“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.

“Tamarisk Texts”: new website!

With fear and trembling, and after great preparation, I offer you…a new website!

It’s called “Tamarisk Texts,” after a tree that grows in the Sahara. In it, I make my skills as an academic editor clear, and offer other links to my published professional and personal work. I’d be very happy if you gave it a spin, and would love your thoughts!

http://www.tamarisktexts.com

“Doing the Dishes.”

I love to do dishes by hand; many of my friends in Toronto, and elsewhere, feel similarly. Yesterday, when I meant to write something much more angsty, I wrote this instead…

I hope you like it!

– – –

Doing the Dishes

The dough is kneaded, and is lying flat

On the wide wooden cutting-board of my soul.

My soul’s kitchen has neither pepperoni nor pesto,

Neither bacon bits nor banana peppers,

To place upon the pizza of my psyche.

But, when the pizza’s made, where does the cutter go?

It soaks in the sink, with all the psychic residue

Of basil and oregano, the soulful aroma

Of tomato sauce with just a hint of onion.

The dishes wait, underneath the water,

And soaking them will help, but it can’t clean

Each slice of cheese from every crevice, or

Every hint of spinach from its darkened corner.

Who does the dishes when the guests are gone?

What sad and pensive music awaits us

In our apprehension, in our fear of feeling alone?

How many solemn or salacious cups of wine

Will it take to fill our yawning emptiness?

No, love’s not cancelled, but the virus killed

A lot of mirth, and some mobility;

It’s hard to laugh when every day’s the same,

And hard to cry when I’m drawn inwards by

The six feet separating me from you,

The endless mental miles keeping us apart.

It’s difficult, but—if you wash—I’ll dry.

We soak and scour, and we softly sing;

We drain, and demarcate, and discuss, and dry.

Our hands are busy, and so are all our hearts,

Removing all the residue of life

From surfaces we love, as acts of service.

We linger over finer points of language

Like the most labyrinthine of Russian novels.

We compare and contrast the complexities of culture,

Appeasing all (except, perhaps, the great aesthetes).

We wipe down every corner when we’re done,

And meditate on every morsel dropped

Into our rainbow-coloured Tupperware.

The trusty plastic totes of red and blue and green,

Of burgundy and ultraviolet,

Will strengthen us until we meet again.

The revolution lives in helping hands,

In tensile and absorbent towels, and in steadfast souls

Who sing to welcome the embrace of night,

Who wash and dry, who welcome and invite.

“Bitter Promises.”

I started to write this one on Tuesday night, and mostly finished it…and then finished it /more/ fully this morning. It’s pretty sad…that said, I hope you like it. 🙂

– – –

Bitter Promises

I cannot speak; the rage I hold inside

Will bear me away with its scarlet torrents,

With its bitter promises of privilege and plenty.

I struggle with the demons in my sheets,

And strive to muffle every fierce ghost

Of crises past, or present, or to come.

The void within me opens. I am lost…

The fiery flowers of capital spurt their rancid prophecies

In every plume of smoke that drapes stately Beijing;

The virus of our greed becomes our waking grief,

The shadow of our selfish surcease from suffering.

What is our labour for, if not for love—

For love, the child of hospitality and equity?

Why do we strive, if not to build

A walled rose-garden for our nascent dreams?

My dreams are thin, and bitter to my taste.

Wide-open prairie skies are shut to me,

And every sunny song will mock my sorrow now.

Now, I will trudge with sullen steps and slow

Through snowdrifts six feet high, and soak my boots.

Now, I may call out, and wail. Who hears my cries?

The willow tree may pause, and weep with me;

The full moon sends persistent, piercing light

To help me piece together all my pain.

Deep sorrow, and deep joy, are breaths of air

Before our final arc into starlit skies.

“Notches in the Neoprene.”

So, in late September, having moved to my own place in Ottawa, I bought a pair of bright-red twelve-pound “Neoprene” dumbbells on eBay. This has been an excellent choice, because they’ve helped me to stay (sort of!) strong and supple during various phases of isolation, lockdown, and “social distance.”

I noticed the other day that one of the two dumbbells had some cracks in it; I don’t know why. It feels like a fitting metaphor for life in the age of COVID-19, so…this poem was part of the result.

– – –

Notches in the Neoprene

We’re still too close for comfort, but we are

Yet miles away from post-war Dublin and Sinn Fein.

We’re neither sane nor sanitary, yet here we are.

The solipsism of this endless plague

Leaves holes in the hearty hardwood of our souls,

And notches in the Neoprene of our paradigms.

It’s just past Christmas, and it’s raining too.

The freezing drizzle drenches everything in sight—

The pavement looks like April, though it’s less alive,

And every street is emptied of its soft stability.

SARS-COV-2 has silenced our society.

Sure, birds still sing, but we can’t join them now,

While every local store puts up a sign

To show us where to mask and sanitize.

How can we bear the weight of loneliness?

How can we leave our siblings in their griefs?

I read the news each day, and still I ache

For disenfranchised Mi’kmaq in their lobster pounds,

For desperate rebels in hardened, burnt-out Homs.

Which actions make a difference, when

We’re all six feet apart, and not by choice?

The shroud of loneliness is lighter on some days;

A well-placed letter, a soft touch, can set it right.

We cannot let our kin-folk grieve alone,

But let our laments ring out, both soft and loud.

My words are far more formal than I mean…

Our solitude is salutary now,

Our “social distance” meant to save and soothe.

Someday our isolation may be a blessed cell

Where having and not having rise as one.

Each action makes a difference, for in love,

We can become our better, gentler selves.

We cannot sing together, or feast as we might wish,

But we can call, and write, and eat, and play,

And walk. (There’s lots of walking, at this point.)

Our walking may become a pilgrimage,

A sanctifying of our solitude

With wine, and Chinese food, and crosswords too.

The stakes are high, but we still play the game

Here in our dusty cells. We’re not alone;

We bond together over Firefox and Zoom.

Suffused with ethereal azure lights,

We can divide our griefs, and add our joys,

Until the sum of all our fragile parts

Is greater than a googolplex—so great

No decimal, no pen, can spell it out.

What Love has joined, no force can tear apart.