Category Archives: Poems

This Unpredictable Life

18253094_119542288608447_7804326198149906432_n(1)We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
– Wendell Berry, Given: Poems 74 (2006).

I first traveled to California ten years ago to attend the 64th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.  At the time it seemed possible that it would be my first and only trip to beautiful Malibu (ironically blogging at the time, “I cannot imagine working in this gorgeous setting.”).  Life is funny.  By the next year, we were planning a crazy cross-country move to Pepperdine for law school with absolutely no idea that we would just stay—and “absolutely” absolutely no idea that I would ever return to full-time ministry.  So you can imagine the crazy déjà vu feelings this week when “Lecture Central” took up residence in my office for the 74th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

Life apparently is analogous to a box of chocolates (all rights reserved).

Life is unpredictable, and if you give me enough time to think about it I can pull my brain muscle.  What if we had stayed in Mississippi?  What if we had left California?  How did we really end up here?  Where are we headed now?  What’s for lunch?

But you know what?  I do know exactly how we got here: One day at a time.  And I’m pretty sure that’s how we will get wherever it is we find ourselves ten years from now, too.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’  They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future.  But real life takes place in the here and now.”  I’m with Nouwen on this one.  I’m not good at it, but I’m with him.

Still, looking back every now and then, as Berry so beautifully described, provides nice motivation for the journey forward.

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When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled – by Howard Thurman

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On this day after the celebration of Christmas, I share this fine poem by Howard Thurman for your thoughtful consideration:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

From “The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations” by Howard Thurman. © 1985 by Friends United Press.

‘Twas the Week Before Winter Break (at Pepperdine Law School)

sol‘Twas the week before winter break, when all through the law school
Not a creature was discussing the best evidence rule;
The students’ exams were all printed with care,
In hopes that the final grades soon would be there;

The students were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of CALI awards danced in their heads;
And the faculty in offices and staff at work stations
Were wishing that they had begun their vacations,

When out in the parking lot there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the curtains and turned the little plastic thing that theoretically opens the mini-blinds.

The sun on the break of this morning so bright
Gave the lustre of mid-day, a beautiful sight,
When, what car did I see driving into my view,
But one with a bumper sticker: “I love judicial review.”

The driver was an expert in interpreting the law.
I knew in a moment it must be Dean Tacha.
Like a swift legal eagle she flew out of her car,
And called to her troops for an urgent sidebar;

“Dean Saxer, Dean Schultz, Dean DeWalt, and Dean Caron!
If he was still around, I’d call to Dean Perrin!
To the dean’s suite let’s run!  We have much work to do!
Let’s all meet up in the dean’s conference room!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the dean’s suite the administrators all flew,
With their blank legal pads and with Dean Tacha too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard in the deans’ suite
The shuffling and settling of associate deans’ feet.
As I ran up the stairs and was turning around,
In the front door Dean Tacha came with a bound.

She was dressed in blue and orange, from her head to her toe,
And her clothes were adorned with the Pepperdine logo;
A bundle of casebooks she had in her knapsack,
And looked like a law student lugging a backpack.

Her eyes — how they twinkled! her expression so merry!
Her gait was determined.  (I found it quite scary!)
I tried to keep up, though it wouldn’t be easy,
She works circles around me until I am queasy!

As she rushed in the conference room ready to go,
I marveled at the energy of this dean dynamo;
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

She spoke not a word, but went straight to her work,
And soon said, “I found it!” then turned with a jerk,
She arose from her chair and delivered her rule:
“Let there be peace on earth, and at Pepperdine Law School.”

She sprang to her car, to her team gave a whistle,
And away she flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard her exclaim, ere she drove out of sight,
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!

Summer of Twelve

SUMMER OF TWELVE

I hear tell we had another presidential election and that
London town hosted the Olympic Games,
But everything is hazy since that was
The summer my mother died.

Four years ago today.

Her traitorous liver transfigured her to a dark yellow
And took our sweet mother away from us.
“At least she didn’t have to suffer long” we said
To comfort ourselves.  To no avail.

Four years ago today.

I used to visit her office and unload my troubles as she
Patiently listened to my busy mind analyze the complexities of life.
I now suspect that she marveled and thought:
How did I make this strange man?  I wish she wouldn’t have left us

Four years ago today.

When she knew she was not long for this world she asked me to say
Words at her funeral.  I didn’t want to, but did, and made a
Blubbering fool of myself.  I’d do it again.  I’d do anything for her.
Even write an impromptu poem remembering what happened

Four years ago today.

– Al Sturgeon, Summer of ‘16

Fame

As I watch Michael Phelps tell Bob Costas that he was “on an express elevator to the bottom floor” after his initial rise to Olympic fame, and as I live in Malibu where celebrities live in secure fortresses, and as I see pretty much everything in this presidential election, and as I contemplate my own passion for distinction (to borrow Bruce Miroff’s great phrase), the following Hafiz poem comes to mind:

Two Bears

Once
After a hard day’s forage
Two bears sat together in silence
On a beautiful vista
Watching the sun go down
And feeling deeply grateful
For life.

Though, after a while
A thought-provoking conversation began
Which turned to the topic of
Fame.

The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
And travels from city to city
In a golden cage;

He performs to hundreds of people
Who laugh and applaud
His carnival
Stunts.”

The other bear thought for
A few seconds.

Then started
Weeping.

Back from the Future

A couple of years ago I took StrengthsFinder 2.0 with our new law students as a part of their orientation.  StrengthsFinder is a test that reveals your greatest strengths, and the idea was to make sure that the new law students knew that they had strong points before law school did its thing and made them question whether they had any value at all.  I enjoyed the test and found it quite useful, but embarrassingly, messed up a bit at the first of the test, which kicked “brainiac” out of contention for one of my top five strengths.  Still, my top three—Discipline, Strategic, and Achiever—seemed spot on.

Recently, I retook the test alongside the entire law school staff and was careful to get it right from the start.  This time, my top three strengths from the first go-around came in as #1, #3, and #5—but #2 and #4 were new and spot on, too!  My second greatest strength, MIA the last time, is Futuristic according to StrengthsFinder.  “People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be.”  Oh yeah.  That’s me.

I have long believed that not only can our greatest strengths be our greatest weaknesses, but in fact they are our greatest weaknesses.  I don’t have to look hard at Futuristic to see how this is true with me—I can be so busy dreaming of the future that I miss out on the present.

A Wendell Berry poem in Given punches me in the gut on this particular point:

The Future

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this, though they
foretell inevitably a worse.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.

I do think that looking ahead is important, and I value it as a strength, but looking ahead is important so that we see clearly how to act today.  If that element is missing, this supposed strength renders me nothing more than, to quote Berry, “a ‘futuristic’ twit.”

Don’t Keep Score

My friend, Andrew, gave me a gift titled, appropriately, The Gift, a book of poetry from Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master.  Reportedly, the poems may be more Daniel Ladinsky (the author/translator) than Hafiz, but either way the poetry is great fun.  I try to read a few each morning, and although I am not ready to call it yet, an early favorite has emerged.  Other than a meager attempt at a title for this blog entry, I leave this short poem to your individual interpretations.

THE SUN NEVER SAYS

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.

Step Back In

I doubt many tune into my blog to read a cool poem and reflect on its deep meaning, but just in case anyone else in this station wagon has ever messed up, reflected on an irretrievable life, and decided that the opportunity to carry on is too precious to stay away, this Raymond Carver poem is worth it.

Locking Yourself Out,
Then Trying to Get Back In

By Raymond Carver

You simply go out and shut the door
without thinking. And when you look back
at what you’ve done
it’s too late. If this sounds
like the story of a life, okay.

It was raining. The neighbors who had
a key were away. I tried and tried
the lower windows. Stared
inside the sofa, plants, the table
and chairs, the stereo set-up.
My coffee cup and ashtrays waited for me
on the glass-topped table, and my heart
went out to them. I said, Hello, friends,
or something like that. After all,
this wasn’t so bad.
Worse things had happened. This
was even a little funny. I found the ladder.
Took that and leaned it against the house.
Then climbed in the rain to the deck,
swung myself over the railing
and tried the door. Which was locked,
of course. But I looked in just the same
at my desk, some papers, and my chair.
This was the window on the other side
of the desk where I’d raise my eyes
and stare out when I sat at that desk.
This is not like downstairs, I thought.
This is something else.

And it was something to look in like that, unseen,
from the deck. To be there, inside, and not be there.
I don’t even think I can talk about it.
I brought my face close to the glass
and imagined myself inside,
sitting at the desk. Looking up
from my work now and again.
Thinking about some other place
and some other time.
The people I had loved then.

I stood there for a minute in the rain.
Considering myself to be the luckiest of men.
Even though a wave of grief passed through me.
Even though I felt violently ashamed
of the injury I’d done back then.
I bashed that beautiful window.
And stepped back in.

“Locking Yourself Out, Then Trying to Get Back In,” by Raymond Carver, from Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (Vintage Books).

Hope SPRINGs Eternal

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Rogers Hornsby

Well, spring has sprung, or so I hear: it is hard to tell living in a land of perpetual spring, but the calendar seems rather confident about it.

There is an idyllic conception of spring where the frigid death of winter awakens to butterflies and chirping birds, colorful explosions of flowers, cottony clouds floating across a bright blue sky, and Julie Andrews twirling in musical exultation.  This has not always been my experience, at least on the first day or two.

But spring is real.  Nature is rhythm, and the very planet is predictably reincarnated each year in a birth-death-birth cycle that generates hope in all things if you let it.  In an increasingly insulated and distracted world, however, it takes effort to notice.

Anne Lamott wrote, “I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.”

I’m with her.  I want to sense hope in every way—to see it, and hear it, and smell it, and taste it, and touch it—and even engage an ineffable (sixth) supernatural sense.¹  I will work at it.  Hope is imperative.

The woods and pastures are joyous
in their abundance now
in a season of warmth and much rain.
We walk amidst foliage, amidst
song. The sheep and cattle graze
like souls in bliss (except for flies)
and lie down satisfied. Who now
can believe in winter? In winter
who could have hoped for this?

– Wendell Berry, Given 58 (2005).

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¹ Inexplicable hope is the substance that undergirds Easter.

 

You Can’t Control the Weather

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A Malibu winter is, well, two mismatched words, yet visitors throughout the year often find the weather cooler than expected in this famous little town. I mostly blame the Beach Boys for misrepresentation. Still, the weather is pretty great, and in January you have to get past the general sunshine and spectacular sunsets just to imagine cold and dreary.

But we saw a lot of snow on our cross-country flight last weekend, and when we hit the Rocky Mountains (metaphorically, thank God), the aerial view was breathtaking and demanded an iPhone picture attempt through a dirty window at however many thousand feet. Thankfully, iPhones apparently know everything and mine let me know that I took the picture (above) in Fort Garland, Colorado. This thriving metropolis has a population of four hundred (or eight hundred for about fifteen seconds when our plane passed overhead).

Winter can be spectacular, but I remember enough from past lives to know that winter can also be a pain, and the bitter and numbing kind. Life is like that, too: spectacular at moments, and bitter at others.

Emily Dickinson presumably looked out her window once and wrote:

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

That Emily Dickinson sure had a way with words. Nature has its glorious days, but it has its bad days, too, complete with mean clouds and complaining winds. As do we.

Today may be one of your glorious days, but then again, odds are that it could just as well be a day when you misplaced your diadem (editorial note: not a dirty reference if diadem is new to you, but it sort of sounds like it, doesn’t it?).

Good days come and go, just like the weather, and much of that is out of our control.

How we choose to respond is not.