Do all funeral directors believe death takes precedence over life? Or just the ones I have to work with? I got “the call” from our local funeral director informing me that there had been a death in our community. The family (whom I did not know and do not serve as pastor) had requested that I do the service…that Saturday at 2:00pm. I was not available that Saturday at 2:00pm. When I told the funeral director this, he balked. Clearly I was not here “to serve the people” like he was. Clearly I did not understand that it was my duty as a pastor to drop everything in my life to serve the dead.
His attempt to shame me was infuriating. After I hung up the phone, the conversation clung to me like a wet spider web. I couldn’t get rid of his voice in my head, the words he used against me, and the anger roiling my insides. I hopped hyperactively around our house, unable to focus on my work and the looming deadline of my next writing project. This man had powerfully leapt into my day and threatened to monopolize my mind if I didn’t do something quick.
So I took the funeral director to the mat and meditated with my suffering. I breathed in, feeling my lungs expand, and breathed out, feeling my lungs contract. My shoulders rose and fell. My anger burned in my chest like a hot piece of coal as I sat for ten minutes, feeling the burn. In doing so, the funeral director’s hold on me began to break into tiny little pieces. When I finished, he wasn’t entirely gone, but my anger was diffused and I was able to get back to my work.
Typically, when I get this hot, I pass my emotions on to my husband in an angry, spiteful rant. My husband loves me so he receives my rant and oftentimes shoulders my anger in solidarity. This, I realize, isn’t particularly fair to my husband. Why should he bear the anger I can’t rid myself of? Also, sharing my anger with my husband just seems to make it grow and expand in the universe. We don’t need any more anger in the world. So before I rant or vent or allow any emotion to distract me from the present moment, I’m going to try to take it to the mat. I’m going to practice sitting with my suffering.
“God is a challenge rather than a notion. We do not think Him; we are stirred by Him. We can never describe Him; we can only return to Him. We may address ourselves to Him; we cannot comprehend Him. We can sense His presence; we cannot grasp His essence.”
“God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other, in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. There may come a moment like thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on forever: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on forever.”
My favorite phrase here, “A moment like thunder in the soul.” I’ve felt that. Have you?
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2011), pgs. 93-95.
My meditation practice began with the purchase of a new, maroon zafu and zabuton—fancy names for the pillows I learned were a must for those who suffer while sitting cross-legged on the floor. The cushions feel good under my sit-bones, keep my back straight and my anklebones comfortable. I sit in a dark room near my office at the college where gray light filters in through venetian blinds. Behind me is a green chalkboard since this used to be a classroom, turned conference room, now cleared out as a space for prayer and meditation. Our college has welcomed a new group of Muslim students who needed a quiet place to pray. So we created this space in which I find myself meditating each morning.
Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock wryly cracked, “Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.” And I might agree, except that French is a beautiful language and kissing speaks of love—especially when it’s not required, or expected. This is the beauty of meditation for me. Out of the nothingness of it, out of this waste of time, comes beauty and knowledge I never expected.
For instance, one day I sat, focused on my breathing, and came to the knowledge that my body is not happy unless it is in constant motion. I itched to go and do while I sat. It was a pulling within me towards activity like the addict is pulled to her dope. The same was true of my mind that was not content unless it was leaping, forward or backward, to any moment but the present. After my practice I wondered how I could be happy if my body and mind never wanted to be where I actually was? I didn’t know of this discontent—of my unrest and addiction to motion—until I practiced doing nothing.
Meditation, then, is a clearing of space for me, an emptying ritual of only ten to twelve minutes. My desire is to open myself through this practice so I can receive whatever comes. Sometimes nothing comes. But that’s okay. Who am I to judge the nothingness? More often, though, I am given something out of the nothing—an epiphany (such as the discontent to which my mind and body lure me) a knowing humility that the world moves on as I sit, or a simple and subtle diffusing of the urgency of my emotions. These are gifts I never would have received had I not engaged myself in the practice of doing nothing, had I not stopped for a few minutes to sit cross-legged, in a dark room on a maroon zafu and zabuton.
A figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox).
I’ve fallen in love with the simile. A friend suggested I use one in an article I was writing. I had so much fun trying to come up with the perfect simile that I have been hunting them down in everything I read. This summer I’ve been immersing myself in the stories of Flannery O’Connor who—hands down—is the QUEEN of similes! Just for fun–here are a few of my favorites:
- His heart began to grip him like a little ape clutching the bars of its cage.
- Rayber felt as if he were fighting his way out of a net.
- His khaki trousers reached just to his hipbones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt.
- Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.
- She could hear the wind move through the treetops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.
- The graduates in their heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them.
- He heard the words drag out. He felt them pull out of his mouth like freight cars, jangling, backing up on each other, grating to a halt, sliding, clinching back, jarring, and then suddenly stopping as roughly as they had begun.
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