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first lines

3

I started playing with words others have written that have become inscribed on my life for one reason or another. It was a nice distraction as I prepare for my surgery on Wednesday and turned out to be fun as well.

index of first lines

I pulled into Nazareth was feeling ‘bout half past dead
doctor my eyes have seen the years and the slow parade of tears
headlights are flashing down the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
a look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
when you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand
keep a fire burning in your eye pay attention to the open sky
you who are on the road must have a code that you can live by
you come a-walking with a scar on your soul taking too much too lightly
I don’t want to hear a love song I got on this airplane just to fly
like a bird on a wire like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

there’s a river of love that flows through all times
there’s a river of sorrow in my soul
don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
there are the ones you call friends
old friends sat on the park bench like bookends
another turning point a fork stuck in the road
people get ready there’s a train a-comin’
you can play the game and act out the part
when you know it wasn’t written for you
baby I’ve been searching like everybody else
in the middle of late last night I was sitting on a curb
where have all my friends gone? they’ve all disappeared

I’m going down to the Greyhound station
gonna get a ticket to ride
I’ve been sleeping for some hours
just woke up and you were there
when the road gets dark and you can no longer see
in every heart there is a room a sanctuary safe and strong
didn’t say we wouldn’t hurt anymore
that’s how you learn, you just get burned
people that are sad sometimes they wear a frown
the secret of life is enjoying the passing of time
I’ve heard love songs make a Georgia man cry
you with the sad eyes don’t be discouraged

when it’s dark outside you’ve got to carry the light
the waltzing fool he’s got lights in his fingers
shut it down and call this road a day
we’re living in a time of inconvenience
you come home late and you come home early
we are swimming with the snakes at the bottom of the well
all the unsaid words that I might be thinking
it was all I could do to keep from crying
the presence of your absence follows me
something in your eyes makes me want to lose myself
here we go again another round of blues
am I young enough to believe in revolution

when you start if you exist God believes in you
oh play me a blues song and fade down the lights
so many years so many hardships
in this world there’s a whole lot of trouble, baby
it’s like when you’re making conversation
and you’re trying not to scream
I found your letter in my mailbox today
late night drives and hot french fries
and friends across the country
I’ve been lately thinking about my lifetime
I can hear her heartbeat from a thousand miles
I’ve been down this road before

Peace,
Milton

grateful

2

We have had the kind of weekend that makes me glad I live in New England: cool mornings, highs in the seventies, low humidity, and the long, warm, late-afternoon light that lets you know the days won’t be this way for long. Our little town put on a Performing Arts Festival that gave us good reasons to get together and celebrate one another, the Library had a book and bake sale, and we finished it off tonight with a youth group gathering on the church lawn where we ate hamburgers and got to know each other.

I have felt lighter. And grateful.

When I got home tonight, I went back to a sentence I had underlined in After the Locusts:

Strangely, the more I lament, the easier it is to praise and feel grateful.

The sentence comes in the middle of a letter Denise Ackermann wrote to her children entitled “The Language of Lament,” which mattered to her because she “found a language for dealing with, although not solving, the problem of suffering.”

Let me be quick to say that she was not writing about depression. She wrote to her children who had grown up in South Africa during apartheid. But as she talked about the suffering of her nation, I found words that spoke to me as I try to manage these days.

One can risk making honest statements about despair and grief at the same time one affirms all that is good and trustworthy about the relationship.

It strikes me that both grief and praise are most powerful when they are most specific.

I can better respond to the general malaise that makes me feel like I am swimming in molasses that is about two inches deeper than I am tall by thinking of specific tributaries of grief that have fed the reservoir over the landscape of my life. In the same way, I deepen my gratitude when I notice the specific way the evening light hits our church steeple, or the way Lila, our middle Schnauzer, shows her teeth when she smiles, or how my heart still leaps when I hear Ginger come in the house.

Tonight, I am grateful that for the last two days my heart has felt lighter and my hope more tangible. The weather will change, I know. And I am still depressed. Life is not as simple as either/or. I am depressed and I am grateful.

I’m alive.

Peace,
Milton

tiny waltz

4

tiny waltz

and somehow
a day worth
bottling
has slipped into
night without
leaving words
to describe
how it felt
and I have
spent far too
long staring
at a screen
as though the
sheer silence
of sitting
would shape my
sentences
and I have
deleted
far more than
I have saved
but that’s true
most any day
but I found
this little
waltz of a
poem and
I’ll leave it
here in hopes
it finds you

Peace,
Milton

how are you?

10

how are you?

is the throwaway question
in need of redemption
when asked
it should be followed
by a pregnant pause
the questioner
willing to be the midwife

we have let ourselves
settle for hit and run
compassion
for lots of reasons
we mean well
we want to know
–I’ve got to take this

i know you’re not good
I’m not either
everybody hurts
to say it out loud might
mean we’d just stand there
holding on for dear life
that would be a good day

life is full of incidental
contact waiting for
a few well-chosen words
that make room
for love to be born
when we had just stopped
for a cup of coffee

Peace,
Milton

good conversation

5

When I had my first knee replacement, a church member called about a week after the surgery and said, “I can help you,” and so we asked her to come to the house. To say she is a physical therapist feels her short; she is a healer. Her visits were a big part of my successful recuperation. As I have prepared for my second surgery, which comes up next week, I have been in touch with her. Over the weekend, we were at the same pizza party and she said she had something she wanted me to do that might sound odd. I was all ears.

“Before the surgery, I want you to have a conversation with your knee. I want you to talk out loud and tell it everything is going to be okay. Tell it that you are going to have surgery, that it is going to think it is going to die, but it won’t. It will hurt, and it’s a big deal, but everything is going to be okay.”

I am planning to follow her advice. And it might be worth saying to more than just my knee.

My depression is unrelenting. My job is going through some difficult changes. My knee hurts. This morning as I journaled, I found myself saying, “Things are rough, and they may get rougher, but they aren’t going to kill you. It will hurt, and it’s a big deal, but it won’t always feel this way.”

And also with you.

Peace,
Milton

harvest moon

2

harvest moon

I posted a picture
of the moonrise over
Long Island Sound and
a friend in Arkansas
wrote, “It was really bright
at our house too!”

Another friend in
Carolina told me
she is talking to
a group in Australia
who feed hungry people
about ways she can help

I have one more
from a friend who
took my words about
sandcastles to heart
that love is what lasts
“Time to deliver a pie.”

If there were room
in this poem for
you to write back
you would have
stories to tell
wouldn’t you?

Peace,
Milton

building sand castles

6

Part of my Sunday morning ritual is to pour a cup of coffee and watch CBS Sunday Morning until it’s time to go to church. I’ve watched the show on and off since the days of Charles Kuralt. It is just the right mix of calm and questions. Not a bad prelude for worship.

This week, one of the segments was on the final art installation of Cristo, who was known for his gigantic displays–wrapping buildings or taking over places like Central Park–all over the world. None of his works were on display for more than two or three weeks. He paid for them himself so he could retain control. Jean Claude, his wife, was his collaborator until her death in 2009. He died in 2020 with a project to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in fabric underway, so his associates completed the project.

One of the things they discussed in the segment was the consistent critique of his work over the years was that it wasn’t truly art because it was temporary. What it brought to mind was the one trip Ginger and I made to Paris in the spring of 1991. We went into Notre Dame and attached ourselves to a tour group that was standing in front of one of the rose windows as the guide explained that it was the “new” window that had been installed in the 1500s. Since then, the cathedral burned. It is not only the fabric wrapping the Arc that is temporary.

One of the folks I look for when I get to church is Julie. She is a poet and an actor. I told her about what I had seen and how it felt and she said one of her former directors used to say, “We’re all just building sand castles.” Her comment sent me searching for a sculptor I learned of years ago that built fantastic pieces out of driftwood, but he built them where the water would gradually dismantle them as the tide came in. I couldn’t find him again, but I did find Andres Amador, a sand artist who uses a rake to create intricate geometric patterns on the beach at low tide expecting they will get washed away.

Temporary and significant are not mutually exclusive.

Texas songwriter Sam Baker wrote a song called “Waves” that paints a picture of love and grief. I couldn’t help but hear the song as I watched the tide roll in over Amador’s artwork.

so many years so many hardships
so many laughs so many tears
so many things to remember
‘cause they had fifty years

and now the kids have got their own kids
and their own kids, they are grown
she told him not to worry
said he’d be fine when she was gone

he walks down to the ocean
bends to touch the water
Kneels to pray
he writes her name
in the sand
waves wash it away

Denise Ackermann says that we must remember that we are a body rather than we have a body, which says to me that embodied faith is a temporary work of art, a masterpiece in the making. It’s what made Mr. Keating tell the boys to seize the day: we will not be here forever.

Jason Isbell’s song “If We Were Vampires” does as good a job as anyone driving that point home.

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

One day, yes, but today we’re here.

I have often said that one of the things I loved about cooking is that I get to create temporary art that drew people to the table and asked them to stay. I work hard on my plates so that they look and taste good, but they are an artistic invitation to stay at the table and create a performance of togetherness. And then we go on to whatever comes next carrying the memory knowing that it mattered that we were there on that night for that meal.

One of the persistent lessons of the pandemic is that nothing is as permanent as any of us imagined. I don’t know of any of our institutions, those things in our lives most focused on self-perpetuation, that have been not been shaken. The sustaining forces are not housed in those places. Where I find the tenacity that offers me hope is in the temporary art that I call family and friends, those who keep showing up and reaching out even though none of us knows how long our exhibit will run.

Then again, that is not really a lesson unique to the pandemic. That’s been the story all along. We’ve always been building sandcastles.

My, aren’t they beautiful.

Peace,
Milton

melodies of mercy

1

As I journaled this morning, the word mercy worked its way to the top. And it struck me that mercy and merci might have something in common, which they do etymologically. Gratitude and kindness share the same roots. As I wrote, I thought of Mary Gauthier’s song “Mercy Now,” which has stayed close to me throughout the pandemic.

my church and my country could use a little mercy now
as they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
they carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now

every living thing could use a little mercy now
only the hand of grace can end the race towards another mushroom cloud
people in power, they’ll do anything to keep their crown
I love life and life itself could use some mercy now

In the mid-eighties, Bruce Cockburn released “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” I listened to it again this week in the light of all that is going on around us and I heard it in a new light–and then I found this cover by Shawn Colvin that is one of a series of recordings she did from home during the pandemic.

don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
you never get to stop and open your eyes
one day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
the next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all

when you’re lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time

these fragile bodies of touch and taste
this vibrant skin, this hair like lace
spirits open to the thrust of grace
never a breath you can afford to waste

when you’re lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time

It is no secret that Jason Isbell is one of my favorite song writers. “Traveling Alone” is a cut from his first solo record that has taken on new meaning for me in these days when we hunger for connection.

mountains rough this time of year
close the highway down
they don’t warn the town

and I’ve been fighting second gear
for fifteen miles or so
trying to beat the angry snow

and I know every town worth passing through
but what good does knowing do
with no one to show it to

and I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
won’t you ride with me?

Taylor Goldsmith is the lead singer of Dawes and a pretty good songwriter in his own right. Someone who loves me sent a link to his song “Didn’t Fix Me.” It has been on heavy rotation around here.

I went to see a healer
with that mic strapped to his face
talked about which habits to surrender
and which habits to embrace
and for the next few days or so,
I was feeling pretty good
but It didn’t fix me

I even started volunteering
with the local Sacred Heart
we feed the homeless on some weekends
we pick up trash in all the parks
and even though we’re cleaning up
the whole damn neighborhood
it didn’t fix me
it didn’t fix me like I thought it would

I hope these songs offer some mercy for you as well.

Peace,
Milton

resolved

1

A few nights ago, I quoted Gareth Higgins: “When we tell a diminished story, we make a diminished life.” I went on to talk about what the word diminished meant.

My friend Jeff offered this comment in response:

Another use of the word: “Diminished” chords beg to be resolved because of the dissonance- I think about it like going from off balance to balanced; making chaos into order. The important part is that it’s moving on . . .

I loved the connection, but what hung in my mind was the word resolve, so I went looking to see what I could learn. I found several definitions related to different fields.

In music, as we said, dissonance resolves into harmony.
We can resolve to take a different course of action or make a change.
In medicine, to resolve a condition is to cause it to subside or heal.
In chemistry, a substance is resolved or separated into components to be better understood.
In physics, something seen from a distance resolves into a different form when seen up close.
In mediation, to resolve is to settle a conflict or a problem.
Then we have the noun resolve that is a determination to do something.

When I went back to the earliest Latin roots, I saw the breakdown: re + solve: explain again, figure it out one more time.

I know. That’s a lot of word play, but there’s a lot going on in that little word:

harmony
decisiveness
healing
articulation
focus
peace
determination

That’s what I love about words. They create possibilities. Madeleine L’Engle used to caution that our vocabularies shrink during wartime, which means our options do as well. The dictionary of violence only has a few pages. The dictionary of hope is encyclopedic.

I’m weary tonight. I am not finding as many words as I would like, but I can hear in my mind the movement from off balance to balance. “It’s like The Hollies’ “Air That I Breathe,” Jeff said. I will let them sing us out.

Peace,
Milton

sketching the landscape

0

This morning I started a new book, or I should say restarted; it is another that has laid fallow for some time. The book is After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith by Denise M. Ackermann, a South African feminist liberation theologian. The book was a gift from my friend Kenny.

In the introduction, Ackermann says, “After the Locusts is about my efforts to discover what is worth living for in troubled times.” She wrote the book in 2003. Each chapter is a letter to someone in her life. The letter I read this morning was to her granddaughters. Early in the chapter she says,

To help me find my way through many questions, doubts, and discoveries, I want to imagine that I am sketching a landscape. Unlike professional cartographers I do not want to be tied down to the certainty that, provided the measurements are right, this sketch will be a reliable guide in all circumstances. This is not an accurate map. It is really like a giant picture with different landscapes and figures, swarms of locusts and fields of flowers, different colors and symbols; it requires imagination, even guesswork, and it is always provisional.

I got as new car about a year ago and, for the first time, I have a screen in the dashboard that lets my plug in my phone and use the map feature. All I need is the address for my destination. Not only will it provide directions, but it will even reroute the trip when it gets word of an accident or road construction. Much in the same way that I no longer know anyone’s phone number by heart, I don’t know directions to many places either. Getting lost is becoming less and less of a possibility–or at least that’s the illusion created by my device. The other casualty is that I am no longer required to remember how to get somewhere–unless I make a point of remembering.

As Ackermann writes about how she wants her granddaughters to know what matters most to her, she also talks about remembering.

Guided by a memory that often fails me, I want to mark our different histories and identities and what the mean for me as your grandmother. Memory is not fiction, yet once I begin to recall emotions, events, and places, I wonder–is that true? How much of memory is invented or rearranged? Did that happen or am I remembering being told it did? Fragments, tainted memories, stories retold too often are all I can offer.

I read her words after I returned from an early-morning pre-op appointment with my orthopedic surgeon. (I have a left knee replacement on September 29.) We talked through things I needed to do between now and then, what to expect at the hospital, and then what to expect afterwards. He is the surgeon who replaced my right knee two and half years ago. I said something about feeling easier because I knew what to expect and he said, “Yes, and I find that most of my patients say they had a harder time with the second one. I don’t know if that is true, or if they just can’t remember how much the first one hurt or how hard the recovery is from this surgery.”

I remember it hurt and that rehab was hard, but my strongest memories are walking around the town green and Ray from the hardware store coming to cheer me on. I remember the first time they got me up to walk after my surgery that I was aware the it hurt to walk but it was not the same pain that made me have to use a cane.

As I journaled this morning, I came to the realization that this onset of depression is more severe than what I thought at first. I have a better understanding of what it does to me and I feel like I have worked hard on developing better tools to deal with it, and this time it is taking me out. When I finished writing, I went to tell Ginger about my insight. She started nodding before I had finished talking and said, “This is worse that it was twenty years ago.”

The sense of feeling like I am walking around in a concrete suit or treading molasses in an endless lake that is deeper than I am tall is not new, yet the strongest memories of twenty years ago are walking with Ginger and feeling held by her tenacious love for me, even in the middle of the mess.

My father’s birthday was September 13. He would have been ninety three. There are about fifteen years of our lives together that were difficult for us both. We didn’t know how to talk to each other and when we did we mostly did damage. We both learned how to offer more grace than judgment to one another over time, and I am grateful we had time to figure that out. These days, the memories that rise to the surface are ones that connect me to him. I have caught myself over the past couple of months starting any number of sentences with, “My Dad used to tell a story about . . .”–so much so that Ginger commented, “You’re missing him, aren’t you?”

How much of a memory is invented or rearranged?

To re-member is to put the memory back together again, and I think that happens much like the sketching she described and less like the precision of the professional cartographers. Her comparison makes me think of James Cowan’s novel A Mapmaker’s Dream, a story about a fifteenth-century monk who decides to draw the definitive map of the world without leaving his cell. News of his projects attracts travelers from all over the world who want to tell their stories, which requires of him to come to terms with a world he cannot quantify.

Six centuries later, Denise Ackermann says of her sketch, her map of memory and meaning, “It requires imagination, even guesswork, and it is always provisional.”

Yes. Yes, it does. Thank God.

Peace,
Milton