Miska brings the poetry into our marriage, in more ways than one. But it is certainly true that most of the poets I like, Miska has introduced to me. Miska shared Denise Levertov’s “Avowal” with me recently, and it truly sings:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Freefall. Love and grace and mercy and acceptance and hope, all wrapped up beautifully in one single word.
We really can lean into life. We really can unclench our fists. We really can step off the mental merry-go-round. We really can be loved – and love freely in return. We really can trust. We really can live. Freefall.
I recently heard Marie Howe, Poet Laureate for the State of New York, respond to a question asking her to explore a deep and provocative statement she had offered in a lecture a few years earlier. The words she’d pieced together in that talk were ironic and stunning, something you’d expect from a master poet. I sat upright, glad the interviewer had made this query. I waited to receive a profound truth. Instead, Marie laughed at herself dismissively. “Oh, what a thing to say” — and Marie laughed more, like she had genuinely cracked herself up. “I have no idea what I meant with that.”
I wish those of us who stand behind a pulpit would follow Howe’s example more often. “Wait, everybody. I have no idea what I just said. That sounded good on paper Thursday, but let’s be honest – that’s just ridiculous.”
I wish more of us who put words to paper would be easy with this kind of humility. Since there’s nothing at stake for us, there’s no need for all the shame when our words fall flat and no need to hang our every hope on the validation of … I don’t even know who, I’m so confused these days.
But many of us — and I only use examples from the world I know best — are too busy pimping our words. We’re frantically rubbing our words together like two damp sticks, desperate for a flicker, desperate for someone to notice a spark. We are striving, striving – and we are exhausted.
I wish more of us who put children to bed at night and kiss our lover at day’s end, more of us who work to pay the mortgage and piece together a life, could walk slowly into the present grace, receiving whatever comes, be it brilliance or banality. I wish we would know the joy of receiving the one whiff of fresh cut grass, the one wave of a son looking out the window as his mom drives him off to school, the one hour that asks you to sit a while. To stop all the striving and sit.
But strive we do. Our world’s eaten up with it. We are so fearful that we will be forgotten, that we will be alone. We are so fearful that, after all our efforts, our life will be sand slipping through our fingers. We are so, so fearful. We do not need to be afraid. We do not need to grasp. There will be enough love for us.
When I’m given to jealousy over those who receive more or when I’m left in the corner to doodle with the children while the adults laugh and clink drinks, my impulse is to strive, to fight, to yell all the louder to get attention. This is not the way of love. This is not the way of rest. This is not the good life.
Whatever I’m given will be enough. It will be enough. As Mary Oliver says, “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones…”
When we push and pull to craft a name or a platform or a bank account, we end up with less, always less. St. Augustine offered a sobering word to our age: “By striving after more, man is diminished.” I see the world around me diminishing at a frightening pace. I pray to God it will stop. I pray I will stop.
Do you think sometimes the fowl look at us
cockeyed with our sacks of Universal Birdseed? Really? they ask, looking down their itty-bitty beaks
at our grand and generous gestures. You can’t even settle on a single flavor of instant
oatmeal for the two bucks in your crew
yet you seem to think the entire lot of us –
Finches, Pewees, and Warblers (for starters) –
can be tossed into one universal bag?
We thank you for the gift and will not,
in our irritated befuddlement, bite the hand
so to speak. However, we’d love for you to take
a moment to know our name, to notice my fine
speckles and my pal’s fire-drenched colors.
We’ll take your Universals if we must, but
we’re not so much the ones missing out.
When I shared Holy Work, the poem Miska commissioned poet John Blase to write for me as a Christmas gift, I said there was more to the story. I’ll give you one of the bits now. Christmas morning was a real kick because I had also secretly commissioned John to write a poem – but as a gift for Miska. Miska and I had plotted and schemed in order to surprise each other with the exact same gift.
Here’s the second from the series, the photo and the poem.
I’ll surely forget many things, many days, but I choose to remember a moment when everything was so black and white, was so very clear to me. I kept your hands to my shoulder and flashed my grin, the grin you said yes to so many days ago now. You then spilled your laugh, the laugh that you and only you possess. I know the ax can fall at any moment but for the space of one frame there was no one else on the face of God’s earth but you and your laugh and me and my grin, two unveiled faces wide and alive with smiles of great sweetness captured in the click of an eye. In that stark moment everything, yes everything was so very clear to me.
Speaking of love affairs, last year Miska commissioned my friend John Blase to write a poem for me, his poetic reaction to a picture the two of us hold dear. I love the poem, as I love all John’s work. I love the picture. I love the ‘us’ that makes this holy work.
There’s more to this story, perhaps I’ll share it sometime.
We’ve sat close together in
this strange and beautiful
providence long enough now
to know the secret to love is
more skin to skin than eye to eye.
I have felt your grief and joy
as you have felt my anger and doubt.
And we have both felt the urge
to sacrifice. to make sacred.
Some would call this mere empathy
but I find their lack of imagination
deplorable. No, our love affair stands
in this world of contradictions
with the fundamental texture
of one fiercely earned: it is palpable,
or as the Italians would say: L’ho provato sulla mia pelle– I have experienced that on my own skin.
This alone is love’s holy work.
an even loyalty, steady and clear.
Watching our boys from the shore, as they gathered their courage for the ride into the wall of waves, these words came. For my boys, for me, for my friend John. For all of us who must brave a life unknown.
Two boys atop rubber tubes Point into wild waves — Eager, and a little afraid. Not much changes over thirty, Or seventy, years.
Being National Poem in Your Pocket Day, today is the moment for letting words rather than the spare coins jingle in your pants or your purse or wherever you stuff things you want to carry with you for the day's adventure. I once thought poems as merely something that rhymed. However, because I've been given the good grace to have a wife and a couple friends who are poets – and because I've been knocked sideways by more than a few metered lines – I now know poetry to be more than repeating words finished with -ing. Poetry teaches us how to see and how to hear, how to observe and how to speak.
Poetry insists we watch for delicate distinctions, fully aware of how meaning can turn on the difference between a finch and a sparrow. Poetry coaxes us to nurture memory, aware that if we've forgotten old Moses terrified when the desert shrub struck flame, we won't encounter this splendid awesomeness when Whyte speaks of "the man throwing away his shoes / as if to enter heaven." Poetry provides us language that's as much about discovery as it is about stacking up facts. Of course, we'd have chaos if our tax forms were arranged in poetic verse, but wouldn't we have coldness and sorrow if our lovers and friends and our walks in the woods didn't play in things poetic?
Yesterday, Wyatt was discussing the Avengers, which led to a conversation about favorite superheroes. Wyatt ran through the list, outloud as he does. Noticing a pattern, he made an observation: "I don't really like girl superheroes. Well, I do like Cat Woman."
"Why?" we asked.
"I like Cat Woman," Wyatt concluded, "because of all the sneakiness."
That's one of the big reasons I love poetry: because of the sneakiness. Poems have a tendency to catch me when I'm dozing. They seem so docile there on the page, short and tidy, all mannered and in neat rows. And then that one line or phrase – a single word sometimes (syllable even) – and my head's buried in my hands or my heart's ripped wide.
It probably seems plain enough why my writing self would love poetry so. However, does it strike you as odd for me to say that poetry affirms something about why I love the work of pastoring and the study of theology as well? To pastor, as I see it, is to be a resident poet, a poet for the parish. A pastor works his poetry amid the subtleties of babes and grandfathers, treacheries and joys, noting all the while that a sparrow is not the same as a finch. With this, studying theology (a curious attentiveness to God's story) is to ask questions and listen for nuance and to be swept away by beatific themes pregnant with possibilities. As Marilynne Robinson says, "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga." If our Christian teaching doesn't play well with poetry, we have most likely identified a problem.
If all this is true, then we are desperate for poets, poets of every sort. We need women and men who live attentive to the life about them, their work and their family – which is to say, their art. We need brave and imaginative souls who see and hear and then help us see and hear. "The most regretful people on earth," says Mary Oliver, "are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time." I think she's right. Give it power and give it time. Please, for all of us.
Another house warming gift arrives today, from my friend John Blase. John is a poet and storyteller. Basically, he makes words dance. John is one of those men who, through his writing and his way, helps keep me sane (or at least slightly less off-kilter). You’ll want to read John over at The Beautiful Due, and you’ll want to snag his latest book, All is Grace, co-written with Brennan Manning.
In A Good Idea, John continues the tale of the rich young ruler and how, he believes, he did eventually come ’round via the fidelity of his poor young wife.
Sell all you have and give to the poor.
His rich young ears took Jesus literally,
causing a domino of shock and recoil
until finally the grievous turning away.
It was so sad. So young and so close.
Jesus thought to pursue the lost sheep
but knew if literal was the cause
literal could never be the salvation.
So with reined-compassion he chose
another way, a chance happening to
pass by the olive grove where the
poor young wife paused daily to feed
the sparrows. He stood at the edge
of her aloneness as she pitched crumbs
to the beggars. His voice still until she
had given all she had to them and only
then he dared speak: Life is a good idea.
She smiled, sensing unfamiliar patience
in him that roused the same in her.
It was merely a scrap but yes –
my husband might ease from striving
and seek my face once more, and
consider the birds fed without trouble.
Since I’ve moved into my new digital home, I’ve asked a few friends to come by and offer me a house warming gift. Over the next week or two, we’ll have a few posts that come as gifts to me, and I’ll share them with you. The first arrives from my best friend in this world, though she’s so much more. Miska is my wife and soulmate, the one person I’d want with me if ever I were shipwrecked – and the one person who has most helped my soul not be shipwrecked.
In that liminal space between day and evening
When the mysteries flame forth,
catch fire with the blaze of the dying sun,
then burn down into a smoldering blue light,
I was walking the circuitous, ancient path of the prayer labyrinth,
Soul-deep in silence and offering my heart’s prayer to God
with the fervor of one who is seeking yet has already been found,
when I heard the voices; sadly, not of angels
but of humans.
I looked up at the noise and saw them
coming along the bamboo-lined path.
The little boy broke away from his mother and
Ran out onto the stones of the labyrinth with me.
Irritation surged up,
My agenda altered and
My centering meditation fractured.
But remembering the enticing words I’d heard earlier—
The call to walk through my moments and days with
Uncharacteristic leisure, relaxed, unhurried,
present—I was chastened. . .
And reminded of my life back home with two young boys
Who disrupt my quiet, prayerful spaces
With uncanny regularity.
“Aha, a metaphor of my life,” I smiled to myself
as I watched the child trying to navigate
his way to the center of this unicursal path,
and I, reluctantly, let go of my original purpose
for being in this space.
I have been asked to love whatever comes,
To take it all “with great trust” in the words of Rilke.
My soul’s labyrinth toward divine union,
The perpetual enchantment, the persistent invitation,
Is to see and touch and taste God in the ordinary
Everydayness of all things and in all places,
And to lay down my solitary visions and my ecstasies,
To find the Sacred