For Titus

For Titus:

I was da,
when the milk teeth first
broke ivory white
through new pink
and grew fast
from the floor up.

I was da,
a single syllable
like mild,
like love,
like peace.

I was da-da,
when the uppers
came screaming
through mouth’s roof,
when you learned
of night terrors
and sickness.

I was da-da
the complex,
the healer,
the big-armed
hero.

Today I am dad,
a one syllable wonder
yet again,
delta-alpha-delta,
the difference,
the beginning,
always the difference.

I am dad,
and in that
there is sorrow
and hope.
Sorrow that
by language
I have evolved beyond
single syllables,
and hope that
I might always
be the difference,
yes–the beginning of
all difference.

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America #1 (Thoughts from a Rocking Chair)

1.

It is pleasant to talk of
work, rest, personal spirituality,
of the tragedy of old Smith’s farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation,
or of morning prayers
and the flight of the gold finches.

2.

Here, in this pipe dream
of the American free,

I saw the children running
through water spouting sidewalks,
dancing the hokey-pokey
to radio-Disney,
learning the joys
of play-pretend wars,
of vigilant violence between
marines and jihadi militants,
or cowboys and Indians,
whichever;

I saw We The People
dancing to death
yet again, and buying news
like movies, like politics,
like bubblegum and Coca-Cola.

I saw this all from the
porch rocker at old Smith’s place,
from the farmland
untouched by tractors for
near a generation.

3.

I could sit here, in this rocker
overlooking fallow fields,
prayer beads in hand,
and dream pretty poems
of a people’s judgment.

I could watch the gold finches
come, and leave, and come again,
and call this contemplation.

I could name it Walden,
or Eden, or the Buffalo River Valley.

These, too, are
luxurious pastimes.

4.

Other-world children
marshal language like missiles
and speak of loosing fathers
and goats with the same
dry eyes;

I wonder whether they hope
to work their father’s fallow fields,
to consider again the morning prayer
of peace, to hear again
the gold-finch’s Spring song.

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Just a few Questions

1.

A church matron, a Baptist-born, by-God saint once told me that every time a woman has sex before marriage, she gives away a tiny piece of herself. I note that she made no mention of men, but that aside, she expounded, said that if a girl gives away too many tiny pieces, she’ll find herself incomplete.  I was sixteen when she said this. I am thirty-six now. I do not believe her. Is the complete self of a woman (or man) reduced to sexuality? Are we summed up by the sins of our past?

2.

A shopping-mall Santa once said that every time a child says “I don’t believe,” an elf or fairy dies. Platitudes and leg-pulling aside, this is cruel. Can doubt be beaten back by fear and shame?

3.

Yesterday, I logged onto Facebook and saw the news of the Palestinian children who were murdered while playing on the beach. In the comment thread of one avatar’s status update, a war of words ensued. As good Americans (not to say anything of Christians) we must side with Israel to the death! As humanitarian activists (not to say anything of Christians) we must call the Israelies to account! Opinions flew with the rocket’s red glare. I wondered; is anyone listening anymore? Are we listening to the children, or are we just engaging in our own ideological wars?

4.

I’ve been watching social media girations, and the questions that these girations beg are age-old. Are we reduced to the sum of our sexuality, or the sins of our past? Can doubt (in God, politics, the market) be beaten back by fear and shame? Is anyone listening to the children anymore, or are we too wrapped up in our own ideologies?

5.

I once read that St. Francis prayed, “Most High, Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and grant me… a perfect charity.” Ah charity. Whatever happened to charity?

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5 Instructions to My Sons

 I’ve been considering what it means to employ the craft of writing for my immediate community, and what community could be more immediate than the community of my family? To that end, I’ve written this piece, titled “5 Instruction to my sons.” Enjoy.

*****

Dear Ike, Jude, Bean, and Titus Lee:

Last night, as I was walking Lucy around the neighborhood waiting for her to tend to her business, I considered those things I’d like you to know. I typed a short list on my phone, and this morning, I gave flesh to the bones of that list. It is true, there are many words of instruction I’d like to leave you; among those many words, though, are these five.

1.  Good prayers are not wordy prayers.

When I was a young boy, I listened as an older young boy prayed from the front of my Sunday class. He was a home-schooled boy, one who boasted a great vocabulary and the will to use it. He tossed about large words like “omnipotent,” and “sovereign,” broke into the occasional use of Hebrew or Greek, and more than once employed rhyme. “Sovereign Abba, omnipotent Logos” he prayed, “may your grace shine on my face.” I was ten at the time of his prayer, and I had no idea what he was saying. I am thirty-six now, and having reflected on this prayer again, I still have no idea what he was saying.

As you grow in faith, some might try to poison you with the notion that big, complicated, poetic prayers capture the ear of God. The truth is, these sorts of prayers, if not from the heart, capture only the ears of men.

Prayer, especially public prayer, is not an opportunity to show others the many large words you know. It is not an opportunity to be praised for being “such a good little pray-er.” Instead, prayer is an opportunity to be present with God in quiet places. As the Gospel of Matthew records,

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Mary Kate Morse says that prayer is “attentiveness to God.” And attentiveness, she says, “is an awareness that we are in God’s presence, and God is in ours.” If God is always in our presence, and we are always in his, shouldn’t prayer sound a lot more common? Shouldn’t it sound like the words we use everyday? Shouldn’t it come from the heart, naturally, just like the way you talk with me or your momma?

2.  Friendship is simple presence, too.

If prayer is the “awareness that we are in God’s presence, and God is in ours,” maybe the secret to good prayer is learning to be present with God in the moment. What does it mean to be present? The dictionary describes it as “being with one or others in the specified or understood place.”  In the same way that good prayer relies on being present with God, being a good friend also relies on the ability to be present.

For illustration, let’s use an example.

If our little friend Melody came to play, and you were tapping on an iPad while she was trying to talk with you about her new kittens, would you be present with her in the moment? Sure, you might be in the same place, but would you be fully aware of her joy in the new kittens if you did not note the smile on her face, or see her hopping around in excitement? Presence, then, requires interaction. Presence involves looking people in the eyes, noting their joy, pain, elation, or agitation and responding to them. Presence is being with someone instead of merely around them.

3.  It’s not the size of your Cadillac that matters.

This is a fact of life: men will judge you by the size of your Cadillac, the shine of your shoes, or the height of your mansion. And as has been the way of men for all eternity, the more wealthy you appear, the more honor you are likely to receive. (Doesn’t everyone seem to value the opinion of the rich businessman more than the blue-collar factory worker?)

In this, there will come a great temptation to live in such a way that other men might esteem you, might judge you as wealthy. You might begin to purchase cars you cannot afford (or can, for that matter), might buy a large house on the highest hill so that everyone might know the size of your manhood. And do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having a few nice things. But always remember that men are suckers for judging a book by its cover. As old Sammy said, “God doesn’t see things the way men see them. People judge by outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”

Remember, it’s not the size of your car that matters; it’s all a matter of the heart.

4.  Folks will talk about global crises and wanting to change the world; don’t let that distract you from a more neighborly mission.

There are a great many global crises these days (climate change, the orphan crisis, kidnapped children, wars, revolutions, rumors of wars and revolutions, dictators run-amok, immigration, Fox News). And though I hope that you are voracious learners, that you know the things that impact the world, know this, too: these things can distract you from being present to your neighbors and friends.

These days, popular psychology, theology, and sociology will teach you that “you can change the world.” I think that I believed them, once, that I strived and strived and strived to make a grand difference. In that striving, I forgot to be present with my friends and family. Maybe I even forgot to be present with you. This was a mistake.

In the 1960s, a good and smart frenchman named Jaques Ellul (Zh-ok El-ool) wrote,

“scripture never asks us to bear the world’s suffering. It is enough to bear that of one’s neighbor. Once again, we encounter the very bad presumption of putting ourselves in the place of Jesus Christ, who alone bears the sufferings of the Algerians, the Tibetans and the inhabitants of India. He does not ask us to substitute ourselves for him.”

(Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom.) I hope that you see the world, and I hope that your work alleviates suffering wherever you see it. I have some great friends who are engaged in this kind of humanitarian work (get to know Sarah Bessey, John Sowers, Kristin Howerton, and others). But I would tell you, and they would agree, that if you are seek to change the world at the expense of knowing your neighbor, you’re missing the point of the Great Command, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

5.  Jesus isn’t as rigid as we want him to be, and not nearly as silent as we think he is.

This is, maybe, the most important instruction I could leave you. Jesus is not as rigid as men might make him. He is not Baptist, or Methodist, or Anglican, or Non-Denominational (which is becoming its own sort of denomination), or Catholic. Jesus exists outside the small boxes of men. In the Gospels, he was present (there’s that word again) to the Jews, the non-Jews, the religious and non-religious alike.  Jesus was all things to all people, was in all of the boxes but outside of them, too. He was not as rigid as some would have made him to be. (As an aside, this is likely why he was murdered.)

Yes, refuse to believe that Jesus is as rigid as all of that. In the same way, refuse to believe that, in the words of Buddy Wakefield, “that guy [God] hasn’t spoken in… like… ever.” Refuse also those who would teach you that God doesn’t still speak today, that he’s not active in the world around you. He will speak and you can hear him if you’ll develop the ears to hear him. And developing those ears takes a lifetime of practice.

 

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On the Poetry of the Workplace (A Guest Post by Glynn Young)

In April, I began exploring the reason for poetry. I’ve invited a few guests to enter the conversation in hopes that we might find a collective answer to the question, “why poetry?” (Read all “why poetry?” guest posts, here.) Today, I’ve asked Glynn Young to stop in and share his answer. Glynn is leading some wonderful conversations about poetry in the workplace at places like Tweetspeak Poetry, The High Calling, and his own blog. In addition, he’s recently released Poetry at Work, a book well worth any working stiff’s time.

Without further adieu, please welcome Glynn Young.

*****

I was educated in public schools, and it was in public schools that I was first introduced to poetry. Elementary education was a basic overview of all subjects, with a focus on whatever subject or theme our teachers were interested in at the moment. Middle school and high school had a focus on fiction; since this was the South, the Really Deep South, William Faulkner reigned supreme even years after his death. So we studied fiction, with an occasional cursory nod in the direction of poetry and essays.

The seeds for my love of poetry were planted in high school; and the love of poetry began in a discovery that I loved British literature. William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens. Thomas Hardy. John Milton. George Eliot.

And then T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot was the key that unlocked the poetry door. I read “The Hollow Men,” and something changed forever.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!…

In college, I started in pre-med but abandoned it (too much chemistry) for journalism. And literature. I took the English classes the English majors took – two semesters of British literature, from Beowulf and Piers Plowman to (again) T.S. Eliot. Along the way, my classes had a significant immersion in the Romantics – Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron (I survived tests consisting of nothing more than single lines or fragments of lines of poems – and had to identify the poet and the poem) (consider going through 30 or 40 lines like that in under an hour) (#IHatedPoetry).

A few years later, I found myself working as a speechwriter. A friend suggested I read three poets for a broad understanding of how language–and spoken language–could really work. He recommended Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and no surprise, T.S. Eliot. I read the collected poems of all three. I became a serious speechwriter.

From that point on, poetry became a regular part of what I read. As a result, I wrote better speeches. My perspective changed. I began to look at problems differently. I often found myself running against the corporate herd (and trampled more than once). But that different perspective helped rescue two different companies, both of which believed they had hit a reputational dead end. Poetry shaped and framed that different perspective. Poetry and faith together were that different perspective.

About three years ago, I was sitting in yet another recurring weekly meeting, listening to the recurring weekly conversation, my attention drifting to something more interesting, when I caught something unexpected. I was hearing something in the repetition and in the conversation. And what I was hearing was poetry. Not necessarily good poetry, but poetry nonetheless. I looked around to see if others had noticed, but they had the same weekly recurring faces.

I began to pay closer attention to all of the forms of corporate work life–the interview, the performance review, the PowerPoint presentation, the reorganization and downsizing, the vision statement, the cubicle and other work spaces, unemployment, and even retirement. Wherever I looked, I found poetry.

Some well known business writers, like David Whyte and Clare Morgan, have long advocated for what poetry can bring to business. I love their books, but they see poetry as something from the outside of work brought inside and applied. I was startled to realize that poetry didn’t have to be brought in from the outside; it was, and is, inherent in the work we do.

Poetry is already there. To realize it, to grasp it, is to understand something powerful about who we are and what we do with a considerable part of lives.

We don’t work. We write poetry.

Glynn Young is the author of two novels and the recently published non-fiction book Poetry at Work. He blogs at Faith, Fiction, Friends, and is an editor at Tweetspeak Poetry.

*photo by takomabibalot, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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