Slow Train Coming


Man lives, not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imaginations may recognize elements of it, when presented in art or literature, without consciously understanding what it is that we recognize. — Northrop Frye, The Great Code

In Augustine’s Confessions—the original of the species of literary prayers—he devotes a whole chapter to memory. It is as fine a psychological and spiritual study of that faculty as you could find anywhere. Like a stone in the palm he turns it over and over, tracing out the striata, smoothing its roughness, feeling its weight and shape. He ponders the strangeness that he can remember remembering just as he can remember forgetting, and that somehow forgetting must also be in his memory. “Who can fathom such a thing,” he marvels, “or make any sense of it?”

The book was written a decade after his baptism into the Catholic Church on April 25, 387 CE. The chapter is like a traffic roundabout that directs the story of the events that drew him—both feverish for God and anguished at surrendering up his old ways—around toward the climatic moment in the garden of a friend’s house when his defenses gave way before a tidal surge of longing for belonging. All of that before he spun off in another direction to discuss the Trinity.

Like a viral agent Augustine gets in through the weak places in our skin of defenses. As much as I rise with him to that summit of emotion at conversion, it’s the passages on memory that I’m most vulnerable to these days since my memory itself seems increasingly vulnerable. Of all the potholes in the road to life’s end the ones that I swerve to avoid the most have to do with losing my memory. Even more than going blind, that seems the worst of the fates, because as Augustine says, “my memory is me.”  So I build habits and routines that can bridge my absentmindedness and defuse my anxiety.

Augustine’s analogies reveal him seeking out the deep crevices where memory hides in the mind or striding down the aisles in a capacious warehouse, or pausing at one of many doors in a long corridor to the past. He searches confusedly until “the dim thing sought arrives at last, fresh from depths.” In an envy-producing flourish he boasts that some things are brought up easily, properly sequenced and recalled at will, “which happens whenever I recite a literary passage by heart.” We should all be so lucky.

Alas, my current experience has me hacking my way through a landscape tangled with kudzu into a formless forest with few distinguishing marks. More positively, I see myself swimming from island to island in the sea of memory, regarding them as the tips of sea mounts that go down into the darkest depths, but give us stability in the meantime.

I’ve also realized that for some years now I’ve been re-experiencing some of the pivotal artists and musicians who have helped to construct my inner world. Without design, but surely with some intent, I’ve collected concert videos of Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul McCartney’s “Good Evening New York!” and Billy Joel’s “Live at Shea” concert, along with most of U2’s concert videos, as well as reading biographies of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, CSN, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and Mick Jagger. These are of a piece with going back to books I’ve picked up over the years about Edward Hopper, Paul Klee, Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall, and Wassily Kandinsky—artists whose works are the windows of my soul. Their music and their art evoke the memories that continue to form my experience.

As I write, it is 37 years ago that John Lennon was shot outside the Dakota in New York City. As hard as it is to imagine, he would have been 77 this year. He died at 40 in 1980 and will be, as Dylan sang, ‘forever young.’ Like many of us, ‘midway through this life he awoke in a dark wood.’ I wanted to see him grow older, and to understand how he found his way out, and what his wit and wonder might have created had he lived.

Which brings me back to memories and the loss thereof, and the regaining of them through our tricks to stay afloat, as well as the silent entrance of memories half-formed, but more strongly sensed only when our striving ceases and our fences drop.

All those years ago, John said it well:

There are places I remember 

All my life, though some have changed 

Some forever not for better 

Some have gone and some remain 

All these places have their moments 

With lovers and friends I still can recall 

Some are dead and some are living 

In my life I’ve loved them all

— In My Life 

We are both the shapers and the shaped when it comes to our identities. We are drawn to those in the arts who sing our stuttering words, who sculpt our unformed desires and paint our fears in light. As Northrop Frye says in the epigram, our imaginations recognize what we may not consciously see. When we need it, it will appear. Like the Zen saying goes, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will arrive.”

Sometimes memory is a slow train.

Photo: Guilherme Stecanella on

Real Facts


The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.— Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

Of all the strange things that happened to us that year, my walking on the water got the most laughs. Even today it’s a cliche for magical thinking, the punchline about someone who thinks he’s divine or just insufferably self-righteous.

I’ve always had impulse-control issues. I load, I fire, I aim. I leap—and I look—all the way down.

I am Peter, aka The Rock, not because I am the foundation for the church, but because I am hard-headed. He knew that, of course; it was an inside joke between us. You put the least-qualified in charge and see how it rolls. By beholding we become changed and all that. There is something to that, by the way, for I softened over the years. Not that I was weak, but rather I became deliberate. That was years away from the unfortunate water landing, and well after Jesus leaned into me one afternoon and said, “Someday they will bind you and take you where you do not want to go.” Just that, and he held my gaze for a moment, stopping my quick retort.

For once, I had nothing to say. I dropped my eyes then, for I was seeing myself on a stony path by torchlight, my hands bound in front of me, soldiers at my back and front.

I am the disciple, remember, who almost got it right about Jesus and then got it all wrong—all within an hour. He had asked one of his questions again; this time he wanted to know what people were saying about him. An odd question, until you realized that almost no one knew what he was. It wasn’t enough that he was a man from Nazareth or even that he was the one who made a few loaves and fishes into a meal for thousands. The crowds only had a few superheroes they could imagine: Abraham, Moses, Elijah . . . oh, and John, recently beheaded by Herod. So they thought he was another version of one of those.

He asked, “Who do people say I am?,” and we all muttered one thing and another about Elijah and John. “Who do you say I am?” he said, and we all looked at our shoes. He really seemed unsure. It was as if he needed confirmation of something he desperately hoped was true—or was afraid was true.

You have to get these things right for him, and frankly, we weren’t all that sure ourselves. But, as usual, I jumped in there with the answer we all wanted to hear. “You’re the Messiah!” I blurted. There wasn’t anyone else who it could be, even though he didn’t seem to care much about the position. But this time he didn’t deny it. Of course, he didn’t admit to it either. He just told us to keep it to ourselves.

“Well, good,” I thought, “things are looking up.” But then he started in about going up to Jerusalem, and how the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes would reject him. That wasn’t a surprise: he’d been on the outs with them for a long time. The words were coming in a rush now, about how he would be killed and would live again three days later. He was very plain about it. That’s when I pulled him away from the others. I lowered my voice, “What are you saying? We here know you are the Messiah. Take it! The Messiah doesn’t die. Am I missing something here?”

At that he spun back to the others. “Get away from me, Satan!” he shouted. “You’re counting on human plans, not divine ones!” He was speaking to them, but he meant me. I saw the shock on their faces at his words and then they glanced at me, horror-stricken. Before I could reply, he was rounding on the crowd that was gathering.

“If you want to follow me, then take up your cross! If you want to save your life, you will lose it, and if you lose your life because of me and the gospel, you will save it.” Clearly, this was crazy talk, but he wasn’t through.

“What does it matter if you gain the whole world, but you lose your own soul?” He glanced around at them. “What could you give to get your soul back, eh?”

I am remembering all this because I have been trying to sort out how we who followed him understood him. When you’re in the midst of it you just try to keep up. The understanding comes later, I found. And if we take up our cross to follow him, then at some point the cross becomes more than a symbol: it is a killing machine upon which we really do die. After all, the point of “taking up one’s cross” is to realize that we carry our death with us daily. What I couldn’t understand at the time is how that could ever be anything but suicide or treason.

At the time I could not bear the thought that he would die in this way. I envisioned a deathless life for him. I saw him as the one who would change the architecture of our world so that the long shadow of this constant cruelty would vanish. I wanted him to open up the sky so we could stand in the sunlight as creatures of God, not as prisoners of Rome. If that meant pulling down the palaces and temples that blocked the sun, then let’s get on with it.

But that’s not what he was on about. He saw the world so differently than we did. I wanted to ask him, “When you look at the world what is it that you see?”* There were times when we were with him that something he said or did clicked into focus and we saw an expression that was so clear and so true that it changed the atmosphere when he walked into the room.

But I found that the clarity dissolved when he wasn’t around. When we tried together to remember and explain it to each other later in that upper room, it refracted like a kaleidoscope. My unprayed thought back then before his death was that I tried to be like him, I tried to feel the way he did, but without him it was no use.

I couldn’t see what he saw when I looked at the world.


All these years later I am writing from this prison cell. As he said so long ago, my hands were bound and I was led away.

His death changed everything, of course. That was all, but it was everything. I carried my cross every day after that.

I betrayed him and he forgave me.

This is how we see the world like he does — through the lens of betrayal and forgiveness.

These are the real facts.

*U2 (2000), “When I Look at the World,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
(Photo: Simon Wijers,

We Are What We Think


Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. . . — Rudyard Kipling

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. — The Dhammapada

The world is orderly and simple.

The world changes constantly and is immensely complex.

These two ways of thinking have shaped human behavior and culture for millenia—and lately they have been tested in the laboratories of cultural psychology.

Richard Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, builds the case that Westerners and Easterners differ in their fundamental beliefs about the world. As one of his graduate students from China said to him, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” Nisbett, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was skeptical but intrigued. He’d always thought of himself as a universalist, someone who believed humans perceive and reason in the same way. While their cultural practices may vary widely, he thought, their ways of perceiving the world are generally similar.

He summarizes this tradition in four general principles. First, everyone has the same basic thinking processes when it comes to memory, categorization, inference, and causal analysis. Second, when people from different cultures have different beliefs it’s because they have been exposed to different aspects of the world, not because they actually think differently. Third, reasoning rests upon logic: a proposition can’t be both true and false. And fourth, our reasoning is separate from what we are reasoning about. You can think about a thing many different ways—and you can use your reasoning to come up with wildly different results. Such was the tradition that could be traced back through the Enlightenment to the Greeks. Surely everybody thought in the same way.

But that turns out not to be the case at all.

In test after test, Western subjects focused on the objects in the foreground of a video while Eastern subjects took in the whole background. That’s consistent with another finding that Westerners regard objects as most important and Easterners emphasize relationships. Following Greek thought, Westerners think of themselves above all as free agents, individuals who act upon the environment around them, changing their circumstances to match their ambitions. Easterners, following Confucian thought, see themselves as part of a harmonious whole, experiencing the links between people and their environment as continuous. One does not so much wrest control away from Nature as align oneself with it.

Independence, practically a virtue in Western societies, begins at an early age as we teach our children to “stand on their own two feet,” “think for themselves,” and “grow up.” Interdependence, the way of many in Eastern cultures, helps children to understand the reactions of others. One of Nisbett’s research partners, a 6 ft. 2 inch football-playing graduate student from Japan, was dismayed to discover, at his first American football game, that University of Michigan football fans thought nothing of blocking his view of the game by standing up in front of him. “We would never do anything to impair the enjoyment of others at a public function like that,” he said to Nisbett. It seems that compared to the Japanese wide-angle view Americans have tunnel vision.

Sensitivity to others’ emotions provides Easterners with a different set of assumptions about communication also. Whereas Westerners take responsibility for speaking directly and clearly, a “transmitter” orientation, Easterners adopt a “receiver” orientation in which it’s the hearer’s responsibility to make sure the message is understood. Nisbett notes that Americans sometimes find Asians hard to read because Asians make their points indirectly; Asians, on the other hand, may find Americans direct to the point of rudeness.

The differences extend to how we think about causality and how we deal with historical events. Japanese teachers, says historian Masako Watanabe, begin a history lecture by setting the context. They then proceed chronologically through the events, linking each one to the proceeding event. Students are encouraged to put themselves in the mental and emotional states of the historical figures being studied and to draw analogies to their own lives. Students are regarded as thinking historically when they are able to see the events from the point of view of the other, even Japan’s enemies. Questions of “how” are asked about twice as much as in American classrooms.

By contrast, American teachers usually begin with the outcomes and ask why this result was produced. The pedagogical process often has the effect of destroying historical continuity and reversing the flow to effect-cause. This reflects the Greek heritage of the West in which we have the liberty to find our goals and define the means to attain them.

“Easterners,” says Nisbett, “are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world. . . . But Aristotle has testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not. . . . The Chinese may have understood the principle of action at a distance, but they had no means of proving it.”

No one is making value judgements about these varying perspectives. They are different ways of being in the world and viewing the world. But if this research is true or even close, we should pay attention to it for it could change how we communicate with millions and millions of people.

Occasionally in life we stumble across something that opens a window into our own interior castles. That is the experience I had reading The Geography of Thought. Time and again, as I followed the tests scattered throughout the book, I was taken aback at my unconscious affinity for Eastern thought. More often than not, when I was absolutely honest with myself, I realized how often they are my default positions.

That might explain why I found it so difficult to be the ‘answer man’ when working in faculty development at a research university. While some thought I should provide techniques that would work in every classroom—universals, in effect—my tendency was to see each teacher and each classroom as distinct. Instead of developing objectives for all to reach my thought was to develop each teacher’s own style to fit their context. Context and background instead of rules and foreground. At the time I lacked the analogies to talk about it, although pushing against that instinctual feeling made me feel off balance much of the time.

Thus we live and learn and discover coves and bays along our spiritual shoreline we did not know were there until we put out to sea.

Photo: Rendiahsyah Nugroho on

Beauty and Terror


He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” — Luke 9:3

When He called us together finally, it was in order to send us out together alone, without Him. We had been with Him long enough to know that He did not stand on protocol. In fact, He did not stand on much except faith in the ineffable Spirit of God, a gossamer thread that was subject to stress with us, but was a linked chain of cast iron for Him. So when He said He was sending us out with power and authority to throw out demons and heal diseases and generally talk up the good news of the kingdom, it was the release of breath we had been holding since we first met Him.

I’ll be honest with you, I remember that moment with crystalline clarity because I was terrified. He was asking us to go out into the hills, where people had been out of work for months, where opioids opened some doors and closed others forever, and where a gun in the hand was worth two in the cabinet. Demons and diseases, devils and dust, there was scarcely an upside to this.

But I went. We went, Andrew and I, and the others, two by two. What the hell, I thought, it’s time to take Him at His word.

There is a lightness in just going, nothing in hand, and no clear plan for the end of day. The first town off the interstate that we came to we headed for the 7-11 and asked who might be sick in town. It took persistence.

“Are you doctors or something?” asked the kid behind the counter. He didn’t bother to get up.

“Not exactly,” said Andrew, “but we can help.” The kid didn’t say anything. He looked out the window at the pickup next to the pumps.

“Talk to Roy,” he said finally. “His mom’s been laid up for months. You want some buffalo jerky?”

I shook my head.

“Heh Roy,” said the kid, “these guys can help your mom.” I turned as a tall man with a scraggly ponytail came through the door.

“Why you talking about my momma, Craig?”

“These guys said they could help.”

“That true?” he asked. “Here’s ten for the gas.” He dropped the bill on the counter and stepped back.

“Yes,” said Andrew, “it’s true.” He looked at Roy steadily. I held my breath.

“Are you doctors or something? Preachers? ‘Cos we’ve had enough of preachers up here. Can’t trust ‘em.”

“I know it sounds crazy,” Andrew said, “but we’ve been given power to heal.”

“I don’t have that kind of money,” said Roy. “Not interested.”

“It’s not about money,” I said. “We want to help. It’s about the kingdom.”

“No kingdom around here,” laughed Craig. ”What you talking about, kingdom? Jesus!”

“In a manner of speaking, yes, it’s about Jesus,” said Andrew quietly.

“Okay, then,” said Roy after a moment. “Get in the pickup. We’ll go see her.”

I sat in the bed of the truck, while Andrew sat up front. I didn’t feel like being crowded as three men in a space for two. Besides, I wanted to savor the strangeness of the moment: how was I in the back of a pickup truck high in the hills of Appalachia near sundown to find some woman with God knows what illness and to heal her? And then what?

We turned off the main road after ten minutes and jounced down a dirt track beneath an arch of trees and vines. At the end was a stained double-wide trailer in a clearing with a wooden hut nearby and a rusting 1981 Ford truck up on blocks. Roy braked to a stop and switched off the engine. We got out.

“I don’t know how she is today,” said Roy. He looked down. “I talked to her yesterday. She doesn’t take well to strangers.”

I tried to imagine her life here, how she waited for her son to come by, maybe watched television and smoked in the evenings. There were cigarette butts everywhere on the ground around the steps.

“Shall we go in?,” said Andrew gently. Roy rapped on the door.

“Momma,” he called. “It’s me, Roy. I’ve brought a coupla friends by. They want to meet you.”

“Is that you, Roy?” came a voice from inside. The door opened a crack and then wider.

“It’s me, Momma,” said Roy, and he swung the door open enough for us to see the woman inside. She stood, clutching the door frame with one hand, the other pulling a robe together across a thin chest. She wore jeans and slippers and a Batman T-shirt that was frayed and dirty. Her hair was long and gray, with yellow streaks, and hung limply around her shoulders. She looked right through us and put out a hand.

I realized she was blind when Roy gently touched her shoulder and turned her to the inside. “Come in,” he said to us. “You can sit over there.” He pointed to a table in the back with a built-in window seat and two folding chairs. He guided her to the table and steadied her as she sat down and slid behind it. He stood awkwardly next to her.

I sat down in one of the chairs. Andrew made as if to sit down but then straightened again. “I’m Andrew,” he said, “and this is Thomas.”

The woman across from us put out her hand.

“I’m Suzanne,” she said. “How do you know Roy?”

Andrew took her hand in his. “We met just now at the 7-11. We’d like to help you.”

She didn’t pull away, but her back stiffened. “With what? How?,” she said. “Roy, what’s this about?”

There was a pause. Roy looked at Andrew and then at me. “Well,” he said hesitantly—.

“You’re blind and we can help,” I cut in. I realized how that sounded, but I rushed on. “We can heal you if you’ll give us a chance. Really,” I added lamely.

She laughed bitterly. “And how much is this going to cost me?”

“No, no!” I said. “It’s nothing, it’s not about money, it’s about. . .” I paused and looked at Andrew.

“It’s a gift from God,” said Andrew simply. “Just that. We know someone.”

There was silence. Roy shifted uneasily.

“Well,” she said at last, “I suppose it’s worth a shot.” She held out her other hand to me. “What are you going to do?”

I took her hand in both of mine. The skin felt dry and cold, cracked across the knuckles and reddened in places. I licked my lips; I was sure my voice would break.

I glanced at Andrew. He nodded. I took a breath and looked up . . .


I must have drifted for a moment because when I came to myself He was saying, “Look, now I am sending you out. I’m giving you authority over demons—all of them, and power to heal and to announce to people that the Kingdom of God is here.” He smiled: “Bring them peace and travel light. If they don’t want you, leave and go to the next town. We’re not in the business of forcing anyone.”

Later that afternoon, before we left, I took out the battered copy of Rilke’s Book of Hours that I always carry in my backpack and read this:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Photo by Ozark Drones,

Building to True


I’ve been reading Thoreau’s Walden in the Yale edition (2006) with an introduction, notes, and a beautifully-designed cover. It’s a satisfying chunk of a book, fitting easily to the hand, and a good price at less than ten dollars. I went back to Thoreau because I’m also reading Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own, the story of how he built himself a writing hut in the woods behind his home. Pollan, a journalist for the New York Times and the author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules, among other books, wrote two of his books there and probably would have written more had he and his family not moved from Connecticut to California in the years after it was built.

Pollan cites Thoreau’s opening sentence to ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’ as he describes the reasons that compelled him to plan and to build: “At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” Elsewhere, Pollan notes that Walden can be read as Thoreau’s exploration of foundations for life, what it takes to build a character deep and strong.

Digging down below the frostline, weary with the labor, and allowing himself the fantasy of slacking off, Pollan is brought up short by his co-worker, a sometimes laconic, sometimes obstreperous day worker, who quickly reminds him that houses fall out of ‘true’ when subjected to the upheavals of frozen ground straining at a foundation. Later, quietly exultant as he stands on the footings he himself poured for his place, Pollan muses about the nature of foundations, the need to plant ourselves on solid ground, and the architectural metaphors we freely borrow for the blueprints of our lives.

Michael Pollan built his writing house because he wanted to grapple with material, feel the roughness of the wood and stone in his hand, and turn ideas into something with weight and heft. He’s a master at the reflective moment like Thoreau, both of them hewing the blank stone of experience into a textured wall of meaning. Thoreau’s sturdy independence is not exactly Pollan’s way; he is under no illusions about his ability to put up a house in the woods all by himself. But he reaches back to Walden as a touchstone, it seems, to capture Thoreau’s sense of being in a site and to fit the words to the experience.

Thoreau’s prose in Walden is spare and as lean as the man himself. At times, when he is describing the color of the water in the pond or the thick pleasure of feeling one’s way through a forest in a night without stars, his sentences become poetic, though always with a lightly bemused air. This is a man for whom words are gems in the rough to be cut to refract light in a hundred directions. He renders experience, shapeless and dark, into bright moments you can hold in your hand.

It’s that ability to dig deep into remembered experiences and form them into something that can be experienced by others which makes Thoreau such an exemplary teacher. In a letter written to a friend in 1857 he suggests a theme for an essay recounting a hike up Mt. Washington. State to yourself, he urges, exactly what that experience meant to you and why. Keep coming back and back to it until you are sure you’ve gotten to the real heart of the experience. “Not that the story need be long,” he advises, “but it will take a long while to make it short.” Climbing a mountain and getting blown all over the summit isn’t unique: it happens to many people. “It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do?” In other words, until we interpret our actions they are simply occurrences. Reflecting on them shapes them into experiences filled with meaning.

There are days in which we enter the classroom brimming with intentions and plans and it all seems to fall to the floor as lifeless as last year’s leaves. And there are days in which the air in the room seems charged and there’s a grandeur shining through each face before us. Those are the times in which Thoreau’s—and Pollan’s—incandescent ability to see the foundations rising to life from the ideas on the page become an inspiration.

To state it plainly: reflection on our practice gives meaning to our actions. It is the foundation upon which we may ‘build to true.’

Photo: Travis Grossen,

Why Writing is Hard

WritingHard:dmitry-ratushny-412448“Writing is hard work. . . .If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

“How long do you want this paper to be?”

It’s an annoying question from a student. It assumes that the subject assigned can be measured out like twine and cut to the desired length. But even worse, it puts the burden of responsibility on you, not the student. The student is merely the supplier trying to fulfill the customer’s order.

That order can be filled by copying and pasting, pulling together a quilted arrangement of unattributed quotes, stitched throughout with a few original but insipid transitional sentences. Or if the hour is late and the need is high a paper in the proper style and length can be bought.

The machinery for grinding out such fodder is well-oiled, maintained with precision, and apparently provides a lucrative return-on-investment for the entrepreneurs in the business—and many universities have installed anti-plagiarizing software, anti-cheating hardware, and student-monitoring devices in classrooms.

We can look at this another way. While the outcome may be framed as plagiarizing or cheating, the context in which this plays out can lead to other conclusions. People act out of character when they are afraid or unsure; they try to reduce the odds of failure by any means necessary. If they’re afraid of writing they’ll do almost anything to avoid it.

Writing is hard, says William Zinsser, and he should know. During a career as a journalist, critic, editor, and teacher he has written over 15 books, many of them on writing. His best-known, On Writing Well, now over 30 years in print, has been revised, updated, and expanded through four editions. Each time Zinsser returns to it he reworks, rewrites, and cuts. What makes it so hard? Making it simple, making it clear.

He points to Thoreau’s Walden as a model of plain and orderly simplicity. On every page we see the deliberate and patient stride of the celebrated walker from Concord who rid his life of clutter by reducing it to the essentials. And we, says Zinsser, can free ourselves from clutter by thinking clearly. “Clear thinking becomes clear writing,” he says. “One can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

E. B. White agreed in The Elements of Style, saying, “Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Writing is hard because clear thinking is hard. This is a surprise only to those whose writing originates from their inner mud-puddle. “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” says the Tao Te Ching. Simplify and clarify.

Which brings us back to the question we began with: “How long do you want this paper to be?” They are the words of someone acutely aware that the teacher holds most of the power in the classroom. They are the words of someone trying to minimize pain and maximize benefit. Someone who has learned to hide a lack of meaning behind a pile of clutter.

At times, as a teacher, I have answered that question with Sphinx-like equivocation: ‘How long? As long as it takes to make your point persuasively.’ There is a cloud of assumptions behind that answer. It assumes that the student knows a persuasive answer from a hole in the ground. It does not show that writing is a process. And it can encourage the confusion of length with erudition and spontaneity with creativity.

If we want students to write well we need to help them learn several things. First, clear writing is a product of clear thinking. Second, clear thinking usually begins as a social process of ideas thrown together, pressed down, shaken up, and poured out. Third, clarity and simplicity emerge through subtraction, not multiplication. We get to the meaning of the idea by throwing away everything that doesn’t advance the story. Finally, all of this takes time. Simple is harder because simple takes time. Better to do one long paper well than to do three short ones badly.

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter,” said Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, in a letter to a friend.

And with that gentle reminder I shall cease.

Photo: Dmitri Ratushny on

How We Prevail on Earth


They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ — Luke 4: 32-34

If you can believe the sign in the parking lot, the church is a demon-free zone. Just who certified this isn’t exactly clear. But up to now there’s never been a demon there in all the years I’ve been attending, at least not one that was visible.

If I’d wanted to see a demon, the church would be the last place I’d go. Yet there it was. And where there is one, there are many. It’s like switching on the light in the kitchen and seeing a lone cockroach scuttling across the floor. You just know there’s never just one.

That man was carrying one in his gut like a parasite. That’s the only explanation I can think of. To look at him you’d never think he was host to a Legion of devils. In fact, he was the one who talked the most about them. “There could be one among us today!” he’d exclaim. You could hear him out in the narthex, grilling the visitors. I guess he thought they could wipe their feet before they came in and that would somehow do the trick.

Do we think the demons avoid the church because there is some magical aura that rebuffs them, some force-field against which they cannot hurl themselves? Don’t be silly. A church is like any other building, just quieter when it’s full. Not much happens at our church; perhaps that is why the demons have always left us alone.

But he wouldn’t let it alone. “We’ve got to stand together,” he’d say. “All of us in unity. If we give the Devil an opening he’ll crack us like a walnut. If you harbor thoughts otherwise you will not stand in that day! You’ll be the one who lets the Devil in amongst us. Do you want to be that person? Really?”

In a meeting someone finally said, “Pastor, why do you think we’re demon-bait? Have we ever given you reason to think we are?”

“Can you prove you’re not?” said one of the men next to him. “Do you really think you’re qualified to know the signs? Don’t you think the best thing is to trust those of us who’ve had some experience in these things?” He waited.

In the silence the pastor cut in. “We’ve argued about this long enough,” he said with a frown. “There are doubters among us.” He pulled out a form and laid it on the table.

“We’ve got to be unified,” he said. “We don’t have any time to lose. I want you to put aside your doubts and join me in a pledge to stand against the Devil and his hordes. That’s what this church has always stood for: unity for the mission.”

He tapped the form in front of him: “This is your day of decision. Sign this or forfeit your right to speak.”

“But you can’t do that,” someone protested. “Besides, signing a piece of paper doesn’t prove anything. What matters is what we decide in our hearts. It’s between us and God.”

The pastor stood. The late afternoon sun poured redly into the room, casting him in both light and shadow. His hands balled into fists.

“Do not oppose us,” he said softly.

Photo: Ian Espinosa,

Another Homecoming


And you know it’s time to go

Through the sleet and driving snow

Across the fields of mourning

Light in the distance — U2, A Sort of Homecoming

In the parable of the prodigal son, it’s the prodigal who gets all the glory. It’s an old story, played out across countless families, in every small town, to the tune of heartbreak in a million hearts. He’s the badass boy that all the girls want, the one who brushes off the worshipful without a sideways glance, who gets his ‘Vette with the money that’s coming to him and roars out of town for the city.

He’s every arrogant kid who struts into the stagelights, full of himself and full of life, aching to make his mark by sheer force of need, daring himself farther up above the abyss like some flaming Icarus, until desire cracks full force into indifference and he plunges.

I could have told you so.

I’m the one who stayed behind, the older brother whose diligence was mistaken for acceptance. The one who was expected—not in so many words—to pick up the slack and obediently plow the fields until sunset every day. Now that he was gone there was an understanding that everything left would be mine when the time came. Until then it was mine to lose; if I didn’t work it there would be nothing left to claim.

* * * *

In Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” the elder brother stands alone, isolated in a pool of light, his stiff resolve drawing him up and into himself. He stands on a platform, the diagonal of which bisects the plane and separates him from his father and brother. Although only a single step forward would put him on the same level as his brother, we sense there is no power that could induce him to any movement except to withdraw further into the darkness behind him. The eldest son is all verticals; the father and the prodigal are rounded, bent toward each other at awkward angles, the one falling into the embrace of the other and both in light. On the elder brother’s face there is sorrow, hurt, and anger. This is the moment he has played out in his mind countless times; now that it is here he is mute and paralyzed.

* * * *

I know what the people in the town thought of me. They would tell you that I was the resentful one, angry because my brother took off to live for song and women in a far city. In this version I would have been long gone—even before him—if I had had the balls. But that’s not me.

The story has a life of its own now, and there is little I can do to change it in the minds of those who hear it. I am not a man of words. Even this is difficult to express, but I can only tell you honestly what I held in my heart all that time he was gone.

I loved my brother and I knew why he left. I knew he would leave and I knew there was nothing any of us could do to make his leaving seem right. He would take his leave, to put it quaintly. He would take it and run with it and he didn’t give a damn if anyone got hurt in the taking. But frankly, there was nothing for him here, and if he could play out his talents on a larger stage, well, more power to him.

When I’m working in the fields I’m always thinking. I’m thinking about Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Castor and Pollux, James and John—the “Sons of Thunder,” as Jesus called them. What I do you might not call prayer, but I think of my brother and imagine him in his life. I hope for his safety at the very least, and I hope for the enlargement of his spirit.

He returned in winter. The days were bitter and short; it was all I could do to get the chores done in the daylight. That year we had more snow than usual and more days of flying sleet and slosh. I was up to the hills out back, seeing to the sheep, when I caught a glimpse of a figure stumping along the road to the house. As I strained to see through the rain and sleet, I saw the old man in his pea coat hobbling up the road. They met in the road, their figures melding together in the gathering dark, and they turned toward the house. By the time I was down the hill and coming through the upper pasture all the lights were on in the house and smoke was pouring from the chimney.

*  * * *

In Rainier Maria Rilke’s retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son, the young man returns home to the welcoming embrace of his family. They hover, hanging on his every word, their faces shining, laughter quick in their throats. He retreats to his childhood room, tired and pressed on every side.

In the morning, before light, he gets up, quietly steals out the back door, and runs across the frosted fields as the sun comes up. We know he will not stay; he is drowned in love and has no defenses against it. He feels himself to be disappearing and knows he will lose himself if he doesn’t leave.

* * * *

His story came out over the days as we worked together in the fields and the barn. I didn’t press him for the details. I knew he couldn’t hold them back. Whatever my brother was feeling was written on his face and there was little in his actions that winter that I could not have predicted. So when he came to me one night in the early spring, I knew he was leaving.

Now that our father has passed on, the farm is my responsibility. I could no more leave than my brother could stay. But I love the land; we each find our level. I’ll be here when he returns.


Live in Light


It begins with light.

No, rather it begins with darkness, but the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. He came to his own people — to us — but we were in darkness and the darkness was complete, for in us there was no light.

And I looked, but I could not see, until he mixed up some clay and pressed it on my eyes.

“What do you see?” he asked, and waited. I could hear the cicadas droning in the trees, felt the blood pounding in my ears, a dog barked somewhere in the village, feet shifted near me and I heard the murmur of voices.

“I can see . . . people,” I said, and cleared my throat. “But they look like trees. Nothing is clear. . . Yet.”

At that, he smiled. I saw him smile! He pressed clay on my eyelids again and I felt the cool touch of his hands on my face.

“And now?”

At that, the light poured in and his face snapped into focus. Behind him I could see other faces, people whose bodies cast hard shadows under their feet, for the sun was almost directly overhead and the cicadas filled the silence under the brassy sky. I closed my eyes, for the light fell like shards of glass and I called out to my friends because I did not know what they looked like, but when I heard their voices, gasping and laughing, I knew where they were and I laughed too. The darkness, again, was familiar, but I wanted to see and to see my friends, and I opened my eyes. They were around me, brushing the mud smears from my face, and by their voices I could see who they were, finally.

It was by hearing that I saw.

He told stories and we listened. To be honest, most of it went right over my head.

“No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.”

Everybody knows that a lamp is for light. Without light it’s just a piece of clay. That much I knew.

“I am the light of the world,” he said. So this is what he was doing: he was lighting the world and he would not be hidden. The light is here, right now! Everything will be seen for what it is; the secrets that people have hidden will be revealed; all will be in light. Pay attention! If you can truly listen you already have much and those who can listen with attention will be given much more. But if you cannot listen, if your attention is only on yourself, and if what you want to say stops up your ears, then you will lose even what you have.

That came after the parable of the sower and after we asked him to explain. Those who hear the word and hold it fast with an honest and good heart are good earth, good humus, good humans. Holding it fast with patient endurance, that’s what it takes. It begins with hearing the word and seeing the light.

“So let your light so shine among them, let your light so shine,” he said. “Let your light so shine among them that they may see your good work and may know that it comes from the Father of lights.”

And we who sat in darkness saw a great Light and that Light was the light of the world.

(Photo: Ying Chouhan,

Elaborated Spontaneity #8

Committed to Memory


SunriseMemory:eric-ward-341172 copy.jpg

Our global story is not yet completed,
Crime, daring, commerce, chatter will go on,
But, as narrators find their memory gone,
Homeless, disterred, these know themselves defeated.
— W. H. Auden, XVI from “Sonnets from China”

I recoiled in horror at the scenes coming out of Charlottesville, at the torch-lit faces of the marchers, indistinguishable from the clean cut young men of Nazi era photographs. There was the same glittering intensity, the straining throats and clenched fists, the bodies taut with anger, the adrenaline stiffening their limbs. Then came the images of the car plowing into bodies, bodies that were tossed and flung up into a frozen moment in which we could see every detail suspended in time. Did that man sprinting to the left make it to safety? Where did the body land that was upended and flailing in the air above the car? Did the driver think of his mother in the moments before impact? Was his face contorted with hatred or was he a masque of cold ruthlessness?

In a summer redolent with memories of World War II, it is astonishing to see Nazi flags and salutes in the streets of Charlottesville. These are self-identified “blood-and-soil” foot soldiers whose primary myths reek of violence, hatred, and mayhem. Separately, these people might be merely obnoxious and irritating: together they are more than the sum of their parts. Together they are the dark, atavistic, blunt force which has caused such trauma to the body politic through the centuries.

It was a spiral of violence that inevitably hit its crescendo in Trump’s first remarks. If ever there was a time when the better angels of our nature should have been hovering over the president, this was it. In a moment of genuine grief and justified anger he could have opened his heart to the nation and called out the evil so evident before him. He could have played the man and unequivocally denounced by name the self-designated forces of hatred and racism. He could have exercised leadership and called us to remember our higher values. But he didn’t. When he finally made a fuller statement some days later it was delivered with all the empathy and expression of a child forced to apologize. And then, in a press conference which stunned even the commentators at Fox News, he raised the moral equivalency stakes even higher. Asserting that there were good people among the Nazi marchers he charged that the counter protestors, many of whom were clergy leading in nonviolence, were just as violent as the white supremacists, the KKK, and the Nazis, who poured into the city from all parts of the country for the protest. It was a bridge too far, even for some of his allies who had gritted their teeth through the interminable months since he took office, and by mid-week after the protests enough CEOs had resigned from the president’s economic advisory councils that he abolished them.

It is clear that this president cannot be the moral leader that the position calls for. He has chosen that which benefits him personally over that which the country needs in order to rise above this present shame. The President’s unwillingness to call evil by its right name is a trigger warning for all of us. It means we need to face up to the racism that pervades our system and to recognize that no one—none of us—is free and clear of this poison.

* * * *

Racism is endemic to human nature because it feeds our fear; if we understand the fear we may have a chance to rise above this—but only if we are both constantly self-aware and consciously focused on a love for others that can endure the fire. To rid ourselves of this poison we need to reflect, renounce, and announce.

We reflect on our past—not just our own individual past, but that of our country and our world. We remember through history, scripture, drama, poetry, film, music, and art the painful stories of our long love affair with violence. We recognize—re-cognize—that any of us could be the face of violence and evil for another person.

We renounce our fear and our inability to see others as people like ourselves. We have to set aside our gut reaction to dehumanize others when provoked. And we have to put away childish thoughts about stamping out evil by killing the millions of us who are tainted by it. Evil is a cord that runs through all of us, tying us and our enemies together in a chain of mutual destruction. The way we cut the cord is to recognize it in ourselves and give ourselves over to God, Allah, a Higher Power, whatever we call that Being which is being itself and which gives us life.

We announce to ourselves the commitment to the effort and struggle to love each other. It is a struggle, mostly because the easiest thing is to ignore the humanity of those we fear and hate. Making that claim each day to ourselves makes it real. In a strange reversal this is one case in which “saying makes it so.”

* * * *

We do not live in the present only, but always with a glance over the shoulder to our past. When we are not simply preoccupied with ourselves we also look up ahead to where we think we ought to be. This is how we make and remember history, not just “one damn thing after another,” as Henry Ford is reputed to have said, but a perspective on human action that involves making order out of our myriad choices. We live at once in these three worlds of past, present, and future, although we scrutinize them separately.

The present moment is indefinable: is it truly a “moment” or does it stretch like putty to touch both the past and the future? The question matters because our always-on social media shrinks the present to hours, sometimes minutes. “Here is the latest on the stories we are following right now,” says the news host, genially taking us by the hand before shoving us off the curb into heavy traffic. Thus we are ceaselessly borne downriver, to change up the metaphor, desperately clutching at anything we think will define and preserve the moment we just saw.

It is memory that keeps us alive and alert. Memory that functions to string together the millions of droplets of time that make up our sense of continuity and that define the boundaries of our experience. Memories of our personal history and our collective histories. Augustine likened memory to a long hallway with rooms off to each side, each one containing moments that defined us in time. Those moments are who we are today, but not what we may yet become.

Let’s not forget who we are, who we wanted to be as a nation of people. We remember when we write it down. Writing it down becomes a commitment to remember and to be accountable to ourselves and others and God. “I want to enact the truth,” said Augustine, “—before you, by my testimony; and, by my writing, before those who bear witness to this testimony.”

So . . . listen, reflect, write, and speak out. Start a blog, keep a journal, write a paragraph of encouragement to your friends on Facebook every day. Share what you write with the rest of us; in the writing we will keep the memories of these times alive for ourselves, those around us, and the people we are still to be in the future.

(Photo: Eric Ward,