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.

Last Thursday morning, the day Miska and I celebrated fifteen years of gritty love, I sang Seth a tune while he pulled on his sneakers for school: Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate / Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate / Oh yeah, Dad’s taking mom to breakfast to celebrate (it’s best if you snap along).

Seth exhaled an agonizing groan. “Nooooo fair, Dad. You get to go to Waffle House!”

Of course, Waffle House hadn’t crossed our mind. We did consider The Pigeon Hole, a little house in the University district where, if you like, you can sit in the cobblestoned courtyard underneath a massive oak tree and order red-eye gravy laced with Shenandoah Joe’s coffee grounds. We did consider Blue Moon on Main Street where your first move upon arrival is to look up at the blackboard in the corner by the fireplace to see which gourmet thick-sliced bacon they’re offering (the Moon is where you’re likely to see a person order, all at once, an apple omelete, griddle cakes and a shot of jack daniels). The Nook downtown was an option, where you can enjoy French Toast while watching the town walk by. Of course, we could always pick the Bluegrass Grill, where you endure their kitsch garage sale mugs in order to lock your lips on the most astounding home fries. We did not think Waffle House.

Every month or two, however, we’ll pass by the House of the Waffle, and Wyatt will say, “Dad, you’ve really got to take us there again.”

“Yeah,” I say. “We’ll do that…Sometime.”

My boys like the waitresses who call you “honey” and the short order cooks with the yellow hats who yell out orders like a minor league umpire. They like the hash browns, the pancakes, the sticky syrup at the table. However, I believe they like Waffle House mainly because several years ago, in Clemson, I took them for a guy’s Saturday morning. We sat at the bar next to a guy from New England wearing his Boston College jersey and in town for the game with the Tigers. The atmosphere was crowded and rowdy. We chatted game day and drank coffee — and the boys were included in the ritual.

I also believe Wyatt and Seth like Waffle House because two years ago, when my dad was visiting, he wanted to take all the guys to breakfast. We had three generations lined up at those counter seats. The boys filled their bellies and joked with Pa and were inaugurated, amid maple syrup and OJ, to a family of men.

Every place in this world of ours, every place, can be a space of holy memory, of love, of belonging.

You learn much about a woman over fifteen years. You learn even more if you add another four on top, the stretch of time it took me to buckle up my courage and stop acting the fool. When the time was right though, the courage rushed with a fury. I’ve been grabbing straight shots of 80-proof love ever since.

In those fifteen years, you learn that a woman needs you to clean up your pancake disarray as you go along, not after dinner’s done. You learn that when we’re in bed reading and she asks if I’m hungry, what she really means is: would you take your cute little self downstairs and make me some of your stovetop popcorn? You learn that asking her what she thinks of Schleiermacher’s pneumatology or Barth’s “strange world” after 9 p.m. is likely to get you nothing but a big ol’ roll of the eyes.

But you also learn that you’re welcome to quote poetry at any hour. You learn that tears cost her much but have a mighty power to heal those who receive them. You learn that true artists simply make beauty everywhere and half the time don’t even know they’re doing it. You learn that whenever she pulls out that orange-striped apron, watch out. She may start with paint and canvas, but when she’s done, all you’ll be able to say is my, my

In fifteen years, you learn what it is to give yourself to a woman, to know that she is your truest joy and truest pleasure. You also know, as much as you know a thing in this world, that you’ve only begun to scratch at her mystery, her allure.


winn and miska

We hadn’t even moved into our townhouse, and I’d already lost my bid for the third-story room, the one with the big window facing Carter’s Mountain. It would have been a great little studio, a tucked-away corner for my books and graphite pencils and framed Berry poetry which serves as my credo, until the day I build my writing hut. The words were waiting to spill from that perch; but we have two boys who, I guess, need a place to sleep and a floor on which to toss their clothes. I’m convinced the loss of these few square feet is the reason I’ve yet to write the Great American Novel, but such is life.

I’ve landed down the stairs, just below the cranny that slipped away. It’s half-time office, half-time guest suite. I still have a window, and the window still faces Carter’s. Standing there, watching east, I notice how the fog burrows into the ridge, until the sun arrives to lick the fog away. A few mornings ago, I found myself reading to the mountain. I don’t believe the granite mound was listening, but I’m used to reading while no one’s paying me any attention. The text was one of the day’s Psalms, and I didn’t realize until mid-sentence that I was recounting to the sun and the mountain their own story:

The Mighty One, God, the Lord,
   speaks and summons the earth
   from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.

God summons the earth. God coaxes the sun from its slumber. Like Jesus woke Lazarus, like I woke (and woke again) my sons early this morning, like those many times God nudges me from lethargy, weariness or fear – God says, “Rise and shine.”

Whatever your place this day, God summons you, as he summons the earth, as he summons all the fair creatures of this world. Arise. Shine. We’re all waiting to see your splendor.


If you pray the Psalms long enough, you find they force you to put language to the nagging questions, the brooding anger and the unseemly exuberance that often goes unspoken.

Several of the Psalms ask God: “Why must I go about mourning?” Is it really necessary, God? Why all the gloom? And I’m not even talking about the behemoth philosophical conundrum: the existence of evil – I haven’t worked my way to that yet. I’m just asking why lovers hurt and bills pile up, why so many, near the end, look back with such regret? Why is friendship so hard to come by? Why does raising kids inevitably take me on this insane trip from joy to fury to boredom to anxiety back to joy, all before breakfast? Why do I get caught on this loop of anxiety or shame or addiction?

There’s goodness everywhere too, I know this; but at the moment, I’m wondering why are things so often so hard? Why all the mourning? Some might say it’s a fruit of our age, our self-absorbed, therapeutic idiosyncrasies trapping us in a small, obsessive circle. However, I’m reading the Psalms, not Psychology Today. Our foremothers asked these same questions. This is a human dilemma, not a modern dilemma.

When we seek to follow the kind God offered to us in the Bible and when we long to live a life awake to our own selves and to the world God has given us, at some point we find ourselves asking: God, why all the mourning?

And, perhaps annoyingly, the Psalmist doesn’t do much to answer the question. The Psalmist doesn’t break into a metaphysical soliloquy or chide the query. So far as I’ve found, there is no tight, logical response to the repeated request for clarification. The Psalmist simply, with songs and prayers, says: “Put your hope in God.”

Straining on the toilet
we learn how
the lightning bug feels. {Kooser and Harrison}

Wyatt, our ten-year-old, has moved into the big leagues, the upper elementary school where they move from class to class through cavernous halls and (because apparently the place was built before the advent of lockers) lug pounds of massive textbooks. The poor kids look like Notre Dame’s hunchback. The foreboding buildings can be a bit of a zoo because every 5th and 6th grader in the city calls this home for two years. It is a good school and Wyatt was eager, but there is an intimidation factor. He doesn’t know many kids, and the transition includes a period where you flounder. Just wait, I keep thinking, middle school is a whole other level of awkward.

Today, Wyatt has his first presentation. Wyatt has to stand in front of his class and tell a few strands of his story and explain his “artifact box.” The box contains several of his favorite things: a book (Hunger Games), a video game (NCAA football, 2006 – because his dad’s too cheap to get anything up to date) and a piece alluding to Greek gods because this boy loves an epic tale, particularly if swords and intrigue are involved.

Wyatt has been nervous since Friday. He’s told us multiple times his vision of a best case scenario: I hope I don’t go first and I hope the person before me does a bad job – but no one laughs at them — and then I won’t feel so much pressure. Not exactly generous, but I see where he’s coming from.

I explained the trick every father since Methuselah has passed down to their son, the one about imagining everyone in their underwear. That only messed him up more. I took a a second swipe. “Wyatt, all your friends in your class are in the same boat you’re in.”

“But dad,” he answered. “I don’t have many friends in my class. Only two.”

The year will go well for Wyatt, as will the presentation I’m sure. He’ll have more friends at the end than he has now at the beginning. Still, he has to walk this path. We all do. It’s hard to move into new places. It’s hard to carry the loneliness and the fear, the anxiety about who you are and whether you belong. And my experience tells me you can be forty and still live these questions.

This morning, we read (from The Message) Jesus’ words in Luke 7: Be easy on people. I love that. We have no idea what the person we’re meeting today carries with them, but we do know (if we’ve paid attention) what we have carried — and what we sometimes carry even now. We know what it is to strain at our life. We know what it is to be alone or misplaced or fearful. We know that there are times (many) when we need someone to pause for friendship, someone to simply go easy on us.

Today, I find myself praying for Wyatt, Let someone be easy. And I’m praying the same for you. Why don’t we all just lower our guard and open our ears, drop our sarcasm and our critique. Why don’t we all just go easy on each other.

democrats-republicans1I have no energy these days for defining myself as a republican or democrat (or libertarian or green). The kind of energy and ideological certainty required for that has been wrung out of me long ago. I have friends whose disposition or vocation lead them down the path of intense partisan engagement — it’s their way of making the world more just, and I bless them. I simply don’t get revved up for the party (pun alert).

I am genetically incapable of seeing the world in such stark, all-or-nothing categories. Perhaps it’s a weakness. Truth is I have an inkling we need more poetry and less platform, more friendship and less name-calling, better stories and better neighbors – none of which are encouraged in the current political brouhahas.

I’m certainly not saying none of this matters. The gospel is inherently political (i.e. public, social), but the gospel is not equated with any one player in our political system. So, our civic convictions matter, but they probably matter less than we think. And my hunch is we’re losing sight of other truths that most certainly do matter while we’re giving so much blood, sweat and tears to all these things that likely matter less than our high blood pressure suggests. How’s that for a convoluted sentence? See what talking politics will do to a fella.

While I don’t care about being an elephant or a donkey, I do care about being a Christian. And the apostle James has instructions for how I’m to live in this world if my first allegiance is to a Kingdom come. James’ words seem timely for the hour:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

We who call ourselves Christian are ones who, because of our loyalty to the way of Jesus, have a commitment to truly listen, to hear the other (their hopes and fears, their history and convictions). We are the ones charged with getting another’s story right (in contrast to looking for ammo to use against those we’ve named as enemies). If our words formed slowly but our love flowed free and if our rhetoric lost its angry venom, vitriol and combative suspiciousness, then I imagine the American political machine (for a moment at least) would grind to a halt, if for no reason other than gawking, jaw dropped, at the ones they’ve labeled as haters living like lovers. I don’t actually know if our obedience to James’ words would make much difference in November, but it would mean that as God’s people we would be asserting our belief that God’s Kingdom is above every other kingdom.

I’ll be pulling the lever in November, as I attempt to make wise judgements about the important issues at hand. However, I’m unclear what exactly God thinks about various economic theories or if he has in mind an appropriate tax rate or a straight answer on the best way to make health care accessible to those shut out of (or unable to keep pace with) the current system. Given that, I’ll not attach God’s name to imperfect solutions, but I will try to use my noggin and give it the best go I’m able. I’ll grapple with a Christian vision for a state’s use of violent force. I’ll ponder over the best ways to cherish and honor life when both sides have their blind spots. I’ll wrangle with how (and where) individual responsibility, justice and compassion intermingle. I don’t have final answers to all these questions. I do know, however, that I’m to listen much, speak little and refuse anger.

Anger usually comes when we feel we’re being thwarted or threatened, when we’re defending things like our version of the American Dream. I love America, but America isn’t my dream. My hope rests in a God whose dream for the world is far bigger than that.

There is a group of Charlottesville friends who have met for breakfast, somewhere between 7:00 and 7:15, every morning for over 25 years. I think these are the coolest people in town. They’ve outlasted multiple dives, moving from one to another after old haunts call it quits. The group began when several strangers found themselves, again and again, at the same coffee shop at the same hour. They figured they should make it official and formed “the breakfast club.” They’ve welcomed spouses to the circle, embraced retirements and job changes and danced the night away as they’ve married off their kids. I told one of the ladies I wanted to come and sit with them a few mornings so I could write a profile article on them. I’d sell the piece, but mainly it’s a ruse. I just want an excuse to pull up a chair at that table and pretend I belong.

When I think of my retiring years, I have several images. One of them is a group of old geezers, of which I am proudly one, at the same cafe every morning with the same group of scruffy cohorts. The fellas around the table are friends I have now, only in the future I’ve got us all pegged for living in the same neighborhood. We sit at the same outdoor table drinking from a french press. We laugh and tell stories and quote a little poetry. We talk about how insane and foolish and marvelously beautiful the world is. We talk, as we do even now, about the women we love and who have been kind (and crazy) enough to love us for so many years.

At that table, we experience a grace too many never know: we belong, and we like who we are – and we rest in the goodness of knowing others like who we are every bit as much. Helen Simonson describes it right: “They are a motley and ragged bunch … but they are what is left when all the shallow pretense is burned away.”

The younger guys and gals, zipping in for a latte to go and frantically fiddling with their phones (or some bedeviled futuristic contraption) while they shift anxiously in line, eventually begin to notice us. Each morning, they rush in, and each morning, we’re just passing the time, watching the world race by. Soon enough, as they strap themselves back into their Audis for their dash to the office, they fantasize about receiving an invite to what they have now secretly christened The Table.


The way Miska and I split up duties during the school year, in the mornings, I’m the chief cook, bottlewasher and part-time priest. I bag lunches, whip up eggs with toast and, most mornings, read a small bit of Scripture and speak a prayer as we step into the day.

We’re slowly reading Luke, and today we landed on Jesus’ genealogy. The way The Message lays it out, one “the son of…” per line, it goes on for pages, giving Jorim, Peleg and Arphaxad their brief moment in the limelight. I considered skipping it, but I thought better. The simple speaking of a person’s name may be the holiest thing tucked in those many pages. “Hang on, boys,” I said. “We’ve got a big ol’ list coming up.”

And I began. The son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melki

I noticed Seth dead still, complete focus on me. He paid his oatmeal and his toast no attention, but he was hanging onto the words. The long drum continued. The son of Naggai, the son of Maah, the son of Mattathias

Seth sat absorbed. This is the boy who doesn’t know the meaning of stillness. When he isn’t running, he’s skipping. When he isn’t skipping, he’s twirling. When he isn’t twirling, he’s rocking. If he has to stay in place, then his foot taps a hundred beats a minute. If every other possibility is refused him, Seth will sit and twitch. Tigger has nothing on this boy.

Yet he did not move. The son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er

Finally, while continuing the litany, I tapped on his bowl. He dug up a spoon of oatmeal, but his attention stayed fixed on the names. The son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon

We rounded the corner and drew near the end. The son of Kenan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth

“There! I was waiting for it!” Seth shouted, flinging his hands in the air. “I knew I was in there!”

That boy, at eight years old, knows something about reading the Bible that seminary and years of Greek and Hebrew failed to teach me. We find ourselves amid those pages. It’s God story, but it’s our story too. If all we get from the Bible is facts and edicts, if we never find ourselves (and our loves and passions and life) amid the words, then maybe we should spend more time reading with the children. Any of the stories will do, even a genealogy.

My dad is the most generous man I know. When I was living at home, there were several stretches when my dad didn’t take his salary because the church was having trouble paying the bills. A time or two, this went on for months, but I only found out afterwards (and by accident) what the family had endured. We had food on the table, and I never saw any letters from the bank stamped in red. Being a dad now, I can look back and see some of the strain my dad carried. But he never let on. Our house didn’t traffic in glum. Whenever I’d ask dad about money problems, he’d say, “God will take care of us, Winn.” That was it, God will take care of us.

Hearing this refrain, my sister Vonda decided she wanted to give an extravagant gift to God, something that would cost her dearly and require great faith. My sis was four, and she didn’t give a hoot about money. Bubble gum, however, was her gold bullion. So one Sunday, with firm resolve, she carried her treasured pack of Bubble Yum to church. When the deacon brought the collection to our row, Vonda set her face like flint and solemnly pulled the pack from her pocket and placed it in the plate. Even the widow with the mite would have stood hushed.

Months later (which is like decades to the four-year-old memory), our family was in St. Augustine, Florida touring the grounds of the Mission of Nombre de Dios, built in 1565 as one of the first Spanish missions in the new world. Near the old ivy-covered stone chapel stood a shrine of the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus. My dad walked with Vonda, hand-in-hand, when she stopped abruptly. Vonda stepped closer to the statue and, with arms resting on her hips, spoke directly to the babe: “Jesus, what did you do with that bubble gum? You eat it?” We give, but we do not forget.

One more thing you should know from this story: back on the afternoon of that Sunday when Vonda made her momentous gift, a women dropped by our house. She knocked on the door, and when my mom answered, the woman handed mom a bag. “I was at the grocery story,” she said, “and remembered how much Vonda likes gum. I thought Vonda should have this.” In the Kroger bag was a family pack of bubble gum, totaling forty or fifty sticks of awe and pleasure for my sister.

You can say coincidence if you want. Maybe. And certainly God is no bubble gum machine. But I imagine God bent over, with great jowls of laughter, as Vonda buried her hands in piles of gum knowing, in ways only a four-year-old can, that God will take care of us.

Brueggemann says abundance is the truth; scarcity is the lie. With God, there is always enough. I want to believe that. I need to believe that. God, help my unbelief.