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.

lighted alps

I wonder, when we’re praying our Advent prayer (Come, Lord Jesus) if we have any idea what we’re meddling with, if we have any sense of the power we’re invoking. I pray this prayer, and I think I mostly believe it. I cling to this hope because I can not escape the sense that our world writhes in convulsions, and I am unable to imagine any solution we humans could muster to ultimately fix the mess we’ve made. During Advent, we utter an honest confession: We are full of good intentions but weak at keeping promises; our only hope of doing God’s will is that You should come and help us do it… Painful as they are, these words ring true.

And yet, when we ask God to come, to act, we are not tinkering with some plaything we can maneuver to our own bidding. We’re dealing with the God who burns, the God who holds the world together, the Holy One. I hear the quake in the prophet Malachi’s voice: Indeed, God is coming. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? Malachi continues: And don’t be so foolish as to think that when God’s justice lands, it only lands on those you think deserve it. We’re all in trouble, and we’ll all be healed together. We all need to be reborn. We all have to go through the fire. I wonder if we pray our prayers for justice too easily, aimed at everyone other than ourselves?

God is the God of endless generosity, boundless joy and unfettered delight – I believe this. I also believe that the God powerful enough to make such things true (the God strong enough to heal all wounds and silence all oppressors) exudes a furious love. A love that is for us. A love that will not let us go. A love that will not leave us to our own devices or abandon us to wallow in our narcissistic stories.

Good St. Annie (Dillard) says it right: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?”

We long for God to come, as we should – this is our hope. But this is risky business. This is a trembling sort of hope.

vintagesanta.2

In my family growing up, every Christmas Eve, before we turned out the lights and cast a final gaze at our stockings, we’d leave a few cookies, perhaps a brownie or a chocolate covered cherry, on a plate next to a glass of eggnog and a short note:

Thanks, Santa. Stay warm.

P.S. Be sure to share with Dasher, Dancer and the Crew

And every Christmas morning, even into my college years, mom and dad would place one gift for my sister and one for me, out in front of the tree, set apart from the rest of the packages. On each of these boxes, scribbled across the front: Merry Christmas, Santa. I’d always hug my folks, grin and say Thanks, Santa.

We say Father Christmas isn’t “real” — fine I suppose, but there’s something very real happening here that won’t let us loose. With some folks, Santa’s taken a knock, either out of frustration with crass commercialization or due to religious concerns (and if you have such scruples, you really should read the tale of St. Nicholas). However, we don’t know these stories merely because Madison Avenue wants to milk us for billions — that’s just a perversion. Rather, we tell these stories over and again (and they stick with us so powerfully) because we are in constant search for a language to express all the wonder, all the gratitude. We need true myths because sheer facts or flat logic are not enough.

We return to these stories because somehow we know there is a true magic (call it grace, if that helps) woven into this world. In our depths, we know that our life and all the goodness enveloping us arrives as pure gift. We know that hope and faith and love are essentials. We know a mystery, a holy haunting, pulses at the center of things. Somehow, our soul knows that if we experience no awe or wonder, we are paupers.

As Advent commences, we wait for the Christ child. We lean forward, in anticipation. We watch for wonder. St. Nick can encourage us in the same direction. Maybe St. Nick holds open a space, a longing or a child-like imagination, a space that will eventually be filled by the deepest magic of all.

///

G.K. Chesterton, our apostle of mirth, says it far better than me:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. {G.K. Chesterton}

Frosted-Tree-Tops

There are moments when you experience a deep settledness, a generous contentment, with your life. You find yourself at ease or you realize that the laughter’s flowing free or maybe you recognize how, with almost no effort on your part, your joy exudes an uncanny resilience. And what I find most delightful with these generous flashes is how I can never tell you exactly why they’ve arrived, what wind blows them in – or even what wind will eventually push them on. I did not manufacture this grace, and so I know it’s foolhardy to cling tight. It’s my happy lot to just enjoy the gift, to wink and say thank you.

I’ve experienced this ineffable joy a time or two over the past couple weeks. Our life is good, but we’ve had no fewer troubles than normal. If anything, our world has added a few stress factors that would typically leave me sucking wind. And yet, here and there, I’ve been overcome by a profound gratitude, an awareness (even if only for a few hours) that I am alive in this good and magnificent world with people I love, doing work that, though small and ordinary, matters to me and maybe to a few others as well.

For so many good gifts, I want to say my thanks. There are sorrows in this world, but there is also much goodness, much beauty, much possibility. As often as the gifts come, I want my thanks to come just as fast. “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth,” say Barth. “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning.” Like thunder follows lighting, yes indeed.

In this week when we turn our heart to gratitude, I want to join the chorus. I also want to thank those of you who read my words. Perhaps it sounds cheeky for a writer to say thank you for reading, but what else would we say? And particularly if we really mean it? So, thanks to those of you who land here regularly, those who drop a line every once in a while. It matters.