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.

pulled away_snow_mountains_tobi gaulke


When we lived in Colorado, our church met in a simple chapel tucked into the Front Range. Behind the pulpit and altar were large windows offering a panoramic view of tall, elegant pines, rugged ridges and a vast, blue sky. Each week, I would sit in my seat next to Miska and gaze west, toward the wild. Soon, I’d hear the call to worship, but those magnificent mountains had already made the call — and I had already answered with reverence and supplication. That splendid vista offered me an invitation to lay down my cares, to breathe deeply, to be present in this one place at this one hour, to trust that “the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s.” Our pastor was an extraordinary preacher, one of the best I’d heard; but I remember the light cutting across evergreens, the white clouds drifting across craggy peaks, every bit as much as I recall any text he expounded.

Last Sunday, as I stood behind our church’s pulpit, I looked out the windows and saw heavy white flakes falling from the sky. All of our trees, shed of their Fall glamor, stretched their bare branches toward the falling grace, like a child craning her neck and sticking out her tongue to catch the magic. We paused. We looked out the windows and watched the snow. We were quiet. It’s likely those few quiet moments were the best sermon we heard that day.

There’s a reason why, when Jesus began to preach, he would at times say things like, consider the lilies or watch the birds. There is a grace that surrounds us, a grace not of our own making. We can receive God’s kindness from the world around us, we can sense the truth and welcome it and walk right into it and allow all these mercies to hold us up. Sometimes we need words and explanation. Sometimes we just need big eyes and a wide-open heart.

As Kosser and Harrison put it:

The moon put her hand
over my mouth and told me
to shut up and watch.

railroadThere’s more than a little pressure these days to live the grand life, to go full tilt, to know precisely where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness collide – and then to live from there. I appreciate the best expression of these reminders. Too many of us exist with a soul-numbing drudgery where we are never asked to exert anything of consequence, nothing that stirs the bones. We are never asked to ponder our true essence or to offer our unique voice. We’re never challenged to risk anything. No one ever pulls us aside to insist how essential it is that we pay attention whenever we believe something with such conviction or imagine some possible future with such clarity that we feel we might go crazy if we do not expend ourselves, even if the foolhardy pursuit likely means our ruin. Too many of us hand away the sturdiest part of ourselves, plug into the machine and acquiesce to the subtle cruelty of imposed expectations. We’re alive, but just barely.

And yet these ideals, divorced from the grit of life, become a harsh taskmaster, if not a privileged fantasy. To live from your place of deep gladness does not mean — can never mean — that we circumvent the pain of bearing a burden others do not bear or the wearisome task of seeing a possibility others do not see. To live your truest life does not mean we get to avoid the responsibilities rightly laid upon us: the responsibilities that accompany our call to love and care for others, to surrender our life, to participate in the flourishing and well-being of those to whom we have committed ourselves.

Many days, our best life means simply putting one foot in front of the other and mustering the energy to stay true for another day, another season. Sometimes the possibilities we envision will never come to fruition for us, like those old saints in Hebrews who were faithful even to death and yet did not experience all the promises. This is a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?

Any life we might imagine that is devoid of cost, any life that exists only in the realm of euphoric pleasures (rather than pleasures that include toil and disappointment and the persistent need to cling to hope) – that’s a small, immature vision. This kind of untethered pursuit will not endure the long road that stretches before us. It will not yield a life worthy of the vast goodness and strength that resides in you. We were made for things truer, deeper, more solid.

Over the next week or two, most all of us (I hope) will be winding down the engines for a few days of leisure (I hope you squeak out a full week). Many of us will welcome friends and loved ones into our home. Others of us will board planes, trains or automobiles so we can travel to places where we will be the ones receiving welcome. Some of us will watch our children, a little misty-eyed, aware that these moments are too fleeting and will end too soon. Many of us will revel in all the chaos while a few of us will slip away to a quiet corner, overwhelmed by all the good energy. Most of us, I suspect, will eat more food than we need. Hopefully we’ll all laugh more than is typical.

To be sure, some of us will face hardship over this stretch of days. Some of us will know loneliness or scarcity or sit heavy with memories of ones no longer with us. A few of us will bear the weight of disappointment or estrangement, all manner of burdens. Whatever our sorrow, I pray joy will catch us by surprise. I hope we’ll allow ourselves to be carried by the love that always surrounds and sustains us.

And over these days, I hope you have a fabulous book or two that will swallow you whole, that you see a fantastic movie and hear enchanting music. I hope you find yourself, at least once or twice, enjoying really good conversations, ones where your heart feels light and you walk away thinking, well, now, that was an hour I’d do over again. I hope you enjoy stretches of quiet, where nothing is asked of you, nothing required, where you have nothing you must tend to, save pleasure and gratitude.

I hope all of his for you, and more. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

 

snow light

On the third Sunday of Advent, we heard St. Paul’s words: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. I can’t imagine a more timely word for our day. Do we not yearn to encounter gentle souls — people who listen with generosity (not accusation), friends who welcome without applying a litmus test, kind strangers who give the benefit of the doubt? Don’t we want to be this kind of person — to expect the best of another, to be tender with others’ mistakes or ignorance, to refuse the impulse to embarrass or mock (even one who deserves it), to watch for opportunities to lavish kindness?

Of course, the realists, fear-peddlers and doctrinaires will assure us (passionately) that such a posture is not possible in this scary, evil-ridden world. These rigid ones insist we must exude strength (so-called); we must take on whatever hardness necessary to maintain vigilance. Worse, those eager to resist these lies may imbibe the same energy, growing just as hard, just as mean or caviling, just as small and unimaginative, just as harsh.

And into this violence and phobia, a baby comes, the peace of the world. God, in the ultimate act of gentleness, bends toward us, enters a woman’s womb and lives among us, full of humility and noble strength. This tenacious king, with the backbone love requires, allowed himself to be taken advantage of, to be thought the fool. This One from God knows who he is, knows who we might become, knows that nothing will be won by force or shame or ridicule.

God comes to us with a preposterous gentleness that will always be a scandal in this rough-and-tumble world. And God invites us to join the scandalous subterfuge. Advent, these watchful days, asks us see the world anew, to watch for alternative possibilities. Advent invites us to become gentle people again.