Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Last Post

This will be my last post from this blog page. Next week, my new publishing website, www.kenarnoldbooks.com, will go live. It will contain a new blog space, KABlog, which will be open to contributions from other writers. I will continue to post something there once a week on same schedule, but you will have the pleasure of hearing other voices as well as mine. I encourage you to visit the new website and blog--and to sign up there for our newsletter, which will keep you up to date on our forthcoming books and bloggers.

I have been writing this blog for just about a year. Over that time I have talked frequently about the Episcopal Church and its struggles with dissidents--the conservatives who have been outraged by the consecration of a practicing gay bishop (for those of you on the outside, there are plenty of gay priests and bishops in the church, but Gene Robinson, the gay bishop in question, did not pretend to be other than who he is and did not hide his partnered relationship). That story continues to play itself out, but increasingly over the year I have found it to be tiresome. It is about life on a theological pinhead, for the most part. The serious issues of our time are not being ignored by the church--or churches--but on the whole the real work on global warming, armed conflict, economic injustice, and racial tensions is being done by groups not associated with the church. (Before some of you write to me about this, I know of the few exceptions and that in some parts of the country and the world, important and risky work is being done. My point remains: most of the church's attention is directed toward the small print.)

The presidential election has turned out to be more important that some of my earlier posts suggested I thought it would be. The emergence of Barack Obama is a hopeful sign, if only because he has brought out more voters and seems willing to raise the issues that matter most. (I do not believe that he is not a politician, however. He is a very able politician.) Hillary Clinton remains a strong and viable option, leaving us Democrats in the unusual position of having two similarly strong candidates to choose between (assuming that the current Obama sweep doesn't knock Clinton out). And even John McCain isn't just another zombie from the Reagan tomb. We still have our heads in the sand when it comes to the problems of our extravagant and wasteful way of life. I have nothing wise to say about the escalating problem of the global climate; I do plan to publish some books this year about it, however.

In the past year, Connie and I have moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon, changing cities and employment. We have started a new publishing company; I have finished the first draft of a new book on Christianity tentatively titled The Christian Atheist. Connie has finished a book manuscript and begun another. We are both actively writing and seeking publishers, while working every day to find new authors to publish. It's been a hectic and in some ways frightening year for us. There was even a time last spring when we were not sure how we were going to survive or where we were going to live.

But here we are. In the end, it is where we need to be. The shift from this blog space into a new one is, in a small way, indicative of the changes. We are moving into a broader environment, one in which we intend to flourish. I hope that those of you who have been reading this blog will make the trip over to the new space. Some exciting publishing will be happing there, in addition to these weekly ruminations, rantings, and redactions (not sure those all mean something here but I got interested in "r" words).

Let me close with a haiku:

dry leaves cling
to the Butterfly Maple
oh! last summer

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Perhaps it is meaningful that Fat Tuesday is also SuperDuper Tuesday. After the feasting come the ashes, if you go in for that sort of thing. (Even if you don't, they will come.)

Some years ago when I was the on-call chaplain for St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan, I went into the wards on Ash Wednesday to put ashes on foreheads and remind people they were going to die. There was great eagerness among the nurses in particular, who were positively gleeful as they lined up. I recall that as I was imposing ashes on the nurses in the Intensive Care Unit a man in the room nearby went into cardiac arrest. The doctors rushed in to save his life. I am not sure exactly what they were doing; I was busy marking the smiling nurses with death. I had not gotten to him yet.

This brief recollection is just a prelude to a poem, which I wrote a few weeks ago, not thinking about Lent at all. It is not a poem about Lent, but it is about ashes. As the poem says, that is enough.


Scatter them you said
on the Columbia where Multnomah Falls
bisects the cliff’s face
knife plunged through the rock
a flash of brilliance in the sun
so that they sink into the everlasting flow of things
dissolve into memory
into fact
into the western sun
what I want you said is to leave the country
lose myself in the Pacific

it was one of those conversations
we did not plan to have
how do you want to be memorialized
I asked
when you’re gone
what songs should we sing
and what do we do with the body
you no longer need
and we are too creeped out to keep

burn it you said

and I agreed
I do not want to be deposited in dirt
I said
nor in the family vault
burn mine too
and you and all my friends
be joyful on a hill
among the spruce and rock
and if you cannot bear to watch
the flames consume me
recall the heat of all the passions
of our days and feel within
the unexpected power of
what bursts forth when we let go
of what we were

you smiled and said ok
we’ll dance for you like dervishes
but if I’m gone before you
just be sure you dump
my ashes in the river
that’s enough

Monday, January 28, 2008

Art and Grace

On Saturday I went to Seattle by train, my maiden voyage to the soggy city. The purpose of my trip was to be present for the creation of a chapter of a national organization of artists in the Episcopal Church, known as ECVA (Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts). As a member of the board, I wanted to meet some of these artists and see their work in person (we can see a lot of it online at www.ecva.org--you can too).

The artwork was wonderful--a great variety of themes and materials, from fabric to photography, enamel to sculpture. One enigmatic head of Jesus with blue eyes and vaguely Hispanic features was a fresh and somehow disturbing take on a common image. It was almost an icon but also just a photograph mounted on gold. A small box with a dozen nails driven into it sat serenely beside beautiful enamel pendants--and at the other end of the table was a cloth book, each page stitched in homage to community gardens, the cover comprised of dirty gardening gloves. A precise drawing of a crumpled piece of paper and a pencil was a Zen masterpiece.

It was worth the trip to see the work and hear the artists talk about what they had made and how they brought to their art spirit as well as technique. All art, I think, is spiritual in some way; at the core of a work of art is that ineffable something that transforms technique.

A couple of us talked later about whether an image of Jesus or the Madonna would read as a religious object to someone who knew nothing of the story behind the images or of the religious tradition that begat them. I argued that viewers would know that these were spirit-filled images, just as Rothko paintings, which do not contain realistic objects or people, are clearly spiritual at their core and in their effect on viewers. Buddhist art can similarly inspire reverence, even when the viewer knows nothing of Buddhism or the "saints" who animate its memory.

But the most important event of the evening, for me, was an encounter with one artist who had shown us an apron she had made, using materials from a thrift shop that caters to the homeless. It was a simple apron, hardly what we would term art. After the formal presentations, she came up to me and asked if I published work by other writers (I had been introduced as a publisher and she wasn't sure whether I just published myself). I said I did. She told me that she had been homeless herself and while she was in the shelter had written poems.

Her manner was diffident. She was almost girlish in her movements, swinging side to side, twisting a foot nervously behind an ankle--even though she was at least sixty years old. I said that we were planning to publish a book in which her poems might fit, and I offered to read them.

She quickly touched my arm, embarrassed that her motives had been misunderstood, and said, "Oh, no. I have someone who wants to publish them. No, I just wanted to know what you are doing so I can pray for you. For your success."

I admit to being stunned. I assumed I was doing something for her by offering to read her poems, which I also believed were probably not very good. But on the contrary she was offering to do something for me. I gave her my card and she also wrote my wife's name, Connie, on it, so that she could pray specifically for both of us.

I could see in her a spirit at work that had nothing to do with the traditional stories and images we associate with grace. She was, however, a channel of grace, or of the spirit, the heartbeat of the universe, what the Buddhists call a Bodhisattva, or what we, Saturday, were calling an artist.

I suspect her poems are as wonderful as her apron.

Monday, January 21, 2008

King and Heschel

Some years ago a friend told me that he read Martin Luther Kings Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on this day of recollection. I began doing it myself and am struck every time by its power. The letter was written while King was held in solitary confinement in April 1963 in response to a statement from eight white, "liberal" Alabama clergy admonishing King to pursue racial justice through the courts not in the streets. Episcopal Bishop C.C. Jones Carpenter was the instigator and first signer of the clergy statement, "Call to Unity." Despite his credentials as a critic of segregation, Carpenter, as the senior Episcopal bishop in the US, failed to lend his prestige to King's efforts. Carpenter criticized King for a lack of respectability (according to Taylor Branch in his magisterial Parting the Waters, America in the King Years, 1954-63). Alas, it is just what one might expect from an Episcopalian.

King's letter is nothing less than a definitive statement about the need for prophetic action to achieve social change. For us in an election year, as we listen to the sound bites and moral shuffling of the candidates, it is a reminder of how far we have fallen from the mountain on which King stood. I have said this before, in an earlier post, but it bears repeating: the church has fallen silent as a prophetic witness. No one speaks with moral authority from the pulpit, with the possible exception of Jim Wallis. But in the streets where poverty continues to destroy the lives of men and women and children of color, and in the fields where migrant workers are exploited for our collective benefit (and then excoriated by opportunistic politicians for being immigrants and poor), there are few with the courage or the will to object.

We live in a state of governmental control that has, over the years, grown tighter, but we have scarcely noticed. At play in our consumer gardens, we worry mostly about our perquisites. We are like the proverbial frog in the slowing warming water that, when it reaches boiling, will cook us before we know what has happened. And yet no church leaders speak out against the slow evaporation of our basic liberties.

We live next to the federal building here in Portland and the other day Connie saw a woman standing in one of the windows with a pair of binoculars focused on a floor somewhere below ours. We had heard a story when we moved in about federal agents raiding the apartment we now live in because the resident was cleaning a rifle (he was a former member of the military who owned the gun legally). I offer this image as a symbol of the way we have become accustomed to living. We are watched, we watch each other, we have accepted the basic premises of a police state.

King and the black Americans of his day--and of the country from its beginnings--lived in a police state. Those of us who were teenagers in the 60s remember the dogs and the fire hoses, the murders and jailings. I was in Lynchburg, Virginia, as a college student between 1962 and 1966, and was dragged out of bed to be beaten for my modest civil rights activities. The local newspaper published a front-page notice edged in black suggesting I go back north to be with my communist buddies. The paper made it clear where I might be found. The rumor was the American Nazi Party was looking for me.

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is addressed to all of us who urge care and caution, who are content in our wealth and respectability. Bishop Carpenter, by all accounts a decent man, stands for our cowardice. Decent though we are, we are content to allow the poorest and the least powerful to be sacrificed to our need for order and security. "We know through painful experience," King wrote, "that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor." Are we oppressed? Surely, that is an overstatement. Analogously, we might ask: has global warming inconvenienced or hurt us? Not yet.

The churches are silent. Our political leaders are compromised nearly beyond redemption. Who is there like King and his comrades in the 60s that might bring to our public dialog the moral clarity of "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

As it happens, this year some Jewish leaders are also remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel this week; he would be 101 years old. A mystic, scholar, and activist, Heschel marched with King in Selma. But he represents that other side of activism, the meditative preparation required if one is to survive solitary confinement, ostracism, and rebuke--if one is to meet death with equanimity. In his brief book, The Sabbath, Heschel writes of the sanctification of time. "In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more....There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern." The Sabbath offers another vision of who we are called to be.

These things in space are the idols of empire, and we have fallen before them in worship. Although King and his fellow activists were extraordinarily successful in bending the will of empire to justice, their accomplishments are slowly being eroded by our national obsession with security. We live in the empire. We are each implicated in its actions everywhere. We are all in a Birmingham jail. And we are silent.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


It's that season of the year in Portland in which nearly every day is a rainy day. Not necessarily all day, but sometimes it is. The streets are wet whether there has been rain that day or not. Along what is known as the Park Blocks, a green pedestrian mall near our apartment, the ground is puddled. The squirrels are soaked but don't seem to mind. In fact, no one seems to mind being wet. It is a fact of life. At the same time, there is also some sun almost every day, often in the mornings, and the clouds blow quickly north or east, sweeping away the patches of blue, the sun itself, and yet they are high and somehow lighter than the clouds I recall from New York that seemed to sit on the city like a portent of doom. Not so long ago, as we were entering this season, I wrote a poem that expresses something of what it's like here in the rain. Here it is.


Most days it is predicted

but doesn’t always come although the clouds do
they rumble in from the west
where the ocean whips them up
then collapse on the mountains east of us

when it comes there is no warning no excitement
just the rain where before there was no rain
slant lines across the view
usually from the south

we walk around in it

sometimes it rains here
and at the same time over there is no rain but sun
or on one occasion as we sat in a restaurant
hail bouncing on the street
as if some kids were playing hailball
and in the next block up
bright sun dry street

At noon I walk through the rain to the dumpling café
for dumplings

how’s your day goin the guy behind the counter asks
people ask that question a lot here
I say ok
it’s nice and steamy in here
but surprisingly warm out there I say

we look at the rain

nothing to complain about he says
the rain comes and goes

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ten Books

At the end of the year, lists of the ten best this and thats proliferate. There are multiple ten best book lists, usually focused on what was newly published in the year. Here is my list of the ten best books I read in 2007--and it turns out that a goodly number were also published during the year. I have left out all but two of the books I read as part of the research for my new book, which I am revising before submitting to a publisher in the next couple of months, even though many of them were fascinating. They were also heavily theological, and who needs theology on New Year's Day.

So, here goes (in no particular order).

1. The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano. A strange book that I was reading for months--it seemed for the whole year--about poets on the run. Broken up into apparently disconnected sections, the bulk of the book lacks plot or even coherent narrative. And yet it is so well written, so engagingly literate, so suggestive, that I literally had to finish it. It is like a mysterious person you feel you have to get to know, but the more time you spend with him/her, the more elusive, the more intriguing s/he becomes. How to account for the allure of this book....and it's a translation, so who knows how much better it must be in Spanish.

2. Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. A novel that turns up on almost everyone's list for the year--and for that reason I thought of leaving it off of mine. But I just finished it a week or so ago and it is still so fresh. At first I wasn't sure I was going to like it or get through it. Like Bolano's book, this one is very long. But the fast and truthful dialog, the voices that seemed to come out of my own head, drew me in and on. There is a quality to this of The Heart of Darkness, I would guess intentional, that adds weight to what seems almost a casual thriller. Except there is no thriller plot. The book illuminates the moral bankruptcy of Vietnam, as if we needed to hear that, while offering an odd and disturbing insight into what it takes to live after catastrophe--which we do need to hear.

3. All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P. Jones. This collection of stories came out in 2006, but I picked it up around the time I was in Washington, DC, for the ordination of my niece. As it happens, Jones writes vividly and particularly about DC, complete with addresses, and one of the stories I read soon after the ordination takes place on the street where the church was located. Meaningless to fiction, of course, but at the same time it illustrates how immediately alive these stories are, as if one were right there just this morning. Jones is a wonderful writer. His stories feel like entire novels condensed into a relatively few pages. They also tell the white world more about American race than most of us will ever learn by just walking around in our protected skin.

4. After Dark, by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is my favorite writer of fiction right now, and this was his new novel for 2007. I don't think it is up to Kafka on the Shore (2005), but it is a good book to read if you want an intro to Murakami's world and style. He can be disconcertingly allusive or off-hand. His characters are often too ephemeral to take hold of and the world he inhabits is often a distortion of the world in which we live, just beyond recognition, but disconcertingly familiar. In this book, we watch, as voyeurs, one woman asleep while her sister slips almost thoughtlessly into the night world of Tokyo that never sleeps; but the sleeper somehow effects what happens in our waking world. The boundaries between realities, as in all of Murakami, are distressingly permeable.

5. Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth. I can hear you now: Ken, how could you! Philip Roth is so, uh, mean, sexist, obsessive....Right. All true. It's like reading John Updike, I hate myself in the morning. What sucked me in here is that this novel about one of Roth's alter-egos, Nathan Zuckerman, is also about the fears and physical distress that accompany prostate cancer. I could identify with Zuckerman. It's a well-written book, as Roth books are, and you might enjoy it, especially if you've had prostate cancer or might one day. Ok, it's a book for guys who fret about impotence and death (that would be all of us). That's ok, I think, every now and then.

6. The Laying on of Hands, stories by Alan Bennett. A paperback collection from 2002 I picked up in the Fall. I had not read Bennett before. Two of the three long stories here will lead me to look up more of this work. The first, "The Laying on of Hands," is a must read for Episcopalians, Anglicans, and Anglophiles: it is a screamingly funny and precise evisceration of church liturgical politics. The third, "Father! Father! Burning Bright," is a touching but also wickedly pointed account of a dutiful son waiting at the bedside of his dying father. We don't write like this in the United States because we don't understand our own class structure well enough--mainly, I suppose, because we don't think we have one.

7. Messenger, New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, by Ellen Bryant Voight. I read quite a lot of poetry, but this was someone I had not read (shame on me). Voight is a clear and evocative writer with a narrative line that is subtle and sorrowing. The books consists of selections from other books and serves to send one back to the originals to experience the the shape of the work. "All ears, nose, tongue and gut,/ dogs know if something's wrong;/ chickens don't know a thing, their brains/ are little more than optic nerve...." The beginning of a long book sequence titled Kyrie, about the Influenza epidemic of 1918. Curls your hair.

8. Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition, by Richard Smoley. For those of you who, like me, are fed up with traditional Christianity and its smugness, this book offers a smart and informative overview of what the church has effectively hidden all these centuries. Elaine Pagel writes about this tradition, and you may have read her, but Smoley gives us even more. The spiritual world he describes feels strange to one steeped in the dogmatic theologies of the church, as if one has happened upon a midnight rite of passage that is supposed to be vile but turns out to be not only illuminating but liberating.

9. I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter. I read Hofstadter's book as part of the research for my book (that's also why I picked up Smoley). What interests Hofstadter is the nature of consciousness--Who Am I?--or, as he puts it, what it means to have or be a human soul, without the religious connotations. Hint: consciousness is shared. Part of what drives the author is the death of his wife and his yearning to know what or how we live on, not just as memory, in the consciousness of others. It's a provocative and sometimes annoying book. You may know Hofstadter from Godel, Escher, and Bach way back in 1979. This is an easier but equally mind-bending read.

10. Elia Kazan, by Richard Schickel. This biography was first published in 2005, the paper edition in 2006. I've wanted to read it since it was first published but just got around to it in 2007. Schickel is a good writer and brings to life the nuts and bolts of Kazan's work in theater and film. Most helpfully, he gives us some deeper sense of why Kazan testified against his fellow "communists" before Congress. I think that Schickel bends over too far to exonerate Kazan, but he makes a strong argument in his defense. Most importantly, Kazan's work is well examined here. And it is at the heart of our best theater and film of the mid-twentieth century. Go back and watch "On the Waterfront," "A Streetcar Named Desire," or "A Face in the Crowd" to recall how deeply we know this work--and how much better it is than almost anything you can see today on the screen or stage.

Ok. Long post. Apologies. May you all have a year of blessings and blossoms.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Santa Turned Away by White House

Ok, I published a new post on Monday but this came in this morning from the Center for Constitutional Rights, and I wanted those who read this blog to see it too.