Writing in the Window

I am writing this in a store window.

The store is Appletree Books in the Cedar Fairmount district of Cleveland Heights, OH. It’s NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month and Appletree invites writers to sit at a little table in their window and write.

It is also a metaphor for writing. Writing in a window means that I am putting into words how I see the world through a particular frame. It also means that I am on display. And that is what writing is.  Writers share the world they see through the particular frame of their own life. Writers also put themselves on display. As my friend and neighbor, Stephen Calhoun says, it is “performance art.”

So, I’m going to put myself on display by writing about why I write.

A year or so before I retired, Jacquie and I attended the Key West Literary Seminar. A lot of the people who go are also writers, so a way to make small talk with strangers during breaks is to ask, “Are you a writer?”

When someone asked me that the first day, I said, “no”.

The second day I said, “Well, I write a lot in my work, but I’m not a ‘writer’”.

The third day I said, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

As I listened to the speakers, all of them people whose books sit in big displays in bookstores, I thought at first that I am not one of them. But then, as they talked about getting themselves to sit down with a pen and a notebook, or a keyboard and a screen day-after-day, trying to hammer out some words that will mean something important to someone else, trying to write something clearly and truthfully, I thought, “I’ve been doing that for over forty years.”

My sermons averaged about five pages long. I wrote a minimum of fifty per year. So I was knocking out the equivalent of a 250-page book every year. And I was doing it in between hospital calls, meetings, funerals, wedding planning, and figuring out how to pay for a new church roof. I was a writer even if I did not write best-sellers.

That realization made it possible for me to retire. As I look back, I was hanging on to my job because it was satisfying something important in me. I knew it was not the meetings, the fund-raising, or handling the complaints about last week’s choice of hymns. When I admitted to myself that I was a writer, I knew I could let go.

After my retirement, I tried to set up a new normal with a blog, an outline for a book, and a schedule of writing almost everyday. I kept to it for a few months. But then I realized that I was hanging on to what was important to me in the morning of life that was no longer important in the afternoon.

It was not the writing. That was still what I wanted to do. I think it was the window. It was the frame through which I saw the world. I was still looking through the pastor-window. And, the person I revealed in my writing was still the pastor. Everything I wrote sounded like a sermon – a sermon that I might have preached 25 years ago.

I preached fine sermons 25 years ago, so why should that be a problem?

In his novel, Jean Christopf, Romain Rolland wrote: “Most men die between the ages of 20 and 30 and then they go on saying and doing the things they said and did when they were alive.”

I do not know if that is true of “most men”, but as I tried to write I could see that it was true for me. When I was young, I wrote about what I knew – I conveyed information about the religious tradition in which I had been raised and in which I still believe. I think that what I did then was important. I think my religious tradition is rich and speaks to the deepest needs of human beings.

But my window frame has changed. It is weathered and carries the patina of age. I have seen so many changes through this window that it has changed my perspective on what I see right now.

if I am to be alive and write, not out of what I used to be, but out of who I am now, I will write, not about what I know, but what I don’t know. I will write out of wonder instead of certainty. I will write leading with my heart rather than my head. Instead of solving problems, like I did when I was young, I will write about how facing and even accepting problems can lead us to wholeness.

And, as you look back at me through the window of my writing, I hope you see a man who is coming to terms with the realities of aging as well as enjoying the afternoon of life. It is either that, or dye my hair a strange shade of orange, comb it over my bald spot, and walk around with a woman half my age saying and doing the things I said when I was alive. Given those alternatives, there is no contest.

How to Read the Eternities: The End of a Series

I learned about “forest bathing” while hiking the other day. Since it was 37 degrees F. with a sharp wind, I can assure you that it did not involve removing my clothes.

Jacquie used the term as we hiked in the North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. There is growing scientific evidence that walking through natural areas — especially a forest — is good for you.

Well, duh!

Henry David Thoreau could have told us that in the 1840’s. He may not have been able to compare blood pressure readings or count white cells, but for two years he lived by himself in the woods near Walden Pond in order to face life.

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle”, Thoreau described how to live in the “Post-Truth” era. He told us that to find the truth in such times we need to

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

This is not an easy thing to do in an age when the Times, or the Post, or the Plain Dealer feel like Medieval texts compared to Twitter or the news crawl at the bottom of the 24-hour news channel screen. To get at the truth these days we need to learn to slow down the newsfeed, take time to listen to ourselves, and seek the wisdom of the ages in the holy writings, like the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.

To read the Eternities themselves, we need to turn to what some Christian theologians call “The First Testament” — Creation.

The Bible tells us that Creation points to God:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies announce what God’s hands have made.
Day after day they tell the story; night after night they tell it again.
They have no speech or words; they have no voice to be heard.
But their message goes out through all the world; their words go everywhere on earth.
Psalm 19:1-4

Looking at a starry sky or a mountain or an ocean helps us get a better perspective on ourselves, our successes and our failures.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place— what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Psalm 8:3-4

This is what Thoreau did. He looked at the sky, listened to the wind, followed rivers, and took note of birds and insects. He heard the Truth in the wind and the bird songs. He saw the sun rise and set. He felt the change in the seasons.

Here are some of the things he learned:

The universe is wider than our views of it.

Things do not change. We change.

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

What has the Creation taught you that is the opposite of what the Tweets, the Times and human “wisdom” tries to sell you?

Read The Scriptures: Reading the Eternities Part 3

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.

Things do not change; we change.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

These words were written over 150 years ago. They still strike us as true. How did Henry David Thoreau do it, when neither the latest advertisement nor political speech can convince us that it is anything but B.S.?

He followed his own advice:

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

How do we do that?

First, we slow down the news cycle. Instead of Tweets, wait a day and read the Times or some other newspaper. Wait a week, and read a magazine. Wait a year and read a book.

Second, we dig into our life’s experience. Where are the gold nuggets of truth that we live by?

A third step is to read scripture.

But which one?

Some say that the very fact we have to ask that question is the reason why there isn’t any truth these days.

I grew up in a world where THE scripture was the Protestant Christian Bible. Everyone either read it, or thought they should. Today, I live in a city where thousands read the Torah, the Koran, or the Vedas. And hundreds read lesser known sacred texts — and seek to live by them. Who knows what is true?

Things were simpler in Thoreau’s day before cultural and religious pluralism called the old truths into question.  Except they weren’t simpler.

Yes, he was  brought up in church and attended Sabbath School as a child and his writing shows he is more familiar with the Christian Bible than most of today’s public intellectuals. But when he spent two years in a cabin on Walden Pond, he took with him a book he called the “Bhagvat-Geeta.”

The closest thing Hinduism has to a Bible is the Bhagavad Gita, which was first translated from Sanskrit into English about a generation before Thoreau was born.

The book was a sensation in Thoreau’s circles in New England. His friend, Emerson, loaned him a copy. From his reading, Thoreau appeared not to simply admire the spiritual and psychological insights of Hinduism, but also came back to the Bible, especially the New Testament, with eyes that no longer saw it as a “yellowed document”, but as superior to all other writings for it ethical teachings.

That can happen to people who may have deep commitments to one spiritual tradition but who also become familiar with another.

It works like this:

Do you remember the first time you stayed overnight with a friend when you were a kid?

Your first impression probably was, “Everything my friend’s family does is wrong.”

That was because the way they talked to each other (or not), the way they ate their meals, and the way they went to bed was different from the way your family did those things.

Perhaps, if you visited your friend on a regular basis, or you visited other friends, you came to appreciate some of the things that they did.

Jacquie and I started dating in high school. One of the things she says she liked about my family is that my parents saw to it that we did things together. My Mom and Dad worked really hard to run a dairy farm and raise five kids, but they were both youngest children and they knew how to have a good time.

What I liked about Jacquie’s house was the food! Her Mom was a fabulous cook and she liked to feed people. As a 17-year-old farm boy who was burning about 4,000 calories a day, I loved eating at their house.

I learned a lot from visiting in my friends’ homes. I also went back to my own home with a deeper appreciation for what I received there. I saw things that I wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t ever go anywhere else.

It happens that I was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita by a gifted teacher a few years ago. I’ve been slowly plowing my way through a Christian commentary on the book.

Reading that book, I have the same experience Thoreau described:

“I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” 

Yes, the writings of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao Te Ching  make the Op Ed pieces in the newspaper seem trivial — to say nothing of the observations of cable news commentators. That is a good reason to read them. For they have inspired people, as Thoreau said, since long before our current cultural gods were born and they will do so long after those gods are dead. 

Immersing yourself in any of them will make you wiser. I admit to being biased in favor of the Christian Bible. That’s my family home. Visiting the Gita, however, has taught me even deeper truths about the spiritual life, just as visiting the homes of friends taught me deeper truths about family life.

Families may eat different foods at different times, but everybody eats. Families may go to bed in different ways, but everyone sleeps.

What Thoreau discovered from both the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament, is that both believe the spiritual life is lived out, not in holy isolation in a cave or on a mountaintop, but in the ordinary actions of life. In the Gita, we learn to do our work by letting go of our ego’s need for recognition and success. In the New Testament, we learn serve each other in love. They aren’t so different.

And both change us and our world for the better.

Read Your Life: Part 2 of Read the Eternities

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus of Nazareth, “What is truth”.

As far as Pilate was concerned, “truth” was just the “alternate fact” he needed to justify executing a carpenter to please the crowd.

Pilate would feel right at home in a place where  last night’s tweets will be explained away in this afternoon’s press briefing

“What is truth?”  How do we find it?

150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau was writing things that remain true even to this day. How did he do that?

His advice:

“Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”

How do we do that?

Step one, as I said last week, is to step back from the 24-hour news stream and read reports of events from a longer and deeper perspective. Don’t read the Tweets, read the Times, and newsmagazines and books. That will help you separate the true from the trivial — the signal from the noise.

However, I no longer think that reading what others have written about anything is as important as I once did. Now, it’s more important to read my own life.

My mother-in-law used to preface some of her sentences with the words, “Now this I know is true”.

How do YOU know what is true?

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle“, Thoreau was addressing people who were suffering, as we do, from information overload. Cheaper methods of printing created more newspapers — and a hunger for news — even fake news.  An efficient postal service brought deliveries of mail twice a day in many places. America was polarized around issues of slavery and race, the dangers of allowing Catholic German and Irish immigrants into the U.S., and trade policies. They were also distracted by the promise of gold.

Thoreau suggests that instead of rushing off to California to dig a shaft straight down into the ground, people should dig down in their own lives. We can pan for the gold in our life experiences. The miner washes away gravel to find flecks of gold in the bottom of his pan because gold is heavier than gravel. It has more weight.

How do you dig a shaft and pan for the gold in your own life? How do you find the stuff that has weight in your life?

One way to do this is to keep a diary of your life’s experiences.

Thoreau wrote in his journal the first drafts of truths that became gold nuggets about the desperation with which most people pursue their lives;   the importance of simplicity and what it means to disobey unjust laws.

I admit that I’ve tried to journal off and on through my life and until recently it hasn’t done much good because I didn’t go back and read what I had written to see that I was saying and doing the same things over and over again.  I couldn’t read my own handwriting. Using a word processor meant I would lose files when I upgraded. 

I’ve been more successful recently using an app called Day One that allows me to tag entries so that I can go back and look at recurring themes.

As John Dewey said:

“We don’t learn from experience, but from reflecting on experience.

My mother-in-law didn’t keep a diary. She just got up before dawn, sat on her couch with a cup of coffee and a cigarette and thought about life.

I am not privy to her thoughts, and I’m pretty sure that the hour, the coffee and the cigarette are optional, but I do know that she must have reviewed her life in those hours and it enabled her to say about a few things, “This I know is true.”

It takes time to dig into your life and sift the gold out of the gravel of your life experiences. It means you will miss some tweets. You will miss some news bulletins. You will miss some photos of what your “friends” had for dinner and a cat video or two. If that’s more important, so be it, but remember these words from Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle”:

You may depend on it, that the poor fellow

who walks away [from the Post Office]

with the greatest number of letters,

proud of his extensive correspondence,

has not heard from himself this long while.

How do you read your life?

What truths are you finding?

Reading the Eternities, Part 1: Baby Steps

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”

— Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

Like the majority of Americans, I’m trying to deal with PTSD — Post Trump Stress Disorder. Tweet by tweet, the things we believed to be true yesterday about constitutional government, or even President Trump’s position on Israeli settlements, turn out not to be true today.

TV comedians who tape their shows at 6:00 PM are afraid everything they say will be irrelevant by the time the show airs at 11:00 PM.

Even Republicans suffer from PTSD. The worst cases are the poor people who work for the President. Every day, it seems, they have to explain some new statement  — or explain it away. Sean Spicer’s  shell-shocked and Kellyanne Conway’s shellacked faces look like I feel.

So, OK, let’s put as good a spin on this as we can. A new administration is just finding its feet. An action-oriented President doesn’t spend a lot of time consulting and deliberating. He tweets whatever he is thinking. Driven more by pragmatism than ideology, he can be a bit unpredictable. The guy is a dynamo. It’s hard for anyone to keep up. Except . . .

The stress comes from not knowing what is true. We are told one thing one day and another thing the next day. Often we are told that what we thought we heard the first day wasn’t what was said and our believing it shows just how dishonest we really are.

In contrast to tonight’s tweets, which may or may not be true tomorrow, much of what Henry David Thoreau wrote more than 150 years ago remains true, including the two sentences at the top of this page.

They are short enough to be a tweet and the President would probably agree with the first sentence, “Read not the Times”.

The President, and most of us, would have no clue what Thoreau means by “Read the Eternities.”

I’ve been reading Thoreau and thinking about the difference between the messages he delivers and those we receive from our news media and politicians. Very little of what they say will remain true 150 years from now, or even six months from now, or next week, for that matter.

That observation leads me to the first step most of us need to take.

To paraphrase Thoreau:

“Read not the Tweets. Read the Times.”

Several years ago, I read this advice from Daniel Boorstin, a historian and former Librarian of Congress:

“It is better to read a newspaper account of an event than to watch it on TV.

It is better to read a weekly newsmagazine than to read a daily paper.

It is better to read a book about an event than to read a magazine”.

He was right because the more time that elapses after an event, the more considered is the reporting.

  • Time corrects initial misinformation and the mistaken conclusions that people jumped to.
  • Time helps us see individual events as part of a larger pattern.
  • Time helps us learn from those events before their lessons are wiped out by the next news cycle and we make the same mistakes over and over again.

So, to begin, read not the Tweets, read the Times. And we will talk about what Thoreau meant by “reading the eternities” soon,

Christmas Dinner with People I Don’t Know – The Abrahamic Version

Our sons and their families are not strange. But they are far away — and one family is Jewish, so we don’t do Christmas with them. That’s been OK in previous years, because Christmas Day was the day I collapsed after all the Advent activities, two or three services on Christmas Eve and, if Christmas fell on a Sunday, on Christmas morning, as well.

This year, free of that activity, we learned about some other folks who were going to be alone at Christmas. We contacted them, pooled our resources and everyone gathered around the table at our house on Christmas Day. About half of us were Christian. The other half Jewish.

When the meal began, I knew everyone from a little bit to not at all. Then, we shared stories of where we came from, people we missed at this time of the year, and kindnesses we have received in the past year. After the sharing of stories, I understood at a deeper level my wife, Jacquie’s, observation: “To know someone’s story is the love them.”

The coincidence of the gathering of relative strangers on Christmas Day has made me ponder the theme of hospitality that runs through all three Abrahamic religions.

For example, I have heard stories coming out of Iraq of American soldiers breaking down the doors of houses in search of insurgents, only to be offered tea by the Muslim family whose home they invaded, so strong is the teaching that those who “believe in God and the Last Day” will offer hospitality even to those who come unannounced.

Christians and Jews remember Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who came with the promise of an impossible child. Thus, a Jewish Christian wrote in the first century, those who welcome strangers may “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

At Passover, a place at the table is set for Elijah.

At Christmas, our manger scenes testify that Jesus came into a world that believes it has no room for strangers, and those who find the real meaning of Christmas seek to reverse that.

Henri Nouwen defined “hospitality” as making room for other people to be themselves. What I did not realize is that the ostensible host gets to be himself or herself, too.

Often, when we gather with relatives — or even with old friends — we think we know everyone and everyone thinks they know us. Recall a family gathering in which you were treated as if you were the 10-year-old you used to be. Family gatherings are great blessings, but they can hamstring us into old roles that we have outgrown — or want to outgrow.

Dinner with strangers, on the other hand, can reveal something new and delightful — maybe something that you thought was impossible, if you give each other room to be yourselves.

Christmas Dinner With People I Don’t Know

Nine relative strangers joined us for dinner on Christmas Day. That may be better than eating with nine strange relatives. Let me explain . . .

We belong to a co-op for older people. Like a babysitting co-op, we trade favors; rides to the doctor’s office or the airport are high on the list. And we get together socially. We are very close to some of the members, especially our sponsors, but we don’t know everyone. About a week before Christmas, one of the organizers of the co-op sent an email to its fifty-some members asking if any of those who would be alone on Christmas Day would like to join her for dinner and a movie.

WE were going to be alone on Christmas Day, since the East Coast half of our extended family is Jewish and the other half lives so far away on the West Coast. Jacquie decided to invite everyone to our house who wanted to come for Christmas dinner.

The folks who came were people I knew from a little bit to not at all. Jacquie knew everyone at least a little bit. We were about equally balanced between Christians and Jews.

As we began dessert, Jacquie asked each person to respond briefly to three questions:

  • What is your name and what is one thing you want us to know about you?
  • Who did you once spend the holidays with that you are thinking of this year?
  • What was the greatest act of kindness you received this year?

One of our guests talked about her husband of 55 years. She met him at a meeting she had organized to protest the execution of the Rosenbergs.

One guest read a “Lake Woebegone” type of reminiscence about good-hearted women she remembered from her childhood. I noted her detail that a lot of these good hearts were baptized Lutheran but became Methodists as their hearts enlarged.

One guest, a retired physician, described his desire to treat a new patient, humanity, which is in danger of dying from climate change.

His wife described the transformation of her own heart as she participated in caring for a dying friend.

Several people who moved here from such different places as Central Europe, the East Coast or the hills of Kentucky described kindnesses that they received as they found a new home in Cleveland.As we looked back on Christmas dinner from Boxing Day, it struck me that it was different from a family gathering in that, when family gathers around a holiday table, everyone thinks that they know you. They probably do. It is good to be known — and loved.

But when strangers gather around a holiday table, we are open to discovering new things about other people, and ourselves. They get to tell their stories and we get to choose what we will tell them. As we listen carefully to each other, we also get listened to. And we listen to ourselves. We come to know ourselves and others in a new way. A marvelous Christmas present.

Have an Awful Christmas

Another blog to which I subscribe introduced me to this letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942:

“The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.”’

Can you imagine how awful his Christmas was? How far this young man, barely out of his teens, was from his home and family? How cold he must have been to have tears freeze to his cheeks? How he feared that he would not live to see another Christmas?

Yet, that enormous starred sky created the most beautiful Christmas he ever saw.

It reminded me of Christmas on the farm in Southwestern New York where I grew up. It was a lonely place far from the city lights that I take so much for granted these days. The snow-covered fields and the woods that surrounded us were silent. The barn where we milked the cows steamed in the cold as the animals ate from their feed troughs, AKA “mangers”.

It was easy to imagine an awful Christmas when a young woman and her husband were denied shelter by their fellow humans and found refuge with the animals.

But above all this was the sky filled with stars, so it was also easy to imagine the stars that once began to swirl, like a Van Gogh painting, turning into angels who sang about peace on earth and goodwill for everyone.

Into this night, a baby is born. In some ways the most awful and most awe-full thing that can happen.

I don’t really wish you an awful Christmas, not like the one that soldier had; not like the one Mary and Joseph had. It’s just that awful Christmases are unavoidable.

Sometimes, it is in our awful Christmases that we see the real beauty of Christmas stripped of tawdry trimmings. Just as we are able to see the wondrous stars when it is really dark, so we are able to experience the awe-fullness of Christmas the most when Christmas is awful.

Christmas comes around every December 25th to ask us, “Do you get it, yet? Do you understand?”

“Presents?” asked our 4-year-old grandson.

The word came up in a conversation between his parents and grandparents the day after Thanksgiving. We didn’t know that he was listening — and he probably wasn’t — until someone said “presents”. The very word “presents” conjured visions of wrapping paper and action figures for the 4-year-old and it grabbed his attention. He knew about presents.  The next month would go slow for a 4-year-old waiting for Christmas 2006.

It would go even slower for his Mom, who was eight months pregnant at that Thanksgiving.

I was one of the many adults in my grandson’s life who talked with him excitedly about the new baby that was coming. He listened to this chatter about a new baby respectfully because he loved the people who were talking to him and sensed their excitement, but it didn’t mean nearly as much to him as boxes wrapped with pretty paper under the Christmas tree.

Ten years later, our smart, articulate grandson probably couldn’t tell you what was in any of the boxes under the tree that Christmas, but he could tell you some of the differences the smart, articulate little girl that was born a few days after Christmas has made in his life. Furthermore, I’ll bet he’ll be able to appreciate her impact even more 50 years from now.

“Jesus is the the reason for the season”, probably sounds to most of us like “You are going to have a baby sister” sounds to a 4-year-old. We listen respectfully, because sometimes those who use such words have  internalized their meaning and speak with joy and wonder — just the way a grandparent speaks of the arrival of a new grandchild. But, most of us just don’t get it — and neither does the World into which He was born.

I have seen almost 70 Christmases and I am only beginning to understand what difference this Child has made in my life and in the world.

“Love your neighbor as yourself”

“Do unto others what you would want others to do for you.”

Yes, others said the same thing before Him and independently of Him, but because He said it, those words have a force that pushes back at the attitudes of privilege and hatred that threaten to tear apart our communities, our country and our world.

  • His story about a man of another religion and race stopping to help a stranger counters all of our fears about how those people are out to get us.
  • When we set His life of giving over against our lives of consuming, we cannot help but feel that there is a better way to live.
  • His mission of forgiveness and healing makes us question our military expenditures and our prisons and our vindictive sense of justice that is eroding our economy and our culture.
  • The story and songs about His birth to a homeless couple in a barn in the darkest part of the night at the darkest time of the year have helped hundreds of millions of people look for hope in the most hopeless situations.
  • The story about his family becoming refugees before he could walk have caused people 2,000 years later to show kindness to those that our current King Herods want to ignore or exterminate.

Those are my answers to the question Christmas 2016 is asking.

What are you discovering about Christmas this year?