Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Most Famous Poem of World War I

Perhaps more than any other conflict, World War I is the most closely associated with poetry. Poets enlisted and wrote from the fields and trenches; poets helped bury their comrades and wrote about it; poets died; and poets survived to write the poetry of the war. And poets and their poetry helped shape especially the British perspective on the war and war in general for a generation.

It was also, perhaps, how war was changing. The American Civil War had signaled the end of the old style of war; World War I turned war into an industrial enterprise, with its advanced weaponry, airplanes, and even chemical gases. World War I also changed what people understood war to be – no longer battles between armies and navies but total war, pitting nation against nation, including the civilian population.

This was a time, too, when newspapers and general interest magazines routinely published poetry, and the public engaged in reading and reciting poetry far more than what we know today. Poetry spoke of the war and to the war in ways that even the best written and most devastating news accounts could not.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hospitality in a Foreign Land

I’ve been reading Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by Christopher Smith, John Pattison and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, and highlighting it here for the past several Mondays. The book is important, with an important story to tell.

Little did I expect to experience directly the message of the chapter entitled “Hospitality.”

We left for a two-week vacation in London on Sept. 28. Travel was uneventful, movement through British Customs at Heathrow uneventful, and soon we found our jetlagged selves at the same hotel we had stayed at last year, 51 Buckingham Gate.

Yes, it’s expensive. But it’s also reasonably expensive, and located two block from Buckingham Palace, three blocks from Westminster Abbey and Parliament, a block from a tube station, close to buses and, rather surprisingly, in a quiet courtyard off the street. In fact, when you’re in the courtyard, it’s so quiet that it’s difficult to imagine you’re located in the very center of London; it’s that quiet. Our room was on the seventh floor, and I could look out the window and see the top of the gold-plated memorial to Queen Victoria that sits in front of Buckingham Palace.

Our first two days went as planned – recover from jet lag, see a few things, start easing into a new schedule and time zone. On Tuesday I took an early morning walk across St. James Park to St. James Square and Piccadilly, and watched the swans and pelicans in the park lake.

On Wednesday morning, I was in the shower, and leaned to wash my foot. I felt my lower left back muscle pull. It had happened before; I know what it means. Take some ibuprofen, and take it easy. I took ibuprofen, and stuck to the original schedule. We had limited our activities for that day because we were meeting friends for dinner. On Thursday, we took a long walk on the South Bank, from London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral to Westminister Bridge, with a few stops along the way. On Friday we hopped a train to Salisbury to see the town and cathedral.

Back in London, I went to bed late Friday night. About 2 a.m. Saturday morning, I woke up, any movement causing severe pain in my back. My wife helped me get out of bed (it took several minutes to maneuver this). I finally did what I knew was the most comfortable thing to do – lie flat on my back on the floor, in the living room area next to the coffee table. Any movement created a back spasm that froze the left side of my back in knock-your-breath-away pain.

On Saturday morning, I was able to get myself up and stagger to the bathroom. I immediately went back to the living room, and my wife had moved her Pilates mat next to desk and phone. I got myself down on the mat, curled in a fetal position on my right side, while she called the hotel concierge.

Severe back pain is no fun. Severe back pain in a foreign country is frightening.

I remember snatches of the conversation. The hotel doctor on call was not available. Another doctor, from the National Health Service, was coming, promised with four to six hours. The alternative was an ambulance to a hospital, and the wait there could be as long.

Boots on Victoria Street
The NHS doctor arrived about 11:45 a.m. “You back muscle feels like a brick,” he said, “and any movement creates a back spasm.” He explained what he would do – a pain shot, followed by three prescriptions – one for acute pain, one for longer-term pain, and one like Valium to control the spasms (and keep me calm). He was caring and knowledgeable. He did write the prescriptions on one form – and one was a controlled substance, needing a different form.

My wife, after getting the first two prescriptions filled at a nearby Boots pharmacy, got herself on a bus and headed for Soho, to get the form from the National Health Service office near Soho Square. (She can now tell you about Soho; it’s never been on our list of “must-see” tourist attractions.) (If you don’t know about Soho, Google it.) She encountered a problem: the center couldn’t write the prescription.

NHS on Soho Square
Arriving back at the hotel, and not having the most important prescription, she turned to the hotel staff. Kristina was the receptionist on duty. She calmed my wife down, told her to go upstairs to tend to me, called the hotel doctor (who was at his daughter’s birthday party), had the doctor talk directly to my wife, and arranged to have a bellman pick up an over-the-counter medicine prescribed by the doctor. A few minutes later, I was taking the equivalent of Tylenol in Alka-Selzter form – with codeine (they can sell this over-the-counter in Britain).

The hotel staff delivered dinner for my wife, maneuvering around the fetal-like husband on the floor. My wife was able to get a cheese-and-tomato sandwich for me (and I couldn’t eat much more than that).  By midnight, I was finally able to stand and walk around the hotel room.

Bus 24 on Charing Cross Road
I still slept on the floor – the hardness stabilized my back. I slept for 11 hours straight. I stayed in the room on Sunday, taking my medicine, with the hotel housekeeping staff working around me.

The entire hotel staff knew what had happened. We were tended to and taken care of. I actually left the hotel on Monday morning for a short walk, and Sergio the concierge (who had not been on weekend duty) immediately asked me how I was feeling, and that he was glad to see I was up and about. For the next two days, I received the same question from the entire staff, include the dining and housekeeping staff.

“Hospitality connects us to a place,” the authors of Slow Church write, “because while hospitality can happen pretty much anywhere, it has to happen somewhere. Hospitality requires proximity, and by definition, proximity requires nearness in space, time or relationship – all of which assume certain limits.”

Hospitality happened to me at 51 Buckingham Gate, some 5,000 miles from home. And yes, it connects me to a place, and the people at the place.

We knew where we will stay the next time we go to London.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A sea of poppies

A sea of poppies
an ocean
where red is not
but there
the placement
is part of the story
   of course
   the course
because so much is
about placement
about place
   the form is as
   important as
   the content
the form becomes
the content
the how matters
as much as
the what

instead of green grass
the old moat
surrounding antiquity
instead the experience
of more modern antiquity

 a red poppy for each
   color of blood
   color of death
   color of life

Photograph: On our recent trip to London, the first place we visited was the Tower of London to see “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” the art installation of red ceramic poppies to commemorate the British and colonial military fatalities of World War I. By Nov. 11, Armistice Day, there will be 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Story of the Second Chance

I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran, courtesy of my mother. I was raised with a strong Protestant work ethic, courtesy of my father. Both of those influences fused me into something of an overachiever, although only for those things where I felt I had a chance to overachieve. Academics were one area. Sports were not.

Until my senior year in college, my life followed that overachiever pattern. Set goals, achieve them, surpass them, and then set new goals. As a college freshman, I set several goals, and kept adding to them.

By the middle of my senior year, I had achieved or overachieved everything. All the positions, honors, accolades, recognitions – I had captured them all, including being the managing editor of the student newspaper for my final semester – the position that ran everything in the paper except the editorial page. I had the power position on the paper, likely as powerful as any student office on the campus.

Nothing was left. Nothing.

I crashed and burned.

I kept working; the work ethic was too strong for that to stop. But I crashed. Everything I had accomplished seemed meaningless. Everything I had done seemed like wasted effort. Meaningless. Chasing after the wind.

What I didn’t know was that I was careening, wildly careening, right into the arms of God.

Through what seemed a strange series of circumstances, I landed one night in a conversation with the director for my college’s Campus Crusade for Christ chapter. I was angry, believing that I had been taken advantage of by this man’s organization, which seemed to preach one thing and practice another.

We talked, possibly for hours. I don’t remember how long. But by the end of our conversation, I found myself in God’s arms. I had become a story – the story of the second chance.

This wasn’t an opportunity to reinvent my life. This was a transformation of my life. In a matter of minutes, I understood that everything had fundamentally changed.

About 11 p.m., I found myself in the newspaper editor’s office. He was working late. He asked me if I was okay. “Has something happened?” he asked. And I nodded. “Everything happened,” I said. “Everything. And I can’t explain it.”

The story of the second chance didn’t begin and end that night. If I have learned anything about my life, it’s that the second chances keep coming.

Fourteen years after that night, I had a career crash and burn. Same pattern of overachievement; same result. It happened again 10 years after that, and then 11 years after that.

And each time brought an opportunity for a second chance.

I can say this: had not that second crash and burn happened, I would not have written a speech that changed an entire industry.

Had not that third crash and burn happened, I would not have spent nine months as the communications officer for an urban school district in extreme crisis, learning that a lot of people think differently than I do and they all don’t live in nice, comfortable suburbs, and that some of their children attend schools with 110 percent turnover – annually.

Had not that fourth crash and burn happened, I would not have had published two novels and a work of non-fiction. I would not be a weekly columnist on poetry. I would not be an editor and writer for The High Calling.

Four stories of second chances. And each time, something changed, something was learned, and something was realized.

Something was being grown inside of me.

What was growing, what is growing, is less of me.

The High Calling has a community linkup this week on finding new life – and discovering second chances. If you have a story to tell about your own second chance, visit The High Calling for details. The deadline is tonight.

Photograph by Patricia Lizbeth Medina de Anda via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Step inside, trembling

Step inside, trembling
not from cold although
it was cold. The church
is larger than it looks
from the outside, the altar
bathed in light at the far end
of the dark nave seems
too far to walk.

Sit, halfway down, pulling
the prayer rail down to kneel,
saw how to do it in a movie
once, Bells of St. Mary’s?
Did Sister Ingrid do that?
Kneel, clasp my hands
like I’d been taught to do,
couldn’t pray,
couldn’t hear for the silence.

Empty church, beautiful
in white and dark, stained
glass around and behind me.
Face forward as the wind
touches my face; close
my eyes against the wind,
not to see it, not ready
to see it, not yet, please,
not yet.

The silence roars, flames
throw themselves, silhouetting
shadows on the wall, flames
bright orange-red, wind stops
as quickly as it started, begin
to pray again, or try, eyes
closed, hands clasped, listen
for an answer, hear the sound
of candles burning instead
of tongues.

Do I love
do I hope, I don’t know,
I love
I hope but
I cannot do both
at the same time

Photograph by Maliz Ong via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s “Becoming Dickens”

Before Charles Dickens was “Dickens,” he was “Boz,” or “Boz!” with an exclamation point. But one of the great novelists of the 19th century didn’t spring spontaneously from the streets of London; he came from somewhere. That “somewhere” is the subject of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (2011).

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this enthralled with a literary biography. I admit to a deep admiration for Dickens, but Becoming Dickens is a cut well above standard biographies.

Douglas-Fairhurst takes a deep dive into the context of who Dickens was and the times he lived. It’s not only that Dickens was forced as a child to work in a blacking factory, pasting labels on jars to bring some income to his family in debtor’s prison; it’s the explosive population growth London was experiencing and what could happen to families and children as a result. It’s not only that Dickens worked for a time as a clerk in law office, but what the law and the courts were like and what work clerks actually performed. It’s not only that Dickens worked as a Parliamentary reporter and then a general reporter; it’s what was happening and changing in Parliament and how newspapers were binding the rising literate class into the British nation. It’s not only the rise of the literary class that Dickens was a part of; it’s how he embraced and then transcended that class.

It’s the context of Dickens that’s the subject here, in addition to the writer himself. Douglas-Fairhurst pulls details from Dickens’ articles, essays and novels that illustrate and illuminate the author’s work, life and experiences.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Sketches by Boz helped Dickens gain a foothold; the national (and international) success of The Pickwick Papers catapulted him to a fame that endured the rest of life and into the 21st century. Douglas-Fairhurst explains, in meticulous and highly readable detail, how both of those publications happened, and how Dickens was able to capitalize on a number of converging trends and movements in both publishing and British public life to achieve what he did.

Douglas-Fairhurst is a lecturer and tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford, and a specialist in 19th century literature. He has a special focus on the work of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dickens, and is working on a biography of Lewis Carroll. He’s also served as the historical advisor to the BBC for its productions of Jane Eyre, Emma, and Great Expectations. He brings a well of knowledge to this work of the early life  of Dickens.

Becoming Dickens provides a picture of what Dickens the man was like, pouring out what seemed a tidal wave of words, articles, reports and serialized books; undertaking the writing of plays; reporting on various news events; marrying Catharine Hogarth; and more. The life of Dickens is the life of a dynamo, and yet he was a dynamo shaping and being shaped by the dynamo of the city and times he lived in. This biography brings it to vivid life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Breaking the Control Cycle

Last week, we discussed the “Control Cycle,” the desire we all have for control, including the control of sins and destructive behaviors that we all struggle with. The specific sins and behaviors may be different for each of us, but we all have them – they’re a part of our human nature.

John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall, authors of The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, point to what can break and help us escape the cycle.

And it sounds too good to be true. (Note I didn’t say easy; I said good.)

In Protestant churches, we generally don’t do confession. Part of it likely has to do with the fact we believe that only God can forgive sins, and the idea of a person – a priest or minister – absolving us doesn’t fit. The priest in the confession booth acts as God’s agent. Protestants remove the middle man.

Of course, we’re also likely to remove the confession part of the process, too.

The Sunday worship service at my own church includes a time of silent prayer and confession. It doesn’t last long; there are always things I know and things I don’t and hope might be brought to mind. But the time is brief, and then we’re on to a hymn. I don’t necessarily want to dwell on sins, but I also don’t want to give them a quick acknowledgement and move on.

I often fell like I have to do something else.

And it may be that I do.

I need to tell someone.

The secret to breaking the cycle of control, say the authors of The Cure, is telling someone.

Telling someone.

Do I dare call this “confession?”

“The power of sin is broken simply in telling,” they say. And the telling can happen at any point along the cycle. Once you tell it, the cycle stops.

This isn’t “name it and claim it.”

This is more like “name it and break it.”

Tell someone the moment you feel vulnerable.

Tell someone the sin you feel vulnerable to commit. Speak it aloud.

Tell someone, and live in the light.

Led by Jason Stsyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Cure. This is the second of two discussions on Chapter 4, “Two Solutions.” To see more posts on this chapter, please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.