Friday, November 11, 2011

As is probably apparent, I am still not writing. But I am reading and reading and reading. There are few things as gratifying as discovering a kindred soul on a page (not that kindred souls in flesh and blood aren't worth their weight in Prosac.) Sometimes we read to connect with other hearts and minds, across the globe and across the centuries, and sometimes we read to connect with ourselves. On occasion we find someone has so precisely articulated a thing that it feels we've only just then learned something about ourselves that has been true forever. I've uncovered bits of myself in Dosteovsky's fiction, Adam Zagajewski's poetry, Frederick Buechner's prose, Borges' dreams, Brian Greene's theories, Over the Rhine's lyrics, Thomas Merton's meditations, Rebecca Solnit's essays and even Philip Glass's textless compositions. To come across these slices of recognition is to be, for a moment, known and understood. And to realize there are companions on the journey, your journey, who "get it," whatever your "it" might be. For whatever thankless struggles, sacrifices and dark nights it took for those individuals to get those works accomplished so I would not be alone, so that I could push on, so that I could rejoice, I here say Thank You.

And for those of you who will understand this bit, you know who you are (and I do, too):
Some people even seem to have been born with it. They grow up trying to adjust themselves to the values and strivings that surround them, but somehow their hearts are never in it. They have a deep awareness that fulfillment cannot be found through acquisition and achievement. They often feel like misfits because of the different, deeper, ungraspable love they feel inside them. For them, the journey is not so much toward realization of their desire as toward being able to claim the desire they already have in a culture that neither understands nor supports it.
~Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul

Friday, December 24, 2010

The gift

This morning, Christmas eve, we woke to find the world outside our frosted windows miraculously adorned in sparkling white, or at least it felt miraculous: the sudden transformation of even the ugliest edges, roads and ruts, wires, poles and structures into objects of wonder in a magical landscape. The lofty and low, the prized and despised, the precious and neglected, subjected to the beneficent equity of snowfall. Everything made new. A clean slate. Racket and commotion absorbed into its calm purity. Stillness, awe, goodwill. Peace on earth. And though snowfall in Bethlehem remains a rare event, a White Christmas somehow feels like a "real" Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Immanuel: "God with us." All of us.
Let it snow.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Long Surrender

It's been a long, long, wordless season. In those times when language remains for me stifled and inadequate, I grope for what is unsayable from whom I can, those souls, friends and strangers, who have weathered their own hazardous and lonely journeys and somehow mined their dark days to forge art imbued with the weight of struggle, hard times oh so human and oh so inevitable. Art speaks to and for those of us still mired and mute until we finally find our way back to our own voices.

How timely this album from Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender, chuck full of lyrics voicing what I cannot not articulate. The arrangements are as gorgeous as Karin's voice. "All of my friends are part saint and part sinner," she sings on one of my favorite tracks, "All my favorite people are broken" and "The poet says, 'You must praise the mutilated world,'" the poet being my beloved former teacher, Adam Zagajewski. "Rave On" inspired by Pete Fairchild's poem, is another favorite track (and great poem.) "The Laugh of Recognition" when "you laugh but you feel like dying." You saints and sinners, artists and poets. For your gifts of broken beauty to those of us sojourning in the valley of relinquishment: thank you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands--a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.
--Sidney Lovett

Monday, April 12, 2010

Go geek

When I consider the vast array of discoveries that have been made in the history of mankind I marvel at what we humans have figured out. If I had access to the very same information that Galileo or Newton or Einstein or Pasteur or Curie or Brahms had I'd still lack, even granted 1000 undisturbed years and a computer, the slightest inkling of the mechanics of quarks, germs, genes, plate tectonics, nuclear fusion, photo synthesis or how to compose a symphony. But I'm oh so grateful that each of them, and countless others, one day smacked their forehead and yelped, "Aha!" Because I just can't get over how cool this world is. How all the bits and pieces work together to produce such fabulous results. And while I don't have to understand the color spectrum to appreciate a rainbow, it's all the more intriguing to understand what engineers such precise splendor. There is beauty in knowledge, in the culmination of century upon century of wonder and wondering by people in every corner of our planet whose investigations in big and small ways connect in a brilliant web that both illuminates and mystifies as it grows, like gravity which contracts our universe even as, paradoxically, dark matter expands it. In 10,000 more years of brainpower we'll have discovered only how much more there is yet to uncover. And I still will not have figured out Algebra I.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

13 Ways of Looking at a Blessing

"Celebration when you're calling the shots? Easy. Celebration when your plan is working? Anyone can do that. But when you realize that the story of your life could be told a thousand different ways, that you could tell it over and over as a tragedy, but you choose to call it an epic, that's when you start to learn what celebration is. When what you see in front of you is so far outside what you dreamed, but you have the belief, the boldness, the courage to call it beautiful instead of calling it wrong, that's celebration.

When you can invest yourself deeply and unremittingly in the life that surrounds you instead of declaring yourself out of the game once and for all, because what's happened to you is too bad, too deep, too ugly for anyone to expect you to move on from, that's the good, rich place. That's the place where the things that looked for all intents and purposes like curses start to stand up and shimmer and dance, and you realize with a gasp that they may have been blessings all along. Or maybe not. Maybe they were curses, in fact, but the force of your belief and your hope and your desperate love for life as it actually unfolding, has brought a blessing from a curse, like water from a stone, like life from a tomb, like the actual story of God over and over." (Another excerpt from "Cold Tangerines" from the chapter called "Blessings and Curses.")

Sometimes it takes a day, or a year, or maybe even ten years to recognize a curse as a hard won blessing. And if find yourself still on the left side of that bell curve, struggling to believe something like the above could be true, then it might help to grab the coattails of someone who's walked out of darkness ahead of you and hold on for dear life. Throughout my life, from earliest childhood, I've clung to the words of strangers I've found in the pages of myriad books for solace, inspiration and enlightenment. Things I've read have challenged my assumptions, spurred action and wrought untold changes of heart. I've found kindred spirits scattered across centuries and continents and therein drawn courage, conviction and the occasional belly laugh. Words on pages have saved me, time and again.

Whatever circumstances a writer chooses to narrate can be cast in an infinite number of ways, on a continuum of hopeless tragedy on one end to triumphing epic on the other, depending on what they choose to believe about their own story. Anyone can look back over their life and count the failures, losses, betrayals and heartbreaks we all inevitably endure as proof their lives are out of control, meaningless and ridiculous and thereby justify a life of despair, blame and regret. Others, usually after a sufficient amount of time has bestowed the gift of perspective, can interpret those very difficult and sometimes unbearable experiences as part of, and even necessary to, the larger arc of the narrative which is creating the unique individual with whom they gift the world.

Last night at my book club, our planned Lenten discussion of Rosemary Mahoney's "The Singular Pilgrim: Walks on Sacred Ground," in which she recounts her travels to ancient pilgrimage sites in service to her own yearnings, digressed to each of us recounting our own spiritual journey, thus far, to the other women around the table. I realized, depending on how I told the story of my life, I could sound like a fruitcake or heroic quester. Fruitcake on one end, hero on the other. On any given day I can slide the weight toward one or the other, depending on how I choose to perceive and portray events. And this is how all of us, even those who will never pick up a pen, are writers, casting the story of our lives according to what we choose to believe about them. Whether we ever travel to an actual pilgrimage site or not, we are all pilgrims, with no choice but to walk on and into the bright and bewildering adventure which is our own life.

Our long suffered winter is beginning to recede, slow as a developing Polaroid, and people emerge blinking from their houses to rake leaves, tidy hedges and clean windows in the sudden surprise of sun. Riffs of birdsong has tickled the air these last few mornings and vees of birds sweep across the sky--their flight another departure and return. Which this leg of their journey? Depends on where you are standing when you look up.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Extreme Shalom

My mother and sister were up from sunnier climes recently, for a visit to our stripped down, frozen tundra. This winter, which has produced agonizingly long months of bitter, gray days with only the briefest glimpses of sunshine, joie de vivre in frigid lockdown, was cheered for me, temporarily, by the warmth of their brief stay. My mother had in tow a book she was just finishing, passed on to her by her sister who lives in Maryland, a state which has seen more than its fair share of snow dumps and harsh weather this winter. The book's entitled Cold Tangerines, written by Shauna Niequist, and if the endurance of this season has pressed long and hard against your bones perhaps it's also chipped away a space for a bit of contemplation. I offer you as solace and inspiration these excerpts from the chapter, "Shalom:"

"I have glimpses every once in a while of this achingly beautiful way of living that comes when the plates stop spinning and the masks fall off and the apologies come from the deepest places and so do the prayers, and I am fighting, elbowing to make more of my life that life. I want that spirit or force of happiness that is so much deeper than happy--peace that comes from your toes, that makes you want to live forever, that makes you gulp back sobs because you remember so many moments of so much un-peace....The word I use for it is shalom. It is the physical, sense-oriented, relational, communal, personal, ideological posture that arches God-ward....

To get there, I'm finding, is the hardest work and the most worthwhile fight. Shalom requires so much, so much more than I thought I would have to sacrifice, and it scrapes so deeply through the lowest parts of me, divulging and demonstrating so many dark corners. It's something you can't fake, so you have to lay yourself open to it, wide open and vulnerable to what it might ask of you, what it might require you give up, get over, get outside of, get free from....Shalom is about God, and about the voice and spirit of God blowing through and permeating all the dark corners that we've chopped off, locked down. It's about believing, and letting belief move you to forgive. It's about grace, and letting grace propel you into action....It's about living in a world of movie theaters and shoes and highways and websites, and finding those things to be shot through with the same spirit and divinity and possibility that we see in ourselves. It's living with purpose and sacrifice and intention, willing to be held to the highest, narrowest possible standard of goodness, and in the same breath, finding goodness where other people see nothing but dirt."

Or slush. Or endless days of winter.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The brightness of a new page (or letter)

Recently, an unexpected hand written note from a friend arrived in my mailbox. That in itself has become an all too rare pleasure, if not lost art. It was written on cardstock upon which a small original painting had been affixed. Included was part of a poem by Rilke. And handwriting in ink which illustrates something of the character of the writer. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a letter is worth a thousand emails.
The poem is worth sharing:

I'm living just as the century ends.

A great leaf, that God and you and I
Have covered with writing
Turns now, overhead, in strange hands.
We feel the sweep of it like a wind.

We see the brightness of a new page
Where everything yet can happen.

Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure
And look at one another, saying nothing.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2010: the road ahead

Have you ever considered all the gazillions of events that have conspired to bring you to exactly where you are today? Starting with events that occurred way before you were born, such as the precise strength of gravity which allowed the universe to coalesce but not collapse and including every action taken or not taken by a countless multitude of people beside and including yourself, your parents, their parents and so on? "Go back just eight generations to about the time that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born, and already there are over 250 people on whose timely couplings your existence depends."1 How many times have you been conscious of the fact that one seemingly tiny action changed the course of your life (and how many times not)? All that to say that your life is a unique story, miraculous really, a story still being written that even you, the star of the show, cannot really control or even accurately predict very much about. Which is equal parts unsettling and exhilarating. You're still reading your own novel, a page turner, with its highs and lows, its terrors and joys, its inexhaustible surprises. Captivated by this most gripping of books, sharing the pages with all sorts of outrageous characters, we try to anticipate what will happen next. Who knows?
Not us. Not yet. But on this New Year's Day I remain grateful for the cast of characters that enrich my story and another day I get to turn the page.

1 Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Sunday, November 08, 2009

If it be your will

I don't know when I last heard anything this gorgeous. The Webb Sister's arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "If it be your will" Saturday night at the Fox Theater in St. Louis after Cohen recited the opening lines. Oh my. Click here and play song number 5. If you log in you can hear the entire song (it's worth it.) The photos are from the Cathedral Basilica Saint Louis, taken this morning.

"If It Be Your Will"
Lyrics by Leonard Cohen

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
Oh bide us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

Thursday, November 05, 2009

That's my bro

Not the photo, the photographer. Nice work, Peter. The mayor of Ft. Worth thinks so, too:
Thank you, Peter, for reaching out to us and sharing your amazing photographs of our neighbors in need. Simply put, your images have helped to change hearts and minds. Take pride in knowing that your art has helped to make a difference. Much remains to be done, but we are clearly on the right track. God bless you, and God bless this impor­tant work.
~A note from Fort Worth mayor, Mike Moncrief
To see more of his street portraits click here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Inner Landscape of Beauty

"Your identity is not equivalent to your biography. There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there's a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you, and I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary."
~ Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue

One of the things I like to do at work when occupied, as I was today, in tediously cutting and pasting 37 pages of Spanish text, charts and legalese into an English version of my layouts is to tune in to a podcast of Fresh Air or Diane Rehm or lately, Krista Tippett, which induces the impression I'm not working, I'm actually sitting in a living room after a dinner party listening to the conversation of stimulating guests while knitting or playing Scrabble. And the virtue of the podcast is that when you find your mind has wandered off for a moment, to the aluminum foil you need to pickup on the way home or what word you can make with e, e, l, m, i, z, and r or the tab settings in your document, you can just slide the little timer thingy back and replay whatever you just missed. Or you can repeat and repeat and repeat something that, you realize suddenly, has left your mouth ajar. Such as this from The Inner Landscape of Beauty:

"In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam ċara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and ċara is the word for friend. … In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam ċara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam ċara you could share your innermost self, your mind, and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. … In everyone's life there is great need for an anam ċara, a soul friend, in this love you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. Where you are understood, you are at home."
From his book Anam Cara (on its way from Amazon as I type.)

It's even better heard in an Irish accent. Or this:

"And the question is when is the last time that you had a great conversation, a conversation which wasn't just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation a lot in this culture. But when had you last a great conversation, in which you over heard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew. That you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plane. And then fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards, you know? And I've — I've had some of them recently, and it's just absolutely amazing, like, as we would say at home, they are food and drink for the soul, you know?"

Sounds like the Scrabble game might have been pre-empted there.

This was from an interview Krista Tippett conducted with John O'Donohue who died in his sleep on January 3rd, 2008, at the age of 52. This was one of the last interviews he gave. His final work, which was published posthumously, is called, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.

Though I'm late to the party I hope somehow Mr. O'Donohue knows he has a new fan. What space between us?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Birds on Wires

Some years ago I was driving down Westheimer in Houston and while idling at a red light noticed birds perched on wires directly over Cafe Brasil reminded me of the bars and notes on a musical score. I grabbed the camera from my bag, stuck my arm out the window and aimed overhead as the light changed. When I was invited to guest design a cover for the Houston Symphony some months later I knew what to do with my photo. As is stated in the text accompanying the video below I didn't imagine I was the only one this image had ever occurred to. Although my grandparents were professional musicians, to my everlasting regret, the only instrument I ever learned to play was the radio so I had no idea if the "notes" really made music. Now someone else has used a shot of birds on wires and derived a meldody from the actual positions of the birds. Click below and you can hear what you see.

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Let's just say I feel his pain

"Good Night and Tough Luck" Click to see the story from Christoph Neimann in the NY Times.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

New work up at Umbrella Journal

click the headline

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

So let us eat cake

Time. For mountains and for hummingbirds, it passes. You can't stop it and, in spite of a proliferation of expensive products claiming otherwise, you can't even slow it down. Not for a moment. For each moment that passes, something is added and something is taken away. Summer has now ended; our kids, in clothes a size bigger than last year's, have carted their new backpacks, their notebooks and sharpened pencils, back to school. Someone else sits at the desk they sat in just months ago.

The end of summer/start of school year rituals have always coincided with my birthday which may be why, no matter how far past the years of my own school days, the end of August is more deeply embedded with the passage of time than the end of the calendar year or any other recurring event.

This year's birthday will be the first I've ever celebrated without my grandfather, on whose birthday I was born. He died in March. He would be 104 tomorrow. Even if I'm as fortunate as he was in longevity, I'm already halfway through my little bit of time on this planet. Aging doesn't really bother me. Running out of time does. Whether you measure it in minutes or moons, you only get one slice of it. Tomorrow I burn up one more candle. Make my slice coconut.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Inertia Magazine

I'm in Texas for a few days, before my annual trip to the Glen in Santa Fe. This just in (or up): Inertia Magazine. One day soon I'll do a real post.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

When in Rome

Just back from travels to England and Italy on which I'll be posting soon. Still jetlagged and catching up. While I was away The Other Journal posted a poem of mine entitled "The Novelist Sets to Work" and it's still up, sandwiched nicely between interviews with my illustrious friends Greg Wolfe and Scott Cairns, now to the right under "Imagination."
And tomorrow night Wayne's new series opens at PS Gallery along with work from our good friend Chris Teeter, Joel Sager and others. It looks to be a really strong show. Come if you are in the area.

Friday, June 19, 2009

from the age of genius

I don't normally read the New Yorker with pen in hand, but last week's issue contained a piece by David Grossman entitled "The Age of Genius" on Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer who was shot by an S.S. officer in the streets of the Drohobycz ghetto in 1942, that required note taking. Some of Grossman's passages describing Schulz's writing are so poignant and profound I'm determined to read both writers. Last week our dear neighbor's and friends were harshly yanked from their idyllic dreams of summer with the news their ten year old daughter has an advanced brain tumor. We are all standing vigil in love and prayer as we approach surgery next Tuesday. It doesn't take such circumstances for the excerpts below to ring loud and ring true. In fact, I hope it doesn't.

"Reading his works made me realize that, in our day-to-day routines, we feel our lives most when they are running out: as we age, as we lose our physical abilities, our health, and, of course, family members and friends who are important to us. Then we pause for a moment, sink into ourselves, and feel: here was something, and now it is gone. It will not return. And it may be that we understand it, truly and deeply, only when it is lost."

"The Age of Genius was for Schultz an age driven by the faith that life could be created over and over again through the power of the imagination and passion and love, the faith that despair had not yet overruled any of these forces, that we had not yet been eaten away by our own cynicism and nihilism. The Age of Genius was for Schultz a period of perfect childhood, feral and filled with light, which even if it lasted for only a brief moment in a person's life would be missed for the rest of his years."

"In "See Under: Love," I struggled to bring to life, if only for a few pages, the Age of Genius, as Schulz had suggested it in his writings. I wrote about an age in which every person is an artist, and each human life is unique and treasured. An age in which we adults feel unbearable pain over our fossilized childhoods, and a sudden urge to dissolve the crust that has congealed around us. An age in which everyone understands that killing a person destroys a singular work of art, which can never be replicated."