Darkness and Light

We have suffered the loss and slow dying of friends and relatives in the last few months. Death has been smoking up our life like a prairie fire, inching close before retreating before the cool breath of life. It’s easy to personify Death, this non-life, because it seems to reach in and snatch away the breath of those we love, leading them away. Some go in a flash, some inch away from us neuron by neuron, word by word. And if the fire hasn’t burned our own flesh, we need only glimpse the news from Gaza, Israel, Syria, Ukraine—you name the place.

The fire taunts us to run, to hide, erase it from our consciousness. But we can also speak into it, sing out of it, and dance, paint, and play all around it. In poetry there is mourning as well as praise, gratitude as well as pain, for it is words composed to fill the darkness beyond words, the Light beyond the Word. So I share a couple of poems today through which I have tried to see through the smoke, discern the cooling water, walk into the light. These are walking sticks, if you will, that I have used to climb some steeper paths. Feel free to share your thoughts about your own in the Comments below.

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Preparing for death

it might be instructive

to go to some funerals,

see how they do

with a best friend,

feel how he’s washed

in a bath of words and music and tears

clean of the earth

ready for new clothes.

Death ruptures the life-lines of love. It cuts off our race, even when it looks like we have reached the finish line. If it is love that leads us through life, then it is also true this love takes many forms, even in the run of a beloved fish.

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            from the hidden pool

            the Salmon

            glides into the stream,

            takes the ribbon of waters

            hard against the rounded rocks,

            in turmoiled foam

            finds an opening

            into the broadening river.

Leaping in the roiling flood

            the Salmon swims

            with millions

            as with one

            to reach the cascade spume


            the Salmon

            to the ocean’s waiting arms,



            to life

            among the songs

            within God’s sea.

Astronomers have led us into an incomprehensible mystery that easily becomes a metaphor for what confronts each one of us. Each life we live is like an expanding universe of accomplishment and possibility. I’ve written poems like this before. This one is the latest permutation.

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They say the earth

            is slowing down

            perhaps a nano-


            every century


            by the asteroid dust

            the oncoming solar light

            the nothingness,

And it will fall

            in ten thousand million years

            into the sputtering sun

            reaching out to swallow it.

The say the suns

            in our entire galaxy

            will fall

            as sparks and cinders

            into the darkness

            at the center

            where all the light

            will gather

            and explode

            into another universe.

I contemplate and wonder

            as I ask

            “What did you say?”

            and mutter

            “Excuse me, I forgot your name,”

            and stumble on the curb,

            if I will fall

            in such a  cataclysm

            of rebirth.


Posted in Poetry and Songs | 2 Comments

I Really Do

I once entered a poem in a contest and received in reply (a contest that actually gave feedback!) the comment “Don’t use made-up words.” Well, that was, I thought, the point of poetry—to explore beyond the boundaries of our ordinary speech, whether by image, word arrangement, or, yes, making up a new word that reaches beyond the ordinary grasp of language. That’s why poetry is linked to song and dance, theater, and the visual arts. And, of course, if we didn’t constantly make up new words, the dictionary minders could close up shop, turn off their computers, and go home, their work completed for all time.

Making up new words like this is a kind of worldly glossolalia, a Pentecostal outpouring that communicates at levels deeper than accepted signs or meanings. It’s rooted in the deep experiential base, the “magma,” of poetic inspiration. In a time when our deepest emotions are fanned and manipulated by demagogues, corporations, and fanatics bent on violence, the poetic effort to link ecstasy and lively community is a perilous but crucial task.

So, undeterred by kindly admonitions or dangers, I sometimes have to reach beyond the dictionary. The risky effort to put our deepest loves in words is something that we have to give ourselves to every once in a while, like an annual feast. My sister’s 50th wedding anniversary allowed me to give voice to this little outburst. For after 50 years, hasn’t it all been said? Isn’t a little lift of the eyebrow, a gesture of the hand, enough? If it isn’t, you have to struggle with a poem. So here it is. And if you don’t like these words, you can make up your own!

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I murgle you,

            I really do.

I want to lahmi in your lindermoos,

            leggle in your indelgon,

Lay my head within your smawn,

            my hands around your gentle sming,

And in that lovely swellenam

            I long to touch your elt,

            to smell the sweet palloosit of your palt,

            and wrap us round with soft mallootin.

My happiness would soar to song

            if I had some better words to say

I murgle you,

            I really do.


Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs | 3 Comments

Looking for Muhammad

My writing has been completely taken up with completion of my woodworking and spirituality book project with my friend John de Gruchy, who lives near Cape Town. You’re going to hear more about that book in due course. Entitled Sawdust and Soul,” it’s a lively, we hope, invitation to reflection on craft and spirit. Stay tuned.

But in the meantime the rest of the world moves on. We recently watched the three-part series “The Life of Muhammad,” on PBS, a documentary produced by Crescent Films in the UK. Narrated by Rageh Omaar, a Somali-born British journalist, it took us on a pilgrimage through the tumultuous life of Muhammad from his birth in Mecca to his death in Medina. Brilliant scenes from those cities were threaded together with commentary from Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars, some very familiar, like Karen Armstrong, others unknown to us but equally insightful.

Omaar himself was on a quest to uncover the figure at the source of a worldwide movement that has both inspired and terrified people for centuries. Who was this unlettered recipient of the powerful poetic messages from the Core of all Being, Allah? Muhhamad’s burning desire to bring about a just peace among the warring, polytheistic tribes of his day gains bright relief against the contemporary backdrop of conflict, jihad (misused), and transformation in today’s Middle East. Muslims of today, though all proclaiming this One God, face the same problems he confronted almost 1400 years ago. As Sunni turns against Shia and both against Sufi, we all are caught up in the search for peace in the midst of seemingly absolute claims of tribe, nation, and religion.

While Muhammad resorted to military force to defend himself against attacks from his opponents in Mecca, even to the excess of slaughtering Jewish defectors from his cause in Medina, his ultimate victory was through a persistent non-violent campaign that finally brought Mecca to acceptance of a common peace within the common tent of Islam. To get the details and nuances, you need to see the series (www.pbs.org/lifeofmuhammad) and read some books like Armstrong’s own Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

How is it then that a man and a book of poetic insight and devotion could evoke both a way of peace and a way of war and violence? Has it not been the same with Jesus of Nazareth? Only a moment’s reflection recalls Christianity’s Crusades, pogroms against the Jews, bitter wars between Protestants and Catholics, genocidal extermination of the native peoples of the Americas, alongside St. Francis, Mother Theresa, and Christian abolitionists, prison reformers, and the like. Is the message meaningless? Are the heroic sacrifices of these religious founders for naught?

Max Weber, the German sociologist of religion, pointed out a century ago that every religious message, to have a historical impact, must have a social “bearer” of its vision. As St. Paul said of the Christian Gospel, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” But we don’t get to drink the wine and have its effect apart from its bearer – that’s the limit of the image. It is more like a noble family name that exists in this world only in the feeble, flawed relatives we actually live with.

And still the light flickers and does not go out. We never get its perfect illumination, whether in the divine Law (Shariah) tasted by Muhammad, the Way known to Jesus, or the Torah of Judaism. There is a way, a path, of peace, but we live most of our lives in the ditch, walking alongside it, often stuck in its mud, but knowing we are near the road, maybe even nearing a destination for which we and our tangled band of murderous loves have a promissory note. Muhammad is one of those who left a trail of notes behind, hoping we might experience what he had known in frightening and tantalizing moments in that cave high above Mecca’s violent streets.

It’s Ramadan, let us pull back a little from our fearful greed and let the Abundanct One fill our hearts.



Posted in Ethics, Restorative Justice, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , | 1 Comment

From Magma to Table

This past Saturday I gathered with other poets and poetry lovers at Carl Sandburg’s old farm, Connemara, in Flat Rock, NC, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Jayne Ferrer’s website, “Your Daily Poem.” Connemara is now run by the National Park Service, preserving not only Sandburg’s working home (just as he left it!), but also the goat farm that was the work of his wife Lilian. Jayne’s website now has over 3000 subscribers, who receive a poem every day with biography of the author and Jayne’s commentary. She invited me and Sara Loudin Thomas, a writer in Asheville, to lead the group in reflecting on our writing.

This gave me the opportunity to bring to greater consciousness the process of my writing. I entitled my presentation “From Magma to Table.” The magma metaphor has been for some time my image of the unstructured but powerful awareness that fuels our basic creativity. It erupts at certain times in our lives when the mantle of our fragile existence is torn apart by powerful loves, fears, violence, or even emptiness. Using some pictures from Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano as well as one of my tables, I walked us through the phases of molten intensity, the burning of old structures of thought and expression, and then the crystallization of new 01 Magmic Eruptionawareness, to the more peaceful cone left after years of output. For the crystallization of this intense experience into images and stories, I drew on the creation of silky gossamers of glass created by the volcano. The Hawaiians call it “Pele’s Hair,” Pele being the goddess of the volcano. Around these images and core stories a poet builds a more substantial table of words for the listener where this experience can become a shared reality. Like the Hawaiian Islands, our poems are little islands of testimony to the creative work that builds our common world.

The task of the poet or any creative artist is to stay close to this molten core, but also to engage in the work of the craftsman. Too close to the magma and everything dissolves into chaos. But too close to the refined work of the craftsman, and everything becomes rigid, cold, and uninviting. The proper work of the poet is to build a table of words that can bring people together for nurture and conversation. As some of you may remember from my work on round tables, this is the whole principle behind the reconciling work of Roundtable Worship. But here I applied it to the work of the poet.

To build this poetic “table” we probably can’t walk on the old pathways fully. Like the roads around Kilauea, they have probably been covered with lava anyway! But there are elements that might build a pathway from molten intensity to a gathering table. Elements like alliteration, cadence, rhyme, repetition of words or phrases, or voice can connect the listener to the heat of the poet’s inspiration as well as to sounds that communicate and draw people into conversation with the author and each other.

Now, to some extent, “you had to be there” in our discussion, sharing, laughter, and discovery, but I hope this gives you the gist of what I was trying to say about the process of writing. Now, when I am presenting my work and someone asks “How do you write this stuff?” I have a whole talk to give!

Posted in Poetry and Songs | 3 Comments