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building a mystery


One of my memories of teenage trips to Six Flags Over Texas was bridge made of barrels across some fabricated pond. The barrels meant each step had its own tilt: the walk was not straight or easy, but at least you had ropes along the sides to hang on to.

The last couple of weeks have felt like that barrel bridge for both Ginger and me, each day tilting a different direction than the one before, though the side ropes have not been as apparent. Most of the reason for the random pitch has been my life: there’s a lot going on. We are not deathly ill or facing a major life crisis. I have not felt significantly depressed in some time now, thank God. But the day in, day out, who’s in the hospital, what needs to get done, I have three meetings tonight circumstances of our existence, it all adds up.

On top of all that, instead of a New England winter we have been dealing with a bizarre progression of days where one is 40 to 50 degrees warmer (or colder) than the one before. It’s just hard to keep balanced.

In the midst of all the tossing about, I feel these are very pregnant days, if I might change metaphors. We’ve been busy before. We’ve had weeks with more on our plates than we know how to eat; this is not that. As Bill said to Ted (or the other way round), “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” Something is happening. Something is growing. Something is about to be born.

That’s about the best I can do.

I am walking in the dark, but a different kind of dark — not the bottomless pit, but the unfathomable mystery.

My spiritual director, Ken, offered me this e. e. cummings poem this week during our time together:

(no time ago)

no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ

jesus) my heart
flopped over
and lay still
while he passed (as

close as i’m to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness

One of Ginger’s favorite quotes is from Nietzsche: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” (If he’s right, we’re about to give birth to a whole freaking galaxy!) I do love the sentiment. When life swirls around us, we can see it – or perhaps we can decide to see it – as a destructive force or as creative energy waiting to take form.

Five years ago next week was when my depression first ambushed me in a way I could name. Actually, my English Dept. Director at Winchester named it first. I lost 150 essays and she pulled me into her office and said, “We need to talk about what we are going to do about your depression.”

I am ever grateful for her courageous act of friendship.

Five years later, January feels different: energetic, chaotic, hopeful. Things are changing. The plates are shifting. The Spirit is stirring the waters.

I can’t name it much more than that. For now, I’m content to tumble along in the swirl of the mystery, keeping me eye out, of course, for any red shoes along the way.


re-member, then


When I was growing up, Saturdays meant Taco Salad for lunch.

My mother made this wonderful mixture of beef, beans, lettuce, cheese, and Fritos that may have mostly consisted of opening cans and packages, but tasted like home. We never got tired of Saturday lunches. It is still one of my favorite meals. I don’t make it every week (more like every couple of months), but even for Ginger and I it connects to something beyond the ingredients in the bowl.

But what?

My mother is the other cook in my family of origin. We still swap recipes and remind each other of meals gone by. How she re-members those Saturdays (how she puts the pieces of our family back together) is not the same as my re-membrance. For her, a bowl of Taco Salad recreates the memory of a family once closely knit and now scattered to the winds. I recall a family that ate and laughed together but one who did not know much how to really tell each other who we were.

Let me rephrase: I did not know how to tell them who I was.

Saturday lunch bounced back into my consciousness because I’ve been reading Suffer the Little Voices, a new book of poems by my friend, Nathan Brown, published by Greystone Press. (Read a review of his first book of poetry here.) This morning at breakfast, I read “Soul Savers”:

I gaze back at the pain and
disdain we felt for “the lost”
in covert planning sessions
we called Bible studies. Then

I turn my head away with a jerk
from the sight of my old church
in a weak and strained attempt
to push down the past stupidity —

a stupidity constructed through
millenniums of bad dogma,
which was “not busy livin’ . . .
just busy dyin’,” as Bob Dylan,

a theologian of different cut,
tried to tell us in the years
we couldn’t look past his
prophetic, soul-felt addictions.

My sighs and shaking head
signify the inevitable departure
from that, from them, not Jesus
[still my favorite hippie socialist

and, yes, Son of God].
But, I do realize, I’m afraid,
that in the nouns and verbs
I now choose to express myself,

I’ve certainly lost them,
the “they” I once was.
And I’m struck with the fear
that now. . . it’s me they’re after.

Like Nathan, I grew up Southern Baptist. After years of watching the denomination implode and finding my faith community elsewhere, I am surprised how often I go back to those days to re-member them with something other than anger or disdain. I put back together the memories that helped shape me and taught me how to live in the grace of God, much like I go back for another helping of Taco Salad. Though it is not a place I could stay, it is where I am from.

The choice, it seems, is between re-membering my life — putting the pieces together in some meaningful fashion — and dis-membering it — cutting off the sections that aren’t comfortable, I’m not proud of, or embarrass me. But I don’t want to live as an emotional or spiritual amputee. I need all of my days stacked up to help me remember who I am.

In my weaker moments, I look back on my family days and think, “They didn’t understand I was not like them.” Yet, I am “them.” To say so doesn’t mean buying into an idealized memory of what family was; we were not perfect, but we did make memories that marked each other. We are family.

I have the recipes to prove it.


PS — If you would like to get a hold of Nathan’s books, you can contact him at nub@ou.edu. Tell him I sent you.

how was your day?


My friend Patty sent me a link to an article in the Boston Globe which began:

“Last year around this time, a Cardiff University psychologist named Dr. Cliff Arnall scored some publicity with his declaration that January 24 is the most depressing day of the year.”

Alex Beam’s wonderful column went on to describe the mathematical formula this guy had configured to deduce today was going to be The Suckiest Day of the Year. Beam had an alternate formula designed to bring a different result: read the Globe, ditch work, watch rerun of the Daily Show and the last half of the Law & Order rerun, take a nap and eat at Anna’s Taqueria.

Our local NPR station annouced this morning the Globe was taking a chain saw to their staff and gutting the paper to try and save money. I hope Alex springs for the grande burrito.

Today was a good day for me because I got to go back to my iconography class after a long break of six months. My teacher, Christopher Gosey, lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, so I had a bit of a drive. We met in the basement of the Russian Orthodox church. I am trying to finish an icon of St. Nicholas for a friend. Chris was playing a CD of an Orthodox liturgy as he guided me through the process of laying down the layers of paint that will make up the shading on the face. This particular step always freaks me out a bit because the first couple of applications make the face look a lot like Tammy Faye Bakker. Yet, somehow, with each application of the colors, a face begins to emerge and the icon takes on personality.

I drove back for staff meeting and then met Ginger at the home of some folks in her church where the deacons were meeting for a fellowship dinner. Once again, church folks around a table together; I knew it would be good. Jim and Nancy, our hosts, served Spaghetti Pie — good comfort food. And a good time was had by all.

Law & Order:SVU just came on and The Daily Show will follow, but the formula for my day was head north, write icons, take a quick nap with the schnauzers, and have dinner with friends.

January 24 turned out pretty well.


malcolm and noah go shopping


Years ago I wrote a children’s story called Malcolm and Noah Go Shopping, based on an old Far Side cartoon. I sent it to a couple of publishers and got one response that said my story was not publishable because the snakes did not act consistent with their species. In the story, the snakes end up making friends with a hamster. This week, BBC News ran this story about a snake in the Tokyo Zoo who befriended his “snack hamster.”

In light of this new information, I offer my story


goodbye, my friend


When we were in seminary, my housemate, Burt, and I lived on very little. We were school bus drivers when we weren’t in class, which paid about $400 a month in the late seventies. We each budgeted $10 a week for food, which meant we bought our bread at the Mrs. Baird’s Thrift Shop (day old) and counted out slices of the world’s cheapest lunch meat to make our sandwiches. Whoever got to the kitchen first got to make the lunches — and got to write a note to Miss Landers (Beaver Cleaver’s teacher) on the outside of the bag. Here’s one example I remember (Burt’s work):

Dear Miss Landers,
I’m sorry for the incident with little Milton on the playground yesterday. I hope none of the children is psychologically scared.
June Cleaver.

We cracked ourselves up.

We needed all the help we could get. We felt like outsiders in the restrictive world that was (is?) Southwestern Seminary, and our humor was one of the ways we stayed sane. Another way was looking for voices that fed us. One of those voices was John Claypool.

I found out last night he died in September. I didn’t know. His death is not news, but my grief is fresh. You can read a wonderful tribute here.

I met him a couple of times. He was a contemporary of my parents. I never really talked to him, but he felt like a friend because of his writings. The book I remember best was Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, which told the story of the death of his young daughter. In a time when most Baptist preachers were telling everyone to get right or get left, Claypool was talking about how his faith intersected his life. His resonance with my struggle to live out my faith was profound for me.

One day I told one of my professors how much Claypool fed me. He responded, “The only people John Claypool speaks to are the walking wounded and those in adolescent rebellion.”

“Is there anyone else?” I asked.

And I thought, to myself, if I could reach those people I would be doing pretty well.

One of the joys of the Communion table for me is I am sitting down to the meal with all those who have come before and all who will come after. It is an eternal moment where time is of no consequence. I’m sad John’s voice is no longer speaking in our time. I’m grateful for the legacy he left and that we still share a Meal together now and then.


guinness for strength


Of all the wonderful things there are to eat and drink in this world, I must put Guinness at the top of my list. A well poured pint (and there is an art to the pouring) is a tasty pleasure that is difficult to match. A reasonably close second on my list is ice cream. Imagine my delight when I found this recipe here:

Makes 1 quart

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup Guinness stout (I guess that means you get to drink the rest!)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons molasses
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a medium saucepan, scrape in the vanilla bean seeds. Add the pod, milk, and cream. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the flavors infuse for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, whisk together the stout and molasses. Bring to a boil and turn off heat.

3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the yolks, sugar, and vanilla extract. Whisk in a few tablespoons of the hot cream mixture, then slowly whisk in another 1/4 cup of the cream. Add the remaining cream in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan.

4. Stir the beer mixture into the cream mixture. Cook the custard over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, for 6 to 8 minutes or until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.

5. Strain the mixture into a bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. Process the custard in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

I know the combination is a little hard to imagine. My guess is the ice cream has a strong molasses flavor. What I love about the recipe is someone was willing to take a risk and see how two things they loved (I love?) would go together, thus creating room for possibilities.

We gathered for our church meeting last night, almost fifty of us, unsure of what the nix would bring. Our area minister was the selected mediator for the meeting and he did an amazing job calibrating the feelings and challenging us to speak the truth in love. And there were a lot of feelings, some hopeful, some bitter, and others all along the continuum in between. We sat together for two and a half hours talking through the hurt and misunderstanding. Much of what was expressed was old stuff, which would have been less hurtful and damaging if it had been addressed in the moment. The value of the meeting, to me, was we got a pretty clear picture of who we are and how we communicate with each other.

The challenge now is in what we do with what we learned.

By the time it was over, the level of anger and hurt had lowered somewhat. One meeting will not heal stuff people have been carrying around for weeks, or even years. What did happen that was significant is the group ended up less “us and them” and a little more “us,” which, as in any church, means a rather odd mixture of flavors, not unlike the ice cream.

Being church together is not work for the faint of heart. Living out our faith in concert means there are no unilateral decisions, no room for sniper fire. We can’t think of ourselves individually without thinking of each other; we can’t think of our local church without thinking about the world around us.

One of the things we say each Sunday in our church is “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” A couple of folks repeated that statement last night and I heard it with different ears. I have mostly thought of those words as aimed at people new to our congregation; last night I realized we need to be saying it over and over to those with whom we share the journey week after week, mile after mile.

I sat next to one person last night who has hurt mostly in silence through this ordeal. A couple of weeks ago, he talked to the senior pastor to say he and his wife felt they needed to leave the church, not out of anger but because they could not take the stand the church was taking on a particular issue. At the end of the meeting I turned to him and said, “I know these are hard days. I want you to know I miss you, I pray for you, and I love you. Whatever choices you feel you need to make, that will not change.”

His eyes filled with tears and he hugged me: “Thank you.”

No matter who we are or where we are, we all belong in the recipe for church, however odd the mix of flavors.


i don’t have the stomach for this


One of my morning rituals is to listen to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, which plays at the end of Morning Edition on WGBH, one of our local NPR stations. Each day, he makes note of significant birthdays in the literary world and then reads a poem. He closes each segment by saying, “Be well, do good work, and stay in touch.”

Today’s poem was one by Robert Frost:

A Time to Talk

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

Tonight at church we face a different kind of time to talk. This is the night of the big meeting with the mediator. The phone and email chatter has grown quiet over the last several days; I’m not sure anyone knows quite what to expect.

Normally, I do not know of an emotion that does not make me want to eat. If I’m elated, I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a meal. If I’m depressed, I can bang my way through a bag of Cape Cod Sea Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips without even blinking. This week has been different. Whatever I have eaten seems determined to work it’s way out of my body as though it was competing for a medal.

I am finding little comfort in food.

One of the working theories of my life is we could work most anything out if we could sit down and discuss it over a meal. If you need to ask someone to pass the potatoes, you’re going to have to figure out a way to talk about other stuff as well. Therefore, I’m a bit weary of a meeting that makes it difficult for me to even think about eating. How are we going to break down the walls that need to be broken down so we can create a time to talk — and listen?

I wish I had an answer to that question going into the meeting tonight.

How I hope we could get to the end of the time tonight and have found enough healing for someone to say, “You want to grab a bite to eat?”


PS — As you can see from the format change, I’m trying to learn a bit more about HTML and setting up the blog the way I want it to look. Since Ginger and I live in Green Harbor, just 600 feet from Cape Cod Bay, this template seemed appropriate.

pearls in the pantry


I don’t even think I knew what couscous was until about ten years ago.

One of my first encounters was hearing a three-year old’s answer to his mother’s question of what he wanted for dinner: “Couscous.” Next thing I knew, she had pulled out this container of microscopic grains, poured boiling water over them, let them soak up the water, fluffed them a bit, and handed them to her kid.

What I have since learned about couscous is it originates from Morocco and is made from semolina flour (or a mixture of semolina and durum), which is what is used to make pasta. Making couscous from scratch is hard and arduous work; I don’t know anyone who does it. One article I read said even in North Africa only the poorest people still make it by hand. Thanks to the French occupation of North Africa, the dish traveled across Europe and into Palestine and Israel.

About two years ago, I was in Whole Foods and found “Israeli couscous,” which is a much larger size, though also a pasta. It is also called pearl couscous. I like that name: I’m keeping pearls in my pantry. The pearls are much more versatile and easier to handle. It has become an important part of my diet on the what-do-I-want-to-eat-that-won’t-take-long- and-is-good-for-me days.

Like today. My lunch looked something like this:

3/4 c water, brought to a boil
1/4 c craisins (dried cranberries) added to cold water before boiling
1/2 c Israeli couscous, added to boiling water

Cover, lower to a simmer, and let cook for about five minutes, or until most of water is gone; turn off heat and let sit for another five minutes. While it’s resting, dig through your fridge and figure out what you want to add. Today that was:

a handful of fresh spinach leaves, torn
some diced pieces of leftover pork tenderloin
some mandarin orange segments
some Gorgonzola cheese crumbles

I put the couscous in a mixing bowl, stirred in the spinach leaves to let them wilt a bit, and then added the rest of the stuff when the couscous had cooled a little.

It tastes even better when you share a few of the pork chunks with your favorite schnauzers.

Who knows what any Israelis might think of what I did with my bowl of little pearls, but it tasted like manna to me.


you will get your due


I got my last Christmas present Saturday night. It was the best one.

Over the past few years, Ginger has given me gifts that are to be experienced rather than collected. Two years ago, she gave me an icon painting class, which led to my friendship with Christopher Gosey, as well as bringing new layers to both my artistic and spiritual journeys. Last year, it was a mosaic class. In early December, she told me she couldn’t find any good classes this year and she was going to have to think of something else.

She did – and she gave me one of the best gifts ever: tickets to a house concert to hear Diane Zeigler.

In 1995, Diane released The Sting of the Honeybee, an album (OK, a CD) I picked up at Tower records because she covered “Millworker” by James Taylor. I had no idea what a gem I had found, and how fortunate I was the music had found me.

In 1995, we were living in Charlestown, an urban neighborhood of Boston. I was teaching English at Charlestown High School. I loved the kids, but the bureaucracy and the burned out lifers in the system were taking their toll on me. In those days, I described how it felt in these words: everyday, while I was in the building, part of me died; when I came home, I had until the following morning to bring myself back to life, but not all of me was revived. I was also struggling because I had been saying for a long time I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t finding – or making – much time to write. In those days, I was co-writing songs with my friend, Billy Crockett, but we were half a country apart, so I couldn’t give myself fully to that either. Knowing what I know now about my depression, I can look back on those days and see I was sinking and did not know it. I was a man with dreams that felt as if they were mostly on life support. And then, on this wonderful record, I found this song:

(diane zeigler)

there’s a man that I don’t know well
but I’ve seen the way he cast his spell
straight across a room until the people had to listen
he was singing from a quiet place
and you could only hear the faintest trace
that he wonders if he’ll ever taste the kiss of recognition

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it’s not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I want to call him friend
because I love the way he works that pen
and spinning stories seems to be his true devotion
but he says he’s gonna pack it in
because he doesn’t see it rolling in
he thinks that ship is somewhere lost out on the ocean

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it’s not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I know you want to leave it behind
but it’s all there in your mind
and you can no more stop the songs
than stop your breathing
I can’t tell you how it’s gonna end
I know the lucky ones sometimes win
but not before they’ve paid a price
for all their dreaming

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it’s not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I don’t know how many times I have listened to her sing those words, or I have sung them myself. A decade later, I’m working two jobs, still working on being a writer, and am somewhat of a survivor of my own Great Depression. So when a random mailing came from Diane, based on a list I signed at a concert about seven years ago, Ginger did some very cool detective work and gave me an amazing gift of love: an evening of hope and healing.

I had never been to a house concert before. Laura and Neal, who run Fox Run House Concerts, basically tore apart their home and put it back together again where forty or so people can gather and share an evening of music together. We all brought snacks and stood around in the kitchen and dining room until it was time to be the audience. Seated on couches and dining room chairs, we listened, laughed, and sang along. After the show I even had a chance to tell Diane how her song had accompanied me. She, Ginger, and I talked for a long time and found a resonance that went well beyond a decade-old recording.

One of the most insidious lies depression tells is no one understands and no one is really listening: you are all alone, so there’s no point in speaking up.

I touched the truth Saturday night, hearing Diane sing the song in a living room full of people who came to be reminded that we are not by ourselves. The real gift for me was more than being at the concert. It was being there sitting next to the woman who has told me to believe there is so much more everyday I have known her and who incarnates Love to me more than anyone I know.

It was a great Christmas.


P.S. Dave Crossland opened for Diane. He’s got some great stuff!

the souper bowl of caring


Fridays and Saturdays are my long days at the Inn. I’ve get twelve hours of cooking ahead of me today, so I decided to use my time to point to some folks who are doing good stuff: The Souper Bowl of Caring.

Here is how they describe their history:

A simple prayer: “Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat” is inspiring a youth-led movement to help hungry and hurting people around the world.

This prayer, delivered by Brad Smith, then a seminary intern serving at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, gave birth to an idea. Why not ask parishioners to give one dollar each for the needy as they leave worship on Super Bowl Sunday? Young people could receive the donations then send every dollar DIRECTLY to the charity of their choice. Participants would only be asked to report their results so that the totals could be determined.

The senior high youth of Spring Valley Presbyterian liked the idea so much they decided to invite other area churches to join the team. Twenty-two Columbia churches participated that first year, sending $5,700 to area ministries that help needy people. That was 1990. The effort went statewide in 1991 and national in 1993.

In 1997, youth groups in congregations across the country broke the million-dollar barrier, generating $1.1 million that year. Later that year an ecumenical Board was formed to take over the guidance and governance of the Souper Bowl. At the end of 2001, the Souper Bowl of Caring achieved another milestone when the Council of Stewards hired Brad Smith as the first full-time person devoted to fostering the growth of this grassroots movement of God’s love.

Since the Souper Bowl’s inception, ordinary young people have, with God’s help, generated an extraordinary aggregate of $28 million for soup kitchens, food banks and other charities in communities across the country. In addition, tens of thousands of youth have learned that God can use them to make a difference in the lives of others.

In 2005, people around the country raised over $4 million dollars through the Souper Bowl. This is great stuff. And you still have time to get involved.