Mulberry Trees

Sam walks our neighborhood patiently. A retired photographer, he always catches the frame and the glint, but only sometimes with a lens.

This morning, Sam strolled with his chocolate lab Dexter. I found myself in a conversation. When Sam’s making his rounds, it’s inevitable that you will share words. I asked Sam what he likes about this path, this place. I’ve found different ways to ask him this same question a hundred times. I ask regularly because on each occasion I receive an answer suited to that one hour.

“What do you love about our neighborhood, Sam?”

“Today,” and he paused, grin breaking. “Today, I love the mulberry trees that line the road and feed me as I walk my dog.”

I like a man who eats wild berries. I like a man so filled with life’s fresh, daily wonder that he can only think of the most recently plucked fruit.

Bruce Heilman: Just Ride

Bob Brown / Richmond Times Dispatch

Today, I met Bruce Heilman. Bruce is a World War II vet and member of the Greatest Generation. He is the Chancellor of the University of Richmond where he served as president for two decades. Bruce is also an avid Harley biker and tomorrow, to celebrate his 86th birthday, he sets out on a 8,000 mile bike trip, making a loop around the entire United States and motoring through all twenty border states before returning home to Virginia.

Bruce had a bike with all her implements (all of them I got in Motocycle Clothing Online) in the 50’s but traded it for marriage and a family. When Bruce turned 71, his wife Betty told him, “You got the kids and grandkids through college, now you can have your bike back.” His current ride is a Harley Ultra Classic Electric Glide Patriot Edition (and I’m just repeating what I hear, I have no idea what that means) that Betty gave him for their 65th wedding anniversary. If you ask Betty what she thinks of Bruce’s round the country trek, you recognize she’s had practice with this question. “He’s in the Lord’s hands,” Betty says.

“All of life is an adventure,” Bruce quips. “It might not be as grand in some places as others, but think of life not as a burden but as an opportunity.” This reminds me of poet David Whyte’s conviction that we are to “release ourselves from necessity,” from the weight of a life that has hoisted its demands upon us. Good living always involves responsibility, commitments that arrive with our good attachments to people and place and principle. However, vibrant life does not see these responsibilities as shackles but as one of the many experiences that will bring us some new gift. At 86, vibrant life grabs the handle bars of a Harley and sets out for the Pacific Ocean.

Before we left today, I cornered Dr. Heilman, shook his hand and said, “I just have to tell you, you’re awesome.” He paused and blushed a little, which made me like him even more. Then he answered. “Well, I’m not awesome because I’m riding a bike. I’m awesome because I’m old.” I don’t think it’s either / or, but his many years add a potency that I find immensely attractive. Bruce had to leave our meeting early to finish last minute preparations for his ride; but before he got away, I made him promise me a coffee and conversation when he returns.

When asked why he stills follows these adventures, Bruce replies: “I’ve got a motorcycle and the world’s out there, so I’ll just ride.” Lead the way, Bruce. I’m right behind you.

Jalapeno

As (perhaps) the concluding house-warming gift for my new digs, my pal Nathan Elmore wrapped these words up for me.

 

Apparently the notion that we use 10% of our possible brain function is a widely perpetuated myth—the certifiable stuff of urban legend, according to the neurologists and neuroscientists. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that my mind contains merely 10% of its available aptitude for conscious associations when it comes to this one very diminutive thing: the chili pepper that goes by the name jalapeno.

As a general rule, I really don’t care for warm, burning sensations that bounce around in the mouth using/abusing their totalitarian reign to persecute me, a plebian to be sure. Yes, true, I’m also a weakling about handling such sensations. So I don’t typically invite the jalapeno over for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is, in fact, very un-welcome and un-affirmed in the places where I eat.

By virtue of this unyielding intolerance, I can only pull, or download, two associations for the pepper which originally hails from the Mexican city of Xalapa. Sadly, that is all I’ve got in this ostensibly vast cerebrum: two prominent associations. And Winn Collier is the second.

The first involves an 83-year-old son of a Cumberland homesteader in Crossville, Tennessee.

Joseph (Joe) Elmore, my grandfather on my father’s side, is—as far as I know—one of the only men the world over who drives a red minivan and keeps a Styrofoam cup in it for the express purpose of tobacco-spitting. It sounds relatively hipster cool, but trust me the view from the passenger seat borders on nauseating. Then, of course, there’s his driving.

A man of multiple heart-attack scares, our beloved Grandpa Joe—“you ain’t no kind of man if you ain’t got land” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)—still cultivates an extensive vegetable garden on his five-acre lot on Backwoods Way in Crossville. The street was officially renamed Backwoods Way (it wasn’t born with that name) by the residents themselves to suit perfectly the basic sensibility of the place. Socrates himself would be quite proud: the renaming was a quintessential example of Know thyself.

In matters of religion and faith, Grandpa Joe is undeniably a straight-shooter—a fundamentalist Christian whose cassette-tape collection of hellfire preachers is as impressive as his ability to steer any conversation into an apocalyptic scenario for Anglo culture in America. In other less significant matters, he is anything but a straight-shooter. For instance, when Wal-Mart arrived in Crossville, he suddenly became rather fond of saying that he was on his way to meet up with so-and-so at the Wal-Marts. Like R.E.M.’s song about comedian Andy Kaufman, you are always left to wonder if this guy has something up his sleeve—even if it involves seemingly unwittingly adding an “s” to the name of an exceptionally familiar big-box retailer.

One day, several years back, Grandpa Joe’s word-play games ventured into another stratosphere. In attempting to describe a food he had tried recently, he casually dropped the word jalapeno. No one could have predicted his un-careful pronunciation: jap-a-leno. An incredible slip of his rural tongue or an extremely sly joke, he had all of us in absolute stitches for days. He also had managed to offend both the Hispanic community and the Japanese community in one motion—a weirdly impressive feat. To this day, this singular verbal moment by Grandpa Joe is re-told as a legendary folktale in holiday family gatherings.

My other jalapeno association involves a much younger fellow, a guy who would become a close friend and genuine colleague at a university church in dear old Clemson, S.C.

He is a preacher, to be sure, but with no proclivity for giving or receiving hellfire sermons. He also is a very fine writer who, in his own words, suspects that truth—not just a good joke—“is best told slant.” Here it must be said: No one likes a jalapeno quite like Winn. And no one asks for jalapenos to be added (at no additional charge!) to their grilled chicken salad quite like Winn.

It didn’t matter in the least if you were a national chain named for a Beatles song (Ruby Tuesdays along S.C. Route 123), a university “dive” phoning it in with passable pub grub (Tiger Town Tavern on College Avenue), or an international mom-and-pop joint serving adequate Mediterranean fare (Riviera Restaurant on Old Greenville Highway). Winn was, and is, and is to come, no respecter of asking the burning question: Do you happen to have any jalapenos?

All serious kidding aside, the jalapeno inquiry, metaphorically speaking, could stand in for any number of spicy, flavorful questions that Winn is in the habit of asking. He has made it his life’s existential manner—not to mention the impetus of his spiritual writing, and now, his doctoral studies—to ask. And those of us who know him and read him are very much drawn into the orbit of this unique manner. Furthermore, and further-more, we are drawn in the direction toward which this manner is spinning.

After giving us a glimpse into his geographically wandered youth, Winn writes in his mini-bio: “Years later, I would discover how hungry I am to experience people and place and story.” This indeed seems the insatiable hunger lurking within, around and through my friend’s often-compelling words and ever-thoughtful questions—his manner, yes. I, for one, continue to be thoroughly engaged.

Upon the occasion of Winn’s newly designed website, then, perhaps it is no surprise that I could not help but remember one small but evocative intersection of people, place and story—an experienced moment, or series of culinary moments, when I, too, was made hungrier for precisely such things. To tell the tale, one word should suffice: jalapenos.

 

Nathan F. Elmore writes at: nathanfelmore.com.

A Walk Across the Sun

I've asked a few friends to stop by for a house-warming party in my new digs. Corban Addison has just released his first novel A Walk Across the Sun, set in India and following several characters intersection with the seedy world of human trafficking. The book's catching steam; it's been pushed by John Grisham and Oprah's O Magazine. In a flat world where we demand everything be efficient and have obvious (and immediate) utilitarian purpose, many of us insist that the work itself offers goodness to the world – writing need not be justified by accomplishing some other purpose or added agenda. However, sometimes we ride that mule too far, to the point that our writing becomes selfish and myopic. In Corban's debut novel, he has written something that takes the story seriously, on its own terms – but he also has a message he wants to give away. This is not easy to do. 

This part of the party's going to be a conversation around the table.

 

Why writing, Corban? Why do you find yourself needing to tell stories? 

Since I was fifteen years old and starting to spread my wings in an adult world, writing has been my outlet, the preferred channel for my thoughts. When I was a kid, I used to write essays and reflections on anything and everything, work on them tirelessly until I felt I had perfected every word, and then stuff them away in a file on my computer, never to be read by anyone. At the same time, I read voraciously and preferred fiction. Story was a form of travel for me. It peeled back the skin of the world and gave me a glimpse of humanity as it looks under the hood. I've always been conscious of truth, and I've always loved to learn. Long before I ever thought about the power of story, I responded to that power by devouring stories and allowing them to frame my vision of the world. At some point, these two currents (my impulse to write and to consume stories) merged into a singular dream: to write a story. As soon as I tried my hand at it, I fell in love with it. And away I went, down the Rabbit Hole. For years I wrote stories as I had written essays, spending countless hours refining them, only to learn that no one wanted to publish them. But the dream only grew stronger as the pile of rejections mounted. That was a training ground. I learned how to write by trying and failing and trying again. All along I believed I would find a story with wings. Ironically, when it happened, it was the story that found me. The idea for A Walk Across the Sun was my wife's before it was mine.

You've written a good story that also has something of an agenda – you want people to think long and hard at the issue of sex trafficking, hoping to contribute to another abolition of slavery. Did you think much about the interplay between letting the story be the driver and letting the issue be the driver?

When I set out to write A Walk Across the Sun, I knew it would never work unless it could stand alone as a compelling work of fiction. The story had to sing, or it would flop. That said, my objective in writing a novel about the global trade in human beings was to confront the reader with a reality that many people find hard to believe. I wanted to do more than describe the problem. I wanted to give readers a first-class trip through the trafficking pipeline. I wanted to reveal the many dimensions of the trade and to leave readers with the strong sense that all is not lost, that hope is real and that all of us can engage in the fight for justice. Bringing the two strands together was a labor of love and editing. There were times in early drafts of the manuscript where I fell into the didactic trap, overplaying my hand as an advocate. Eventually, however, with the help of some fine editors, I was able to submerge the facts about trafficking into the narrative, leaving the story to drive the book and allowing the issue to emerge organically in the consciousness of the reader through the experience of reading the story.

Colum McCann says, "I believe fiction can capture the moment when the thorn enters the skin." Where do those words take you?

Story has been around as long as communication itself. It transcends every barrier that divides us as human beings, and it compels us in a way that nothing else can. In a very real sense, story is the universal language. In my mind, the reason for this is simple. Story is the framework of our existence. All of us are living a story, so all of us are interested in stories. What makes fiction such a powerful medium is that it allows the writer to transport the reader to places within a particular story that would be missed in a purely factual account. There are moments in life that have profound significance, yet the clock doesn't slow down to allow us to dissect them, ponder them, suck the marrow from their bones, and live inside the transformation. In fiction, the clock can slow down or speed up. One scene, one moment, can occupy pages or a single sentence. A story can open a window on the world that does not exist in the four dimensions of space-time. There is great irony in this: Fiction offers perspectives on reality that reality itself cannot afford.

This year, I'm feeling tugged into new places of generosity, as a man, a dad and husband, a writer and pastor. I'm going to give you a prompt; just tell me whatever comes to your mind. Here goes: write with generosity

One of the saddest facts of modern art is the all-too-common divorce between the artist and the audience. So many artists these days pride themselves on creating art for themselves, not for the people who will view it, read it, and ponder it. To me, writing generously is writing with the audience in mind–not in a disembodied sense, but in a very real, very particular sense. When I was writing A Walk Across the Sun, I wanted to create a story that would reach the broadest possible audience, from the seventeen-year-old girl who spends her afternoons devouring books to the eighty-year-old grandmother who puts down her knitting and picks up a novel. In crafting the plot and the characters, I made very intentional choices about what I would include and what I would not include, how I would describe certain things, especially difficult things like sexual violence and the trafficking of children. I knew that my readers would be real people, and I wanted to meet them in the reality of their lives and give them a story they would love and a story that would open their eyes to the world around them in a new way. 

image: daily progress

A Good Idea

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.

Here Now

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.

 

{Here Now}

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
Here, now.

Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2007

I’ve been pondering how, contrary to our persistent beliefs, nothing is wasted or forever ruined. There’s always hope. There’s always redemption. This really does seem to be at the core of what it means to live under God – rather than attempting to live as God.

A year or so ago, two friends gave me a limited, hand-printed edition of one of Wendell Berry’s poems. It sits immediately in front of me as I type. It watches over me as a I write. It watches over me as I prepare sermons. Berry’s words remind me of something important for my life as a pastor and a writer, a father and a friend.

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees, 
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort 
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took 
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.

Wendell Berry
Sabbaths 2007, no. 9

Fascinating Responsibility

When asked why his Kentucky farm – that land, that work and rhythm – was important for him, Wendell Berry replied: “The farm provides me fascination and responsibility.” It seems to me that those two words aren’t put together often enough.

Fascination speaks of the lure of a thing, the magic it offers. It’s a childish word, a word filled to the brim with joy. When you’re fascinated with something, you feel a bit lost in it, giddy even. We aren’t giddy enough in this oh-so serious world of ours.

But then there’s responsibility, an obligation. Being obliged might carry a heavy ring. It’s no good, for instance, for the soul to be obliged to another’s expectation. However, if our obligation is toward that same thing that fascinates us, that same something we can’t let loose and that (wonderful how this happens) same something that won’t let us loose, then this responsibility is noble. It’s what some people mean when they speak of a call.

We are responsible for something, somewhere – for someone. There are words we can (must) uniquely speak. Truths we must uniquely discover – and tell. There is land only we can love, children only we can father or mother.

It’s a holy thing to be fascinated by something. And it’s a holy thing to be responsible for something.

Foxes and Wrong Directions

I continue to reflect on what it means to be a bumbler. Bumblers aren’t always effective. Management rolls its eyes at bumbler-types. Sometimes we plod. Sometimes we meander. And – praise be! – sometimes we have potent bursts of inspiration that come as sweet surprise. On the whole, we get done what needs done – but rarely as pretty as others who break through the finish-tape in graceful stride.

One of my favorite Wendell Berry lines (from his poem “Mad Farmer Liberation Front“) gets at this:

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

I used to be terrified of wrong directions. Wrong answers. Wrong calculations. Wrong words. Exhausting. It tires me just to type it. Of course, there’s no inherent virtue in being wrong, but the fear of making a misstep can keep a fellow glued to his seat. And you have to get out of your seat to live. Or love.

The fox roams about, making unnecessary tracks, tracks that serve no discernable function. They simply arrive as part of the day’s journey, the day’s discovery. They are what we leave behind as we are roaming, figuring out what exactly it is we are to do and where exactly it is we are to go.

And – as Berry says – all of this is the practice (the living) of resurrection. The resurrection refashions the whole order of things and gives opportunity for every step and every sprig – even the misplaced or misdirected ones – to brim with beauty and joy.

Words. Seeds. Life.

Continuing a trail from last week, I’ve been pondering the creative power of words. Words are not merely tools, functional symbols. Rather, words are like seeds. They can burrow deep; and given the right conditions and good timing, all kinds of life and beauty can sprout.

John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and former-priest, recorded an interview with Krista Tippet a few months before his untimely death at age 52. Tucked amid the dialogue, O’Donohue asked, “When is the last time you had a great conversation? Not just two intersecting monologues, but a great conversation?”

What an important question, what a disturbing question. O’Donohue went on to describe what, for him, are signals of fertile conversation:

you overhear yourself saying things you never knew you knew


you overhear yourself receiving from somebody words that find a place within you that you thought you’d lost


you experience an inventive conversation that brought the two of you onto a different plane


the conversation continues to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards

This might not be our list, but it gets at something that happens in enlivening interchanges. Something given, something received. The heart awakens. A discovery. Friendship blossoms. We know it when we encounter it precisely because it’s so rare, a gift.

Often our words are merely a means of passing information or making a transaction rather than a conduit for sharing and receiving life. When Miska asks me about my day, she’s typically not hunting for a ramshackle list of hourly events. She’s wondering what I loved, what I hated, where I was bored – and if I caught any glimpses of God or was caught in any moments of wonder. She curious about me, and words are the raw material for the story she’s asking and the story I’ll answer.

I’ve found that you can’t make such conversation happen, but you can till the soil to be ever ready for the seeds. You can create the space. You can hope for the moments where you truly see and hear another – and are truly seen and heard by another.