the trouble of listening

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 1.05.04 PM A bit of context?

When we adopted our son, we gained a sudden sensitivity to the well-intentioned words that manage to nonetheless sucker punch a parent's heart.  Things like, "So that one's adopted, and these are your own?"

In the wake of a miscarriage or divorce, you heard things like, "Well, at least you're young...you can always try again...".

Other times you weren't the one in the difficult shoes, but you were close enough to feel what another human felt when he/she was dismissed, overlooked, humiliated or rebuked, and suddenly you're appalled at all the missing-the-mark things that have come out of your own mouth.

The antidote isn't to stop trying, but to keep coming close and straining your heart & mind toward that of your fellow humans, to really listen, to make small steps toward understanding.  Straining to see & hear God together.

THAT is what it means to love your neighbor.












Love is a pilgrimage through sunlit hills and dreary forests and across roadless deserts, with companions who carry vastly different kinds of luggage and often can't even agree on where to the pitch the tent.

Some of my favorite traveling companions are skeptics, wounded faithful, and unbelievers (cue "All My Favorite People" by Over the Rhine), and right now coming close to them means taking a look around from their vantage point for awhile.  I want to hear them out, and I also want to understand my own perspective in truer context.  So that's what my brain is doing these days, and you know what?  I'm experiencing some frustration.  Spoiler alert: that will likely come out in my poetry, songs, and conversations from time to time.

Sometimes you have to pry yourself out of whatever emotional/intellectual/theological armchair you've gotten so comfy in, if only to cross the room and put your arm around someone you love.



the trouble of listening

(a poem)


I sit in the parked car and listen to the voice of my inner man,

Louder than wind whipping the glass

Louder than the spinning wheels of suburban traffic

More brutal than the signage of strip mall storefronts

So bassy and persistent I can hardly believe passersby aren’t rubbernecking

Wondering at the ruckus

And the lady behind the wheel, still and staring.


Some days I am prisoner and warden,

The man in striped pajamas climbing barbed fences

And the armed guard yanking him back down by the waist of his pants.


Is it okay to admit it? That I sometimes want out?

That I want all mouths, including mine – mostly mine – to shut?

That if I could, I’d take what’s “mine” and leave the rest?


Would it be alright with you if – just for an hour or so - we

Box up the trending phrases and memes

Discard assumptions and studied answers -

Quietly walk by the tracks like we used to do

Knowing they lead


But having no earthly idea where

And not even thinking to ask


Because once

We were there

We were really there

And the grass was dead, the trees leafless

We had no phones or cameras or soundtracks

Only cold Virginia wind

Our own shivered breath

As we killed time,

Lived, together

In the singular, unremarkable moment


Now there is duty

And the backspace button

As if all the world’s salvation hinges

Not on his God-ness

But our goodness.

Not the sound of his voice

But mine.

As if my humanity may accidentally, irresponsibly,

Tumble out,

Remind you of your own.


I’m talking to myself, of course,

The weirdo at the wheel.


I’m neither cynic nor melancholic

But today I hear our chatter through my skeptic brother’s mind

And see through the heavy-lidded eyes of my grieving sister.


What I see are filtered photos and

Smiling pairs of eyes that subtly avoid contact

What I hear are framable arrangements of words

Around well-set tables, with no open chairs


At the moment what I know best is that we know less than we think we do

And may be more terrified of uncertainty than of hell

And that sometimes certainty saves us the trouble of listening.










last words

CSC_0178Last Words

It was at that last moment I woke to the pain My face pressed into the thin skin of her neck Skin kissed 90 years by sun & wind Husband, siblings, grandchildren, great-grandchildren Skin soft as satin Remarkably tan, even in February

I hid in that space My hand stroking hers My cheek pressing hers My ribs trembling in quiet heaves against hers Only she and I in the small room of people.

I can’t remember being alone with her like this.

It was seconds, minutes - But we stood outside of time And I know she felt it all.

When I once raised up, she quietly asked: You crying? Not with surprise or alarm But with knowledge, understanding

She’s said nothing about it all, No “hospice” or “dying” or “when I’m gone” But she did sign that paper - The one that says: Let me go.   If she’s afraid, she doesn’t show it.

I tried to memorize her. She still smells good.

I searched for last words. It’s always only at the last moment A sort of panic rushes in-- When you thought it wouldn’t When you thought you were ready-- It surges like burning water rising Over the riverbed of your eyes, It finds a way out.

Yes, the salty current finds a way, But where are those last words? The ones that say what - maybe - hasn’t been said? I didn’t plan this part. Where are the words??

As it turns out, We had only these: I love you. I love you. I love you. And one secret.

But beyond words something more Took the place of eloquence, Uncontained by syllables or voice, Her blue-glass eyes, my earth-brown eyes Held onto each other and spoke A quiet goodbye.


-for Grandma Rogers, 2/26/2014

The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

Last week, my friend gave me a book of poetry by the late Madeleine L'Engle.  She knows I'm a fan of Madeleine, that one of my favorite books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, came from Ms. L'Engle.  So she gave me this book, which was one of several recently gifted to her, all of which were personally signed by the author.  This one says:

for Gretchen - joy in all weather - Madeleine L'Engle.

Tonight, eve of Christmas Eve, I offer you these words from page 47 of The Weather of the Heart.  May your celebrating be only at a beginning tomorrow, and may each of us risk loving in this coming year.


The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war & hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out &  the sun burns late.


That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honour & truth were trampled by scorn--

Yet here did the Saviour make his home.


When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by the comet the sky is torn--

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

The Line

The Line

Who’s to say why a modern girl

Should be so moved

By socks on a line,

Bath towels damp and clothespinned,

Dancing like old friends on a parquet floor

Swinging like children on rusty monkey bars


Who will unfold the reasons

She opens inside out

At the sight of a white polyester fitted sheet

Billowing and blowing full of Costa Rican breeze –


Why she inhales more deeply,

Or stands more quietly,

In the presence of the mundane,

Fabric doing what fabric must do,

Under the midday sun.


Who can explain

The rushing river of abundance

In stretching out a task






About the pleasure of being spun clean

And sundried slow.


About the joy of hanging by a thread,

Old underwear flung against the clouds

For all the world to see.


And! the crisp harmonic contrast:

What our hands have made


What His hands have made.


Who’s to say, really,

That she shouldn’t just stay

A few minutes more --

Arms long and loose –

In a


standing still moment


Old-fashioned awe

Of laundry on a line.