These two poems from my book in progress, ON COLD MORNINGS, begin this new blog series. I will occasionally include some musing on the subject of what I call "the problem of beauty." My thinking often turns to a question: How do we properly acknowledge, appreciate, perhaps even celebrate natural beauty (human and otherwise), without becoming possessive or exploitative?
I think it fair to say that we do not have adequate answers to that question; indeed, we so quickly become possessive and exploitative. We see a beautiful mountain or forest, and we begin immediately to dream of grasping some part of it for ourselves or of plundering its resources for profit. Our having does not satisfy, so we imagine having more. Our profits do not satisfy, so we work tirelessly to increase them, in order to fund our expanding possession.
I see the "problem of beauty" as relevant to our relationship to Mother Nature generally, but most specifically and acutely relevant to men's relationship to women, and thus, to female beauty. In regards to women, and to female beauty specifically, our testosterone-driven tendency toward exploitation and control seems relentless and rapacious. From one culture to the next, we stagger wildly from brutal suppression, on the one hand, to naked display for entertainment, on the other. Both responses serve an auto-erotic male interest and male empowerment. I do not pretend in these poems to have an answer to my own question or a solution to the problem as I see it. I mean only to explore the issue, hoping, as I do so, neither to hold back in fear nor to exploit.
On Cold Mornings
On cold mornings,
while some complain as they sit
tucked within their warm offices,
I want to play hide and seek
in the snow with children until
my blue lips are too numb to speak.
among stiff bodies standing,
I too stand stiffly, recalling
how I dance when I pray alone.
I hold in my laughter, imagining
all of us dancing in long underwear,
like saints in robes abandoned to joy.
At a funeral,
while a pastor lies about the old bastard
or the faithful greive madly as if faithless,
I feel an urge to curse and mock
and dare them to call down holy fire,
or tell them as I leave that I’m bored.
Only life is intetesting
in all the truth and beauty of it.
In my prayers,
images of women distract me.
I ask, Father, how do I love them
without sinning yet with joy
at your beauty in them,
breast, thigh, groin, eye.
On any day,
wherever I fear my protests
like screams may echo,
betraying the hollowness of earth
and sky and heart, I want to fall
weeping, kissing hungrily the neck,
the warm supple neck of one
who understands all of this,
oh Lord, I pray.
in her face
in her gaze
Self above her regal Self
by god crowned
her dignified aegis
her sloped her abrupt
her curved and then
a strong core
of convergence and divide
she promises here her abundance
kept by her choice shared with her joy
her soul’s worth comprehended by
her mind within her own heart
Mother Nature Has Beautiful Curves
A friend asked me to describe the spiritual experience that comes to me while hiking for
miles. Crafting an accurate description of a subjective experience presents an insoluble
dilemma, however, precisely because the experience is subjective and, thus, highly susceptible
to imaginative embellishment, an unintentional, but artful fabrication. Who would know the
difference between what I claim happens to me and what actually happens to me, when I walk
for hours? For that matter, does anything actually happen to me, beyond the physiological?
Much of my walking, after all, involves merely listening to my own breathing, feeling my tired
feet clump against the earth, and looking around.
Perhaps dopamine provides an adequate explanation, or endocannabinoids. Long-
distance runners experience a coveted euphoria, if they run far enough, when endorphins pour
from the pituitary gland into the body’s bloodstream and endocannabinoids (along with other
enzymes) flood the brain. Only a few times in my life, however, have I run or hiked long enough
to feel, perhaps, a small measure of that “runner’s high.” At my best, I never fared well at long
distances. A hard hike of 20 miles, up and down moderate trails, tested me well enough when
young, and I have not made that distance in many years.
The chemical explanation does not satisfy me, in other words, because it does not
account well for my experience. If I understand correctly, I do not have the stamina required
for generating that delightful deluge of delicious brain chemicals. Instead, I tire too quickly,
grow dizzy, and then nauseous, unless I keep a fairly slow pace. In fact, I might feel a “spiritual”
sense of awe, of being overwhelmed by beauty and significance, merely by standing deep in a
forest or listening to a stream. That experience deepens, expands, intensifies, with the strain of
muscle and lung, but simply being there might do. The imagination has great power, including
the power to deceive.
Nonetheless, hastily attributing my particular experience to the “psychological” strikes
me as medieval, like explaining the absence of a true vacuum in nature with the principle that
“Nature abhors a vacuum.” It begs an actual, understandable explanation. No doubt, I do in
some psychological sense create my own experience. I bring the physical and mental-
emotional elements together, both consciously and unconsciously. My valuation of Nature and
natural beauty, my sense of identity and place within Nature, my awareness of myself as a
mote within the immeasurable cosmic expanse, my intention to realize the “spiritual,” all stand
a priori to my sensory experience. I bring myself along on hikes, in other words.
On what grounds, then, can I call my experience “spiritual”?
In Cosmos, a passionate Carl Sagan reaches and stumbles rhetorically in his attempt to
provide a scientific explanation of everything. Alas. “Nature,” for Sagan, seems very like a
conscious and deliberative deity. So much does Sagan’s “Nature” function like a creator god that
I wonder why he does not finally say “god,” as the language he uses for description is, indeed,
saturated with purpose, value, and awe. To his professional credit, he does not say “god” because
science will not let him. He reasons well within the tradition of Darwin (we are products of evolution), Huxley (we are “conscious automata”), Cashmore (we are “bags of chemicals”), and
countless others. He sounds profoundly worshipful, but faithfully reminds us that we are each a
mere “collection of water, calcium and organic molecules”, a “complex machine” following the
dictates of natural law.
Does my “spiritual” experience, a very common sort of thing, merely express another
advantageous step in human evolution, my “love” for Nature predisposing me to engage in a
mutually beneficial relationship with her?
Recent efforts by Intelligent Design advocates quickly stumbled into disrepute and near
oblivion by confusing the epistemological and methodological boundaries of philosophy,
theology, and science. Sagan may have slipped into rhetorical indulgence and presumed moral
and aesthetic values that his science alone cannot support, but he understood the one thing he
could not finally say, as a scientist: “god.” The Intelligent Design folk left the scientific method
behind by making that most treacherous leap, not of faith, but of poor logic (and, I suspect, of
They fell to Earth.
I trespass. I have expertise neither in science nor in philosophy or theology.
Nonetheless, I humbly submit that after coming so far, we have not come far, in our efforts to
bridge the gap or to burn all bridges between a presumed God and Nature as we know her.
For my part, I cannot explain; I can only describe.
As I hike, a joy overtakes me, and I begin to sense—or imagine—an inextricable unity of
raw sensuality and intense spirituality in Nature’s Beauty. As the miles pass, I feel more deeply
moved by the beauty that embraces me and more keenly aware of how that beauty penetrates
everything, every detail of soil, grass blade, flower, branch, leaf, bird, and sky. We traditionally
speak of “Mother Nature,” and some refer to the Earth as “Gaia,” a female, very much in
keeping with ancient Earth-Mother mythologies. Those ancient notions carried considerable
insight, along with gratitude, regarding the value of our beautiful and fecund Earth. “Mother
Nature has beautiful curves,” a friend of mine once said. Indeed, she does. Her beauty ravishes
me, and the inrush of joy, through my physical senses, becomes an excruciating “spiritual” joy.
Still, I must justify my use of that dubious term.
Given the gift of deep pleasure that comes into me, my experience inevitably takes on a
moral dimension. I see this moral dynamic as a sine qua non of anything “spiritual.” “How will I
respond to the gift?” becomes a profoundly moral question. My imagination runs inevitably to
a familiar set of choices. I say “inevitably” because we all face an environmental crisis
stemming from choices our predecessors have made, regarding our responses to Nature, our
reverence for or irreverence toward her beauty and our use or misuse of her resources. She
has ravished us; we have raped her. We have what one author calls “an unchaste” relationship
with her, taking more than rightly belongs to us and injuring her in the taking. We see a deep
forest or spectacular mountain, a lush island . . . and we want to own it, to possess it selfishly or
ravage its resources and move on to the the next.
All of Nature’s beauty can so quickly become a distraction, and then a temptation, and
then a deadly spiritual poison to the selfish soul. We humans seem not only capable of, but predisposed to doing what makes no evolutionary sense. We destroy our environment pell-mell.
The medieval "doctrine of plenitude," as I recall it, intrigues me in this context. It says
that God is love, that love must have an object, and that God by His own nature was compelled
to create everything that could be created, because everything that could conceivably be loved
had to be created in order to be loved. So we have this fabulous Earth, the exquisitely beautiful
human body also, and yet we fight to possess her, then exploit and abuse her. I can find all
such impulses within myself (I do not, however, understand the failure to see her beauty at all
or the failure to feel powerfully moved by her). The very Beauty of Nature that awes us also
seduces us. How do we properly—safely—embrace her, then?
I stand transfixed along a trail, looking out across the snow-capped peaks and down at a
pristine lake bordered by cliffs and spruce, and the moral ambivalence of my own nature rises
to meet that inrush of awe and joy. I do not believe that a bag of chemicals or an automaton,
no matter how complex, has the capacity to yield such an experience. Appeals to my “survival
instinct” fall like wearisome clichés against my ears, as I might too easily dismiss that instinct,
and as we humans collectively seem so bound to do. I have no counter-proof to offer.
As to the spiritual state that I experience, I believe that this phrase captures it fairly well:
“an inrush of joy.” The beauty of a setting has much to do with it. The Flint Hills of central-
eastern Kansas, by my reckoning, are especially beautiful and, in a sense, "seductive" in late autumn and winter. The undulant hills rise and fall with the soft and varied flesh tones of
autumn grass. The purple, early morning haze thinly covers the hilltops and folds into the
valleys, until the new sun slowly draws away the blanket of fog. And there She lies, alluring,
vulnerable, excruciatingly beautiful. And there I am, my mind troubled by few if any discernible
thoughts, with a deep longing. I might, in other circumstances, experience this merging of the
sensual and spiritual through sorrow, rather than joy, but the process is fundamentally the
same—a kenosis, a losing of oneself. As another friend says, the process involves "getting
oneself out of the way" and then letting Beauty overwhelm.
This experience of immersion, a kind of "drowning” in the sensual, may become a
discipline with practice; but is it mere illusion, a psychological trick with a chemical card deck,
generating an emotional high? I don't believe so. I disapprove of making too clear a distinction
among “physical,” "psychological," "emotional," and "spiritual" experiences. From my Christian
perspective, I may say that God, as Father and Creator, has "wired" us physically and
psychologically for such enlightening processes. The spiritual encompasses the whole person,
not some a-physical, detachable soul.
A hike among hills, along a river or beach, or up and down a mountain presents one
opportunity, step by step almost, to let go of distractions from work, from church, from home,
from whatever exterior and interior tensions beset us. To unfocus and refocus again. To be
silent and listen. To wait for the the lover to come alongside. To choose her, and in our
choosing, bring new life or old death.
Lookin’ for a Hard Headed Woman
Eddie Deathrage looked at the long wood splinters embedded deep under the palm of
his right hand. He looked at us. He looked at the fractured stud. He looked at us. He looked at
his right hand, curled it into a fist, breaking the splinters into small fragments, and picked up his
hammer. Two days later, Eddie missed work. The doctor lanced his swollen, infected hand and
spent more than an hour digging and picking splinters out of his flesh.
“Eddie, you’re not being tough, you’re being stupid,” one of his workers told him. “You
could have lost your hand!”
Julie and I stood by the side of the pool, brows knit, glaring threat in each faces. “No
way you win this,” I said. She laughed. She rolled her eyes. We both eyed the pool in front of
us, the snow on the banks, and the rim of ice at the water’s edge. Across the pool, perhaps ten
or twelve meters away, a five-meter waterfall poured bone-crushingly cold water into the pool.
We had stripped down as far as decency permitted, while Linda stood ready to issue the
go signal. We planted our feet, leaning forward and ready to leap, and Linda dropped her arm.
The water felt like cold sledge hammers against our skin and took our breath, but we forced our
way through the frigid pool until we passed under the waterfall, slapped the rock behind it, and
completed the agonizing return to shore.
We will never agree upon who won the race.
Half-way back in a line at the Zipper, Linda and our two young boys advanced slowly
toward the gatekeeper. Three teenage boys, impatient with the slow pace, peeled away from
the queue and went straight to the gate, pushing their way in at the front, despite muttered
protests and angry looks.
Linda told the boys to stay put, then walked calmly but confidently to the front of the
line. She caught the attention of the teenage boys and told them, with an irresistible authority,
“Get to the back of the line. Now.”
They stared at her, stunned.
She glared back.
Their mental generators turned slowly, but a small light came on. Squaring their
shoulders, they tipped their heads slightly back, forced a comically confident smile, and
swaggered to the rear.
Andrew’s story follows a common plot line. He did not call his boss a liar, exactly, but
exposed his boss’s lies. Integrity, basic human decency, required that he do so. He had
challenged his boss in private repeatedly, imploring him, pleading with him, and arguing on
behalf of simple honesty. Eventually, the conflict went public.
Truth seeps upward, inevitably, finding seams and pathways out of the dark soil of
corruption, just as water seeps downward, irresistibly, through the most compacted earth.
Andrew lost his job. With nothing in a savings account, two small children, and a wife
giving up her part-time work, he sold his house and headed toward another life.
At the expense of seeming boastful, I will tell this story about myself. At a basketball
game, Chris, a student from the college where I worked, decided to harass the loud,
rambunctious male fans from our rival college. As he walked nonchalantly past them toward
his own crowd, he turned suddenly and struck one of the opposing fans with both fists, an
upward thrust under the ribs, lifting him off the floor and throwing him backward.
The fan landed hard on a woman sitting behind him. She had a brace on her left knee,
crutches resting beside her, and a tortured grimace on her face. Clearly, many people around
me had seen Chris’s assault on another student. I heard muttered protests and a few gasps.
No one moved.
I moved. “This cannot stand,” I said to myself, and immediately made my way down
through the full bleachers, around the playing floor, and over to the tightly packed students
from my college. I forced my way through them, pressing up bleacher by bleacher until I stood
face-to-face with Chris. He had seen me coming and met my eyes nervously.
“You will not leave this gym until you apologize to that student and that woman.”
“Okay, I’ll say I’m sorry, but not because you tell me to.”
Ignoring the absurdity and impertinence of his response, I moved back down out of the
bleachers and planted myself where I could prevent him from leaving. I also alerted the athletic
director to call the police. “Hey, I will,” he said, and then, “Thank you for confronting Chris.” I
did not ask him why he had not.
When the game ended, I made my way immediately across the court and waited for
Chris to descend from the bleachers. I beckoned to him with one finger, and said nothing. He
followed me dutifully toward the gymnasium entrance, where the opposing male fans had
amassed, in order to prevent Chris from escaping. As I approached the crowd of threatening
and cursing young men, I realized that Chris had slowed his pace. I turned, walked several
paces back to him, and tugged the front of his shirt. “You. Will. Apologize. Now walk.” Pale,
sweating, and shaking, Chris followed me into and through the threatening crowd.
My students understand why I say to them, “I work hard to be honest, fair, gentle, and
compassionate. Do not, do not, ever think that I am ‘nice’.”
Yes, I enjoy that story. I do feel some pride there, but carry a conviction, born of success
and failures alike, that the world too much suffers cowards.
Linda saw the boy fall. So did his mother and a few others who stood at the top of the
waterfall. It appeared that the boy attempted to cross the top of the waterfall by jumping from
stone to stone. As he fell, his left boot caught between two crossed logs jutting up out of the
pool below. His position left him hanging inside the waterfall, a five-meter torrent of ice cold
water. Hanging upside down, the boy could not free his head and breathe.
Linda quickly scaled the rocks beside the waterfall, shimmied over to the logs, and
climbed high enough to reach the boy and lift his head out of the rushing water. Every time she
pulled his head from the waterfall, the boy screamed, “Oh god oh god it’s so cold. Am I dying?”
The exertion left Linda exhausted, so until help arrived, she had no choice but to lower
the boy’s head back into the water, rest her left arm, then free his head again, so that he could
breathe. He and she repeated this routine until the rest of us reached the scene.
The next morning . . . well, you can imagine. The physical strength and force of effort
that this brief crisis demanded of Linda left her aching to the bone, with muscle strains from
neck to feet.
I had fallen in love with Linda initially, for a number of reasons, her fearless integrity
being one of them. I fell in love with her again that day.
The Voices I Hear
Whether cultural mores or religious rules allow us to hug, or merely to shake hands, or
compel us to avoid touching altogether, let me say I love you while close enough to see clearly
the color of your eyes. I do not so much grow tired of talking with you by voice chat, text, or
email; I merely grow frustrated at not having that most wonderful option: speaking to you in
person, friend facing friend. I want you close to me, near enough to hear your voice without the
thinning, sharpening effect of electronics. Your voice comes as a joy to me, a deep solace,
nonetheless, no matter how it comes, even when by the silent progress of a text message
across my screen. Over time, even over great distance, I learn your voice and hear your voice
among the patterns of your texting.
I used to say, “I inherited a boot for a tongue; please forgive me if I step clumsily or kick
you accidentally.” My forthright wife has assured me, however, through years of hearing me
stumble, that I have learned; my words do not so often outpace my brain or trample someone’s
heart. Indeed, I have worked hard to refine my voice, to soften my footfall, so to speak, and
more skillfully choreograph the dance of words among my best intentions, my reasoning, and
my passion. All of this assumes that I do, in fact, have a voice, not merely a speaking voice, as
nearly everyone has, but a voice that carries some power, for better or worse, as, in fact,
everyone has. But does everyone have a voice that carries some power? Can anyone, anyone
at all, speak with power, or speak effectively to power? I will come back to those questions.
My Father’s Voice
My father could not hear my voice. I stood always at the intersection of his poor hearing
and his selective listening. Most of the time, I stood silently there, as speaking seemed rarely to
correlate with being heard. Indeed, it seemed most often that speaking on my own behalf
meant not being heard. I might sit next to him and speak directly to his ear, and he, with face
contorted by annoyed frustration, might say to my mother sitting across the room, “I can’t
hear. What is he trying to say?” In a soft voice, she would repeat my words to him. At other
times, astonishingly, he would hear a near whisper from me and accuse me of saying something
inappropriate. “I know what I heard!,” he would shout, my denials only fueling his anger.
Governments function this way, do they not? Especially those governments bent on
Voices Speaking Truth to Power
We need voices speaking truth about Power, about corrupt leaders, institutions,
corporations, and governments. Even more, however, we need voices speaking truth to Power.
Truth about Power and truth to Power are not the same. I speak truth to Power if the Power
poses a threat to me, that is, if I risk something substantial by facing that threat and speaking a
dangerous truth into the ear of Power. On a small scale, I have spoken truth to Power and lost
a job and my health as consequence. Soon after losing my job, my doctors handed me a
twofold diagnosis: viral infection of my central nervous system and multiple sclerosis (MS).
They suggested that the stress from that year of conflict contributed to the onset of both
diseases, as intense stress suppresses the immune system.
While I would rather experience again the year of physical hell that came with the viral
infection than face again the stress of fighting with corrupt leaders, I have no regrets. You
might recall the words of Cassius, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep.
He were no lion were not Romans hinds.
The Voice of Love
Let me paraphrase St. Paul:
If I do not have love, I have nothing.
If I do not have love, I am nothing.
Given the absolute prominence that Paul gives to love, I think it fair to paraphrase him further
by saying that without love, there is nothing—no Goodness, no Truth, no Beauty. We practice
“speaking the truth in love,” as he says, or we speak with no good purpose and to no good
effect, even if we do indeed speak truth to Power. In saying this, I fear being misunderstood by
those who equate “love” with all things sweet, nice, pleasant, and easy. I do not make that
equation. Indeed, love compels us to speak truth to Power, to risk our welfare, our health,
even our lives. In other words, love may compel us into battle. And then love compels us to
forgive the wrongs committed against us.
I do not mean to neglect the personal face of love, that compellingly beautiful, joyful,
healing, and empowering embrace, literal or figurative, between beloved and beloved, that
face-to-face, eye-to-eye respect, compassion, and affection. Indeed, I mean to focus on that
most of all. Let me say it concisely: Wherever Power, however great or small, stands in the
way of that embrace, speak out. Fight for that. Risk your life for that.
Hadduck's Rules of Order for Committee
Several years ago, reflecting upon my experience in academia as a member of various
committees, sharing table with administrators, faculty, staff, and students, I began to take
notes. I noted the commonalities, or at least typicalities, among committees, no matter their
purpose or membership. Wanting to be as kind as possible, I will suggest that the brilliantly
democratic idea of committee probably originated very far back in human history, under a tree,
with a man, a woman, and a loquacious reptile. Had Shakespeare penned in modern parlance a
note on the dynamics of committee, Mark Anthony might have said,
"Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of passive-aggression."
Before we consider the rules, we should first observe a general principle: The art of committee
lies in the interplay of three things: 1. talking incessantly about change; 2. avoiding decisions
that create change; and 3. blaming someone else for failure.
Nota Bene: Chronically tired people behave like drunk people--they make poor decisions. Thus,
a room full of tired committee members is like a room full of drunk people, but less fun.
Research bears this out. Of course, I depend heavily here upon research, as this pertains
primarily to academic committees. Nonetheless, I have wished that church and club
committees (and boards of all sorts) would likewise embrace such rules as these.
Rules for Committee
Tristi Nota: I served on committee once with a fellow who made this confession: “I get on as
many committees as possible because I do not want anything to happen without my influence.”
Devil, dunce, or zealot? I don’t know, but pitiable.
Your Existence Is Beautiful
My mother turned 90 recently. She tells me that she does not feel old, until she tries to
get up from her chair. She feels briefly old then, while rocking back and forth to build
momentum. I love her quick mind, her sense of humor, her firm convictions, her sea-deep
compassion. With her thin white hair done up in a perm, she barely tops 60 inches now, but
she rises in my imagination as a woman of great stature.
I recall her nearly blind grandfather at 98. I stood next to him, as he sat in his
wheelchair. Given my height at 12 years old, I know that I must have looked down toward him;
yet I cannot correct the image in my memory. I looked up at him, in awe, as he spoke my name,
remembered much about me, and took my hand in his.
The handshake dates back 25 centuries or more, a gesture of peace, indicating that
neither man carried a weapon: “My hand to you, sir. I do not intend to kill you at the moment.”
What troubled circumstances made that gesture necessary? Fortunately, we attend our typical
meet-and-greets without fear, but we still offer the hand as a sign of amicable civility and
I prefer another gesture, borrowed from another culture, and also with an ancient
history. Apparently the namaste means nothing more nowadays than a handshake for some, a
simple, polite gesture of recognition. The hands pressed palm to palm in front of the chest, the
slight bow, have a lovely ancient meaning, nonetheless. “I bow to the divine in you.”
You are young? Then be beautiful, as you are; be strong, as you are; be young, as you
are. You are old? Then be beautiful, as you are; be strong, as you are; be young at heart, as you
are. Your existence is beautiful.
A Golden Compass Point
"Punishing the other person is self-punishment. That is true in every circumstance.”
Thich Nhat Hahn
So says the current and ancient wisdom, which I will not dispute. I hear it often and
interpret it as a call to empathy: understand the pain you will cause others by imagining that
pain as your own. Hahn’s wisdom closely mirrors formulations of the golden rule from Hillel and
from Islam. Confucius states it this way: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to
you.” Jesus gives it a twist: “Do for others what you want them to do for you.” Commentors
correctly note that the one formulation prefers a quietude, or passivity (in response to a
presumed injury or a self-centered desire), while the other suggests a premeditated act of
generosity (in response to an awareness of one’s own desire or need).
Whether stated as a call to self-restraint or to self-initiative, the golden rule
presupposes our fundamental connectedness; I and others share a common humanity, with
common needs and desires. I cannot focus properly on myself without seeing the other within
me; I cannot focus properly on others without seeing myself in them.
A few years ago, a newly enrolled college student died from an overdose of opiods.
Some said, “She killed herself.” Finding that phrasing inappropriatetly judgmental, others said,
“She died of suicide.” The first implies that she ought not to have done that; the second implies
that she could not help it. To some, the first feels inhumane; to others, the second feels
I hear this variation of the golden rule often: “When you hurt someone else, you hurt
yourself.” That particular rendering leaves me feeling a bit off balance, actually. Perhaps I lack
empathy or imagination on this point, but the “hurting others means hurting yourself”
formulation does not satisfy me. Bluntly put, it sounds selfish, merely, as if the only reason not
to hurt another is not to hurt myself. I don’t hear the appeal to our deep connectedness. I
don’t hear a call to focus on anyone but myself. Does it follow, in other words, that if I discover
a way to hurt you without hurting myself, then all is well with me (if not with you)?
I prefer to say it this way: When I hurt myself, I hurt others. If I love you, I wil not hurt
myself, not if I can help it.
That more clearly reminds me of our connectedness, our common humanity, our shared
desires, our mutual needs. It more clearly reminds me that I am not the center of the universe,
and not really even the center of my world.
I do not have a world. We have a world.
And I love you. Keep me reminded of that, please, if you love me, as I believe that will
help me help myself.
We Do Not Drown
For my friend, Ahmed Aq
In time, if willing, we learn that emotional pain need not overcome peace of mind and
heart. The pain of loss or injustice, the longing, the disorienting, even the raging at times, need
not be more than a storm circling round our still-calm Self.
Acceptance of loss or injustice, on the other hand, does not mean a stoical dispassion or
indifference. We may achieve such self-fortified, anaesthetized serenity, but in doing so, we die
We live; therefore, we suffer.
We love; therefore, we hurt.
Acceptance embraces the full experience, and thus even our pain and our expressions of
pain. In other words, when we remain at peace, pain does not swirl within us as something
detached from our inner Self at peace. Rather, we experience pain straight through to the heart
of the heart of us; and yet we are at once the turbulent storm and the stable center, the wind
and the stillness.
Indeed, when we accept the full experience of loss or injustice, we fight or we self-
restrain; we push forward or we wait; we cry out or we keep silent. We do whatever love and
justice demand of us. From our tranquility, we create the storm. From within our quietude, we
move ourselves. Still, and still, we keep our peace.
In loving, we act, even fight, and yet remain at peace. We discover the unity of
immanence and transcendence.
We accept immersion--but we do not drown.
Answering the Fool
“Answer the fool according to his folly. Do not answer the fool according to his folly.” Solomon
My friend is a drunk. An early-morning, chain-smoking, lying, porn-watching dunk.
I love my friend.
I do not think of her as a close or “good” friend, although in her painfully self-
constrained and self-serving way, she tries. I mean she really tries. When love comes my way,
however weak, encumbered, and encrusted, I cannot turn my back. I do keep a wary eye. I set
limits that other friendships rarely need. Indeed, I confess that at times I hold my breath—and
my nose. But I love my friend, in whatever self-limited, self-protective way that I can. I try. I
really do try.
She has told me some of her history. By no self-scrutiny or dint of rational thought can I
say how I would have, or even could have, responded to the traumas she suffered at the hands
of men. Physical abuse by her ex. Rape. Burglaries. Beatings. Several months ago, her neighbor
wanted her cigarette lighter all to himself. She refused. He punched her in the head, knocking
her down, and took her lighter home with him, like some sort of Kull the Conqueror.
Sure, I could write at length about another friend who endured more assaults in her
childhood years than she can recall specifically. What must it mean, my God, to say, “I was
raped and beaten so many times that I lost count by the age of 13”? I count her among my
heroes. I love her for her manifest Herculean moral courage, her disciplined life, her heart-
melting compassion. I do not believe I would have responded so well even to a fraction of her
We make choices, and the consequences come swinging at us like a fist.
A domino falls and blames the ill-behaved domino that knocked it down, and on and on
and on the blaming goes.
It seems we fools cannot see more than a few dominoes behind us, and sometimes we
fail to see even the one domino in front of us. “Do not judge, or you will be judged by the
measure you judge others.” No, I do not at all believe, as some seem to, that Jesus meant we
should discard our collective moral compass or feign a belief that we all suffer at the hands of
I believe he meant, “Be humble, and love everyone, in whatever limited, encumbered,
encrusted way you can.”
Invisible Heart of the Onion
I have failed to speak a necessary truth and known the consequences of my cowardice.
I have spoken truth full of risk and known the cost of courage.
I have lost friendship on both accounts, been forced to change direction in my life, and
felt in head and gut the fire of shame and the flame of righteous indignation.
Faith rises in us as a fierce and defiant courage, standing confidently against the
conventional wisdom which says, “Take care of yourself first; do not risk too much; follow your
convictions only so far as keeping your wallet, your reputation, or your blood allows.” Keeping
faith requires confronting whatever enemy might threaten to take those things from me.
Tell me, please, how to find the invisible heart of the onion that is human motivation.
Why do some keep faith, while some do not?
When I grow tired and wonder why I bother to fight, I am tempted to forget the riches
that have come to me from standing firm and to consider losses only. Yet I know who I am.
That knowledge, in fact, is the wealth I own for keeping faith.
The poet Rumi asks this: “What have I ever lost by dying?” Can I love that question, if I
fear, too much, the answers?
Before the River Empties Into the Sea
I was born not long ago and came with such haste to where I am, not seeing, not
hearing, not touching or tasting all that I should have, not loving all whom I should have. Where
have they all gone? They have faded behind me into the fog along the river. I think it is not far
now to where the river empties into the sea. I will walk slowly from here and pay attention. I
will not pass by an open heart.
On NPR a few mornings ago, a psychologist cited a body of research indicating that we do
change somewhat as we age, and yet we tend to resist change. Ironically, we believe that at any given
point in our lives we have finally come to our true identity and that we will not change much in the
future. Yes, that sounds mostly true of us, being such self-contradictory dunderheads.
In graduate school, a professor told a group of us dunderheads that by the age of 30, he had
fundamentally established his identity and had never, in 35 years since, seen reason to change his mind
about much of anything. We should do the same, he said, by age 30. Even now, that admonition strikes
as a stupidity that only arrogance can produce.
We should not, of course, willy nilly allow ourselves to be “tossed this way and that by every
wind of doctrine,” but I reserve it as the right of Jesus alone to say, “It is finished,” at the age of 33 or
Do I fear change? Sure, like anyone. I fear something else far more: not changing, not being
better tomorrow than I am today. Well, all right, give me a little more time than that, please. I am a
slow learner. Nonetheless, I fear not becoming, and thus dying before I die.
I hope that I am and will always be becoming. I have so much still to learn. I fancy the idea of
dying in the middle of something . . . half way up a mountain, half way done with a wood project, half
way done writing a book, and still madly in love with all those I love now. I want my friends to see me at once as the familiar Kevin, yet also as the half stranger who has changed because he is still becoming.
After all, I am only 61.
“Thou are the thing itself,” King Lear
Tell the story of a friendship—the sparkling, surf-like beginning; the deepening into calmer, cooler waters; the storms; the ports of call; the doldrums; the bright days of moderate, steady wind—the log book and cartography of a long voyage. Perhaps the tale ends, wracked on a rocky shore. Let me alter the course of your story, just a little. A long voyage does not play out in a simple, linear fashion, as a short trip might, but encounters many times its ludic beginnings and episodic middles, perhaps even the debris of its multiple near-ends.
The emotional dynamic of friendship bears a striking resemblance to that of romance, granting two essential differences. To a romance belongs the complexifying, yet singular, sexually-oriented purpose we give to marriage. And to romance we give that unique and compelling sense that this one, and no other, must be the one, intimately living ‘with,’ for as long as we breathe. My point, briefly stated: We fall in love with each other, as friends, and over time we learn what it means to love for the long voyage.
For a few years in Hereford, Arizona, I did odd jobs for Ruth Gregovich. Working for her became working with her, and work always turned to long conversation.
We built a decorative stone wall. We built a stone fountain. We hung pictures, painted walls, and admired paintings by her friend, Diego Rivera. We sat on her patio, quietly spying on the desert quail pecking through the grass. On some evenings, we watched the sun drop behind the Huachuca Mountains.
Very early one Saturday morning, Ruth called me. “Cheetah died. Can you help me bury her?” “Sure. I’ll be there in 15.” At the base of her stone wall, we dug a shallow grave, placed the cat in a shoe box, and set the box in the grave. After covering Cheetah with the dirt and turf, we set up the match-stick cross her granddaughter had made.
Linda and I moved to Texas. Ruth and I wrote letters for more than 20 years. She died at 92. She would be 101 now. At 61, I still miss her, painfully at times.
As my new colleagues mingled through the long hour of a faculty-staff mixer, I stood, nodded, smiled, and talked when I had to. I noticed another fellow sharing my discomfort and caught his eye. I knew. He knew. I exaggerate to say we loved each other at first sight, but we love each other to this day.
Mike, his wife Katie, my wife Linda, and I developed a friendship that has endured for nearly 30 years, a voyage, an adventure, a long and sometimes arduous journey deep into each other’s terra incognita.
The definitive anecdotes remain elusive. I reach for stories among the 23 months at a college where Mike and I worked. Perhaps the week with them on Chincoteague? In our home in Montana?
Our friendship, in fact, has been one long conversation, in person, by phone, by email. Words have woven us together.
I met Autumn, the 10-year-old daughter of my son’s Siksika girlfriend. I was 58. We eyed each other cautiously at first, grew to like each other, and soon began the adventure of building a history as friends.
On a long hike to a mountaintop, we trudged side-by-side in a group of six. I topped the peak in last place, a few meters behind her, but she felt proud, having begun the trek with considerable trepidation. I felt proud of her; much of our conversation involved me convincing her that a girl of nine could master a mountain.
One day, walking with Linda and my son Lewis, Autumn and I began to joke about some music coming from the door of a café. So we danced on the sidewalk, she and I, a clomping, arm-swinging, ludicrous sort of dance, but oh we danced!
I say I love you to a motley bunch of hims and hers, old and young—Christian, Hindu, atheist, Muslim—accountant, professor, carpenter, ex-student, pastor, computer techie, nurse, office administrator, . . . . I count every one as gift.
I read friendship literature, almost always with disappointment. Efforts to classify friendships by type, for instance, strike me as futile. In any case, I do not understand the value of asking, “Hmm, what ‘type’ of friendship do Ahmed and I have?” When a friendship goes awry, I do not find it helpful to divide and classify, applying labels to the was, is, and will be. I love what Maya Angelou says, “We are more alike, my friend, than unalike,” and yet individual complexities give every human a uniqueness that, likewise, makes every friendship unique. It has never occurred to me that I should ask, “Hmm, what ‘type’ of human is Roshni?”
How many human beings exist? How many possible friendships, mathematically speaking, could form? Let friendship proliferate unabated, exponentially, with a wild diversity (I am tempted to say ‘promiscuity’) of age, gender, color, culture, religion, forever!
Well, true, we can only sustain a very limited number of friendships in a lifetime. Our finiteness in time and space limits our capacity for acting upon our love. But perhaps not. I recall a story I have told before: I met a man on an airplane, a year before I married. As he left to board another flight, he said of his 50-year marriage, “My wife died a few months ago. Cherish your wife; it does not last long enough.” I never met him again; I think of him as a friend. Friendship never lasts long enough.
I insist upon this: friendship is the foundational human relationship. For Christians, God is friend; and a human, Abraham, for instance, can be a friend of God’s. Every other relationship we have, with God or each other, has definition and purpose—role, costume, and script. Friendship needs none of those. Conversely, I cannot imagine marriage or child-rearing without friendship at the core. My wife is my best friend, and I know our life together would be profoundly diminished, if that were not so.
To romance belongs the naked body, but it wears the cultural, social garments of marriage. To romance and friendship alike belongs the naked heart.