Monday, December 11, 2017

Peace on Earth

It's snowing in Detroit. Traffic crawled along 10 past accidents and spin-offs. There'll probably be a snow day tomorrow. I'm planning for a carol sing party Sunday and picking hymns I've been reflecting on the idea of peace on earth, something that seems so far and unimaginable with bad events on the news and tragedy in lives I hold dear. It's usually easy to feel it in the cheer of the season with time spent slowly with loved ones -- tree cutting, long sing-alongs, and sipping hilariously large novelty bottles of Trader Joe champagne. But it harder to see this year as scandal and brutality riffle through our country, as political policy further disenfranchises the most vulnerable parts of society, as my extended family reels from a sudden death. How can a season, a day, even one where we commemorate a savior, bring peace?

My friend C suggested we sing I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day at the party. It's a lovely song by a favorite childhood poet. In it, the narrator hears the tolling of Christmas bells calling "peace on earth, goodwill to men." At first they sound sweet but as they roll on something inside him blanches at their message. "Wrong is strong and mocks the song of 'peace on earth, goodwill to men,'" he says to himself. But the bells continue and call him back to rememrance of the day, that Christ has come to set right the gross and incalculable pain and discord and fragmentation of individuals, relationships, societies.

"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail." Easy to say, right?

I don't think it was for Longfellow. I studied him in college and wrote a biographical sketch. I remember reading about his wife and young daughter sealing letters in the family library and a drop of flaming wax falling onto a crinoline skirt. Longfellow tried to save them but couldn't and was so badly burned in the face that he couldn't shave. His beard became his signature look but it hid a deep and terrible pain. He fought crippling depression for years. Later, his only son was terribly wounded fighting for abolition in the American Civil War.

And yet, he writes, "God is not dead nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail."

That is the truth I'm turning my heart to this advent, opening it -- however heavy it can feel on some days -- to make room for a tiny child come to set in motion the healing of the world. Through this present time and even its turmoil, God is working. Love will have the last word. It's not some future promise of bliss and it-will-all-be-okay but a call to walk forward in love and faith and prayer that I may be a peacemaker in whatever way I can to whomever I encounter today.

May peace prevail on earth and our hearts -- yours and mine -- this Advent.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Unincorporated Lines

The first real snow last night. Everywhere I went today -- the Greek food store, Stella Coffee in The Fisher Building, the library -- people were cheery. I felt cheery too, something about the detritus of the year covered over, the hard lines of brick softening with a collar of white, the bracing air.

I've been writing a lot lately. For me, the practice for both life and writing -- because we bring the same mindsets to bear on creation and living -- is to walk forward with a joyful expectancy of the unknown, to see what happens. A few things from my notebook...


Shots fired outside the Institute of Arts -- 
panic's animal understanding touched one 
and then another and the crowd broke,
streaming along Farnsworth Avenue.
A crackling in the night, shouts, sirens,
and the whump, whump, whump
of a distant police helicopter.


We love only the specific form
but long toward the place all beauty points -- 
the lines on your face...


I made a space for you in my arms, 
small because you were small. 
I have carried your absence ever since.


The life you took off like a jacket
forgotten on a chair-back 
of some sidewalk cafe -- the loss 
you didn't realize until one day 
you went looking for it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Untitled by Yves Bonnefoy (trans. Emily Grosholz)

Inconsequential mistakes of light.
One follows on another, on others still, as if
Understanding no longer counted, only laughter.

And Aristotle said it well,
Somewhere in his Poetics that we read so poorly,
Transparency is what matters,
In sentences that should be like the rumor of bees
Or like clear water.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

New York by Saint Vincent

Sometimes I hear a piece of music and can tell that years from now it will make me think of this time and this season. Saint Vincent's New York is that for me right now with its wistfulness and self-realization, the knowledge-too-late of it all, how people define our places. The tender and profane blend perfectly too (though I'm using her edit "other sucker" when I play it live this Saturday at Avalon). I can't stop listening.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

from On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

This is how the entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was blurred, receding against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Live Patiently with the "Not Yet"

Last night, I sat with my friends L and J in J's apartment and talked and had chartreuse. L pulled a Henri Nouwen book off the shelf -- one I've read before -- and read this section out loud. Waiting, being patient, living in tension -- it's all the opposite of my usual instinct to go solve, fix, or answer problem or question. It's a beautiful thought though. L's lilting voice reminded me of good truths. It's a season of not yet for some things and as we near advent, I think too how the world is caught in expectant waiting.


“A part of you was left behind very early in your life: the part that never felt completely received. It is full of fears. Meanwhile, you grew up with many survival skills. But you want your self to be one. So you have to bring home the part of you that was left behind. That is not easy, because you have become quite a formidable person, and your fearful part foes not know if it can safely dwell with you. Your grown-up self has to become very childlike – hospitable, gentle, and caring – so your anxious self can return and feel safe.

You complain that it is hard for you to pray, to experience the love of Jesus. But Jesus dwells in your fearful, never fully received self. When you befriend your true self and discover that it is good and beautiful, you will see Jesus there. Where you are most human, most yourself, weakest, there Jesus lives. Bringing your fearful self home is bringing Jesus home.

As long as your vulnerable self does not feel welcomed by you, it keeps so distant that it cannot show you its true beauty and wisdom. Thus, you survive without really living.

Try to keep your small, fearful self close to you. This is going to be a struggle, because you have to live for a while with the “not yet.” Your deepest, truest self is not yet home. It quickly gets scared. Since your intimate self does not feel safe with you, it continues to look for others, especially those who offer it some real, though temporary, consolation. But when you become more childlike, it will no longer feel the need to dwell elsewhere. It will begin to look to you as home.

Be patient. When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness. Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off. Let it teach you its wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving. Gradually you will become one, and you will find that Jesus is living in your heart and offering you all you need.”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

More European Street Signs I Woefully Misread

It's not easy being an American abroad. Between being peppered with questions about politics and having your feet stick off the end of the bed in every airbnb, it's hard to relax while on vacation. But most confusing is the signage on streets, ferries, and in public buildings. I chronicled my puzzlement at cryptic street signs in the Baltic a few years ago. This summer I went to Italy, France, and Belgium. Though my tan from my Mediterranean summer is fading, my confusion over a slew of subtle signage persists.

Demon goats are prohibited.

Slow clap.

But first, let me take a selfie.

Commence nose picking.

There is a correct way and an incorrect way
 to hold hands -- I can only say I agree.

Níðhöggr, the wyrm of Ragnarok, lieth within.

When your hair is so thicc small children get trapped in it.

Enter the Thunderdome.

This is the anthem, throw your damn hands up!

High five, bro!

No matter how close we become, we can never truly connect
with another human being.

Please refrain from decapitating people
with steam shovels.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Stanzas for My Son

Stanzas for My Son by Douwe A. Tamminga (translated from the Frisian by Rod Jellema)

Don't curse with your mouth
if you suddenly come across an owl
lamenting above the overgrown yard
of Europe's nighttime rubble.

If you sometimes have to dip your bread
in tears, still stand faithful watch
through the night over this old land:
grieve over our grave, but not without hope.

Keep silent often and share your blanket
with those who can take the world's sorrow —
but don't dress yourself in scarlet clothes,
in the glaring costume of a fool.

Don't get caught up in every crowd
that scowls or looks askance at the spoils
the good earth gives. And if they hoist 
stormflags above the Tiber or Seine or Thames,

tighten the black crepe to muffle your drum.
Don't march along with the swelling music.
Son, follow no other way than this: 
accept being a stranger.

Advice to a Son by David Landrum

Advice to a Son

If you would marry, marry a dryad—
one with dark green skin and nappy hair.
She will be amazed at many things: the taste of tea,
soft beds, bouquet of bottled wine,
music and oranges, the sure rise of bread.
She will show you wonders too: how she can weave
a blanket or a garment out of leaves or build
a nest in boughs where you two may safely
spend the night; how she will disappear into a wood
and come back laden with wild radishes,
mushrooms, nuts, and apples.
When enemies attack she will disappear up a tree.
You will think yourself betrayed, but then
vine-lassos will descend. Your enemies
will disappear, jerked upward
kicking in astonishment. And you will listen
in the dead of night, after warm love,
as she tells what it is when arms transform
to branches, fingers to leaves, feet to roots
drinking the wetted earth—of seeing without eyes,
breathing at every pore of bark, feeling
the sunlight shape the rings that are your years,
and of the fronds that reach
to breezes bearing bundles of fresh rain
of softly singing lullabies of snow.

Monday, October 16, 2017

from A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes

Like desire, the love letter waits for an answer; it implicitly enjoins the other to reply, for without a reply the other’s image changes, becomes other. Perpetual monologues apropos of a loved being, which are neither corrected nor nourished by that being, lead to erroneous notions concerning mutual relations, and make us strangers to each other when we meet again, so that we find things different from what, without realizing it, we imagined.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

from A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes

"A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. 'I shall be yours,' she told him, 'when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.' But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away."

Peace on Earth

It's snowing in Detroit. Traffic crawled along 10 past accidents and spin-offs. There'll probably be a snow day tomorrow. I'm pl...