Worship: a Poem

1 Comment

This poem begins as a literal description, which can also be taken as metaphor.  The end is meant to include all who participate in the dance of life.


The floor is cold as barefoot
dancers take their stations,
red-ribboned for Pentecost,
the church’s birthday.

Be there! the teacher cried
at each new step.  Her students
stretch to get there.  The need to be
on the right foot, in the right place
pushes them past balance.
Cross front, cross back,
they coil into the grapevine,
a twisting line of ordinary saints.

Light through windows splashes
mottled rainbows round us.
That we are right
where God wants us,
there is no proof.

This poem was first published in Christian Century, May 27, 1992.

Trying too hard to be “right” is something I struggled with for many years.  It so often backfires as we “push past balance.”  Dance has helped me keep, or regain, my balance.  Sacred dance fits in many other traditions besides Christian.  Go to http://www.sacreddanceguild.org to learn more.


Dance This Poem!


The Sacred Dance Guild holds its biennial Festival in Holland, Michigan this week.  In honor of this event, I am posting a poem I had published back in 1984 in alive now!, a small devotional magazine.  The poem was later danced at the ordination of a friend.

The Proper Turning

The proper turning
from the world to God
is a conspicuous somersault
half joyful leap, half fall.
Power tumbles, selfish
interests spill, desires
turn upside down,
a very public mess.

Laughter dances round.
Is it delight or scorn?
No matter to the acrobat
who’s newly joined the troupe―
the company of artists
who proclaim the names of God.

At the time of writing, I had no idea how many names of God there are: the number is beyond counting.  Dance, movement, gesture, can convey some of them in ways no words can.

Although the somersault in this poem could be metaphorical, actual movement in worship is a wonderful thing.  The Sacred Dance Guild gave me an excuse to dance again after no lessons since I was a teenager.  Most of the people I’ve met who dance in church are free spirits, liberated, as if keeping their bodies limber did the same for their minds.

Dance also proved to be a good balance for my writing.  Most writers have some physical work or hobby or habit to balance all the sitting and head work.  I recommend dance if you’d like to try something new; sacred dance is for all ages, genders and levels of ability.


Haiku, “Rules,” and a Recommendation


Haiku, that Japanese form which took hold in English about 50 years ago and has continued to be of interest to many, is a great example of the role of “rules” in poetry.

I particularly like a haiku posted recently on the blog, Five Reflections:

soft subtle mantra
hoes the garden of the mind
new poem blossoms

I was delighted by the contrast between the mantra described as “soft subtle” and the hardness of a hoe.  But then my inner critic sounded alarms:  “the ____ of the ____” the critic complained.  “Couldn’t he have avoided at least one of those empty words?”

I keep my critic busy checking my own work for unnecessary cases of “the” and “of the.”  But was he (or is my inner critic a she?) right to complain in this case?

There are two schools of thought about haiku, those who insist on a 5-7-5 syllable structure and those who argue for shorter, tighter lines.  The 5-7-5 imitates the Japanese form.  But the second party asserts that those Japanese “syllables” are not all words, some are signals of other kinds, so the 5-7-5 structure is a poor substitute.

The Haiku Society of America takes no official position on this question.  Their definition a haiku reads: A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.  I have noticed, however, that the winners in their annual contests are more often of the shorter style.

I had a workshop with a person of the “shorter is better” school.  He ruthlessly cut down my already short attempts.  I was persuaded that he knew what he was talking about.

Now, I’m not so sure.  “the garden of the mind” has a gentle flow to it that appeals to me.

On the other hand, does this haiku fulfill the Haiku Society’s definition that it “convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season”?  “The garden of the mind” is completely metaphor.  No actual garden, no hoe.  What should I make of this?

My favorite of the haiku I have so far seen on Five Reflections is this one:

sea smoke illusion
ancient seafarer ghost ship
grandpa’s story time

What I like best about this poem is the turn in the last line: the misty sea scene is suddenly transposed to an indoor scene, warm and cozy, where “grandpa” tells his story.  I didn’t even notice at first that this poem has nary a “the” nor an “of.”  This poet knows what he is doing, which further confirms my suspicion that sometimes those “lesser” words are the right ones for the flow and mood of the poem.

In summary, the following, sometimes contradictory, “rules” are apparently made to be broken by skillful haiku writers:
“Always use a three line construction of 5-7-5 syllables.”
“Don’t waste syllables on lesser words like “the.”
“Start with or focus on nature.”
As one who finds haiku challenging to write, I’ll take these “rules” as suggestions, refusing to be bound by them.

To read more at Five Reflections, click on the link in the blogroll in the column to the right of this post.  Enjoy!



The Story Begins: Excerpts


        In 1869, John Emerson Roberts ran away from home. He was sixteen. His father had just died in the Michigan Asylum for the Insane inKalamazoo. His two elder brothers had left home, leaving him to be the man of the family for his mother and four younger siblings. Perhaps this was more responsibility than he was ready to bear. Many years later, Dr. Roberts told a newspaper interviewer that his plan was to go toNew Orleansand become a sailor.

This action is the first indication of John Roberts’s individuality and courage.  He was born in 1853 in Ohio, where his father was a Baptist minister.  His mother had strong religious roots going back to her grandfather who was a Congregational minister in Connecticut.  John’s family moved every few years, following his father’s calls to different churches, until they settled  in Michigan in 1857.  John grew up as a farm boy outside Battle Creek.

Mental illness was not well understood in the 1860s.  John’s father was diagnosed with melancholia (severe depression) in 1864, but was only admitted to the hospital in 1869, when the facility expanded.  Two primary theories about melancholia were that it was hereditary, in which case it could not be entirely prevented, and that it was caused by too much “brain work,” for which the remedy was physical labor.  John was a thinking person, as his later career would demonstrate, so he may have feared that he was susceptible to his father’s illness.

            The life of a sailor would both free John from the constraints of religion and reduce the risk of developing a disease that was believed to be caused by too much thinking and not enough physical activity. To his sixteen-year-old mind in 1869, it appeared to be a good solution to the frustrations of his situation as he headed south toward the Mississippi River. The action also shows his curiosity and readiness to try something new.

Excerpts from the first chapter of John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See more on the Books page.  Or go to www.goodreads.com for a giveaway which ends on August 8.

Thanks to All My Readers


This is the first anniversary of the publication of my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  I’m celebrating, first by saying thank you to all who have read it, are reading it, or are reading about it (along with other things) on this blog.

I’m also celebrating by offering two free copies on Goodreads, one of the places I first made connections beyond my existing circles.  If you’re interested, go to www.goodreads.com and check out their giveaways.

The book’s “launch” was a soft one.  Xlibris is good at fast turnaround.  They kept me moving to the next stage of production when I thought I’d have more time to prepare for marketing.  Suddenly the book was done, while I was on vacation, and they wouldn’t wait until the date I wanted to start publicity.  They sent out press releases – to whom I could not figure out from the data base they sent me – three weeks before I was ready.

I know about book signings, presentations, emails and post cards and went at those steps eagerly.  But this book is a niche item.  It appeals to people interested in freethought, history, and/or Kansas City.  We are a relatively small group.  Yet I know I have not gotten the word out to all of those who would enjoy reading the book.

I didn’t know what to do next.  I looked up freethought groups, religious historians, regional libraries and sent a variety of letters, announcements and sample copies.  “You need to market on line,” people said.

Xlibris wants to do marketing for its authors.  They set up a website for the book as part of my production package, but I have no access to it.  They will happily provide additional services, many at more than the cost of production.

“How will you target the niche this book is intended for?”  I asked.

“Librarians,” they answered.  “We will put an ad in their journal and send out emails to librarians across the country.  For you, a $500 discount on the price.”

“No, thank you,” I said.

“New York Times Book Review,” they suggested.  It must be nice to see your book as one of eight on a full page Xlibris ad in the New York Times, but there’s no room for any of the words I’ve carefully crafted to explain why it’s a good story. [See my Books page, if you haven’t already.]

I felt I was very considerate not to laugh out loud at the Xlibris salesman who suggested television ads.  Was he going to survey freethought historians before deciding where to place those ads?  I thought not.

I’ve learned a lot this year, connecting on social media, getting advice from many sources, sending out more letters, creating this blog.  As a “platform” this is still a bit wobbly, but I progress.  If you can’t find your niche, you make one, right?

Such was the beginning of my non-fiction book in the world.  Next time, I’ll turn to the beginnings of the story IN the book – for those of you who haven’t read it yet.

Road Tripping


We are on the road again.  Each year we drive across the country from Las Cruces, NM, to Maine and back.  Ten years ago we would have made no reservations and looked for a place to stop as we went.  We’ve minimized the adventure since then.  We’ve chosen one hotel chain which gives us what we want: nice towels, a box, not a pocket pack, of tissues, continental breakfast and internet connection―and every so often we get a free night.  But there are still unexpected experiences.

I was staring out the window of our hotel in Quincy, Massachusetts, when a very long red trailer truck appeared.  I watched as it was maneuvered, with the help of several people around it, into parking along the back edge of the lot.  All I could read from my window were the words “75th Anniversary” at the front and “Meals on Wheels” at the back.  What appeared to be an enormous granite rock was strapped in between them.

75th Anniversary of Meals on Wheels?  This did not seem likely.  I went over to investigate.

The truck is the 72 foot long project of the Idaho Potato Commission, called The Famous Idaho Potato Tour.  It’s the Commission’s 75th anniversary.  The “rock” represents a giant potato: one that would take 10,000 years to grow, were nature capable of doing that.

Famous Idaho Potato Tour Truck

Famous Idaho Potato Tour? I conclude that it is the potato, not the tour that is famous.  But if Idaho potatoes are already famous, why all the publicity?

An Idaho potato in the hand gives pleasure: solid, attractive in its usefulness, it is a good base for a healthy meal.  The Idaho Potato Commission seems to have caught a serious case of the “more is always better” syndrome and gone over the top.  It’s marketing supersized.  I found the Famous Idaho Potato Tour Truck at once charming and disturbing.  Why pretend a potato could grow so long, so large?  Why not demonstrate how real potatoes grow?  That “giant spud” still looks like imitation granite to me.

The four crew members must be having a great time traveling the country, though it’s a mighty long rig to handle.  Wouldn’t it have been enough, and saved a little gas, if it were 60 feet long instead of 72?    In the month since I saw it the truck has moved south into Georgia and Alabama.  Then it will be heading west.  For more information check their website: http://www.bigidahopotato.com.  They may be coming to a parking lot near you.

Recommendation: Sandra Kohler’s “Improbable Music”


In the beginning of the poem, “White,” Sandra Kohler writes

I go around half the time thinking I have
a fatal illness, and I do: life.

In Improbable Music, Kohler observes this condition minutely.  It is the illness of dealing with the dying of others.  It is the effort of trying to grasp and hold on to the ever shifting self.

The world presented in this book is the world many of her readers live in: the complicated world where family relationships occupy most of our time and energy. As keenly as she observes the moods of these relationships, Kohler observes the shifting backdrop of nature: sky, trees, birds.

The first section of the book focuses on extended family relationships; the fourth and final section pairs with this, focusing on the intimacy of a long marriage.  The third section acknowledges the impact of the larger world on the domestic, picturing families caught in major crises of our time: Bosnia, Palestine, Sierra Leone.

Heron in Flight

The second section is in some ways my favorite; it focuses on the natural world, but with a delightful twist in the character of Heraclitus the heron.  Kohler admits that she may be giving this name to more than one heron.  She writes in “Herons Present and Absent”:

The river without
herons: a diminished
thing, lifeless,
They are my wild
swans, my muse
of absence.

And later in the same poem she returns to uncertainties about the self:

Is it the herons
that have returned
or my ability
to see them?

Some poems are written in short lines like those quoted above.  Others have longer lines with complex syntax.  Most of the poems are long, many in sections, which allows plenty of time for exploring the shifting self.  One of the shorter poems, “The Cup,” captures uncertainty, ambivalence and shift:

This morning, the last of the year, I use my old cup.
The cup that is always there.  Ten days from the solstice:
ten, twelve minutes more light?  Not even that?  I don’t
know.  Cold, I am wrapped in my Guatemalan blanket.
The cold is solid, settled.  My son calls me a sore loser.
That’s it exactly: I ache with losing him.  The cup of losses.
A glitch in my side, an ache, the slow stitchery of a wound
healing or opening.  I’m suspended, detached, unused.
The cup of waiting and the cup of sighs.  How this moment
will be remembered or forgotten depends upon the fact
of morning, on the ice on the creek, on the thin layer of
cloud that screens the horizon’s uniform desolation.
The cup of loneliness and the cup of longing for solitude.
We dream what belongs to the night but the day wakes
echoes of old wars, scarred shadows of scathing blows.
The cup of insecure anxious needing to matter, impress
the self on the world.  In the face of failure, isolation, loss,
we utter variations on a singular theme: I, I, I.  We don’t
want to believe this of our life, though it is ratified by
the minutes of increased light burning on the partially
frozen stream.  The cup of ego, the cup of emptiness.

Every claim to an “I” is a variation; every cup contains a piece of the self.  The weather seems to echo the self, but does not.  Even the night’s dreams and the day’s shadows cannot be sorted out.  Kohler digs deeply into the flux that underlies every claim of identity and offers no answers.  The reading satisfies as the songs of a fellow traveler.  This is not a quick read, but a book to take one’s time with.

Older Entries