With any luck, my poem will stir enough curiousity to encourage the reader to research the inspiration.

After I listened to the podcast, I already had the first three lines in mind. I kept repeating "In the middle of the desert" over and over, like a mantra or breath prayer. When I got to the keyboard, all I knew for certain were the first three lines, and the fact that I wanted it to end in Tianamon Square. I hope that abrupt transition from the fires in West Texas to the smoke from China is haunting as well.

I think the lack of detail can be powerful in these emotional photographs. It can engage the reader, cause her to fill the spaces you've left open. S/he can bring her own desert associations with her/him.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bad Biorhythm

When I was a teenager, there was a pseudoscience involving biorhythms. I bought a hand-held calculator which claimed to track one's rhythm for any given day. The calculator had a graphic display which showed flowing curves, which indicated whether you were in biorhythmic peak or valley.

Happily, the calculator did standard mathematical functions as well.

I rather wish I had that calculator this week. I somewhat suspect it would reflect a biorhythmic valley. Not Marianas Trench or Grand Canyon, but still.

It all started with the trunk of my car. I raised the garage door Monday morning to discover I had left the trunk lid open. Since about noon Sunday. I was prepared to have to plug the car battery to a charger and call in late. But I was lucky; the car started right away.

It's likely the car, a '98 Ford Escort, has a feature that automatically turns off the trunk light after a certain point. The dome light in the cab goes out within a few minutes.

But I wasn't sure. I chose to play it safe, and drive with the radio and lights off. It was about thirty minutes past dawn, so it was light enough to see and be seen.

But when I pulled into the parking structure, I felt the need for my car lights. I drove up the ramp to the second level and backed into my space, as I do every morning. I folded my glasses, and put them in their case, as I do every morning. I slung my satchel over my shoulder and clipped my keys onto the case, as I do every weekday morning. I strode confidently across the garage, with my head held high. Just like I do every weekday morning.

It wasn't until I was about half-way to my office that I began to wonder whether I had turned off the car lights.

I chose to walk on to the office, get the coffee started (I clearly needed it), and start the day. Then I walked back to the car. Turns out, I had turned off the lights just as automatically as I had performed all those other tasks.

The day pretty much continued in that vein. I hung up on customers when I intended to put them on hold. I ran into objects. Stuff like that. The remainder of the week hasn't been any better, or much worse.

It's just felt like I was a third-dimensional being trying to adapt to a fourth dimensional world.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

West Texas, June 4, 2011

For Liu Xiaobo & Jeffrey Yang

In the middle of the desert
translating sorrow,
unwinding intricate ideograms.
Haunted mothers
collect tears
for their nameless children.
Fires in West Texas.
Smoke rolls from Tiananmen Square.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Joe and Mary

It's been over six months since I've been to the Traditional Music club. I remember Joe as a fine guitarist. I remember Mary as a competent, though insecure, banjo player.

I haven't been to the Traditional Music club for a couple of reasons. On the personal side, I struggle with entropy, or maybe depression, and it can be a challenge to leverage myself out of the recliner into the world of people. Also, the Traditional Music club is going through a transition that sometimes feels like death. There are active pockets of jammers — especially the celtic group and the guitar circle — but the one-time center of the organization, the Play Around (an open mike), is poorly attended.

So. I was walking down the hall to the Play Around room when my path intersected with Joe and Mary. Mary wore a white blouse and blue gingham dress and a straw hat. Under the hat, she had an earphone over one ear; she was holding a cassette player. "I can play the cassette now," she said, "Ray gave me batteries." I smiled and nodded, and wondered if something had gone wrong in her head.

We were early for the Play Around. There were six people in the room. There six mikes on the raised stage, as if waiting for all six people to perform at once. Joe commented that attendance at Play Around had been meager - only twelve had attended in April.

A few minutes later, Joe handed me a small photo album. "Mary wanted to share these with every body," he said, "She wanted people to remember what she was once like." Mary and Joe attended Al Goode's Big Band Halloween party every year, and the photo album was filled with pictures of their costumes. Mary as Charly Chaplin, Joe as a flapper. Joe and Mary as Napoleanic royalty. Joe and Mary as hillbillies.

The club president, Cliff, announced that since there were so few of us, we could sing two songs each.

John played "Nobody Loves You When You're Down & Out." Cliff played two poems by Rudyard Kipling set to music. Then it was Mary's turn.

By this point, there were about 14 people in the Play Around room.

The music for Mary's song was on the cassette player. Most of the time, only she could hear it. I don't mean she was having audio hallucinations; when her head was tilted so the earphone was close to the mike, we could hear the music as well. Occasionally, Joe would play a little guitar figure, but most of the time it was just Mary singing snippets of lyrics. Pretty much the same lyrics. Over and over again.

There came a point when there apparantly was an extended musical interlude. During this time, Mary told us about horse back riding. Her husband had decided to try this as a sort of therapy, and (at the least) Mary has enjoyed it. She spoke for several minutes about how gentle the old horse was. She described his mane and tail (though she couldn't remember the word "tail"). She demonstrated what it was like when the horse went at a trot.

This monologue lasted four or five minutes. Then she sang the same lyrical fragments she had been singing previously. I had never heard this song before; I don't if there were more lyrics to the song, or if these fragments were all she could remember.

I'm told this lasted 25 minutes. I have a low tolerance for repitition, and become frustrated when I'm only receiving a part of the information. At least five people left. Many people tried to gently talk Mary away from the stage. Joe tried. The sound man tried. The president tried. No one was willing to physically pull Mary away. I doubt that would have been safe in any case.

She was not hallucinating. The music was real. But Mary was not aware that no one could hear the music she heard.

I actually stayed a bit past the point my patience had run out. I had the sense the tape was on an endless loop. I felt sad for her, and embarrassed for her husband Joe.

I happened to see Joe as I was leaving. He thanked me for my patience: "I knew this was a kind group, and would be patient with her."

He told me Mary was suffering from dementia. Even when she was compos mentis, she did not trust medical doctors. She believed in natural medicine, took vitamins, and relied on herbal remedies. Now, if it's even suggested she should see a doctor, she becomes quite agitated. I suggested Joe find a doctor who would be willing to visit Mary at home. A house call is a very long shot, and there's a limit to how much a doctor can determine face to face, without running tests. But I saw it as worth a try.

Joe was grateful, a survivor reaching for a small bit of driftwood.

Joe and Mary have two daughters. One lives across the road from her parents. She and her father take turns watching and caring for Mary. The other lives in California, but is also involved in discussing options.

He recognizes he needs a support group, as well. I told him he was wise to seek help for himself, and recommended he call a local help line. They would be best equipped to refer him to such a group.

It was hard to leave. I had looked forward to performing. There just seemed to be no end in sight, until the tape or the batteries ran out. I hurt for Joe and Mary. I hurt that all of us were powerless in the face of this profoundly human suffering.

Before we parted, I held Joe in a hug for a moment. I held them both in prayer as I drove home.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Miss Compassionate Conservatism

I wonder what ever happened to the concept of "compassionate conservative". Not that I suppose anyone (even the person who coined it) ever tried to live up to that title. But it was rather charming that the claim was made that compassion was a foundation for conservative ideals..

Today's conservative is more honest.  He does not have to pretend to be compassionate.  She can form policies based on belief rather than evidence. The modern conservative is sure each one of us is getting no more than what we deserve.

I get the sense there's an underlying Calvinism in the modern conservative's world view. Calvin was a Protestant reformer who believed strongly in the doctine of predestination. This held that an omnipotent God would know the name of each person who was "saved".  And one clear sign that you have God's favor, that you are among the predestined elect, was success in this world.

For the modern conservative, a person is out of work due to a flaw in his character.  Clearly, that person is a sinner predestined by the economic God for failure. It has nothing to do with market forces; you've been laid off or let go because you were not predestined for success.

As this suggests, there is an undercurrent of judgementalism present in the modern conservative. The poor are lazy, and deserve to be poor.   Anyone arrested by the police must be guilty. Any woman who is sexually active has implicitly accepted the responsibility of becoming a mother - even if she was raped.

This sort of judgmentalism frees one from compassionate action. If people are getting what they deserve, then I'm wasting my time if I help when they're down.  I might, in fact, offend God.

Think about it: most humans are programmed to be compassionate. People donate to Haiti relief regardless of political affiliation. In the aftermath of a disaster, charities are flooded with donations.

So there must be a narrative that conteracts this natural urge to help those in need. And that's the narrative embraced by the Tea Partiers, et al: each person gets what s/he deserves.  We've got ours, and we've earned it by the sweat of our righteous brow. Let them earn theirs.

I suppose the modern conservative considers himself among the economic elect simply because he is a Republican. She may not have reached the empryon of the 1% just yet, but she will. For her thoughts are God's thoughts, and God has marked her for salvation.

They are among those predestined for golden halls of the holy. And let the devil take the hindmost.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Cold Friendship

Why does it send a chill down my bone every time Mitt Romney says "My friend"? Gotta say, it doesn't generally sound friendly. Former Gov. Romney generally sounds condescending when he says "My friend." He's really saying, "My rich pals and I know more than you do, so shut up and pay up, chump."

Monday, May 21, 2012


Rolling thunderstorms
dreamed by meditating clouds
around a ring of fire

Monday, May 14, 2012

It Takes Time

A new & improved version of the song, with the most recent version of the lyrics. Just your standard-issue protest song, mouth harp included.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Your House Of Light

You possibly read the variorum version of the lyrics I posted on March 22nd. Here's what is likely to be the final version, words & music.

I'll have more to say about the writing process, but for now I'll mention that the song was inspired by a book discussion at my church of The Fragrance of God by Vigen Guroian. All the same, I hope the song is universal, and think of it as spiritual (rather than promoting a particular religion).

Creative Commons License
Your House of Light by James A. Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Behind the Curtain: Your House of Light

Last fall, I co-facilitated a book study at my church on The Fragrance of God by Vigen Guroian. This book covered seasons, gardening, and the seasons of life. The church book store was unable to obtain copies, so we chose to practice a type of Lectio Devina with the book.

My co-facilitator and I would agree on a paragraph to focus on. We'd bring the paragraph to the group, and the group would have two opportunities to respond to it. We both took careful notes during the discussion. The group would then spend 10-15 minutes creating a prayer based on the themes that came out of the discussion.

The response was positive, and it's a process I think lends itself to community building.

So, at the end of the four week study, my co-facilitator said, “James will write a song based our discussion.” Which came as news to me; but for some reason, I felt oblidged to try.

A phrase that came up in that last session was “God's House of Light”, and I really liked the sound of it. Somehow I knew it would be the chorus of the song. Another phrase that stuck was someone who said they felt the God's nearness when walking down a lane of trees where the branches form a canopy.

By January, I had a verse and chorus, but no melody and no idea where to go from there.

Sometime in late February I found the discipline to sit down with the notes from the class and copy down all the themes and phrases that came up. I quickly discovered it would be a great challenge to shoe-horn all that into a song.

About the same time, just to promote forward momentum, I decided I'd use an existing tune as a skeleton for the lyrics, with the goal of writing a new tune later on. I remember Elton John once said, “When in doubt, write a hymn.” Well, this song wasn't a hymn; my fall-back is the ballad. So I decided to borrow the tune from Bob Dylan's “Forever Young”.

I was still stuck by the second week of March, when I heard of an opportunity for a songwriting workshop with Bing Futch, who was going to be in the region in late March. I wasn't familiar with Bing's work, but I respected the promoter. And I figured the workshop would provide a deadline to work toward.

The remaining verses came in a sort of rush in the next two weeks. I decided I wanted the seasons to come in order, so the first verse I wrote became the second verse. In the days leading up to the workshop, I kept tweaking & futching with the lyrics, as reflected by the variorum version I posted on March 22.

I played the song at the workshop, and got some positive feedback from Bing. He was concerned about the use of the existing tune - he said the challenge was forgetting that tune to make way for a new one without losing how the lyrics and melody interacted.

So, he offered me a process to work around that. I really couldn't grok the process, but stumbled on another alternative. Playing with a different chord progression at a different fret position led me to a new tune.

This is possibly the cheeriest song I've ever written. I've had very positive responses to it, even from people who had not attended the book study. So I feel reasonably proud of what I've done.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


A gardening friend once told me that a weed was simply a plant that was not wanted in a particular bed or plot. An extreme, if unlikely example: a rose would be a weed in a potato patch.

I am at a point where I accept most of the growth in my yard as equal — I have no emotional attachment to bermuda grass (it ain't naturnal to this region anyway). It's green stuff that grows, most of it gets mowed to be acceptable in this suburban environment. With any luck, that green stuff produces enough oxygen to balance out the damage done by the mower's internal combustion engine.

I'd like to think God looks at creation in the same way.

I like to believe there are no weeds in God's garden.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Cor. 13

If I speak in human tongues
or the tongues of angels
but have no love,
I am a sounding gong
or clashing cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy
and knowledge of every hidden truth,
if I have faith enough to move mountains
but have not love,
I am nothing.
If I give everything I have to feed the poor
and hand over my body to be burned, 
but have not love,
I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind.
Love envies no one,
it is not snobbish.
Love is never rude, never selfish,
never quick to take offense
neither does it brood over injuries.
Love keeps no score of wrongs,
takes no pleasure in the sins of others
but delights in the truth.
Lover bears all things
believes all things
endures all things.

Love never fails.
Prophecies will cease;
tongues will be silent;
knowledge will pass away.
For our knowledge & our prophecy alike 
are partial,
and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes.

When I was a child, 
I spoke like a child;
I thought like a child;
I reasoned like a child;
but when I grew up
I put away childish things.
For now we see but puzzling reflections
as in a fun-house mirror;
but one day we shall see face to face.
My knowledge now is partial;
then it will be complete
as God's knowledge of me  is complete.
There are three qualities that last forever:
faith, hope, and love:
the greatest of these is love.

I found this as I was going through some old notebooks last night; it was written circa 1987.

I sat down with the Bible translations in my library (KJV, RSV, NAB,& Jerusalem) and picked out the phrases that seemed the most meaningful and/or felicitous. I'll confess I changed a few phrases for this transcription.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

NPR's Micropoetry Challenge

For the second year running, NPR is hosting a micropoetry competition during April. I wonder if I dare rise to that challenge.

If you watch the bottom of this page, you'll see my tweets - which are normally quite rare (my handle is @Jonah). However, for the season of Lent I have been observing a discipline of "Praying the Psalms". This has involved posting a 140 (or less) response to the psalm(s) appointed in the Revised Lectionary for the Morning Office. As much as possible, I try to include a phrase or an echo in my response.

The point being, I have maintained a discipline of daily tweeting. I've proved it's possible.

I greatly respect the work of Dave Bonta, who tweets a poetic impression of the world around his morning porch. He knows more nature than I do, and has more to observe than I do in my suburban environment. The standard Dave sets seems above my humble abilities.

Still, it's an interesting challenge. Would you take the challenge?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Your House of Light - Variorum

I can see the redbuds dancing
along the early misty streets
and I see the dogwood blossoms
gathered at my feet.
I can hear the young birds singing
with their youthful delight
At their place in your House of Light.
May I dwell in your house of light forevermore.

I can feel you walk beside me
under a canopy of leaves
your words are soft & subtle
as a gentle summer breeze.
Your breathvoice is sweet as honey;
your eyes are warm & bright:
that's how I see your House of Light.
May I dwell in your house of light forevermore.

When the farmers reap their harvest,
we hear the sermon of the loam;
and the barn is standing ready
for the horses coming home;
when the leaves explode in color
that gives my soulheart delight:
I know I live in your House of Light.
May I dwell in your house of light forevermore.

Now,Soon the sun will soon hang lower,
and the sharp crisp air draw us close.
My days will be build up like snow banks
and I hardly barely count the cost
for the turning of the seasons
have brought my soul 'round right:
within the halls of your House of Light.
May I dwell in your house of light forevermore.

Creative Commons License
House of Light by James A. Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Strange Encounter

Josie started attending my church about two weeks ago. I met her this Wednesday — she made a point of introducing herself after Evening Prayer. She mentioned that she's very shy, but wanted to meet me because I made an impression on her. Turns out, she's been sitting one or two pews behind me at church.

Well of course, my ego enjoyed that. We continued on to the dinner after the service, and sat with mutual friends. During the meal, she said that I made an impression on her because I was tall & lanky.

Now, I'm pretty clueless about when a woman is flirting with me. But, you can imagine the assumptions I leapt to from that piece of information.

After the meal, she told me she wanted to share the real reason I made an impression on her: "I could tell you were a spiritual person."

I think she just mistook my bald spot for a halo.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Land I Come From

I come from the land of self-righteousness & credulity.
I come from the land of the free to believe the air is made of molasses.
But - you know? I don't come from this land.
I mean, yes, I was born here.
I still live here.
The minerals swirling in my blood
were leeched from the soil,
sipped from its waters.

I live in the land of multiple wars & rumors of war.
I live in the land of fear & anger.
I live in the flickering scream
and the distant explosion.

I live here. I choose to be here.
But - you know? There's days,
special days like this
when purple weeds disgrace the yellowed grass;
when rain clouds haunt clear blue skies;
when the street is empty:
I see another land,
the land where I belong.

I dwell in light where the land is dark.
I dwell in sheltering trees where the land is barren.
I dwell in peace where all are fighting.

I want to live where the heart dances with the mind.
That's where I want to belong.

Monday, February 13, 2012

3 o'clock February

3 o'clock February morning:
awakened by the light
of a snow-laden sky

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Idée d’jour

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.
Wendell Berry

Friday, February 10, 2012

Prayer, 5.Feb.2012

Ever present God,
Let us live in your House of Light,
seeing with the vision of a child.
May we treasure our journey
and be mindful of your many fragrances.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Late January Sun

Morning shines through buds —
such hungry memories —
bird shadow on window slats

Friday, January 27, 2012

Creator God

Creator God,
Cultivate gratefulness in us.
Guide us
as we cultivate the garden of our souls.
Guide our vision of beauty and be our final home.
This we ask in your Holy Name.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Idée d’jour

To be capable of embarrassment is the beginning of moral consciousness. Honor grows from qualms.
— John Leonard, critic (1939-2008)

Master Gardner

God, you are our Master Gardner,
in everything and contained by nothing.
You are always available to us,
our first fragrance and our last:
We give thanks for our senses;
may we be mindful of our responsibility
to remain open to your Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Idée d’jour

There is no exception to the rule that every rule has an exception.
 — James Thurber, writer and cartoonist (1894-1961)

Monday, January 09, 2012

4:50, January 9

Morning so crisp
I hear a distant train
and dream of grandfather

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Idée d’jour

Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content. — Paul Valery (1871 - 1945)