19 June 2015

tonight's sky at the pond

*that brick phallus you see is the most upright remains of the old hemp mill.  The windmill is on the little island in the pond; it runs the aerater in the pond so that the fire department can pull water from the pond as needed in the winter.

I would say happy Juneteenth, but this one seems a more somber one.

Today I remember my old childhood friend Nathan Burroughs, who is somewhere out there in the world, and the times we picked and ate crab apples in front of the Langston Hughes Memorial Library at Lincoln University. Our dads both worked at Lincoln. When I moved away (after my first attempt at 4th grade) from there Nathan and I promised that we would get back together after we turned 40, if we were still alive, so I had better get on that.

It was after I moved away from Lincoln, in my second attempt at 4th grade, this time in small town Ohio, that I encountered my first (that I can remember) acts of racism. There was a black boy at my new school who had the honor/misfortune of having red hair. To my shame, I cannot remember his name. His mom must have loved his red hair because he had a big afro. He was teased relentlessly and without mercy, called Freckle Nigger (he also had freckles on his face) and Raggedy Sambo. The first time I experienced this I at first thought it was some kind of inside joke, but then I saw that it wasn't. It was completely disorienting. That kid remained stoic through it all. I went to the bathroom and closed the stall door and weeped, lonely in a world that I did not understand, and missing Nathan.

I still don't understand.

28 May 2015

With each of my children (four of them now), I have had this epiphany, never rote or old hat despite it happening each time - holding them between 6 and 12 months, and struck with being acutely aware that I never knew that I could love this much.

It's not that I have loved the newest one more than the previous.  It's that with each one, the topography of much has changed.

22 May 2015

Arkansans, oh, my poor people.

- photo from Mt. Nebo Arkansas, taken in 2012.

So, the Duggar boy.

Because I work at a psychiatric hospital, I spend time with kids who have been victims of sexual abuse. And with kids who have been perpetrators of sexual abuse. All of them have had awful things happen to them in life. This may surprise some, but I worry for Josh Duggar. Suicide must have crossed his mind in the last couple of days. I fear for him, for his wife, and especially for his kids. Josh Duggar was a minor when what we know to have happened occurred. I am glad that the Duggars will no longer have a show about their family. That is a good thing that has come from these public revelations. But I am not comfortable with the media publicizing the mistakes that a child made. This strikes me as a very dangerous thing, and cruel.

Josh Duggar grew up in a home that was close to Bill Gothard. Gothard had to resign from his ministry because he fondled at least 32 girls. The Duggars were also connected with Doug Phillips, who was forced from his ministry after being outed as a sexual predator. The pastor of the Duggars' church, the man who gave Mrs. Duggar her Mother of the Year award, resigned after a sex scandal. The highway patrolman, a family friend and an elder in a church connected to the Duggars' religious circles, who was the first law enforcement person Jim Bob Duggar reported Josh's issues to, is now serving a 56 year prison sentence for child porn. Josh Duggar grew up in a home that revered men in leadership who have turned out to be sexual abusers. One way or another, Josh Duggar did to his sisters what he knew (intuitively or directly) to do.

Anyone who assumes that sexual abuse in the Duggar household begins and ends with Josh is living in a TLCesque unreality world. I hope that Josh Duggar may see his life as full of worth and wonder, found safe in God (but not the god of the Duggars), with some thread of dignity that can get through this unbelievable humiliation. And God protect the children living in the various Duggar households.

This sin is disgusting. All sin is disgusting. Josh Duggar isn't any more disgusting than you or me. He's no different than the kids I eat my meals with at work, who also come from very messed up families. I would hate to see any of them become the laughingstock of the world, and a "proof" of everything we hate about their kind of people. I think we might do well to offer kind words to and about Josh Duggar. This world is dirty, messy, hateful, unfair, and brutal. What the boy did was in keeping with the world around him, as he had experienced it. Let's not kick a person who is down.

If we are to point fingers, I would start with those who profited by upholding his family to the public as exemplary and worthy of attention. I would then turn to Josh Duggar's parents, who agreed to that public life, to that money, and who embraced a perverse religion, a contemptible patriarchy, and lord only knows how many lies and cover-ups.

17 May 2015

untitled poem, IV

I looked square at the red winged blackbird.
His dark was rest in the hollow worked by the musclewood tree.
He looked back at me.
We watched each other’s chests rise and fall.
Then I told him, “ain’t no way this horse is gonna win the Triple Crown,
cuz every horse I ever laid money on’s lost.”
The wind off the marsh I had to lean into.

“This won’t be no different,” I sighed. Shook my head.

He told me, “every time I take air or ground it’s a gamble, friend.
My only rest is in a tree.”
I looked at reverent cattails and we listened to the wind.
The whole world bent.
Whitecaps rebelled,
pointing upward in channels of water cleft between tall grasses.
“Yeah,” I said. “You got that right about the tree.”
He let his head fall, and he flew away.

29 April 2015


A friend wrote me about her own vantage point of understanding self destructive impulses today.  It was a moving reminder of a certain type of bond shared by those who don't have it all together.  I admit I have a difficult time understanding people who don't "get" the urge to self-destruct.

I always remember that line from Simone Weil where she talks about having been working in the factory in Lyon for months before the first time someone said a kind word to her, and what a miracle it seemed.  I have, in various times and places in my own life, felt terribly alone and/or felt that the world was nothing other than cruelty and cutthroatedness.

But as cruel and cutthroat as we are, ten+ years working in a Memphis metal shop, and a year working at a homeless shelter, and a year+ now working at a psychiatric hospital, have convinced me that we humans are most adept at aiming our violence and rage and hurt at ourselves.  We are masters of our own destruction.

In my old shop I saw it so often, that early 20s young man, black or white, with a litany of folks who have failed him, chip on his shoulder, lonely, angry, back against a wall.  He can't reach anybody but himself with his punches so he pounds on the one target he can hit.  There is even a bravado to it - I will show the world that I can hurt myself more than it (boss, bank, cops, court, baby mama, rival gang, my own gang, etc.) can hurt me.  

You step in close in an attempt to stop that punching and he will punch you too, but the thing is, 9 times out of 10, if you make it past that point, and can just grab that kid and stop him from throwing punches for just a bit, he will break down, and tell you how thankful he is that someone finally gave a damn about him, or at least he will look at you with eyes that suggest as much.

And icing on the cake, having seen that propensity to box oneself when cornered, for years, didn't stop me from doing the same when I found my back against a big wall again.  The urge is incredibly powerful.

You know that scene in Schindler's List wherein Schindler teaches the crazy Nazi concentration camp superintendent with a fondness for shooting victims from his balcony that for him there is more power displayed in not shooting than there is in shooting?  The same logic applies to our first and most formidable violence, that violence we direct toward ourselves.  There is no greater power that we may wield in this life than the power to not destroy ourselves.   In the great ironic cosmology that is Christ born of Mary, the infinite born of the finite, our own tradition teaches that changing ourselves from within is the mechanism through which the cosmos around us will be changed.  The first truce we must ever make is with ourselves.  But the ramifications of that peace can be magnificent.

Maybe it's because I grew up with a father who encouraged me to read Dostoevsky at a young age, maybe it's because I come from long lines of men quite skilled at self-destruction, but I can't really understand this Anglo-Germanic puritanism that only ever envisions life as thrift and prudence and temperance and honest commerce and what not.  It is hard for me to imagine those trajectories in life that don't end up at either saint or scoundrel.  Why bother?  Put your money on a horse friends, one horse, and make it one with some odds that will pay out if it wins.  All these people upset about Baltimore because it is not imaging the path to lukewarm comfortable suburban safe consumer oriented civility - have they ever swung a punch at anyone, or anything, that might have cost them?  Do they even have any access to an internal power, to a will qua will worth talking about?  To paraphrase Lenin, give me 12 young men like those angry kids with fire in their bellies throwing rocks at cops in Baltimore, give me the time and the place and the resources to show them love and care day in and day out, and a holy priest to teach them about the power of the prayer of St. Ephrem, the power of repentance, the power of self control and self sacrificing love, and I could change the course of history.  But give me ten thousand white middle class Christians sitting in comfortable armchairs shaking their heads at TV images of a CVS burning, and I haven't the slightest clue of what I could accomplish.

I know one thing, when I face God I want to face Him with colossal mistakes or genuine holiness or some mix of the two.  Let me be a saint or an all out sinner.  I'd rather be chewed up than spit out.

26 April 2015

the unmaking of the falsehood plasterer's edifice that is "I."

 An anonymous benefactor was kind enough to send me a copy of Donald Sheehan's The Grace of Incorruption: The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics.  Thank you to whomever that was!  I don't know what I would do without my occasional helpers.  I am very blessed to have such caring and generous friends. 

The book is phenomenal, superb, invigorating.  Every English speaker and reader would benefit greatly from reading it.  One of many passages from the book that strikes me is in the chapter titled Introduction to Psalmic Poetics.  There we find a reflection on Psalm 87, "the darkest psalm in the entire Psalter:"
I offer two points here about this psalm.  First, terrible affliction (here: massive depression; Heb. Sheol, the pit) is understood as directly given by God.  Second, one can become more directly intimate with God through the affliction (l. 13): "my prayer shall draw very near to thee."  Yet, this drawing-near does not lift the affliction, if anything, it deepens it.  Thus, Psalm 87 can be seen as a poem of deepest courage: the courage to enter the darkest places of earth - and, there, to suffer abandonment that draws you closer and closer to God as the experience of His fury and terror utterly unmakes you. 

The first thing that struck me here was that a month and a half ago, prior to my having read this book, I quoted in a post Sheehan's translation of Psalm 57:9, Before the bramble produces your thorns, while you are still alive, he will utterly unmake you, and I interpreted there, as it were, though the text does not necessarily warrant it, the phrase utterly unmake you, in a manner consistent with Sheehan's thoughts on Psalm 87.  What synchronicity! 

On the same day that I read this profound passage in Sheehan, I was reading Letter Seven, on Sin, in St. Pavel Florensky's magnum opus The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters.  In this chapter St. Pavel says:
Sin lies in the disinclination to leave the state of self-identity, the identity "I = I," or more precisely, "I!"  The root sin or the root of all sin is the assertion of oneself as oneself, without relation to that which is other, i.e., to God and to all creation.  It is self-immersion without self-transcedence.  All particular sins are only variants or manifestations of the stubborn self-immersion of selfhood.  In other words, sin is the power of the protection of oneself as oneself that makes the person a "self-idol."  It is the power that "explains" I through I, not through God, and grounds I in I, not in God.  Sin is the fundamental striving of I by which I becomes firm in its isolation and makes of itself the unique point of reality...

...The very name for hell in Russian, Ad, from Hades, points to... an isolation of reality, such solipsism, for everyone there says to himself: "solus ipse sum!"...

...sin is that which removes the possibility of grounding and, therefore, explanation, i.e., the possibility of reasonableness.  In the chase after sinful rationalism, the consciousness is deprived of the reason inherent in all being.  Because of our over-intellectualization, the consciousness ceases to see intelligently.  Sin itself is something wholly rational.  It is wholly according to the measure of rationality.  It is rationality in rationality, or devilry, for the Devil-Mephistopheles is naked rationality.

But precisely because sin is rationality par excellence, it makes God's entire creation and God Himself absurd, depriving Him of the perspective depth of grounding and tearing Him from the Soil of the Absolute.  It places everything in a single plane, making everything flat and vulgar.  For what is vulgarity but the inclination to tear everything that is visible from its roots and view it as autonomous and therefore bereft of reason, that is, stupid.

The Devil-Mephistopheles, this Pure Rationality, is also Pure Vulgarity, because he sees only stupidity.  Sin is a principle of unreason, a principle of incomprehensibility and of a dull, insuperable cessation of intellectual seeing.  Since the Devil is an "expert flatterer" (according to church hymns), he traps us in an illusory wisdom, thereby deflecting us from genuine wisdom.

 I've been reflecting on these two passages side by side for some days now.

It seems to me that perhaps the the fury and terror of God described by Sheehan which utterly unmakes us, if we are so blessed, is unmaking that "I" given to Pure Rationality, explaining everything in reference to its own self-immersion of selfhood, resulting in a pristine rationality that pits "I" against the contemptible single plane world in which everything else is ultimately stupid, as St. Pavel so aptly describes the situation.  This unmaking, if I am correct to tie these passages together, regrounds the self in being, making room for reasonableness and an intellect operative in relation to God and to His creation.

I love that the name Mephistopholes, from Faust, "may derive from the Hebrew mephitz, meaning 'distributor', and tophel, meaning 'liar'; 'tophel' is short for tophel shequer, the literal translation of which is 'falsehood plasterer.'"  When thinking of the ideas of Sheehan and St. Pavel together here, I picture in my mind God's holy angels taking sledgehammers to the plasterwork of Mephistopholes that has been my "I!" for so long, utterly unmaking "me."

This unmaking is associated, in Psalm 87 and Psalm 57, with pain, both physical and mental, with material loss, and with existential anguish.  I certainly would not suggest that this is THE way of conversion.  I don't know.  Perhaps it has to do with how grave and large the edifice of the "I = I" is in the soul. 

In my own life, I know that somewhere in 2008 or so, during and following my involvement in some church scandals, and then following the loss of a job and some increasing health concerns (and bills!), I began to embrace hatreds and angers that had always been there, and occasionally manifested, but now were given no leash.  This discarding of restraint was gradual in the beginning, but ultimately headfirst, with bloodthirst and wild abandon.  I hated purely, as it were.  Many friends, and some enemies, warned me of this, some admonished me, some derided me for it.  I began to rationalize it.  I had just causes.  My internal compass began, with increasing strength, to assure me that such hatreds and such anger were pointing me in the right direction.  As this process went on over months and years, I became exactly as St. Pavel describes.  As someone who used to have restraints on how he spoke and wrote, particularly in public, I became very vulgar.  I relished in offending people and in breaking their codes of civility.  The more use of the F word, the better.  The more sexual innuendo, the better.  My heart became more and more attached to viewing the world as intrinsically vulgar, and my vulgarity was thus simply truth telling.  I also, as St. Pavel describes, began to view the world as an ever thinning single plane wherein I was in an increasingly shrinking pool of elite who countered vast swaths of stupidity, until just about all of human affairs and experience was deemed stupid.  A sort of solipsistic nihilistic gnosticism in which the initiation rite had to do with me looking into a mirror, and then looking at the world, and then cursing the world for not looking like what I saw in the mirror.   Added to all this, God Himself became absurd to me, and I hated, especially hated, people for whom faith was simple, childlike, pure.

It wasn't all that.  I could never find a happy rationalization for my anger and hatred in terms of what I felt and saw when I looked at my children.  I never really wanted them to embrace hatred.  There was always some intuition that what I was doing to myself was destructive, and I did not want to see them destroyed.  I also could never achieve the perfect form of the political activist, as it were, in that I could never rid feelings of compassion for the particular hurting people I encountered - they were more than just incidences or proofs of a need for some revolution to destroy stupidity.  I still prayed, but a lot of that "prayer" was griping at God, some of it was cursing God, and more of it was simply grunts of desperation directed toward God.  But even with these anomalies, a hold out from previous days, I came to fully embrace the "I!" as best as I could.

In hindsight now, it seems that God was working on the unmaking of the falsehood plasterer's edifice that is my "I!" throughout those years.  The Deus Absconditus to whom I angrily grunted prayers of desperation would reveal that the experience of abandonment was and is a part of a necessary unmaking.  The trials and tribulations would ultimately exhaust me, to the point that even nihilism became an interior work not worth doing, but also there was unmaking through my family, through the words of believing friends, through nature (I watch and listen to birds quite a bit), through an increasing awareness of my own mortality, and so forth.  But during most of that time I was not really aware of the edifice, or that God was punching holes in the plaster.  It was not until an experience early last month that I was made acutely aware of the edifice of my "I!"and all that it had wrought and hurt, as well as acutely aware of God's intent to utterly unmake it.  I was presented, clearly and unequivocally, with one choice to make, and I knew I had to choose immediately.  This all still leaves me existentially disheveled, and in a state of wonder and awe.

Of course the "I!" is still very much present, every second there is the temptation to turn to it, to start rebuilding the plaster of falsehood.  But these passages from Sheehan and St. Pavel have given me an outline, or better yet a language, through which to speak to myself of the inner battle, and the one way in which it must finally be won.  There is hope here.  A Spring-like turning, when you reverse course, and your lungs full of plaster dust, you cough out the old and breath in that first breath of fresh air.  And you kneel down and put your hands into soil that is blessed for its own sake, not as some ephemeral delineation only meaningful in relation to "I!," and you drink cool water from the stream again, and there is that wonderful and lovely epiphany that there is reality, and goodness, and intellect, and light, and these things are not "I!"

I feel very strongly that this "breakthrough" of the plaster occurred for me in large part because of the prayers of others, especially certain friends whom I know to have been diligent in remembering me in their prayers.  Since writing recent posts regarding my return to the Orthodox faith, several persons, longtime readers, have written to me and described their own state of spiritual desperation and sense of abandonment or aloneness with regard to faith and to God.  I shudder to think of how I encouraged such a state in folks who read my work for years (thankfully not many, as I have not been a popular blogger in a long time).  If you are one of these souls who has lost faith, or struggles greatly to keep it, or feels as I have described, please feel free to email me your name, so that I, and friends, might pray for you.

And please keep me in your prayers. 

21 April 2015

it snowed briefly today, between sleet and rain.

There are three lonelinesses, she said.
The silence that surrounds me when I have no one near enough to listen,
The silence that surrounds me when I am in the presence of one who does not listen,
And the empty noise I surround myself with, not being able to bear silence.
The last loneliness is the worst, she said,
It is the lone loneliness that cannot heal.

Why does loneliness hurt, I said?
Stop making noise, she said.

19 April 2015

10 questions - Owen White

The photo is of my son Paul and I from this past (Orthodox) Holy Thursday.

I decided to answer my own ten questions via voice instead of text.  Should you have a half hour to waste this Sunday afternoon or whatever day falls lazily for you, then here you go:

I can't believe I did it, but I forgot the last stanza of the Berry poem I recite:

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection. 

So I will let that epithet of text stand alone.