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the shape of what is not there


the shape of what is not there

I’m not sure why this seems to be
the week for a mutual meltdown
but there is a tsunami of tension
even the schnauzers are surly

they know the whole thing has gone
to the dogs as we say and they
resent being made the metaphor
why couldn’t we have gone to the cats

the truth is we can’t go anywhere
other than away from each other
past empty buildings and cancelled
gatherings and get-togethers

masked and melancholy we skirt
each other for fear of contact
all that makes us human and alive
has been distanced absented

our inarticulate anger fills the shape
of all we have lost no are losing
this is all in the present tense
we don’t know what is next

our leaders speak in abstractions
opening economy best in the world
our pains are particular and personal
capitalism offers little comfort

life as we knew it is missing
so is touch and hope and ritual
tradition community and ceremony
the virtual proves itself vacuous

and we are starting to figure out
that we are in the middle of it all
not the end not whatever’s next
all is not lost there is more to come



to be in the room


One of the things that has surprised me about myself during these days of quiet isolation is growing disdain for Zoom. Part of it, I’m sure, is that I have to use Go to Meeting for work, which is its own special brand of hell, but there’s more to it than just that. I think it has to do with the disembodied nature of the whole experience: even when it’s in real time, it’s not live.

And live matters.

I was in the room at the Tarrant County Convention Center the night BB King came out for the encore and played “When Love Came to Town” with U2. When it was over, Bono turned to Edge and said, “For a minute I felt like a musician.” I saw BW Stevenson play at The Hop in Fort Worth on a night when only about ten people showed up. During the break, I went up to him and said, “i’ve been following you since college.”

“So you’re the guy,” he answered.

I’ve sat in seven or eight venues to hear Springsteen and wait for the change to sing “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night. You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re alright” and then cheered when he shouted, “You guys are gonna put me out of a job!”

My friend Ken and I heard Michael Martin Murphy play at East Dallas Community College in an auditorium that held about five hundred people and was so acoustically vibrant that he sang “Geronimo’s Cadillac” without amplification. (Oh, Lord, take me back . . .) Then there was the night, early in our dating life, when I took Ginger to see Linda Ronstadt and as Linda was belting out a song Ginger leaned over and said, “Is that all she’s going to do? She doesn’t dance?”

On our first date I took Ginger to see Lyle Lovett at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth. We have seen him every year since. He sings the same songs and the evening is always fresh and new because none of us is the same person we were the last time we were together.

I heard Beth Wood play at Blue Rock in Wimberely, Texas and Nathan Brown play in the barn behind our house; I sat on the back row at Reunion Arena in Dallas with my friend Patty to see Fleetwood Mac and on the tenth row to watch Dan Fogelberg’s solo acoustic tour. And I have sat in more rooms that I can count for open mics or to hear bands I knew nothing about because it was live. The music became flesh and dwelt among us, within us, between us.

I understand why so many musicians are live-streaming. I am grateful that they are. I have heard some amazing performances. But it is not the same thing as being in the room. Watching James Taylor sing “You Can Close Your Eyes” on Fallon the other night was beautiful, but not the same as sitting in the bleachers at Fenway when he sang it with Bonnie Raitt.

Last night I was talking with my friend Kenny and he said, “You really miss worship, don’t you?” The question was pretty much rhetorical. He went on. “You love live music so much. Live anything. And that’s what you love about worship: being in the room when it happens.”

It’s good to have friends who know you.

I miss being in the room to hear the prayer requests, the celebrations, the moments when kids drop stuffed animals out of the balcony or someone misses a cue, the point in the sermon where I know Ginger has gone “off book” from the manuscript I read the night before and is speaking to what she feels in the moment, in the room. I miss leaning over to Chuck, whom I usually sit next to, and making side comments. I miss hugging the little kids who are unabashedly friendly.

Dave Grohl, the lead singer of the Foo Fighters among other things, has a great article in The Atlantic about not being able to play live and he closes it by saying,

In today’s world of fear and unease and social distancing, it’s hard to imagine sharing experiences like these ever again. I don’t know when it will be safe to return to singing arm in arm at the top of our lungs, hearts racing, bodies moving, souls bursting with life. But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re human. We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood. That we are imperfect. And, most important, that we need each other. I have shared my music, my words, my life with the people who come to our shows. And they have shared their voices with me. Without that audience—that screaming, sweating audience—my songs would only be sound. But together, we are instruments in a sonic cathedral, one that we build together night after night. And one that we will surely build again.

Some promoters are predicting it will be September 2021 before live concerts happen again. Others are saying that congregational singing will be one of the last things churches are able to do as they gather again in person. Till then, I suppose, we will continue to be creative about the ways we find to communicate our affection and connectedness, which matters but it does not measure up to what it means to be live–to be in the room together.

And I am not handling that well. Zoom leaves me feeling more alienated than hopeful, more isolated than included. I don’t completely understand why, I just know that is how it feels. The prospect that it may be the primary way we communicate for a long time is despairing for me.

I know. This should be the part of the post where I start to make the turn towards home and say something hopeful, but I am not hopeful right now. My depression has moved in with a vengeance over the past week and is not remote at all. I am working hard to be creative about my sleep habits and work schedule and how much I walk, trying to make sure I can still do my job and can do more than curl up in a ball in the middle of the bed. As always, I am grateful that the kitchen remains a depression-free zone. At least I can cook and find some relief. Ginger is live here with me, which is the best news I know.

I know I am not alone in my depression. I know I am loved and I am doing all I can to find ways to let people know I love them. But to not be in the room together means we are missing the best part of the show. And I am missing it. Badly.



cannoli french toast


One of the windfalls of our unfortunate isolation is I am cooking a lot more. The combination of having more time and Ginger not having meetings twelve nights a month means we get to eat dinner together. The last week in particular my depression has decided to show up for a return engagement (so much for distancing) and that, too, has driven me to the kitchen–my one depression-free space.

One of the regular meals of the lockdown has been fried chicken, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, and then I try to think of something that is not beige to a to the plate. My mother is the one who taught me how to fry chicken, right down to pulling the dough off my fingers to drop in the oil to see if it’s hot enough, which then becomes a tasty snack while you wait for the chicken to cook.

My mother haunts my cooking; I feel closest to her and I miss her the most when I am making a meal. For that I am eternally grateful.

Once Ginger and I moved to New England, my mother was intrigued by ingredients I learned to use that were not a part of her repertoire. I learned how to make fresh pasta. When she came to visit, she was amazed that our supermarkets had aisles of Italian food where she was used to seeing Mexican stuff. The differences fed us both.

Last night, I made Ginger’s birthday dinner with Mom in mind: fried chicken, creamed corn, mashed potatoes, cornbread. This morning, for Mother’s Day, I switched gears to make breakfast for Rachel, my mother-in-law, with whom I share a love of cannolis. Ricotta cheese–one of the ingredients my mother didn’t cook with much–has become a staple in my fridge, so deciding to make cannoli french toast didn’t mean a trip to the store. It did mean I made Rachel really happy.

She took a couple of bites and said, “When can we have this again?”

Most of the recipes for “stuffed” french toast are really talking about a french toast sandwich, which is far easier to do than cutting the bread thick and then trying to create a pocket for the filling. Though the recipe that follows uses a cannoli filling, you could adapt it to do most anything. One of the things I like about using ricotta, besides the taste, is it doesn’t get real melty and so the sandwich holds it shape. I also added limoncello to the egg mixture because I wanted the citrus taste to add another layer. Bailey’s Irish Creme is another good dipping liquid. You get the idea: use this as a platform for your imagination.

And check the internet. This recipe was my jumping off place.

A quick note about the bread. The cool thing about french toast is it’s a sort of fancy thing that you can make with what you have on hand. Since I knew I was going to do this for Rachel, I bought a loaf of brioche at the market because it is soft and would soak up the egg. But use what you have, or what you like.

cannoli french toast

1 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

2 eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons limoncello
4 slices bread
1 tablespoon butter

In a small bowl mix the ricotta, powdered sugar, vanilla, and mini chocolate chips. (You could also add a touch of cinnamon or nutmeg.)

Beat the eggs, cream, and limoncello together until smooth and pour into a pie dish.

Put two of the slices of bread on the counter and divide the ricotta mixture between them. Place the other two slices on top.

Heat a skillet on medium to medium high. When the skillet is hot, drop the butter in it. While it is melting, place the sandwiches in the egg mixture. Let them sit for about thirty seconds and then turn them over and wait another thirty. Transfer them to the skillet and let them cook for three or four minutes on each side. You may want to turn down the heat a bit at this point.

Remove them from the skillet, cut them in half, put them on plates, and sprinkle them with powdered sugar, if you so choose. I also topped mine with fresh fruit and served it with maple syrup.

We will have it again.



red velvet cookies


During the first spring we lived in Guilford, we were surprised to see them set up a big stage in the middle of the town green (the largest in New England and designed by Frederick Law Olmstead), along with rows and rows of folding chairs, for Guilford High School graduation. The seniors line up in the parking lot of the Catholic church and process down the sidewalks lined with parents and friends as the orchestra plays. It’s enough to make you believe we should be the standing set for every Hallmark movie.

And it’s not going to happen this year.

Much like the senior classes in most every high school in America, our seniors are not going to get their day when they are The Big Deal. So the town decided to find other ways to affirm our graduates. One of them is for people to adopt a senior and do fun stuff for them. By the time Ginger and I went to sign up, all of the kids we knew through church were taken, so we adopted Lauren. Our task is to make her feel special. We decided we would start with taking her cookies. Her mom said she loved anything red velvet, so I made these cookies. (The original recipe is here.) We took them to her house this afternoon and left them in her mailbox. Later in the day we got a great picture of her smiling over them.

red velvet cookies

1/2 cup butter (1 stick) room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 ounce red food coloring
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 12 ounce bag white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350°,

Cream the butter and brown sugar in a stand mixer until creamy–about five minutes. Add the egg and mix for another minute or two. Add the food coloring and vanilla and mix to combine.

In a separate bowl whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt together. Add to the wet mixture and beat on low speed until fully combined. Add the buttermilk and mix again. Then add most of the white chocolate chips and mix one more time. Keep about two ounces of them aside to put on top of the cookies.

Scoop the cookies on to a parchment-lined baking sheet. You can fit four rows of three. Flatten them a bit and then press three or four of the white chocolate chips into the top of each cookie.

Bake for twelve minutes. Makes two dozen cookies. They are a little cakey and have a good chocolate flavor.



key change


key change

I grew up singing in church
hymns haunted by harmony
what a fellowship what a joy
ye who are weary come home

those songs taught me that
congregations are contagious
that love is highly infectious
and compassion communicable

singing they say spreads the virus
our deep comfort commandeered
into the forced unison of isolation
who ever heard of a silent lament

that we might gather again and
not sing a song of the saints of God
or sit close or hug or even touch
is a key of life I don’t know how to hear



air and water


air and water

it is a postcard night
in our little town
the honey-pink sunset
riding in on the breeze
I followed the schnauzers
home from our walk to find

a security guard
was shot to death
at a Family Dollar Store
in Flint, Michigan because
he asked someone to put
a mask on to shop

when it comes to Flint
we are way past the time
when saying we’re sorry
makes any difference
long before the virus
death was in the water

but the cost of safety
was more than anyone
wanted to pay so death
became a way of life
they already knew what we
are just beginning to learn

Calvin Munerlyn died
working to save lives
I want to say his name
out loud in the quiet of
my little town my little life
and drink in the sadness



daily digest


daily digest

these are the stay close
to home dig in the dirt
string up the lights
I planned to string
years ago days

the work from home
walk the dogs again
wear a mask to the store
go too long without
a hug days

the go to bed tired
try to remember what
day of the week it is
and wonder what is
coming next days

these are the celebrate
our anniversary but
cancel maine and eat
mexican food in the
parking lot days

the all that I hoped for
never saw it coming
wish there were another
way to keep our promises
to each other days

the miss everybody
get to know heartache
so grateful to be here
I’m with you I’m with
you I’m with you days



maybe it doesn’t get better


maybe it doesn’t get better

you may not have
read past the title
but hear me out–

we can’t do what we
are doing just because
we think this won’t last
and we can get back
to the way things were

maybe it doesn’t get better

I know–
I already said that
but what if the pandemic
pans out into permanence

or as permanent as
things ever get
what if we what we took
for granted isn’t granted

and we are left with life
and each other
for years, not days
yeah, I’m going to say it again

maybe it doesn’t get better

okay–I’ll say it another way
who knows what will happen
does that help

faith and hope hunger for uncertainty
love knows all you can count on
in life is someone else and let
someone count on you because

maybe it doesn’t get better
then again, maybe it does



buenas noches from a song-filled room


The seed of this post was planted when I sent a friend a video of Jason Isbell and the $00 Unit singing “24 Frames” from isolation. As I mentioned last night, he is one of my favorite songwriters. The title of the song refers to the number of frames that go through a projector per second. Isbell says

this is how you make yourself call your mother
and this is how you make yourself closer to your brother
and remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing

you thought God was an architect, now you know
he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
and everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
in twenty- four frames

Not a bad song for these days of quarantine.

The next band I found singing from their rooms was Barenaked Ladies doing a cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”

when you’re lovers in a dangerous time
sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime
nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

Straight No Chaser is an acapella group that started singing together in college and then kept it going. Though they are used to standing side by side, here they are all singing from home.

lean on me
when you’re not strong
I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
for it won’t be long
till I’m gonna need
somebody to lean on

My YouTube search took a bit of a turn and led me to videos by choirs rather than bands. The Banbury Quarantine Collective is a group of people from England singing together to raise money for the National Health Service workers with their cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

Another British choir are the Camden Voices who do a beautiful version of “True Colors.”

The members of the casts of various companies of the musical “Beautiful,” which tells Carole King’s story through her music does this rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend.” You just call out my name . . .

The Boston Children’s Chorus, working with choirs from around the world did this version of “I’ll Rise Up” by Andra Day–a new song for me, and a beautiful one.

when the silence isn’t quiet
and it feels like it’s getting hard to breathe
and I know you feel like dying
but I promise we’ll take the world to its feet
and move mountains
we’ll take it to its feet
and move mountains
and I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
and I’ll do it a thousand times again
for you

Let’s keep singing to each other.



what kind of world

Yellow daffodil flower in the field

When I lived in Texas, I loved the annual art show put on by the bluebonnets across fields and highway medians; it is one of the most beautiful sights I know. They are long gone by now. April in Texas is early summer. In New England, we are still wearing our coats. The daffodils and tulips, along with some hardy wildflowers, are the harbingers of hope for more warmth. The crocuses came up with snow around them weeks ago; they are too optimistic to be believed.

Even without a pandemic, April is a hard month in this part of the world. April showers may bring May flowers but it also makes the people surly. Then close all the bars and restaurants and tell us to stay inside and we are ready to live into our reputation of being gruff. But the grey doesn’t last anymore than the bluebonnets.

Very little, if anything, of our existence is permanent.

One of the choices we are called to make in most any moment is whether to be present as it passes or to act like we are waiting for a bus and nothing matters until it’s time for us to go. Well, the choice is not necessarily that clear cut, but my point is if we equate significance with permanence we are going to miss a lot of stuff–and we might miss our bus as well.

“Pay attention to the lilies,” Jesus said, which makes me wonder if they were the bluebonnets and daffodils of Palestine. “They aren’t here long, but that’s not even the point. They take our breath away with their beauty. Be like them.”

The temporary nature of our existence is more evident for many of us in these days than it has been, perhaps. I mean, we all know we are going to die, but I don’t remember a day when the Boston Globe included twenty-one pages of obituaries.

How then, do we live knowing we aren’t going to last long? How do we consider the lilies, daffodils, and bluebonnets?

The reason the wildflowers are on my mind, besides being able to see the ones blooming in our back yard, is I read David Whyte’s definition of joy, which centers on the temporariness of it all–and the generosity.

“Joy,” he says, “is giving ourselves away before we need to.”

So, too, say the wildflowers. They know it isn’t going to last long, but they give it all away to make us believe spring is here. When they aren’t flowering, we don’t give them much thought. They finish flowering and go to seed, then they die. The flowers that bloom next year will not be the same ones we saw this year. They are connected, but they are not the same. We talk about the flowers being back, but we are seeing fresh joy–a continuity, but not a repetition, much like human history. Our legacy is connectedness, not permanence.

One of the hard things about this pandemic is we don’t know when it will end. In that way, it feels like living with depression in that it feels endless, bottomless, monotonous. At some level we know this can’t and won’t go on forever, but it feels interminable. Joy is temporary, surprising, and resonant. Depression is a sense of scarcity; joy is generosity unbound, even if just for a moment.

Jason Isbell is one of my favorite songwriters and has written two of my favorite love songs. One of them is called “If We Were Vampires” and it speaks to what it means to be living in time:

if we were vampires and death was a joke
we’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
and laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
and give you every second I can find
and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

it’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
maybe we’ll get forty years together
but one day I’ll be gone
or one day you’ll be gone

“Maybe time running out is a gift . . .” Whyte, again:

I was here and you were here and together we made a world.

I am here. You are here. Life is short. What kind of world will we build?

These days are showing us all kinds of things that are wrong with the world we have been building. We have heard over and over how strong our economy is and yet it has been brought crashing down by a virus. We are not as invincible or exceptional as we thought we were, or as we were told we were. We don’t have much time. Perhaps we have missed the chance to give ourselves away before we need to, but it is not too late.

One day I’ll be gone. One day you’ll be gone. For now, we’re here.


PS–You have to hear this song.