Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

The meditations and prayers concerning ISIS continue, the need underscored by the kidnapping of more than 200 Assyrian Christians. But with all the darkness, there is still poetry, art, and music to remind us of our humanity and our “image-ness.”

Faith and Society

Defining Islam at World’s End – Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.

Bring Them to Their Knees – Seth Haines.

The Courage of Men – Suzanne Wolfe at Image Journal.

Not Your Typical White Pastor – Nicole Symonds at Urban Faith.

The Rise of the Remedial Christian – David Zimmerman at Loud Time.

Killing Deconstructionists, Raising Culture – Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.


21 Sons and The Lovely Things – John Blase at The Beautiful Due.

A Poem of Hope: Two Rows by the Sea - @marilyngard at Communicating Across Boundaries.

Tomorrow is Another Day – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

The City Our Eyes Cannot See – Doug McKelvey at the Rabbit Room.


More Fern Studies – Timothy Good at Photography by Tiwago.


Remind Me Who I Am – Jason Gray

Photograph by Jane Illnerova via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mike Duran’s “Subterranea”

I read the nine stories that comprise Mike Duran’s Subterranea and I stepped into the Twilight Zone. Nine times.

Duran blogs at deCompose, and is a regular contributor to Novel Rocket, a site for fiction writers (of all genres, but mostly Christian). He also regularly challenges the sacred cattle of the Christian writing and publishing world.

He writes what’s called speculative fiction. His writing reminds me of T.L. Hines, who wrote in a genre dubbed “noir bizarre.” (Hines published five remarkable novels between 2007 and 2010 and nothing since then.) Duran isn’t “noir bizarre,” but he’s occasionally noir with a dash of bizarre (or perhaps vice versa).

Nine gripping stories, all dealing with underground themes.

A man is interrogated about what happened during a subway dig, during which several men were killed in an explosion. Without explanation, a man leaves his front porch and is later found floating in a pool. A group of college students set out to Mexico to disprove the existence of a mythological story. A bar scene that seems straight out the intergalactic Cantina in the first Star Wars movie (1977). Six men die because of a woman. A man recovers, or maybe not, from a horrific automobile accident. Demons chase muses to stop the creative impulse. An overweight man has to be removed from an apartment building. A priest projects compatibility of couples seeking to get married, usually ending with the couples deciding to go their separate ways.

Mike Duran
What Duran plumbs here is the “subterranea” of the human mind and heart. He’s using a speculative, almost Twilight Zone approach in much the same way the old Rod Serling television program did. The stories force you, through odd and unexpected circumstances, to consider motives and actions. The people see familiar; their surroundings do not. And it’s that juxtaposition of familiar and strange that provide glimpses into the human soul.

It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s a true one.

That’s what strikes me most about these stories – they read true. Duran knows his subject, and knows it well.


My review of Mike Duran’s The Resurrection.

Photograph by Marina Shemesh via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Travis Thrasher’s “Home Run”

I usually resist reading novelizations of movies. Often hurriedly written, based completely on a movie script, novelizations are often marked by poor writing and a story less than satisfying than the movie itself. I particularly resist novelizations of movies I haven’t heard of, or that I’ve heard of but haven’t seen.

Home Run by Travis Thrasher is a bad example of the point I’m trying to make. I hadn’t seen or heard of the movie. And it’s ostensibly about baseball; I’m not a fan of sports novels. But I read this book. And I read simply because of the author who wrote it.

Chicago-based Thrasher is a fine writer. I’ve read nearly all of his books. Sky Blue (2007) is one of my favorite novels (I’ve read it twice, and it gets better the second time.) He’s written across a number of fiction genres, and does all of them very well indeed.

So I trusted the author and read Home Run, based on the script for the movie of the same name. And I met a hero who’s one of the most despicable human beings you’re likely to come across.

Corey Brand plays baseball for the Denver Grizzlies. If there’s one thing Corey knows how to do, it’s hit home runs. It may be the only admirable thing about him. Arrogant, unfeeling, uncaring, disconnected from his brother and his family. Drives fast cars, and drives them fast. Endless streams of women.

And alcohol. Corey Brand has a serious substance abuse problem. He’s in a hitting slump, and it’s contract renewal time.

Travis Thrasher
His agent packs him off to Okmulgee, Oklahoma, his home town. He has to spend eight weeks in a rehab program. Even before he arrives in town, he totals his rental car and injures his brother in the process.

And in his hometown, Corey has to face and confront his past, including the dead father who’s verbal abuse drove Corey away and shaped him into what he’s become, good and bad. And he has to face and confront the girlfriend he left behind, the girlfriend who was pregnant.

Like I said, a pretty despicable human being.

But Thrasher tells a good story. He’s not content simply to pull from a movie script. He ads depth to the characters. He adds depth to the story. And what could have been just another thin novelization becomes a story worth telling and a story worth reading, about how a man learns forgiveness and finds redemption.

I was right to trust my gut about a Travis Thrasher story.

Here’s the official trailer for the movie (which I still haven’t seen, and I may not since I don’t want it to run the chance of it ruining the novelization).


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The First Step in the Journey to Joy

I’m reading chapter three of Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears by Margaret Feinberg, and one line stops me cold.

She’s describing the first treatment of chemotherapy to deal with her breast cancer. She discovers it’s not as bad as she expected (the “bad” comes later, she says). But still there are effects, and she applies some wisdom to her situation, deciding the pile of colorful laundry doesn’t have to be done immediately.

She considers the Apostle Paul, and his affliction. Whatever it was, it was serious enough for Paul to keep asking God to take it away. God doesn’t. And it’s okay. “For Paul,” Feinberg writes, accepting his circumstances is the secret to being content in them.”

And then the line that stops me cold.

“The journey to joy begins with acceptance.”

My mind goes immediately to my work, the work that has brought me little if any joy in the past four years. The “little if any joy” has played a role in my upcoming retirement.

And I think:





I arrive at work on Monday, and am almost immediately hit with not one but two joy killers. One is a chronic and recurring event; the other is one I’d call acute and one-time.

Last Friday, I would have narrowed my eyes, frowned, and said something choice, if true. My blood pressure would have risen. I would have felt my back start to act up.

On Monday, after reading Feinberg’s chapter the night before, I paused. I considered. I told myself I had been beating my head against the same wall for years, with nothing to show for it except aggravation, indigestion and stress on my back. It’s one of the reasons I’m retiring.

Acceptance. Joy. Acceptance. Joy.

I let both situations go.

I made some suggestions, but I let them go.

If the world comes to an end as a result, I thought, well then, the world will just have to come to an end. Somehow, I think the world will survive.

Did I immediately experience my physical being flooded with warmth and joy?

No, I can’t say that I did.

But what I did experience was a sense of calm. I’ll take calm.

Calm is good.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading Fight Back with Joy. To see more posts on this chapter, “Three Simple Words to Set You Free,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Poets and Poems: Christian Wiman and “Once in the West”

Christian Wiman is an essayist, translator, and poet. For ten years (2003-2013), he was the editor of Poetry Magazine. He’s published four collections of poetry; the celebrated My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer; the equally celebrated Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet; and a translation of Osip Mandelstom’s poetry, Stolen Air. And with Dona Share, he co-edited the Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine.
His most recent collection of poems, Once in the West, is one of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, the winner of which will be announced March 12.

Wiman grew up in West Texas, and the poems of Once in the West find their source in the upbringing and that geography.

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

On Being a Writer: Downsizing the Workload

The downsizing of my workload is coming.

In May, I retire from the day job. I’m a little on the early side, but it was just time to retire.

The decision started to be made about a year ago. The discussions with everyone involved (lawyer, accountant, etc.)  started about then. I told the company in June that I was looking at the spring, but I gave them a range of September to April. Early May is the final date.

Planning for retirement is work. Meetings, legal stuff, accounting stuff, financial planning stuff, medical benefits stuff, lots of stuff, paperwork, phone calls, emails. My wife has done most of the work, but all kinds of things have to be talked through and decided.

But now it’s starting to become real.

I will miss the people I work with. I am part of a digital team, and they are good, skilled, competent people to work with.

But I am not one of those people who have to be pushed out the door. For me, the door won’t open fast enough.

The next part of planning for retirement is planning what I’ll be doing. Writing, most certainly. Perhaps some volunteer work. Seeing more of the grandsons (with Number 3 coming in late May). Continuing to work with my online colleagues at Tweetspeak Poetry and The High Calling. Perhaps doing some freelance work in social media and speechwriting. Plus whatever the Lord decides to move in my way.

But my focus is narrowing considerably. And that’s a good thing.

Retirement may actually help me decide what I want to be when I grow up.

Ann Kroeker, in On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts (co-authored with Charity Craig), describes the experience of a friend who was gifted in both music and communication, but had to make a choice in college for her major. “She ended up choosing communication,” Kroeker says, “Everything else dropped down a notch. She had to limit herself to fully develop herself.”

That’s what I feel is happening with me right now. Retirement is in effect forcing me to limit myself, forcing me to focus, forcing me to answer some questions.

How serious do I want to get with poetry?

What do I do with all those Dancing Priest manuscripts gathering pixel dust on the computer? Michael and Sarah have a coronation ahead, right? And more children. And upheavals with both the church and the government. And then their children have stories.

Aside from those, another manuscript is waiting for me to decide what to do; it’s tentatively entitled Plain Sam. And an extended outline called Summer of Joe. And a novella about a musician and an attorney.

And the poetry. Always the poetry, bubbling, waiting, wondering.

This is where my heart is. And the time for focus and developing is imminent.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been discussing On Being a Writer by Ann Kroeker and Charity Craig. This chapter, “Limit,” is the last one in the book. Finishing it is like leaving a good friend. If you’re looking for a book about writing filled with common sense, experience and wisdom, this one is it.

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

I could not see

I could not see
from birth, my life
was lived in sound
and darkness
and touch

until he took dirt
and spit,
plastering my eyes
with mud and said
wash in the pool
of Siloam, the pool
created for water
without fear
living water

I was blind
blind from birth
I stumbled to the pool
of Siloam, feeling my way

I washed my face,
I washed my eyes
in the pool of Siloam

I was blind and now
I see, now I see
and live in sound
and touch and light
now I see and know
where to kneel
to whom to kneel
now I see and reach
to the blind.

Photograph: Lower pool, Breikhat Hashiloah, Jerusalem; "City of david12" by daniel ventura - my self. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

This week began the season of Lent. And the week began with the latest horror from ISIS – the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt. A rather spontaneous eruption occurred online, and bloggers started talking about it, asking questions like where is the church? And weren’t these men our brothers in Christ. Even the Administration in Washington responded. And held a summit. Meanwhile, the violence and atrocities continue.

Poetry remind us that Ash Wednesday occurred this week. And the Ascension is coming.


Bridging the Atlantic – Michael Mercer at Internet Monk.


Welcoming the Storm – Billy Coffey at What I Learned Today.

Parade of Questions – Seth Haines.

To Fast or Too Fast – S.D. Smith.


The Inner Life of Everyday Objects - Peggy Rosenthal at Image Journal.

Blue Blurred – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

After the Ashes – John Blase at The Beautiful Due.

Ash Wednesday – Chris Yokel.

Ash Wednesday – Chris Davidson at Curator Magazine

ISIS / Society

A Jew in Paris – Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.

Remember Their Names – Marilyn Gardner at Communicating Across Boundaries

Who Are We, If Not People of the Cross? – Jennifer Dukes-Lee.

One Word Less for Lent – Sandra Heska King.

We Are the People of the Cross – Elizabeth Maxon.


The Mystery of the Blue Flower – Nancy Davis at Cornfields and Lightning Bugs.

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

Ryan Pile’s “Chinese Turkestan”

Until 1972, my knowledge of China was essentially limited to the Judge Dee mysteries by Robert Van Gulik and American-made Charlie Chan movies based on the books by Earl Derr Biggers. In other words, what I understood was a combination of historical fiction and entertaining stereotypes.

That year, President Nixon made the historic opening to the People’s Republic of China. By the fall, when I was starting my senior year, LSU offered courses in Chinese history for the first time. And I took both that were offered. While I was an irregular class attendee (especially my last semester, when I was managing editor of the student newspaper), I read all of the required books for the courses plus others on my own. The books included Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, books about Chiang Kai-Chek and his formidable wife, the birth of the Chinese Republic in 1912, China during World War II, and overviews of the China’s long imperial history. I renewed my interest in Chinese history and affairs in the 1990s, even going so far as to try to teach myself Mandarin Chinese.

No, I didn’t succeed in learning the language. I still remember the words for “thank you,” however – pronounced something like “shay-shay.”

Like any large subject, the more you learn, the less you realize you know.

What I do know about China, however, is largely limited to the eastern half of the country. My knowledge and understanding of the western half, and particularly the province of Xinjiang (what we used to call Sinkiang), was limited to knowing it was where the Chinese tested their atomic bombs, and it was part of the territory that included the old Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China with India and the Mediterranean.

Along comes a book to help fill some of my ignorance, at least photographically. Chinese Turkestan: A Photographic Journey Through an Ancient Civilization by Ryan Pyle is an eye-opening wonder, filled with black-and-white photographs that capture the region’s character and the face of its people. And its people are only partially ethnic or Han Chinese. Most of the residents of Xinjiang are Muslim Uyghurs, although there has been a significant increase of ethnic Chinese moving to the area. And with that increase comes change.

Pyle uses the old name for the region for his title – Chinese Turkestan. “The old name conjures up a region without physical borders,” he writes in the introduction, “an admixture of an idea rather than a distinct geographical or political entity.” And that idea permeates Chinese Turkestan.
Ryan Pyle

You see the face of the people, young and old. You see them in their daily lives, eating, worshipping, dancing, working. You see their history and culture etched in their faces, and it is indeed an ancient history.

What is perhaps most surprising about these photographs is their seeming timelessness. Many of the pictures could have been taken when cameras were first invented in the 1800s. What I believe Pyle is emphasizing is the continuity of the people and culture, even as they experience and deal with significant change. What is most suggestive is the people’s resilience, and reliance upon their traditional (and I suspect conservative) culture.

A native of Canada and a graduate of the University of Toronto, Pyle is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. His Chinese Turkestan is a beautiful book, treating its subject with a light hand and with an engaging respect.


The China Lens: Ryan Pyle is interviewed by China Today – the USC US-China Institute

The trailer for the book:

Top photograph: Woman picking cotton, from Chinese Turkestan by Ryan Pyle.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Matt and Cheri Appling’s “Plus or Minus”

It begins with hope, the hope of many if not most young couples. Gradually it gives way to anxiety. You do everything imaginable to deal with it. People around generally nod in sympathy but don’t really have the first clue about what you’re going through, and in an effort to be comforting they tend to be insensitive,  clumsy or full of knot-headed advice.  In the meantime, the anxiety has given way to fear and hopelessness, like traveling a dusty road in a wilderness.

One in seven couples have to face it and deal with it. Which also means that all of us, even if we don’t deal with directly ourselves, will be touched by it.

Infertility: the problem marked by absence rather than symptoms.

We may understand what infertility is, but not what it means, especially for the people experiencing it. And it typically means everything.

I didn’t understand all of the ramifications myself until I read Matt and Cheri Appling’s Plus or Minus: Keeping Your Life, Faith and Love Together Through Infertility. It’s an informative, moving, heartrending account of three couples dealing with infertility. Including the Applings.

What struck me most as I read it, however, was how much it was filled with gentleness, wisdom, and love. While it is certainly a book for couples dealing with infertility, but it is also a book for the rest of us. The wisdom it contains applies far beyond the immediate problem it addresses. And it’s wisdom that can be applied to almost any serious problem people experience.

Infertility is “a whole-life experience that encompasses our marriages, our relationships and our faith,” the Applings write. This isn’t just about being able to have children; this is about what we understand about ourselves and our spouses, and how we consider our marriages, and what we believe about what we think are God’s promises.

Matt and Cheri Appling
Infertility shakes all of those suppositions, and shakes them hard. Because of that, it’s not necessarily a problem that can be “solved” by adoption (one of the many things discussed in the book that I previously didn’t grasp). It’s a problem that can karate-chop even the strongest marriages.

Plus or Minus covers a full array of issues and problems associated with infertility, and it does so in an engaging, readable style. How to deal with well-meaning friends. How to understand and deal with in vitro fertilization (and all of us Christians know the drill here). Navigating the world of fertility medicine. Understanding your existence as a husband and wife, and how that existence does not depend upon children. And what happens when all of your friends are getting pregnant and everyone keeps looking at you.

Yes, Plus or Minus is a book about infertility. But even more it is a book about faith, one of the best about faith I’ve come across, because it is written in the words of people who experience infertility and find their ways through it.

And I will say I was personally blessed to read it.

Top photograph by Lilla Frerichs via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Who is Your Paraklete?

In Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears, Margaret Feinberg describes how she assembled the army she needed to fight breast cancer – the oncologist, the doctor, the friends and acquaintances – all of the people who joined with her, not just to fight breast cancer, but to fight back with joy.

Some were medical specialists; some were friends. Some did extraordinary things; some did normal things – and there were times when what she needed most were normal things. And this army became a source of paraklesis, the New Testament Greek for encouragement or comfort. It’s the word St. Paul uses to describe Philemon; it’s also the word Jesus uses to tell the apostles of the helper – the Holy Spirit – he is sending after he leaves them.

A paraklete doesn’t have to be someone who brings tongues of fire and the sound of a great, rushing wind; not does he (or she) have to be someone caught up in a friend’s serious illness. A paraklete can simply be a friend, someone to confide in, someone who refreshes your spirit as you refresh theirs, someone who is there to understand and commiserate, and sometimes celebrate.

Work, for example, can often be difficult. What helps make it bearable is having someone you can talk with. Like a paraklete. Someone to roll your eyes with at the next crazy announcement or organizational change. Someone who helps you understand what is happening. Someone you can listen to as they go through a hard time. It helps when it’s a colleague because they know the cast of characters, the culture, the environment, and the history of your particular workplace.

Let me be clear: I am not taking about mentors, although a mentor can also be a paraklete. I’m talking about colleagues who are friends.

When you go through regime change at work, everything becomes problematic.

I was once in a situation where regime change resulted in one, then a second, and then a third of my parakletes leave. One looked to be inevitable; another took the initiative and left for another job. The third was something of a surprise; it had been expected but not for some time to come. In this case, too, the individual left before being asked to leave.

My workplace became something of a desolate place. A place where I still had colleagues and people I liked, but not anyone in whom I felt comfortable in confiding. You discover you can be lonely in a large crowd of people you work with every day.

Those are the times you understand what a paraklete can mean. And not mean.

Margaret Feinberg found her parakeletes, and they made an enormous difference.

They always do.

Do you have a paraklete?

Led by Jason Stasysyzen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing Fight Back with Joy. To see other posts on this chapter, “The Living Breathing Gift of Joy,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Alok Rohit via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.