Monday, December 29, 2008

Lost Gifts

The caption at the top of my blog is a quote from Wendell Berry: Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away. I placed it there so long ago, that I have forgotten its source.

Now I know why.

Justin gave me a Berry’s A Timbered Choir as a Christmas gift. This is a collection of Berry’s poems from 1979 thru 1997. He calls them his “Sabbath Poems” as most of them were written while he took Sunday morning walks about his Kentucky lands – his weekly walking meditation, observing the world through his poetry. One of his poems from 1993 ponders life’s ebb tide, clearly told from the perspective of someone who has many years behind him, but still knows there is much more ahead:

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.

The poem ends with the lines at the top of the blog, words of grace and spiritual giving: we have less and less reason not to give ourselves away, to ‘be generous toward each day that comes.’

I relate this with some embarrassment, as I have received this gift once before. Kent Busman gave me a copy of A Timbered Choir as a thank you for working with the Camp Fowler Capital Campaign Committee a couple of years ago. He put an inscription on the inside cover. It was my introduction to the simple power of Berry’s words. I cannot find that book, and it saddens me because it came from someone who personifies the grace of giving one’s self to others.

Sorry, Kent. And thanks, Justin.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ice Storm

The regular Saturday cleaning could wait. There was nothing normal about the day. The gallery was open outside and demanded attention. Sunlight poured out of crisp blue, and the trees were wrapped in diamonds.

The temperature stayed below freezing, so nature’s canvas did not melt. A slight breeze pushed heavy tree branches into gentle swirls. The highest and most brittle limbs became baby rattles, their blanket of ice creating a rustle that faded like a wave into the distance. It was a visual and auditory picture. Ice chips broke off and scattered across the roof and on the driveway, providing a crunchy pathway for my boots.

Pam took a mid-morning drive with her camera. She picked up Marge and headed into the hills around town. Their view changed, depending upon how high the road climbed. Sometimes the layers of paint were just the opaque ice covering each brown limb. In other places, snow added a blanket of dust to the trees.

Everywhere, the sun made the picture glisten. The bright rays reflected and bounced against the icy forest, scattering the light and adding another element of motion to the picture.

Normally, a mid-December day would warm gradually by noon. The sun will get high enough in the sky and thin layers of ice will begin to drip. But today was different. The storm had started on Thursday, and the temperature went down with the sun that evening. The rain turned to sleet, freezing rain, and snow , spreading across a wide swath of our corner of upstate New York. It stopped by about noon on Friday, but by then, over 200,000 homes had no power in our area.

The full moon provided the only light that night, and it showed us what the storm had left behind: an incredible layer of ice on every surface. At dawn, the light show really started.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Most poetry is a personal thing. Much of my poetry has been written for Pam, since it is the format that I find most comfortable to express emotions that defy rational, declarative sentences. Thus, I 'publish' my poetry for her in cards and letters, intended for her as an audience of one.

I have discovered that poetry is also a very selfish thing. I write it because I need to. The creative impulses are driving the act of writing, and they are only satisfied when I complete the poem. As one poet said (durned if I can remember who), you be true to the words first, to yourself second, and the reader third. Words develop into lines intended to express an image, and sometimes that image or thought is very inward and personal. That's why much poetry seems incomprehensible and difficult -- the only one who could explain it is the author. Makes one wonder why it is published for general reading!

I have published poems on this blog, and I do enjoy that. Most of them are words, lines, images that I feel I could share, and might mean something to someone else. Some of my readers have replied and reacted to them, which is fun. Other times, I'm sure, my poem does not connect. That's fine, too.

None of this diminishes my desire, like many writers, to be recognized and to be published. So I am very excited, and flattered, that one of my poetry submissions has been recognized! I submitted three poems to the Hauser Poetry Competition at the Chautauqua Institution (a wonderful place, maybe more on that later), and got a letter last week informing me that one of the poems had gotten 'Honorable Mention' -- one of six poems selected in the contest. Here's the link to the announcement:

Yup, I get a sentence. And nope, I don't think they are publishing the poem anywhere. But that's OK -- I will always be thankful to the Writer's Center at Chautauqua, particularly to the poet Susan Grimm, who led the poetry seminar that I attended there. And to Pam, who pushed me to sign up for the seminar. And to Jan, who never stops challenging me to write more. So here it is.

Violent Mortality

Terror arrives in the soul
when death moves from a distant probability
to an immediate potential act,
especially when accompanied by violence
with its likelihood of pain:
the noise and scream of battle,
the screech of highway tires and metal,
the roar of searing heat and flame.

You have the fleeting thought that
you are not yet done with life,
but the book has suddenly finished
without a tidy sentence or summary chapter;
your fork still hangs in mid-air
replete with untouched dessert.

Your mind looks for an escape
that you believe is just outside the door,
or through that window,
or beyond that river bank.
The soul searches for peace that transcends sheer quiet.

If this were a movie, and your lovers watched,
the screen would only display sterile color pictures
that leave out the invisible darkness
carrying your life away.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Poetry Thursday, June Edition

Hudson River School from the Train, 5:00AM

A stillness at dawn
as the earth turns its face to the sun.
The river wakes,
its surface ripples and murmurs,
breaking the first reflection of the forest
that colored the wet canvass.

The treetops wave in slow motion,
as if stretching their fingers to make sure
they can grip the sky for another day.
Spring buds whisper the faintest of green,
hanging on for dear life
at the very fringe of the breeze.

Mist dances on the river deck,
breaking into pillars that twirl and lean,
white dervishes that barely speak
as they emaciate before dissipating upstream,
their supporting role in this scene
finished for another morning.

Far shadows rise at the light
as low mountains appear on the skyline,
no longer just black hills drowning in the darkness.
The curves and plunges of the highest line
define them as something more
than just a wall reaching for the clouds.

This scene unfolds before me,
scrolling through glass on a railed frame.
I find no gilt surrounding the picture,
just a slow conversion from absence of all light,
brushed through a sepia transition
into the lighted grace of God’s ungated gallery.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Rising above Malaise

I realize that this borders on editorial plagiarism, and just by copying an article I could be chased by a major publisher. But I just read Tom Friedman's column in today's New York Times, and I urge you to read it.

Friedman points out the true irony of American economic and political policies today, and our total disconnect with expectations and direction. Our country (and you can place the blame wherever you wish, altho it's clear to me where it lies) has mortgaged so much of our assets to others, in order to fund the wrong priorities, that true investment in the future has been squandered. He uses our transportation hubs as an example, but his point is much broader: our transportation, power, digital, communication, education, research, and even some of our social support structures are under-funded and limping. We are losing our capacity to invest in 'tomorrow people.' And our leaders lie to us.

In discussing the primary candidates for president, he concludes:

Who will tell the people? We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We still have all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country.

I don’t know if Barack Obama can lead that, but the notion that the idealism he has inspired in so many young people doesn’t matter is dead wrong. “Of course, hope alone is not enough,” says Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, “but it’s not trivial. It’s not trivial to inspire people to want to get up and do something with someone else.”

It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.”

We have dramatic choices for our next president. A woman. An African-American. A man who spent years as a prisoner of war. McCain, Clinton, and Obama all come from different backgrounds, and speak a different theme. We need someone who can bring us out of the current malaise. We need a theme of hope and positive action. That kind of language is powerful. There is true power in words, well-chosen and inspired.

I believe two of them can speak that language. Two of them can look forward rather than back.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Poetry Slam

A few words about the poem I scratched out at the Fish House, Calvin College’s coffee house. This was the last event of the Festival of Faith and Writing last week. I attended the Poetry Slam as a spectator because I knew little about it. Got caught up in the energy and started writing. The moderator – Patricia Johnson, past winner of National Poetry Slam competitions -- kept looking at me and saying, ‘You’re gonna finish that, you’re gonna finish that, you’re gonna be in this…”

As written poetry, it needs work. But here is the rough draft, as written and performed that night at the Fish House. I pointed to a round analog clock on the wall next to the stage, and started in an angry chopped tone:

Night Watch

I don’t want to see a clock.
Cover that damn white face and hands,
shut up that tick, tick, tic,
it penetrates my tapping foot
tapping to a metronome I refuse to meet
When I really want to run these feet
where my 2AM terrors don’t last till dawn.

Cover that damn white face and hands.
I can still run this five decade carcass
up any mountain peak I want
on the rocky range of my life.

Cover this damn white face and hands and hair.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Festival Slam

I no idea how a Poetry Slam worked. I sat in on a session with Patricia Johnson, a past winner of National Poetry Slam competitions, and a devout Christian. She currently works as the PIO for the Sheriff Department in Roanoake, VA. She read some of her poetry, but she primarily discussed the emotion behind belief, faith, and poetry. She was sincere, real, and dynamic -- even, and especially, in prayer.

She was hosting a Slam at the Calvin College coffee house tonight. I was tired after a full day of sessions and presentations, but my goal has been to absorb as much about poetry, and poetry presentations, as I could. So i went to the Fish House to watch.

I heard some of the best poetry all week. Where were these folks on open mic night the past two nights??!! And there was true diversity here; plenty of pain, emotion, excitement, and wonderful use of words and cadence. Rap and hip-hop without the music -- altho some of the presenters did sing part of their poetry. Each reader has three minutes at the microphone, and Patricia had three tables of judges on hand to do the scoring, on a 1-10 scale.

I didn't sign up initially, so I did not bring my poetry. But i was fascinated by the quality of the material, and the fun that people had on stage. So I started writing, and under prodding by Patricia, I finished enough lines to read. I was the last of about 12-13 readers -- and I came in 5th! The top 5 do another round, but I had no more words left.

So I was exposed to another facet of poetry, one that fosters incredible emotion, lyricism, and fun. That's what words are for.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Festival of Faith and Writing, Day 3

My goal is to focus on the poets at the conference. To listen. To learn. Rod Jellema is a teacher of poetry, and he is a very giving person -- he even handed out a worksheet with his cell phone listed. He is an open, encouraging, and clearly loves his craft. He did not take up poetry himself until age 40, long after he had settled into his career as a college professor. It was my first poetry lesson.

I have a long way to go.

There is a difference between a message, and the means with which that message is delivered. Prose, poetry, essays, novels, are all delivery methods. The message at this Festival is clear: faith, prayer, the discernment of the word.

Why would I expect differently?

How long is the way?

Oh, yeah, and Yann Martel's recommendation on how to interpret his Life of Pi? Read Part I and Part III. The link is between those two sections. The middle is just a shipwreck story.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Festival, Day 1

How to describe this Festival, its participants, the attendees.? This is an energizing place on two fronts -- religious and literary. I admit that I am here more for the latter, but the religious themes are paramount here at Calvin.

Many people here are devoted to Christianity and dedicate their skills and work to it, give of themselves totally and willingly. Poet Luci Shaw describes it as giving one's self over to a massage from the hands of God -- just turning yourself over to his hands. She believes that it is her calling to write about the beauty of the world as brought to us by the Creator: "Beauty is grace embodied -- something extra given that we don't deserve." She believes that we fail the Creator if we do not celebrate beauty, particularly if we celebrate things that man created instead. "The natural world is where I find the transcendent."

Contrast this belief foundation and background with that of Mary Karr ("The Liars Club"), a tough, up-front, unreserved fireplug who grew up in a hard-scrabble Texas home with abusive and addictive parents, who fought for everything, with everybody; who abused drugs and alcohol as a young adult. She began using prayer to help guide her life decisions, did it reluctantly and with little faith that it will work -- and has discovered that the power is in letting go: "I surrendered. The solution to my problems is a spiritual solution." She began to see life connections when she prayed. She started her presentation with a prayer, which included, "God, I know you have a lesson here for each of us today, please guide us and show us what the hell it is."

Not your classic liturgical methodology. She has become a Catholic, and uses Jesuit prayer guides to help her through life.

The final startling highlight was at the poetry open mic tonight. One of the presenters was a young man who did performance poetry -- rap, without the music. He stepped away from the microphone, bounced with the words, pointed and waved his arms, shouted, whispered. This, amid some of the more traditional poems read by the rest of us...

Creativity comes in all forms.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Travelin' to Grand Rapids

The wonders of the American transportation system.

At 7:30 this morning, I drove less than 2 miles to connect with Interstate90 in upstate New York. Eleven hours and 646 miles later, I arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan -- never leaving a four-lane highway. Crossed the Niagara River, drove by three of the Great Lakes, went from the rolling hills of the Mohawk Valley to the flatlands of Ontario and Michigan.

Four generations back, an American might have gotten to the next county in one day of travel. Today, I went a quarter of the way across the country...Well, two countries, since the most direct route took me through Canada.

The interstate system is Eisenhower's legacy, the federal government's major foray into the road construction business. Ike used the government's security and defense rationale for building one of the largest road networks in the world, a ribbon of red four-lanes across 48 states. We can all use our four-wheeler engines to go anywhere we want on the American map.

There are consequences to this, some of them negative. Our reliance on highways for such a high proportion of our transportion keeps a huge auto industry in business. We are pretty lonely in these cars, as far too many of us commute to work by ourselves. All these cars have helped deplete our supply of fossil fuels. We haven't done much to improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine for over a hundred years, and apparently these things aren't friendly to the atmosphere.

I contributed to the problem today. Drove by myself. Probably got 32 miles to the gallon, but still burned plenty of gasoline. Coulda slowed down and saved gas. Might have found someone else to go with me.

So what is in Grand Rapids? The Festival of Faith and Writing, a biannual conference on writing and spirituality held at Calvin College. An impressive roster of novelists, poets, essayists, screenwriters, graphic artists for three days of lectures, workshops, conversations, interviews. I wandered the campus tonight (always been intrigued by college campuses), found the conference center and was able to pick up my registration materials early. Spent an hour trying to select the sessions that I will attend over the next three days -- not an easy task! For instance, here's the description of a session with author Kathleen Norris:

Acedia...Again: Few people today have encountered the word 'acedia', which literally means not-caring, of being unable to care -- or even being unable to care that you don't care. In some ways, though, acedia defines today's culture, expressing itself as willful indifference, restless boredom, or even frantic busyiness. Norris discusses both acedia and its opposite -- the zeal that draws on faith, hope and love.

Yikes! Wanta hear that one, but it competes with another poet at the same time. The whole weekend is like this!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Music, Language, and Math

We attended a concert by the State Symphony of Mexico last night. It was a Proctor’s event, and they had not sold many tickets. In order to have some semblence of a crowd, Proctor’s puts out notice to employees and volunteers, announcing that free tickets will be available a few minutes before the show. Anyone can walk up to the ticket window and ask for tickets to the show, and give the password ‘Ole.’

So we got two ole tickets in Row FF near the front. We had a view of the grand piano keyboard for Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3. The pianist was a Cuban who was very deft with his fingers for a long period of time. Concert pianists have such skills, they amaze me: they can play 20-25 minutes with no music.

Music is a language – or, more succinctly, a set of languages – and a conversant player can speak the language without a script. Each musical key is a dialect of that language. A good player will know the emotion, the words, and the tempo of the piece, and can make the music speak. If they are reading something written by someone else – another composer – then they memorize the words. A good player will know the words so well that he can apply the proper emotion and tell the story in his own way.

That is art.

Of course, the other theory is that music is actually closer to math. A piece of music is another form of mathematical expression. Rhythm is a collection of beats, or counting. The key signature defines the mathematical equation for the piece, and the musician does the calculation with his or her instrument. Apparently, many musicians are also very good at math and numbers. Both use the same side of the brain, apparently.

Music, language, math. Each, and all together, elements of creativity.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Poetry from the Hudson train

Suspension Bridge

A string of light outlines a bridge
against the empty blackness of night
I have no proof the structure really exists
as I look out the darkened window of this train;
I see no road, no massive legs, no railing,
Not even the shine of water rushing underneath,
reflecting the suspended incandescence.

For all I know, a random celestial elf
hung that string around the stars
just to announce a party.
She will supply the music and games,
while we bring food and drinks.
Only then will the singular bulbs explode in light
And break the bounds of our own thirsty souls.