From “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
From “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
I rarely talk in detail about my Lenten disciplines because they feel private and revealing, but this year I decided to give up meat because that’s a very common thing to give up and I had never done it before. And for once, I didn’t mind talking about it because I felt so connected to the global church (mainly my Catholic friends) by giving it up. I missed meat a lot, but I felt connected to my body in a different way that was cool.
In no particular order, here are some things I learned.
1. When you say you are giving up meat for Lent, the first question you get every time is, “Are you eating fish?” Mike and I don’t eat a lot of fish (because we don’t like to cook fish at home) so I hadn’t planned to. Isn’t fish meat? I thought it was so I gave it up.
2. Food really fuels your body, you guys. I gave up eating meat while I was in the middle of training for a half marathon, and all of a sudden I had less energy and had a terrible 11-mile run. During my terrible run my thoughts mostly centered on the fact that I was going to fail at half-marathoning. But then after I got home I realized that I had only had a salad the night before and I needed to feed myself a little differently before a run. Here, let Andy tell you about it for me.
3. The things that really got me through the day were eggs, spinach, and quinoa. I had to particularly think about how to get a good amount of protein before the long runs. I rediscovered the joys of spinach ravioli.
4. Giving up meat was emotionally tied to the half-marathon for me, so it seemed kind of redundant that last week (the half-marathon was on Palm Sunday). We were in Florida during Holy Week, and I ate fish and I didn’t even feel guilty about it. Fish on Good Friday feels practically holy.
5. It’s easy to think that changing up your diet will cause you to lose weight but that did not happen. In fact, neither did running a half-marathon. But there’s more to being healthy than just weight, and running and fueling my body well has made me strong. That’s something to be proud of. I can do hard things like running a lot of miles and changing up my diet.
6. I am not cut out to be a vegetarian.
7. I wouldn’t say that it caused me to reflect in spiritual ways, but I was mindful about my eating practices and more amazed than ever at how our bodies function. It was a really positive experience for me. And now I am eating all the meat, all the time.
I know this is a little bit late for Lenten reflections, but I had to have the experience and then have time to reflect on it, so we’re drifting into Eastertide. Anybody else learn anything during Lent? Anybody want to speak up for vegetarianism?
Hard Night by Christian Wiman
What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?
What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?
The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.
What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree.
“Gospel” by Philip Levine
The new grass rising in the hills,
the cows loitering in the morning chill,
a dozen or more old browns hidden
in the shadows of the cottonwoods
beside the streambed. I go higher
to where the road gives up and there’s
only a faint path strewn with lupine
between the mountain oaks. I don’t
ask myself what I’m looking for.
I didn’t come for answers
to a place like this, I came to walk
on the earth, still cold, still silent.
Still ungiving, I’ve said to myself,
although it greets me with last year’s
dead thistles and this year’s
hard spines, early blooming
wild onions, the curling remains
of spider’s cloth. What did I bring
to the dance? In my back pocket
a crushed letter from a woman
I’ve never met bearing bad news
I can do nothing about. So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before
first light. “Soughing” we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.
“Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
We are going to a wedding today!
“A Blessing for Wedding” by Jane Hirschfield
Today when persimmons ripen
Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow
Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song
Today when the maple sets down its red leaves
Today when windows keep their promise to open
Today when fire keeps its promise to warm
Today when someone you love has died
or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
or someone you will not meet has been born
Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness
Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired
Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow
Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace
Today, let this light bless you
With these friends let it bless you
With snow-scent and lavender bless you
Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly
Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears
Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes
Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you
Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days
This is the poem Mike carried yesterday. He teaches ten-year-olds. He said it might have depressed them a little bit.
“On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
A few weeks ago, when I wrote about her book, Carolyn Arends left a nice comment. After I picked myself up off the floor, I of course emailed her back. I tried not to fangirl all over the place but I may or may not have succeeded. But the best part was that she also responded to my email! With a poem that she thought I would like! Carolyn Arends gets me, you guys. Somebody invent a time machine so I can tell 16-year-old me about this.
I celebrated with my students a little bit differently this year. Instead of asking them to bring me anything, I just handed out scraps of poetry to anyone who would take them.
Can I have one? You can have as many as you want. Why are you doing this? These are poems I like that I want to share with you. What do we do with them? Read them? Or maybe use them as bookmarks?
I gave the crooked neighbor with the crooked heart to my John Green fangirl, who squealed. One student took “Invictus” and read it out loud, and when I told him about Mandela, he smiled happily and said, “That’s what’s up.” But the best moment for me was when a young man took “Still I Rise” and read it to himself, then looked at me with eyes wide and said, “This poem is true!”
The point of carrying poetry around is to show that it’s real and tangible. It can unfold itself in fluorescent cafeterias, not just ivory towers.
As always, Poem in Your Pocket Day was a highlight of the school year for me. Thanks to my students for having ears to hear, or at least playing along for a few minutes.
“Possible Answers to Prayer” by Scott Cairns
Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
“Of the Surface of Things” by Wallace Stevens
In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
hills and a cloud.
From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
“The spring is like a belle undressing.”
The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.
A Trust Betrayed: The The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families by Mike Magner (via NetGalley)
I picked up this book because my mom did her student teaching at Camp Lejeune in the 70s and was diagnosed with cancer just two years later (in her early 20s). So I am fully biased in my beliefs that there was literally some toxic stuff going on there. I thought the first half of the book explained that pretty well, but the second half was less interesting to me as it discussed the various survivor groups and their infighting. This was not the best-written book I have ever read, but if you are interested in the topic, it’s a pretty easy read. Recommended for: my mom, anyone who worked at Camp Lejeune, people who like stories about government cover ups.
The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth About Lager, Loving, and Living by William B. Miller (via NetGalley)
This book by an Episcopal priest and bar owner is broken into three parts: wine, women, and song. I really enjoyed how he took everyday experiences and found the holy within them, though I didn’t care as much for the section on women. It’s a good reminder that being a person of faith, even a priest, doesn’t mean you have to close yourself off from enjoyment. Overall it was a funny and thoughtful book and I immediately thought of three or four guys I go to church with who would like it a lot.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd (via NetGalley)
Part of my job is talking to students about how they use the internet, and this book definitely challenged me to listen and consider student perspectives when we have these discussions. It actually is a complicated topic and I loved how she continually pointed out the ways that teenagers are smart and thoughtful, even when our ideas about social mores are different from theirs. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it for parents, educators, youth workers, people who know teenagers, etc.
I received copies of these books from NetGalley but all opinions are my own.
This poem is probably the reason I love poetry and try to make others love it too. This is all I want to say on Easter.
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
This morning, Atticus woke up in Florida. When we told him we were flying home later in the day, he started wailing. He does not comprehend time or understand that when good things end there are still good things ahead. All he sees is the sadness, and we let him cry because his sadness was appropriate for what he was experiencing.
The immediacy of a three-year-old on vacation is instructive on Holy Saturday. It is easy to mentally turn the page on this part of the story, jumping to Easter and hope and resurrection. We can’t recreate the fear and sorrow of that first Holy Saturday. But there are times in our lives when all we see is darkness all around, and the church has seen fit to remember that, too. There is a place in the story for despair and we can let it run its course rather than pushing it away.
“Darkness Starts” by Christian Wiman
A shadow in the shape of a house
slides out of a house
and loses its shape on the lawn.
Trees seek each other
as the wind within them dies.
Darkness starts inside of things
but keeps on going when the things are gone.
Barefoot careless in the farthest parts of the yard
children become their cries.
“The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.” -Barbara Brown Taylor
“Descending Theology: The Crucifixion” by Mary Karr
To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
fix you into place.
Once the cross pops up and the pole stob
sinks vertically in an earth hole perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
but your own self’s burden?
You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up
to breathe until you suffocate, give up the ghost.
If God permits this, one wonders how
this twirling earth
manages to navigate the gravities and star tugs.
Or if some less than loving watcher
watches us scuttle across the boneyard greens
under which worms
seethe and the front jaws of beetles
eventually clasp toward the flesh of every beloved.
The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels
his soul leak away,
then surge. Some windy authority lures him higher
till an unseen tear in the sky’s membrane is rent,
and he’s streaming light, snatched back, drawn close,
so all loneliness ends.
“What the Living Do” by Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
“The Journey” by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
When I was pregnant with Atticus, I dutifully took a breastfeeding class but I refused to take a birthing class. Refused. Did not check out any books about childbirth. Did not look things up on the internet. I went into the hospital with contractions (that I thought were fake) and had done zero research. I was terrified about the whole experience, so I justified my lack of information by assuming that my body would take over for me and also the midwife would be there and so everything would be fine and women have been doing this for millions of years. It sounds crazy now but at the time I couldn’t deal with having to take in all the information and opinions.
I approached the half marathon in much the same way. I figured out my running plan and then got very small amounts of advice from trusted friends, but I did not do any research or buy any gear. It felt too overwhelming. There are so many things to know and way too many things to buy. I just wanted to run, not support the entire industry with the water bottles and the sunglasses and the gels. I guess I was hoping that my body would just do what I trained it to do.
You would think that I would be a person who would research to the max but apparently I am not. World’s worst librarian? It’s possible. Luckily, both times my body did just fine. An epidural would have been nice for the half marathon, though, now that you mention it.
After the race I realized how much I had responded to both of those situations from a place of fear. During pregnancy, I was afraid of motherhood and how my life was going to change. Before the race, I was afraid of failing and also afraid of the super fit people who would be running with me. I thought I would be the slowest pudgiest person in attendance. And the shortest. And that everyone would laugh at me. (I get really anxious around anything that seems like gym class.) So I did my running but didn’t open myself to the experience more than that.
What was beautiful to me about the race was that none of that mattered. It goes without saying that everyone in my section (aka the slow people) was nice and encouraging and some of them were pudgy, too. The people holding signs along the route did not jeer at me for having to walk up the hills. No one rolled their eyes at me for not having the right gear. Instead the people along the way generously offered their time and themselves as they cheered us on. One lady even offered free bloody marys. (Which seemed gross to me but was kind of her just the same.) I was too nervous to open myself to the experience, but the day opened itself to me just the same. I shared smiles and laughs and frustrations with strangers and friends, and I gratefully accepted the community around me because I needed them and was too hot and tired to let my brain object.
I shouldn’t be surprised by these kindnesses but I am, again and again. Instead of a clenched fist, there is the open hand of grace offering encouragement. On Sunday it looked like silly signs and sounded like cowbells and tasted like cold water in the hot sun. I am grateful for these small gifts that help pull me out of the dark hidden places of fear and into the light, offering hope for the journey ahead.
This is a poem where people know the first line but not the whole thing. Be sure to read to the end.
“Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
I recently encountered a Christianese discussion about the hope we have in Christ. I know it’s partly just me but when people say things like, “Our inheritance in Christ is total freedom,” I think, “But what does that mean?” This very nice lady was adamant that because we are a new creation in Christ, we (as individuals and as the communal church) should look different than the world, and she proclaimed that she doesn’t have an addiction problem and doesn’t struggle with depression because she believes she can be whole and healed by confessing her sin and believing the truth.
It sounded to me like she was saying that Real Christians™ should look different from the world and shouldn’t struggle with fear and anxiety and depression.
This is not what hope means to me. I feel comfortable saying that I struggle with anxiety and depression. I am a school librarian, I am a speed reader, I am a mother, I am a wife, I am a terrible housekeeper. I struggle with anxiety and depression. I am a follower of Christ. None of those things is at odds with the others, and to say that Christians are to look different is to encourage people to hide in shame. That message twists a beautiful true gift from God and turns it into a behavior checklist. If we are thankful enough . . . if we believe hard enough . . . if we pull ourselves away from the world’s influences . . . then we will be free.
Holy Week seems like a good time to talk about hope. I believe that radical transformation and healing are possible, but my trust is not in those things. There is no certainty that we will be healed, not from depression, not from anxiety, not from cancer. My hope is simply that I do not walk alone. The Spirit of God lives in me and a community of believers surrounds me. I have family and friends and the brain God gave me to help me make good choices. Modern medicine is not so bad, either.
There’s no catch. No requirement. No cost. It’s given freely. Not in the passive-aggressive Jesus died for you so you better live in a way that justifies his death kind of way. Instead, you can carry his message of hope and justice into the world and be an agent of change. The message of Jesus did not die on Good Friday, and it continues to be resurrected in people around the world even today. You can be swept up in this radical hope, this reckless grace, this relentless love even in the face of addiction and illness and pain and fear.
May we never offer conditionally what God has given to us for free. Hope: it springs up like a flower after the winter, it spreads like the sun across a field, it sounds (with thanks to Miss Emily Dickinson) like birdsong after a storm.
Hey, how are you? I’m good, thanks for asking. Well, yeah, I am a little sore because I ran a half marathon today.
I would like to dedicate this running to Mike, who made it possible for me to do so much training, and to Beyonce, who gives me wings.
Here are some words from Uncle Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to celebrate today:
I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be.
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.
“Marathon” by E. Ethelbert Miller
it’s a strange time which finds me jogging
in early morning
the deadness of sleep alive in this world
the empty parks filled with unloved strangers
buildings grey with solitude
now near the end of another decade
i am witness to the loss of my twenties
a promise invisible
i run without purpose
far from the north star
i run with the sound of barking dogs closing in
i have lost count of the miles
i am older and nothing much matters
or has changed
(My half marathon is tomorrow. Wish me luck! I am really nervous.)
“Chekhov’s Gun” by Matt Rasmussen
Nothing ever absolutely has to happen. The gun
doesn’t have to be fired. When our hero sits
on the edge of his bed contemplating the pistol
on his nightstand, you have to believe he might
not use it. Then the theatre is sunk in blackness.
The audience is a log waiting to be split open. The faint
scuff of feet. Objects are picked up, shuffled away.
Other things are put down. Based on the hushed sounds
you guess: a bed, some walls, a dresser. You feel
everything shift. You sense yourself being picked up,
set down. A cone of light cracks overhead. The audience’s
eyes flicker toward you like droplets of water.