Same Old Story

I woke up not sick
but worse -
Not quite the depressed black and white of George Bailey,
worth more dead than alive,
but somewhere near that jumping bridge,
tired of the same old house,
same old town,
same old dreams,
same old face in the mirror,
same old God.

I woke her up for school,
and the sun in her smile blinded me
like that old Damascus fool.
Hi, dad-o.
Hey, kid-o.

She combed her hair
with the same old comb,
in the same old mirror,
as I stood close brushing
the same old teeth,
in my same old head,
and tears like scales
fell from my eyes
at the technicolor mercies
in my same old life -
me, the richest man in Bedford Falls. 

Lange and Ruess - Frank & Hearty

Gary Jeffers had worked as editor of the successful 'Christian' magazine for over a decade. His devotional column - Green & Still - had a loyal following he'd fed faithfully each month, rain or shine, but his devotion had worn thin, he was exhausted. He'd been a groomsman at Ruess' wedding, a pallbearer at Jane's funeral, and a trusted friend all along.

Gary's request caught him off guard: 'Ruess, I'm resigning, had enough of the spiritual stone soup cooking in this grand land. I'm going off to write the book I've always whined about never having the time to write. The mag is giving me a final column, one last chance to say my peace...and I've decided to invite a guest writer - you. Instead of Green & Still this last hurrah's going to be Frank & Hearty. I want you to let go the length of the reins, Ruess, like we've long talked about. You've got 1500 words. I'll merely spellcheck it then send it through. Do it for me...and Jesus.'

Ruess took a few days to hem and haw. He loved Gary like a brother and was one of his loyal readers, but he had no affection for the magazine. Ruess understood the necessity of wooing advertisers to keep a periodical afloat but the prevailing blood lust for all things young and relevant or dead and orthodox drove him nuts. He'd intentionally walked away from those reindeer games a long time ago...stepping back into them, even by way of a magazine article, felt shaky, risky.

But the thrill of the rant was strong and one thought swallowed another. It used to be he swore if one more person used the words 'worldview' or 'closure' he'd slather himself with A1 steak sauce and hurl his body over his neighbor's fence, straight into the feral desire of twin rottweilers - Coco and Chanel. Then he choked on the memory of Jane's voice: 'Ruess, write the article for Gary, but be smart, baby...remember the two people in every audience - Nicks and Henley, and how to always reach them - leather and lace, leather and lace.'

Ruess smiled and then bowed his head and wept. He'd write the article for Jane...and Jesus.


Letters for dad-o...

Her third grade spelling list for the week includes
the words dance, wreck, fancy, and tremble.
She already knows how to spell them,
she'll ace Friday's test, 'no prob, dad-o.'
Still, we'll review them, just to be sure.
As she reels off d-a-n-c-e
I see a boy who will one day soon
take heart and ask her to inhabit this word.
Maybe he'll grow on me, I doubt it.
W-r-e-c-k will be the letters soaked in tears
as she explains 'I swerved to miss the dog, dad-o,
but I'm o.k.'
Thank God and Jesus.
I'm no prophet but my gut tells me
she'll want the f-a-n-c-y wedding dress,
her easy days of hoodies and jeans faded
like weekly spelling lists.

Still, just to be sure, we review these omens.
I try my best not to let her see me t-r-e-m-b-l-e.

I'll Never Forget

I do not remember any of their far-away names,
those swallowed by that black September day.
But I do remember her.
Our families had long known each another,
I always easily ten years her senior.
For time upon time,
as long as I could remember,
she embodied youth, innocence, goodness.

She paused at the door to my office
to say 'I think something's happening.'
We walked to a room where televisions
broadcast O beautiful's scourge.
We stood shouldered in quiet, image after image eroding
our shores of amber grain.
Our bodies did not touch in those moments,
but rather our souls.
We shared a more perfect union of loss.
She searched my eyes and
I saw her suddenly older,
no longer the girl I'd known.
Her wordless question of 'what now?'
found me dumb.

I do not remember any of their far-away names,
those raptured into spacious skies that day.
But I do remember her,
as I remember me, cast ready-or-not
further east of the garden.
I remember Ellen.

Meditation on Luke 15.1-32 - Quickly!

He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.'
But his father ordered his servants,

That word - quickly - that's what I remember about that day. And his crooked smile. My brother later told me it was a stroke, the day after I left.

It undid me, to see him hobbling toward me. I just stood there, frozen on the ridge I'd played on as a boy. The old man fell twice, like some child learning to walk, the last fall only steps from me. He began to crawl, scooping at the ground, willing himself forward. It was then my body released me to move to him. As I knelt he raised his eyes to mine. That's when I clearly saw his face, half-right, half-wrong, as if something had torn him.

He frantically began to climb my frame until he reached my face. He kissed my cheeks, over and over, and stroked my hair. I'd had whores do that and more countless times. Money will buy almost anything. But then he began to mumble my name through his broken smile. No one had spoken my name in what seemed like a long, long time.

I shook to myself and knew I had to say the words. Were they honest, sincere, heartfelt? I doubt it, I really do. You see, I'd come to my senses earlier, primarily the sense I was starving. I was still so young. I held the old man by the shoulders: 'Father, I have si-' His eyes filled with a fury I'd known as a boy, his hands covered my mouth, he would not let me speak. And then he began to wrestle with that word - Quik-klee! Quik-klee! By then the servants had made their way down the ridge. He turned and clawed them in - Quik-klee! The next few seconds were filled with the old man's commands, half-spoken, fully understood.

Then, quickly, the celebration began.

My father lived long enough to see his sons work beside one another once more in the fields, like we'd done as boys. My brother and I both came to live again under the mercy of our father's roof. We awoke one autumn night to shouts of that word - Quik-klee! Quik-klee! By the time we reached his bedside the angels had taken him. My brother stayed at his side, close, until the dawn. Meanwhile I wandered down a familiar ridge and squandered my tears.  


A word of 'thanks' to my alma mater...

I am partial to the letter of my favorite poets, B.H. Fairchild, refers to it as 'the Audrey Hepburn of consonants.' If I allow little miss Hepburn to wiggle into Ouachita's Founders Day today, I find a word that immediately reminds me of those halcyon college days - flounder.

flounder - v. 1: to struggle to move or obtain footing; 2: to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually.

I'm not sure what all my alma mater's founders had in mind when cutting the ribbon on a small, liberal arts Baptist college, but I bettin' at least one of them had a renegade thought, probably unspoken, that went something like 'ya know, kids need a good place to flounder, be clumsy for a few years, gain a little footing.' To that founder, I tip my hat and say 'thank you.'

For some, the thought of spending four, maybe even five years, and not to mention rather large land masses called 'tuition' in a state of floundering is, well, just horrible stewardship of unbiblical proportions. But I, for one, would gently disagree. As for the 'some' just mentioned, yes, there will always be two or three gathered together who have it all figured out at nineteen, 'look out world, here I cometh.' As for the rest of us, we really need some time to flounder around, find our life legs. Ouachita Baptist University provided that for me, and a few others I know...we needed a place to act clumsily and be downright ineffectual...a safe place to fall, for a little while.

You can flounder via many climates: the high-n-tight bootcamps of our military branches; some Elizabeth Gilbert Eat, Pray, Love romp across three cultures; even a go-North-young-man-into-the-wild trek that leads you to an abandoned bus up by some river. All those are fine and well and at least one resulted in a New York Times bestseller and a movie deal with that handsome Julia Roberts. But you can also flounder as a medium sized fish in a medium sized pond in southern Arkansas at a competitive-tuition-rate, in the company of a great cloud of witnesses known as staff and faculty who possess a trait not always found among drill instructors, yogis, or the inside of abandoned buses...yes, I'm taking about

compassion - n. 1: a sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

I'm quite certain the folks at OBU didn't always like me. But I'm quite certain the folks at OBU always loved me. They remembered the distress of being nineteen or twenty and not knowing what-in-the-sam-hill God wanted you to do, much less what you yourself wanted to do with your one wild and precious life. I believe they also knew you might not figure that out until you were in your, let's say, forties, and miles and miles away from the grace of red-bricked buildings and Bradford pears all in a row, swimming now on your own...strokes only possible because you were once upon a time permitted to flounder about.

So, thank you, Ouachita...thank you very much.  

Gifts of my Magi...

'Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.'
~Garrison Keillor

Once, long ago now, on an east Texas Indian summer afternoon, my parents took a trip to one of those pre-Walmart discount stores, maybe Howard's or Gibson's. They returned home with whatever items necessitated their trip, but they also came bearing gifts, two things not on my mother's list. One seemed from my mother's heart, something needed, warm, true, while the other came from the vagaries of my father. Together those gifts were kneaded into the impressionable dough of a boy I was and have risen like yeast into the man I've become - a plaid, flannel shirt and Rod McKuen's Greatest Hits Vol. 1.

Based on its point of origin, I'm willing to bet the flannel patterns didn't match up across buttons and seams and being pre-button-down-days, the collar points were no doubt sharp and wide. The shirt probably cost $4. We lived, in those days, on the loaves and fish of a Baptist preacher's salary. As I think about it now, here in my 40s, I am humbled by my mother's miracles of blessing and breaking and having leftovers enough for the extravagance of $4 flannel. I am often in the presence of believers, God's people, who pooh-pooh on the things of this earth, things that will pass away or be consumed as wood, hay, stubble or grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. I am often uncomfortable around such people for I don't know exactly what they believe in; some unmediated, disembodied grace I guess. I probably make such people uncomfortable as well, for I believe in the icons of a mother's love and flannel.

I'd never heard of Rod McKuen until that day my father brought home a two-album set of his greatest hits. I've only met one other person along my way who likes McKuen -  My southern Baptist preacher father bringing home a Rod McKuen album of love songs is evidence that the man will always have facets of mystery to his life that will elude my grasp. I'll never know him, not all of him. From the moment the needle dropped into the vinyl groove that day, I was taken.  Songs like 'I've Saved the Summer' and 'Love's Been Good to Me' and 'Seasons in the Sun' and 'People Change' and 'The Lonely Things' were listened to with the same regularity of wearing that flannel shirt...over and over and over again. Its hard to say exactly what it was about McKuen's voice and lyrics that wooed me so; all I know is that they did, and they still do to this day, especially on crisp prelude days of fall. I wonder sometimes, here in my 40s, if the music my father introduced to our home, such as McKuen's songs of love and melancholy, was his way of tempering the hymns of certainty and conviction we'd stand and sing each Sunday in nice neat rows. I don't recall a single hymn extolling the sensuality of a stranger's eyes or the prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I am often in the presence of believers, God's people, who have no place in their lives for music unless it specifically mentions the name of Jesus or works the crowd up to some hands-raised-hallelujah-climax. I am always lonely around such people for the hills are ablaze with the morn's yellow haze but they seem to have never noticed. I probably make such people lonely too, for I was raised on my father's music, and I can't recall your name but the street...was Channing Way.


It's Time

Like the evening summer sun,
my bronzed hands and forearms
gently fade and pale.
We both sense it, the sun and I.
It’s fine. It’s time.
We could rage against the dying,
as some are prone to do,
but why?

Old John Donne believed it’s always autumn in heaven,
no buds or flowers, only fruit fully ripe.
I believe that’s crazy.
A seasoned Elysium holds my hope,
not some never ending summer.

The Good Book speaks of all things new,
not all new things.
Donne’s mercy-filled Fall will be covered
by Winters whiter than snow.
Then Spring will thrust up blackred roses
e.e. cumming’s mother couldn’t dream of.
As for Summer, we’ll saunter along
streets of gold with bronzed hands and forearms
until we sense it’s time.
Then we’ll roll down our sleeves once more
to harvest the mercies of God.