Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The world is a little poorer tonight, not because of the Dow Jones or Nasdaq, but because today, January 27, 2009, the American writer John Updike died.

This past week, while attending a meeting in Daytona Beach, I took along one of Updike’s story collections, Problems, and read in the evening and on the plane. The stories were about sex and loneliness and difficult relationships and religious faith. Updike, even when he made me laugh, brought me more deeply into the human condition – with all its frailty and foibles and joy and wonder. Updike was a novelist, story writer, poet, literary critic, and essayist. He was prolific, and has a new story collection due out later this year, a final gift to the human community he sought to portray, enliven and enrich.

A few years ago, I bought a tape collection of poets reading their work, including Updike reading one of his poems. Hearing it and reading it, it grew into a favorite of mine. I appreciate the celebration of the simple gift of a day.

An Oddly Lovely Day Alone

The kids went off to school,
the wife to the hairdresser,
or so she said, in Boston –
“He takes forever, ‘Bye.”

I read a book, doing my job.
Around eleven, the rat man came –
our man from Pest Control,
though our rats have long since died.

He wears his hair rat-style –
cut short, brushed back – and told me
his minister had written a book
and “went on television with it.”

The proceeds, however, unlike mine,
would be devoted, every cent,
to a missionary church
in Yucatan.

Time went by silently. For lunch,
I warmed up last night’s pizza,
and added my plate to the dishwasher,
and soap, and punched FULL CYCLE.

A book, a box of raisins,
and bed. The phone rang once,
a woman whose grant had not come through,
no fault of mine.

“That’s all right,” I told her.
“Just yesterday,
I failed to win
the National Book Critics Circle Prize.”

The book was good. The bed was warm.
Each hour seemed a rubber band
the preoccupied fingers of God
were stretching at His desk.

A thump, not a dishwasher thump.
The afternoon paper: it said
an earthquake had struck Iran
mere minutes after the shah had left.

The moral seemed clear enough.
More time passed, darkening.
All suddenly unbeknownst,
the afternoon had begun to snow –

to darken, darken and snow:
a fantastic effect, widespread.
If people don’t entertain you,
Nature will.

Tonight, after my late local news, I turned on Nightline to see if there was going to be a story about John Updike’s passing. There was not. What was on instead were stories about a Seattle preacher named Mark Driscoll who believes Jesus was man enough to let people know they were going to hell, and who encourages Christian married couples to enjoy sex with imagination and gusto, and about Joan Rivers. I turned it off to write, and could not help but feel sad for a culture that thinks it is news that some preacher talks both Jesus and sex and that Joan Rivers is still around – another celebrity reinventing herself – and forgets to mention that today we lost one of our literary treasures.

Even so, I write with faith and with feathers.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

This weekend marks the celebration of the eightieth birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This afternoon, I participated in an ecumenical worship service and tomorrow morning my church will house the community MLK breakfast. I have the honor and privilege of welcoming people to the breakfast and offering the invocation. I think I will quote one of the many of Dr. King’s sermons I appreciate, “The Drum Major Instinct.” Here is an excerpt:

And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize – that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards – that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

And so he did – and so should we.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.

Faye Travers, a character in Louise Erdrich's novel The Painted Drum

Good writing is worth sharing. Meaningful writing is worth passing on. Accept this gift.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Not long ago I read the following poem in Mary Oliver’s most recent book Red Bird.

We Should Be Well Prepared

The way the plovers cry goodbye.
The way the dead fox keeps on looking down the hill
with open eye.
The way the leaves fall, and then there’s the long wait.
The way someone says: we must never meet again.
The way mold spots the cake,
the way sourness overtakes the cream.
The way the river water rushes by, never to return.
The way the days go by, never to return.
The way somebody comes back, but only in a dream.

On December 20 I found out my father has inoperable liver cancer and has only weeks or months to live.

With Faith and With Feathers,