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Wendell Berry and the Gift of Interruption

Wendell Berry & Winn

Whenever I scratch out the short list of writers who, whenever everything is said and done, will have been my companions and teachers over the long story, Wendell Berry will certainly be there. Several months ago, I had the chance to visit with Wendell on his front porch, a misty day when the clouds were gray and the breeze steady. The conversation was rich, and there was much laughter. Later, a friend asked about the time, and I found myself saying, “You know, I felt enjoyed…” For a man who has spent his life writing of the necessity of presence, on that day Wendell practiced what he preached. And I am grateful.

Today is Wendell’s 80th birthday, and in the Collier house, birthdays are a big deal. I did not want the day to pass without wishing Wendell a wonderful 80th.

Among the many things we chatted about on that quiet Kentucky day was the work of writing. I shared with Wendell how I often feel pulled in disparate directions, that my life does not have simplicity of focus. True to form, Wendell dismantled the idols of our age, the idols of our art. The notions of the aloof writer enveloped in a cocoon of creativity, where the craft takes precedence over everything else — that is not true to the human soul, to any work we do that is truly good. Wendell shared much with me, and I will share this little bit with you:

You have been given a gift to help you resist the temptation to believe that your writing must never be interrupted. The modern idea that our art must always come first and never be interrupted is complete BS. I can’t live that way with my land. When you have a mule and it needs something, you can’t tell it to wait. I can’t tell Tanya to wait. I couldn’t tell my kids to wait, I still can’t most times. I can’t help but be interrupted by my neighbor. Now, I have some ways of being unfindable when I have to be, but I’m going to be interrupted.

Happy birthday, Wendell. That’s 80 good years. Here’s to the beauty of interruption. And to being unfindable here and there.

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A Friend Named Robert

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.

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King: One Who Would Dream

Dr. King’s dream was for all of us, even for those of us who did not want his dream, even for those of us who reproached him and persecuted him and said all manner of evil against him – even for those who fueled the anger that ultimately gunned him down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It takes a brazen man to hold the dream of a future that, by all logical accounts, is pure insanity. It take a tender man to hold this dream for those who love you and for those who hate you, knowing that healing must arrive for all of us – or it will arrive for none.

We desperately need women and men who see a future the rest of us are unable (or unwilling) to see. We need dreams that pierce through the tinny noise, blow past our parochial concerns and unhinge our narrow agendas. The time is now (the time has always been now) for dreamers whose imagination burns bold and bright, unfettered by the assumptions the rest of us have accepted as gospel. And we will know our dreams are the noble and explosive sort when they unnerve us with their daring and shock us with their unflinching generosity.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. ~ MLK

http://seattletimes.com/art/mlk/index.jpg

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Maximilian Kolbe

kolbe01Raymund Kolbe was born in the Kingdom of Poland in 1894 and, with his brother Francis, joined the Franciscan Order in 1907. Kolbe was given the religious name Maximilian and after becoming a priest, he assisted the formation of a new Japanese monastery near Nagasaki. Sometime in 1936 or 1937, Church authorities asked Maximilian to return and oversee the friary near Warsaw. When the Nazis captured Poland, the world Kolbe had known ceased to exist. Though the SS initially arrested Father Kolbe and shuttered the friary, he was eventually allowed to return, with only four other brothers to maintain the property. Kolbe immediately organized a harrowing plan to hide refugees. Before their clandestine efforts were discovered, they sheltered nearly 2,000 Jews from persecution and hid another 1,000 Polish dissidents.

When Kolbe was arrested, the SS shipped him to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. Father Kolbe was prisoner #16670. Though beaten, forced to labor long hours under excruciating conditions and given sparse food, Father Kolbe’s gentleness never waned. Prisoners recount how he would rarely rest and even in the night would walk bed to bed. “I am a priest. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

After one prisoner escaped camp, Auschwitz’s commandant instructed the guards to select ten prisoners who would be put in a bunker and starved to death as punishment for the escape and to dissuade any future attempts. When Franciszek Gajowniczek, imprisoned for aiding the Polish Resistance, was chosen, he sobbed. “My poor wife! My children! What will they do?”

Kolbe stepped forward and asked to go to the bunker in Gajowniczek’s place. The commandant agreed, and Gajowniczek recounts the moment:

I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?…I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this…

For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last.


In the bunker, Kolbe prayed with the men, read Psalms, sang hymns. After two weeks, he was the only prisoner still alive. Wanting to empty the bunker, one of the guards gave Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid. Father Kolbe died on August 14, 1941.

One of Auschwitz’s survivors, Jerzy Bielecki, described Kolbe’s death as “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength … It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”

Franciszek Gajowniczek lived. He returned to his wife, a reunion mixed with sorrow as the war had taken his sons. Gajowniczek lived to the happy age of 95, buried in March 1995. Every year, Gajowniczek returned to Auschwitz. Every day of his life, he remembered this powerful shaft of light.

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Advent Hope #adventpicaday

Jeromie Rand.FrozenIt’s been said, at least a time or two, that a picture’s worth a thousand words. I buy it. But, as any son longing for home or any mother listening for love will tell you – it’s also true that sometimes a word’s worth a thousand pictures.

Bottom line: Pictures matter. Words matter. Love matters. Hope matters. A kiss under the moonlight matters. Tucking your boys in at night matters. It all matters.

But we’ll soon be moving into Advent, and the quiet, watchful Advent days are days particularly keen on opening up tired eyes and adding a twinkle when you don’t see it coming. Last year, a few of us helped one another pay attention, to see the days before us, by snapping a picture that spoke of Advent mercies. I figured why not go for it again.

Here’s how it works. This year’s theme will be hope. We’re watching for signs of hope, for things that give us hope – and also for the places we pray hope will arrive. As many days of Advent as you’re able (and please, let this be easy, no pressure or discipline or any such thing – this is Advent, mercy-time, for crying out loud), snap a photo (like the one above – Jeromie Rand gave us this one last year) and post it on Instagram with #adventpicaday in the caption field. That way, we’ll all see what you see.

It is this joyful expectation of God’s coming that offers vitality to our lives. The expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us is what allows us to pay full attention to the road on which we are walking. {Henri Nouwen}

Now that’s hope.

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Characters from 5th St.

Main stSince I take the same route for my pre-breakfast jog five or six days a week, I encounter many of the same characters. We’ve woven in and out of each other’s routines enough to recognize one another, though I suspect I’m easier to remember because half the time I have a small fuzzy bear loping behind me. Allow me a few introductions.

The first is a sixty-something fellow who strolls up the sidewalk on 5th street. He has a strong, purposeful stride and wears a black Ivy cap and, usually, a charcoal grey sweater. I say morning as I pass, and he replies in a no-nonsense tone, with the faintest smile. “Good morning. How are you?” My goodness, I love that man’s voice. It’s a ringer for Charlie Utter, Sheriff Bullock’s deputy in Deadwood. I feel better knowing this man walks our neighborhood.

Another sidewalk encounter offers a bit of drama. This is a younger chap, early thirties maybe. He wears a beanie, pulled tight over his head. Today the beanie was one of those with tassels hanging to the shoulders – too cute for a fellow I know as Grumpy Guy. Each time we pass, I say morning. Each time we pass, he stares dead ahead. Either stoned or ferociously angry at the world – I can’t tell, but it’s my mission to win him over, to get a hello from him. After today’s failure, I played out a fantasy. We somehow land at the same party. The music’s loud, and we both retreat to the back deck for quiet. It’s cold, and he’s pulled out the beanie with the tassels. We know each other, but awkwardly talk about the bad music instead. Turns out, the guy’s not grumpy at all. Or stoned. He’s actually a softie. He lives with his invalid grandmother, and he plays the tuba. We laugh when I admit I was always a wee concerned that one of these days he would answer my greeting with a punch to the face. He chuckles and says he wears ear buds tucked under the beanie, and he’s blasting Nirvana, paying little attention to the rest of the world. We laugh more. A good fantasy.

My favorite character this morning was a woman in a grey PT Cruiser. Stopped at a light, she laid on her horn for a good blast. I jerked her direction, and I found her smiling at me, thumb up and extended my way. She held her thumb high, making sure I saw. Way to go, she said. You got this.

Four of us met this morning. We’re not friends, we’re not exactly strangers. I can imagine, though, how we might all need one another. Grumpy Guy needs an old leathery deputy-type who’s gruff, but deep-hearted, to yank his chain (or his tassel, what have you) and call his bluff. And every good man needs a lost soul to salvage, an opportunity to pull another man from his slumber. Of course, we all need someone to cheer us on, to give us her uninhibited joy.

I’m sure each of them offer me something. I hope I have eyes to see and a heart to receive.

 

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Upon the Birthday of T.S. Eliot

eliotI once had a professor offer a course consisting of nothing but a semester of Wednesdays reading Eliot and Dostoevsky. A strange pairing perhaps, but this professor noticed wonder and delight in all sorts of strange places. He described the course as an indulgence, and that one word slashed the overblown tires of scholastic rigor. I was invited to revel and play, to laugh and ponder. I need not critique from afar, with appropriate analytical distance. The invite was to stick my face in the cake and come up only when I needed air or needed to wipe icing from my nose.

Of course – how else would one read poetry, how else would one read a fine story?

The sad portion is that, due to financial and administrative issues, I had to drop the class. However, I stuck around long enough to read T.S. Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night where he gave me the indelible picture of “a madman shaking a dead geranium.” I couldn’t tell you exactly what that line taught me, exactly how it proved profitable in future studies or vocation. However, it gave me pause. I saw anew the madness in my world and my heart. I’m still watching for those limp, lifeless geraniums.

Thomas Stearns Eliot celebrates his birthday today. I toast him, this man of good words. This man of indulgence.

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Calvin Miller

calvin-miller-websiteSeveral years ago, the publisher of Holy Curiosity invited me to a dinner. It was a large gala held at the Georgia Aquarium. The location was stunning, with a twenty-foot high glass wall separating us from the massive tank where sharks circled ominously, an appropriate image for some of us trying to find our way through the world of books and booksellers and marketing plans and dismal sales numbers.

I knew almost no one and had no entourage. I was low on the totem pole. I wandered alone around the hall, not in the mood to push my way into any conversations. Then I spotted Calvin Miller standing near the sharks. White hair, three-piece blue and white seersucker suit. He was classically distinguished, the old-world gentleman with a colored hanky in his jacket’s front pocket. Calvin was an elder Atticus Finch.

I’d never met Calvin, but I recognized him immediately. I’ve always loved that Calvin and Eugene Peterson look like brothers. They are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. Calvin is a pastor in the old, true sense. Calvin writes with imagination. Calvin creates space for others. Calvin speaks of God in ways that make you want to sit down quietly over in the corner and listen.

I walked over to the shark tank and introduced myself. Calvin greeted me as though I were an old family member he hadn’t seen in ages. We chatted for a while, and Calvin was never rushed. He wasn’t hurried, glancing off to the next person he should gladhand. Calvin’s easy way said, I’ve got nowhere to be. Want to grab an RC Cola? This legendary author could have spoken to anyone in the room, but he spoke to me.

Calvin died on Sunday. I will miss him.

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Mulberry Trees

Sam walks our neighborhood patiently. A retired photographer, he always catches the frame and the glint, but only sometimes with a lens.

This morning, Sam strolled with his chocolate lab Dexter. I found myself in a conversation. When Sam’s making his rounds, it’s inevitable that you will share words. I asked Sam what he likes about this path, this place. I’ve found different ways to ask him this same question a hundred times. I ask regularly because on each occasion I receive an answer suited to that one hour.

“What do you love about our neighborhood, Sam?”

“Today,” and he paused, grin breaking. “Today, I love the mulberry trees that line the road and feed me as I walk my dog.”

I like a man who eats wild berries. I like a man so filled with life’s fresh, daily wonder that he can only think of the most recently plucked fruit.

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Bruce Heilman: Just Ride

Bob Brown / Richmond Times Dispatch

Today, I met Bruce Heilman. Bruce is a World War II vet and member of the Greatest Generation. He is the Chancellor of the University of Richmond where he served as president for two decades. Bruce is also an avid Harley biker and tomorrow, to celebrate his 86th birthday, he sets out on a 8,000 mile bike trip, making a loop around the entire United States and motoring through all twenty border states before returning home to Virginia. 

Bruce had a bike in the 50's but traded it for marriage and a family. When Bruce turned 71, his wife Betty told him, "You got the kids and grandkids through college, now you can have your bike back." His current ride is a Harley Ultra Classic Electric Glide Patriot Edition (and I'm just repeating what I hear, I have no idea what that means) that Betty gave him for their 65th wedding anniversary. If you ask Betty what she thinks of Bruce's round the country trek, you recognize she's had practice with this question. "He's in the Lord's hands," Betty says.

"All of life is an adventure," Bruce quips. "It might not be as grand in some places as others, but think of life not as a burden but as an opportunity." This reminds me of poet David Whyte's conviction that we are to "release ourselves from necessity," from the weight of a life that has hoisted its demands upon us. Good living always involves responsibility, commitments that arrive with our good attachments to people and place and principle. However, vibrant life does not see these responsibilities as shackles but as one of the many experiences that will bring us some new gift. At 86, vibrant life grabs the handle bars of a Harley and sets out for the Pacific Ocean.

Before we left today, I cornered Dr. Heilman, shook his hand and said, "I just have to tell you, you're awesome." He paused and blushed a little, which made me like him even more. Then he answered. "Well, I'm not awesome because I'm riding a bike. I'm awesome because I'm old." I don't think it's either / or, but his many years add a potency that I find immensely attractive. Bruce had to leave our meeting early to finish last minute preparations for his ride; but before he got away, I made him promise me a coffee and conversation when he returns. 

When asked why he stills follows these adventures, Bruce replies: "I've got a motorcycle and the world's out there, so I'll just ride." Lead the way, Bruce. I'm right behind you.