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.

I have a little history with rejection. When we were dating (and during our engagement), Miska tossed me to the curb. Twice. Both times, I more than deserved it, but the pavement hurt nonetheless. Once I was in a conversation with a highly respected literary agent, beginning a conversation about the possibility of his firm representing me. He asked how many readers I had on my site. “Well, I’m working on it,” I answered, “but maybe a couple thousand when it’s going well.”

“A day?” he asked.

“Uh, no, per month.”

The phone went silent. “Well…” the agent began, slowly. “Let me put this in context. One of my authors sometimes hits 100,000 per day.” There were a few short pleasantries to follow, but the conversation was effectively finished.

I’ve had religious leaders tell me I was no longer part of the fold (fair enough), and I’ve had an employer tell me they were eager to get rid of me (that stung a little). As of last month, all three of my books are now out of print, and while perhaps this is not exactly rejection – it does mean that readers have chosen to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the shelf. Anyone who wants to be a writer must have at least a twinge of masochism. The rejection pile will be tall; and there are days when the stack (and the voices the stack represents) looms so large you can’t see past it. We all have our stories. We all have to contend with the voices.

Of course, not all rejection is final. Sometimes it eventually works out well (Miska and I are working on 17 years), but sometimes a ‘no’ is truly a ‘no’ (the agent is not on my speed dial). Not all rejection is final, but all rejection levels a blow.

But rejection offers us a gift as well. For some of us, the conflict redirects our passions, showing us where we need to go – only we needed the push to make it happen. The employer who couldn’t wait for me to hit the door oversaw a corporation masquerading as a Christian ministry. I should never have been there. If I had lingered for the next few years, I would have died the death of a thousand cuts.

For some of us, the blow will stiffen our spine, put a fire in the belly. With Miska, I needed to step into my life with courage, and Miska provided the wake-up call. With writing, while I wince at every ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ the process eventually leads me back to the desk, back to the words. I return with a deeper hunger, a deeper commitment to the work I must do.

This is not finally about only your work but your life, about receiving all that comes, sorting through it, learning at every turn, discarding the junk and tenaciously trusting the good. Allow these encounters to guide you, not bury you.

Maybe what I most want to say is this: rejection does not define you. Every ‘no’ grants the opportunity to peer deep, to ask again what it is you really want to give yourself to. And then, whatever the answer, get to it.

Robert Benson.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lebron james goes to cleveland

 

Dear LeBron,

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

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

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

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

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

 

be well,

Winn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

gone fishin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy is everywhere.

Dancing

fence tree yard

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

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

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

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