Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"The End of This Year"

The End of This Year

The best place to be is here,
at home, the two of us, while

others ski or eat out. It will be
quiet. We won't watch the ball

fall, the crowd in Times Square.
They will celebrate while here

there is this night. Tomorrow
some will start over, or vow

to stop something; maybe try
again. Here the snow will

fall through the light over
the back door and gather

on the steps. We will hope
our daughter will be safe.

She will wonder what
the year will bring. Maybe

we will say a prayer.

"The End of This Year" by Jack Ridl from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron. © Wayne State University Press, 2013.  (buy now)

From "The Writer's Almanac"

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Airplane Poem #2"

Flying into the dark seems
to be my life lately.
Headphones in, tunes
on.  And the sun don't
shine anymore.  Glad
that the One who
guides me
guides the pilot as she powers us through
the light chop
cause the sun don't
shine for her anymore
either, just the light
from the instrument

"Airplane Poem #1"

Flying through Alabama airspace at
30,000 feet remembering
in the mid-October setting sun how
she left
a mark without leaving
a bruise.  Or did she leave
a bruise
deep inside that she can't see or
even know is there?
Clear air turbulence shakes the plane.  My
heart pitches and yaws.  It's been years
and I'm still
a fearful flyer.

"God of the impertinent exile..."

Hagar in the Wilderness
Tyehimba Jess
Carved Marble. Edmonia Lewis, 1875

My God is the living God,
God of the impertinent exile.
An outcast who carved me
into an outcast carved
by sheer and stony will
to wander the desert
in search of deliverance
the way a mother hunts
for her wayward child.
God of each eye fixed to heaven,
God of the fallen water jug,
of all the hope a vessel holds
before spilling to barren sand.
God of flesh hewn from earth
and hammered beneath a will
immaculate with the power
to bear life from the lifeless
like a well in a wasteland.
I'm made in the image of a God
that knows flight but stays me
rock still to tell a story ancient as
slavery, old as the first time
hands clasped together for mercy
and parted to find only their own
salty blessing of sweat.
I have been touched by my God
in my creation, I've known her caress
of anointing callus across my face. 
I know the lyric of her pulse
across these lips...  and yes,
I've kissed the fingertips
of my dark and mortal God.
She has shown me the truth
behind each chiseled blow
that's carved me into this life,
the weight any woman might bear 
to stretch her mouth toward her
one true God, her own
beaten, marble song.

Edmonia Lewis (1845-1907) was an African/Native American expatriate sculptor who was phenomenally successful in Rome. 
Copyright © 2013 by Tyehimba Jess.

Tyehimba Jess is the author ofleadbelly (Wave Books, 2005). He teaches at the College of Staten Island in New York City. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly..."

The Journey of the Maji

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

"The Journey of the Maji" by T.S. Eliot from Collected Poems 1909-1962. © Faber and Faber, 1974. (buy now)

From "The Writer's Almanac"

"Lo, in the silent night..."

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul, O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

Source: 15th Century verse

Add your thoughts at inward/outward

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Christmas Sparrow"

Christmas Sparrow

The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent—

wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of glass into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat
who was hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap of a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

"Christmas Sparrow" by Billy Collins, from Aimless Love. © Random House 2013.  (buy now)

From "The Writers Almanac" 

"... with my eyes open..."

Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.

I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

-- Mary Oliver

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"the only life you could save..."

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

"The Journey," by Mary Oliver, from Dreamwork. © Grove Atlantic, 1996.  (buy now)
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Autobiography in Five Short Chapters"

1)  I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost . . . I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

2)  I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

3)  I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in . . . it’s a habit.
My eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately

4)  I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

5)  I walk down another street.

by -Portia Nelson

Friday, December 06, 2013

"I shall not pray to God for you..."

I shall not pray to God for you
for what I think you would
like to have, or ought to have,
of gain or grace or good;
or even for your current dream,
however absolute
lest time should prove we both had begged
for you a bitter fruit . . .
only remember you with love
without the least request;
and God, who loves you more than I,
will do for you what’s best.

Ruth Van Gorder

Thursday, December 05, 2013

"The First Five Things Every Spirituality Writer Should Know" -- A Guest Post by Vinita Hampton Wright

The First Five Things Every Spirituality Writer Should Know

—Vinita Hampton Wright

There are really only so many things that go wrong in writing. After twenty-three years as an editor, I’ve made thousands and thousands of fixes, but often they applied to the same mistakes made again and again. Here’s a short list of issues I encounter often when editing material on spirituality.

Nothing makes up for poor craftsmanship.
I can say this confidently as a member of the publishing community: The number one reason a manuscript is rejected is that the writing just isn’t good enough. With so many manuscripts floating around, editors can afford to be picky and will dismiss so-so writing—usually after reading a paragraph or two. Most readers are impatient and won’t stay with writing that is mediocre—they will click to another blog or pick up another book. Especially now that cyber tools make it possible to generate and publish material almost instantly, writing must be flawless and beautiful to stand out above all the rest.

Save teaching for the classroom and teaching for the pulpit.
People attend a class to learn or go to church to hear a sermon. They open a book or an article for a different experience. Welcome and respect the reader. Give her an experience, not just information. Walk alongside her as a fellow explorer rather than stand in front of her as an authority.

Fiction is about storytelling, not teaching.

If you want to write fiction, then serve the story above all else. A good story will reach the reader’s heart and mind because it is well written, its characters are interesting, and the plot compels the reader to find out what happens next. Good fiction also contains moral, philosophical, and spiritual content, but it must grow organically from the story. Good fiction is not a moral lesson dressed up with characters and a plot; that’s a fable or a parable—and those have their purpose, too, but they are not novels or short stories.

The reader becomes engaged when she has to do some of the work.
Spiritual writing draws upon the reader to add his experience and story to the mix. It invites the reader to ponder and puzzle. Spiritual writing engages the reader, and to engage the reader, the writer must respect and care about the reader. Also, refrain from spoon feeding information and supplying answers; invite the reader to articulate the questions and wrestle with them. 

Personal writing must be transformed in order to work as public writing.

The most powerful writing begins as personal writing—the writer works through an issue, mines wisdom from a memory, or tries to put an experience into perspective. Rarely does such writing automatically translate well to the larger audience. It must go through a revision process before it can be accessible and useful to others. Sometimes the revision is minimal, but more often it’s pretty extensive. When you transform personal writing for public reading, you revise it with the reader in mind, which means that you recede into the background. Which means that some of the material that’s quite meaningful to you will be changed or deleted. In the realm of spirituality writing, this is called service.

Vinita's The Art of Spiritual Writing is now available at fine booksellers everywhere.  It's a must read for any writer -- from beginner to expert.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

"The Art of Spiritual Writing" -- A Recommendation

I'm not new at this.  This being spiritual writing.  My first piece was published in 1979.  My first book came out in 1983.  I should be pretty good at it.  And, I say humbly, I am.

When, that is, I remember to write right.  Which I don't always do.  I'm working on a rewrite of a book now -- the first submission was too dry, too teach-y and too heady.  Not enough heart to make anyone want to read it.  Not personal enough to make anyone care.  Not relevant enough to the reader's experience.

I could have avoided all that had I had Vinita Hampton Wright's new book, The Art of Spiritual Writing: How to Craft Prose that Engages and Inspires Your Readers.  As it turned out, the book came after dark last night, whilst I was in the dark about how to "fix" my manuscript.

Instead of continuing the struggle to beat my book into shape, I read Vinita's book.  Straight through.  And, as I did, I kept thinking, "Yep", "Indeed", "A-ha", and other such things.  It wasn't so much that I learned a lot of new things.  Rather Vinita's book reminded of everything that I knew but had somehow forgotten to practice.  Yikes.  I'm keeping it beside me as I go through my re-write.

The first two chapters alone are worth the price of the book --

  • What Does It Mean to “Write” Spirituality?  
  • The First Five Things Every Spirituality Writer Needs to Know

Other chapters are just as helpful and include:

  • How to Make Your Story a Story for Others
  • What Authenticity Is and Why It Matters
  • What You Can Learn from Other Spirituality Writers
  • Simple Ways to Make Your Writing Better

I am not going to tell you what Vinita says about these topics.  What I am going to say is, "Read this book!" It doesn't matter whether you're new to writing or an old hand like me -- you'll find this little collection of writing wisdom helpful.  It will take you further down your journey to writing well -- guided by an excellent practitioner of this craft to which many of us feel called.

-- Brent

On Thursday of this week Vinita will be guest blogging about her book here on Holy Ordinary.  You won't want to miss that.