Robert Benson.2

In the winter of 2004, I found myself in unexpected conversations with a publisher about the possibilities of my first book. In unfamiliar territory and attempting to wrap my brain around the strange world of publishing (and particularly, the far stranger world of publishing houses that cater to the religious market), I asked the acquisitions editor if I could talk to one of their authors to get a feel for how their press operated. The editor suggested I chat with Robert Benson, and there were few names she could have given that I would have welcomed more. A year earlier, Miska read Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and Living Prayer, an encounter which moved Robert onto that special section of our bookshelf reserved for our beloved writers, writers who had something of substance to say but who offered this substance with tender care for sentences and stories. We like the writers who do not beat the mystery off the page.

Robert and I chatted on the phone, arranging a meet up at the Frothy Monkey in Nashville, one of his haunts. I stood outside in the March cold, and a large black Mercedes slowed to the curb. As we’ve later rehearsed our meeting, Robert promises me he has never owned a Benz, but that is precisely how I remember it. Perhaps in my subconscious it’s just that Robert seems like the sort of man who deserves to own a Benz, if anyone does. Robert wore black pants, black long sleeve shirt, black shoes, a greying pony tail poking out from under his Yankees cap. He looked like the literary version of Robert De Niro. We ordered coffee, and Robert welcomed me into the writing world. He gave me advice providing a wise corrective for an upstart suffering from the temptation to strive too hard to manage his reputation (a reputation I didn’t even have). “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Robert said. “simply be thankful when someone will pay you to put words on a page.”

In the years since the Frothy Monkey and the Benz that doesn’t exist, Robert and I have stayed in touch, though not as often as I’d like. A quick email. An off-the-cuff phone call about something one of us has written or just a hello. A couple visits. I now consider Robert a friend, and I trust he would say the same of me. In an email between myself and another good friend, Robert referred to me as “Our man in Virginia.” I like that. Funny what strikes you, huh?

There are a small cadre of writers I deeply respect, for their years tending to the work and settling comfortably into their well-weathered voice. It’s a real achievement in this world to labor, over a lifetime – refusing the fast way (if there really is such a thing), paying honor to the craft, staying quiet when silence is required, keeping clear of the dog-n-pony show as much as possible (and it’s never entirely possible), being a good human, helping others be good humans. It’s also a thing of beauty to encounter a writer who is a storyteller in the old sense. “Story” is all the rage these days, but I’m not sure if many of us know what we’re talking about. True storytellers do not let their too-many words get in the way. True storytellers believe the human experience powerful enough and painful enough and joyful enough to stand on its own, so their pen simply opens up the possibilities for us to hear it and see it fresh. I think most of us are too self-conscious for this kind of simplicity. Maybe we just need more years. Maybe we need more hunger. Robert is a true storyteller.

This is why I wanted to dote on Robert a little. I want you to know how much I admire him, how much I cherish him as one of our good writers. Robert has just released his newest book (or as Robert says, “no one unleashes one of my book upon the market, so much as they come and tell me it is time to give it up…”), and this is one Robert has teased me with for a long time now. Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life reflects on the intersection of spirit and art. If you are a writer, you’ll find every shade of joy in these pages. If you love reading good words, you’ll cherish this book at your bedside table. If you think about beauty or useful work or being human, Robert will be a friend to you.

Robert has been a generous friend to me. He has encouraged me in my writing when the terrain looked bleak. He’s been an advocate for me. Everybody needs a few friends in their life like Robert Benson, and I’m thankful.

Once Robert told me: “When in doubt, make sentences.” I’ve found this both helpful and hopeful. You can replace “sentences” with whatever your good work happens to be, and it shakes out just as well.

lebron james goes to cleveland

 

Dear LeBron,

You’ve done something extraordinary. You’ve made me pause and give attention to the NBA. When you dominate the bulk of NPR’s 7 minutes per week slated for sports coverage, then you have truly arrived. Most would think the signal of your cultural ascendancy was your gargantuan contracts, MVP’s, magazine spreads or championship rings. But no.

I want to tell you that I admire your return to Cleveland. I like Cleveland, I like a town with grit. What’s more, Drew Carey’s from Cleveland, so that makes Cleveland awesome. And for someone who has no legitimate connection with the city whatsoever, I’ve long had an inexplicable soft spot for Cleveland teams. In my opinion, the Browns have the best uniforms in the NFL. Brown and orange, so earthy. It’s like a color palette from Restoration Hardware’s Fall line. This observation will surely assuage the gloom of Cleveland Nation. Would you pass the word, tell them I said so?

But I digress. So, your return to Cleveland. There was no possible way for you to win on this one. You stay in Miami or take your sneakers — do you call them sneakers, by the way? Just curious. That’d be so fantastic and old school if you do — anyway, you stay in Miami or take your old school sneakers to any of the other high-gear franchises and you’re called a mercenary moneygrubber. You return to Cleveland and the history I’m sure you’d like to forget just cues again. You have to grapple with the fans who were devastated and endure the entire sports world dissecting your motives. You have to recount the images of your jersey being burned. You have to leave the fabulous Cuban food in Miami. Whew, I’m exhausted just writing it.

Anyway, it seems to me like you just said “screw it” and did what you wanted. I like that. (I also liked that you didn’t do the whole prime time announcement thing again. I mean, I know there was no way you were repeating that. And I know you’re sick of hearing about it, but man…wow…yeah, the simple print interview was much better. Live and learn.)

Of course, it’s possible this whole deal was a publicity coup. I know you’ve got big suits helping you navigate such things. But Lebron, the answer you gave for why Cleveland? rang true. You simply said that you wanted to go back home. I think that’s what we all want, in one way or the other. We want to return. We want to find our way back to our people, to the places or the friendships that we have carried with us even when we had to roam. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out who exactly we’re going to give ourselves to, who (or what) we are responsible for, where we will lay our weight down. But whenever we find that place, those friends, I hope we’ll all have the courage to name it home. I hope we’ll have the courage to draw a circle there and say, “Count me in.”

 

be well,

Winn

P.S. You know, the whole time I’ve been writing about you finding your way back home, Dorothy and Oz and getting those pony tails back to Kansas keeps popping in my brain. And I apologize because the mental image of you in a blue gingham dress and glittery ruby slippers is pretty darn hilarious. You could totally slam dunk the Wicked Witch, no doubt in my mind.

Carter’s slate grey Jeep idled on the street across from the historic red brick Palmetto Plantation House. The Women’s Ivy Auxiliary beautifully restored The Palmetto, a wrap-around porch with swings and wicker ceiling fans and rockers and green ferns accenting the khaki trim. Windows, six feet high, lined the front, allowing Carter full view of candles flickering, dancing, clinking of glasses. Palmetto House was booked year round for weddings and executive shindigs, a birthday party every once in while when a spouse felt the need to impress.

But this was a wedding. The wedding Carter had imagined so many times, only he had always been the one in the tuxedo, the one saying I do, the one leaning over to whisper in Sylva’s ear, Hey, let’s bust this party. I need you all to myself. And Sylva squeezed his leg and gave him the look that let him know she was eager. At least that’s the way it always went in his head.

Carter was not wearing a tuxedo or even filling the role of guest. He was in his Jeep with Johnny Cash playing on the radio. John freakin’ Cash, he thought. Cliché. Carter thought it cruel of Sylva to invite him to the wedding. But this meant she really had gotten over him, really did believe he had moved past her too. Did she not hear him, those few years ago, when he told her he would never stop loving her? Carter hadn’t pulled himself together to make the ceremony, and now he sat glued to his seat, watching the festivities through the big windows, tears and anger and regret his only company.

But then Carter heard Johnny say that “Love is a burning thing,” and Carter found himself walking up the steps and into the great hall. The swing band paused between songs, and Carter picked up a champagne glass and a knife, ringing the two together more loudly than the traditional tap. Carter cleared his dry throat. “Hello, everybody.” He loosened his tie and coughed again. The room went silent, everyone turned Carter’s way. Sylva’s hand fell to her side. “Hey, thanks,” Carter said to the crowd, “I’d like to toast.”

“Sylva and I have been friends for a long time, since third grade. We spent most of our summers out at the quarry. I even tried to teach Sylva to fish, but it was no good. She couldn’t catch a fish if I handed it to her in a Kroger bag.”

Laughter filtered through the room. People love nostalgia and humor at moments like this.

“I didn’t care if we caught anything though. Didn’t matter. I was never really angling for a fish, but always for a kiss.” This revelation created a short, tense moment, but then the imposter in the tuxedo chuckled so everyone else chuckled too.

“I’m telling you this because I was thinking about the quarry just a bit ago. The quarry was where Sylva and I went after my dad’s funeral. I was seventeen, and I’ve never felt so lost. Sylva sat with me, for several hours, tossing rocks over the edge. We would just watch them fall, and we’d cry. Sylva’s that kind of person, a good person.”

Carter tilted his glass toward the man wearing Carter’s tuxedo. “You’ve got the real deal here. You take care of her, I mean it.” Carter lingered with those lines, like he wanted to be sure the fellow knew he meant business. Then Carter returned to his story. “Sylva said something to me that day when my heart was ripped up. ‘The love never stops,’ Sylva said, ‘The story just changes.’”

Carter raised his glass. “So I toast love that never stops, even when the story changes.” A few folks dinged their glasses and most everyone took long sips. Carter caught Sylva’s eye, the way he had so many times. He gave her the wink that was so familiar. Sylva’s smile was warm.

On my jog down Main Street yesterday morning, I encountered a young couple busking. They were obviously new to the trade, out so early when the crowd is sparse and the tips will be almost nil. Perhaps this was their gig, just learning the ropes and stepping in slowly when there’s less risk, less comparison to the many fine musicians who, on the really good days, make Charlottesville’s downtown mall something like an open-air version of Austin City Limits. The fellow, hair flowing and guitar raging, wailed lyrics to songs I did not recognize. I would not call his voice powerful or beautiful or clear even, but he owned every syllable. I will not criticize; it worked for Dylan. The woman, however, sang meekly. As I ran closer, her voice grew softer and softer. Her eyes dropped to the ground. I think, for her, it was courage simply to stay in place and keep her mouth moving in hopes that sound might squeak out.

In the afternoon, I was again downtown for errands, and another couple had secured Main Street for their stage. This duo, however, were legitimate troubadours. I could imagine them as the coolest street-smart characters from a Dickens’ novel…if Copperfield had displayed a penchant for futuristic fantasy…and been set in Nashville. The fellow wore tight black pants, black boots and a black vest over his bare chest. A black-straw summer fedora topped his head, with a couple dark curls, like Jewish payots, dropping to his jaw. His guitar hung from his shoulders, and he played a folksy tune, a cross between the Avett Brothers and a circus tune if you can imagine.

The woman wore a black lace top and a black mid-length skirt. Black stockings rose to just below her knee, black shoes. Her body swayed as she worked the rhythm of her black accordion. Both musicians had face tattoos, shapes of elongated spider webs or perhaps a mythical Celtic symbol. They were a sight. And they could play and sing.

His fingers danced up the neck of his guitar, and she made that little accordion hum. The melody was haunting, crisp. This was music that, if you were to stay for more than a few verses, would eventually require some kind of commitment. Their open guitar case sat on the ground, a few wadded dollars and copies of a self-produced CD lying on the faded red velvet.

What fascinated me most, however, was two little bells sitting at the woman’s feet. These were the old brass-colored bells that you’d find in the mom and pop dry cleaners, the ones on the front counter with a note next to them saying, “We’re in the back. Ring for service.” The woman had these two bells with two different pitches (who knew?), and her feet tapped them, creating a magical rhythm that covered this space of crowded commerce with enchantment. She rang that bell and danced with her accordion, and we all were caught up in her beauty.

A woman with the courage to hold her ground and a woman with the courage to ring, ring those bells. We’re all in different places, we’re all learning to trust what we have to give. We all can add to the music of this old world.

Friends, I want to play more this summer, as you do I’m sure. More space for the wild things, for the small things. I’ll be more whimsical on my writing schedule during the summer months. You might be able to catch me down by the river, but come quietly – and bring a beverage.

 

gone fishin

When we are wrought with some debilitating fear, crushed by guilt for a failure or indiscretion, perhaps when we’re teetering with anxiety over all that could go wildly wrong – I get the sense that sometimes God simply does not care.

I do not mean that God forgets how, in God’s deep being, he exists as love. I do not mean that God abandons his tender attention toward the slightest spaces of our lives, treating us with the gentleness known only by the One who counts every hair on our head and makes certain even the lilies of the field have all they need. Rather, I mean that God provides us a gift, allowing us to encounter how the things that seek to unravel us are simply not as powerful or important as we’ve imagined. They are far less significant than the steady love that holds us.

I imagine God listens tenderly to our run amok mind, letting us spill clean, gathering it all. Then, I imagine God giving a slight shrug of the shoulders, tilting his head, tenderness in his eyes. Ah, that’s no biggie. Save that energy. You may actually need it one of these days.

Running on 5th Street this morning, I spotted one of Charlottesville’s Finest from the motorcycle patrol unit moving slow in traffic ahead of me. Tall, beefy and toned, the officer’s biceps bulged from his uniform. The Kevlar vest fitted under his shirt added to his intimidating dimensions, making it obvious this officer worked the gym, not the donuts. The officer wore solid black, from his taut shirt to his black pants down to his thick leather boots .

The officer pulled to a stop light. His beast of a machine, merely idling, sounded hungry. The muscular officer, firearm strapped to his side. The cycle grumbling. A man not to be tangled with.

Pulling closer, my ears caught tunes pulsing from the bike’s radio. Would you believe the officer had Pharrell Williams belting “Happy”? I may have even seen his leather boot tapping the asphalt.

Joy is everywhere.

Dancing

fence tree yard

In several unrelated settings recently, I’ve heard people describe (with immense gratitude) their spiritual community as “safe.” This struck me as odd and beautiful. Odd because one rarely hears safe attached to church. It is true of course that too often church is the last place we encounter unflinching acceptance that invites us to express eviscerating doubt, paralyzing fear or the numbing loneliness that a sermon and song could never fix (an inexplicable predicament when our prayers and worship are shaped by the Psalter, the most uncensored religious text I could imagine) — but none of that’s exactly what I mean. I simply mean that safe is rarely a religious word. It’s simply not part of the eclessial lexicon. Maybe it should be.

In each of these conversations, the person had encountered something generous, something spacious and healing in the rhythms, posture and tenderness of their spiritual circle. Best I could understand, they found room to breathe, room to be themselves, even if the selves they are right now seems to have little to offer and arrives as a Grade A mess. They knew the joy of the slow knowledge (over time) that their community possessed the strength and the patience to bear their full selves, that they would be honored and would receive tenderness and would never be shamed. There was room to be playful and to fail and to have a long stretch where their head’s just not right and they are not “productive” members. They’ve been told that their mere presence is enough, that it’s a gift – and they’ve slowly begun to believe it. So safe might be odd, but it’s also so, so beautiful.

Many of us live in fear of being exposed. Exposed for not being as smart as people think we might be or expect us to be. We fear what would happen if someone saw us in the true muck, at our absolute worst. We fear (particularly in church settings) what will happen if we ‘fess up to the shadow themes in our story or let loose with the questions that haunt us. We play the charade because we lack courage, and perhaps we lack courage because no one else has courage. Perhaps we are all afraid together. Perhaps none of us feel safe. Perhaps we are all alone, in the same big room.

So when someone tells me they have found a safe place, I perk up. I want to belong to a safe community. I want to be a safe person for others.

Most nights, I go to each boy’s bedside and tell them goodnight. I make a slight sign of the cross on their forehead, bless them, say a short prayer for love and rest, tussle their hair and kiss them on the cheek. There are nights when I do this with fatherly joy. There are also nights when, because they are 10 and 11 and have mastered the children’s equivalent of digging their bony elbow into my rawest nerve, I do this in faith, trusting the love I know is there.

One might hope that one’s sons, over the many years enacting this ritual, would sense a little of the gravity and maybe even begin to cherish these moments. I’m not asking my two sons to pit themselves against one another, like Esau and Jacob, scheming or pleading for my better blessing. I’d simply like them to put down Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or my collector’s edition of Calvin and Hobbes which they took without asking and actually notice that their father loves them, blast it.

Several weeks ago, I was in the room of my youngest. Sign of the cross, prayer, kiss on the cheek. “Good night, bud,” I said, hand on his head. Seth looked up, as if my voiced pulled him out of a fascinating dream sequence. Seth began to chuckle. “What?” I asked.

“Uhmmm…” Seth’s smile broke wide, more laughter. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Of course, this is where I jerked my hand away, leveled my most shaming look and slowly backed out of his room in disgust. Such a disappointment, this distracted, childish son of mine.

Ridiculous. I actually chuckled too, gave Seth another pat on the head. I probably asked him what girl was tiptoeing through his mind. I told Seth I loved him and left him to his sweet fantasies until the next night when we’d cue the whole spiel again. Obviously there was nothing heroic here, just how most any dad would respond to his goofball son being a goofball son.

Yet some of us think God a worse father than this. Somehow, many of us have learned to live in shame (or terror) of the ways we believe we disappoint the One who loves us. We live on the razor edge, vigilant over our every action, every motive, every belief. We’re so fearful that we’ll forget to pay attention, and heaven knows we can’t let that happen.

I believe God would love to chuckle with us in these moments. Keeping a close watch, getting things correct – these are not the center. Love is the center. “But still,” says Hafiz, “God is delighted and amused you once tried to be a saint.”

Every so often (but not as often as I’d like), when the moon is just so or there’s been a little too much wine a little too late in the evening, I find my way back to this recurring dream.

We live in a village, an odd place nestled amid the lush green and rolling hills of the Shenandoah but also surrounded by the Rocky’s rugged ridges where aspens stand sentinel. We grow strawberries, apples and blackberries in the valley, but most afternoons we fill our knapsacks to overflowing and walk above the timberline for lunch with a view. Our neighborhood swimming hole is a high mountain lake, a spot we call Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have reeled in their first trout at Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have felt love’s first fire under the stars on a sensuous summer night. At this place, life blossoms.

We live on Maple St., a winding avenue lined with century-old oaks and swaths of verdant Midnight Kentucky Blue Grass surrounding every Craftsman cottage. Our little half-acre has a name, as do all the homes in our village. The hand carved wood sign attached next to the deep purple door on our wide, shaded front porch reads Elm Grove, but most of our friends simply refer to it as Elm. “Dinner at Elm tonight,” they’ll say. Or “Gonna run over to Elm to trade out books.” Our friends surround us, as friends should. Their homes, like their lives, create what we mean whenever we say neighborhood. Two doors down sits The Fable House. Across the street, you’ll find Casa del Amor and Shalom. One block behind us, The Abbey and River Stone. Each home a place filled with laughter, a place where we know ourselves more than we could ever have known ourselves on our own.

Each of us works our trade. I have a little writing shed behind our cottage, fitted just between Miska’s herb garden and the three-level tree fort Wyatt and Seth built. The fort’s a little cattywampus, but nobody cares. I craft my novels the first half of the week and craft my sermon the second, though these two acts overlap more than some prefer. I visit parishioners, but I just think of it as visiting friends.

If you’re rolling your eyes because this sounds sweet and idyllic, hold on for one more bit: the first Friday night during Spring and Summer, we take turns at each others’ place for a homemade ice cream fest (the hand-churned sort) with every conceivable flavor: chocolate chip, strawberry, peanut butter mocha, caramel apple – all loaded with fresh cream and piled high. We eat bowl after bowl, and we never gain an ounce.

Give a man his dream.