Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Better Food for a Better World": A Book Review

I first "met" Erin McGraw via her short story collection Lies of the Saints.  I was browsing through Eighth Day Books (one of the best independent bookstores in the universe) and came across this quirky title (I'm a sucker for quirky titles -- among other things).  I snatched it up and read it straight through.  I read it again -- hooked by McGraw's lively writing, intriguing characters, and stories with a twist.

I've read everything by her since.

So I was delighted to hear that she had a new novel out -- Better Food for a Better World.  My delight has not dissipated after reading it.  McGraw continues to be a first rate writer and she's well able to sustain a novel.

The premise doesn't sound all that exciting.  Three couples from college pool their financial and emotional resources to start "Natural High Ice Cream" with the goal of providing "Better Food for a Better World." Hey, I don't even like ice cream that much (mostly because I can't eat the real stuff thanks to diabetes).  And it hardly sounds "life or death"ish. 

But then I didn't count on the "Life Ties" marital un-support group they belong to or chubby contortionists or flirtations over ice cream and wine or...   Well, you'll just have to read it to see what other "or"s there are.  It truly is a matter of life and death -- just not in the physical way, so much.

McGraw's writing draws you in, up, and over -- just like her lives of these non-saints.  They are saint-wanna-be's sort of -- but of the vaguely spiritual, not religious type of saints.  They're good people who just can't seem to be good.   Just like all of us, they're women and men caught up in the holy ordinary of life and missing both the holiness and the blessing of ordinariness. 

Of course, their ordinariness is not most of our ordinarinesses -- few of us book feminist comics, struggle with teaching violin, devise healthy ice cream recipes with Ben & Jerry-ish names, or participate in self-help groups that abound with a certain sarcastic saintliness.  But Vivy, Sam, Nancy, Paul, Cecelia and David finally see the blessings of their lives amidst the trials -- and, when they do, help us see our own.

Thanks, Erin!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"bagging gold for the cold days to come..."

Neighbors in October

All afternoon his tractor pulls a flat wagon
with bales to the barn, then back to the waiting
chopped field. It trails a feather of smoke.
Down the block we bend with the season:
shoes to polish for a big game,
storm windows to batten or patch.
And how like a field is the whole sky now
that the maples have shed their leaves, too.
It makes us believers—stationed in groups,
leaning on rakes, looking into space. We rub blisters
over billows of leaf smoke. Or stand alone,
bagging gold for the cold days to come. 

"Neighbors in October" by David Baker, from The Truth About Small Towns. © University of Arkansas Press, 1998.  (buy now

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"now the eyes of my eyes are opened"

photo by Brent

i thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

"i thank You God for most this amazing" by E.E. Cummings, from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Press, 1994. (buy now

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"In moons that rise up everywhere..."

The Old Woman Gets Drunk with the Moon

The moon is rising everywhere;
The moon's my favorite easy chair,
My tin pot-top, my green plum tree,
My brassy buttoned cavalry
Tap-dancing up a crystal stair.

O watch them pitch and take the air!
Like shoo fly pies and signal flares,
Like clotted cream and bumblebees,
The moons are rising.

How hits-the-spot, how debonair,
What swooned balloons of savoir faire,
What purr of rain-blurred bright marquees
That linger late, that wait for me,
Who'll someday rest my cold bones there
In moons that rise up everywhere. 

"The Old Woman Gets Drunk with the Moon" by Hailey Leithauser, from Swoop. © Graywolf Press, 2013.  (buy now

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Range, Loathing, y Tuscon, AZ -- A montage of music, visuals, and poetry

Forms of Range and Loathing
by Ruth Ellen Kocher

typical of an arid country among hundreds of other flora
you find half a province of avalanches 
parts are desert 
I might say light defeated by a dark thing that strips
mountain and bullet
the mountains have forgotten airborne
you would never say howl
never say mountain
or region or enemy
you say men's mouths are the woods' black holes 
I'm thinking The guy on TV didn't seem upset about
killing his wife If he'd done so but he didn't he says 
nothing about him if not after an interview
tuft bodies of red wings scatter the lawns 
did you hear
birds out of sky
some dead wind

he didn't seem upset and so may as well
have killed his wife
a jury says
If you could hear me now I'm not sure how important
it might seem In another language
Hope is not too much or that a random crime
might mean We share something 

Copyright © 2013 by Ruth Ellen Kocher.
Ruth Ellen Kocher is the author of several books of poems, including domina Un/blued 
(Tupelo Press, 2013). She teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"We all give God the blues..."

"Behind the wall a garden still in blossom..."

Photo by Brent

The Lost Garden

If ever we see those gardens again,
The summer will be gone—at least our summer.
Some other mockingbird will concertize
Among the mulberries, and other vines
Will climb the high brick wall to disappear.

How many footpaths crossed the old estate—
The gracious acreage of a grander age—
So many trees to kiss or argue under,
And greenery enough for any mood.
What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow
Seems bearable when studied at a distance,
And if we speak of private suffering,
The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale
Describing someone else who shares our name.

Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.
What if we had walked a different path one day,
Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere
The way a pebble tossed into a brook
Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?

The trick is making memory a blessing,
To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,
Of wanting nothing more than what has been,
To know the past forever lost, yet seeing
Behind the wall a garden still in blossom. 

"The Lost Garden" by Dana Gioia, from Interrogations at Noon. © Graywolf Press, 2001.  (buy now

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Photo by Brent
by Lia Purpura
It's that, when I'm gone, 
(and right off this is tricky) 
won't be worried 
about being gone. 
I won't be here 
to miss anything. 
I want now, sure, 
all I've been gathering 
since I was born, 
but later 
when I no longer have it, 
(which might be 
a state everlasting, who knows?) 
this moment right now 
(stand closer, love, 
you can't be too close), 
is not a thing I'll know to miss. 
I doubt I'll miss it. 
I can't get over this.


Copyright © 2013 by Lia Purpura. 

Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of poems, essays, and translations, including King Baby (Alice James Books, 2008). She is Writer in Residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Purpura will be on a panel titled "The Poetic Impulse" at the Academy's Poets Forum in New York City, October 24-26.  

"...thirsty, happy poems."

The late, great Princess of Ploughshares

The Poetry Teacher

The university gave me a new, elegant
classroom to teach in. Only one thing,
they said. You can't bring your dog.
It's in my contract, I said. (I had
made sure of that.)

We bargained and I moved to an old
classroom in an old building. Propped
the door open. Kept a bowl of water
in the room. I could hear Ben among
other voices barking, howling in the
distance. Then they would all arrive—
Ben, his pals, maybe an unknown dog
or two, all of them thirsty and happy.
They drank, they flung themselves down
among the students. The students loved
it. They all wrote thirsty, happy poems. 

"The Poetry Teacher" by Mary Oliver, from Dog Songs. © Penguin, 2013.  (buy now

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"With quiet eyes..."

Photo by Brent

Afternoon on a Hill

I will be the gladdest thing
   Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
   And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
   With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
   And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
   Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
   And then start down!

"Afternoon on a Hill" by Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Selected Poems. © Harper Perennial, 1991.

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

"The Rules of the New Car"

The Old Car

The Rules of the New Car

After I got married and became
the stepfather of two children, just before
we had two more, I bought it, the bright
blue sorrowful car that slowly turned
to scratches and the flat black spots
of gum in the seats and stains impossible
to remove from the floor mats. "Never again,"
I said as our kids, four of them by now,
climbed into the new car. "This time,
there will be rules." The first to go
was the rule I made for myself about
cleaning it once a week, though why,
I shouted at the kids in the rearview mirror,
should I have to clean it if they would just
remember to fold their hands. Three years
later, it was the same car I had before,
except for the dent my wife put in the grille
when, ignoring the regulation about snacks,
she reached for a bag of chips on her way
home from work and hit a tow truck. Oh,
the ache I felt for the broken rules,
and the beautiful car that had been lost,
and the car that we now had, on soft
shocks in the driveway, still unpaid for.
Then one day, for no particular reason except
that the car was loaded down with wood
for the fireplace at my in-laws' camp
and groceries and sheets and clothes
for the week, my wife in the passenger seat,
the dog lightly panting beside the kids in the back,
all innocent anticipation, waiting for me
to join them, I opened the door to my life. 

"The Rules of the New Car" by Wesley McNair, from Lovers of the Lost: New and Selected Poems.

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Monday, October 07, 2013

"the radiant world...."

Sailing on Lake Superior

Before us now the edge of the earth,
below us the nearly endless cold.
Around us nothing but shimmering
the miles of empty and sparkling blue.

For a few hours, the sail fills on
toward infinity. Shadows of
our delicate bodies ebb and flow
across the deck of our delicate boat.

What if the beautiful days, the good
and pacific temperate moments,
weren't just lovely, but everything?
What if I could let it fall away
in the wake, that ache to extract
meaning from vastness?

Let this suffice; the ease of thinking
it all goes on, whether we're here
to see it or not. The splashing waves,
the suntipped gulls arcing across
the radiant world.

"Sailing on Lake Superior" by Kirsten Dierking, from Northern Oracle. © Spout Press, 2007.

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Sunday, October 06, 2013

A Grace: Poem

A Grace

God, I know nothing, my sense is all nonsense,
And fear of You begins intelligence:
Does it end there? For sexual love, for food,
For books and birch trees I claim gratitude,
But when I grieve over the unripe dead
My grief festers, corrupted into dread,
And I know nothing. Give us our daily bread.

"A Grace" by Donald Hall, from Old & New Poems. © Ticknor & Fields, 1990

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Necessity for Irony: A Poem

The Necessity for Irony

On Sundays,
when the rain held off,
after lunch or later,
I would go with my twelve year old
daughter into town,
and put down the time
at junk sales, antique fairs.

There I would
lean over tables,
absorbed by
lace, wooden frames,
glass. My daughter stood
at the other end of the room,
her flame-coloured hair
obvious whenever—
which was not often—

I turned around.
I turned around.
She was gone.
Grown. No longer ready
to come with me, whenever
a dry Sunday
held out its promises
of small histories. Endings.

When I was young
I studied styles: their use
and origin. Which age
was known for which
ornament: and was always drawn
to a lyric speech, a civil tone.
But never thought
I would have the need,
as I do now, for a darker one:

Spirit of irony,
my caustic author
of the past, of memory,—

and of its pain, which returns
hurts, stings—reproach me now,
remind me
that I was in those rooms,
with my child,
with my back turned to her,
searching—oh irony!—
for beautiful things. 

"The Necessity for Irony" by Eavan Boland, from The Lost Land. © W.W. Norton.
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Friday, October 04, 2013

A Novel by a Spiritual Non-Fiction Writer Set in Central America? Twenty Years Ago? Really?? -- A Guest Post by Writer Paula Huston

Paula Huston is the author of the newly released novel A Land Without Sin.  She is also the author of Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life (both of which I highly recommend), and many other books.  I invited her to write about A Land Without Sin.


I’ll admit, it does sound a little far-fetched.  But there is a back-story here.  In fact, I was a fiction writer long before I began writing books like THE HOLY WAY.  I wanted to be a novelist from the time I was about seven years old, and actually began practicing way back then by writing a 36-page thriller about King the Dog, a super-canine hero who looked and acted an awful lot like Rin Tin Tin.  I took creative writing in high school, but got really serious about short story writing in my early twenties.  Since I had opted to get married and take on a full-time job in my late teens rather than go to college, I had no formal training, but I soon figured out that the library was full of great teachers.  I checked out all the BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORY anthologies I could get my hands on and studied the techniques of my favorite writers.

I sold my first story to a literary journal when I was about thirty, and by the time I actually went to college four or five years later (I’d been through a divorce by then, along with an eye-opening stint as a single mom, so I was more than convinced it was time to get a degree), I’d published quite a few of them.  A few years later, now remarried, a new step-mom, and armed with a Master’s in Literature degree, I got a job teaching at the local university and began trying to put together my first short story collection.  But one of the pieces, which was about the classical piano world at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, began to grow  uncontrollably, and pretty soon I realized I had an infant novel on my hands.  DAUGHTERS OF SONG  was published by Random House in 1995.

A year before it came out, however, my husband Mike and I made a backpacking trip to the jungles of Central America to see the Maya ruins.  We had just left southern Mexico for Guatemala when the Zapatista Uprising in Mexico began.  Like a lot of Americans, I knew very little about this part of the world, but this close brush with a revolution triggered an intense curiosity.  And that got coupled with my already-intense interest in the Mayas (my first major, before I switched to literature, had been anthropology).  I asked Random House if I could substitute a novel about all of this for the short story collection they’d planned to publish next.  They gave me the go-ahead and I spent the next three years researching and writing the book.  One of the biggest disappointments of my life came the day they informed me they’d decided not to publish it after all.  I stuck it away in a box and tried to forget about it.

Meanwhile, I met an editor-turned-agent at a writers’ conference who listened to my sad story and suggested I try writing spiritual nonfiction.  I resisted at first, but he was a great mentor, pointing me to wonderful spiritual writers I’d never read and eventually becoming my new agent.  It was his suggestion that I write a book about the simple life, the book that became THE HOLY WAY.   Much to my surprise, I found that I really liked writing nonfiction--it seemed refreshingly straightforward compared to fiction writing, which must always tell the truth but tell it “slant,” as Emily Dickinson puts it.  By the time I published my sixth book in this genre, I’d pretty well abandoned any notion of returning to fiction writing.

But one day a year or so ago I got an email from an old friend, a Christian editor who was starting a new literary imprint called, ironically enough, SLANT.  He asked if I had “any old novels lying around.”  I did!  And eighteen long years after I’d stuck it away and nearly forgotten about it, I dragged out that dusty old draft and reread it--and fell in love with it all over again.  Greg Wolfe, the Christian editor in question, liked it too.  He asked me some great editorial questions that helped me launch into a major revision, and a year or so after that initial email, A LAND WITHOUT SIN finally saw print.

How does it feel to hold this long-delayed book in my hands?  Surprisingly enough, I’m very grateful Random House did not publish it back then.  I learned so much during those many years of writing spiritual nonfiction.  First, I did not have any formal training in theology or divinity, so I had to educate myself in those areas--which made it possible, for example, for me to write much more believably about the struggles of a young priest to come to terms with the question of evil.  Second, when I wrote that first draft back in the early 90‘s, I was a very recent returnee to Christianity, still wet behind the ears, and this naive inexperience showed up as a certain kind of preachiness in that earlier version.  And finally, like a lot of people in their sixties, I’ve said goodbye to some of my youthful idealism by now--and I think this makes me a stronger, more realistic, and more truthful writer than I used to be.  Certainly a better writer for a book like this one, packed as it is with The Big Questions and their Not-So-Easy Answers.   

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Living in a Time of Great Spiritual Awakening: A Conversation Among Friends

Are we living in a time of troubling trends?
• declining church/meeting attendance,
• dissatisfaction with institutional religion,
• the rise of “None” as the most common religious affiliation on surveys
• a feeling that old structures and programs don’t hold the new Life?”

Or, are we in a time of dynamic Spiritual Awakening and renewal?

Want to be part of the conversation??  If so, join us --

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

8 Reasons Most Quaker Congregations SHOULD Never Break the 100 Attendance Mark

Empty or Full??
Okay. I'm writing this in response to a re-post by my friend (and Friend) Adrian Halverstadt.  This morning on Facebook he posted "8 Reasons Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark" by Corey Nieuwhof.  Since I'm a sucker for that sort of stuff ("10 Ways to Play Bogey Golf", "9 Tips on How Not To Turn a Tractor Over", "8 Sure Fire, No Fail ....") and am interested in churches, I read it.    His reasons are not bad --
  1.  The pastor is the primary caregiver. 
  2.  The leaders lacks a strategy. 
  3.  True leaders aren’t leading. 
  4.  Volunteers are unempowered. 
  5.  The governance team micromanages. 
  6.  Too many meetings. 
  7.  Too many events and programs that lead nowhere. 
  8.  The pastor suffers from a deire to please everybody. 
Some of these you might even feel helpful.  If so, you'll want to check out his blog post and see his reasoning why these eight things keep churches from breaking the 200 attendance mark. Maybe they'll help you on your way to meeting that goal. 

But these eight -- helpful as they might be -- gave me pause.  Not the eight items so much as the stated goal.  Breaking the 200 attendance mark.  Is that a worthy goal?  I don't think so -- especially for Quaker congregations.  And so I offer my 8 reasons most Quaker groups shouldn't even break the 100 attendance mark.

  1. Spiritual Intimacy -- I've been in some glorious and large meetings for worship.  One at FGC Gathering this summer comes to mind.  But for the most part, my experience of truly deep, gathered worship has occurred in groups of less than 100.  Sitting close, seeing and knowing everyone there -- their joys, sorrows, concerns, hopes -- seems to lend itself to an increased spiritual intimacy.  Both with each other and the Great Lover of our Souls.
  2. Listening Together -- since we gather to listen to God together -- and maybe even be given a message to share to those gathered, the dynamics of listening well together seem to me to be closely related to the number gathered.  There are enough of us afflicted with monkey-mind and thoughts scattering around that the power of those who are truly centered and communing with the Living Christ is more easily defused the greater the number of people who come together.  The power of those gathered wafts over and around a smaller group, drawing it together more easily than a larger one.
  3. Community -- how many people can we really know?  I mean really?  I am blessed with a bazillion Facebook friends, but I am not in deep spiritual community (or any other type of deep community) with them.  I attended a mega-church once with some family members who attended there.  They were greeted with, "Are you new here?"  That was after a couple of years of attending.  Perhaps a goodly number of the congregants there feel connected with and in community with each other.  But I fear not.  Smaller congregations can engender a deeper sense of spiritual community precisely because they can both know each other and be known by each other.  
  4. Trust -- when we know each other, especially each others' spiritual and life stories, then that intimacy and community builds trust.  We trust the others' motives and reasons for doing things -- even things we disagree with them on.  We cut each other a bit more slack.  We learn to live in love, not fear.
  5. Working Together -- all of us.  When we're smallish, we all chip in to do the work that God has called us all to do.  For example, when my meeting -- West Newton Friends -- decided to do Quaker Quest in 2012, we did it together.  Everyone.  Some were presenters, some were hosts, some made food, some did childcare, some prayed for the efforts.  It was a whole group effort -- one that would be difficult to achieve in a congregation of 200.  Since we were all involved, we all felt ownership, to some degree, of the program and its outcome. 
  6. Work That Needs to be Done -- smaller groups, when they are alive, not dying and form-driven, have the chance to do only the work that needs to be done.  So what that "Faith and Practice" says that we need X number of committees with X number of people on them serving X number of years?  No way.  There's not enough of us to do that without all of us serving on 27 committees.  Instead we do the work that we feel God is calling us to do.  Sunday school teachers teach because they feel led -- not because a nominating committee asked them.  Same with other programs or projects we undertake.  We look at what God is calling us to do with the people we have and the space we have at this time.  We do what we're called to do -- and nothing else.  I heard recently of a Quaker meeting that only had two committees -- Us and Them.  Us is pastoral care, worship, etc.  Them is outreach, missions work, etc.  Hmmm... what a concept.
  7. Growing Deep Together -- our adult Sunday school consists of all adults in the meeting.  Where that limits the offering of electives, it does keep us together spiritually.  We study together, talk together, pray together, and learn together.  And good work comes out of it -- as when we all studied (even the kids!) the causes and possible solutions to hunger issues.  As class ended one Sunday we decided -- together -- that next spring we would offer a community garden on our property as a faithful way to respond to hunger in our own township.  There was little discussion because we all had been studying this issue together and realized that we needed to do a witness together.
  8. Missional -- being small gives us a chance to think missionally.  There's nothing wrong with numerical growth.  I hope our meeting grows in numbers as well as in spiritual depth as we are doing now.  But I also hope that as we do, instead of worrying where we'll fit the hordes who will join, that we will say our building and our faith community can be accommodate 75 people.  When #76 begins attending, we should look at spinning off a new group and empowering them to to be God's Friends in a new place. 

No.  I don't believe there is any virtue in being small.  And if we are not growing numerically, as well as spiritually, then we are not being faithful to the Good News which has been entrusted to us and which has made such a difference in our lives.  But I, even after being raised a good (well, I wasn't very good at being good) Evangelical Friend who studied the Bible diligently, do not recall one time where Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as saying, "Wherever 200 or 300 are gathered, I am with them."

Just sayin'.

-- Brent

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

"A Land Without Sin" -- A Book Review

I haven't been blogging much of late, as I've been trying to finish writing a new book with my friend Jennie Isbell.  Now that Finding God in the Verbs: Crafting A New Prayer Language is off at IVP, it's time to catch up.  And there's a lot to catch-up on -- new music, new books, new happenings!

First up is a a new book.  Paula Huston's novel A Land Without Sin.

Set in autumn 1993 in southern Mexico, the novel features Eva Kovic's search for her priest brother who has most likely aligned himself with revolutionary forces who are hiding and raiding from the   Lacandon jungle.  Eva is in her mid-thirties and is a seasoned photo-journalist traveling under the cover of being the photographer for Jan Bource, a Dutch Mayanist.

While that's the surface story, much more is going on -- just as in real life, these characters have layered stories, secrets, and are each on their own quest.  A quest often unknown or unrevealed to the others.  Evan and Stefan (the brother) have their family story, which is far from being one of sweetness and light.  Jan has his, which includes a teenage son and invalid English Quaker wife who is housebound in their Mexican village home. 

Then there are the characters of the dark jungle, the violent guerrilla warfare, and war going on in Eva's heart and mind.

Huston's story is well told and the characters are rich and fully developed.  The are not all lovable nor all villains.  They are real -- filled with mixed motives and hopes and fears.  And the darkness of the jungle draws tighter around them all as they traverse on their individual quests and are caught up in situations far beyond their control.

A Land Without Sin has been compared to Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (and the movie based on it Apocalypse Now), but I think it has much more of a Graham Greene feel to it than a Conrad.  I first fell in love with Greene's novels whilst taking Brit Lit in college.  And I still love reading them.  The reason this is more Greene than Conrad is the element of faith as more than a plot device.  Stefan's priesthood is more than a character marker, it's important to his actions -- and to Eva's wrestling with things of the spirit.  Including her own struggles with the power and glory.  The human factor is a major part of this novel and is its strength.

On a personal note, I am happy for the portrayal of Quakers as decent, religious folk who are engaged in the empowerment of the poor -- especially women.  And Huston's description of Quaker waiting worship is pretty spot on, despite her referring to it as Quaker meditation (which is a not what most Quakers would call it).

Now for a disclaimer.  Paula is a friend of mine.  So you may not think me a dispassionate reviewer.  Guilty.  I enjoyed her books (mostly non-fiction) though before I knew her.  She's a wonderful writer and thinker -- and I commend her work(s) to you.

-- Brent

Check back later this week for a guest blog post from Paula!