In Memoriam - J.W. Taylor, died May 23, 2006

In Memoriam - My PePa, J.W. Taylor

You've lived in the past for years now.
Family would try and invite you into the moment -
Here, have another piece of pie. How about some coffee?
You would eat their food and drink their drink, small concessions to calm their fears.
They were afraid they had lost you to another time and so they did what people do when they don't know what to do - eat.
They couldn't see you. But I felt I could. You entire body was a window.
When I would look into your eyes, I would see men at work in the sawmill -
men closer than brothers chewing tobacco and sweating out chambray shirts with grizzled chins.
Your hair-ridden ears perked for the squeak of a porchswing and the intoxicating hum of the cicadas .
The tanned nose longing for the whiff of the green of tomato plants striving for the sunlight as you tended and watered,
and then harvested like no one else in town.
And your small, but vise-like hands lighting firecrackers in the yard as children squealed on the fourth of July.
Yes, you'd been living in the past for years now.
And then your heart stopped. Was the longing for days-gone-by too much?
Did you cry in the early morning hours when no one knew with a grief that just became more than you could bear?
They didn't talk much about you at the funeral. They talked about themselves quite a bit.
There were flowers and singing - like you'd expect.
But I saw you there in that casket.
Strapped into a pin-striped suit God doesn't give a damn about.
And then I noticed your wristwatch. And it was running.
Even at the end, they tried to keep you bound in time.
But you left. Where'd you go?
I hope to the place of your heart's desire.
A place where children and cicadas and tobacco and tomatoes fill your days and nights.
A place where she is, she who went before you did. A place of warm.
I placed my hand on your forehead before they closed the lid.
You were as cold as ice. You were not there. You'd been cold for years now.

Just a touch

"The thing that does not touch us, the merely 'looked at,' the mere object, cannot be manifest reality basically understood. In the ancient Hebrew sense of the word - that with which there is not the intimacy of touch is not truly 'known.' No intimacy: no revelation. No revelation: no true givenness of reality."
-Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning

"Touch. It is touch that is the deadliest enemy of chastity, loyalty, monogamy, gentility with its codes and conventions and restraints. By touch we are betrayed, and betray others." - Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

I began this post last Thursday. But I couldn't get past the quotes - until today. So here we go. If this ends up sounding like a rant, please let me know - that is not my desire. I sat in our church service this morning, singing a strange brew of hymns and choruses. One of the choruses we sang had these words as the refrain, to be faithfully repeated many, many times: "This world has nothing for me. This world has nothing for me. This world has nothing for me." People were intently singing the words, many of them with eyes closed and arms wide open. The final song for the morning was an old toe stompin' hymn - I'll Fly Away. It's lyrics go something like this: "Some glad morning when this life is o'er, I'll fly away. To a land on God's celestial shores, I'll fly away." Folks sang this one just as intently, but now eyes were open and their hands were a'clappin'. I believe both of these songs, probably among many others, reveal a basic attitude that most believers have toward God's world - the quicker we can get out of here, the better. This world has nothing for me, all I need is Jesus. And at least one morning in my life will be glad, as opposed to all the other crappy ones, and this one will find me on the teleporter pad ready to be beamed up to God's celestial shores.

I will use the collective "we" in these words, for I am complicit in this and I know of at least two or three others gathered in His name who do it too. We, as believers, don't want to be touched by this world. We uphold a strange chastity and gentility that leaves us bereft of intimacy and therefore revelation and therefore reality. We claim to worship the one who decided on touching and being touched by this world, yet we longingly sing (always a good measure of our theology) of a life untouched. Do I look forward to a day when the cancer that wrestles with my daughter's friend will concede? You bet. And I do believe that Jesus is what she needs, but she also needs her dad's strong arms and her mother's gentle embrace. And the belonging of friends, like my daughter, to hold her hand as her hair falls out. Maybe all those things are Jesus for and to her. Do I hope for some glad morning when married couples can live for better or better instead of that worse stuff? Hell, yes. But I also know that there have been days of betrayal when she should have flown away, but she didn't. And the shores my wife and I walked on weren't celestial, but they were real. And revelation, even if less than desirable, was tangible. And we learned things we didn't know about one another and were humbled. And we were grateful that this life wasn't o'er, if at least for one more day, so we could try again. To try to touch and be touched. To risk being intimate and understood. And to dream dreams of being real and sing songs like "I Am, I Said" by Neil Diamond, which is neither a chorus or a hymn, but maybe should be. I've always heard that God inhabits the praises of His people. But what if those praises are bogus goods? Shoddy theology? Although broken, this is the world He created by his spoken word and on some level, it's still good. And we turn our faces from it and look to the skies and close our eyes and open our arms. And He says, "Remove you shoes. Open your eyes. Wiggle your toes. You're on holy ground."


"There are so few of us left...There are so few left, so few who believe the earth is enough."
-Harry Middleton, The Earth Is Enough

Melancholy on the mountains tonight. Dusk was nothing short of heartbreaking. I sat on my back steps with a Sunshine beer and bare feet. The sky was layered with blue-black clouds. There was a ridge of sunlight just atop the Front Range mountains, which in perspective looked like a window of heaven, cracked just enough so the sun could squeeze through. I just decided to listen awhile. I heard geese honking overhead, although I never could find them in the sky. They were behind the curtain of clouds, hidden but heard. But just the sound of them settled me; wildness, pure and simple. My neighbor's aspen leaves were shaking. Not the golden, unmistakable quakers of October - no, these were the green, eager shakers of May. I guess after shaking all spring, there's not much left to do but quake in autumn. Their shaking was Sabbath-inducing; gentle reminders that there are moments you contribute nothing to - they're simply there as a gift. Like the geese. And the clouds and bare feet. Actually, my wife bought me the beer, so it was a few moments between day and night that were full of gifts. And they were enough.

One of my best friends told me one evening around sunset, "John, it's all a gift." I've held onto that statement for years now. I believe he was and is right. He's the only person I've ever heard articulate that. Oh, I've read it in books by Wendell Berry or Ed Abbey, but I rarely, if ever, hear anyone say that aloud. It seems to be an incredibly minority position. Possibly the narrow way? The road is wide that leads to destruction, but the narrow way leads to life. I don't always live that way, mind you. Some days I bark at the sun and moon and wonder just what in the holy hell is going on? But every once in a while, and hopefully on a more frequent basis, I remove my shoes and sit on holy ground and hear the still, small voice of geese and Aspen leaves saying, "Be still. The earth is enough." The sunlight winked at me one last time and then ducked behind the mountains. I finished the beer, got up, and went inside. Lord, fill my dreams with geese and leaves tonight. I miss them already.

The Vagina Dialogues

I came home from work today and my son (9) met me at the door with a song about vaginas. I let him sing it and then asked him where he heard that word. I immediately felt the shame meter rising in the room, so I quickly told him he wasn't in trouble, but that he and I needed to talk about that word. It came out that somebody named Seth taught him the song today at school. When I asked him if he knew what vagina meant, he pointed to his chest. The song's lyrics went something like "Boys have small vaginas and girls have big ones..." So, with my incredible fatherly deductive powers, I reckoned that vagina is equated with breast in his mind or at least in the mind of savvy second grader Seth, who taught him the song. Well, looks like we'll spend some time talking about vaginas this weekend - just the guys. Should be good.

I'm not overly joyous about Seth lifting the skirt on sex for my son. However, it happens that way, like it or not. You can try and be proactive all you want, but it doesn't always work out that the way those guys who focus on your family say it does. I remember a second grade friend named Marcus Hines. Marcus' skin was as black as mine is white and he wore an afro and walked with a physicality I'm just now coming into at age 39. I remember the day in the boys bathroom when Marcus pulled out a picture that had been folded over several times and motioned for me to "come 'mere." What eventually unfolded was a woman whose skin was as black as mine is white, but who didn't have a stitch of clothes on to save her life. I recall some level of arousal at that moment, probably due to the fact that it was something we were doing in secret, hushed bathroom tones. The sexual aspect of that moment was overwhelming - I'd never seen anything like that or those before. And then it was over. Somebody came in and Marcus quickly put a wrap on the goods and we returned to the innocence of the playground, where teachers stood like heroes at the boundaries and girls were skipping rope in white Keds and Red-Rovered boys kept calling on the wimpy guys to try and break the line.

I don't know what all I'll say to my son. But we'll stumble through it. I'll probably tell him about Marcus Hines and hopefully he'll tell me a little more about Seth. But we won't talk about it in the bathroom; we'll probably go outside and swing - talk about grown-up things while doing a childlike thing. We'll try and get the breast/vagina difference cleared up; shouldn't be too difficult. I'll more than likely tell him that Seth is full of crap, like ole' Marcus was; boys trying to be men too fast, too soon. Maybe he'll ask me questions and I'll try and answer them. And maybe he'll say, "O.k. Can we swing some more?" And maybe, just maybe, vaginas and breasts will wait, not forever, but for just a little longer while I stand behind my boy and push him higher and higher. Then he'll say, "I got it dad." And I'll back up and watch him reach for the sky as geese honk overhead and the chain bounces beneath his weight. And maybe I'll hum a little song myself, though it won't have vaginas, big or small, in it. Maybe it will be a song of the boy, on the edge of the quest, swinging back to me for strength and clarity about things and swinging away from me into the world of boys like Seth eager to be men and girls with vaginas skipping rope in white Keds...

Mandate of the mountains

"They are being forced to violate the big echo, the mandate, of the mountains: be big and live big, dramatic lives...I'm all for the small things. They stir my intellect with their intricate, almost incomprehensible beauties and complexities. But I am for the big things, too, the sight of which bypasses the intellect and shoots wild-juice and adrenaline straight into our hearts."
- Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak

Be big and live big, dramatic lives. I'm in a continuous struggle with this particular strand of thought; an angel I wrestle with daily. I deeply desire to live a big, dramatic life; however, some voice in my head keeps whispering, "Don't stand out or draw attention to yourself. Let the attention be drawn to God. He must increase and you must decrease." You can see how screwed up my mind is - or maybe you agree with those thoughts. But I've been fighting them for a long time. Because I like characters, big dramatic characters; and I want to be one. And I believe you can be big and be Christian or be dramatic and be godly or be full of wild-juice and adrenaline and also be full of grace. The quiet, aw-shucks, blend in at all costs life is one I cannot live. Why is the overriding message in the church a plea to live small lives? To take our humanity, with all its richness and variety, and whittle it all down to some humble-bumble-pie that wouldn't stir a cup of coffee, much less the heart of God? Where did that come from? The Puritans? Our own uncomfortableness with living in our own skin? I don't know. I'll continue to wrestle with this angel, this big, dramatic angel. But I echo Bass' invitation - Be big, be bold, be beautiful, be wild and scary and hairy. Don't tell somebody, "I'm going to be big." Just be big. And let the chips fall where they may or the fit hit the shan or whatever.

God's won't

I've heard the phrase "God's will" throughout my life; as the son of a preacher man, I've got the lingo down and "God's will" is at the top of the most heard list. It's a valid phrase, although it is usually butchered by whoever's talking about it. Folks have justified everything from unplanned pregnancies to Sept. 11th on God's will. I can't talk much about God's will anymore, whatever the hell that may be. But I can speak of God's won't.

GOD WON'T LET YOU GO THROUGH LIFE WITHOUT GETTING HURT. Almost two years ago now, I resigned from a pastoral role I was in. I had been working alongside a good friend, but the bright balloons of "wouldn't it be great to work together" began to pop one by one - mostly due to something called living from the heart. And when the last one popped, there was nothing to do but fall. Although we publicly declared my setting out for new vistas as God's will, I don't believe we knew what we were talking about; it just sounded good and we buttered it with some bible verses so folks could swallow it. Maybe so we could too.

But it hurt. Bad. I wanted God to come in and blow the top on some secrets in that ministry, but He said, "I won't." I really hoped God would strike a couple of idiots with butt boils or locusts lips, but He said, "I won't." I prayed that a last minute mailman would enter the room that morning of my resignation with bags full of "We believe in John" letters and the judge would rule that "yes, Virginia, the heart really is good." But God said, "Nope. Won't do it, John. We're just gonna' have to fall on this one." But there was one other "won't" that surfaced during that time - the still, small Voice said, "I won't let go of you. Just hang on." And now, almost two years later, I'm beginning to see men as trees walking, beginning to see the necessary woundings that are a part of living from the heart.

There's a dangerous theology out there that says if you do the right things, you won't get hurt. You can read it among the religiously-always-right-evangelical-all-stars, hear it ooze from cable t.v. Armani-preachers, or get it from your neighbor with all those fish decals on the back of his naviburban. But that stuff does more damage to God's Kingdom than all the incantations Harry Potter could ever conjure up. GOD WON'T LET YOU GO THROUGH LIFE WITHOUT GETTING HURT. I imagine Jesus wondered about that while nailed to a cross. And the still, small Voice said, "Just hang on."

Love what you love

A few lines from Mary Oliver -
"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."

Ole' Tom T. Hall had a song my dad played called "I love." It was simple and profound at the same time; just a listing of what he loved. Letting myself love what I love. There may be no greater challenge in this life. I'm not Mary Oliver or Tom T. Hall, but here goes:

I love putting my hand on our kids' chests when they're asleep and feeling their hearts beat. Three kids and three different rhythms.
I love reading a footnote in a book about another book and searching out that book and falling for a new author. I discovered Rick Bass by way of David James Duncan that way.
I love spoonin' up against my wife at night. After sixteen years together, we still fit like puzzle pieces.
I love listening to music my dad introduced me to and thinking about him and crying - maybe a song like "Sunday Morning Coming Down."
I love the smell of boot leather in a western store. It's just plum erotic. Tony Lama #12 turns me on over Chanel #5 any day.
I love dusk; those moments when one world ends and another begins. It is my time of the day. Bittersweet, fleeting, beautiful; kind of like autumn - my season.
I love the essence of communion wine just before the chalice tips my way and I take and drink. I also love licking the remainder out of my beard as I return to my seat.

Those are a few of the things the soft animal of my body loves; the baskets I'm putting my eggs in. I'm tired of being good and walking on my knees. I don't love that.

Stopping In

"There are cars and trucks parked outside the Dirty Shame when I go past - mostly trucks - and it looks warm and inviting, a glow in the night woods." -Rick Bass, Winter

Such is the initial description of the saloon Bass finds in the Yaak Valley of Northwestern Montana. It's a place where the hermits and recluses come in occasionally to re-member themselves among the larger family of humanity. I find myself somewhat of a hermit these days, doing a lot of writing and editing in my basement, alone, unkempt and content. However, I feel I need a place to stop in every once in a while from the solitary cold. Hopefully the words and thoughts here will be warm and inviting; if I'm lucky, maybe even "a glow in the night woods."