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lenten journal: don’t give up

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This post started because a friend posted a video with a song title I recognized, but it wasn’t the song I knew. It did however send me back to a song embedded deep in the soundtrack of my life that I needed to hear today on behalf of friends who are hurting deeply–and also for myself. Most of the songs tonight fall in that category. As we move into the heaviest days of Holy Week I offer these songs of lament and loss. You may have heard them if you’ve been around me much. Then again, a good song is worth listening to over and over.

The video for “Don’t Give Up” is as compelling as the song itself because Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush are in a constant embrace through the whole song.

in this proud land we grew up strong
we were wanted all along
I was taught to fight, taught to win
I never thought I could fail

no fight left or so it seems
I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name
nut no-one wants you when you lose

don’t give up ’cause you have friends
don’t give up you’re not beaten yet
don’t give up I know you can make it good

I can remember the first time I heard Tracy Chapman. The song was “Fast Car.” I still love that record. The last track on her second album is the one I keep coming back to: “All That You Have is Your Soul.”

here I am, I’m waiting for a better day
a second chance, a little luck to come my way
a hope to dream, a hope that I can sleep again
and wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘cause all that you have is your soul

so don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
hunger only for a taste of justice
hunger only for a world of truth
‘cause all that you have is your soul

oh my mama told me
‘cause she say she learned the hard way
she say she wanna spare the children
she say don’t give or sell your soul away
‘cause all that you have is your soul

When John Mellencamp came out with Scarecrow it changed the way people thought about him. He was no longer Johnny Cougar. We can all sing “Pink Houses,” but one of the songs in the middle of the record is my favorite: “Between a Laugh and a Tear.”

when paradise is no longer fit for you to live in
and your adolescent dreams are gone
through the days you feel a little used up
and you don’t know where your energy’s gone wrong

it’s just your soul feelin’ a little downhearted
sometimes life is too ridiculous to live
you count your friends all on one finger
I know it sounds crazy just the way that we live

between a laugh and a tear
smile in the mirror as you walk by
between a laugh and a tear
and that’s as good as it can get for us
and there ain’t no reason to stop tryin’

When Jonatha Brooke wrote “Ten Cent Wings” that’s what chicken wings went for at Happy Hour, and where she got the inspiration for an amazing song.

I will love across the borders, I will wait until it’s dark
I will fly and you’ll be with me, my wings, your heart
then our memory may fail us, and our language will go too
but the shooting stars will catch our celestial view

ten cent wings, I’ll take two
pin them to my sweater and I’ll sail above the blue
ten cent wings, tried and true
orbiting like satellites I’ll sail away with you

Emmylou Harris is probably best known for “Boulder to Birmingham,” when it comes to grief songs, but “Bang the Drum Slowly” is the song she wrote after her father died. Her lament fits the losses we live with in these days.

I meant to ask you how when everything seemed lost
and your fate was in a game of dice they tossed
there was still that line that you would never cross
at any cost

I meant to ask you how you lived what you believed
with nothing but your heart up your sleeve
and if you ever really were deceived
by the likes of me

bang the drum slowly play the pipe lowly
to dust be returning from dust we begin
bang the drum slowly I’ll speak of things holy
above and below me world without end

Patty Griffin’s record American Kid is the album she wrote after her father died, which happened around the same time my dad died. “Wild Old Dog” is one of the most visceral metaphors of what it feels like to find God in grief, or, perhaps, to understand how deeply God feels our grief. During Holy Week, I hear it as a crucifixion song.

God is a wild old dog
someone left out on the highway
I seen him running by me
he don’t belong to no one now

it’s lonely on the highway
sometimes a heart can turn to dust
get whittled down to nothing
broken down and crushed
in with the bones of
wild old dogs
wild, old dogs

I bought Bookends when I was I school and the song “Old Friends” has haunted me ever since. I think I am finally starting to understand it.

old friends, old friends
sat on their park bench like bookends
a newspaper blown through the grass
falls on the round toes
of the high shoes of the old friends

old friends, winter companions, the old men
lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset
the sounds of the city sifting through trees
settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

can you imagine us years from today
sharing a park bench quietly?
how terribly strange to be seventy

old friends, memory brushes the same years
silently sharing the same fears

On the record, it was paired with “Bookends,” as it is in the video I found.

time it was, and what a time it was,
it was a time of innocence,
a time of confidences
long ago, it must be,
I have a photograph
preserve your memories;
they’re all that’s left you

One of the perennial favorites on my soundtrack is Pierce Pettis. I am going to let him close us out tonight, not with a song of resolution as much as a call to tenacity–to keeping on. This is “Hold on to That Heart.”

Molly works on the children’s ward
the ones that aren’t gonna make it
she holds those little hands
and says a prayer sometimes
she just can’t take it

I lay me down to sleep
pray my soul to keep
if I die before I wake
slouching at the bar
she says some people are hard
they look at me like I’m crazy

I say hold on to that heart
hold on to the love you know
hold on to that heart
Molly don’t let go

he picks up the telephone
she says how you doing
he says I’m alright
no that’s wrong
but I’m getting through it

said I used to have a wife
used to have a life
it wasn’t that long ago
she says you’re going through hell
I have been the myself
but you can be strong I know

she says hold on to that heart
hold on to the love you know
hold on to that heart
boy don’t let go

whatever is honest
whatever is true
whatever is loving and lives in you
Think on these things
and hold on . . .

Don’t give up. Hold on. I will, too.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: one step removed

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Alma Cocina on Folsom Street is closed due to coronavirus shelter in place edict in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, March 30, 2020.

one step removed

the advantage of living
through holy week
after the fact is we
know what is coming
we read the events
as connected sequence

if this then that
we have turned the
unexpected into ritual
meaningful repetition
but still repetition
we know what’s coming

but the rituals seem
empty because of the
scares and surges of
life in the pandemic
things we have not seen
and don’t understand

might give us a glimpse
of why the disciples
acted as they did
had they known Easter
was inevitable would
they have run away

not everyone ran
the women stayed
they stood shoulder
to shoulder with
soldiers and sadness
even unto death and

then stayed longer
life is not certain
unless you’re a cynic
hope is not a return
to what was but staying
for what could be

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: anger as spiritual practice

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Anger

I had a dream the other night about a huge reservoir. I was standing on the banks, taking it in. I didn’t go in the water and I don’t remember much else that happened, other than I was aware that the body of water that stretched out in front of me was my anger.

As Marisa Tomei said in My Cousin Vinny, “It’s a metaphor.”

I woke up with the realization, or perhaps I should say finding words for the realization, that as I get older, I am getting angrier. I don’t mean the sort of grumpy-old-man-get-out-of-my-yard kind of mad. I mean I can feel that reservoir of anger growing in my soul, expanding its banks. I can feel the power there, the possibilities.

For someone who grew up in a family that prided itself on not getting mad, that growing lake feels like progress because there is much to be angry about.

My father grew up in a home where his father and stepmother yelled at each other. He was determined not to create that kind of home, so we weren’t allowed to yell. The lesson I internalized, which was not necessarily the one he was teaching, was I wasn’t allowed to get angry. As I learned that Jesus said, “Be angry and don’t sin,” it led me to think that perhaps anger was not the problem but a reality: we have a great deal to be angry about; we should be angry–and we should do the work to figure out what that anger can fuel or, if I stay with my reservoir metaphor, what the anger can water and feed, or even flood.

The poet David Whyte has been one of my recent teachers on anger and, I think, is perhaps the one who sent the first streams of thought that helped created my reservoir.

Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.

I won’t quote the whole essay (though I’m tempted), but I will pick up at the end.

But anger truly felt at its center is the essential living flame of being fully alive and fully here, it is a quality to be followed to its source, to be prized, to be tended, and an invitation to finding a way to bring that source fully into the world through making the mind clearer and more generous, the heart more compassionate and the body larger and strong enough to hold it. What we call anger on the surface only serves to define its true underlying quality by being a complete and absolute mirror-opposite of its true internal essence.

When we think about anger, at least in its public expression, we think about rage–the way my dad thought about not yelling–so on this day in Holy Week when we have to come to terms with Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple we wonder why Jesus “lost his temper.” I’m not sure he lost anything. He wasn’t out of control. He wasn’t on a tirade. He was, to use Whyte’s words, full of compassion for those about to be hurt.

Maybe part of the reason anger grows with age is because pain and grief do as well. Sadnesses stack up over time. The aches and pains of living develop a constant level that offers a grinding reminder of our mortality every time we stand up. The fundamental loneliness of existence is more and more apparent, as does the superimposed inequity that divides us.

As I talked about this with my spiritual director last week, she led me to asking how anger could be a spiritual practice: how I could feed the reservoir, channel it?

Anger creates streams of compassion because it requires me to change in order to not be consumed. Letting the lake continue to rise breeds disaster. Flooding. Whole towns and villages washed away downstream. But a regulated river offers hydro-electric power. An irrigation ditch feeds a field. My stream of thought takes me to Norman Maclean:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

As I think of Jesus turning tables, I am mindful that he never got to feel what it is like to be old. He knew what it felt like to know death was inevitable, but he didn’t get to age. I am becoming increasingly aware as I age that I feel more isolated. A big part of that is my hearing loss: I am more isolated because I just can’t hear well. The pandemic has made apparent, or at least emphasized, that I live a long way from a lot of the people that I love most dearly and that is probably not going to change. Not being able to go see them has made the distance more visceral. As I said, grief increases with age.

Early on in coming to terms with my depression, one of the definitions offered that made sense was that depression was anger turned inward. The words don’t cover everything, but they hold a good bit of truth. This past year, I read Johan Hari’s amazing book Lost Connections where he posits that depression is profound grief. That sent resonating ripples across the reservoir of my soul. I am angry and grieving just like everyone else is one of the ways I hear Whyte’s words that anger is the “deepest form of compassion,” and it makes me think of one of my favorite passages in literature:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

To the sentence that ends, “. . . you get loose in the joints and very shabby,” I would like to add, “and you lose your hearing.” I am angry. I am grieving. I am not alone.

Peace,
Milton

 

lenten journal: prelude

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My continuing conversation with Rob Walker led me to these words today:

Next time you have dinner planned with someone you care about, arrive (or plant yourself nearby) early. And do nothing. Observe the world; think about the person you’re about to see; cleanse your mental palate of other obligations or distractions. A significant moment deserves a considered prelude. Be ready.

prelude

maybe that’s the way to think
about the days between now

and when we finally get to hug
and smile unemcumberedly

to shed tears that won’t
get caught in our masks

waiting expectantly is not the
same thing as passing the time

can we foster our exhaustion
water our lives from the

growing reservoir of anger
let despair become a doorstep

we know the day is coming
life will not always be this way

if a significant moment does
deserve a considered prelude

then I am going to sit here
under the worm moon

and picture your face
your voice your hug

and do all I can to get ready
to take it all in

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: a short un-guided tour

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I have continued to meander through Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing. A couple of days ago, as hew was talking about taking in the soundscapes around us, he quoted artist Marc Weidenbaum:

“The world is a museum. You are the docent.”

I decided to let those words guide my writing tonight, after a loving nudge from Ginger to re-engage the practice of my Lenten journal.

a short un-guided tour

first, let me say
the exhibit holds more
than you can possibly
take in on one visit

those who know it best
come back daily
to look at the same things
that are never the same things
and to notice what
is missing and what has
been added or found

stop look and listen feel
free to touch most anything
it is all breakable, irreplaceable
we have no permanent exhibits

things to notice today:
the screaming baby just hit
the same pitch as Paul in the
middle of the na na na nanana nas when
he screams, “Judy, Judy, Judy . . .”
the beam of light across the
steeple is the shade of orange
Van Gogh was looking for
and never could find

not really . . .
but that would be pretty cool

I will leave you to your senses
and let you find what you find
while I notice that today
two people asked me
how long it had been
since I talked to my brother
and then late this afternoon
I called him by mistake
and we both laughed
at the same time

I need to sit with that memory
before it fades away
you can show yourself out

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: how can anybody be okay with this?

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One meme I read this week said, “I am hopeful that the pandemic will bring about necessary changes in healthcare the same way Sandy Hook and Parkland brought about necessary changes in gun laws. And now we can add Atlanta. The most recent expression of white terrorism sent me looking, first, for words and when I couldn’t find them I went looking for songs. Protest songs. Songs of lament. That’s what I offer here.

Just last week I learned of Chris Pierce for the first time. His songs are going to open and close our set. He has a new album called “American Silence” and the title track says,

we see the music move you as you lay your burden down
we feel the music grip you as your heart is soaked in sound
and when the song is over, if you decide to clap aloud
will your applause mean anything with stitches on your mouth

can we sing a song for you
will music move your heart and mind
will our song arrest you
american silence is a crime

Raye Zaragoza is described in her bio as a “Japanese-American, Mexican, and Indigenous woman” and she is a wonderful songwriter. “In the River” was written about Standing Rock, and she sings,

there’s got to be some hope
there’s got to be some hope
there’s got to be some way
for you to send your dogs away
and to leave the land alone
it’s got to be a crime
somewhere in your heart you’ll find
we’re fighting for our right to keep our future bright
and protect the ones we love

in the river is our sisters and our brothers
we are camping out for each other
we are stronger when we band together
and we’re standing up for the water
don’t poison the future away

J. S. Ondara is a Kenyan immigrant who learned how to play Bob Dylan songs in the slums of Nairobi and then set out for Minneapolis to find him. His songs are achingly beautiful.

will you let me in, or are you at capacity
will you set me free, are you holding onto history
will you be sincere, are you averse to honesty
will you dare to hear those children matching on the street

oh God bless America, the heartache of mine
oh God bless America, the heartache of mine

In “Preach” John Legend speaks to the contagious sense of helplessness we have to consciously engage.

I can’t sit and hope,
I can’t just sit and pray, that
I can find a love, when
all I see is pain
falling to my knees
and though I do believe
I can’t just preach, baby, preach
whoa, oh
I can’t just preach, baby, preach

all I hear is voices
everybody’s talking
nothing real is happening, ’cause nothing is new
now when all is tragic
and I just feel sedated
why do I feel numb? Is that all I can do? Yeah

Jason Isbell is the one person on this playlist that I’ve listened to for a long time. He makes the list tonight because of one of his most haunting songs, “White Man’s World.”

I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
the highway runs through their burial grounds
past the oceans of cotton

I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
wishing I’d never been one of the guys
who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
oh, the times ain’t forgotten

there’s no such thing as someone else’s war
your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for
you’re still breathing, it’s not too late
we’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate

Kae Tempest is a poet and a rapper and a playwright and, well, the list goes on. And it’s not just their words but the way they deliver them. “People’s Faces” is a prime example.

we’re working every dread day that is given us
feeling like the person people meet
really isn’t us
like we’re going to buckle underneath the trouble
like any minute now
the struggle’s going to finish us

and then we smile at all our friends

it’s hard

we got our heads down and our hackles up
our back’s against the wall
I can feel you aching

none of this was written in stone
there is nothing we’re forbidden to know
and I can feel things changing

even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I’ll stand weeping at the train station
‘cause I can see your faces

there is so much peace to be found in people’s faces

As I said, Chris Pierce started us off and he is going to take us out asking the question for the day: how can anybody be okay with this?

I’m sick and tired of this song
we’ve been singing it too long
singing we shall overcome someday
it’s been four hundred years
it sustains loud and clear
it’s so hard to believe, the outcry and the tears

why is it taking so long?
why should I have to write this song?

tell me, how can anybody be okay with this?
how can anybody be okay with this?
how is this land for you and me
when we can’t run in our own streets
tell me, how can anybody be okay with this?

Hope is not guaranteed. Let me say it another way. Hope is not obvious. To find it, we have to pay attention–mostly to one another. Hope grows out of solidarity and compassion. We cannot be okay with this because it’s not okay.

And Kae is right: there is so much peace to find in people’s faces.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: first language

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Sorry for my absence. I have been reading The Art of Noticinng: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover the Joy in the Everyday by Rob Walker. in a chapter called Discover the Big Within the Small” was this quote:

“Every household has a first language, a kind of language of the house.”–Alex Kalman

first language

I was almost twelve years old
before I met someone who had
lived in the same house his whole life
my family spoke the language
of motion, of doing, of next things
and though I have picked up
a few phrases of how to stay
unsettled is my vernacular
forty-five houses in sixty-four years

what I learned of home happened
around the dinner table
I was almost twelve years old
when I realized not everyone
ate breakfast and dinner together
the addresses changed but not
our daily breaking of bread
no matter where we lived
I felt at home at the table

to be human is to be a polyglot
life demands multilinguality
(we even make up words)
we stumble through sentences
whole paragraphs of existence
to do what we have to do
love is learning new languages
and saying what we know best
in ways others can hear

Peace,
Milton

 

lenten journal: search image

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I started last night by saying I had seen an article in The Atlantic titled “We Have To Grieve Our Lost Good Days” and the title sent me into poetry writing mode before I even read the article. I also said I was going to read the article when I finished, and I did. Twice. But it was not until someone made a comment on my blog that I saw what I had not seen” the title of the article was “We Have to Grieve Our Last Good Days,” not Lost Days.

search image

things hide in plain sight
or maybe they’re not hiding
we just don’t see them
because our mind has
a mental search image
that lets us see what we
were looking for rather
than what is there

she wrote the word last
it was all over the page
and all I saw was lost
she was pointed to
memories of last times
and I saw the days that
never got to happen
that can’t be remembered

mental search image
is a term I learned from
something else I read
it describes how we find
our car keys or spot
our friends in a crowd
we have an image of
what we are looking for

what are you looking for
beyond these days of
depression and distance
so much that your mind
switches letters to
let you see it
I’m just wondering
you don’t have to answer

Peace,
Milton

 

lenten journal: we have to grieve our lost good days

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I opened The Atlantic to see what was new and saw this title “We Have To Grieve Our Lost Good Days.” Before I could click the link I was writing a poem in my head, so I quit clicking and went to writing. Now I will go back and read the article.

we have to grieve our lost good days

was the headline of the article
by julie beck in the atlantic magazine
I want to make sure to give her credit
and I will go back and read it
but her first eight words
made me to write before I read
to think of what I have to grieve
before I read her list of losses

I lost seeing jason isbell live
lyle lovett and roseanne cash too
and john prine all together
I lost the chance to travel and talk
about the color of together
and a whole year of barn dinners
and trips back to durham
we lost our trip to ireland
some of that stuff will happen
but we have to grieve because
a lot of life has been lost
and will stay lost

I just read back through my losses
and was struck by the predominance of I
when julie beck said we
and all of a sudden all I can see
is over a half a million people
who have lost their lives
all their good days
for no good reason

we have to grieve our lost good days
alongside of grieving everything else
and what should we do
with the fear that we could forget
what this pain has taught us
and just be glad it’s over
our heartbreak makes us
capable of so much more
good grief has a long memory
we have to grieve

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: a shot in the arm

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Ginger and I were vaccinated last Saturday. The site was the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, about forty-five minutes from Guilford. Which vaccine you get is quite random around here. Turns out we got the Johnson and Johnson one, which is a single dose. Along with feeling safer, I feel deeply grateful, and also profoundly aware of how my privilege plays into this process.

a shot in the arm

after playing online
reservation roulette
for several days
we won a slot for
a shot at mohegan sun
the luck of the draw
gave us the one-shot
version of the vaccine

we picked up a bag
of fun size candy
to give to those who
save lives for a living
(snickers should come
in thank you size)

this morning the cdc
said in a couple of weeks
gathering with others who
have rolled up their sleeves
is a gamble worth taking
which means the odds
of a barn dinner are
looking pretty good
I read the story twice

and then pictured
myself at the table
some time this summer
its a safe bet to say
every dish I serve
will come with a hug

Peace,
Milton