Why I Write by Hand

I am a big proponent of physically writing words on paper with a pen but I cannot hide from you that I haven’t always been. There was a time, for about two years, that I wrote a lot on my iPod. It was almost always handy and I enjoyed the flexibility of just carrying my iPod. I was able to write down reminders, notes, and scraps of poetry. Eventually, however, I was urged by multiple external forces and the internal force of sentimentality to buy a notebook. I am now the proud owner of a green faux leather notebook with unlined pages and too many bookmarks.

I can tell you a few things that I love about writing in a notebook.

  1. Hopefully, one day, someone I love can find my notebook, run their fingers over the penned poems and scrambled markings, marvel at the fact that my hand was in the very place theirs is now. Needless to say, this is the sentimentality that drove me to the bookshop for the book. I still believe, however, that it is not a ridiculous sentiment. I hope to leave behind me, in this technological age, more than used memory in a device. I hope I can impart something physical to my ancestors.
  2. Words are not nearly as easy to get rid of in my notebook. Once I pen those words in, they remain. I may mark over them, but then the markings tell me that I was ashamed of the words, or I found better ones, or they were unnecessary. Whatever the case may be, the legacy of the words is infinite.
    1. Computer geeks will tell me that anything I write online is never truly gone, and I would agree. They are however much harder to find and their trail is easily erased. If I delete a word on my iPod, I will never again know what it was.
  3. Creativity is much simpler on a piece of blank paper. From a purely poetic point of view, my scope is much wider. I can make my poem look like I want it to look much easier. I can space my words without the red underlining marring the page. From a more artistic perspective, I like to think that everything on the page surrounding my poem is part of the poem. If I had to pause in the middle of the line to scribble while I thought, that was part of the process. That is missed without the blank page.
  4. Joan Didion says of her notebook-keeping habits, “Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it?” I write also to remember. And more than just the words, I want to remember the whole situation and the way I write the words is important to that. What color pen is it? Blue, black, purple? Is it sideways, messy or neat? Big, small, scrawled? Tear stained or shaky? This is something only I can know but it is something I want to know.

I am not endowed with enough authority to tell you that writing by hand is the only way to do it – but I can tell you that I have loved it and cannot imagine doing it another way.


Meals to Remember

I chose two meals to write about for this post on memorable meals.

On April 3rd, 2014, I wrote the passage below about meals in our friend’s Sewanee lake house. (While I’m slightly appalled by my writing, I have changed nothing.)

“We had the most amazing meals out there in the middle of nowhere. We were in the middle of the woods. Climbing a tree, building a fort, waging war on our siblings. We heard Mr. Peters calling, “Dinner, guys.” We didn’t answer. “Hey, kids, supper. Food.” We might’ve heard him that time. “Okay, fine. Don’t come in. We’re eating without you.” We came that time. We skidded into the cabin breathing hard, carving knives in hand. “Off with the shoes, put down the knife, Jake, wash up,” said one of the moms. Still breathing hard, still muddy legs and feet, we sat down to a home cooked meal after a long day. Anything would’ve been good. The taste wasn’t the only thing wonderful. We were with our best friends, in the middle of the woods, with a successful day of being wood warriors behind us, looking forward to a night slept in a tent. Those were some good meals.”

The meals there, at the cabin with friends and dogs, remain some of my most treasured.

Meals with families and partners in Kenya are always… something. Whether the food be tasty (often), unsettling (usually), or plain (rarely), the food is shared, not merely given. A meal is an invitation to fellowship, to acknowledge common cause, to gather. One such meal I remember was in my first few weeks of life in Kenya. We drove 2 hours north of Nairobi to a school and orphanage situated on a swath of land being farmed or otherwise used. The students run the place – put in their bit by tending the land, feeding the cows, cleaning the classrooms.

Once we had toured the school, the surrounding dormitories, patted the noses of calves, and played soccer in the yard, we were led, by the director, into a room of the main building. The room was decorated in a style I have since seen all across Kenya – hard backed couches with hard cushions sinking to the ground pushed to the walls; large low tables centered in the room, nowhere near the couches; calendars hanging on the walls in no particular order, turned to the wrong month, 2012, 2013, 2014; a framed picture (or two) of a very creamy-skinned, blonde-haired Jesus; another framed image: Jomo Kenyata, the current president.

We waited on the couches for a few minutes, slightly shivering in the unexpected 65 degree weather, quietly taking in our surroundings.

The director of the institution, a Kenyan woman, came back to the room, 4 other woman following in her wake. Carrying large insulated containers, they greeted us, slight smiles and waves. Another woman came in with plates and forks and napkins. In this way, they set the table. Crowding the food on the large, faux-polished wood table, we were thrown earthy, warm scents: beans, hovering in some unknown broth; piles of mutton, bone and fat together in a rough sauce; chard – sikumawiki – greens chopped fine by old knives, the scent of the dirt still on them; rice, big chunks, cooked in who-knows-what oil; ugali, a corn mush, rounded into its container, brown. 

A feast of fellowship set before us. We filled our plates with too much to fit into our stomachs, the polite response. The response showing them that we realized what work had been put into our meal – woman and girls working all day for our 20 minutes of eating.

Thank you, God, for food: the community it brings and the meaning it can provide.


My Happy Place

The mountains of western North Carolina are green as green can be. The leaves of the pines and the oaks, seem to shimmer with life; small, large, yellow, red, long, and wide. Blowing in the wind, the branches seem to flaunt their position as resident ‘home of the birds.’

Small creeks meander through the rough hills and rounded earth, bending rocks and feeding trees. Trout hop up the streams, powerful fins directly serving their precious lives. Deer wander into the shallow waters, hooves carefully navigating the smooth, slippery stones underfoot.

Humans feigning animal instinct, with domestic pets, pick their way through the bramble, attempting the quiet of the creatures in their home. We walk in the waters of the creek, upsetting the stream more than our deer brothers and sisters.

And the creatures, they tolerate the humans. We like to kill their trees and still they shade me. Those deer, we trample their grass and still they watch me carefully as I wander in their home, their ushagoo, their home-home, the heart-home.

The heart of the woods is the shared life of the cosmic Creator. The shared life that is in me and you and the caterpillars and the Pileated Woodpecker biting on the bird feed out the window.

the sky and the trees
are reflected
in the still waters

staring down
at the lake
my eye
in and out of focus
the edges blurring
water and sky
like paints

the fish gather in groups
their fins fluttering in the
endless lake of a clouded
early morning

they swim through
the murky upside down reef of
pines and perennial giants

what is this
wonder-filled world,
I say to my God above,
where fish breathe water
and my sky,
my reflection rests
on their backs –
we are all here

My place is here in the mountains – where the heart of the Creator is fiery bright, animals coexisting, and me, coexisting.


An Advent Meditation on Mary

Historians think that Mary was between 13 and 16 years old when our old friend Gabriel knocked on her door and messed everything up, oh wait, sorry, I meant ‘gave her a divine burden‘.

Now just in case it has been awhile you were teenager or had a teenage kid, let me reintroduce you to the glories of being in the middle stages.

Imagine gawky bodies, growing so fast they lose track of where their arms are at one point in time. An arm here, leg here. I imagine acne, that you may or may not necessarily care about but, I mean… I imagine wispy hairs, dandruff. I imagine awkward friendships, growing haltingly. Imagine growing pains, still happening.

But then, I try to imagine a 13 year old girl, 2000 years ago. So I begin to research. I’m just kidding, my mom did the research. I was in exam week.

In any case, I’ve brought Robert P. Maloney along. One of his articles, “The Historical Mary”, says, “Like women in many parts of the world today, Mary most likely spent, on the average, 10 hours a day on domestic chores like carrying water from a nearby well or stream, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals and washing utensils and clothes.” In a similar manner, a report from a recent MCC partner drew up time tables for men and women. While the comparison between genders is fascinating, that’s another story. Mary’s life would have been very similar to a young Maasai woman contributing to these schedules. Rising early to prepare breakfast and chai for her husband, cleaning the house, performing other domestic activities, taking supper late in the day.

Now, I try to put together these two descriptions, one so familiar to us, one so different. I put together awkward teenage years with the intense work of young women in the Middle East 2000 years ago, and I come to a conclusion that Mary was a total rockstar. I mean, like Maloney says in his article, “It would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at 13. As a peasant woman capable of…making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years.”

So we have this stunning image of a thirteen year old capable of more than I might ever be. It is time to bring in the next character, our friend Gabriel. He shows up, saying, “Hey, what’s up, hello, I have something for you that may or may not (hint: it will) mess up your entire life plan. Yeah, that one – the life where you are a respected wife of Joseph, and don’t get into any trouble like those other girls, where you have kids, name them what you want, live a life of however many years, pray, go to church, see your kids grow up, live a calm life in general – forget about it, because, Jesus.

So naturally, Mary says, “Okay, sounds good, I can be God’s willing maidservant.” I like to think there were a couple weeks in between Gabriel’s announcement and her excited commitment, because then I feel like I could understand it a bit more. A couple weeks of her saying to herself: I am not ready for this. I am not okay with this. I mean, kids are great. But wait. No. Yes. Jesus, what kind of name is that? What will Joseph think? What will the neighbors think? What will my mom think?

So I imagine a pregnant Mary, her baby bump getting bigger everyday. I imagine her going to fetch water, only to be accosted by disgusted, judgmental faces. Wondering what had gone so horribly wrong, what kind of sin she had committed to become pregnant before marriage. Joseph continues his job of being a loving dude, you know, that’s what the Bible says, and I sure hope it’s true. So I see Joseph, trying his hardest to maintain his wife-to-be’s image. Learning more everyday that most people don’t believe you when you say you didn’t get your fiancee pregnant, especially if you tell them it was the Holy Spirit. Also, at some point, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, a couple babies leap in the womb, and Mary sings a beautiful song, but we’ll get back to that.

They soon travel to Bethlehem, with everyone else in the kingdom for a census. Mary on a donkey, noble Joseph walking beside her, the growing Jesus kicking and swelling everyday, forever etching a cross on the donkey’s back. I imagine it felt like, but a lot worse, riding in the back of big white Toyota truck, in the Kenyan bush.

They reach Bethlehem, and it’s crowded. King Herod had made a bad political decision – you know, sending all those people back to their tribal conflict and all – and now Mary and Joseph are paying for it, there is no room in the inn – and though I’m not sure what ‘the inn” is, I bet you they checked more than one.

So they find a “stable”, which was probably not a stable like we think about, it most likely the bottom “floor” of a house, not a separate building. And when you read the birth of Jesus in Luke, it goes like this: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” Now, I may or may not know a lot about childbirth, but I know it’s a little bit more dramatic than just “it came time” and “she gave birth.” That condenses into 6 words, what was probably a long labor on a dirt floor, surrounded by livestock. Nevertheless, she wraps her baby in a spare cloth and lays him in a feeding trough, hoping for the best like so many refugees today, carrying their fragile children, hoping for the best.

What an amazing teenager.

“My soul glorifies the Lord

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has been mindful

   of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

   holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,

   from generation to generation.

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

   he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones

   but has lifted up the humble.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things

   but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

   remembering to be merciful

55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,

   just as he promised our ancestors.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “The Song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is that passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

I think of Mary’s song as Gabriel’s message, written to music, saying, “God has looked upon you with favor so that you may carry God’s light everywhere you go.” Mary asks of all of us, “How will you respond, will you willingly accept or will you deny the strength of your own soul to refresh the soul’s of others?”

So while I may not have talked to an angel – maybe I’ve only seen an angel-in-training a few times. Maybe I won’t ever be a holy mom, stepping up to the task. Maybe I won’t ever be able to tell my son, “My dearest one, I have seen it since the day you were born, the day the Eastern kings came to see you, just out of the womb.” I do not spend my days scavenging firewood and making food for my extended family. I was not betrothed when I was thirteen, and at least to my knowledge, I am not betrothed to married now or in the coming years.

While I cannot be Mary, I can try my best to be like Mary. I can speak out for the unjust; for the Maasai women, tending their cattle, making the chai. I can sing a song for the refugees crossing the Mediterranean, cradling their babies, or their pregnant bellies. I can sing a song of hope to monarchs of the day, I can sing, “Step down from your throne, approach God with a humble heart, please.” I can sing praises to God, everyday. I can open wide my doors when God comes knocking. I can accept Gabriel’s call to a life of carrying the burden; not just my own, but the burden of carrying the living light of God, carrying it to all those in need.


**Originally delivered as a homily at St. Julians, with minimal post-editing.**