A Word for All the Children ~ Old and Young

“The soul is healed by being with children.”  Fyodor Dostoyevsky

For Teddy, my grandson ~ (And for all my students, old and young) ~

Perhaps my favorite song to sing in chapel at St. Mary’s is “The Servant Song” – I will teach it to you soon, Teddy, one afternoon on a walk, and we can sing it together as loud as we want and as many times as we like.  Here is my favorite stanza – it makes me think of you, every time:

“We are pilgrims on the journey / We are brothers on the road / We are here to help each other / Walk the mile and bear the load.”

We are created to walk alongside one another, pilgrims on this grandest of journeys. How kind of God to put us here together! Of all the billions of folk who have come and gone, you and I get to walk along together, and this is such a very fine thing, it almost takes my breath away.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about being here, my dear(s), is that you are not alone here. Teddy, you already know this, deep in your bones. That’s why you want your mama to sit beside you when you play in your pirate tent, and why you stand by your daddy in the yard when you both rake the leaves.



Try to remember this, for it is a very precious gift – you are not alone. I’m so glad to be one of the gentle folk walking alongside you in this life.

It’s important to have someone older to walk along with, to protect you a bit and teach you a few things, to read all the books and to keep you away from the fire.


But perhaps the converse is truer, if there is such a thing. It’s more important to have someone younger to walk with, too, someone to remind us that rocks and sticks are not only important but beautiful, and that you can stand again after falling, even if you only have one person to help you back up.  (Sometimes there is more than one person to help you back up, and that’s one of the loveliest of experiences in this life.)

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said in The Little Prince, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”


Teddy (and students, sweet girls) – I hope you will not grow too weary in your tutelage of me, for I have so much to learn. Please know I’m listening, even when I seem sleepy.

But there are a few things I want to tell you, some differences between you and me, the young and the old. I think they are true, for the most part.


When we are young, we explore ~ When we are old, we reflect.

So go and explore everything, and sing very loudly and kick over all the rocks you find so you can see what’s just underneath the surface. Play hard in your tree house and squeal loud when you go down the slide.  And I’ll bring a pencil and write it all down so we won’t forget.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
I think he’s right.


When we are young, we seek justice ~ We we are old, we seek mercy.

You haven’t really started playing with other kids at the playground yet, but it’s coming, fast.


People will tell you it’s a jungle out there (on the playground and beyond), and there’s truth in that, the ever-present Push-Come-to-Shoveness of living among other people.  But there is a bigger truth ~ the knowledge that what we the people really want is equity. We want what is fair for us and ours.  And when we are not treated fairly, we want justice, and we want it now.  When we grow impatient for it, we start to hit and throw stones.

Justice is a good thing, but like all things, there’s an ugly underbelly to it. It can be cruel and heartless, and left untreated and unchecked, what is cruel and heartless can become a monster.

When you are older, you will realize how you’ve been wounded, but you will also realize how you have wounded. A wise man, which you will be, will then start to see the beauty in mercy. The luckiest of us have nice balance of justice and mercy in our lives. When you find yourself stuck between the hardness of justice and the softness of mercy, choose mercy.  Always choose mercy.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”  I think he’s right.


When we are young, we grow prickly ~ When we are old, we grow soft.

The young will often fight and choose to alienate on principle, for they are out to save the world. And that’s good, because the world could use some saving. Passion is a fine, fine thing, for what is the purpose of fire, if not to burn?  But the old know the world can also be saved in small chunks with a little softness, one kindness at a time, one gentleness at a time, loving one broken person at a time.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “For age is opportunity no less / Than youth itself, though in another dress…”  I think he’s right.


When we are young, we cry ~ When we are old, we weep.

“I will weep when you are weeping / When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you / I will share your joy and sorrow / Till we’ve seen this journey through,” we servants sing.  I hope we mean it; I think we do.


The young cry, for there are many losses here. But the young also know how to giggle, for there is far more delight, if one will just open his eyes and take a look (your remarkable stick collection is an excellent example of this). I find such beauty in my students’ art and their wordy journals bring me great delight.  And good music, and good food, and the moon and the stars, and cold water, oh, it seems there is endless beauty!  “Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anyone to realize you,” Thornton Wilder was able to pen.

So keep your young eyes wide open, Teddy. There is also so much to laugh about, so much joy here!


We older folks giggle less perhaps – we have tasted the deep bitterness of loss, we know its sting. But when we are old, we also know how to laugh, deep and long and soulfully, the kind of laughter that lasts a while, the kind one remembers.  Your grandfather and I laugh like that. Your great-grandmother Nanny and I laugh like that. I would bequeath that to you if I could, but I think you will simply learn it by observing – you are a very good watcher.

Watch your mother and father the most – they are experts at this.


Here is a very good poem. I think you will like it.

The Little Boy and the Old Man
by Shel Silverstein

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.


The old have the young to hold hands with, and to climb into tents with, and to read with, and to nap with, and to giggle with. It is actually the best of times, or can be.


Teddy – I just want you to know, and never forget – as long as I have it to give, I will always give my attention to you. And all my love.  My soul has been healed by you, just as Mr. Dostoevsky said.

I Love You ~ Mimi









So What Do We Do Now?

In his poem “The Second Coming,” Yeats says it best, and most succinctly ~ “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

If you’ve been around here more than a minute or two, you’ve seen it, breathed it, felt it settle deep into your lungs and bones – the bent quality of things here – the bent quality of being. One never forgets the acrid taste of brokenness, long-lingering on the tongue, like a bitter pill or a bite of chalk. We all know things fall apart, and will do so again and again, and if we live long enough, then yet again.

So what do I do when things don’t go the way I expect or want, when my something falls apart?

I tried stamping my foot and arching my shoulders back and throwing my chin Heavenward (is there anyone listening?) and shouting and shouting, What do I do now? How shall we now live? But so far my tantrums, even my tears, have not yet straightened the bent, not even one little bit.

Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy says we have landed on “a blighted star.” He’s not the first to think it.  I must ponder yesterday before I can consider today. History startles me every time.

Yesterday an election was lost and won.  Yesterday somewhere between 50 and 80 million people died in a second world war.  Yesterday a brother slew his brother and then hid from God – Cain, where is your brother? 


Yesterday a mother would not forgive a father, and he left, moved away.  Yesterday 15,891 people died in a tsunami in Japan.  Yesterday six parents died in an airplane accident, leaving eleven children behind.  Yesterday another young girl was sold into sex trafficking.  Yesterday a baby girl was born with a deformed arm and hand.  Yesterday my husband died after a hard bout with cancer. Yesterday two airplanes flew into two tall towers.

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.

So what in the world are we supposed to do now? What in the Sam Hill is going on here?  It seems God knows, but He doesn’t tell.

We need help.  Who among us shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? Whom shall we send?

Who among us shall ascend? I scan the Internet but find no takers, no one suitable. There is no one to send, no hand or heart clean enough, no body courageous enough, not one innocent enough, and there never has been. We are so busy. We think yesterday was somehow more wholesome and honest, easier, and certainly less busy. We seek our saviors in voting booths, and then riot afterward in the online streets, realizing (yet again) that women and men live among us, not gods. We are surprised every time and always have been.

We think our hour is unique in time and space. And so it is. And so it isn’t. It’s simply our turn, our day, nothing more. There will never be another day like this one, until tomorrow – ah, the paradox of time.

Whom shall we send? Who among us shall ascend?

Yesterday Abraham was the chosen one, but in a human moment of raw weakness, he lied, calling Sarah his sister and giving her (in his fear) to a neighboring king.

Yesterday Moses was chosen, but wasn’t it he who smashed tablets in anger, who literally broke God’s word into dust, to blow away into the hot desert sands and to the ends of the earth?

Yesterday David was chosen, but it turns out even giant-killers are mortal, mere men, with hearts grand for God and wills fragile as ice.

Abraham Lincoln was the man chosen for his time, but I read he was known for sacrificing principles in the name of expediency. Can I believe everything I read?


In a letter estimated to be from 1961, Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—” Even Mother Teresa.  Alas, now on what shall I stand?


So in my weakness I shout again, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?

To be human is to become accustomed to the sour after-smack of pain and fear lying on your palette, yesterday and tomorrow. To know the slap of disappointment (especially of self) and to bear its subtle sting on the cheek like a numbness, post-op. To remember the bent-ness of things and people, to remember that Life is curvy.

But that is not the whole of it. Turns out, the sum is greater than its parts. Could this be the definition of hope?

Whom shall we send?

Alas. There is no one but us, and no time but now. Bent us, crooked now. What an odd system.

Yeats’ poem concludes with this terrifying question, apocalyptic in tone, its breadth of scope enormous and eerily ever-relevant:  “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”  Yeats asks the question on everyone’s lips, then and now, whether we realize it or not – Who is next? What is next? 

What rough beast will rise up next, heading even now toward his town to be born?

But again I say, that is not the whole of it. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a Heaven for?” asks the poet.

If I dare to change one small word in Yeats’ text, I have an entirely different question. One word indeed makes that much difference – maybe that’s why Christ’s metaphor for Himself was the Word.  If I replace the word rough with benevolent, the poem is hopeful.  If I replace the word rough with kind, the poem is confident.  If I replace the word rough with loving, the poem saves me. The hour has come at last!

What a difference one word makes. So for Heaven’s sake, replace the word!

Is it as easy as that? Are kindness and grace and humility and goodness born and reborn like the sun, new every morning? Can I really choose to put these on like a mantle, re-clothe myself in this character?  Am I allowed these sartorial choices even here on this messy planet in my messy life?

Yes. And yes. Like salve on a wound, like oil on the head, there is indeed a balm in Gilead.  Put it on!

Whom shall we send? Who shall ascend? Who can make a difference today, small or otherwise, you ask?

Me, bent and broken me. You, crooked and splintered you.  So what do we do now?  Get up and put your clothes on. Let’s go to work.

I may slouch a bit. But I will head toward Bethlehem to be born.

I pick up my crutch and walk.

Fighting the GOOD Fight (in Room 374)

Friday morning, a mere four days before the Presidential election of 2016, and a growing heap of poetry analysis papers has set up camp on my desk, begging to be read.  I’m trying to decide if I’ll cart the papers home with me for the weekend or let them settle in on my desk until Monday. We’ll see.

We are all exhausted.

It’s the end of what’s been an excruciating election season – our entire nation feels it.  United are we, but united in an odd, hard-to-name distemper. We are all tired of talking about it, all tired of listening to the worst episode of He said/She said in modern history. My senior girls are worried and sad, wishing they could be a bit more optimistic and excited about voting in their very first Presidential election.

Wondering what our world will look like on Wednesday.

At the moment, it is quiet in my corner of the world, classroom 374, and I look up from my work. Students are always in here – studying, debating, working out ideas, trying to write them down. St. Mary’s classrooms are filled with girls all day long talking with their teachers, constant conversations and grappling and learning to voice their opinions, every day, all day long – it’s what we do. Today, three girls sit together on my couch, hunched over quiet computers, writing. One writes of the abuse of women in Othello, another writes of the crippling nature of indecision in Hamlet. A third examines how T.S. Eliot’s late life religious conversion affects the tone of his poetry.


Young women doing good work. Good, hard work. Scholars are these, girls who think. And for people who think, this election cycle has thrown us all for a loop.

My AP classes are reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the moment (apropos, thinks my cynical alter ego). We are at the point in the novel where the murderer Raskolnikov returns to the scene of the crime to admire his own bloody workmanship, only to find it cleaned up and freshly painted – whitewashed. Genuinely astounded that his handiwork has been erased, the killer screams with fury at the painter, “Where’s the blood, what happened to the blood?” Dumbfounded, the lone painter shakes his head and steps back to examine the man Raskolnikov, to really take a good long look, and then whispers in astonishment:  “What sort of man are you?”

Indeed, this is the question of this day. My students, young women I love, I want to ask you a question. What sort of person are you? What sort of person are you becoming?

Before I dare to ask you to consider this question, though, I feel the need to apologize on behalf of the many adults in your lives who have failed you, failed to give you worthy role models, failed to be honest. Shakespeare’s Falstaff said it like this ~ “Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying … every third word a lie…”

World leaders and entertainers and politicians (Lord, help us!), CEOs and professional athletes and the media. Sometimes teachers, sometimes parents. People who may or may not have ever asked themselves this question – What sort of person am I?  We have not been examples of goodness for you.

Sidebar ~ Ironically there seems to be a great deal of Millennial-bashing these days (as if Baby-Boomers have the right to be judgmental about anything), but let me tell you something I admire greatly about Millennials – you guys don’t tolerate nonsense, and we have certainly thrown a lot of nonsense your way. Add the fact that we all spend so many of our waking hours with noses stuck in screens, we can so quickly become drenched in the muck of disappointment, I fear, and it seems easier than ever to lose the hope of goodness.

So, with that caveat acknowledged, I ask you this ~ Ladies, can you (we) set your (our) blaming mentality aside for just one quick second and ask ourselves to think honestly and vulnerably? If you can, then ask yourself this question – go ahead and say it out loud:  What sort of person am I?

Try to resist asking this question ~ “Well, what about everybody else? What sort of people are Hillary and Donald and Anthony Weiner and Soulja Boy and Lord Voldemort and Iago and Beelzebub and Nurse Ratched and the Wicked Witch of the West? What about them, huh? What kind of people are they?”

I’m not talking about them. I don’t know them. Ladies, this isn’t new, you know. The list of ne’er-do-wells stretches from the dawn of time to the edge of eternity. Always has, always will. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about you. It is you I love. It is your character and happiness that compels me to ask you to consider:  What sort of person am I? 

And a second, follow-up question, as important as the first ~ What about goodness? What has happened to goodness? Am I trying to be good?

What will you do or say on Wednesday if your candidate does not win? Not what your classmate or your neighbor or your parent will say, but you. This question is indicative of our character and who we really are as human beings.

A reversal is what we need. A turn from bigotry and noisy clamoring and shouting and name-calling and fear-mongering and lying.  A return to good. 

You may have to do the role modeling, my dears. It may be the children who lead us toward civility – you are the hope. You might remember that the Book says just that, “A little child will lead us.”

Will you consider a path of goodness on Wednesday morning? As our friend Prufrock asks, Do you dare? 

So Tuesday we vote. And Wednesday we will have an answer. Do not look for good role modeling on the news on Wednesday morning – I fear you will not find it there. Wednesday’s news cycle will be filled with all sorts of individual, acting as they will act, saying what they will say. But as I said earlier, I don’t know them.

I know you. 

So let us gather together and fight the good fight right where we are. Someone must do it. Someone must start.  For me, it happens in room 374. I’ll see you there tomorrow.

Until then, be good.





































Can Hate Be Unlearned?

What lurks deep and lies quiet beneath the prim masks we so carefully wear?

People put on masks to hide ugly things – prejudice and fear, hostility and enmity, foolishness and faintheartedness. With proper clothing one can look respectable and right, she can conceal and mask what lies deep in her heart, in spite of all the honest mirrors around.

We fallen folk often cannot recognize our own contempt, for we have grown quite accustomed to it; its presence has become a part of us, like sunspots or freckles on our bare backs. In a mirror, at just the right angle, with some exertion and effort, we can bend ourselves enough to take a quick look and examine what’s happening back there, but most of the time it simply requires too much effort. Hate and its effects are easier to see in others – it is so much simpler to look forward than to look inward. No personal twisting or bending required.

Shakespeare’s Iago knows his hate and enjoys it, loves it, declares it properly and proudly early in his story, I hate the Moor he says. The other, in his mind. Iago hates the black guy, the Muslim, the guy who married the most beautiful white woman in town. You gotta hand it to him – he knows who he hates, and more, he admits it proudly, no hidden agendas with him, no masks.

He simply daily dons his coat of only-one-color and puts his hate and racism right out there on the Internet, proud.

Iago lives to hate, a lover of destruction.

“I hate the Moor.”


Madame Khoklakov, in The Brothers Karamazov, is more subtle, hers is a genuine question. She asks the Elder, “What can I do to get my faith back?” “Actively love your neighbor,” is the Elder’s apt and humble reply. “Get up and do something loving for him.” Pause. “But,” she reasons, “I don’t like my neighbor. I love mankind profoundly, but I don’t like my neighbor at all.” Hmmmmm.

“Active love is a hard and fearful thing compared to love in dreams.”


And what about old Jonah, that odd prophet-of-God, the man who runs from God to Tarshish? I wonder if that ancient one knows what landed him in the belly of a fish or if he ever admitted to himself why his story ends with him pouting under a dead tree, an angry and embittered man.

Does he realize his own hate?  Do we?

Remember the one about Jonah?  It is not about the fish…


One day long ago, God’s Word comes to the prophet Jonah: “Get up on your feet and go on your way to Ninevah. Preach to them. They are in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”  Jonah hops up and immediately runs in the exact opposite direction. He hires a boat to Tarshish, as far away from Israel and God’s voice as possible.


This story rests in our Western consciousness, I think – Man hears from God, Man runs from God, a storm comes and overwhelms Man, Man cries out to God and God sends salvation.

Do you want to know why this Jonah is running?


Hatred and animosity are certainly not new ideas. From the moment Cain chose anger, picked up arrogance and killed a brother, we humans have followed suit, donning rage and violence as protective outer-garments. Swords and guns and words do their nasty work today as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow.

Hate has been around since the dawn of time, since the fall of angels, since a serpent arrived in a virgin garden.

This prophet-of-God is a man, fallen like any other, and he runs for one simple, uncomplicated reason – he despises the people of Ninevah and is repulsed at the thought of their redemption. Glad he would be if God doomed them all to hell and beyond – they deserve it for all the grief and agony they’ve brought on so many people. So Jonah hits the road out-of-town to Tarshish, full speed ahead. If anyone must bring the Ninevites a message of love or hope, it will not be him. He simply will not be a part of offering grace to such a people.

Why such hatred? From what well does such animosity spring? Is hate a wretched inheritance from which we cannot escape?


Ninevah was the capital city of Assyria, a kingdom that had been enslaving and destroying nations to the north of Israel for over one hundred years, and Israel feared the prospect of their coming south. Jonah must have grown up with the stories, felt the great weight of the fear of Assyrian oppression, grew into manhood in the dark shadow of terrorism just around the corner. Every merchant and caravan that arrived from the north brought a more brutal tale than the one before. Assyrian art reveals headhunters with piles and piles of heads at their feet, quite accomplished they are at their hunting, men impaled on spikes, heaps of noses and hands and ears cut off for mere sport, the arts of skinning and beheading their forte.

Where there are people, there are slave stories, it seems. And violence.  This is a hard truth.

God asks His prophet Jonah to take a message of love and forgiveness – and grace for any who will receive – to Ninevah, to some of the most violent men of all human civilizations. A message of mercy to murderers and rapists, pillagers who wound and kill for sport and then laugh and make jokes about atrocities, tweeting and re-tweeting – and yet, “repent, and disaster will not befall you” is the grace-message.

Messages of grace and mercy seem decidedly unfair when God offers them to those we hate, and Jonah wants no part of it, he will not be God’s vehicle of grace to these barbarians. He doesn’t want grace for such a people – he wants justice.

So he runs away and hires a boat.

Up comes a storm of storms and nearly destroys the boat. Jonah finds himself sitting in the belly of a great fish for a few days, until he is finally spit ashore on the beaches of Ninevah, the very beaches from which he has so vehemently run, smack dab in the middle of the people he has learned to passionately abhor.

Grace’s message always finds its audience.


A petulant Jonah delivers the message of God’s love, probably looking quite the worse for wear, one must think. If the work of cetacean digestive juices can be imagined, what an untidy role they must have played on this runaway – a man with no hair left, lips and skin bleached white as snow, eyelashes and fingernails vanished. Odd prophet indeed, tasked with bringing God’s message to a people he loathes.

Even you can change. Anyone who will can be saved.

Herein lies the ironic rub ~ Jonah cannot hear his own message. As the story goes, the King of the Ninevites hears the message and believes, fears God enough to turn from his ways and humbly receive the hope of grace’s message and leads his people to do the same. It can happen, it has happened.

At this moment, under this tree, Jonah seems to love his anger more than his own soul, and his response to God’s grace to his enemy is a decidedly and predictably human one:God, I knew it! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy,” he laments, “Not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness.”

The story ends with the odd prophet sitting alone in sullen petulance, sunburned and offended.  Bitter. Angry. Man.  The message of God is simple and has been summarized in one sentence: “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Jonah does neither.


Who is my neighbor? the Pharisee asks in Luke 10, wanting to justify his lack of love for certain kinds of people.  Jesus answers him with a story about a helpful Samaritan, a man of kindness ~  “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The Pharisee replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love? Who am I supposed to love in order to be in good standing with God?  The question can be petulant, but the answer is incredibly simple.

Everyone. My neighbors, all of them.  But I don’t like them. They are not like me. They are cruel and stupid and cruel and not worthy of my love.

 Petulance is the opposite of grace, it seems. And the opposite of love.


Hate and condescension are mighty blood brothers – clothe these twins with disgust and derision, and you’ve created yourself a powerful potion, a mighty, killing draught. And it must be quite tasty because people seem to be drinking it all over the place these days.

Why don’t I love my neighbor?  I do not love my neighbor because I find him offensive and worthy of the scorn of my superiority. He is other-gendered. He is a Republican. She is a Democrat. He’s gay. And what about atheists and Jews and Muslims and Catholics and African-Americans and the rest of the foreigners with whom we skirmish?

Where in the world does this hellish hate-list ever end?

Under a bush. With Jonah and Iago and Madame Khoklakov. My neighbor is too different, too difficult – the work to try to love him is too much. So I sit under a leafy tree, angry, pin an American flag to my lapel, and nurse what’s left of me – my contempt.

Our brother Cain smiles.


Can hate be unlearned? Can it be untaught?

The answer is yes – it must always be yes. I want to make excuses and say that we have so few examples of true neighbor-loving from which to learn these days, but that is blatantly untrue.

Kindness and generosity and love are not lost – active love still exists and hate does not get to win. Turn off the news, put down the screen, and go outside and take a look – and you will see your neighbor.  Love him.  The Good Samaritan did not help the foreigner just so his story would go viral; he did it because he understood that loving one’s neighbor is the antidote to hate, and he played his part.

Small acts of love – and large ones – outweigh hate and can defeat it.  I believe this, I must.  We learn from the Samaritan that any act of love for my neighbor helps, active love chisels away at the hard bedrock of hate.

Love wins. This world’s story is not finished, it is still very much being told.  Let’s get busy.  There is so much at stake.

Including our own souls.



















On Being Stymied

For anyone who has felt stuck and sad.

I haven’t written anything since Orion died.

No, that’s hyperbole. I’ve written much since Orion died – so many sentence pieces, bits and fragments live slant on the insides of all my books, rough beasts waiting for their time to come round at last. Virgin nouns spend lazy days at their windows, pining for mates, watching the highways and hedges – some have their lamps trimmed but most are unprepared when bridegroom verbs appear.

Word clusters litter the cool lakebed of my winter purse, index cards and paper scraps bulge with phrases unbloomed, still in their ninth-month. Yet nothing worthy seems to come.

When Orion died, I wanted to write something beautiful about death, something grand, seminal. And in particular, I felt the need to write something important about the death of a friend. I wanted noble words – poignant and memorable and apt. But the metaphors always seemed to fade just before delivery, images came stillborn.

It is hard to find birth in death; there’s no delivery room at the funeral home. How can two polar things peacefully live together when both vie so vehemently for the attention of the immediate?

When something dies – a person, a job, a friendship, a dream – all we have left are the memories of the thing, good and bad. Like our universe, memory expands in all directions, swirling and moving, unreliably, at the speed of thought. Changing with every capricious retelling, story evolves as time barrels through space, and when you hear even your own tale told twenty years later, it’s not the same story at all, but much better.

Or much worse.


Even when story is written down, not to be changed, the meaning rests in the fragile interpretation of the reader and again, who knows what side of the bed she woke up on?

Who dares to touch such a thing? Do I dare?

So I have written nothing substantial in a long time, nothing I dare to share, for several months, far too long. And it is not for lack of effort, I’m sad to say, but rather the sheer fear and deep understanding of my ordinariness. Four essay beginnings sit like hard stumps on my screen – the one entitled “An Hour Badly Spent” beckons me every single morning, begging to be birthed or at least given a chance, but alas, I have to wonder if I’ve become afraid. I sometimes think I read too many great writers, for my own writing so pales and I’ve grown weary of the comparison.

Self-doubt is hard ground to till.

Water is required for birth and growth, digging must happen for a thing to be planted, and planting must occur if there is ever hope of a harvest.  I have felt the hard ground and know its infertility – being stymied and stuck is a place to run from, I conclude. The desert gives birth to nothing but the ugly twins of worry and angst, brutish children who only take and never give.

What does one do when she finds herself stymied? And who hasn’t found herself sitting among dry leaves in a dry time? The loss of last season’s crop was so painful and the winter so long, who is brave enough to believe in spring?

Oh, and also, I want to know what to do in this stillness when the muse is silent.

Much I’ve read and prayed and seen, and a certain vision appears to me in dream. I jump from my bed and snatch the pencil; I must write it down before it flits away, teasing, like mist or memory.

The question must come before the answer, always ~


What must I do to be saved?  I am stuck, stymied, full of pride and sorrow. In short, I am afraid.  What must I do?



Stand up. Walk. Don’t sit back down until you have walked a little longer than usual.

Pray. Say the words out loud.

Pick up a pen and write the letter you’ve waited too long to write.

Ask for forgiveness. Give forgiveness.

Grieve. Tell someone about it.

Write down your biggest worry on a piece of paper and then burn it in the fire. I realize it’s a metaphor, but it feels good anyway.

If you made a mistake, fix it. If you can’t fix it, live with it. You are not dead yet, so live.

Find a good counselor.

Quit complaining. Quit gossiping. Try, even for just one quick hour.

Give someone a real compliment.

Get a job. Get a new job. Decide to like the job you have and then do it well.

Turn off the television. Turn off the television. Turn off the television.

Read something.

Write something.

Quit making excuses.

Give something away.

Give something to a homeless person without questioning his motive. Someone important said it is better to give than to receive. He is right. The gift is in the giving.

Make that phone call, today.

Kiss a baby.

Smile. Do it again.


Writer ~ You are not dead yet, so get up and live.  Write.


I get up this morning and start to write again. I will try to set aside my visions of grandeur and dreams of critical success and pick up my sheer ordinariness, my words, not Annie Dillard’s or Flannery O’Connor’s or Marylynne Robinson’s.

Mine, in their brilliant mediocrity.

I respect the hard ground and know now that my vast hubris hardens and heavies, rather than lightens, my load.  It is time to set down grandeur and work, time to dig, and the overwhelming fear of it all subsides just a bit as I pick up my pen.  I’ll dig with it.

Good, decent words will be my seed.  And I will water it all with tears.

Things grow again.








Sing Hallelujah, and Remember ~ The Best Christmas Pageant Yet

For Orion

I am happy to report that the St. Mary’s Christmas Pageant hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years.

The old-fashioned pageant box once again holds senior girls in tableaux, showing-and-telling the greatest of stories – the birth of the baby that changed the world.





Serious second and third grade choristers march hand-in-hand up the long church aisle, heads erect and hair brushed, to take their place on this chancel and embrace its history, rich and long. These white-robed songsters sing the same songs their sisters sang, and their sisters, year after year, following in the footsteps of St. Mary’s women before them.



Did the Sisters of St. Mary’s Constance and Hughetta teach little girls these songs in their moments, just before the yellow fever came and so many of them died?

Did they sing these words even then, in the midst of such troubles?

Sing Hallelujah, Brothers, Sing Hallelujah, Sisters / Worship the Jesus Child and praise His Mother mild / Glory to God on high, the angel hosts above are singing / Listen to the story of the Jesus Child.

 I think they must have. It’s an old song, an even older story that we remember.


I stand near two boy-babies this year, fine boys with fine strong names, Davidson and Teddy.  Life brand-new overwhelms.  As girl-children sing songs about the Mother and her newborn Son, both of these new-boys sleep, nestled in the confident arms of aunts and mothers. They wake and look, listen wide-eyed to the angel voices, and then rest again, at peace, no crying they make. Bright boys who will grow into strong men, who will know of troubles (because there are always troubles), but who will know more of love.

Just like Mary’s little boy. We will tell them His story, for it is our great hope.


Emmanuel, Emmanuel, they call His name Emmanuel.


I look over the heads of the new-boys to see my good friend Orion standing at the back of the church, watching, long arms by his sides. He stands tall among freshman faces, girls who do not know him, girls he’s never taught. Orion and I have taught together for many years – he Math, me English – unlikely friends, we.

Orion watches the pageant with fresh eyes this year, for he is quite ill. The tumor won’t stop growing and the doctor says his days are short.  I ask him what it feels like to know your days are short, and he says, Weird.  I ask him if he is afraid, and he says he is not.

Orion’s eyes look forward with great intensity at the pageant. His senior students stand in the old-fashioned tableaux box, clad as shepherds and kings and the blessed Mother (seven Mary’s this year!) – the way St. Mary’s girls have done it for many many years, and the way they will do it for many many more. This pageant and its story transcend time, but not memory.



 What a gift is memory!  Could it be the best earthly gift?  Memory softens things while also intensifying them, it expands through time and gives the past an emotional beauty too grand for the present. 

A gift richer than gold and frankincense, God gives us memory so we might have flowers in December.

Orion stands pensive; he is remembering, I think. I know he is watching the tableaux and listening to the beauty of the hundred-voice angel choir, but I think he’s really watching Nancy, and remembering. Orion’s wife Nancy is the pageant’s inimitable choral director. From my standpoint on the north wall just beside the pillar, I watch her as she directs – such energy, this one, like none other, actually. She stands erect, strong of arms and voice, and leads her child-choir, her glorious smile content in this moment. Perfect articulation, perfect harmonies – a few fine moments so beauty-filled one must weep, for what else can we do. This day she seems able to set aside the weight she bears, the heaviness of her husband’s sickness, and she leads us to worship.


Joy to the World, the Lord is come!

Orion slowly makes his way forward to the front of the church. When students and alumnae spot him, he is swarmed with admirers, young and old. Former students want him to see their babies and meet their boyfriends. He is papa to so many children; they adore him. This year’s math seniors gave him the tie he wears, made from a picture of them all at Derby Day, muddy and grinning. Orion sports this tie every time he makes it up to school. It seems some girl or another is always giving me a gift or a card to take to Orion’s house, and they all say the same thing ~

                              Mr. Miller ~ I love you.


So. The pageant is over and girls go back to class. Life goes on, as we all say when there’s nothing else to say. Orion finds Nancy and gives her a gentle kiss and tells her what a fine job she did on this year’s pageant. Somehow this pageant is a bit different for me – more special, more vibrant, more intense than most. Perhaps it is the man standing in the back, reminding me about beauty, to look for it, to seek it and to find it.  The glory of living each day well, the only real message.

Orion and Nancy walk slowly down the aisle toward the door, hand-in-hand, like always. I will remember this.

For to see love given and received is the gift, glorious and perfect.  Just like the Baby was, and is.

So today we sing Glory Hallelujah, even in the midst of troubles. We sing it today, loud like the second graders who lead us.  I sing it for Davidson and for Teddy. I sing it for Nancy.

And I sing it for Orion. And remember.


Hallelujah, Glory Hallelujah – Our hope forevermore.


 Photos by (the fabulous) Lisa Buser






Shoes Matter ~ A Different Cinderella Story

Have you ever considered the existential weight of your footwear choices? Ever given any thought to the idea that whether one wears boots or flip-flops or sneakers on a given day might actually matter, nay, may change the course of one’s entire life, or at least the grand timing of events in a life?

The fact that Cinderella was shod in glass slippers seems to really matter to her story ~ but what about my story? Yours?


I have just a bit of philosophical advice for you.

Always choose your shoes carefully. You never know when a prince might show up.



Almost-Mama is eight months pregnant and sitting in the exam room at her doctor’s office, trying to remove her knee-high boots. She had worn tall boots to work that morning, professional and stylish, but now it is the late afternoon and, due to the girth of a profoundly round belly and newly-swelling ankles, she couldn’t get her own boots off her own feet. Tug, tug, tug, to no avail. She is having trouble reaching her feet, and the tugging required to remove these over-snug boots is simply more than she has.


Standing from the chair and poking her head out of the exam-room door, she beseeches the first kind soul she sees, a doctor, not hers. “I’m so embarrassed, but could you help me get my stuck boots off?” she asks. “Of course,” the doctor laughs, entering the room. Almost-Mama perches once again on the side of an exam-room chair and, smiling, raises her leg to Kind-Doctor who takes it into her confident hands with a grin to pull the boot off.

Tug, tug, tug. Pulling shoes off ~ an antithetical Cinderella story.

Tug, tug, tug, this time a bit harder ~ we insist on things when we must. Boot finally budges and flies off into capable doctor hands.

And Almost-Mama’s waters break. At eight months, thirty-six weeks. Swish, swoosh.

One quick exam later and the doctors (and nurses and general staff who have gathered to giggle at such a story – waters breaking at recent boot-tugging event) all agree – it’s time to go to the hospital.

“Did you drive yourself here?” the doctor asks.  Yes.  “Can you drive yourself to the hospital?” Yes.  “My husband is out of town. Shall I call him?” Almost-Mama inquires.  Most definitely. Call him right now.  “Do you have someone to call to bring you a bag?” Kind-Doctor wants to know.  Yes.

So this becomes the new birthing plan.

“But I have nothing to wear,” realizes Almost-Mama as she and all of her new best friends hovering at the door frame of the examination room suddenly understand that  her old work clothes cannot be donned in their current waterlogged condition.

Another dilemma.

A nurse arrives with a hospital gown in hand and a question on her face. Will this gown work? Almost-Mama tries it on. Won’t work, everyone decides. Too risky for driving oneself to the hospital. Another gown is produced for Almost-Mama and she experiments with this duo-ensemble ~ one gown for the front and one for the back.


The audience is still sartorially unsatisfied.

The goodly doctor has quietly gone and now she returns with a pair of her own clean scrubs in hand. Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo! Cinderella quick-dresses and profusely thanks the fairy godmothers of obstetrics. Dressed in borrowed scrubs, she is ready to dash off to the hospital ball.

See you tonight, the smiling doctor waves her blessing.

But wait. What about shoes? Her tall boots, the instigators of the day’s theatrics, would barely come off her feet ~ there is no way they will go back on.

How does Cinderella go to the ball if she has no shoes?


On the road, Somewhere in Arkansas

Almost-Dad is on his way to a speaking engagement in Arkansas, a three full hours away from Memphis, when he gets the text.

Mom: Hey. Turn around and come back ~ my water just broke.

Dad: Is this a joke?

Mom: No joke. I’m on my way to the hospital now. Come home. We are having a baby tonight.

Frantic Almost-Dad turns his car around as fast as a car can be turned and heads eastward toward home. In this panicked moment, he cannot know nor can he believe it, but be assured:  he will make it there in time.  The ball cannot start without him for the clock has not yet struck the magical hour.


 The Cinderella story is all about good timing.  And shoes.


Back Home in Memphis

How does one go to the ball when she has no shoes, you ask? The answer is most simple ~ barefooted.

Barefoot and extremely pregnant, scrubs-clad Almost-Mom shuffles her way out to her car, drives herself to the hospital, searches for a spot and parks in the lot as if it were any other normal day. But alas, it is not any normal day. Time’s majestic clock will strike in just a few short hours and her life will begin again.

this is simply the way Cinderella’s story goes.

The lady at the hospital check-in desk looks up and sees a scrubby and shoeless woman shuffling alone through the sliding glass doors. We are expecting you, she chuckles and escorts Nearly-Mom to the ballroom.

Cinderella has arrived. The music begins to swell.

It seems there is indeed existential weight in the footwear choices of a day.



Germantown Methodist Hospital

The kindly doctor arrives just after the stroke of midnight, scrub-clad, the apparent dress code for this evening’s fete. A giddy Chorus has gathered throughout the course of the evening to cheer on Cinderella and her timely groom (he made it!), laughing and singing and texting and photographing and the good doctor now addresses them with a grin.

This dance is just about to begin. Will you all be staying and dancing with us? Scrubby-Doctor asks.

Not this time, retort Cinderella and her groom in unison.  This dance is just for the two of us, nay, the three of us.  The noisy Chorus is ushered to the waiting room to do what waiters do ~ twiddle our thumbs and sip on diet sodas and look down at our shoes.


It’s almost time.


The stage is set and all the players are in the right places.  The delivery room clock strikes one and, just at the appointed moment, Cinderella’s charming prince finally arrives.

And she names him Teddy.


Dreams really do come true.  Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.