“Asphalt Grey.”

This morning, I was recycling a line from a poem I’d written last night; this sonnet was the result.

This is pandemic poetry; as my favourite crazy Irishmen sang once, “Some days are better than others.”

I hope you like this. 🙂

Asphalt Grey

These days, it’s hard to know which way to turn;

Most days are finely ground, and asphalt grey.

Sometimes I just feel numb; sometimes I burn,

A crimson sunset at the close of day.

Sunrise and sunset matter less to me

Than feline claws, still scratching at my door.

Will I feel pain, or joy? That’s hard to see

When psychic numbness shrouds my flaming core.

My inner flame burns pure, and bright, and true,

When all my nerves are pointed the same way…

It’s difficult to know what I should do

When every day is wreathed in asphalt grey.

Around each cloud, I trace its silver line;

Someday, I’ll wake up, and I’ll feel just fine.

“Black Cherry.”

I wrote this one last night; I feel like it speaks for itself…

I hope you like it. 🙂

Black Cherry

I can’t chase the North American dream anymore…

More is to be found in sweet silence,

In the dandelion field beside the high school,

Than in every brisk, bourgeois, banal brief and business card.

There are echoes in the silence,

The murmurs of rum and the righteous saints.

I breathe deeply of the robin’s blue sky,

And feel the yearning for freedom in my skinny bones.

Each neuron, painstakingly sheathed in myelin,

Cries out for release from the ache and anxiety

Caused by the cruel coronavirus.

I weep beside the graves in the Gaza Strip;

I burn alongside the old-growth forests in B.C.,

And mourn for the martyrs in Myanmar.

Seclusion may not bring security, this time,

But it completes the concentric circles of contemplation,

The pondering of galaxies in grains of sand

And the counting of each cesium atom in a handclap.

Not all is vital or synthetic yet,

Because our greed may yet outpace our goodness,

But sympathy still leaks from every pore

Like the susurrations in my early-morning squats.

Purity of heart and perseverance possess each pushup,

And freedom rests in free weights, each day near dawn.

Although the heat draws out my native moisture,

It empties me of all but care and purpose.

Like the black cherry sits upon the melting ice-cream,

Engagement sits atop my energies,

The flagpole for my flagging fibers when

All hope seems hollow, and all promise poor.

The beating heart of summer’s life is here,

Amongst the wildflowers. Life can’t be walled away

And contained in caustic, claustrophobic categories…

Its gentle laughter echoes in the wind.

“Kaleidoscope.”

I wrote this sonnet on Saturday night, and finished it just now. I thought you might like to read it. 🙂

Kaleidoscope

The pelting rain will drive us all inside

Just as our warm excitement hits its height;

The rain will cool our hearts, this month of Pride,

And keep our spirits moist each verdant night.

The cello and the violin may play

Their slick glissando notes, all bright and true;

Each nursery-rhyme is like the sun’s sweet ray

That penetrates our spirits’ grey and blue.

Soft June’s green heat may elevate our souls,

And permeate our laughter in the park;

The sun may help us realize our goals,

And shield us in the slowly-falling dark.

June and July bring back some joy again,

And buttress our belief through sun and rain.

“Cold Chili.”

I wrote this one on Tuesday night. It concerns justice, in broad strokes. I hope you like it. 🙂


Cold Chili

The music washes everything away—

My longing for supple, suntanned skin,

My clapping my hands over my flaking ears

To shut out the sickness, and the shouts of poverty,

My yearning for the round green world of equity—

And centres me on breathless, burning feet.

I breathe, and take the scent of cumin into my soul;

I open all the cupboards of my mind

To let the sultry, sensate summer sun

Inhabit every crevice crammed with oregano,

And bore through every hole where basil lives.

I spiral out into the olive groves of Gaza,

Where I weep with those who tend the scorched, cracked earth;

I fly from there to Attawapiskat,

Where drinking water still comes in short supply;

In gentle London, anguished cries arise

From every mosque and every crying church.

These adverse affects ask for our attention,

And as we mourn and burn, we must learn their names.

Gargantuan, granite Progress is a myth;

We’ve sacrificed position for pure speed!

Like fleet electrons in the dark of space,

We may go faster, further, but we’ve cut ourselves off

From webs of life—from broccoli and crunchy kale,

And cauliflowers and all their friends.

We’re not beholden to benevolent bees,

And make no effort to mark the journeys

Of monarch butterfly or humpback whale.

Connection is our consolation now…

Our lonely prize, now that we’ve won the world.

We win the brilliant world; how will we gain our souls?

What vivid goal is broad or deep enough

To justify subtractive and extractive spite?

What dark detachment still may sunder us

From this green frame that helps us feel alive?

I breathe out, and I feel the stubborn ache

Of ardour for the life we gain and lose.

The creamy Congolese coffee sunders all pretense,

And may awaken me to ribald righteousness,

Or turn me to a tacit, tensile truth.

“Steady Storms.”

This one, which I wrote this morning, explores my intense emotional states and (sort of) my desire for equity. I hope you like it.

– – –

Steady Storms

I long for lively, living, piercing eyes

To greet me with great joy at close of day.

I yearn to go for long, green walks in June,

To build a fire out of wood and stone

And light it with sweet passion every night.

I ache for western winds in azure skies—

Skies without drones, or jets, or sullen bombs—

And seaside Syrian towns with intact walls.

My feelings hover on a sundial’s pin,

Halfway between the sunlight and the shade.

Soft peace and stirring passion war within,

And each poetic, pyroclastic flow

Creates the blackened topsoil of new life.

Each flare of florid, fiery feeling

Will drown the waiting world in my mind

And cover all my mental walls with green.

Let justice pour down like an East Coast rain,

And love rain over us like steady storms.

The thunderclap of truest equity

Will sound, and solidarity will grow—

As chaste and cunning as a kudzu vine,

As lush and purple as a Dallas field,

As brisk and clean as Sackville after rain.

I long to see sweet Love’s vast greenery.

“Ant Colony.”

Last night, I was listening to a little Nine Inch Nails. This was part of the result. Enjoy!


Ant Colony

The ants do not assail me in the dark…

They wait for four long months to make their move,

And steal my food away down shifting holes,

Through microscopic tunnels in the stone.

I sit with Bowie, and I close my eyes,

Reflecting on my yearning and my fear.

I yearn to wake up and not feel the pain

Still radiating from my lower back;

I want a core as strong as granite, and

A good left leg whose aim is straight and true.

I want to wake up, and not be alone,

To make my lover coffee, and to talk,

To argue about Rawls, and Reznor too,

To end the day in someone else’s arms.

I want to wake up, and not read of death –

No airborne viruses, no traffic stops,

No white cops kneeling on a black man’s neck,

Or people burning precious lobster pounds

That offer Mi’kmaq fishers livelihood.

The images are seared into my brain,

But somehow, they don’t touch me when I sleep…

They rail at me each moment I’m awake.

They slip into my coffee like soft cream,

Pervading every action, every thought.

Each image turns into a wooden bead

That I turn over in my weary hands

Each morning when I pray, and sometimes weep.

I cannot simply wring my empty hands,

Nor wash them, for my soul is still unclean.

I’ll clean the inside of my small clay cup,

And fill it with the fires of righteousness –

A righteousness I borrow, not my own –

To offer what I have as equity.

I’ll shoulder my small burdens, like an ant,

And know that someday, I will lift their weights.

Indeed, our constancy, our careful love,

Becomes the best of six-legged colonies

Where everyone contributes to the whole.

And what of love? Sweet love may come someday,

Surprising me with sense, and style, and sass…

And if I pour my love into my life,

Then I’ll be ready when it comes to me –

Not strident and defensive, as before,

But sure and steadfast, like the creeping ant

Who gives his part to build the colony,

Who puts his trust in every darkened hill.

“Here Comes the Sun: a Sermon for Wine Before Breakfast, March 16th, 2021.”

I preached this sermon on the evening of Tuesday, March 16th, 2021, during our communal exploration of Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7. I’m not a huge fan of Ecclesiastes as a book, so I used George Harrison as a hook and a foil. 🙂

Here Comes the Sun: Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7 (WBB, March 16th, 2021)

First off, can folks hear me? Good. Thanks. Then I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In roughly April of 1969, George Harrison—in my opinion, the best of the Beatles; I’ll substantiate that claim later—was hanging out at his friend Eric Clapton’s house, having decided not to go to a business meeting with the accountants at Apple. He’d temporarily quit the band, and had a little while earlier been busted for possession of weed…and in response to the sunlight that he felt as he walked around Clapton’s garden, Harrison wrote “Here Comes the Sun.” Little darlin’, I feel the ice is slowly melting; little darlin’, it feels like YEARS since it’s been clear. It’s a wonderfully-optimistic song, especially given how isolated Harrison likely felt.

Then later, in late 1988, after the shine had come off Harrison’s optimism—for instance, long after the Beatles broke up, John Lennon died by gunshot, his father had died, and his first marriage had broken down—an older and wiser Harrison wrote the song “End of the Line” with four of his friends, including Bob Dylan and the late, great Tom Petty. In the very last stanza of that song, Harrison sings, “It’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine / It’s all right / we’re going to the end of the line.” I love listening to that song, no matter my mood, because it feels so complete, and so hopeful. It feels like an excellent summation of a storied career.

Having said all that, I have to wonder if Harrison had ever read our passage from Ecclesiastes for this evening before he wrote either of those songs. I wonder that because the passage begins with how pleasant sunlight is…and clearly, Harrison was a fan of sunlight. Since I’ve gone for a walk most days since early April 2020, I can verify that sunlight is pleasant, but I’m not sure that either Qohelet, or Harrison, is trying to say that we need more vitamin D! Of course, as Hana made clear last week, the Teacher is very privileged, so maybe he is saying something like that. We don’t have to argue about that right now. 😊

I think that, broadly speaking, the Teacher is saying three big things in this passage that we need to consider. First, sunlight (along with other good things!) is pleasant, and we should immerse ourselves in good things. Second, and subsequently, we ought to experience these good things while we’re young, before bad things start to happen; and we shouldn’t worry about things…until the bad days come along. Third and finally, we need to remember God during the good days, because the bad days—especially, the Really Bad Days—are gonna come. The Teacher gives a number of poetic examples to illustrate the Bad Days, including the sun, moon, and stars ceasing to shine, workers no longer grinding grain, and a silver cord snapping in two. During those days, the Teacher clarifies, people will feel great fear and anxiety. In fact, it’ll be difficult during that liminal period to feel anything except pain and grief…

…and that leads us, somewhat neatly, to part of the passage’s import for us as a  community. God may be nudging us gently towards mental health with 11:7, but I contend that most of the passage represents the author asking us to remember God during really bad times. The Teacher claims, “Don’t worry about things when you’re young. Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body. Don’t worry; be happy.” But really…

Really, how can we not worry? As the Teacher claims, the bad days have come. We, the children of song, are brought low, for there are fewer songs, and no true concert tours, in the age of COVID-19. Plus, the guards of the house have trembled, and the strong men become bent, as they did both during the grievous insurrection in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, and later during Mr. Trump’s farcical second impeachment trial. The workers who grind grain, and pick fruit for our groceries, and harvest the coffee that sustains us in our greed, have become fewer and fewer. Our Black and Brown and Indigenous siblings are abused and killed, in Canada and the States; people are shamed, and hurt, and killed for their gender and sexuality; and the atmosphere and water of our planet grow warmer as many people in the global North pour more fossil fuels onto the fire. And don’t even get me started on how people with disabilities are treated. Even in Canada, our existence is erased, and glossed over with pretty-sounding words, while legislators of able body make specious distinctions about medically-assisted suicide instead of building a society where human beings can have good, fulfilling lives before death.

So, things are really bad already! As William Butler Yeats claims in his classic poem “The Second Coming,”

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

            How can we not worry? The best don’t entirely lack all conviction—for instance, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in NYC, or Joel Harden here in Ottawa, are deeply-impassioned advocates for the kind of human flourishing we’re talking about—but they don’t have as much social capital as the people who favour the status quo, and have the money to keep things the way they want them. Thus, in light of the perils confronting the Earth and human societies, most of us are worried. How can we not be?! Every day is full of anxiety. We wake, we drink our coffee or tea, we pray for our loved ones, and we sign that letter in support of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples…dammit, wait, I haven’t done that yet…

and we wait. And we yearn.

            But what are we yearning for? It’s not pointed out in this passage, or even in this book as a whole, but what we’re waiting for is what the prophets call the “Day of the Lord” elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, and what Jesus sketches for his friends in Mark 13. We talked about it a lot with Amos last semester, and we’ve talked about it a great deal ever since I came to this community in the autumn of 2012. The Teacher is pointing us to the topsy-turvy time when – the prophets claim – justice will roll like rivers, and everything will be made right again. We need to remember God, says the Teacher, because bad stuff is going to happen, and through that turmoil, we will witness, and hopefully experience, the birth of a new world. A world where we will eat at table again with our friends, and where everyone will have what they need.

            That isn’t all I can say about this passage, though. In the midst of our hope, and our yearning for the turning of the world towards God’s great desire for equity, we still have to wait…and often, especially now, that waiting feels like a great sacrifice. I know something of the sacrifice that we need to make, and would outline what I know pretty simply and bluntly.

            The Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 11:9, “Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgement.” For much of my life, until I was thirty-three, I did follow the desires of my heart and my eyes. I went from my tiny Island home almost directly to Toronto, the city where many of us in this Zoom room dwell…and I got a doctorate, and I learned to dance, and I gained a group of friends…and then I got a cool job in Chicago, where many of those patterns continued, to varying degrees…

            But then in mid-March 2020, the pandemic struck, and it felt like a judgment on me. I felt like I lost everything. I got rid of the vast majority of my books and papers, which felt like tearing out a part of my soul; I left the small, wonderful community I had made for myself in my church; I left my extraordinarily-spacious and well-lit apartment…and I fled to Ottawa…where I lived in my brother’s spare room over the summer, and felt shame every day for five of the last nine months…and it has taken me literally weeks and months to form community in my new city. I felt judged, and harshly; and I certainly felt like the days of trouble were upon me!!

I’ve felt up and down for a very long time, and for months, most of what I’ve known is hustle. On this 370th day of Lent, and the eleventy-first day of the pandemic, even the good personal and professional things in my life have come at a cost during the pandemic. For example, after weeks of work in January, I was in competition for a wicked-awesome tenure-track position in theology in Edmonton, and I didn’t get an interview; that, amongst other pains, hurt me very deeply, and undermined the little self-confidence that I had…

            So, even at good times since the spring of 2020, I’ve felt like the golden bowl has broken, and the silver cord has snapped, for me. Between July of 2020, and about two weeks ago, I’ve struggled to banish anxiety from my mind, and put away pain from my body, as the Teacher instructs in our passage. (I’ve actually inflicted pain on my body, via weight-training; that’s a separate sermon.) It’s been very difficult for me to feel hopeful, because as the text makes clear, there are few songs in the streets, and I feel like I’m one of the only ones out there milling the grain. I know that isn’t true—when I use my head, I can see that I’m not alone—but knowing it and feeling it are two different things…and so, at several points, I’ve felt despair.

            This is where Harrison comes back in, for me at least. In “Here Comes the Sun,” and (to some degree) in “End of the Line,” Harrison allows his listeners to hear a wholehearted and dialectical acceptance of things as they are, precisely because things can change. Harrison is the best of the Beatles, for me, because he sees in a Zen-like manner through the absurdity of the way things are, to the wonderful way that things can be. In all his songs, Harrison makes a point of noticing the change inherent in human life. As the Teacher points out, God is the one doing the changing…and God is gonna make things happen. I can’t say that great depth, unlimited benevolence, or irrepressible righteousness, as some of us can…

            But I can sing, alongside Harrison, Here comes the sun…it’s all right.And even on March 16th, this eleventy-first day of the pandemic, the sun has come, and it is all right! It’s been much warmer in Ottawa in the past week than it has been since like mid-November. Seasons change, and we can change with them. When we feel like our golden bowls are broken, as we very well may during this pandemic, and when the silver cords of relationship have snapped, we can remember that things are changing…

            And we can be part of that change. Here comes the sun…it’s all right. Not the Matthew McConaughey “all right, all right, all right,” and not even the Trinitarian call-and-response that Bono does with the Edge on U2’s “Mysterious Ways”…

            But it is all right. It’s all right, or at least, it’s gonna be. I promise. 😊

            In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer…AMEN.

“ABC (Anger, Bewilderment, Compassion).”

This morning, after I did some pushups, I heard the first line of this one in my mind…

I dedicate this poem, written after the shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, to my loved ones in the United States. “A” is for Atlanta, as well as anger. “B,” in turn, is for both Boulder and bewilderment.


ABC (Anger, Bewilderment, Compassion)

Anger

How dare they do these stupid, tragic things?

Why shoot up a supermarket, or prey

Upon the innocent at a spa…or spas?

Here, might cannot make right; in fact,

Might can only make massacre, and mayhem.

It hurts to write; it hurts to kneel and pray,

To call upon a changeless Deity.

We need the God who walks, who calls,

Who weeps for all the loved, all the lost.

Our grief falls into the endless wells of tears,

into the silence, where we wait for strength.

Bewilderment

We sit in stunned silence, and we wait for strength.

What empty solidarity awaits

In each retweeted and redacted thread?

What vapid charity could I enact,

If I could only lift my heavy head?

How many will sit silently, arms folded,

As though their folded arms could save them

From the shadow of Second Amendment sophistry?

It’s difficult to know which way to turn,

For every vector shifts to vanity,

And every axis just reveals our apathy.

Where is the vaunted flame of liberty,

And where the road to reconciliation?

Where, in our whirlwind panic, is relief?

Compassion/Connection

Our whirlwind panic admits of no relief,

And so we crouch beneath our standing desks,

And huddle in our houses with the lights off.

We wait for all the sombre storms to pass;

And when the air-raid sirens go away,

We leave our mess of blankets, drink our tea,

And call out to our loved ones, “You okay?

Let me know if I can help, all right?”

We hold our friends within our virtual space,

For on Zoom each “hello” is like a hug.

We give to GoFundMe, and then we go…

We go along the dusty Galilean paths

Still glimpsing Love around the corner, or

There on the beach, with nets still full of fish.

“A Liturgy of Resistance.”

For the last six months, give or take, I’ve been using free weights every day. The last ten days have also witnessed the inclusion of resistance bands into my regimen…and I’ve been depressed and yearning, like many of us, at the same time.

This is a starter liturgy for weight-lifting, and other activities, incorporating and expression my experiences of anxiety and depression. Without further ado…

A Liturgy of Resistance: a Blessing of Free Weights and Resistance Bands

Into your hands, I commend my spirit.

This morning (afternoon / day), my anxiety and depression feel like great weights,

Constricting my chest and shrouding my soul.

As I lift these free weights,

Lift the weight of melancholy from me.

Help me to bear the weight of existence,

And give me strength to bear others’ cares too.

As I work with these resistance bands,

Help me to resist my tendencies to ruminate on my griefs,

And to push and pull my anxieties into pleasant shapes.

Help me to embody my prayer,

And to give you my body as your instrument.

Amen.

“Lockdown/Longing.”

I wrote this one on Saturday night. I’m okay, but I still kinda feel this way. The COVID-19 pandemic is…at best…very long.

– – –

Lockdown/Longing

I numb my pain with Netflix, or I cry,

Or fold my hands, and bow my head, to pray;

I cast my anxious thoughts into the sky

As I walk through the snowy park each day;

I let my scarlet dumbbells take my pain,

And change it into aching runner’s high;

Or read Gaiman and Gutierrez again,

Or sleep, and wake to give it one more try…

Or sink, in blessed silence, to my core,

Where all the pent-up fire waits for me.

When my soul faints—when I can give no more—

Desire reclaims my fierce identity.

Sweet contemplation offers me release,

And—in the age of COVID—gives some peace.