On Sunday: Beneath the din

Sometimes we go to beach church. Coffee in hand, we drive toward water and light. There, in our church without walls or rules, prayer is sometimes a poem, or, the quiet.


A friend says she knows the exact moment our friendship took hold. We were at the park and I shared a poem with her (A Secret Life by Stephen Dunn). And, I, too, remember the hush like an opening of trust.


This morning, I opened a book and went to "church," poet Mary Ruefle presiding:

Short Lecture on Prayer

James Fenton puts forth the idea that poetry happens when one raises their voice. I agree, but I also believe that poetry happens when one lowers their voice. In the first instance, the raised voice, we have the street hawkers, the singers, the storytellers, the priests — anyone who wants to be heard over the din — but in the second we include the tellers of secrets, the lovers, the password keepers — all those who want to be heard beneath the din, not by the din itself but by one singular other who is part of the din, as when in the middle of a concert we lean to the person next to us and cup our hand around our mouth, forming a private amphitheater, a concert within a concert, connecting ourselves to one the way the concert is connection itself to everyone. And I was thinking about prayer, and those who must raise their voice in order to be heard in their emergency and desperation — O lord out of all those who are vying for your attention at this moment please hear my prayer — and I think actually those raised prayers are directed toward the gods, in the plural sense, which would be a din, the din of gods, caretakers of all the multiple things that can happen to us. But the prayer of the lowered register no longer has a chance of being heard, has abandoned that chance — "given up," we say — yet retains the desire to speak, and I think these are the prayers addressed to god, who has become a singular absence: there is no one in the next seat; the ether becomes an ear.

Cries and whispers. A bang or a whimper. Whatever the case, if we want to be heard, we must raise our voice, or lower it.

— Mary Ruefle
Madness, Rack, & Honey: Collected Lectures


Against Immensity

On the beach in Yachats, Oregon. Photo by Drew Myron.

I'm feeling small.

The ocean grew tall this weekend, waves curled at 10 and 15 feet. The sea was centerpiece, a beautiful low roar of large, and the sky stood steady and blue.

And later, in afternoon light, I turned east, walked deep into forest. Stood small against massive old growth stumps and gazed up to taller trees reaching for light. Sun filtered through thickness and fell on a floor of moss and fern while branches cracked beneath my feet.

Nature offers powerful reminders of perspective. I am small today, and that feels true.


Unless you

visit the dark places, you’ll never
feel the sea pull you in and under,
swallowing words before they form.
Until you visit places within you
cloistered and constant, you will travel
in a tourist daze, wrought with too much
of what endures, depletes.

If you never turn from light, close
your eyes, feel the life inside, you’ll leave
the church, the beach, your self,
knowing nothing more.

Unless you are silent, you will not
know your urgent heart, how it beats
between the thin skin of yes and no.

- Drew Myron
from Thin Skin


B**#!*t Things Writers Say

In a writing workshop recently, we were deep into pontification.

Line by line, we parsed and considered, and just as I thought I couldn’t bear any more intellectualizing, the instructor said, “That’s a bullshit writer phrase.” 

I could have kissed her in relief.

Yes, we take ourselves too seriously. Yes, I’m talking to you, and me, and the writer three seats back with a laborious way of saying a long draw of nothing. Writers of the world, please give these phrases a rest:

What’s at stake?

Did you earn that ending?

I believe the author’s intent . . .

Where’s the arc?

As writers and readers, we naturally desire to go beyond the surface. Of course. We want to dig deep. We want to learn — how did they do that? what works? what doesn’t? how can I apply this to my own writing? — and that’s good. But too often we drain the life out of the pure and joyful act of reading and writing. 

Sure, it’s a fun intellectual exercise to contemplate the placement of a comma — fun, if you enjoy root canals and, say, a conference of engineers — but at some point you gotta get out of analytics and into the actual act of your very own writing.

This isn’t a call for less intellect. This is a plea for less pretentious pondering.

Are you with me here? 
What b**#!^*#t phrases are wearing you down?



Thankful Thursday: Assortment

my new mantra: "i am on the verge of a breakthrough not a breakdown"  •  my husband's coffee  •  autumn's low-angle light  •  laughing with my mother    a really good book that takes me out of myself  •  cheery customer service  •  the quick trust a small group of writers form  •  whole milk in my cereal. after using 2% for years, i'm giddy with the simple extravagance of full-strength milk    an email from a faraway friend    the other day, a woman i barely know gave me the gift of four words: "i like your heart."


It's Thankful Thursday. Please join me in a weekly pause to express appreciation for people, places, things and more. What are you thankful for today?



Heart and soul, without zealots and sap

 Most of my prayers are like drive-by

 shootings. Please help me. Please save her.

 Thank you for the parking spot.

— Julie Price Pinkerton

from What is My Life About?
a poem in Rattle, No. 45

It’s tough to write about faith — without seeming a zealot, a dimwit, or a preachy platitude.

And so, it is with great relief I read the latest edition of Rattle (Fall 2014, No. 45). Presenting “poets of faith,” the journal offers work from over 40 poets with a range of honest, authentic and complicated voices. From drag shows to religious leadership, these poems are powerful because they are rooted in everyday experiences in which the writers reach, seek and struggle with doubt, hope, faith and more.

"I’m often troubled by the label ‘Christian’ and the way it has come to mean intolerance and, sometimes, hate. . .” writes Laurie Uttich, in words that echo my own feelings on faith. "I believe in living as Jesus taught: feed the poor, house the homeless, care for the imprisoned, speak for the marginalized."

Thankfully, rather than list the literary achievements of each poet, Rattle allows contributors to provide backstory to their poems).

With this issue, Rattle proves that spiritual writing can be touching and tender and also irreverent and sharp.

And this statement from Dan Nemes feels especially spot-on: “The act of writing poems cracks me open. Being faithful, being a poet of faith, means, for me, trusting in the slow and painful, rapturous and joyous accumulation of life, knowing that bearing witness to the suffering and joy in myself, in others, and in creation, is redemptive.”

Perhaps my favorite part of Rattle is the featured “Conversation” between publisher and poet. This issue features Chris Anderson, a college professor and Catholic deacon who lives in Corvallis, Oregon. The interview is a lengthy and comfortable exchange in which Anderson, an unusually down-to-earth religious leader, shares his perspective on poetry as a form of prayer:

“Stanley Kunitz says that poetry, all poetry, is a form of spiritual testimony; it comes in the form of a blessing. And for me that’s how poetry works," says Anderson. "See, the struggle with poetry — the attraction to poetry for me spiritually is its obscurity, its hiddenness. There’s less temptation to ego in that sense, but that's also the struggle . . . And even when you publish a book, or publish a poem in Rattle, nobody knows about it, or if they do, they don’t know what to say about it. And about half the time that depresses me and it feels pointless. And the other half of the time it feels freeing, like an invitation to keep dying to myself: 'Okay, I’m going to keep doing this anyway,' sort of a barometer of my faith.”

Fear not, believers and non-believers and maybe-something thinkers, poetry of faith is not poetry of proselytizing. These writers demonstrate that poetry written from a place of wonder and search offers far more substance than sap.


Some of my favorite writers are seekers, searchers & believers. Browse through my archives:

Help, Thanks, Wow - Anne Lamott

The Closest to Love We Ever Get - Heather King

Where Silence is Sacred - Pico Iyer

A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith - Jane Hirshfield

After the Ark - Luke Johnson

Concerning the Prayer . . . - Jane Mead