Dear John,

Being with you in Charleston was a real joy. It’s almost as if those long walks on that stretch of beach are becoming something of a tradition. I like tradition, not the stuffy can’t-alter-a-thing kind, but the living, breathing kind — the sort that grows up around you and reminds you that you belong to this world and that she belongs to you, the kind of tradition that, over the years, becomes the music score playing behind the beautiful story that becomes your life.

Seth may love tradition even more than me. You know how every year for his birthday I take him to a Clemson football game. It’s a great road trip, and Seth wants tradition from the time I pick him up early from school on Friday to the time we pull back into our garage around 4 a.m. Sunday. Seth wants to stop at the same spot for dinner (Zaxby’s). He wants lunch at the same spot on game day (Moe’s, the same Moe’s we ate lunch at after church most Sundays when we lived in Clemson) and then he likes to walk over, every time, to Judge Kellers and the Tiger Sports Shop to check out the latest Clemson gear. Seth wants the same chicken-and-biscuits after we leave the stadium (Bojangles), and during the wee hours of Sunday morning, somewhere in North Carolina, he wants to chow tacos from the 24 hour Taco Bell (why, I can not say). The whole thing’s an awful cholesterol binge, to be sure, but he gets such a kick out of it that I can’t say no. I’m a pushover.

Sometimes I’m around folks, usually Christians, who are eager to toss tradition, like getting rid of garbage. They want to scrub out the old words and seem apologetic about most everything from older generations, most everything that’s slow or out of fashion. It always makes me sad. I’m all for fresh eyes and new energy (and God knows we need to correct places where we’ve veered off course), but if we find ourselves abandoning all the people who have made us who we are, we are foolish and will sooner or later recognize how unmoored we’ve become, how lonely we are.

I too like the Charlotte airport (at least, as much as I could possibly ‘like’ any such space). If I’m ever forced to have a layover, I always hope it’s in Charlotte. I love all those white rocking chairs they have scattered about. If there was ever a place that needed a few hundred rocking chairs, a constant reminder to settle down and chill out, it’s an airport.

Your story about Abbey snagged me when you first mentioned it, and again when you reminded me in your letter. These sons and daughters of ours pluck at our most tender string, don’t they? Our boys have been driving us nuts lately, fighting like a mongoose and a cobra. But then I’ve noticed, here and there, both of them trying hard in their own way. One of them hugs us at most every turn, which of course is about as good as it gets. And the other one, whose a little more stubborn and sullen right now, told me the other day, “I’m trying to pay more attention to what I’m saying and not argue as much.” It doesn’t take much to melt a dad’s heart, does it? Just a crumb.

I look forward to the day when I can join you on that porch, or you on mine.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

two-trees

My oldest son (13) is now a solid two inches taller than me, the same two inches I spent most of high school begging God to grant me. Three or four times a week, he asks Miska to come and be the official eyes while we stand side-by-side so he can mark his progress. I was traveling four days last week, and nearly the first thing he said after I walked through the door was “Dad, I think I’ve grown taller.” He insisted we stand nose to nose so he could check. Whenever he looks down at me now, he’s beaming wide.

Wyatt’s also begun to walk into the kitchen and wrap his arms in a bear hug around Miska, catching her off guard as he lifts her into the air and swings her around like a doll. The other day he wanted to do leg squats while somehow strapping his younger brother Seth on to serve as his weights. I shut that one down, but he kept insisting how much sense it made and how easy it would be to use his brother as a dumbell.

Some days, the constant comparison grates on me (could we possibly compare how much he towers over me once a week??), but I know he’s testing his mettle. He’s seeing how he stacks up. My son is growing in awareness of his strength and his body, his manhood. And it’s so very good.

My son wants to know that he has strength in him, that he can do hard things and wonderful things. He wants to know for sure that there’s something marvelous about him – and he wants us to recognize this goodness too. He wants to stand beside us and imagine his place there and move toward it. Don’t we all want something like this?

Dear John,

Yes, Christ-haunted, I feel this as well. When Wyatt was still in a stroller, Miska and I spent a few days in Savannah, Georgia, Flannery’s childhood home. The whole city seems haunted. The Spanish moss drapes over the streets, hemming you in and filtering the light with an eerie glow. The ancient, knobby cobblestone down by the waterway, passing centuries-old warehouses and shops, feels like the sort of place where ghosts roam under moonlight. And the Bonaventure Cemetery – holy moly, that magnificent place gives you a hush and keeps you looking over your shoulder. I don’t think a book (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and a city have ever been more perfectly matched. By the way, did you know they had to move the Bird Girl sculpture from the cemetery to the Tel Fair Museum of Art in 2014 because so many folks were messing with it? That’s sad to me, to think of her cooped up in a museum when her rightful place is under the trees keeping watch over so many loved ones. 

At any rate, Flannery hails from Savannah, there’s no doubt. Like you hail from the South, no doubt.

But you got me thinking of Ms. O’Connor. Have you read her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”? I wish more writers would take a listen, especially writers who share O’Connor’s faith. Flannery insists that fiction can never be used to uphold “the interests of abstract truth” but rather must see the world as it is and help the rest of us to see the world in all of its particularity, all of its beauty and all of its (to borrow from Flannery) grotesqueness. The job of any writer (and certainly any writer who wants to be faithful to the name ‘Christian’) should be to tell the truth, to reveal our desires and our failures, to unmask our pretense, to gives us this beautiful world and to make us stare at the ways we muck it up. And we should work hard to do this well, with real skill.

Anyway, Flannery says that writers who want to reveal mysteries will have to do it by describing truthfully what we see from where we sit. I think that’s what we’re doing, best we know.

Well, tomorrow’s Super Tuesday. I guess this whole thing’s heating up. Last week, I heard Marilynne Robinson say, “We have major work to do. The vocabulary of public life has become ridiculous.” So keep putting those poems to the page over there, keep telling us the truth about the world from where you sit. God knows we need it.

I’ll be seeing you soon. It feels so very good to write those words.

 

Your friend,
Winn

Dear John,

I’m glad you got your fence repaired. I’m glad you and your neighbor had the opportunity to move along the fence line shoulder to shoulder and feel the gratification of shared work. Some days I crave these tasks that require something specific of you (line up the posts, set the panels), work with an explicit goal and a clear conclusion. So much of my life feels elusive or at least never-concluding. Though some folks opt for a vision of the pastor as something like an ecclesial project manager (set budget goals and growth metrics, chart the course, and then track your progress to completion), I can’t comprehend such a thing. To walk with people in grief and joy and boredom, to point toward God amid our confusions and our shenanigans, to try to help us all be faithful to one another and to what is true – there’s no clear end point to this. But then again, I’m a middling pastor so what do I know?

A few years ago, we were finishing our basement and needed to install insulation in the walls and ceiling. A friend came over to help. We wore our long-sleeve shirts and our goggles, loaded up our staple guns. That itchy stuff was no joke, but we experienced a kind of pleasure to work down the rows, firing away, and then to look back when we were done and see what we’d accomplished. I’m sure some of my friends and neighbors will read this and I’ll be getting calls pronto to come over and help with projects. I can hear it now: “Well, Rev, I hear your struggles. I got just the thing…” 

You mentioned the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and those two decades of amazing classmates. One of my favorite things Stegner wrote was a letter he penned to Berry, some 30 years after Berry had been his student. I love the letter for many reasons, but one reason is because of the unabashed affection Stegner showed, though Stegner admitted how “it embarrasses my post-Protestant sensibilities to tell a man to his face that I admire him.” Stegner told Berry that “from the first time when you first appeared as a Fellow in the writing program in 1958, I recognized you as one who knew where he was from and who he was.” Stegner went on to recount how he’d tried to talk Berry away from his Kentucky farm and back to Stanford, though Berry was disinterested and how Berry was offered some opportunity that Stegner insisted most writers would sell their soul to have – again, disinterested. Stegner reminded Berry of the dire warnings so many laid on him: “that you were burying yourself,” Stegner wrote, “that you couldn’t come into the literary world with manure on your barn boots and expect to be welcomed…”

But Berry paid the small minds no mind. And I am so glad. I too, in my own way, want to be a writer who gets manure on his boots. Maybe that’s part of what pastoring does for me these days (there’s a metaphor that could go wrong easily). I know you understand what I mean, letting our words emerge from the real things of this life like putting up fences and getting braces on the kids and spending time out in the woods, things like loving and dying, like laughing and grieving, praying with someone who’s got the world on their shoulders. 

I’d like to think that’s some of what you and I are doing, keeping our boots dirty. I think we are.

 

Your friend,
Winn

Dear John,

I think you hit the nail on its ever-lovin’ head: power. It’s a nasty craving, isn’t it? I know I feel the lust myself more often than I care to admit. I hope that we, as a people, don’t stay on this bender so long that we raze the whole shebang to the ground. We might wake up one day to discover that we won — but that there’s really nothing left of whatever we’ve won.

Somedays, I feel sorta like good Sheriff Longmire. Remember the day when he’d pulled two bodies out of the river, murdered by the Mexican drug cartel and then that evening, he’d happened upon a fella in camos, with night vision goggles and an AK47, running after coyotes for sport? Longmire, per his usual custom, saddled up to the bar at the Red Pony with his pal Henry Standing Bear. He sat there silent, fiddled with his drink, then said, “Henry, I don’t know what’s happened to my town.”

That’s me. Somedays, I just can’t make sense of what’s happened to us. Often, I feel like the world I was made for doesn’t really exist anymore. Of course, this is my world. These are my people. So I just keep stepping forward and hoping that the little bit I have to offer matters. I believe it does.

I know that I often think about Abraham Heshel’s words: “The cure of the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices envy and conceit, embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival.”

I believe there’s something to this – a healthy sense of embarrassment, but I believe even more in “the world full of grandeur.” This is why, most days, I return to hope. Isn’t this world grand? We’re making plans for summer vacation, we’re mapping out a trip to Acadia National Park and then into Canada, to Prince Edward Island. I’ll tell you, just looking at the photos of those two spots is enough to make the heart light, enough to make you remember all the gratitude you feel for beautiful places and clear skies and the marvelous people you love.

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John,

Apparently I’ve passed my crazy dreams on to Miska. Mine have faded, but Saturday night, Miska dreamed that Donald Trump asked her to be his spiritual director. She remembered this only a minute or so before I was supposed to stand up to give Sunday’s sermon. She leaned over and whispered her dream in my ear, and I slapped my hand over my mouth to stifle a cackle that would have interrupted the Scripture reader who was diligently reminding us of how God led Israel into a land flowing with milk and honey. I had to recover before I stepped up to the lectern. 

This morning, I read Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s tribute to Antonin Scalia. Did you know they sat side-by-side at the opera regularly, and their families celebrated every New Year’s Eve together? Ginsberg, the liberal stalwart, called Scalia, that fiery conservative, her “best buddy.” She even praised his dissents for pointing out the ‘applesauce’ and the ‘argle bargle’ that needed to be sliced from her majority opinions. I like that – argle bargle. Watching coarseness overrun the political scene and finding ourselves bombarded by the various kinds of flash-mob flareups that happen about every 17 hours on the Facebook feed, it’s easy to believe we have devolved so far that the anger consuming us has stripped us of our most basic humanness: a charitable spirit, neighborliness, a willingness to listen rather than merely snipe and score points. But then you’re given a small gift, like a note where Ginsberg calls Scalia her best buddy and you gain a little hope again. I wish I had words to describe the estrangement I feel from the dominant storylines in our world. But I don’t right now, so I’ll just say that I needed to hear Ginsberg’s kindness and warmth.

Last word on these sorts of things – but since we’re thrust yet again into the electoral carnival right now, I do wonder why anyone with more than a pea-brain’s worth of sense would want to be president? These days, that job sounds like my worst nightmare.

On to better topics – I like your vision of Pony, Montana. I’m willing to carry your ashes there should you land on such a request, but I think we should plan a trip — while we’re still breathing. There’s lots I want to do in the years ahead. On Ash Wednesday, the gravity and humanness hit me at a new level. I can’t say why. But marking that black soot on the foreheads of so many friends, looking them in the eye, touching their body with the sign of the cross, remembering our frailty and the fleeting days of our life — I had a steady lump in my throat. I held it together, but only barely.

A month ago, I bought Paul Kalanithi’s When Breathe Becomes Air. Per the usual, Miska’s gotten to it before me. Kalanithi, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and as his world came unglued, a question dogged him: “what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” Miska says that Kalanithi tells his story beautifully, I look forward to it. I know this question has my attention. I want to live well. I want to love well. Also, I have to say again: I despise cancer. 

We’ve been handed another snow day. We got a few inches, but they say ice is on the way. Looking out my window, Carter’s Mt. has a lacy fog flowing over the ridge line and fingering toward the white-dusted trees, as if the Northern Queen is breathing fresh winter over us. It’s going to be a grand day. 

 

Your Friend,

Winn

Kindle_Let_God_cover2_small

John and I have been letting you in on a few of our letters, and we’ll do that for a tad longer. I’ve always been drawn to letters. They’re personal, they cut the fluff. This is part of the reason why a number of years ago I published a collection of letters that François Fenelon, the 16th century French pastor/priest, wrote in response to friend’s requests for spiritual guidance. Because it’s Lent and during these days some of us like something to ponder, a little help along the way, I wanted to offer Fenelon to you. A number of folks (seriously, I can count at least two) have said that these letters are sturdy guides for the Lenten season. The letters are short, direct – Fenelon wasn’t one to beat around the bush. I’ll leave you one excerpt, then if you like, you can pop over and snag it on Kindle (and there’s a free Kindle app for computers and phones if you don’t own the hardware) for $4.99 (cheap as beans).

Dear Friend, I beg you; don’t listen to that small voice, the self-voice. It can get crazy: the self-voice whispering in one ear and the God-voice (love) whispering in the other. The self-voice never stops; it constantly churns. The self-voice is brash, full of chaotic energy, and forever trying to force quick, impulsive decisions. This voice seduces us with its intoxicating charms and charisma. In truth, though, the self-voice is short-sighted and hot-headed.

The God-voice is simple, peaceful. It doesn’t offer lots of chatter. The God-voice typically uses only a few words, and God’s tone is mild and gentle…

Dear John,

I remember your poem about your ‘wild like sage’ classmate, that gorgeous girl with the legs of a tennis player. I liked the piece then, and I remember thinking how brave you were to write those lines and offer them to us. Perhaps it seems odd to point out this piece for its courage when you’ve certainly written others that are bolder or more controversial, others that cost you more to write. I consider it brave partly because it’s rare to offer things that are so tender, things we would say only because they are true and they are part of us. You gave us your humanity, even when that meant sharing the adolescent stirrings of a young and shy (and perhaps slightly infatuated?) John Blase. 

John, I think this is one of the reasons why I am drawn to you, and one of the reasons why our friendship carries such depth for me. You are a solid man of this world. You love the things that you see and touch and smell. You don’t philosophize on love; instead, you write sonnets to Mer. You don’t wax eloquently on theories of prayer; you walk out on your back porch into the crisp night, look up at the stars and say ‘thank you.’ You may in some sense love the world and all its creatures; but you love Jack the Beagle first. I find myself falling more and more in love with the woman by my side, the boys who sleep down the hall from me, the hills I see past my front porch – and in you, I’ve found a comrade in this good life. And I’m so very thankful. 

I should ‘fess up, though. I’m not feeling like I love my boys very well at this moment. I’ve been short-tempered as of late. I yelled at one of the boys last night, and though I could probably make the case for why he deserved it, I never feel good after I lose my cool. It was a tender moment, though, when 15 or 20 minutes later we found ourselves making our way to each other at the same time (me out of my office, him down the stairs). We apologized to one another. We held each other. Maybe this is the best we can do with the ones we love, given our track record for screw-ups: we keep returning to one another, we keeping saying ‘sorry,’ we keep holding each other tight. I pray this will prove to be enough.

So Ash Wednesday’s about to hit. I know you’ve had something of a contentious relationship with Lent in recent years. I find myself drawn to these 40 days yet again. My soul feels bare and yet somehow overwhelmed at the same time. Lent seems to me a time to lay things aside, an opportunity to have an added excuse to say “nah, not gonna do that” or “no thanks, I’ve met my max.” Thomas Keating calls Lent the church’s 40 Day Retreat. I like that. Gardeners tell me that this is the time of year to be pruning those trees, cutting them back. For me, fasting or giving something up is like that — retreating, cutting stuff back, giving my body and mind good excuses for going simple.

Of course, sometimes the way we do these things makes it all just feel like more work, and God knows we don’t need any more of that. Nor do we need more reasons to be grim and sour. I’m looking for more joy. And thankfully, there’s room for each of us to find joy in the way that fits for us. I should say, however, that I’m not typically good at keeping Lenten fasts the whole time. I have good intentions, and I’ll do my best. A fella does the best he can.

Anyway, I remember this story about a catholic fellow intending to eventually join the priesthood whose college roommate was Jewish. The Jewish friend asked what the deal was with Lent, and after hearing the explanation, he said, “And you get to choose for yourself what you give up? That doesn’t seem right. You should let me choose.” So he did, and he instructed his roommate to surrender orange soda because he was pounding multiple bottles every day. I heard this priest tell the story 30 years later, and to that day, his Jewish friend still called him every year, a few days before Ash Wednesday, to tell him what he was to give up that year. I thought that was a hoot.

Well, this morning, Miska’s been in the kitchen starting her Moroccan lentil soup, simmering onions and mixing in Coriander, Cumin and a stack of other exotic spices. Tonight, she’ll pour olive oil over the Naan bread, sprinkle pink sea salt across the top. I wish you and Mer could walk down the street and join us at the table. I really do. 

 

Your Friend,

Winn

 

You can read John’s letters here.

If you missed the letter John wrote to me, you can take a look.

Dear John, 

You know I’ve been having some funky dreams this past week. Last night, I dreamed I was writing a letter home from summer camp. I went to bed thinking I’d write you today, and that’s how you showed up in my subconscious. I’m sorry you didn’t get a more exotic storyline, like maybe rushing in on a fire-breathing stallion, bare chested and wielding a Persian scimitar, taking care of serious business. Maybe next time, but still – the summer camp seemed nice and I wanted to be sure to tell you about it, so that’s kind of the same thing. 

I don’t remember the Challenger explosion as clearly as you do. I was in high school, and I remember the devastation — but not the details of the day. The first tragedy that really leveled me was years earlier, Hinkley’s assassination attempt of Reagan. For the first time I realized how evil people could be. That’s an awful thing for a boy to reckon with, isn’t it? 

I thought about you having lunch with your parents most days during your freshman year. That’s a wonderful memory. Did I ever tell you how after college, when I had moved back in with my folks and was driving to Dallas three days a week for grad school, that my mom started packing my lunch again? Just like when I was in elementary school. Maybe once every other week or so, she’d even drop one of those little notes on lace-edged Hallmark paper into my brown paper bag. Her note, penned in her elegant and flawless cursive handwriting, told me how she loved me or how proud she was of me. I still have one of those notes in my drawer. 

A few weeks ago, we passed the one year anniversary of my mom’s death, and last week, my friend and teacher Vigen Guroian’s mom died. He emailed me from the train to Connecticut, on his way to her funeral, and told me that the priest asked him to do the eulogy. If he was able to make his way through it, Vigen planned to read an excerpt from his book The Fragrance of God. I had forgotten that one chapter is a meditation he wrote to his mom, on the hope of resurrection. I told him I would read it again that day, in memory of his mother and my own. He wrote these words to her: “By giving birth to me, Mother, you have ensured my death and in some real sense hastened your own…Now as I watch you diminish with years, I tremble as I confront not just your mortality but also my own, since they are deeply, mysteriously interwoven.”

Mortality indeed. You turn the 49 this year, and I’ll tackle the 45. I’ve often thought I’d hit my stride in my 60’s, but still the years are ticking. It makes me want to live well. It makes me want to speak things that are true and not dink around with goofiness. Do you remember the part in A River Runs Through It (and I think stories 2 and 3 are even better than the first one that gets all the notoriety) when the crew mapping the Bitterroot Wilderness was perplexed about what to do with Wet Ass Creek? The name seemed uncouth, but Maclean and his logging buddies argued that its distinctive name should be honored and not watered down to please the sensibilities of bureaucrats (they even expressed giddy hopes that it might one day become Wet Ass National Park). So the mappers passed Wet Ass Creek up the chain, but suits in a far away office scrunched the letters as one word, dropped an s and added a long-e at the end so that to this day (and I’ve checked) it’s known as Wetase Creek (pronounced: wetosee). What a shame. It’s exhausting to play those games, isn’t it?

I love that you thought of me when you read Hugo (the loving of places and the “man not afraid to weep,” especially). But I want to hear more about how Hugo’s helped you with the stuck place. You knew I’d ask. You can write about it, or we can talk in person in March. I feel like I have swirling questions about my life too (I could call it “stuck” maybe), so perhaps you can pass good Hugo’s wisdom on.

I hope you splurge and get those new boots, even though the funds are tight (I get it).

 

Your friend,

Winn

our neighborhood, while the storm was just getting started

seth and I taking a stroll in our neighborhood, when the storm was just getting started

A crushing snow storm, where the wild forces level our hubris and render all plans futile, offers a good reminder. We see again the raw beauty of this world, a beauty we did not create and could never pretend to control. And we see neighbors, large scoop shovels slung over their shoulders, walking down the middle of the snow-packed street, laughing, saying hello, grinning like a kid playing hooky. Is it possible we had forgotten that we are members, not makers, of this world? Is it possible we had forgotten that we belong to one another?

Last evening (after showering and returning to the comfort of my flannel pjs), I stood at our front balcony and peered with satisfaction over the work my father-in-law and I accomplished: digging a car out of the snow drift, clearing the sidewalks, scraping the driveway. Down the street, I saw a young couple new to our area and unprepared for a whiteout, chipping away at the colossal mound of white burying their red Mitsubishi. He had only a small garden spade, and she was doing the best she could, attacking the crusty pile with her plastic dust pan.

I called down, “Would you like a shovel?” She looked up and grinned. “If you have an extra, that would be great.” They took their pick of what I had to offer and dispensed of their mountain in no time. I was glad to assist, but I was also glad that I saw that woman whittling away at that impossible pile of snow. I enjoyed the strange and amusing sight of such fierce determination accompanied with such inadequate tools. More, though, I loved how this woman knew there was a job to be done, and that the snow was not going to sprout legs and move itself. All she had was a dust pan, and so that flimsy bit of plastic would have to do.

We really are a marvelous people living in a stunning and marvelous world.