lenten journal: lyrics and layers


    One of the signatures of my life are pockets of unfinished things.

    I have shelves of unfinished books, stacks of papers to be gone through, any number of unfinished household projects, and – thanks to an attempt, at least, to finish unpacking one corner of the guest room in our house – a folder of unfinished songs. At the end of the last century, I was a songwriter, collaborating with a good friend. I wrote lyrics and contributed on the harmonies. When that chapter of my life came to a close, I came away with the idea that I was not a melody maker, so the not-yet-songs found their way into folders and unfinished stacks and have stayed hidden for so long that I find it hard remembering them. Some in the stack have stayed with me in one form or another, but others were a complete surprise. This is one that caught my attention:

    a world away

    on a road outside nairobi
    someone’s walking home
    someone’s burning dinner
    someone’s about to go
    half a world away from me
    I don’t know any names
    on a road outside nairobi
    it happens just the same

    on a subway in st. petersburg
    someone has to stand
    a woman’s having trouble
    another lends a hand
    as the five o’clock train fills up
    like a mobile sardine can
    on a subway in st. petersburg
    they’re heading home again

    name a town pick a place
    take a lap in the human race
    find yourself a world away
    in the people you won’t see today

    in a house in yokahama
    the little one’s asleep
    while parents balance bank accounts
    and say the rent’s too steep
    grandma’s on the telephone
    asking how’s my little girl
    in a house in yokahama
    it’s not such a different world

    name a town pick a place
    take a lap in the human race
    find yourself a world away
    in the people you won’t see today

    Part of the reason this particular text struck me is the theme, which is one I’ve carried with me for many years. I can remember saying to friends in college, “Sometimes it bothers me that there are places I’ve never been – whole cities, countries – where no one has ever waked up and said, ‘I wonder what Milton is doing.’ They have never missed me and they’re doing just fine.” As long as I’m printing older works, I even wrote this poem a few years back:


    a family is gathering for a meal
    outside Spokane
    the daughter is still
    wearing her soccer uniform
    the mother is chatting
    as she passes the potatoes
    the father is nonverbal, tired
    trying to engage the dog is
    waiting for someone to share

    they will finish their dinners
    their conversations
    their homework
    they will turn on the television
    the phone will ring several times
    It will not be me

    no one in that house knows
    I live across the continent or
    I have tales to tell of my youth
    of my life, of what I did yesterday
    they don’t know I can cook or play
    guitar, or that I’m writing a poem
    they don’t know I’ve never
    been to Spokane and
    they’re not concerned

    they are finding their dreams
    building their lives
    breaking their hearts
    living out their days
    without knowing me
    and they are not the only ones

    in all my years
    the phone has never rung
    and a voice declared
    “come quickly to spokane
    we just realized we can’t
    go on without you”
    the same could be said
    for the table across the room
    from me here in the coffee shop

    the gossamer tether of humanity
    doesn’t appear to reach as far
    as the next booth unless the light
    is just right and I can see the lines
    I’m not sure which view
    is easier to live with

    The other reason I was caught by the folder I found was there were several poems/lyrics that were fairly complete and yet had sat in the blue cardboard folder with the picture of Pooh reading to Piglet while each one of them sits on a stack of books and the inscription, “Words and Such.” On the bookshelf next to the desk where I’m writing tonight are three more binders of unborn and unfinished songs, a whole stack of journals with snippets of insight, a couple of folders with articles and quotes, five icons that need to be completed, and a draft of a novel that I finished, but never could figure out what to do next. Within arm’s reach is an archaeological exhibition of the layers of my writing life with almost as much left undone as done, I suppose.

    The last phrase takes me once more to the prayer that has traveled with me through much of this Lenten season: “forgive us for the things we have done and the things we’ve left undone.” I’m not sure I need to ask forgiveness in this case – except for a couple of the lyrics – as much as I need to attend to my past, to regard it. Some things pass by for reasons we understand and others for reasons we cannot explain. Sometimes we walk away on purpose and other times we just let things fall away. I look over at the bookshelf and I think of Ezekiel standing over the valley of dry bones and watching God reanimate those who had been lost and left for dead. What he thought was over wasn’t over.

    Though much of what I found in my excavation might be considered, in the parlance of The Princess Bride, to be “mostly dead,” I’m doing good work to go back through the layers of my life and remember, as best I can, not only what and why I wrote, but for whom and with whom. Whether any of the songs are ever finished, or any other of them are seen by anyone else but me, living in the layers, as Stanley Kunitz pointed out, is how I continue to move towards wholeness. Here are the closing lines to his poem:

    In my darkest night,
    when the moon was covered
    and I roamed through wreckage,
    a nimbus-clouded voice
    directed me:
    “Live in the layers,
    not on the litter.”
    Though I lack the art
    to decipher it,
    no doubt the next chapter
    in my book of transformations
    is already written.
    I am not done with my changes.

    In this trinity of existence – archaeologist, settler, explorer – I re-member my life in what has been, what is, and what is to come. I cannot see beyond the borders of my limitations and can reach farther than I can imagine.

    Thanks be to God.



    1. Milton –

      You just get better and better. I may just have to call you now and tell you to “just get up here, we need to talk.


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