They don’t know
Leaping, squealing, delighting in the mud
between their toes, how
Downstream from us it swirled in a thick,
Their heads turned away from me
and the panic in my eyes
They thrilled in the surprise of the mudslide
made perfect for play and pleasure
While, not far from us, the black-as-tar earth
consumed houses, poured through windows,
sweated through floorboards
Mommy! Mommy! They screamed
in play as my son threw a handful
at my daughter
They don’t know
and I can’t tell them
that the blue sky ahead is for all of us
When I know it is not
This is an ekphrasis poem (written off of visual art) that I wrote during the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival.
Image: Nikki McClure, 2009, Chronicle Books
Iowa City is a place of poets and aspiring writers of novels, memoirs, flash-fiction, and sermons. It’s a place of independent book stores, all-you-can-eat Indian buffets and Hawkeyes—everywhere—Hawkeyes. I hope to post some of the writing that has bubbled up for me at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival. But for now a simple note of gratitude.
First, I am grateful for my class, Poetry for Beginners (A Short Course in Attention) and for my teacher, Michael Morse, who taught me that, “More than intending, the poet ATTENDS!” How true this is (or should be) for pastors and preachers as well.
Michael introduced me to the Pantoum, the Ghazal, and the Sestina, specific kinds of poetry that I might have assumed were wild safari animals before taking this class. We discussed voice, image, metaphor, sound, and structure—the “ways in” to poetry. And we read poetry to each other—slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully. The reader of poetry, as James Tate describes, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks of the prayerful, haunted silence between the words, phrases, images, ideas and lines. This is what I’ve been doing all week and loving the luxury of it—because in between those lines of poetry lay observations of life I deeply appreciate.
I am constantly in awe of the ability certain poets have to name the mysteries of the universe, or call forth a beautiful, insightful philosophy, in a few, perfectly chosen words. The power of poetic language astounds me. For example, this poem by Nazim Hikmet blows me away.
It’s This Way
I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful
My hand can’t get enough of the trees—
they’re so hopeful, so green
A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.
I can’t smell the medicines—
carnations must be blooming nearby.
It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.
Hikmet, a revered poet from Turkey often imprisoned for his socialist views, speaks deeply to me even though my life in no way compares to his. His point, though, of never surrendering to that which oppresses, or captures, or negates the beautiful, is universally insightful and helpful. What an astonishing poet! I’m so glad his poetry now graces my bookshelf.
Other new poets have found their way to my shelf as well: Bob Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz. After learning that Marie Howe (still my favorite poet) studied with Stanley Kunitz, I quickly ran to buy his book. (And yes, my husband will roll his eyes at me when he sees my credit card statement from Prairie Light Books.) Kunitz had me at “hello,” though, or, the words of his brief foreword entitled, “Speaking of Poetry.” Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.
If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay. Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?
Does one live, therefore for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of life.
 Dean Young
 James Tate, Introduction to the Best American Poetry, 1997.
 Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through, (W.W. Norton and & Company, New York, 1995), pgs. 11-12.
Last summer I made my writing a priority. I started this blog, hired a writing coach, and guarded a few hours each morning to practice my craft. It has paid off immensely. Not only did I get an article published in The Christian Century, but I have grown and learned more than I ever thought possible. Most significantly, I have come to recognize writing as the passion I need to pursue—it’s the one thing in my life I can’t NOT do. Acknowledging this call to write has been transformative.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about writing over this past, dedicated, year:
- Join a writing group, attend a workshop, hire a writing coach—do something to receive honest feedback and constructive criticism. It’s the ONLY way you’ll learn and grow as a writer. I recommend my writing coach, Christine Hemp, whom I affectionately call The Beast, Madame Bossypants, or my personal Grammar SNOOT. Working with Christine has been phenomenal. She is a poet, teacher, coach and spiritual director all rolled into one. I’m also quite fond of the fact that she’s a faithful Episcopalian. In other words, she gets me. Check out her website here.
- If you’re having trouble getting started, begin with a story you care about—in my case, (as a preacher) something with a theological problem within it.
- Also…if you’re having trouble getting started, focus on something really specific—a moment, a scene, an experience—and branch out from there.
- I have a tendency to stop short—to think I am finished before I really am. Give your writing space to breathe. Don’t quit too soon. Don’t go for the quick, easy ending—push yourself further, to discover what you’re really writing about.
- Use specific, concrete, language—avoid clichés and tired, abstract, “churchy” language—paint a picture for the reader.
- Write as if no one—absolutely no one (especially the person you are writing about)— is looking over your shoulder. You can always edit later. First, you must discover your truth.
- Transitions matter. Pay attention to them. Guide your reader from one paragraph to the next. Offer clarity—it’s the polite thing to do.
- Lay (transitive verb: receives and object) Lie (intransitive verb: never receives an object.) I lay the book on the table. I lie in the sun all the time. Remember this!! It will curl the teeth of your Grammar SNOOT if you get it wrong.
- “We can go months, even years, without ever being crucially spoken to.” Stephen Dunn. Write words that are crucial. Write words that matter. Venture into the wilderness of humanity.
- “End with an image and don’t explain.” Stanley Kunitz
Last Thursday I settled myself cross-legged on my zafu and set my timer for twelve minutes of meditation. I had just finished scratching out my to-do list for the day—a mistake—it made me realize I only had an hour free this morning to finish writing my sermon for Sunday and meet a few other deadlines. The pressure of my schedule tightened my chest and shoulders as I wondered to myself why I was sitting there doing nothing when I could be writing, folding laundry, washing the dishes, or straightening up the living room that my children had just left in total disarray—blankets, pillows, game and puzzle pieces strewn all over the floor, a sippy cup turned over leaking milk on the couch. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel the mess pressing in on me. My body itched to start doing, but I forced myself to sit and breathe. The dog whined softly in the corner, the ice machine rattled in the kitchen. (It broke this morning. When will I get that fixed?) My twelve minutes were up.
Inspired by Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and a book I’m reading by Pema Chӧdrӧn, I made a commitment to meditate every day of Holy Week. I keep reading about how good meditation is for you, like in this article here. A poet once told me his writing really started to take off after he got serious about his sitting practice. I teach meditation to my college students who are hungry for ways to calm down and de-stress. My interest in this ancient practice webs and wanes, though. I often prioritize it out of my schedule because I have my doubts and my time is precious.
Holy Week has come and gone but I decided to meditate again today. It’s Easter Monday and I have the day free to get a lot of stuff done. Why not begin with twelve minutes of breathing? “If you have time to breath, you have time to meditate,” says Ajahn Chah (via Pinterest.)
Before I reached my meditation cushion, though, I noticed myself feeling stressed. Why am I feeling this way? I wondered to myself. I have the whole day free? Puzzled, I decided to take Ani Pema’s advice and enter into my emotion through meditation. So I sat with my stress—leaning into its pressure—to see what I could learn about my mind, how it works, and why I respond to life the way I do.
It was a miserable way to begin the morning, but I stuck with it, focusing on my breathing and the emotion within me. The air cooled my nostrils on every intake, warmed them on the outtake. Slowly I began to recognize my emotion as pressure I was placing on myself—my own desires were the root of this stress.
After my twelve minutes were up I opened my journal to see if I could identify what those desires were. Here’s a partial list: I desire more time to write—a clean home and office—recognition for my work—the ability to write beautifully—lose ten pounds—eat delicious food—ice cream—good wine—be an attentive mother to my children—more money—more time to exercise—lie in bed to read a good book—lie in bed—speak words that are meaningful at my grandmother’s funeral—create—publish—take the dog to the vet—enjoy more sex—get a massage—shop for pretty, stylish things—laugh with friends—love my husband well—have more spiritual experiences—feel more peace.
My desires quickly filled a whole page of my journal before I stopped myself, realizing I could go on for pages. Where does all this desire come from? Why do I crave more than I already have? When will I have enough? When will I be enough?
Okay, I will be meditating again tomorrow.
“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:13-14
Two years ago we received the tragic news that a young alum, Andrew Kuebrich, had been killed in an accident while bicycling the coast of Taiwan. It always hits hard when someone young dies so tragically—mostly because it doesn’t make any sense. Andrew graduated before I came to Monmouth, so I didn’t know him. But after his death, story after story emerged about how encouraging he was of others, how contagious his energy, humor and optimism were, how his kindness touched many. I learned how Andrew had taped a square box on the floor of his dorm room, named it the dance box, and required anyone who stepped in it to dance their stress away. I learned how important the Relay for Life charity event was to him because both his grandmothers had died of cancer.
During one of these events, Andrew raised money for his charity by running 45 miles—in one night! Andrew spent his college summers working with disabled children. He participated in alternative spring break trips building homes for Habitat for Humanity. He traveled to Taiwan after graduation to teach English to Taiwanese children and discover the world. A picture surfaced of Andrew crowd-surfing on the hands of a mob of celebratory college students. I don’t know what they were celebrating, but it certainly seemed like Andrew Kuebrich was a big part of it. He was known here as the Chief of Good Times.
I imagine you know someone like Andrew, someone full of life and charisma and joy. These are the kind of people you imagine living forever—people who are absolutely unstoppable—invincible. Never in our wildest dreams would we believe a young man so full of life could die at 24.
But human life is fragile—a fact we don’t often consider. A parent knows, though. Moms and Dads learn this when their babies are born. Our advances in medicine and technology lead us to believe a healthy birth is a sure thing…until complications arise…. the baby’s heart rate drops unexpectedly, or the chord wraps around her neck…the nurses grow tense, ring the doctor on call, and the parent gets the impression that these risks are par for the course for those who work in labor and delivery. Babies are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little people.
Parents know this as their babies grow, too. I remember negotiating with my parents over a spring break trip to Florida that I really wanted to take with my college roommate. It was our senior year and we planned to drive the whole trip by ourselves, from Michigan to Ft. Lauderdale, without stopping. My parents didn’t want me to go. They asked a lot of questions. To which I responded, “Mom, Dad, why are you so worried? I’m 21! I’m an adult!” As if that meant that nothing at all bad could happen.
Now that I am a parent, though, I know why they were concerned. They were worried because they remember the day I was born. And they remember the day they lost track of me in that giant department store. And the day I fell on the skating rink, cutting my chin open. And they remembered that boy (or those boys) who broke my heart leaving me a sobbing, mush of a mess. They knew (better than I) how tiny, and fragile, and vulnerable I am.
Today, God, too, speaks to us from the parent’s perspective. “As a father has compassion for his children,” Psalm 103 reads, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” “God knows how we were made,” the scripture says. God knows because God was there. From the moment of your birth, God was there. And because God was there at our beginning, God remembers that we are dust. We were created out of the dust of the earth and one day to dust we shall return. In other words, to God we are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little creatures.
The stark honesty of Ash Wednesday’s message—that we can so quickly return to ash—always makes me stop to consider how I have been living my life. This year the word “reckless” comes to my mind. Not that I’ve been bungee jumping, or sky diving, or drag racing through the streets of Monmouth. But reckless in the sense of not paying attention to my life. My life is often such a blur—one long frenetic streak of activity from the moment I wake up at 6:00am to the moment I crash, exhausted, in bed at 10:00pm. If it were not for all my smartly synced calendars, I wouldn’t even know what day it is.
I feel reckless living this way because I, of all people, should remember how close we live to the edge of death. I’ve been around death as a pastor. I’ve stood at the bedside of those who were taking their final, shallow breaths. I’ve laid my hands on cool foreheads to bless those who have just slipped away. I’ve stood in the circle of family members, the holy ground of love, as they said their final goodbyes. Why, then, in light of these experiences and this knowledge, why do I not pay more attention to life? Why do I allow myself to become so frenzied and frantic? Why do I not hug my children more and whisper words that matter to the husband I love dearly? Why don’t I stop more to listen to my own breath and be grateful for the beating of my own heart? Why don’t I, Teri McDowell Ott, remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return?
In the midst of writing this sermon and thinking these thoughts, the voice of Jill Kuebrich, Andrew’s mother, found its way to me. Jill read a sermon of mine on my blog after Andrew’s death and we wrote each other briefly about Andrew and his life, and the impact he had on others. Jill directed me to a blog she had started, a place where she could remember her son and write about her grief. I found myself reading it again this week.
I was moved in particular by a post she wrote for another grieving mother. To this mother Jill writes:
“When you asked me at your son’s wake if it gets easier I truthfully and tearfully told you NO! I regret not lying to you to give you some comfort. You will never miss him less and when you think of what has happened it will be like a sock to the gut every time. But you will see signs of your son everywhere! Take each one and let it put a smile on your face. Try not to let what has happened define and ruin your life. The best tribute I think we can give our sons is to live and love more fully than ever before led by their example!”
Jill’s words resonate with me as a mother of an extraordinary son, and as a child of God trying to make sense of tragedy and the fragility of human life. Jill’s words to me this week felt like the Psalmist’s words. As I read I felt as if she were smearing my forehead with ash….waking me up to the gift that is my life.
After Andrew’s death, Jill and her husband, Matt, discovered a journal he had written full of writings and containing a list of 152 things he wanted to accomplish in his life. He started this list by writing, “Ever since I was a little boy I would always hear older people say I wish I would have. They were looking back and wishing they had the courage to follow through with their dreams. NOT ME. I am creating a list. This is not a bucket list,” Andrew wrote, “this is a TO DO list. This is not a wish I would have done it list. This is a I DID IT list and it was amazing. The main reason I am creating this list is because I feel like most people wander aimlessly through life like a zombie, never breaking through and experiencing life.”
Some of the “To-Do’s” on Andrew’s list included:
- Make a million dollars just to give it away
- Milk a cow
- Make a huge difference in at least three people’s lives
- Read the entire Bible
- See Professor McMillan’s sheep
- Mow the lawn in cut offs
“I am Andrew Kuebrich,” he concluded, “and this is my journey…”
Thomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in a busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. That they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers.
The evenings of my recent winter break were spent reading and contemplating Merton’s words. More than any other spiritual writer, he makes me pause to survey my interior life. During those quiet evenings I realized how burdened I had become by judgment rather than love. Certain people had taken up residence in my mind—they had moved in, it seemed, just to spite me.
I recalled the smug face of the old, white, pastor who once invited me to sit down for a “get-to-know-each-other” chat. Then he stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head and talked about himself for the good part of an hour. Perhaps this wouldn’t have angered me so much, if hours, months, even years of my life had not already been stolen by other men like him—arrogant wind bags who do nothing but talk about nothing, and yet believe they are something.
Next the freshman football player came to my mind—a handsome, strong young man, with an olive complexion and beautiful hair—who, last autumn, sat on the front row of the auditorium, smirking and whispering rudely to his friends while I gave a presentation on the heritage of our college (a subject I care deeply about.) He disrupted and angered me, which helped him powerfully manipulate the space. It was all I could do not to call him out and tell him he was behaving like a real ass.
Finally, a handful of young college women arose out of my quiet contemplation. The ones who are growing bored with me and my style of religion because it is “too political.” They are not interested in immigration issues or the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Theirs is a personal Savior who calls them to an outreach of making disciples. They want to travel the world, spread the Good News of the Gospel, and pose for Facebook with an African baby in their arms.
“The saints are what they are,” Merton writes, “not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”
Okay, dear friend Merton, I asked, how do I love and admire these people? Their behavior turns my mood black. They trap me in obsessive recall as their words and faces tediously run through my mind—leaving us all in need of liberation.
“[The saints have] a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men.”
Realizing the burden I carry, I finally took these people to the mat—the meditation mat, that is, where I go whenever I feel foul. I held each one in my mind as I sought to create (like Merton did) a space of compassion. They irritated me, at first, because here they were again, intruding on my life and my quiet. But, in the light of compassion, these burdensome people slowly began to transform.
“A man becomes a saint not by the conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.”
I began to notice the deep need in the old, white pastor to be relevant in a world (“his” world) that was shrinking all around him. And I noticed the demanding and tiresome nature of the freshman football player’s ego—an ego that expected this boy to constantly perform for others and control his space. And I discovered the frailty and insecurity of the young, evangelical women, as well as their desire for a religion that might finally make them feel good about themselves. And then I found myself in the midst of these bothersome people—each human like me—and I recognized their needs are mine as well. I, too, desire to be relevant. I, too, struggle with my ego. I, too, am frail and insecure.
Which is, perhaps, good to know—but hard to live with. I don’t want to be like these people. I want to be better. And in being better, I want to push them aside, rejecting them for my, more noble, path.
This, in turn, made me realize how I am reduced by judgment. I know I cannot be more than I am until I lay myself down with the wind bag, the pompous jock, the Facebook queens, and embrace them as I would my own frail heart.