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The Back Road Journal

 

The Back Road Journal welcomes submissions of work in fiction and nonfiction in any genre: short stories, poems, essays, reflections, meditations, sermons, etc. It is hoped that there will be one Guest Author featured each month. 

 Kalaymyo, Myanmar

 

Tuesday
Feb212017

Pipe & Thimble Book Store

Barbara Lieberman and Ellie Lieberman have created something special, or so it seems to me ~ the Pipe & Thimble Book Store. As you know, The Back Road Café is a noncommercial website, which means it is not cluttered to distraction with advertising and it does not promote products or services. However, I am making an exception here and introducing you to the Pipe & Thimble Book Store. Here is what Barbara and Ellie say about their bookstore:

Pipe & Thimble Book Store, much like its publishing company counterpart, is founded on the principles of Richard and Peg Austin's doll house miniature business in the late 70's by the same name. We strive to treat all authors, artisans, and other indies with respect, fairness, and integrity. We will create a haven that returns to the original roots of storytelling with a focus of community, bringing forth those voices that are so essential, and yet so often unheard.

Along with providing a platform for and promoting members of the indie community, we offer a place to further their reach in the South Bay (L.A.), as well as working with the South Bay community with local schools, charities, and other community organizations. Along with carrying only independent titles, we offer our store as a location for authors to hold events.

To visit the Pipe & Thimble Book Store website, click here.

 

About Barbara and Ellie:

 

A former family literacy specialist and tutor, Barbara Lieberman is an indie author of eleven books, speaker, and partner in Pipe & Thimble Publishing. Barbara is also the mother of two amazing young adults, an avid gardener, a voracious reader, and a lifelong (and long-suffering) Phillies fan. She is also taking her undiagnosed chronic illness and making it into something chronically fabulous with her most recent releases, The Unchained Spirit and Love in the Middle.

Ellie Lieberman is a partner of Pipe & Thimble Publishing. She is the author of two YA books and an illustrator of seven children's books and more to come, as well as being the owner of Acorn Tops, handmade fairy products to enchant your world.

Sunday
May102015

An Open Letter to the UK Prime Minister

Mike WalshDear Prime Minister,

I don't know if you will ever read this, but I have some things I wish to say to you.

You have won the General Election and command a majority in the House of Commons, and as such will feel you have a legitimate mandate to govern. However, you must also know that you don't command a majority of the British people.

Although our political views are very much at odds on many issues, I'm willing to believe that you are a good man, as sure of your ideals as I am of mine, and believe your plan is what's best for us all. You said today that you will govern for the whole country and bring back together that which has clearly fractured. I hope you will.

But Prime Minister, though you can obviously see your party did not win the confidence of Scotland and huge swathes of the north of England, I'm not sure your party quite understands why. It's not because we're all 'loony-left' or extremists and nationalists, it's because so many of us are scared. Scared of what your policies will do to our communities and families. Scared of what will happen to our health service and our schools. Scared of losing our family homes for the sake of a few quid saving from the bedroom tax, or not being able to heat our home and have enough left to buy food.

I don't disagree with you that the best way out of poverty is to work, nor do I think that people should get something for nothing and expect the tax-payer to support people indefinitely if they are able to work. Who would think that that was ok and fair? But your party's policies on these issues, couched in terms of reducing the deficit and balancing the books, don't seem to take into account the social and human cost of such actions. The country isn't a business, it's its people. All its people. And you are everyone's Prime Minister whether we voted for you or not.

You said today you will govern for everyone and unite the country. I hope you do. But to be able to do so you need to make it a priority in your first 100 days, to spend time in Scotland visiting people on zero hours contracts. Come to Manchester and talk with those who have been sanctioned for having a spare room, but have nowhere else to go. Go to Liverpool and meet people with disabled dependents who can't afford even one nanny, or to Newcastle and talk to people still living in poverty due to the demise of the coal industry. Spend a week or two living on the minimum wage, or volunteer in a food bank for a whole day.

Then Prime Minister you might begin to understand the cost of your policies from the other side, to see people as more than their net contribution to the economy, or as deliberate drains on the system. If you do that, then maybe you can heal some of the fractures in our society. Without this I just don't believe you can see just how crucial these issues are.

So please Prime Minister, leave Westminster for a few hours a week and truly strive to govern for all of us.

Rev'd Mike Walsh
The United Reformed Church

Mike Walsh is a minister in the United Reformed Church working in Manchester. But Mike isn’t your ordinary minister. His work is in the communities and streets of the Manchester area. He has been called “Minister for Contemporary Spirituality”, which is quite a mouth full, and “Pioneer Minister”. But to the those he works with he is simply known as “Mike the Vicar” who “works in the community chatting with people”.

So far Mike's open letter has been shared by over 43,000 people. He is asking any and all who agree with what he wrote to like and share the letter, and if you have a website to publish it there as well. 

Sunday
Dec282014

Psalm for the Newly Born

Carla Grosch-Millerby Carla Grosch-Miller

Fresh as dew,
made of stardust and dreams,
tender touch and deepest longing,
we welcome you.

Your fingernails the memory of ocean beds.
The furrow of your brow the future of the race.
Your hand’s grasp around my finger a sacrament.

Called forth by love,
you call forth our own.
Every mother’s breast swells;
every father’s legs brace.
A fierce tenderness arises
to protect you in every storm
and guard you against every fear.
The gratitude of grandparents
beholds you in wonder.

Child of our plenty,
we pray for you
freedom from want.
Daughter of courage,
we summon for you
the strength to meet
every challenge.
Son of costly love,
we dream a world at peace
and pledge our troth
to God’s new day.

Copyright © 2014 Carla Grosch-Miller

This psalm is not in Psalms redux: Poems and prayers (2014, Canterbury Press).

Monday
Sep222014

After the Scottish Referendum ~ A No Voter's Response to the “45”

by Peter McEnhill

Peter McEnhillMy name is Peter and I am a No voter- the confessional tone seems appropriate in the current climate. For apparently the 45's are claiming a continuing degree of greater consensus than the binary question of the referendum brought bout, and now see themselves as part of a more cohesive social movement with some sort of mandate for change. It also appears to be taken for granted by them that the 55 per cent No voters were either 'deluded, selfish, greedy or over 55', (thus invalidating the value of their vote apparently. People over 55 matter too you know!).

Well I am not yet 55, and was always going to vote No. The 'Vow' didn't influence me one bit and I suspect that is true for many. Indeed the first vote I ever exercised was in the vote for the Scottish Assembly in 1979 and I voted No in that as well - so I have got form. Indeed, as a relatively informed political adult, I was aware that there was a possibility of voting for independence at every General Election since the formation of the SNP, and I was certainly engaged by them in the breakthrough of 11 MP's in 1974. So I have consciously not voted for independence at every election since then, (except for when I was living and working in England.) Apparently, this option was lost on many of the 45's (certainly of my age group) who now proclaim their passion for independence despite never having voted for the SNP in their lives.

At the 2010 General Election the SNP got 85 thousand more votes than the Tories. Yes, that's right, a mere 85 thousand more votes than the party that is said to have no political legitimacy in Scotland. I suppose the point I have to make re that is nothing other than- 'welcome to the party.' Some of us have been aware of the option for a long time and have thought about it long before a referendum dawned. However, there is also a disturbing element that is emerging among the so called '45', which is to dismiss the reality of the vote by demeaning the motives of those who voted otherwise - 'fear', 'delusion', 'selfishness', 'age', or, alternatively, to suggest that the vote was only achieved via the machinations of the somewhat corrupt and effete institutions of society - 'the BBC', the 'establishment', 'Westminster'. Anyone with keen ears will hear distinct echoes of the tactics of populist movements of the 1930's in these implicit calls to set aside the clear decision of a majority vote by declaring it somehow null and void due to the machinations of a supposed aloof and indifferent 'them', as opposed to a morally righteous and virtuous 'us'. ( And Salmond's most recent contributions in this regard are hardly edifying- 'there are many paths to independence'.) Well, I am an old fashioned democrat. You have a vote, the matter is decided and you move on - otherwise anarchy beckons.

The 45 are now claiming some sort of consensus among themselves that doesn't exist outside the binary option of independence. But they are not the only people desiring social change or justice - despite the rhetoric that assumed some sort of moral high ground in this regard. How to achieve the goals of social justice and fairness are of course the points where the real political rubber hits the road. Is it best achieved by a small state, low taxation, wealth creation and individual responsibility? Or by the state taking the maximum share of the individual resources through taxation and distributing these more equitably among its inhabitants to counter the effects of systemic inequality? Somewhere between these two poles is where most of us - including the 45 - actually position ourselves with regard to the practical pragmatics of achieving greater social justice. And that's the daily, small, hard grind of real politics- something quite apart from the grand romance of a once for all one issue vote that has captivated so many.

So the presumed consensus is somewhat illusory. To take its leading proponents as an example: What vision of social justice do Patrick Harvie and Brian Soutar share apart from an independent Scotland? Indeed what do Patrick and Alex Salmond share in common? One wants to leave as much oil in the ground as possible, the other's economic programme depended upon extracting as many barrels as could possibly be produced. Alternatively, how did Alex and Nicola's broadly pro middle class programme, with their stated intent to reduce corporation tax in an independent Scotland cohere with Tommy Sheridan's uber Marxism?

I spoke to certain friends in the independence movement about these and related issues - i.e.- the suggestion that the Monarchy would be retained,(for I am a Republican) - and was told that these were strategic decisions that would be dealt with once independence was achieved. Well, that's all well and good, but don't tell me then that this is a new form of politics distinct from the machinations of Westminster. For you are making the same pragmatic strategic choices that all political parties make. And that is what I most resent about the '45' movement; for they presume a consensus that doesn't exist apart from the question of independence. There are really some strange bedfellows there - which is alright as a matter of strategic politics - but which is quite reprehensible if you are telling lots of young people that you are doing politics differently. The truth is the political situation is a bit more of a mulligatawny than the 45 tag suggests. For had independence been won, many 45s would have then found themselves on the side of many of the 55 when deciding for themselves what actual policies would produce more equality and vice versa.

It is gratifying that so many have been 'politicised' by the referendum and one hopes that will continue. For some it will be in the world of party politics and trade unionism that they will continue with their engagement. For others it will be a commitment to campaign groups such as 38 degrees or Occupy or Friends of the Earth or CND. For others it will be much smaller, more local issues that interest them. But that shorn of the unifying call for independence, the 45 will splinter into its various constituent bodies and affiliations is undeniable. To deny that - and to further somehow believe that independence would in itself have eliminated the hard political choices that any society has to make in order to deal with some of the fundamentally difficult issues facing us - is perhaps the greatest delusion that many professional politicians in the Yes camp tried to sell during their campaign. For truly the shibboleths such as - 'greater social justice and equity ' and 'change' were much touted - (and precisely who in contemporary politics is against these?), but were extremely short in practical detail as to how these would in fact be delivered.

Copyright © 2104 Peter McEnhill

Monday
Jul142014

Re-imagining the Psalms ~ Part III

by Carla Grosch-Miller

Re-imagining the Psalms: wrestling a 21st century spirituality from ancient texts.  Exploration of the psalms as a poetic portal for prayer and spiritual formation.

One of the aspects of the biblical psalms that disturbs me is the kind of dualism that projects out evil onto others while claiming the good for ourselves.  I see fully human, flourishing life as requiring the ability to know one’s own vulnerabilities, to accept and work with gift and limitation.  Hear Psalm redux 32:

Blessed are we who seek to know the whole of who we are:

            The gifts                                The limits
            The light                                The shadows
            The strength                          The weakness
            The saint                                The sinner

Who know, accept and seek to live in truth,
Who readily say ‘I’m sorry’ and learn from mistakes,
Who seek the good for all creatures
in the finitude of possibility.

For the weight of harm caused
bears down heavily.
The heart so burdened
cannot sing.
Strength is sapped,
the will paralysed.

Only truth sets us free,
truth and forgiveness,
the deep and gentle acceptance of condition,
the slate wiped clean
to permit love to be writ anew.

Let all burdened seek truth and freedom,
attend to the consequences of choices,
extend and accept the balm of forgiveness,
and face into the future with hope.
Love is come again.

In the depths of silence
and the words of the wise,
our hearts are instructed.
This is the invitation; heed it well.
For torment need not be our lot.
Trust in steadfast love
and the power that moves in all things
to give us life.

Be glad and rejoice.
Love is come again,
and again,
forever.

 

I also see spiritual disciplines as opening the way of flourishing.  This is Psalm 1 redux:

Delight is born of discipline chosen.
Contentment grows with wisdom.
Deep listening leads along a cairn-marked trail,
dew clinging to grass bent
by wayfaring pilgrims’ feet.

The sky is blue here.
Birdsong lifts the head.
A cool breeze caresses the cheek.
Legs grow strong like tree trunks;
arms branch flexibly
and dance with the wind.

From each finger drips
a ripening fruit.

The water is fresh and clear.
The plain is broad.
Come.

 

It is spiritual disciplines that enable the wrestling that makes faith personal.  Hear Psalm 80 redux:

I look to the heavens –
longing for the assured ease
of a Saviour who acts apart from us,
who hears our cries and responds,
whose mighty hand rescues and delivers us
even from ourselves.

That God died for me long ago.
I shuffle my way towards the coffin –
reluctant to spade
the last shovelful of earth
into the grave.

Your true power, Holy One,
confounds.
I feel my way towards You.
I breathe Your freshness in the breaking day
and melt into Your comfort at evening’s end.
I trace Your contours in the aged lines
of the faces of the long faithful,
and smell You on the tops of infant heads.
I line You in the poetry of ancient texts
and the longings of my heart.

You are.
Of that I am certain.
You alert and invite and wrestle.

You knead us like clay,
Your hands within and outwith
gently moulding.

Do You
– whose imperceptible and patient power never forces –
do You rescue the unwilling?
Does our summoning cry unlock the mystery
for a moment to allow the flow of You?
Is our awakening an essential prevenience
to Your unleashing?

The responsibility seems light.
You ask no shouldering of the whole,
only a longing  heart,
a searching cry,
a hopeful gaze,
a hand open,
willing to be the site
where love may be born.

I look to the heavens –
reports of Your death are exaggerated.
Your ear is keyed to our cry,
Your love hearkened by our longing,
Your power and Your presence
an eternal possibility.

Gratefully, I kneel,
open my hands,
relinquish my fear,
and present myself.

Let Your peace rest on me.
Let Your purposes be made manifest in me.

 

I’m going to end with two more psalms redux, the first about praise – we were made for praise – and the second about blessing [note: didn’t have time to read the final one].

Psalm 89:1-18 redux

Enduring melody,
your song shall be sung
so long as the earth spins
and the heavens dance.

Frail flesh opens its mouth:
you are born again.

To songweavers
you are the scale and the tone.
To storytellers
you are the plot and the end.
To all of life
you are breath
and you are beauty.

Open my mouth
and my voice shall rise in praise.

Awaken me, O Lord, from false understanding.
Keep the limits of my knowing ever before me,
that I might not defame you
or claim too much for myself.
Show me true justice and right mercy,
that I may live humbly and simply
in accordance with the order you ordained
for the flourishing of life.

Then my song shall ring with clarion joy,
a call to worship,
an invitation to sing.

Psalm 103 redux

Bless God, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless the breath that is life.

Bless God, O my soul,
and remember your awakening to
the power that frees,
the love that reconciles,
the touch that heals,
the mercy that consoles,
the good that uplifts,
the justice that satisfies
the deepest longing.

History sings Her story
of Way made known,
  Ground of Being revealed.
Though we see through a glass dimly,
the spark cannot be shrouded.
Her contours are comely.
Our hearts skip a beat, recognising
what our eyes have longed to see:
the goodness of God
in the land of the living.

From everlasting to everlasting,
   God is.
Our time is brief.
From our startled awakening
until the day we return Home,
we walk in wonder.
Beauty and bounty meet waste and want;
praise and pain keep a tender balance
     (if we are lucky).
The heart knows:
All of life is holy.

So let us live to bless:
Bless the earth and each other,
bless the rain and the sun,
bless the broken-hearted and the hungry,
bless the singer and the song,
bless the seeking and the finding,
bless in living and in dying.
Bless.

May your life be ringed round with praise and blessing.

Copyright © 2014 Carla Grosh-Miller

Monday
Jul072014

Re-imagining the Psalms ~ Part II

by Carla Grosch-Miller

Re-imagining the Psalms: wrestling a 21st century spirituality from ancient texts.  Exploration of the psalms as a poetic portal for prayer and spiritual formation.

When Christine Smith from Hymns Ancient and Modern emailed me to say that they would publish the collection Psalms redux, she called them poems.  It surprised me.  I never thought well enough of my writing to think that others would think they were poems.  I wonder though if this hunger I have to sing of God in a language that is fresh is perhaps resonant for some people in our time?  How may we understand and articulate our lives as the realm of divine possibility?  Is there an urgency to this?

One of the themes that pops up in my reduxes is our relationship to the earth.  I have the sense that the more connected we are to earth and each other, the more we can hear God’s longing for our flourishing and be recruited into it.  I am captivated by the second creation myth in Genesis which speaks of the human vocation to till and to tend, to preserve and to protect the garden.

Hear Psalm redux 96:

I open my mouth –
Praise takes flight
like a bird on the wing,
soaring, gliding,
fearless, free.

This new day,
this glorious revelation
of sky and cloud, earth and green,
this gift,
this wondrous gift.

Earth and heaven have cradled this song.
Sunlight and starlight have bathed it;
loam and rock, peat and marsh
structure footfall;
ocean and river, stream and pool
crescendo and trickle,
here, a stop:
breath sheltered by mountains.

A dawn chorus prelude is drawn
from the stillness of dewfall.
The lengthening rays of sun summon
croaking, yelping, mewling, rutting life.
Warmth coaxes seedlings from soil;
leaves stretch and bow towards source;
field and fruits suckle and ripen.

And me.  I am ripening too.
Holy hands cup beauty;
wonder opens Way.
This song, my life, an offering
made gratefully, made hopefully, made joyfully.

Earthed in heaven, the heart sings its way Home

And here Psalm redux 8, the original asking what are human beings that you are mindful of them, making them little lower than God

O God,
how we have maligned and misinterpreted You –
placing ourselves above all creation,
commandeering the helm
that we might control and use
for our own comfort and convenience.

Forgive us.
And restore us to our senses,
that we might see and sense
and know and love
all that is
and all that can be.

May our reverence for You be manifest
in our reverence for all of life.
May our wakeful listening
penetrate the earth and reach
towards the heavens.
May our bold tenderness
overcome our ignorance
and enable wise action.

For this life is a wonder.
You have gifted us with all we need –
beauty and bounty,
word and wisdom,
courage and companionship.

May we enjoy and employ these gifts
as befits those made in Your image.
May all that we make
mirror Your light and Your love.
May Your Being be known and sung
throughout the world
with joy and thanksgiving.

Copyright © 2014 Carla Grosh-Miller

Monday
Jun302014

Re-imagining the Psalms ~ Part I

Carla Grosch-Millerby Carla Grosch-Miller

Re-imagining the Psalms: wrestling a 21st century spirituality from ancient texts.  Exploration of the psalms as a poetic portal for prayer and spiritual formation.

I begin with a reading of “Psalm 145, a conversation” to introduce my topic:

Psalm 145, a conversation

Stillpoint and Centre,
Wonder and Way,
we praise You.

Eternal Source,
Cohering Power,
Mystery Beyond our Knowing.

What song can we sing,
what story can we tell,
that could capture Your essence?
I am dumb.
Only silence may suffice.

Yet try we must,
that the generations will know,
and the seeking will find
and the finding will live
with grace and purpose,
in peace and patience,
with joy and kindness.

The old words clang,
their resonance lost in time.
Yet the power beneath remains,
to tease and haunt,
as shackle and as lifeline.

This is our conundrum:
To glimpse eternity
in the frail vessels
that are words,
that our own flesh
– equally frail –
may tell the story
of life abundant.

I wrote this Conversation as part of a surprise self-help project I inadvertently started in January 2012.  Perhaps you are wonderfully constant in your daily prayer routine; I confess that I am not.  At the start of the new year that year, I resolved that in 2012 I would be;that I would begin each and every day with a time of prayer using the old Methodist prayer book Prayers for all God’s People which I had been using since 1998.  This treasured prayerbook contains daily scripture readings, other devotional offerings, a hymn and most importantly for this project a weekly psalm.In the nonconformist tradition, historically daily prayer was at home in the kitchen or lounge, with the family gathered around the Bible.  We do not have the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies that structure daily prayer in the Church of England.  We need to make the commitment and create the discipline that will work for us.  So that I did.

The first day of the first week I stumbled over the psalm.  The old words clanged.  The metaphors used and structures of belief underpinning the idea of God simply did not relate to my contemporary faith.  I have had a rich and varied journey of faith, beginning in the joyful and literalist Evangelical Free Church in America, wandering away from an irrelevant church during my late teens and early twenties, finding a spiritual home in feminism, diverting into Unitarian Universalism in my late 20’s for a few years before finding my true home in the United Church of Christ in the US, which is a progressive denomination with roots in the Pilgrim fathers who left this land for the new world in the 17th century.  My prayer practice over the years developed under the influence of Jesuits and Buddhists; I am comfortable in diverse churches and communions from Quakerism to Catholicism (some days) and have worked hard through doubt and de-illusionment to come to an understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what God might be.  In this way I am completely postmodern – sorting and sifting and creating a faith that suits my intellectual understanding of the world as well as my longing for God. 

Let’s face it: the Bible was not written by postmodern people.  Reading the Bible is like eavesdropping on an ancient culture, with very different frames of references and understandings of the universe, and one in which women were domestic and sexual chattel and contaminants under the Hebrew purity system.  Add the layers of language translation and interpretation and it can be hard work to make meaning from some of the ancient texts.  Raised in a Bible-based church, I have always had a deep love for the Bible.  Once I became an adult, that love was honed and refined in critical study of the text and its varied contexts.

Coming to the psalms with the intent to pray them, as I say I stumbled over that first one.  What to do?  I decided in the annoyance of the moment that I would just redux it.  Redux is a word signifying a refreshment of the ancient text.  So I delved into that psalm in my morning prayer, seeking the mind of the psalmist, translating what I thought might be his/her concerns and themes into language that reflected and spoke to God as I understand God.  I wrote a psalm redux and prayed that the rest of the week.  At the time I didn’t intend to do this every week, but when week two came, I stumbled again over that week’s psalm and reduxed it.  By then I realised that working this way with the psalms, looking for and creating a heart language that would let me pray them, was a wonderful spiritual discipline.  I decided that each week I would redux the psalm, even the ones that were already written on my heart and that used language most satisfyingly.  In my morning prayer on Mondays I would delve into the original psalm, on Tuesdays I would write a redux, and during the rest of the week I would pray that redux.  Each Tuesday I felt the task was impossible.  Each Tuesday I would do it anyway.  As the year went on, I got wilder and wilder and some of the psalms redux bear little resemblance to the originals because I was delving deeper and becoming freer to speak to and of God in a language that sought to express my continually evolving understandings of what it is to be human before God and what God is.

Hear Psalm 127 redux.  You will see that the images and metaphors of quantum physics are compelling to me in seeking to understand the energy we call God.

Psalm 127 redux

Creating and recreating, energy
weaves and wanders,
ducks and dives.
Singularity flashes,
surfing undulating waves of light;
no flash an island unto itself.
The seen and the unseen,
the part and the whole,
the human  and the divine,
jitterbug and jive to a tune
set by the One who holds all
in firm and tender hands.

Or is the One the centripetal point?
Outer boundary or inner magnet,
security is in the holding
tension that shelters risk and rest.

These words my offering
to the swirl
and the source.

Those first three months of writing reduxes I was on sabbatical, writing my doctoral thesis on sexual-spiritual integration which came to be titled Making sense of sex and faith: an exercise in poetic practical theology.  I was reading about poesis– the human capacity for creating – and about how poetry creates liminal/threshold space that engages both the flesh and blood reality of human experience and the more ephemeral reality of the Holy.   In my research and in my reduxing, I came to understand and work with poetry as the integrating play-space of the Holy engaged with the compelling primacy of human experience.   In the years before, as I prepared to interview Christians about their sexual and spiritual lives, I had written my own sexual-spiritual autobiography…which had emerged, surprisingly, as poetry.  As I interviewed research participants, I would often find my reflections emerged in poetic form.  Poetry was revealed in this way as an integrating vehicle.  That was all the more apparent throughout 2012 as I continued my weekly spiritual discipline of reduxing psalms.

Here is Psalm 90 redux, the one that speaks tangentially to my research interests.  You may recall the original, with lines like we are consumed by your anger….all our days pass away under your wrath.  That simply hasn’t been my experience of God, who has been infinitely patient with me, leading me into greater awareness and priming/forming me to seek to be a blessing in the world God so loves.I wanted to articulate a different theological anthropology.  I confess; this one is my favourite.  It is a love song to

Psalm 90 redux

I stand beneath a canopy of stars and marvel -
     If all time were  held in the graced movement,
     If every story began in the swirl of dust and gas that shimmers,
     Still you would be greater.

I kneel beside a hoed garden bed, head covered -
     If all beauty coalesced in the soft petals of this rose,
     If its scent captured the prayers of countless pilgrims.
Still you would be more beautiful.

I hold my lover in my arms, my breath a thanksgiving -
     If all human longing were satisfied in this,
     If all tenderness and all courage were born here,
Still your love would be larger.

Our lives are so small,
yet their drama is write large:
a slender reed reaches
into the earth for nourishment
and up to the sky for warmth,
vulnerable to drought and flood,
so easily crushed,
So elegantly bowed
by the evening breeze.

We would be beautiful in your sight,
should you glance this way.
Again from your lips would we hear
It is very good, indeed.

Bless, O Lord, our immense fragility.
Kiss our bowed heads
and take our shaking hands in yours.
Lift our eyes towards your beauty,
and make us to stand
as those how know their own.

Copyright © 2014 Revd Dr.Carla A. Grosch-Miller

Sunday
Apr062014

Inspector Morse and the Labyrinth of the First Death

Mark Liebenowby Mark Liebenow

Mark Liebenow is the author of four books, most recently Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, published by the Univ. of Nebraska Press and winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. This essay is from his unpublished grief memoir. His essays, poems, and critical reviews have appeared in journals like the Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. His nonfiction work has won the Chautauqua and Ames Essay Awards, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2012.  For more information about his writing, please go to Mark’s website.

 

Those of us who are members of grief’s subculture don’t always want superficial diversions to fill the empty hours and spaces, even though many of our days are ponderously heavy and shaded charcoal gray. Sometimes we want to dive into our chaos in intelligent and challenging ways in an effort to understand it. The Inspector Morse mystery series helped me do this.

Each week I’d tune in and wait, with warm beer in hand, until Morse made it to a pub and had his pint, usually bought begrudgingly by his junior partner Lewis, and we’d drink together. If the beer was real English ale, Morse might even smile. Then we would enjoy the moment and let our frustrations fade away.

The show gave me something to look forward to, and each episode took me to a foreign land where people spoke a slightly different language and my thoughts could meander through unfamiliar streets. Even the melancholy theme music drew me in.

Because of his police work, Morse dealt with the tragic side of human life, yet he believed in a few friends, good ale, classical music, and crosswords, and they were enough to keep him going. He was a resilient pessimist, grumpy at times and often surly, yet I drew strength from his ability to withstand the bleakness of tracking down people who deliberately harmed others. I also liked his philosophical musings.

But Morse wasn’t always able to let go. Sometimes he could not forget the violence he had seen and drank too much, downing pint after pint of ale and listening to his music for hours, trying to understand why life held so much pain, and trying to find a reason to go back to work. Even when he was mired in the muck, it was nice to have his company.

Most of the people he worked with on the force were good people with very human flaws who relied on each other in order to cope with the stress. Their flaws were what allowed me to care about them because I could see them as individuals, and they created openings for others to step in and help. I needed this honesty when I was deciding how many of my struggles to share with friends.

Then I heard that John Thaw died. He was the actor who portrayed Morse. I did not watch the last episode when it first aired because in it Morse dies, and it was too soon after Ev’s death. I needed him alive. Perhaps Thaw did, too. When it was rebroadcast a year later, I finally watched, and when Morse breathed his last, I felt like a close friend had passed away.

After being gone for a while, the mystery series came back, but with Lewis taking over the lead role. During the time the show was off the air, Lewis’s wife has died in a car accident.  Not only does Lewis have to learn to do a new job without his mentor’s advice and his wife’s support, he also has to carry on in the midst of his grief, and deal with his anger at the driver who killed her.

My wife Evelyn died in her forties of a heart condition we didn’t know she had. There was no one I could directly blame for her death, so my anger was directed at the forces of the universe that allow the innocent and vulnerable to die, which meant that I was spitting in the wind. Her death still seems wrong, but when I look around I realize that many good people die every day, and Ev’s death was just one more.

We don’t see much of Lewis’s wife. For the most part she is mentioned only here and there. At the start of the new series, Lewis is trying to cope with her loss, and we see him struggling on the job because the counter balance of a happy home life is gone. A hard shell begins to form around him and my fear is that he will end up alone and bitter like Morse. When the killer of his wife is found, Lewis gets to rant at the fellow, and this release of anger allows him to let his wife move into the past, which allows him to reclaim his heart and his compassion for others. We begin to see glimmers of happiness return as he shares moments with a new woman and a relationship develops.

The Morse-Lewis character pairing was complementary. Simplistically speaking, Morse worked from his mind while Lewis worked from his heart. Morse was known as the brilliant, although eccentric, solver of crimes that perplexed everyone else, yet half the time it was something Lewis noticed that was the key for solving the mystery, something that he felt was wrong.

Matters of faith were not often discussed, at least not until Hathaway shows up as the junior partner of Lewis. It did pop up in the episode that dealt with people involved in a cult, and somewhere I picked up that Morse’s mother was Quaker, hence his name Endeavour. Maybe this early religious grounding helped him endure. But the themes of struggle, hope, resurrection, and community are present, running just under the surface.

I watched the series before Evelyn died because it was well written, and the storyline was like a crossword puzzle to figure out. After Ev’s death, I watched it to see how Morse held on when life was fraying at the edges and on the verge of coming apart. Morse was also dealing with his loneliness. He had romances and almost married twice, including a woman who died in one of the episodes, but in the end he came home alone. I felt that we were sharing a similar journey.

Shows that deal honestly with reality offer me new ways of looking at my problems and finding a way through. They also remind me that there are people who are dealing with situations far more tragic than my own. Watching the episodes gave me the confidence that if I held on, something I did not yet see would come along and turn my perspective around. The expressions of sorrow by others also expanded my vocabulary for talking about the nuances of grief. Of course, if we talked openly about grief in society, we would be familiar with the landscape and know how to work with it, but we don’t. So shows like this become our local pub where we go for beer and meaningful conversations.

Most of us know the general landscape of grief because Kubler-Ross laid it out in five stages, although the journey through is more of a labyrinth than a straight path because we move forward, then to the side, then back, and we’re confronted by dead ends. We can see where we want to go, but we can’t figure out how to get there.  We know that most survivors are eventually happy again, but we also know that some people get stuck in grief, unwilling or unable to move on, and they stay living in a house of memories wrapped in a time warp bubble. Others become bitter, and some lose their will to live.

It’s hard to accept the death of a loved one, especially when it’s someone that we expected to grow old with. But once we do, once we accept that good people die, that young people die, that people of all ages die from horrible and painful diseases that ravage their bodies and minds, that people die from accidents and from the senseless acts of violence done by others, once we accept all this, then we realize that our focus should not be on getting to some place in the future, which often does not arrive as we expect, but on making today as full and as rich as we can by sharing our lives with each other, the struggles as well as the celebrations.

I wonder, though, if Morse could have had a happy home life. There were women who cared about him who were willing to put up with his peculiarities and moodiness. Perhaps the unrelenting horrors he saw in his work, and his subsequent doubts about the progress of humanity, toasted his trust of happiness too crisp to ever say “Yes” to another person, although at the end he seemed ready to try.

Lewis, on the other hand, thrives on relationships and tries to help others cope with problems. He reminds me of Nicole who was with me when my wife died, coordinated her organ donations, and worked with the transplant recipients. I admire her willingness to do a job that always starts with someone dying, knowing that she will have to deal with the emotional tsunami of the donor family’s anger, shock, denial, and despair. I don’t know how long she will be able to do this kind of work before her compassion burns out.

Sometimes the tragedies we experience break something in us. Dylan Thomas wrote that after the first death, there are no others.  Among the meanings I have drawn from this over the years is that when the first death strikes us close, something in us also dies. For some it is trust in the underlying goodness of life. This may have been the case with Morse. It was in mine, although I am slowly getting this back. And while Morse and Lewis are fictional characters, the author Colin Dexter has written them true to life.

It’s ironic that a show about murder brought me life, and it did so not because it was clever, which it was, or because it said that if we ignore grief it will heal on its own, which it didn’t. It said that we recover when share our grief with others and accept their help.

Copyright © 2014 Mark Liebenow

Monday
Oct282013

Writing Lesbian and Gay Lives Out of Hearsay

John Sam Jones

By John Sam Jones

After working in ministry, education and public health for more than thirty years, John lives in semi-retirement with his civil partner and two Welsh Collies, in a grand Victorian villa overlooking the estuary at Barmouth in Mid Wales. They run a small B&B.

John was the first co-chair of the LGB Forum Cymru, set up to advise the Welsh Government of LGB issues in 2001. For six years, until 2010, he was the chair of the All-Wales personal and Social Education (PSE) Working Group which met three times a year to discuss, debate and plan the recommendations for curriculum development and teacher training in all areas PSE including Sex and Relationships Education.

John Studied creative writing at Chester. His collection of short stories – Welsh Boys Too, published by Parthian in 2000 – was an Honour Book winner in the American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards 2002. Fishboys of Vernazza, published by Parthian in 2003, was short-listed for Welsh Book of the Year. Gay Men’s Press published his first novel, With Angels and Furies, in 2005. His second novel, Crawling Through Thorns was published by Parthian in September 2008.

 

I’m writing this piece in the weeks after the publication of my second novel, my fourth book.  The media, in its reporting and reviews, regularly refers to me as a ‘gay author’ and even the double whammy, ‘Welsh gay -’.  I suppose that much is true: I self-identify (sorry – this is a bit self-conscious, but my reason will become apparent)… I self-identify both as a writer and as a gay man from Wales who speaks Welsh.  But just why my sexuality needs to be linked to my work as a writer remains unclear to me.  I have yet to read about the work of those described as ‘straight (or non-gay) writers’, though I concede that women and non-whites are often identified similarly – women author, black novelist.  Is this something positive, to do with recognising and promoting minorities perhaps, given that non-gay white males seem so predominant in our literature and culture?  Or is it a pejorative form of pigeonholing, intended to make others wary?  I suppose I ought to be grateful that some of my other characteristics and physical attributes aren’t used to describe me – grey-haired writer, circumcised author, dog-loving novelist; these are just too silly to be meaningful.

That my two novels and my short stories are most often described as ‘gay’ is a bit more curious.  What makes my writing ‘gay’?  Literature is often defined by its content… detective, crime, romantic, historical; so the gay characters whose stories I explore in all of my work would seem, then, to qualify my writing as gay.  But my first novel, With Angels and Furies, could equally be a crime novel and Crawling Through Thorns is a social history, an exploration of identity and a study of the nature of forgiveness.  In another vein, literature is sometimes defined simply by its target readership… children’s books, chick lit; in this case I want my writing to be described as universal!  I’m damned certain that I’m not writing just for gay men and lesbians – though it is hugely important to me that lesbians and gay men have authentic stories, not hearsay, to help give shape to our lives.  So please, don’t gift-wrap Thorns in the ‘gay lit’ wrapper if readership is what defines it.

Ah but!  Maybe this gay moniker is simply a marketing niche rather than a literary category – a label so that booksellers know on which shelf to place my books; a convenience for those readers who know what they are looking for.  In my twenties, when I was less self-assured and very confused about my sexuality, I was grateful for the anonymity afforded by the shelves labelled ‘gay’ that were usually hidden away at the back of bookshops in the larger towns and cities a long way from my home patch.  Such an arrangement was expedient too for those who just wouldn’t even like to have stumbled across ‘that sort of thing’ if it were standing proudly in alphabetical order under general fiction.  But I have moved on… and society has moved on… and books with gay and lesbian themes are now of interest to a much wider readership.  With so many self-identifying lesbians and gay men in public life, equality in the age of consent and legislation that allows for same sex couples to enter into Civil Partnerships, homosexuality is no longer talked about in hushed tones.  Curiosity – and even genuine interest – has displaced disgust.  The mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends of today’s lesbians and gay men want to hear and read about the lives of those that are dear to them – to understand better… to challenge the myths and misconceptions handed down over generations.

Earlier I said that I self-identify as a gay man – rather than ‘admit’, ‘acknowledge’ or ‘confess’.  It is terminology that strongly conveys a consciousness and awareness of self that the other terms lack; I confess my sin at the Eucharist… I admit my guilt in a courtroom… I acknowledge my fault in a tiff with my husband – but I self-identify as a gay man.  Many will see this as playing with words or think that I’m being a bit precious, but after generations when homosexuality was defined almost always negatively by law-makers, priests and psychiatrists, it is fundamentally important that gay men and lesbians take responsibility for defining themselves.  Being gay or lesbian in 2009 is easier for many of us than it has ever been: responding physically to our innate attractions and desires is no longer a criminal offence (though ultimately the British Government only grudgingly brought the age of consent for gay men into line with that for heterosexual young people and lesbians in 2001 thus heading off a potentially politically embarrassing test case due to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights); our employment rights have been protected by legislation passed (only) in 2003 so we can no longer be sacked simply because, as gay men and lesbians, we don’t fit in, and we’ve been legally allowed to marry (sorry – become Civil Partners… does this make me ‘civilised’?) since 2005.  The conscious, public ‘coming-out’ – and the refusal to live a double life in constant fear of exposure – is part and parcel of living with honesty and integrity for many of us.  For others, however, homosexuality still sadly remains in the realms of shame and the unnatural; for every gay man and lesbian who has ‘come out’ (self-identified) there are, how many – one? three? five? ten? who have remained in the closet.  Having said all of that, is there a genre recognised as gay literature?

LGB (and T) literature is an all encompassing term for the writing of people who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and includes the literature which involves characters and themes from these communities.  According to this definition of LGB literature, a lesbian writing a novel that has no LGB characters may still find her work boxed-off in the LGB genre, as would a non-gay novelist writing about homosexual themes.  You’ll notice that I’ve left off the T.  I consider transgender issues to be more linked with gender than sexual orientation and believe that transgender literature – if it needs to be consigned to a shelf – is more appropriately placed with all those books under the label of ‘gender studies’… however, I’ve yet to see Jan Morris’ books herded with the LGBs or the Ts – unless the T is for Travel, which I know she loathes.

Perhaps, then, the only true LGB literature is that which is produced by self-identifying lesbians and gay men who write the stories that give shape to the lives of people from LGB communities.  The greater percentage of such literature in English, in recent decades, has been published by specialist publishers in England and the US – Gay Men’s Press, Diva, Abacus, Plume, Arcadia, Alyson to name but a few – because the mainstream publishers were perhaps too conservative for such radical writing – telling the often shocking stories of discrimination and abuse that can lead to self-harm in many guises.  Largely pitched at an LGB readership, the sexual explicitness of this writing frequently reflects the lives of women and men, recently liberated from the mores of the first half of the twentieth century, caught up in the gay rights and radical lesbian feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s and the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s.  Within this historical context, the contemporary conceptualisation of homosexuality – being out-and-proud gay men and lesbians that are destined to be dealt with by a wider community not always ready to embrace them – is fresh from the cultural bake house.  Even hotter from the bake stone is the new self-identity of ‘queerness’… though I’m much too conservative to willingly embrace a term so commonly used to abuse me in earlier years.  It should come as no great surprise then, that gay/queer themed literature – and even gay characters in literature – is a recent phenomenon.  This also explains why the emergence of LGB literature in Wales by self identifying lesbians and gay men is such a rare thing and why home grown queers have had to look over borders and oceans for literature that sought to offer some shape to our lives.

As a 1960s child and a 1970s teenager in Wales I learned nothing in my Welsh literature classes at Ysgol Ardudwy about Prosser Rhys’ achievement, winning the Crown in the 1924 National Eisteddfod for the homoerotic poem Atgof (Memory) – nor did I learn of the public scorn he experienced in the wake of his success.  My English teacher (Philip Pullman’s Miss Jones) didn’t introduce me to the often veiled homosexual characters in Rhys Davies’ novels, though Owen in Honey and Bread (1935), according to the Welsh Canadian Davies scholar, Huw Osborne, “is one of Davies’ most queered male characters.”  Growing up, I found no positive images of homosexuality in the literature I could access, and this at a time when I was seeking to come to understand this aspect of myself in a society where sex and sexuality was largely a great unspoken.  Yes, there was talk enough about ‘the permissive society’ and ‘free love’, but nothing that seemed relevant to my unfurling sense of identity.  The popular newspapers and magazines I could access, some at home and a wide range in the school library, were significant, however, in their negative reinforcement of the deviant and anti-social nature of homosexuality.  During my research for Crawling Through Thorns I accessed the national archive of homosexual-themed press cuttings from the 60s and 70s, held at The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive at Middlesex University.  I unearthed more than a hundred press cuttings from this time and was taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative attitudes to homosexuality, almost wholly based on myth and misconception as homosexuals were too frightened to speak for themselves.  That I emerged from adolescence as a frightened, confused, guilt-ridden and self-loathing eighteen-year-old is hardly surprising; children learn what they live, and I was living in a world of malicious hearsay.

A move to California at the beginning of the 1980s, under the auspices of a World Council of Churches scholarship to study theology at Pacific School of Religion, one of the seminaries that make up Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, was the catalyst for change in my self understanding.  I began to explore the theology of human sexuality, and so began a more positive interpretation and redefining of my sense of self.  Perhaps one of the most formative experiences, and certainly one that influenced my career as a writer, was a seminar that focussed on a radical feminist interpretation of the Christian faith, with scholarly emphasis on the reclaiming of women’s stories from the Hebrew and Christian texts that make up the Bible.  One of the set texts denoted as ‘required reading’ was Carol P Christ’s book Diving Deep and Surfacing – Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Beacon Press 1980).  Christ writes –

“Women’s stories have not been told.  And without stories there is no articulation of           experience.  Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make important decisions         in her life.  She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain.  Without stories she cannot understand herself.  Without stories she          is alienated from these deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual           or religious.  She is closed in silence…  If women’s stories are not told, the depth of women’s       souls will not be known…  Stories give shape to lives.”

I read these words many times, and in the reading and the re-reading, I realised that gay men’s stories had not been told – and as a consequence I had found myself lost when it came to making important decisions…I hadn’t learned to value my struggles or comprehend my pain…I couldn’t even see any strengths to celebrate.  I didn’t understand myself.  I was closed in silence.  There were only the hearsay stories of a society that feared and mistrusted homosexuals to shape my life…only the stories that said I was deviant, sinful, sick and squalid.  Gay men’s stories had not been told.  The life stories of gay men from Wales were closed in silence.  So I started to write – and I wrote about what I knew to be true both from my own experience and from the experiences of the gay men I had known and would come to know.  Welsh Boys Too, my first collection of short stories about the lives of gay men living in north Wales, was given a mixed response at home.  Many hundreds of gay men have, since its publication in 2000, been generous in their praise and gratitude for the eight little stories that for the first time reflected so much of their own experience; many bought the book for their non-gay friends – and even for their mums and dads.  Others, however, were hostile, questioning both the need for such a book and its literary merit.  In the United States, however, the American Library Association awarded it Honour Book status in the annual Stonewall Book Awards 2002.  My second collection, Fishboys of Vernazza, was long-listed for the Welsh Book of the Year and is studied by English undergraduates at Aberystwyth.

Writing both in Welsh and in English, authors from Wales who are lesbian and gay have emerged in the last decade, giving shape through their novels, short stories and plays to the lives of rural and urban queers, and presenting communities across Wales with a challenge to re-frame attitudes and unlearn the untruths handed down through generations.  Sarah Waters, Sarah Broughton and Josie Henley-Einion are articulating the lesbian experience whilst Aled Islwyn, Mihangel Morgan and Roger Williams are revealing gay men’s lives with acute authenticity.  A little late in the day perhaps, but Wales finally has its own lesbian and gay sculptors of society who are writing queer lives out of hearsay.

Copywrite © 2008 John Sam Jones

Sunday
Jun162013


Only a few classrooms and one workshop at École St Vincent were left intact after the earthquake.  This project supports the rebuilding of the music programme by donating instruments and money for music lessons and associated expenses.  Our support will bring great benefits to the school and to Haitian musical life more generally.

Instrument, bow and case donors:

Sarah Bateman, the Chamber Players (Lucy Melvin), Steve Chan, Alan Cheilek, Meg Davidson and John Stein, Carole Elphick, Hywel Jones, Elizabeth Nvrkla, Kathy Reed, Martin Reed and Evelyn Sanderson, Josie Stein, Sally Zimmermann
Luthier:  Michael Shakespeare

Mèsi anpil ~ Creole for thank you!

The Music for Haiti Project is a zero overhead charitable project based in London and run in co-operation with the World Rehabilitation Fund and the Haiti-New Jersey Partners of the Americas.

For more information contact Josie Stein: josieviola@gmail.com


    

Presentation of the first violin and donation to École Saint Vincent               Chamber music at École Saint Vincent