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31 January 2011


I have been able to see my brothers a fair amount these past few weeks. One lives only thirty miles away, the other lives outside Chicago. We three have had a chance to have a meal together a time or six, more time together than we have had in a long time.
    The whole business has been a gift — laughing and teasing and remembering and telling stories, even some stories with a grain of truth in them.

A name came up in one of our conversations, the name of a man the three of us had once known and loved and had not seen in a great long while.
    I began to tell the other two what I knew of the heartbreaking story of what had happened to this friend years ago, the things that had taken away his art and his work, his relationships and his meaning, his hopes and his memory. I knew more of the story than my brothers knew.
    The brother who knew the least of the story listened intently and with great compassion. Then he leaned back in his chair and said something I think of every day now. 
    ‘I have got no problems,’ he said. ‘Whatever you hear me complain about, the truth is, I have got no problems.’
    
In the last few weeks at our house, we heard other news. 
    We heard that the cancer had returned to a dear friend, the cancer we all thought had been whipped, the cancer she will undoubtedly fight as hard as she can. I am reminded that the cancer returned to her husband and her young son as well.
    Another friend, a young writer in her thirties, recently had a massive stroke. She is alive but she is in for a long road, a hard road to an uncertain future, a difficult road being shared with her hour by hour by two young daughters and a husband.
    Just as the holidays were working up a good head of steam, news came that one of my best friends was suddenly, surprisingly no longer to be working at the place she had worked, and a place where we had done work together for the last ten years. Our Christmas was white this year, but I have a feeling her Christmas was colder somehow.
    
You may have been touched by many such stories of hard news lately, maybe even more of them than I have. Your own story may be as difficult if not more so. May God have mercy on all of those who live inside such stories these days.
    But unless you are not answering your mail or your telephone or reading the papers or paying attention at prayer request time at your church, you can hardly avoid the hard news that comes our way. I do not suggest you stop paying attention all together because you will miss the good news as well, and there is some, thanks be. 

But I do suggest that when you hear the bad news, you might want to join me in my new favorite mantra, the one I say when I hear about someone I love and what has befallen them — 
    ‘I have got no problems. Whatever you hear me complain about, the truth is, I have got no problems.’
    

THE QUOTE FOR THE QUARTER HOUR

HERE I BEGAN TO KNOW
that blessedness
is what can be snatched out of the passing day,
and put away to think of afterwards.
    — Ellis Peters

GIVE GOD the praise for any well spent day.
    — Susanna Wesley

31 December 2010

‘Have a good New Year,’ folks keep saying to me, have been saying for a week or so now. They are looking forward to what comes next. So am I.
    But these last few days of 2010 also have me thinking about endings. And about a story from long ago, a story I told in Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, a story I am telling again, to myself these days, and now to you if you do not mind . . . .

My father fought cancer of one sort or another for fourteen years.
    When he was in the hospital for the last time, he spent a fair portion of those last few weeks saying good-bye to people. Friends and business associates, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren all came to say good-bye.
    Some of them came from out of town and called ahead to make sure it was okay to come; they did not want to show up at a bad time. Others had to be tracked down because they had not heard the news and my father wanted to be sure that he spoke to them before he went. Some lived in town and would drop by the family room at the hospital — where a number of us had set up camp for the duration — and everyone else would go off for a sandwich or a coffee or a good cry and suddenly it would be just them and my dad and it was their turn tosay good-bye and have it said to them. You could get off the elevator with a coffee in your hand and see their face and know their time to say good-bye had just taken place.
    One afternoon, after three of his friends had just left — friends he well knew he would never see again — my father said to me, ‘I sure do hate saying good-bye.’ He squeezed my hand.
    Without thinking, which likely accounts for whatever wisdom there is in the remark, I squeezed his hand back and said, ‘But if you do not say good-bye, then you cannot say what comes next.
    ‘And what comes next is always hello.’

In the next few days, the days after the ball drops in Times Square and the calendar turns over to 2011 and we all start the journey through the twists and turns of the road that will be revealed to us in the next year, be sure to stop for a minute. Say good-bye to the things past, good-byes that must be said — to the good and the bad, the friends and the family, the ups and the downs, the joys and the sorrows.
    Be sure you say a prayer or raise a glass or tip your cap or shed a tear or grin a grin in the direction of days gone by before you ring in the days to come.
    You cannot really say Hello until you say Good-bye.


23 November 2010



IT IS A QUESTION OF SENSIBILITY, a sacramental consciousness or embodied awareness that the holy appears through the profane if you can but see it, that sacred calls through the secular if you can but hear it, and that the spiritual is only present to us in material clothing.
    — John Crossan

The Cat that lives at our house recently informed me that the baseball season is well over. She knows this evidently because she sneaks upstairs to my office to watch the games.
    I have often wondered where she goes at night while we are asleep. She starts out at the foot of the bed but in the morning she is gone. Once I saw this photograph, I began to hide my credit card and my computer, I am afraid she will be ordering cat toys soon. Or tuna fish.
    There is some possibility that she stopped watching the games after Philadelphia was knocked out of the playoffs. I assume that she roots for the Phillies because it would be the closest nickname to Felines in the majors. The truth is that I have to assume a lot about the Cat, English is not one of her weaknesses.
    With all of that, I have heard the message loud and clear.

The baseball season is gone, and so is summer, and so are the leaves now, at least here in Sunnyside. The skies are mostly grey and dark these days. If you ask me, this is the season in which we should be saving daylight.

Perhaps, Light will come soon. Perhaps, even, the Light of the world. Keep watch, keep watch . . . .

December 2009

THE QUOTE FOR THE QUARTER HOUR

THIS IS THE SEASON in which we rise up on tiptoes to dance.
    — Wendy Wright


HE WHO IS IN A HURRY delays the things of God.
    — St. Vincent de Paul


I have been away some.
    I was away on the road for a bit, and then away because I have not been as well as I would like. Then away for a rest in the sun.
    I got a note from a dear friend a few days ago, one he sent to me at the beginning of this Advent that is upon us. It was a note that reminded me that it was time once again to begin our annual wait for the coming of the Messiah. I was away when the note came, but I heard him.
    I began to hear something else as well, in the listening, in the time away.



We wait in the dark and the silence of this season

We wait because
it is what those who came before us taught us to do
It is what those who stand beside us do
and we do not want to be left alone or left out

We wait because
we were taught this Story by those who loved us well
Our love for them requires that we wait alongside them again
even those we love yet no longer see
And we wait because of those who are now given to us to love
The love we were given and are now to give
calls us to keep this vigil

We wait because we believe the Promise will be kept again
That is the part of us that most childlike and most real
We wait in the hope that the Love that we seek may yet be found

We wait because sometimes waiting is all one can do
in the midst of the noise and the clamor of our lives
In the silence and the darkness that is bound to come to us all
even if they are unbidden or unnamed or unacknowledged

God is with us as we watch
for the One Who is to come among us
God is with us in the silence
as we listen for the Hosannas to ring out
God is with us in the dark
while we hope for the Light of the world
God is with us always in our waiting

So we wait in the dark and the silence of this season
The wait will be over, soon


I am feeling a bit anxious about the waiting this year, the waiting for the Something new that the One Who made us is about to do among us.
    At least I get to do it with all of you — even if we are away from each other.



30 September 2009

CAST ASIDE EVERYTHING that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you, and surround yourself with everything which can feed and fan it into a strong fire . . . . The order of life, of occupation and work, which you forced yourself to adopt when you were seeking for grace, is also the most helpful in prolonging within you the action of grace which has now begun.
    — Anonymous, The Art of Prayer

For particular reasons, I am more than a bit happy for this autumn’s return to my regular rhythms for prayer and for rest, for community and for companionship, for the writing and for the road.
    I will not tell all those reasons here, even though some few of you who are reading this know about some of them — you could not help but notice since you were standing next to me at the time, holding my hand in your hands, holding my life in your prayers, thanks be to God. Thanks be to you, too; you know who you are.

The summer is gone, and with it a long season, longer than those few months in fact, a long season made up of the sort of things that make one long for the new season to come. The season changed in recent days from summer to autumn but the change was larger than that for me. And I am grateful.
    I had to wear a jacket when I drove a friend across town in the moonlight the other night.
    The studio was so cold the other morning that I had to wrap up in blankets to stay warm.
    There is steam rising from the pool when the sun comes up.
    All Saints is not far away now, and Advent will come quickly on its heels— Behold I am about to do something new, can you not perceive it?
    The road calls for me next week, and so do the blank pages, and I am more ready to travel the miles and to tell the stories than I have been in some time now, for months and months and months and months, more of them than I am willing to admit.
    I am feeling a bit reborn these days, this autumn morning. Thanks be to God.
    And thanks be to you as well, good friends, thanks be to you as well.
  

July 2009

THE QUOTE FOR THE QUARTER HOUR
MEMORY is more than looking back to a time that is no longer; it is looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still.
    — Frederick Buechner


I got a note from a friend. . . .


Dear Luddite...Since you are my favorite of all the Luddites in this world, I send you warm greetings of consolation over the loss of an era that is passing. I send as well some assurance that even us non-Luddites ain’t all that sure this new way is a complete benison.
    — Phyllis Tickle

To which my response was three-fold.
    First, I immediately and defiantly said yes to a favorite Luddite sort of thing and agreed to reading from something new on July 16th here in Nashville. Hence the short commercial before the Note From Home.
    Second, I resigned myself to beginning my crossing of the bridge to the 21st century. Subsequently, my personal electronic cloud has grown dramatically in recent days.
    Third, of course, I had to look up benison and see if it had anything to do with lunch.

The electronic note from The Divine Ms. Tickle was written in response to a note I wrote to her lamenting the apparent loss of my Luddite status. Which would not have happened had the editor I was trying to reach answered the telephone any one of the seven times I called her one morning some months ago.
    As it turned out, my editor was in a meeting advocating on behalf of my work and could not answer the phone. I found this out when, exasperated, I sent her an e.mail and received a message back in something like thirty seconds. Her note said she was sorry she missed my call, she was in a meeting and could she call at four that afternoon which she did. While I was waiting for her to call, it came to me that I did not have to cross the bridge to the 21st century if I did not want to. If, however, I wanted to ever be in touch on a regular basis with the young people who work very hard on behalf of my work, I was going to have to use e.mail at the very least. It also came to me that I had figured out what people do in meetings when you think they are taking notes on their laptops.
    Finally, it dawned on me that I was probably going to have to do the same to keep in touch with the kind and generous folks who read my books in the first place. Not to mention my children, and everyone else on the planet. I began to take a few small steps in the direction of the rest of the world.
    The ramp that leads to the bridge to the 21st century turned out to be even more slippery a slope than I had thought it might be.

In the few months in between the e.mail from my editor and the e.maile.mail from Ms. Tickle my life hs changed. I may not have yet arrived in the 21st century but at least I am not in Kansas any more as they use to say in the last century.
    Somewhere between my iPhone, two FaceBook pages, a blog I am co-writing, and an e.mail address I am actually using — not to mention my MacBook and this website — I slipped the surly bonds of earth.
    The links are —
www.facebook.com/pages/Robert-Benson/77209091482?ref=nf and www.thelongpew.com
. ( Before you even ask : No, I do not Twitter, though I am in search of a chickadee who might do that for me. )

Feel free to cut and paste these links to your contacts page or to your aggregator ( told you I was catching up ). Or send them to your friends, send them to people you know who will laugh when they hear I have joined the revolution, or send them to your enemies, for that matter.
    But do use them to be in touch. I will be tickled when I hear from you and disappointed if I do not.
    Until then, I remain yours, and now electronically . . . .

P.S. Benison is a beautiful word that has nothing to do with lunch. I looked it up on my iPhone in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, there is an app for that. What a century.



2 April 2009

THE QUOTE FOR THE QUARTER HOUR
SOMETIMES I THINK we die with half our music left in us.
— Russell Montfort


By the time I left Lawrence, I knew that I wanted to be a writer.
    — Frederick Buechner

The Reverend Mr. Buechner started out the way many writers do, writing poetry as a teenager at school. He writes that he did not know exactly what he would write when left school, he knew only that he had found the thing that had chosen him somehow, the thing that would be the work to which he would devote his life. It took years to know exactly what he would write. There turned out to be much more treasure in the field in which he began to dig than he imagined when he first picked up the tools of his trade. He went on to become a fine novelist. He also became a minister and a memoirist and an essayist and an apologist for his religion.

Buechner’s story about writing poetry in high school and discovering his calling got me to thinking of a friend of mine who wrote his first poems when he was in junior high school. Throughout high school and on into college and into his early twenties, he wrote three or four nights a week, late at night before bedtime, scribbling out lines in composition books.
    Eventually, he started writing prose too, writing in journals each day, trying to get things down on paper that mattered to him, things he wanted to remember. I heard the Rev. Mr. Buechner once said that he himself did not keep a journal, but he always thought of a journal as a kind of treasure hunt. The trick to it, he thought, would be to get to the end of each day and see if you could discover the treasure that had been hidden there to be found. One of the treasures my friend found in his journals was that the page could teach him how to write.
    Throughout the years my friend would gather his writings up from time to time, rewriting them and sorting through them and writing out fair copies. Sometimes he would give them titles and envision them as books, seeing them on store shelves in his mind’s eye. Sometimes, he would read his work aloud to someone to see if he was kidding himself and had no talent for this at all.
    Somewhere along the way, he was introduced to a photographer who wanted to publish a book of his photographs about the city. The photographer wanted him to write some text for the book which he proceeded to do based on some of his journal entries.
    When he was finished, and was paid to boot, he would talk to the photographer every few weeks or so to see when the book was going to come out, but months went by and it seemed as though nothing was going to come of it.
    Around Christmas the next year, he went out to shop for gifts for his friends and he rounded a corner and came face to face with a bookstore window full of the book he and the photographer had made. It took his breath away, he said. He seemed to have written himself into becoming a writer.

Whatever it was that got me to thinking about former schoolboy poets, it got me to thinking of the parable of the man who owns a field and does not dig in it. He sells it to someone else and the new owner begins to dig in the field and finds enough treasure there for him to share with everyone he knows.
    In these days when so many of us are struggling — friends and family and neighbors — I keep trying to remember that one of the secrets to all this is to keep answering your call even on the days when it does not seem answer you back. Keep digging in the field which seems to have chosen you, keep working away with the tools you have been given.
    These days especially, too many of us are tempted to put our tools down and abandon the field before we hit the treasure.
    Keep digging, I say. And be in touch.


7 January 2009

THE QUOTE FOR THE QUARTER HOUR
I SOMETIMES WONDER if in the kingdom of heaven there is a great room, rather like a vast lost property office, filled with parcels of every shape and form, unclaimed blessing, that God has given us and we have failed to notice, to receive and make our own.
    — Esther de Waal

THE JOB’S IMPOSSIBLE and one must pray that one will be only moderately incompetent.
    — Clive Barnes

So there is a fair amount of new upon us these days.
    Our Advent has come and gone, the Night of the Child has been celebrated, Twelfth Night has passed landing us in Epiphany, with the Light of the world turned loose among us. According to the Church, the new year is in full swing.
    It is a new year on the other calendar that rules our western lives as well. Happy, happy 2009 to you, by the way. May there be light and hope and surprise in your house.

There are a couple of new things for me here and now.
    The first is that there is a new book in this month of January — The Echo Within. You will find a cover and a sample chapter here on the website. It is four books in a way.
    It is a book I wrote after an editor friend of mine asked me to write a book about vocation and calling. I was a little uncertain about my qualifications to write about such things. I told another friend about my concerns and he said I had been writing about nothing else for my whole life anyway.
    It is also a book that is a lot about my father. Which surprised me, I did not start out to write about him, he just kept showing up chapter after chapter and would not go away. I was glad to be with him.
    And it turns out that it is the book I was going to write — and maybe the one that you were meant to read — right after my first one, Between the Dreaming and the Coming True. It just took a dozen years and as many books to figure out what came next.
    Finally, it turns out to be a little book that I am already fond of, which does not always happen when they are new. Sometimes it takes a long while for a book to take on a life for me beyond the struggle required to have made it. This one was made in struggle as they all are, but this one also became an old friend to me much sooner than expected.

The other new thing is that a friend and I have started a blog, and I am anxious for you to see it and let us know what you think. (And yes, yes, I am very aware of the risk that having a blog poses to my Luddite status. )
    It is called The Long Pew — and it is a conversation between the two of us about the things that Christians of all stripes have in common. His name is Ben Stroup and he and I have been having these conversations for some months now and decided that taking them public might be an interesting thing to do. Maybe even helpful.
    The address is www.thelongpew.com — we hope you will come and visit.
   
Making sentences and stories and books — and now blogs — is not always an easy thing to do, for me or for anyone else. But it is the thing that I do. And I am hopeful that you find these new things worth the reading.
    And I hope the new in your year is not only new but good and rich and deep and wide and full of light and hope and surprise as well.
  


1 December 2008
 
The Quote for the Quarter Hour
The Benedictine life . . . simply consists in doing the ordinary things of daily life carefully and lovingly, with the attention and the reverence that can make of them a way of prayer, a way to God.
    —
Esther de Waal

Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
    — Martin Luther King


Since the children who lived at our house have long been out of school, I have not been around kindergartners in a while.
    But there are two little girls who live down the street from us who were headed off to kindergarten this year. And because the little girls and their folks are friends of ours we were privy to some of their uneasiness associated with going off to school for the first time.
    These are bright and talented little girls who are going to do just fine in school. And most days as the summer was winding down, they were excited about the notion of going to school.
    We heard full reports on the day they went to buy school uniforms. Then we heard about the day they went to buy school supplies. I was a little envious of those stories, for I love looking at paper and pens. ( I could use some new crayons myself, come to think of it. )
    But we also heard some of the anxiety.
    Once, at a park outing we shared with the two families, we heard this plaintive little moan : ‘But I can’t go to school yet, I am only five.’ After a couple of years of waiting to turn five so she would finally get to go to school, it occurred to her she might be able to get out of going to school by claiming she was too young.
    Another time, it was reported to us that one of the little girls had moaned through apprehensive tears, ‘But I cannot read.’ Her mother assured her someone at the school would help her with that.
    I wanted to sit down next to them both and say this was all going to be okay. I wanted to tell them to just worry about the simple stuff : Wear your uniform. Tie your shoes. Take your books. Sit down and be quiet when you are supposed to. Raise your hand before you talk in class. Be nice to the other kids. You will get the hang of this. You will be fine.

Advent is upon us. Which means the Prophet just reminded us that the One Who made us is about to do something new among us again. It means Christmas is coming soon and not long after that a new year is coming too, a new year in which a new person moves into the old house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. All of which is to be anticipated with no small amount of hope and joy and wonder and delight.
    But there is some worry out there as well. The holidays often have all manner of financial and familial pressures that go with them, and the air of crisis that has been hanging over us all as a people for some time has yet to clear. There is some uneasiness and worry and fear and uncertainty for us as well during these next few week and months, maybe years even.

So I say to myself a couple of times a day : Take care of the simple stuff. Talk softly. Be patient. Do your work with all the art and courage you can muster up. Be quiet some. Put your arm around folks. Do not panic. Say your prayers. Be nice to the people you live with. Take a deep breath.
    You will get the hang of this again. You will be fine. 


Read an excerpt from In Constant Prayer




  9 July 2008

The Quote for the Quarter Hour

Liturgical time is essentially poetic time, oriented toward process rather than productivity, willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than always ‘pushing to get the job done.
    — Kathleen Norris

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
    — Annie Dillard

I waited a long time to see this, this photograph, that is. The little building is the studio where I write. The studio has been there some time now; I was not waiting to see it.
    I was waiting to see the Rector.
    The official name for the rose that you see climbing up the studio wall and now over the peak of the roof is the Rambling Rector. We first came across the Rector some fifteen years ago in a book about Old English roses. The book strongly suggested that those who plant one do so next to a house or a large tree because the Rector can grow to be as much as forty feet tall and thirty feet wide. When we were plotting out the rose beds here, we decided we had to have one and it to be planted against my studio.
    For roughly ten years now, the only way to really see the rector’s annual two-week show — hundreds of clusters of blossoms that will take your breath away — is to go and stand in the alley. I have been waiting all of this time for it to do what I have been telling folks, including myself, that it would do some day, and that is to come over the roof and begin to grow down the front side.
    After years of pruning it back, tying it to the roof line, standing in the alley to see the blooms, and generally wondering if our Rector was ever going to become what we hoped, I came out to the studio one morning in May and there he was, his blooms peeking over the peak of the studio in the morning light.
    It was a big week at my house.

Around the same time that we first were introduced to the Rector, I was beginning to learn about the daily office — the ancient tradition of fixed hour liturgical prayer. I was astonished by the practice when I first stumbled into it and have been drawn to it and by it ever since.
    And about the same week this year that the Rector made its grand entrance here, so did a new book. It is called In Constant Prayer and it is about the things that I have learned and am still learning about the daily office.
    (Very cleverly, we have included an excerpt on the bookshelf page. And yes, you can buy it wherever you buy books, by the dozen if you like, and feel free to mention it to your friends. )
    In some ways, it is a book I was looking for years ago, a book that I could never find. In that sense it is a book about my own astonishment. It took much of the last two years for me to write it, but it feels in some ways as though I have been working on it for more than a dozen.
    The result is nowhere near as spectacular as the Rambling Rector, nothing I am ever going to make is going to be as good as a rose, but I hope you find it to be worth your while and worth my wait.


19 February 2008

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s most intimate sensitivity.
    — Annie Truitt

If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
   
— Yogi Berra

One of my brothers got married in Colorado Springs.
    When the time came for the big day, a small caravan of cars, led by my father, started out from Nashville to travel north and west to St. Louis and then west across Kansas toward the Rockies. It was summer and the drive was long and the weather was hot. It seemed as though we could see the Rockies just outside Kansas City but we were going to have drive forever because the mountains just kept backing up in the distance. I kept expecting to pass a wagon train along the way.
    It was in the late seventies and in those days, I was driving an MGB convertible. The length of the trip and the unreliability of the automobile notwithstanding, I insisted on driving the MGB to Colorado. And while I was insisting, I insisted on driving it with the top down the whole way. Upon arriving in Colorado Springs, I promptly spent two days in the bed suffering from sunstroke. The ones who had told me that I should have brought a car with air conditioning were right. But I wanted the MGB there with me for a reason.

On the day after the wedding, everyone else packed up to head home to Tennessee. I put the top down and got ready to go the other way. I had only the barest of notions about where I was headed.
    I knew that I wanted to go north far enough to cross over the Rockies at Independence Pass. And I knew that I wanted to drive blue highways as much as I could until I had wandered my way into Wyoming. Somewhere up there I would begin to circle back to the east and pick up a road that would bring me south to Denver and then to the highways that would take me back across Kansas and Missouri and Kentucky and home to Tennessee. And I knew that I had only a few days and nights to spend doing it before it was time for me to be back at work. Other than that, all I had was a map and a convertible and some sunshine.
    I waved goodbye to the others, as they pulled away in their air-conditioned cars. I spent the next days riding through some of the most astonishing country that I have ever seen. I just sort of planned the trip on the fly, thinking ahead no more than two or three hours at a time. I was just following my nose.
    ‘If I take this road, it will get me to Aspen and I can have a bite of lunch and figure out where I am headed next.’
    ‘It will be dark when I get to Medicine Bow, so I will spend the night there.’
    ‘It is too late to get to Horse Creek, so I will stop here for the night.’
    I spent one afternoon sitting on the square in Aspen watching people go by.
    I spent another afternoon driving a two-lane road that ran side by side with a railroad track through the most beautiful canyon I had ever seen. When the track disappeared into a tunnel, the road ran out, and I had to turn around and go back and I ran out of daylight and I got lost as well. But it was worth it.
    In the end I got where I was going, and then later I even found my way all the way home.

I am finishing up some new books these days, things I started to work on a long time ago now.
    When it is time to begin a book, I generally make as paltry a set of notes as I can and still remember what it is I am setting out to do. I mostly just write down two or three words for each of the stories I want to tell, stories that I think may be connected to each other. I make a list, not an outline. I am writing a book, not completing a test.
    I try not to do too little planning but not too much either. Too little and I might miss Medicine Bow, too much and I can plan myself out of following that little road that leads to the canyon, which may very well be the thing that the whole journey will end up being about in the first place.
    I try to leave myself enough room to wander in between stops to see what is there to be discovered. Or to sit in the square sometimes and watch people go by. I need only enough plan to know when it is time to turn west or to stop for the night.
    And then I follow my nose.
    ‘When you write, you lay out a line of words,’ writes Annie Dillard. ‘You write it all, discovering it at the end of the line of words.’

It is time to begin to see what is at the end of the lines I have been laying out all these months.

Namaste' — and be in touch.
 
R. Benson




8 October 2007

The last time Philadelphia played a postseason game was Oct. 23, 1993,
when Joe Carter’s ninth-inning homer won the sixth game and the World Series for Toronto.
What’s 14 years in the grand scheme of things?

    — George Vecsey

Two things are about to roll around on the calendar here and both of them have me grinning.
    The first is that the Southern Festival of Books has returned to Nashville and I myself am returning to the Southern Festival for the first time in some time. The Festival has been away in Memphis for a few years because of the renovation work being done in and around the Capitol buildings here in town but now it is back.
    I have sweet memories of the Festival. It is one of the first places that I was ever really taken in as a part of the literary community at all, and one of the first places that I ever read from my first book. It is also one of the better book fairs in the country and well worth wandering your way through.
    It is held on the Legislative Plaza downtown on October 12-14. I will be there on Saturday the 13th from 1.00 to 2.00 pm.

I am going to read a bit and answer questions a bit and sign books a bit. Feel free to tell everyone you know that I will be glad to see them, and then come and bring several dozen of your closest friends.
    You can get schedules and particulars for the rest of the festival online at www.tn-humanities.org/festival

The second thing that has me grinning is that the baseball folks have begun their playoffs and that means we shall be gathering up for the World Series soon. It begins on the 24th of October, one day after the anniversary mentioned by Mr. Vecsey in the quote above.
    The quote caught my eye because I remember the 23rd of October in 1993 and I remember watching Joe Carter hit the home run to win the Series. I remember exactly where I was sitting and who I was sitting next to. I even remember what I was eating.
    The sweet woman to whom I am married was sitting next to me and we were eating cold chicken and drinking leftover champagne from our wedding party that had broken up just a couple of hours before. We had been married that morning.
    All of which is to say that 14 years can be a great deal in the grand scheme of things. Everything in my case, Mr. Vecsey, in fact. Everything.

Namaste' — and be in touch.

R. Benson



 7 September 2007


The Quote for the Quarter Hour
Everyday things, relationships with other people, daily work, love of our family — all these may breed saints…. Every hour of the day is holy.
    — Carlo Carretto

There is still a third possibility … that once I have put my album away for good, you may in the privacy of your heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past — many of them half-forgotten — through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey.
    — Frederick Buechner

I have two season tickets to the baseball games at our minor league park, and have for years. A few years ago, I went to the ballpark for the first game of the year and there was someone I had never seen before in the seat next to mine.
    He and I became friends, good friends in a way, though in an odd sort of way. We only ever saw each other at the ballpark. Which is not so completely strange. I have other friends that I only see at the ballpark during summers. It is as though we all hibernate during the off season. Some of them may migrate south for the winter leagues for all I know.
    What makes it strange is that he and I did indeed have a lot of other things in common. We have a lot of mutual friends for one thing. We do not live very far apart and we both spent a fair portion of our lives in and around the Methodist Church and its headquarters here in Nashville. There were all manner of reasons for to get together away from the ballpark during both the season and the off season, but we never did.
    For a few dozen nights each summer, he and I would sit in the front row on the first base side and talk baseball. And we talked about the war and the Church and about taking care of the poor. We talked about the city and the major leagues. We talked about his upcoming retirement and what he was going to do next. We talked about his lovely bride who was wrestling with cancer. We talked about my family too.
    My friends from the neighborhood, most all of whom he knew before too long, would come and sit next to him for at least a few innings when I was not at the game in my seats. After a while, it began to occur to me that they liked him better than me anyway. And who could blame them?
  
The home team just started the playoffs without him in attendance. He moved to Maine a few weeks ago and my season of traveling along with him seems to have ended. I got a note from him the other day — his vegetable garden is already producing and his house will be winterized in a few weeks. ( Not a bad idea, if your house is in Maine, it seems to me. )

I was lucky just to get to sit next to him for a while. Good conversation, and good friends, can be hard to come by.
    A friendship is such an astonishing gift, no matter how long its season turns out to be. I hated to see my season with him end.
    But I would have been the poorer had it never even begun.
  
Namaste — and be in touch.
    ( And say hello to Sheila for us. )

R. Benson




P.S. The photograph was kindly taken on my friend’s last game before he moved away by Mike Strasinger, another of our ballpark friends, who also happens to be a fine photographer for The City Paper.



19 July 2007

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
To know someone
with whom you can feel
there is understanding
in spite of distances
or thoughts unexpressed
....That can make this life a garden.
    — Goethe

If I had known you two were coming,
I could have been anticipating this good
time all week.
    — Mozelle Fortenberry

I never really made any claim to be a gardener, and still would not make such a claim even now, though I wrote a book about our garden. But it does not seem to have stopped real gardeners from writing to me. I have tricked them into thinking I am one of them.
    I know this because in the past few weeks I have received some of the more artful letters and cards and notes and such that I have ever received. Even the folks who first knew me from some other place, from some other book I wrote — prayer cells or baseball stadiums or psych wards or Benedictine houses — seem to have raised the level of their game under the influence of reading about our garden.
    I got a lovely handmade card from a woman in Colorado with a quote that I would give you here except that I am saving it to be the quote for the 1/4 hour some day and want it to be a surprise. The letter inside made me laugh out loud at the sheer joy of it. It is on the wall next to the watercolor clown my Aunt Laura gave me this Christmas past, and I look in their direction whenever I am down these days.

    And we have gotten photographs of gardens from a lot of folks. Enough that the webmaster suggested that we might want to put them all up on a site somewhere so we can see the  work that we and the Gardener have been up to together lately.
    I got a packet of seeds for some beans. We do not grow vegetables here,so we did as the sender suggested. The seeds have been planted in a neighbor’s yard and her children are tending to them for us, in between trips to visit our swimming pool. They are still young enough to work for a swim and a box of apple juice and a few Goldfish® in a ramekin. I had some kids like that once. Next summer, our little neighbors will come to swim and bring us a basket of beans to boot. Next summer, all of my children will officially be adults. Pictures of both sets of children hang next to each other on my wall. The roses on the back fence and their grins are the first things I see when I go to the studio each day.
    I got a little watercolor of a wildflower from a part of the world that I have never seen and am not likely to visit any time soon. But I know what the meadows there are full of now come spring, and I can close my eyes and almost see it sometimes.
    A card came from an friend in Alabama. On the front of it was a quote that I had lost years ago and was glad to find again. I had lost touch with my friend too, and was even more glad to hear from her.

    We got packets of seeds for some dahlias and some flax and some alyssum and some thyme. ‘I forgot all about dahlias,’ said the master gardener when I showed her what had arrived in the mail. I did not give her all of the seed packets though. One of them is on my studio wall, so I will not forget where they came from.
 Actually I am hoping not to forget any of this, our garden’s longest and sweetest season. It was more three years from the first sentence that came and found me to these treasures that have come to me and now hang on my wall and hide in my heart.
    If I had known that getting mail from gardeners was going to be such fun, I would have written a gardening book sooner.
    I am thinking I might write a book about chocolate.

Namaste — and be in touch.
R.

( By the by, if you want to share your garden pictures, send a note to me on the
Be In Touch  page. DO NOT SEND the pictures yet, we will be back in touch when
we have figured out how to make it work the best.)


The Quote for the Quarter Hour
To achieve anything today,
an artist has to develop
a strict consciousness in respect of time....
for we must never forget
that we are living in a state of siege.
      — W.H. Auden

14 June 2007

Poetry is being, not doing....you’ve got to come
out of the measurable doing universe
into the unmeasurable house of being.

    — e.e. cummings

We have been away on vacation. After years of being bound by school schedules that determined our vacation schedules, the kids have moved on to places and schedules of their own and we have moved on to the time in one’s life when you can just go on vacation when you are ready to go.
    And, man, were we ready to go.
    Spring was busy here in Sunnyside, busier in some ways than we thought it was going to be, busier than we meant it to be, truth be told.
    There is always a lot to be done when a new book is coming out, and with Digging In : Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard arriving in stores in the middle of April, I spent a lot of hours working on things to let people know that it was coming out. I was also working away on something new that will come out next year, and finishing up a set of talks.
    And we kept making choices that made the spring busier as we went along. For example, we decided to put the garden on the neighborhood tour at the end of April. Not only did the yard have to be worked into shape in a month or so, but we decided that we needed a new herb bed, a new patio in the rose garden, and some other additions to boot.

We finally arrived at a moment in late April when we were so tired and worn out that we were having to fight back tears every two hours or so. Or at least I was.
    In about fifteen minutes one afternoon, we started clearing our schedules and began clearing the decks so we could clear out of town. In about ten days we were cleared for take-off early one morning and when evening came we were watching the sunset in a place far away.
    We have been home now for a little bit. We came home refreshed and rejuvenated and recovered and reset to go back to the work and the people and the life to which we have been given. But I must say that my life does not seem to have changed much while I was away.
    When I left there was a pile of sentences for me to write that I could not see my way clear to write. And the pile of letters and phone calls and appointments and such that need to be attended to seems to have grown while I was away. These things are not a surprise to me, any more than they are to you. It happens whenever any of us goes away, it is all still there when we return. All I did was vacate the premises for a while, I knew this stuff would be here when I got back.
    It is enough to make me think I either need to stop going on vacation or stop coming home.

It was quieter where we were for those days. It was slower too. We liked it. We liked it well enough to have come home and been quieter and slower ourselves since we got back. We did not really talk about it, it just sort of happened.
    We eased into the morning and into the day there, and we seem to be doing so here in Sunnyside now as well. There was no television where we were, and there seems to be less interest in it now that we are home. There is more conversation at meals and more puzzles are being worked and more books are being read and more music is being played. A lot more notes and letters and cards are being written and sent off to friends and family. There are more walks being taken and more sitting still at sunset and there seems to be time for coffee after dinner after all.

I have no idea what any of that means or what it holds for the long term for us. Except that I am becoming more and more convinced that a quieter, simpler life is there to be led, if I just pay attention to it somehow. I am beginning to think that a fair amount of the noise and bustle and pace and complexity of my life here — the life that I feel the desperate need to vacate a couple of times a year — is self-inflicted. I have been blaming the whole business on everyone else for years.

Either I have to stop going on vacation or I have to stop coming home is one way to think of it, I suppose.
Maybe I could bring some vacation home with me is another.


Namaste —
and be in touch.
R.

( By the by, there are pictures of the spruced-up-for-the neighborhood-tour garden that just went up on www.diggingin.shutterfly.com. Just click on the link and have a look. )





The Quote for the Quarter Hour
For every man the world is as fresh
as it was the first day, and as full of untold novelties
for him who has eyes to see them.
    — Thomas Henry Huxley

24 April 2007

Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.

    — Sherlock Holmes ( Or rather, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle )

The season of hope is upon us — finally.
    After waiting so long for spring, and then having it come early and be snatched away again by a blast of cold air in early April, I am even more ready for warm days and nights than I was a few weeks ago.
    There is no better ground for hope than our back garden, of course.
    Lately, we have been hoping that we could get all of work done in time for the annual neighborhood tour that took place here recently. Our garden was on the tour this year. We spent some long hard weeks, the two of us along with my daughter —the hardest-working yardworker I have ever actually known. We spent long days planting and clearing and weeding and trimming. We built some new things for the garden too.
    It was good honest work, the kind that makes you grateful for the day and the sun and the dirt and, of course, the flowers and the hope they bring.
The whole business had a symmetry to it this year that seemed right.
    Some years ago now, sitting in my garden very early one spring morning, dressed in my work boots and my yard clothes, looking at a pile of bricks that needed to be reset in the patio, it came to me that the actual portion of Eden for which I am actually responsible is actually very modest — a small house in a small garden in a small neighborhood.
    Then I got to thinking about the surprise of how we got to this house in the first place, about all the long hours that we spent digging in the dirt and banging on fence posts and hauling stuff, about all of the joy I had discovered and all of lessons I had learned out in this yard next to the people that I love and who love me in return.
    And I began to see that in some ways most everything dear to me was revealed to me right here in my own backyard. And that the life I am to tend to is to be found and lived right here.
    The whole business seems to have turned into Digging In, a new book that came out on April 17th, a few days before the tour.
These days, we are hoping for our flowers to recover from the frost, and hoping that the warm weather is here to stay. And I have to say I am hoping you find Digging In worth tending to as well.

    Namaste — and be in touch.
 
    R.



13 March 2007

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
Here I began to know that blessedness is what can be snatched
out of the passing day, and put away to think of afterwards.
    — Ellis Peters

I had a doctor who said, ‘Do you get breathless when you take exercise?’
I said, ‘I wouldn’t know.’

    — Sir John Mortimer

My neighbor and I were talking about how lovely the sunrise has been the last few days. He knows because he leaves his house in the dark to go for a power walk exercise thing. I know because it is dark when I stroll to my studio each day.
    He walks for an hour or so until he can see the sun come up over the hills to the east and then turns around and heads for home. Now that we have sprung forward into Daylight Savings Time, it will not be long before he is pushing the next county before he sees the sun. He may have to call a taxi to get home in time for breakfast.    I do not mind to get up before daylight to scribble, but that is about it. I think exercise is fine, but I am not sure you should try these things at home. In fact, whenever I can, I leave exercise to the professionals. If you want me to go for a long walk, book us a tee time.

    What I do in the morning while my long-legged, well-adjusted, good-looking, and far-healthier neighbor is out power walking is to sit as still as I can and drink coffee and and lift nothing heavier than a fountain pen. It takes a lot of reps with a pen to burn any calories I suspect. Though it becomes clearer and clearer to me that I am burning brain cells by the score these days. After a couple of hours in the dark in the morning in my studio, it is time for me to go and get The New York Times. I used to have to drive to get the Times because their circulation department had not yet conferred deliverable area status on our neighborhood. I could have moved eight blocks in any direction and they would have been happy to drop my Times off at my front door. But for a long time they said that we were undeliverable. A preacher said the same thing about me once when I was younger. We told them that we live in the bluest house in the bluest neighborhood of the bluest county in a red state and that we should be treated with more respect, if not downright catered to. Who knew that a portion of the liberal media bias was aimed at a good liberal like me?
     My neighbor told me that I could actually walk to the store to get the papers and get some exercise at the same time. I told him to mind his own business. I also told him that if I walked to get the papers, I would end up not only walking but weight lifting too, especially with the Sunday Times, and that the whole business sounded dangerously healthy to me. So about sunup,every day for years, I got in the car and went for the paper.

Not too long ago, the Times had a change of heart and we are now deliverable. My neighbor was coming around the corner on his way home the other morning when I was twelve steps from the house picking up my paper. We looked at the sun together. There is nothing like a productive early morning walk, I say.

    Namaste' — and be in touch.

R.


12 February 2007

The Quote for the Quarter Hour

We work in the dark.
We do what we can.
We give what we have.

    — Henry James

After such a day my fingers are bleeding, knees tottering, back bent...muddy and soaking and shoes an offence...but I have attained the most profound inward peace.
    — Anna Lee Merritt

I have been walking quickly through our little back garden to my studio these days. It has been cold. It has not been as cold and wintry here as it has been for some of my friends who live in other places, but it has been cold enough for me. In fact, it has been about two steps past cold enough for me.
    The water in the fountain is frozen, has been for weeks. Brightly-colored leaves that fell in the fall and did not manage to get themselves raked up have turned brown and forlorn-looking. Brown is pretty much the color in Tennessee this time of year, except for the gray.
    Two signs of the coming spring showed up last week though.
    First, I put the finishing touches on a new book that is coming in April — a book about our garden, no less. It is called Digging In : Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard — a sort of armchair gardening book about discovering that our little garden turns out to be large enough to hold nearly everything in life that is dear to me. And you can count on an excerpt from it here soon, as well as all manner of shameless self-promotion on its behalf. It was fun to be finished with the not-so-fun part of making a book — rewriting and editing and rewriting some more. A fair amount of the making of a book is like digging and raking and weeding and edging and tidying up after yourself. It took almost six months this time.
    I am always anxious when a new book has gone away to the printer, always anxious to see if it turns out to be what I hoped it might be. I spent those months with my back bent over its pages, and when you are in the midst of that part, it is hard to know if you are making anything worth reading. By the time you send it off, it as much a prayer as it a book. I am always anxious to see if all the digging made any difference. I am now just waiting for one of those moments when the postman comes around the corner bearing a note from some kind soul who has written to say that some bit of my story has resonated with their own.
    Which brings me to the second sign of spring that I noticed last week — things are beginning to bud out. They are being cautious, of course, but they seem to know that the spring is almost upon us. Good news, to be sure. But it also means that I have some more long days of digging around and raking and weeding and edging and tidying up after myself ahead of me. The tools are different, but the work is much the same.
    I am always anxious to see the garden in spring as well. I am not really a gardener, yard man is more like it. But I have been working in our garden long enough to know that if you want it to look its best when spring comes, then you have to do some digging around and some raking and mulching and weeding and pruning and waiting. I also know that some morning in a few weeks, if I bend my back to the work, I will come out the door and head for the studio to take up my writer’s tools, and the breeze will be just right, and the sight and the scent of the roses in the warm sunshine of spring will be as holy as any prayer that was ever offered up as incense to the One Who made us.

    Namaste' — and be in touch.
 

28 December 2006

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
Every year I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the powers we have not used, the selfish prudence that will risk nothing, and which, shirking pain, misses happiness as well.
    — Mary Chomondeley

Always we begin again.
    — Saint Benedict

So here we all are again, the whole motley crew of us —  as the old year passes and the new one begins — with our memories and rituals, and our plans and dreams, and our hopes and fears.
    We are much the same as were last year at this time, except, of course, for the ways that we are different — both different than we were a year ago and different from each other.
    For some of us, this past year was a fine year. Some of our dreams came true and some of our questions were answered and some of our problems solved and some of our needs met.
    Some of us found good work to do or finished some good thing off in fine fashion and even had a chance to catch our breath. Some of us found new places to work or to live, places that are becoming home to us more quickly than we dared hope. Some of us found new people with whom to share our journeys and days and lives and love, people who make our lives richer and fuller and more than we ever thought they might be.
    Oh, we had our share of ups and downs, but there were ups mostly and the downs did not seem more than we could handle. And no one showed up to tell us that the ups were a mistake somehow and that we had to turn in allthe good stuff as soon as the weekend was over.
    But for some of us, our journey this year was harder than we dreamed that it would be or even could be. Someone will not be here to share the new year, and it is hard to imagine being anywhere without them. Some of us spent our holidays holding our candle in one hand and a burden in the other, a burden that we cannot seem to shake and are uncertain how much longer we can bear.
    Some of us are suffering, in mind, body or estate, as the prayer book says, and our futures are more than a little uncertain. Some of us have lost much in the last year, far more than we gained. And though we are far enough along on the journey to know that this life can always be counted on to take us to hard places sometimes, it seems that perhaps this past year we had more than our fair share.
    Some of us are poor and lonely and lost and afraid. Some of us are dying and some of us are trapped in places where violence and war and hatred are the norm rather than the exception. Some of us spent the past year fighting for justice and peace and have a sense that hardly a dent was made. Some of us spent our days and hours and strength and spirit caring for children or the sick or the elderly, and we are worn down by the sheer dailyness of it. And worn down too by the knowledge that sometimes all that we can do is not enough to make the difference we hoped we might make.
    Some of us are still being left out because of color or race or gender or some other thing that should be celebrated rather than cursed. Some of us have been left behind without resources or opportunity, with little hope of having either one in the near future.
    Some of us live lives of gracious plenty; others of us live lives of desperation. Some of us wield power and some of us are oppressed. Some of us are confident about the future, whatever it may bring; some of us are afraid of the coming evening and none too certain what daylight will bring or if we will ever see it.
    Some of us have much, so much we cannot bear to look at ourselves in the mirror some days; some of us consider ourselves blessed and smile like we know it to be true, even though we own no mirror to check our smilein.
    Everything is the same, and everything is different, as it has been for all time. Blessings on the whole motley crew of us as we begin again — always we begin again.

    Namaste, and be in touch.
25 October 2006

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
Thy will be done, in art as it is in heaven.
    — Willa Cather


Religion and art are saying the same things — stop, pay attention, be aware of the depth of time, see people, see others, be human.
— Frederick Buechner

The front door opens and out comes Caroline, three-year-old queen of the universe, in pink ballet slippers, aqua tights, a tutu and a tiara and a gap toothed grin and a smudge of dirt on her forehead.
    She stands at the top of the steps with her arms wide open — ‘Mr. Robert,’ she exclaims. ‘Do you like my dress?’
    I love it, of course, how could you not? For the moment, I love everything on the planet. The God of all joy and sunshine and laughter and summer breeze is blessing babies and their admirers on a Thursday here in Sunnyside.

Then it is Friday morning and I am crammed into a window seat on a plane to Texas. The first two or three times I went to Texas, back when I was much younger, I had two or three of the worst experiences that I ever had in my life. It was not the fault of anyone from Texas, I brought my own troubles with me, but I have been skittish about Texas ever since.
    It is my second of three trips to the Lone Star state this year and I am off to be with a crowd of strangers to talk about contemplative practice and I am feeling pretty lone myself. I put my little speaker thingys in my ears and turn on the Nano so I can block out the rest of the passengers while I worry myself sick about what I am going to say when I get to Dallas. Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee ... giver  of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day — Beethoven’s magnificent hymn and Van Dyke’s luminous poetry roars through my head.
    Two days later, on Sunday, hundreds of us —  including me and my new friends who have treated me so kindly in the two days before — stand and sing it together. The unexpected symmetry of it startles me into considerably more joy than I expected might come my way when I got on the plane on Friday.

And now it is weeks later, and it is Wednesday, and these two stories are connected in my head and I keep trying to figure out exactly why. Right now, all thy works with joy surround thee is the best I can come up with.

    Namaste, and be in touch.


15 September 2006
The Quote for the Quarter Hour
One is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his life; for the rest he is a human being,
one of whose responsibilities is to know and to feel,
as much as he can, all that is moving around and within him.

—  Dylan Thomas
 
It is the aim of contemplative living…that you learn to recognize a blessing when you see one, and are able to respond to it with words that God has given you.
—  Kathleen Norris

I have spent much of the last few weeks with my head down, trying to finish the rewrite work on something new, barely coming up for air on most days. For the record, the first draft of a book, the draft you write sitting in a room with a fountain pen in your hand, all alone — no readers, no editors, no one who even knows you are working on it — is the easy part. Or, at least, it is the exhilarating part.

    The next part, the rewriting, the part I have been doing for the last few weeks, is the hard part. It is the part that makes the book worth reading in the end. It is also the part that makes you wonder why you do this at all.

I came up for air a few days ago, opened my mail, traveled to a couple of places to do some work, and answered a telephone call or two.
    A friend wrote to say they had figured out the name of the island that I wrote about in Home by Another Way and they hoped to see us there sometime.
    I was in a workshop with friends from my Academy days. They greeted me and listened to me and held me close like I was somebody they loved. One of them even brought me a fine gift from Sumatanga, the place where I attended the Academy. The gift is in my back garden now, and I get to walk past it whenever I go back and forth to and from my studio.
    A woman from Texas wrote to say that she had heard about the illness of a dear friend of mine; each day, in that early morning hour when bells are rung and candles are lit and prayers are offered up, she is saying the name of my friend, a person that she does not even know.
    I discovered that the title of a book that I had written a long time ago — Between the Dreaming and the Coming True — had become the title of a new recording by a young man I had never met before.
    A note came from a cousin that I did not even know I had, along with an invitation to see him when I am in Texas this month.
    Some correspondence came from some people I have long admired that told me they had included me in a list of people whose work they recommend. It reminded of something I heard songwriter Mac MacAnally say once to a fan of his, ‘I question your judgment, but I sure appreciate your support.’
    I met a crowd of folks at a church in a struggling neighborhood in a big city, and discovered that the reconciling work of the Gospel goes on in spite of what we think sometimes.

In a few days, I have to put my head down again. Another book is there to be finished, the exhilarating part done, the real work about to begin.
    I have made myself a note to come up for air more often. It helps me remember why I have my head down in the first place, why I spend so many of my hours and days looking for the words to respond to the blessings that come my way.
    Keep your head up.

Namaste', and be in touch.

R.


23 August 2006

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
I seem to stagger about this agonized world as a clown,
dressed in happiness....
When newspaper reporters ask me what effect my songs have,
I try to make a brave reply, but I am really not so certain.

Pete Seeger


The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
    — A. Bartlett Giamatti


The middle of August seems like a strange time to be thinking of endings, but I am thinking of endings these days.

    It started a few nights ago when Del said to me, ’So, Robert, are ya gonna be here for the end?’ I sit next to Del at the ballpark. Our team is on the road until Labor Day weekend, and then they are home for four games, and the season is over. The major league season has a ways to go and the minor league playoffs are still to come — we have led our division all season and should make it in — but the end is in sight. And it is close enough that I do not need my glasses to see it.
    Then I saw Mr. Johnson’s grandchildren the other morning.
    Mr. Johnson is a neighbor who lives four houses up from the corner where we live. One morning last week, I came out early to get in the car to head off to pick up the newspapers, and here came his grandchildren down the sidewalk. Their mother has to be at work early and so she drops them off at their grandfather’s house and they wait there until it is time to come down to the corner to catch the bus to school.
    I grinned at them, and at Mr. Johnson, who was behind them a few dozen yards or so. He catches the bus to work about the same time. The children were all bright and shiny, new school shoes and backpacks. It is the end of summer vacation.
    On the back fence, the one that separates us from the alley and connects to my studio, the rose is blooming. I see its blooms in the mornings, white against the deep green of the fence. It blooms all summer but it is fast approaching the end of the season.
    This morning I got up and came to the studio to work on the last bits and pieces of the rewrite of a book that I am working on — a book about making a garden and finding a place to belong — and I had to admit that I am tired of working on it.
    When I first begin to write a book, I am in love with it, or at least with what I think it might be if it ever grows up. The longer I work on it, the less fun it becomes. Writing five or drafts of something will do that to you, I suppose. When I begin to feel the way that I am feeling about this one now — barely able to look it in the eye, just barely able to talk myself into finishing — it means the end is just around the corner.
    The end of this summer is at hand.

Endings are not so bad really. Until some things end, new things cannot begin.
    Until the regular season is over, the playoffs cannot begin. And the maple tree in the back yard is not going to turn golden until the roses are finished up.
    Come Labor Day or thereabouts, I begin to travel to speak again, going to places to see my old friends, meet some new ones, and maybe even run into you. I am thinking I might even get some shiny new shoes for the first trip.
    I have two new things to write, and I have a case of the can’t hardlys about working on them. As in, I can’t hardly wait to get started on them again.

Some of the things some of us love the best are coming to an end. Keep your head up — it means some things are about to begin.
    Namaste', and be in touch.

R.


 

6 July 2006

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
Every vision, every prayer, every meditation is vital.
A kind of critical mass must be achieved.

Emma Lytle


I must say my office with great care. It is my daily offering of fresh flowers and roses, symbolical of fresh love offered daily to the Beloved Spouse.
    — Charles de Foucauld


I promised to tell you about something new this month. To begin, I have to go back fifteen years or so.
    And then I have to take you to North Carolina.
    And introduce you to another web site — www.dailyprayerlife.com.

In the early nineties, I was a part of the 6th Academy for Spiritual Formation, a two year program that is a part of the work of the United Methodist Church. ( It is a journey that is largely recounted in one of my books, Living Prayer. ) Among the other things that I encountered there was the practice of saying the daily office —  the ancient liturgical prayer of the church, a way of daily prayer that I had never really known anything about. I pretty much never recovered.
    In the years since, I have spent a fair amount of time and energy working to learn more about this ancient way of prayer, this tradition that has sustained the Church over the centuries. I have come to believe that this way of prayer holds a key to the future and the soul and the spirit of the Church — more so than programs and budgets and membership drives and marketing awareness and all the rest of the things of modern culture that American Western Protestant Church has adopted.
    As one might suspect, I have written about the daily office a fair amount and talked about it a lot in the retreats and conferences that I have done over the years. My exposure to and experience of this ancient practice has provided a center point for my entire journey as a writer and a pilgrim and whatever else it is that I am becoming.
    It also provided the meeting ground for my friendship with Tom and Lib Campbell. Which is where North Carolina enters the story.

One of my dear friends from the Academy later became the retreat master for an Academy in North Carolina. For reasons that are still unclear to me, but for which I am still very grateful, he asked me to be one of the faculty. It was a clear case, at least in my case, of the inmates running the asylum. While I was there, I met Tom and Lib, and along the way in those few days together, we became dear friends and began an ongoing discussion about the daily office that has taken an extraordinary twist.
    Through Lib, I got the chance to go and spend a weekend at St. Francis United Methodist Church and talk about prayer. And that led to Tom’s deciding to produce, through his company, Carolina Broadcasting and Publishing, a two-hour instructional video from a series of talks I gave at the church, an audio CD of my reading of the offices themselves, and a small prayerbook. All of which are gathered up such a way that others can use it as individuals or as groups to begin to enter into this great river of prayer that has sustained the Church. They are available now.
    The way to find these things is to visit the web site that Tom operates — dailyprayerlife.com. You can even view a bit of the video there.

Fifteen years ago, in those few first days of my experience at the Academy, I was stunned and humbled by the mysterious power of this way of prayer. I still am.
    And these days, I am even more stunned and humbled by this opportunity to share some bit of what I have learned about it with my friends.
    Go and visit www.dailyprayerlife.com. Say hello to my friends when you do.
    Namaste, and be in touch.

     R.


15 June 2006
The Quote for the Quarter Hour
Write to someone you love and
someone who knows you well.
You use your real voice with those you love and you cannot be phony with those who love you well.

Frederick Buechner

‘Golden days, Doctor, golden days,’ said the master of the La Fleche to Stephen Maturin. Far, far to leeward an enormous dust-storm in Africa had raised such a veil that the sun, setting behind it, suffused the clean sea-air with an amber light, turning the waves jade-green; though in a few minutes it was to make one of its more spectacular disappearances in crimson glory, when the same waves would show deep amethyst....
    ‘So they are too,’ cried Stephen....
    From The Fortune of War  by Patrick O’Brian
Summer is here, in full swing, no less. Sunny days and warm evenings, baseball games and book shows and a boat weekend with good friends. They were good friends before they had the boat, I hasten to add, they did not actually need to have a boat or issue invitations to it to secure a permanent place in our hearts. We went to the lake with them over the weekend. Good friends, good talk, and a fair amount of companionable silence as well, a full moon rising over the hills on a clear night, a slight breeze cooling the evening air.
    Speaking of friends, some of you have been in touch these days. Those of you whose addresses I have collected over the years have been getting postcards about the new book. Some of you were kind enough to write and say you liked it, and a few kind souls among you have even been thoughtful enough to go on to sites like amazon.com and write a nice review. A fair number of you came to see me at one of the signings that I did in the last few weeks. Others have been in touch about my coming to your place for a retreat or some such thing. A few of you have noticed my travel schedule and have called to say, ‘Well, since you are coming to my town anyway, can you do something for our group while you are here?’ Thank you for your notes and your kind words and your interest in my work.
    I think of you often these days when I am up early and scribbling words in a sketchbook or typing in the rewrites or standing up at a little desk that I have, reading aloud and marking pages with colored pencils. I am doing some of all three these days because I am working on some new things. One of which will available in July — a project very dear to my heart that I have been able to make through the kindness of some dear friends in North Carolina. I will be able to tell you about it here on this page next month.
    And I am not just thinking about you in the abstract, as a group or an audience of some sort. I have a hard time thinking of you that way anyway. Going through the letters that you have sent to me over the years and the lists of people who have been with me on retreat somewhere, doing all the work that it takes to update the mailing list for the postcard mailings — all these things have been calling you to mind in person, so to speak. I am remembering where we met and what we shared together. I remember the faces and bits of the conversation that we started and that I hope to finish with you someday. I am seeing you everywhere these days, it is an epiphany of no small import. And it makes me grin.

    In between grins, I am rereading Patrick O’Brian’s great series of novels about the deep friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the series of historical novels upon which the film Master and Commander was based. There are twenty of them and I am on my second time through. It takes a while to catch on to the rhythm and the density of the writing and the language but it is well worth the effort. We talk about Jack and Stephen around our house as though they lived down the block in a little cottage instead of on the pages of books about the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars.
    Besides being great swashbuckling fun to read, on a warm summer evening, they keep reminding me of what it means to have friends. Especially friends who are as good to me as you have been.
    Namaste', and be in touch.

R.

May 2006

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
A writer makes a living on the kindness of strangers.
But it is on the kindness of his friends
that he makes a life.
Robert Green

The other day I was headed out the door again, something that I seem to be doing a lot lately, and someone said to me, ‘This is quite a bit of social interaction for a semi-hermit.’ She was right.

    I am traveling a lot these days and meeting people and having a lot of conversations with folks. It is generally more than I like to travel and more than I like to talk, if truth be told. To West Texas for a retreat and then to Birmingham and Tulsa and Knoxville and Raleigh and three engagements here in Nashville. I am home for a few days and then gone for a few days and then home again. When I am home, it is hard to know if I am recovering from a trip or resting up for the next one.
    I am not complaining, really.
    Sometimes one will read an interview with a writer or see one on television, and there will be a fair amount of complaining about the author having been sent out on a book tour. They will go on and on about the drudgery of it. A part of me has a certain amount of empathy with them. Airports and airplanes and hotels and rented cars are hardly the stuff of one’s dreams anymore. But that is no more the case for an author than it is for a lot of folks who must travel to make a living — and travel a great deal more than writers do
    But the truth is that all writers do not have a chance to go and do such things. The people who publish books have to make choices as to whether or not they will spend the money to help make such things happen for this writer or that one. To have your work supported in such a way is a fine thing.
    But that is not even the best part of it.
    The best part of it is that one gets to see their friends. Some of them are old friends, some of them are new ones. One gets to swap hugs and grins, get a pat or two on the back, and hear someone say kind words about their work One gets to read a bit of the work aloud, too, and have a better sense of the things that ring true and the things that do not. That ringing remains with a writer somehow, and it echoes when it is time to sit down with a pen again and begin to write something new. Those few moments among friends mean a great deal when one is wrestling with a pen and a page and wondering if what one is writing will have any meaning outside the four walls of the room where it is being written.
    I am traveling a lot these days and meeting people and having a lot of conversations with folks. It is generally more than I like to travel and more than I like to talk, if truth be told.
    And I am grateful for it. And for the friends who come to see me along the way.

Keep in touch.


R.

April 2006

The Quote for the Quarter Hour
‘One does not put things on paper to create masterpieces but rather to gain some clarity.’
    Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life

 This is what I have been thinking when I am scribbling these days —
    I spend a fair portion of my time in a small room with little more than a fountain pen and some favorite books and some blank pages for company. Like most writers, I wonder from time to time just what it is that I am up to. If one writes memoir as I do, then one writes knowing that one has only one story to tell and that is one’s own
    My work, at least as I have come to see it and understand it over the years, is to try and tell my own stories with some degree of honesty and clarity and to write them with some measure of wonder and art. Henri Nouwen once said that ‘as long as we have our stories to tell each other, there is hope.’
    One of my hopes is that if I tell my stories clearly enough, I will come to understand their twists and turns, and then perhaps even their meanings. In remembering the places I have been, and the people that I have known and loved, and the things that I have seen and heard, I hope to be able to recognize some of the places where I have bumped against the Something that is at the center of all things — the center of all joy and grace and beauty and wonder and life and love.
    The art, if I can muster it up from time to time, is for those who are kind enough to read my work. If I can write artfully enough, then perhaps those who read my books will, at the end of the reading, be able to more clearly remember and hear something of their own stories within. In the end, the object of what I write is not so much that people will know me and my stories so much as it is that they will know their own stories and then perhaps themselves a little better.
    ‘I rage at my inability to express it all better,’ wrote Monet to a friend. ‘You’d have to use both hands and cover hundreds of canvasses.’ A fountain pen and a blank page seem inadequate to me almost all of the time. Yet they are the tools that have chosen me.

Sometimes I wish that I could sing or dance or paint or compose symphonies or build cathedrals. I wish I was a priest or a robin or a child or a sunset. I wish that I were poet enough to say what all of these things mean to me.
    ‘It is a life that is lived at attention that I seek,’ I wrote in a book some years ago. It is still true. I want to not miss anything, if I can help it.
    I want to remember my stories and notice the places where something like grace or joy or sorrow or hope made an appearance. I want to write things that have some measure of honesty and clarity. I want to write things that help others to see where those things made an appearance — and are making an appearance even as we go through the hustle and bustle of our daily rounds.

Keep in touch.

R.


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