Please enjoy the video poem above as we seek serenity, equanimity, and stability in this troubled time. Faith and peace to all.
Earlier this year, I wrote about my “travel fast,” explaining how 2020 would be a year in which I would abstain from literary workshops, conferences, seminars, or retreats. My plan has been (and continues to be) allowing connection with my family to motivate and inspire new writing. Well, God sure has an interesting sense of humor:
“What’s that, son? You want to spend more time with your family? POOF! Here you go. I will enable you to work from home, school your sons at home, worship at home, give poetry workshops from home, exercise at home, and….let’s see…pretty much anything else you want to do — it’s going to have to happen within the four walls of your house. You’re welcome.”
Lest anyone think I’m making light of coronavirus, let me say that I’m not. I know that people are dying. I know that many are ill in ways they’ve never been before. And I know that a global pandemic is nothing to laugh about. We in the US are blessed to have largely first-world concerns that sound an awful lot like whining to those less fortunate. That being said, the situations we find ourselves in as locked-down Americans deserve a moment or two of levity.
Thus far, my boys, my wife, and I have: 1.) Put together jigsaw puzzles, 2.) Played countless rounds of Uno, Life, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit, 3.) Gone for hikes in the remote area near the creek, 4.) Ridden our bikes a couple of miles a day, and 5.) attended “online church,” an experience that has really expanded our definition of “sacred.”
But throughout all this, the discoveries we’ve made have been meaningful: My oldest son, a budding TikTok celebrity whose following is somewhere around 45,000, has been entertaining us with his theatrical abilities. He randomly performs stand-up routines, imitations, and monologues. My youngest son, the future architect/lawyer/billionaire, has been learning to code and has had extensive video conversations with his favorite cousin who shares much of his personality and interests. These two have their own “secret detective agency” and hatch plans via Facetime. Much of their dialogue has been inspired by the book series The Mysterious Benedict Society.
The hero during our isolation has been my wife: A healthcare worker, she goes to her clinic day after day, exposing herself to potential infection so that people can receive the care they need, now and anytime. When she returns in the evenings, she immediately showers and sanitizes to protect all of us. About a week ago, a known COVID-19 infected patient coughed near her. We’ve been watching and waiting ever since. Nothing so far, thankfully, but…the risk is always there. To exacerbate her situation, she’s also recovering from surgery that she had about three weeks ago. Without going into graphic detail, the operation was moderately invasive. Nonetheless, she presses on. She is our resident saint and our honored queen.
Our afternoons have been the most remarkable feature of this weird time: I’ve been reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with the boys. We each have a copy of the text, and via Audible, we have Tim Robbins reading the book to us. We follow along, pause to discuss and reflect, and analyze the book’s characters, plot, tone, and other details. Supplementing this study, we’ve watched old episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater, a t.v. show based upon the great author’s exhilarating short stories (see YouTube). The boys find commonalities between the novel we’ve been reading and the smaller bite-sized narratives on screen. This has given rise to discussions of our present society and culture, as one might imagine. It’s also allowed us to practice some amateur psychology on the characters Bradbury invented. My oldest son developed a five-step treatment plan for Mildred (Montag’s wife in the novel), for example.
Will this quarantine generate poems? Probably. I don’t plan to write about all the kinds of things that have occurred to so many others — how this moment demonstrates our universal humanity, how politics are utterly futile in times like these, how the family unit remains the foundation of our society. These big ideas, while true, will undoubtedly be overdone, and frankly, poems that are written with an agenda in mind rarely succeed as art.
No, my poems that will spring from this strange point in history will probably dwell upon subjects like those I mentioned before — the heroism of my wife, the creativity of my sons, the little day-to-day tasks and events that are breaks from our non-coronavirus life routines. Crisis, despite its horrors, is a rescue from the mundane. It shakes us from our civilized, programmed, humdrum existences into realization of our human fragility. For all of us, this epiphany has been, perhaps, the most monumental lesson.
I never intended for this blog entry to become a gratitude journal, and yet, as I look back over it, it certainly has leaned in that direction. There’s much to be thankful for, and that’s undoubtedly another lesson of this period. As we inhabit the most intimate spaces of our lives with those we hold closest, we re-learn the value of connection. We are reminded that, if everything else perished, our interpersonal bonds would matter most. Hold your dear ones tight, embrace the temporary inconveniences, and soon enough, we will all look back on this historical hiccup a little wiser, a little better.
If this post had a soundtrack, it would be Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Here’s why: Yesterday my writing received an acceptance from a literary journal I’ve wanted my work to appear in for years. The poems they accepted had previously received favorable rejections (you know the kind: “We found much to admire, but…”). Everything I’ve ever learned from workshops, seminars, and personal experience told me that these pieces had quality. Nonetheless, they had been turned down several times. In fact, one of them was more than a year old and had yet to find a home.
I began to worry: Was my literary taste-o-meter just that far off? Was I overlooking some flagrant error that everybody else could see? What was the matter? The truth was, the poems were as good as I had thought (oh-so modestly), but other factors were at play. Space considerations, editor fatigue, and a whole host of other circumstances can often keep excellent poems out of journals’ pages, and it’s critical to remember just exactly how subjective the literary business is — All. The. Time.
Whatever previous editors’ reasons for turning these poems down, I kept on submitting them to respectable magazines and venues, knowing that somebody was going to appreciate them sooner or later. That persistence paid off, and no matter what well-meaning writing teachers may tell you, sometimes it doesn’t. It takes more than stubbornness or grit to get work accepted — there also has to be merit, value, and a certain amount of good fortune involved. This fact isn’t meant to discourage; it’s just what I’ve found to be true.
This latest acceptance also came at a time when I needed it most. For the past several months, I’ve been on a real rejection streak…so much so that I was reaching the dreaded point of asking, “Should I even continue?” Instead, I exhaled a quick “Thank You Lord” upon receiving this “yes” email, interpreting it as some assurance that I’m still using my talent well.
Just when you think you’re about done, something good happens to reaffirm your path. Sometimes believing in the worth of your own work is the answer. Have faith in the good things you produce, and keep putting them out there. Encouragement is waiting.
Confession: I call my mother daily. Recently, my stepdad passed away, leaving her with an empty house, a garden, and a few civic and church gatherings to occupy her time. Sometimes we talk about my nieces and my sons, two topics that equally delight us both. Other times, we discuss politics, religion, and good literature; after all, my mother was an English teacher for about 30 years. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, just in an unexpected direction.
Yesterday as we were conversing, though, she said something that stood out to me regarding my present profession: “God wanted you to be a poet, and He knew that your current job would allow you to make a decent living and write at the same time.”
Whether you’re a believer or not, one must admit that my mother’s spiritual logic certainly adds up: I’ve been in jobs where I was so consumed (creatively and otherwise) that I had no extra energy, time, or inspiration for poetry. In those jobs, I was miserable. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards were okay, and occasionally, I was able to truly make a difference. But the holes that those jobs cut into my literary life were deep and regrettable. A whole piece of myself was being neglected.
These days, I don’t really have that problem. My professional position requires attention and diligence, as all fulfilling careers should. But when I go home or away from my office, I am, for the most part, free of work-related obligations. There was a time when work came home with me — papers to grade, questions to answer at all hours, and, many years ago, a pager that kept me at my boss’s beck and call 24/7. This kind of devotion, I told myself, would prove my value to my employer. And certainly hard work is a time-honored ethic exhibited by everyone I esteem.
However, having a career that allows me, even rewards me, for poetic accomplishments is nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes I forget how truly blessed I am to even be alive (see prior posts for details on my harrowing journey through epilepsy and its resulting brain surgery). And then, to be in a job that really “gets” me and supports both my academic and literary endeavors? Wow — jackpot.
Mom’s right. This path I’m on is no accident. The work I’m doing, both inside and outside my office, is ordained. And it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds itself as a result.
As I begin to conclude my time as faculty at Word and Community: A Writers Retreat, I feel it would be appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned and gained here. The following are a few lessons I’ve taken from a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods with other writers:
1.) One’s creative impulse and personal faith are two halves of a larger whole. They work integrally with one another and often simultaneously.
2.) Solitude is great, but like everything else, it demands balance. Being by oneself for reflection and contemplation must be counter-weighted by relationship and interaction with others. Too much time in either community or isolation can be detrimental to creativity.
3.) Being on a body of water opens the mind’s gateway to metaphor, analogy, and critical perspective. The physical supplements the metaphysical when paddling a craft.
4.) Nature is necessary to allow the processing of events, truths, and ideas from our lives. Clarity is fostered by trees, trails, and the wild.
5.) We must go in order to return. Away is anywhere not home. Seeking simplicity through complexity leads one back to the familiar and the cherished. And these ideas are also interrelated.
In retrospect, I probably would not have had the time to better understand my craft and my self without this week in the woods. It has allowed me to write, edit, revise, teach, and most of all, relax. I’ve met others I won’t soon forget, eaten differently (and more nutritiously) than I usually would, and cleared away a number of mental cobwebs.
Tomorrow, I will return my rental car, board an airplane, and resume life as husband, dad, educator, and leader. But for these final hours, it’s nice to hear the wind through the pines, watch the ripples on Trout Lake, and hear the bird songs of a place unlike my native Florida. But it will also be good to get back there. Farewell, Wisconsin.
There’s been a lot of bad press about Catholicism lately, but then, there’s been bad press about pretty much anything having to do with God, religion, or faith, so that stands to reason. Anytime the media get a whiff of something potentially salacious or scandalous, it becomes a headline (I should know; I started out as a newspaper reporter many years ago). And this isn’t to excuse the egregious behaviors of offenders; victims deserve to be heard and justice deserves to be rendered in cases where horrors occurred. But I’d like to take a moment to take a look at the redeeming side of a denomination not my own.
I was born in St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida the day after America’s Bicentennial. Forty-one years and three months prior to that event, my stepdad (who recently passed away) was also born there. The lovely Catholic hospital had crucifixes in every room, and the presence of nuns was a silent reassurance to patients including my mother, who was and is a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist. So, my life began as a consequence of Catholic benevolence, among other factors.
Fast-forward 10 years. I am sitting in my fifth grade class, and it is the last time school will appeal to me until I hit age 30. The reason I still semi-like school in 1986 is mostly because of my teacher, a phenomenal educator/second-mom who happened to be Catholic. Even with all my issues (and there were many), I was still treated by her as though I had rich potential for great things — musically, creatively, and academically. In her fair but compassionate eyes, she saw a student who desired attention, so she made me the “leader” of class songs. She saw a boy who was drawn to more sensitive endeavors like story writing, so she gave me time to pursue them. My school life was made more tolerable, even enjoyable, because of a Catholic educator who chose to work in a rural public school as her mission field.
Jump now to my adulthood: While attaining two graduate level degrees in subjects I actually like (education and creative writing), I attend the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a city populated by statues of St. Francis on numerous corners and where the famed Loretto Staircase is found. The workshop is run by IMAGE Journal, whose editor at that time was (and still is?) Catholic. I am attending the workshop on a scholarship, donated generously by a local Catholic family. Without their assistance, I would have been sitting at home, twiddling a number two pencil, and wishing I could be among like-minded poets.
While I’m at The Glen, I meet a charming woman who is in the process of becoming a Franciscan Sister. We chat over matters ranging from theology to literature, and we participate in workshops that refine our writing while celebrating faith. I attend a homily given by a Benedictine monk, and it makes me think deeply, reflect upon my own beliefs, and inquire further.
Another year passes, and the woman I met at The Glen is now a full-fledged Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She messages me online to tell me that America magazine (a Catholic publication) is holding a poetry contest. She thinks my work might be a good fit. I submit a little something. My poem “Skeletal Prayer” takes runner-up, and I’m elated. The news of the win comes at a time when I’m thinking about abandoning poetry altogether, so I keep going. What’s more, my financial adviser sees the poem and sends me hearty congratulations. Life is good and getting better.
And now, to the present: In 10 days, I will be presenting poetry workshops and craft talks at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Retreat Center in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. This invitation to teach and write is the result of meeting the aforementioned Franciscan Sister some years ago. It should be an interesting time; I’m learning what a Taize service is (since I’ll be playing a little guitar for it), and again I find myself standing at the intersection of Faith, Art, and Mystery. I can hardly wait to try my hand at this new experience.
My life has been repeatedly and favorably influenced by Catholic forces well beyond my control. As I teach my college students Flannery O’Connor short stories and draw inspiration from minds like G.K. Chesterton, I’m reminded that, even though my Protestantism may be firmly intact, it is only because of Catholicism that my birth, my education, and my literary life have been what they are. And for that truth, I am continually grateful.
Allow me to begin by saying I’m no numerologist. I do believe, however, that one day, we will all understand why the numbers in our lives intermingle and coordinate the way they do. I also believe that this overlap of figures is more than just mathematical. There is a purpose to the numbers, and it’s not just coincidental.
Here’s a good example: I was born on July 5. As a kid, I lived on Fifth Street. My stepdad was born March 5. My oldest son was born January 5. My best friend growing up had a birthday 25 days later than mine. Many of my other family members have birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates that are influenced by the number five — maybe they’re multiples or maybe the dates add up to something five-related. Perhaps that last bit is stretching the significance a little, but you get the picture.
So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me when, the other day, my publisher emailed to tell me that my latest book, Hard Inheritance, had been published on the date of my grandfather’s death 12 years prior — December 5th.
To really grasp the importance of this chronological lineup, you have to know the kind of influence my grandfather had in my life. As a young child, I grew up on his citrus farm in Hardee County, a very rural community in southern central Florida. My grandfather loved me more deeply than almost any other person in my life, save my mother. He invested his time, his resources, and his wisdom in preparing me to become a hard working, honest, and thinking man.
He had flown 51 missions in World War II, and his American devotion carried well beyond his military service. He served his church as a deacon (a model I would later follow myself). He faithfully worked for the Coca-Cola Foods Division as a groves manager for decades before retiring to volunteer with my scout troop. I became an Eagle Scout because he taught me the value of persistence and perseverance; seeing a thing through to its successful end.
It only made sense to me when Hard Inheritance came out on the fifth. Of course it would, I thought, following the five-laden trail of bread crumbs throughout my life. It’s both fitting and bittersweet that this book, my best and most earnest to date, would become available to the public on a day with such meaning.
My hope now is that this volume would please him, were he still here. It celebrates the beautiful and the natural, but it also shows the events in life that leave our scars and calluses, both of which he was intensely familiar with. It celebrates Our Florida — that place that he, six generations of our ancestors, and now my children call home.
I think he’d like the history, the honesty, and the geography of this book. He’d probably laugh at the pieces he’s featured in, having forgotten an episode that seemed relatively unimportant to him, but one in which I find deeper relevance. He, too, was a “five” man, after all — born in the month of May, living to the age of 83 (subtract the two digits), and being great-grandfather to five children (3 girls by my sister, 2 boys that are mine).
Being connected to one particular number in such a vital way can sometimes be a Hard Inheritance of its own. Rarely a day goes by when some important connection to the number 5 doesn’t crop up in my day-to-day life. Were I one to play the lottery, I sometimes think I’d buy one of those “Pick 5” tickets and just play all fives to see what happens. My statistician friends would discourage this, of course, knowing the wild improbability of winning from such a choice.
But if it’s one thing that my life has taught me, it’s that all the cold, sterile math in the world can’t explain the way that numbers work. There is no algebra, no geometry, no trigonometry or physics formula to rationalize how the figures align. And in that same logically inexplicable space, poetry lives.
Tomorrow will mark five days since my book was published. I will celebrate by watching my oldest son, number 35 on his basketball team, play his final game of the season. I will think of how proud my grandfather would be — both of my writing and my boys’ achievements. I will hope for more fives in the future. And I know that I will surely receive them.
It’s always dangerous to start blogging about potentially divisive issues like religion, especially on Sunday. But this post really isn’t about religion; it’s about faith and its role in the creative process. It’s also about how others within the creative and academic community perceive writers of faith. This post will probably cost me some readers, and I’m okay with that. I respect your views, and I’d like for you to respect mine as well. If you don’t, so be it. This is America, after all.
I have a lot of friends within the writing and arts realm who generally frown upon Christianity. They’ve had bad experiences with churches, pastors, congregation members, or other entities (choir directors, for instance). They’ve been fatigued by petty squabbles over methodology or order of worship. Their doors have been knocked on by cult members who say the path to prosperity and eternity is “my way or the hell-way.” It’s too bad, really.
In workshops and in seminars, there always seems to be a faction of holy-haters, and inevitably, they flock together to build the fire of their ire with the fuel of others’ guile. I happen to be a Christian, and I’m saddened by their disdain. Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me clarify: I am not what certain popular media portray as “Christian:” Quran-burning, hate-filled, condemnation spewers who bomb abortion clinics and wave “God Hates F*gs” posters. My Jesus wouldn’t do that.
My position is just this: In order to be “whole” people, individuals must engage not only their minds, but also the other aspects of their humanity– the physical, the emotional, and yes, the spiritual. My soul happened to be spoken to at an early age. I felt a sincere and innate desire to choose Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and since that time, my Faith has given me “life more abundantly:” My highs have been the highest, my lows have been the lowest, but in every circumstance, my God has seen me through in a way that secular logic never could. Whether it’s been near-death experiences (I’ve been on life support twice), experimental brain surgery in my early thirties, or the thousands of smaller instances along the way, I feel certain that my life would have been much worse and less significant without Christ.
My personal faith isn’t the way some choose to engage their soul, and I get that. For some of my writer friends, Yoga is their spiritual exercise of choice. For others, they lean toward a different set of traditions. These same friends have sent me their “happy thoughts” or their “positive vibrations” when they’ve been doing their religious practices. I am not offended. We agree to disagree, and they acknowledge my prayers and practices just as I acknowledge theirs. Call it the spiritual equivalent of the “two-finger wave” off the steering wheels of our separate supernatural vehicles.
But herein lies the key to this matter: Faith, you see, is exactly that — metaphysical belief. It’s not a scientific theory to be diagnosed and dissected by the mind, and that element of mystery disturbs some of my colleagues. You cannot solve a spiritual question with a cognitive answer any more than you can use your heart as your brain. The two (in both cases) carry specific demands and capabilities that cannot be met or found in other ways.
Likewise, having a science-based argument about religion is like trying to apply duct tape to a rainbow. It ain’t-a gonna happen, friend. I know that my writing is stronger and my life is better when both most closely reflect and exhibit the tenets of my beliefs. When I’ve tried to “be someone else” or write like someone I’m not, the product was passionless, synthetic, and ugly. I cannot “write like a Buddhist” any more than Richard Gere can act like he’s me (trust me, he can’t).
My faith has given me inspiration many times over the years. Granted, my poems have not become evangelical daggers that stab scripture into people; that wouldn’t help anyone, and it’s not my style. However, chances are good that if you’ve had a strong emotional (even spiritual) response or connection while reading my work, that’s probably not accidental, either. I’ll let the reader decide that little detail.
The purpose of this post, I hope, has been clearly conveyed. My intent here is not alienation or division, but explication and perhaps some provision of understanding. The closer we can come to being real with each other about all the diverse facets of our lives as writers, artists, and whole human beings, the better our world will be. If this transparency offends you, reader, I apologize. I would offer my warmest regards and highest hopes for all of us in the week ahead. And if you’d like, I’ll say a little prayer for you, too.