Gratitude Beyond Words

for Mom

Flannery said its alright to stare,
a direct challenge to the way my mother saw things.
Did Anna Katherine Taylor ever imagine
she could bear a writer, that she had it in her?
Oh, a doctor maybe if she was lucky,
or of course a minister is always nice.
I float outside her dreams now,
corded by O'Connor, Updike,
Harrison, Dillard.
Annie says to write like you're dying.
All of this and more is possible
only because of my mother's love.


Tristan went berserk then...howling occasionally in a language not known on earth. 
- Jim Harrison, Legends of the Fall

There are times I just want to howl.

I've felt that way lately.

Coyle was a mentor of mine for a brief season.  As that time drew to a close, he challenged me: John, be a confessional pastor; live with your sin in plain sight.

I remember an evening years ago when I was a pastor, years after his challenge, standing before a gathering of other pastors imploring them to live a confessional life.  I didn't have a biblical text (mistake #1).  Rather, I read from The Velveteen Rabbit and asked if we, as leaders, could live and lead as broken men and women.  From their faces and body language, I was speaking some unknown tongue, a language not known on earth.  I might as well have been howling.

I believe this has changed somewhat since that evening years ago. But it is still the exception rather than the rule.  Maybe it always will be.  I don't know.

We just don't know what to do with our sin, which means we just don't know what to do with ourselves. We haven't found an app for that.  The prevailing rah-rah seems to be that at some point the sin will go away, that I'll reign victorious, more than a conqueror, over this wretched body of flesh.  And the thought that I might still be struggling with the same sin, or a variation on its theme, after all this time? Well, that must mean I'm a schmuck or weak or I just don't 'get it' or I haven't 'surrendered fully' or something.


Coyle also told me, years ago: John, your shit stinks, just like everybody else.

Guess what?  It still does.  Just like yours.

I've added a new name to my blogroll - Jamie The Very Worst Missionary -  Her latest post gets at this in a funny, poignant way.  I appreciated it. You might too.  Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.  If not, you might hear a ruckus in the background.  There are times I just want to howl.


Up In The Air Where The Wild Things Are...

I'm behind on movies.  Its just the way it is.  Finally this week I saw Up In The Air and Where The Wild Things Are.  My girlfriend watched the first one with me because, you know, Clooney.  And the kids and I watched the second together last night while my girlfriend was playing, you know, Bunco.

I'm not a professional film reviewer; that stuff's best left to gentlemen like Jeffery Overstreet -  I respond to movies as best I can, me and my drum, rum pa pum pum.

Both movies left me sad.  Up In The Air left me bad-sad.  Where The Wild Things Are left me good-sad.  I realize those are the nuanced differences of a hyphen, but I'll try and explain.  I'll refer to them from now on as Air and Wild.

Both movies touched, lightly and rumpusly, on the reality that living with people, in families or marriages or towns or whatever, well, its best captured by the quote from Wild: 'it's hard to be a family.'  Clooney's character, Ryan, loves the un-tethered life of the airline terminals/frequent flyer miles.  While he lobbies for the face to face experience of firing employees, it's just to maintain his rootless relationship to family or place.  In and out, in and out, gotta keep moving.  When an airline pilot asks him where he's from, Ryan hesitates a moment and says 'here' - meaning nowhere. There are moments where Ryan can choose to come down from his fences, but the desperado never comes to his senses.  His prison is flying through this world all alone.

The main character in Wild, Max, initially loves the imaginary world of Carol and K.W. and co.  It's a needed world based on the pain of his real home losing its king.  However, Max gradually realizes that there's no such thing as a sadness-shield, something to keep all the sadness away.  And we can try and build worlds where only what we want to happen happens, but those worlds crumble in time.  In the end, Max decides to sail home, back to where the real wild things are, where something called love lives, in all of its dirt-cloded-rumpused frailty.

Air ends with Ryan's plane Peter-Panning high above the clouds. Wild ends at the kitchen table, with milk and chocolate cake and mom.

Bottom line John Blase takeaway:
It may be rainin', but there's a rainbow above you/
You better let somebody love you, before it's too late.                

The Middle Ages

Monday is my birthday.  I'll be 43 years old.  If I double 43, I get 86.  So, in a very real sense, I'm in the middle of the years appointed to me.  Middle...the word seems to be everywhere.

I'm not just starting out.  I'm not on the tailend either.
I'm in the middle,
reminded of Bly and his colored Knights.
First Red - anger, energy, shouting.
Final Black - crank, ashes, giving up blame.
He speaks of the middle though, the White Knight -
imagination, skill, humor.

The fleshy ring around my rosy mid-section
revealed itself one mirrored morning lately -
I inquired well, hello, where'd you come from?
This is not an extended love handle.
This is a small life preserver thrown
over my head now stuck around my middle.
My armor's changing.

My two oldest kids are in middle-school,
that two year stint in the shawshank of puberty.
They are planning their escape, a spoonful of days at a time.
Good for them.  Get busy living or get busy dying.
There are knaves there though, knaves that threaten them.
I'll stay close by, within earshot, able to ride in when needed.
You just call out my name.

Then there's middle-sex.
I want it, but confess to the queen some nights -
good lord I'm tired.
She smiles and we wrap ourselves in what Kinnel called
'the familiar touch of the long-married.'
Now make no mistake, buster, some nights its about the sex.
But some nights its about the sleep.

So this is now.  Middle-Earth.  Middle Ages.
My politics are moderate, as are my clothes.
I drive a mid-sized car.
These are the days of the White Knight.
Emerson said 'all great men come out of the middle classes.'
And so I buoyantly yawp -
look out world!

Reach and Stretch

"The Years" will return after this brief station identification...I promise.  But sometimes you feel like you have to say something, write something.  I'm sure this is more for me than you, but then again, it could be for you too. If it is for you, or you have thoughts about it, I'd love to hear from you.  Or maybe you forward this along to someone you believe agrees or disagrees...I'd love to hear from them too.
An allergy to thought, an allergy to complexity, nuance...I heard this phrase, these words, from the lips of John Sexton, president of New York University. He was lamenting this collapse, this developing pattern in our country, a country Sexton dearly loves.

Put the cookies on the bottom shelf…I heard this phrase, these words, yet again this week in relation to the writing of books both traditionally bound and e-imprisoned. They have become almost a mantra in publishing books for believers, Christians, followers of Jesus, whatever the label of choice may be these days. I lament this, for the country of believers I dearly love.

I believe putting the cookies on the bottom shelf is dangerous for while accessible to anyone, the dogs’ll also sneak in and scarf the whole shebang ala the Bumpus hounds in A Christmas Story. However, putting the cookies on the top shelf, entirely out of reach to most, seems the opposite but equal error. It fosters prideful bakers who can’t stand their hillbilly neighbors.

What if our mantra became reach and stretch before take and eat?  We want our children to grow, learn, be challenged, but for some reason we grow up and put away those childish notions of needing to become more, see farther, think deeper.  Even that New Testament madman Paul longed for folks to wean off the milk for Christ's sake.  

Who is to blame here?  We could spend all day trying to pin that tail on some donkey, but I’ve never been a fan of that game for it assumes there’s only one donkey in the room and we all know that’s horsefeathers.  No, I would rather plead with the saviors of our possible future: the artists - those to whom much has been given, those from whom much is needed, now maybe more than ever. Yes, the poets and singers and dreamers and filmmakers and schoolteachers and dancers and preachers and writers and homeschooling moms and cantankerous uncles and coaches and bloggers and publishers.  My plea? Place the piping hot cookies within reach; not locked in ivory towers or pitched to the lowest bidder, but rather gingerly placed on the cooling rack of the glorious middle, that realm where Emerson said all true greatness comes from.

I don't know what to do with all these thoughts...I realize I'm a part of the problem as much as I might hope to be a sliver of the solution.  But I see this allergy to thought, this sloth.  Pastor John Buchanan contends that sloth means "not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing..."


The Years...


Two American kids doin’ the best they can…

Ms. Patton was the drama teacher at school.  Take every stereotype of the young, gorgeous, artistic teacher that all the boys want and all the girls secretly hate but still love, roll them into one and you’ve got Caroline Patton.  In our ninth grade universe, most of the teachers held the appeal of planets or moons.  Ms. Patton was the sun.  Sam and Erin and I were at a lunch table when she approached and asked if I’d consider auditioning for the lead in the school play.  I later remembered hearing it’s wise not to look directly at the sun, that even a few seconds can cause blindness.  But I guess someone had to play the fool.

‘The Mice Have Been Drinking Again’ – a comedy that follows a young married couple living in San Francisco attempting to get a date for the wife’s cousin who lives with them.  I was one of five boys who showed up for auditions.  I got the part, the lead.  Ms. Patton beamed:  You and Erin are going to make a great couple.   I could feel my retinas burning.  What?  I learned that Erin had actually helped Ms. Patton choose the play in the first place and she would be my on-stage wife.  And, just to thicken the plot, there was a kiss in one of the scenes.

I had always kept my distance from Erin because Sam loved her.  We were friends, that was it.  But as this larger one-act comedy unfolded, I was suddenly in her immediate space, and as such, I fell for her.  She moved effortlessly onstage, never missed a line.  After the first few rehearsals, Patton’s sun began to fade in Winter’s star. 

We finally rehearsed the kiss.  I had kissed Holly Martin once in the seventh grade, on a dare.  She tasted like buttermilk.  I hate buttermilk.  So I was nervous to say the least.  I had told Sam what was going on because he loved Erin and I loved Sam.  Kiss her, it’s just a play.  But there are words spoken between brothers and words unspoken.  We both felt the tension but didn’t know what to do with it.  I want to believe Annie Merritt would have known.  But she wasn’t around. 

The first rehearsed kiss with Erin Winters took place on a Wednesday after school.  She didn’t taste anything like buttermilk.  She didn’t taste at all.  She felt.  Sam and I raised rabbits for a couple of years, formative years.  I loved to hold them against my face, feel the silk of their fur.  Erin Winters’ lips were a softness rabbits only dream of.  There must have been something to my lips too, although I’ll never know just what.  As we both stepped back from that practice kiss, Erin had tears in her eyes.  This was not in the script.

Sam and Dad were there for the performance.  It went, as they say, without a hitch.  The crowd gave us a standing ovation.  The principal gave Ms. Patton a dozen roses.  And as our director pulled her two stars out to take a bow, Erin gave me her hand.  I took it, we bowed, and smiled at one another.  She had tears in her eyes.  It was one of the best moments of my life.  Then the curtain closed.                  

 Oh yeah life goes on,
long after the thrill of livin’ is gone…

Dad and Sam were waiting for me at the back door.  Erin had already found Sam.  As I walked up, my brother smiled and said you did good.  Then he punched me in the arm.  It didn’t hurt, but I felt it.  It was tender, a rabbit handler’s fist.  Sam and I never said a word about that drama again.  

The Years...


But not to where I cannot see
You walkin’ on the back roads…

Mom left the year Sam and I were born.  Dad always started the story the same way – She walked out that front door and never came back…  Then he’d take a monogrammed handkerchief from his back pocket and wipe his eyes, left one first then right.  Sometimes he could continue, other times not. 

The rest of the story is that Annie Merritt left the house to walk the back roads like she did most every Sunday morning.  The Baptist minister crested the big hill on Sawmill road, out by the cemetery.  No one ever really knew what happened in that moment, only what remained.  The preacher, a Reverend Styles, was said to never drive again.  He stayed at the church about six months, apparently trying to work through his grief.  But how do you work through killing a lady on a Sunday morning?

Les Merritt was suddenly a widower with two six-month old boys.

The times Dad could continue the story he always mentioned the preacher claimed I swear to God I didn’t see herI swear to God.  Dad would wince when he said that, like it pained him to hear a minister talk like that, swearing to God.  He didn’t have much use for church from then on, so neither did we.  Sam and I were raised in the church of Dad.  We sang his songs and lived by his rules. 

My mother’s remembrance always ended the same way -  Your mother was the most gentle woman I ever knew...  Dad took her picture with us when they brought us home from the hospital.  She’s standing in the backyard, by the dogwood tree, grinning.  I didn't believe in angels, but I believed in Annie Merritt.

By the rivers of my memory,
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind.

Dad had that photo enlarged - 8 x 11, gold frame.  Sam and I would set that picture beside us when we played checkers in the evenings.  We’d say things like watch this jump, Mom.  I wish she’d been there for us in the years that tracked on.  I swear to God I do.    

The Years...

But what a fool believes he sees…
Sam loved Erin ever since that day in the sixth grade.  They were swinging side by side, white-knuckled chains arcing them further, higher, like eagles dancing.  Every single thing was competition between them, had been since the second grade. Recess was no exception.  Sam had grown to hate it, almost hate her, but he couldn't stop it.  He wanted to so many times, just say forget it, Erin, you win, but he couldn't.  They had played into grade school hands for years; their roles were cast.  Just as it seemed he could swing no higher she yelled her dare: betcha won't jump!  Erin always raised the stakes, upped the ante, ever striving.

Sam was terrified but pride loosed his grip and hurled him in the air. He frantically flapped his wings but they were as wax in the sun.  Too high, too much pride.  A teacher screamed as he fell face first into the sidewalk edging.  Sam recognized the taste of dirt and blood.  And then a smell he knew well, her smell.  Erin had worn her mother's Enjoli for over a year - "the 8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman."

In those alternative fairy tales, it's Snow White's kiss that awakens the prince. That's how it was that day.  Sam opened his eyes to find her astride him, sobbing, her hands holding his face.  Oh Sam! I'm so-so sorry!  Please don't leave me!  And then to the shock of God and those gathered, Erin Winter leaned in and kissed Sam Merritt's dirt-blood lips.  Please, Sam, please don't leave me! And to everyone's surprise the prince rose to her apology: I won't.

And Sam has loved Erin ever since.  But Erin never loved Sam.

Somewhere back in her long ago,
where he can still believe there’s a place in her life…

I know these things because I’m Sam’s brother, always have been.  I loved Erin too, for a little while, but nothing like Sam.

My Opinion...

These lines conclude Mary Oliver's poem - "When I Am Among The Trees" -

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

To go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.  My lord...
Our two oldest kids are wrapping up three days of CSAP tests, those standardized whoppers that claim to be about learning but are really about funding.  I'll bravely roll the dice and say there were no questions on those tests where the answers were go easy, be filled, and shine.  That's my opinion.

After dinner last night, all three kids donned fleece and bolted for the trampoline.  The days are teasing us with just a little more light, just enough for a few more jumps.  As I watched the evening news tell stories of the world that is, the laughter from my children outside was an echo of the world to be.  That's my opinion.

The sun's teasing ceased and it suddenly grew dark.  Meredith said call the kids in, John.  But I did not, could not, at least not for a few more minutes.  I said aw, they're fine.  I felt they had not been among the trees much the last three days.  No, they had been bordered by strict timed sessions and sharpened pencils and question after question after question, questions really about money.  I stood at the window and watched the three that bear the name Blase as they jumped with ease, filled with laughter, shining even in the dark.  The aspens in the distance quaked in simple approval.  That's my opinion.

Go easy, be filled with light, and shine.  

A Story...

Come close to death and you begin to see what's under your nose.

I only came back because she asked me to.  No, that's a lie. There were more reasons. One was an inherited belief that I owed the universe a tragedy.  But when Jayne called, I said only for you.

Mom died six years ago.  A week after the funeral, Dad pulled his old record player out into the den and listened to iconic last names - Cash, Kristofferson, Nelson, Campbell - he just sat and spun records one after the other all day long for two solid months.  Best I could tell, it was some sort of compressed-country-music-K├╝bler-Ross thing.  Then, after almost sixty days of grieving at 33rpms he said I'm done and made a trip out to Taos to visit his only sister, Ruth.  The next we heard, Dad had married Tab, short for Tabitha.  He met her at a rest area outside Amarillo.  Yes, I said a rest area.  At first we couldn't believe it, and once we thought about it, we still couldn't believe it.  Aunt Ruth said hear me now, there's nothing worse on this earth than bein' lonely.

Tab was nothing like my mother.  I know people say that all the time but Tab really wasn't like Mom, at all.  The woman who gave me life lived in constant fear that everything she'd scrimped and saved could be completely wiped away if one little thing became one big thing, like a spot on a lung or a seed of gossip. Not Tab though.  She had time by the ass - she used those exact words more times than I can count.  My mother would never say that, ever.  Tab never wore shoes, even in the winter, and sported three toe rings.  I don't ever remember seeing my mother's bare feet.

Tab was the kind of woman who always made you just a little bit nervous, or at least she did me.  I guess the best description is that she was full.  You could place that adjective in front of Tab’s anatomy: full breasts, full hips, full calves, full lips and cheeks, full head of braided hair.  She was the antithesis of fat; she was full.  You felt like at any moment she might just spill over on you, or at least I did.  Tab was nothing like my mother.

After their Taos wedding, Tab lived four years.  That was it. One morning of that final year she woke up and discovered a lump in her right breast.  That day was March 7th, my mother's birthday.  Dad insisted Tab take the treatments that in no time took her hair, both breasts, and finally her smile.  Once, there near the end, she said you don't know your father, do you? Tab died in late November, the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Dad scattered her ashes somewhere in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

When my mother died, my father cast off the life he'd known. Dad became someone new, or different, at least someone I'd not known.  But maybe you can only do that once in a life, truly change that is.  When Tab died, there was no one else for him to become.  My father had long lived a life he'd chosen, then briefly lived a life he'd dreamed.  What do you do after that? Die, I guess.  Two strikes, you're out.