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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

a virtual interview with murray pura

VIRTUAL INTERVIEWS ANAM CARA™ presents writer Murray Pura author of The White Birds of Morning:


VI: You have several novels out and two volumes of short stories as well as a number of works of non-fiction. In addition, two more books of fiction are due to be released by US publishers in January 2012. Where does The White Birds of Morning fit into the program?

PURA: It's the sequel to the novel Zo that was released in 2008. Both of the books are part of a series of novels dealing with the Chornavka family. Zo covers the years from 1911-1932 and White Birds covers the years 1932-1943.

VI: Without giving too much away, how do the two books tie into each other and what is White Birds about?

PURA: Both books are based on the lives of two of my aunts. One was a strong Communist in her earlier years and the other a devout Catholic. It was difficult growing up with them because you could never invite them to the same family gathering at the same time or there would be conflict. And not simply because of their different beliefs. They just plain didn't like one another. So I took this conflict and went back to the beginning of the 20th century and made a story out of it. It's not biography though. I just use the basic framework of their lives to tell the tale - it's a work of fiction after all. But it's built around the relationship between the two sisters.

VI: Zo was about the Vatican wanting to canonize one of these sisters.

PURA: Right. The Catholic sister is a candidate for sainthood. So an emissary from Rome comes to question the sole surviving brother who happens to be ending his years as a Trappist at a monastery in America. He is not happy about the Vatican's plans and is very hostile towards the emissary and his questions about his sister's life. Her name is Zoya, Zo for short.

VI: So how does White Birds pick up on the story?

PURA: We are still looking at the lives of the two sisters. But we spend more time with the brother who is telling the story whose name is Andrew. He falls in love and while all sorts of terrible things are going on around him - Naziism, Stalinism, world war - his love endures and gives him something to hold onto.

VI: What about the sisters?

PURA: In real life, the Communist sister brought her family to the Soviet Union to help Stalin and, in true revolutionary spirit, save the world. And she ran into some pretty shocking things that Stalin and the Soviet Communists were doing that the newspapers of the day, including The New York Times that had reporters there, weren't talking about. So in White Birds we have the Communist sister doing the same thing - bringing her family to the USSR to make sure the Communist Revolution surges forward and running into a brick wall of Soviet atrocities.

VI: You say the book runs through to 1943 so how does the Second World War figure in the story?

PURA: The Communist sister is there when the Germans invade, living in Ukraine. By the time the German Army comes, in 1941, the Ukrainians welcome them with open arms. Stalin has been so cruel to the Ukrainian people that Hitler and his Third Reich look good to them - at first.

VI: Does White Birds center around the dynamic between the two sisters?

PURA: It's always there, and the Catholic sister winds up in the USSR as well. But in White Birds we look at the whole world through the eyes of the brother who is telling the story and we hear his struggles not only with Russian and German atrocities but atrocities done by people who say they are religious or spiritual. Some of them are SS. Some are death camp guards. Some ship innocent people off to Stalin's labor camps in Siberia. And he tries to reconcile their beliefs about Jesus with what they are doing to other people. He discovers that it is not only Christians who are doing these things but Buddhists and Muslims as well and not only religious people but atheists and agnostics. He realizes it is a human race thing. So, on the one hand, the Vatican is still probing into his sister's life and whether there were miracles and, on the other hand, the brother is trying to figure out who really are the saints and who really are the sinners.

VI: Are all the believers hypocrites?

PURA: No, of course not. That is what makes Andrew's struggle so sharp. One of those closest to him, a niece named Zhanna Yeva, truly embodies the spirit of Jesus Christ while all around her others do not. She is a light and an inspiration to him during a very dark time. I guess the reader is invited to choose what they think constitutes a good person or a spiritual person or a true Christian. Who are the saints, so to speak. What sort of people really bring light into the world and what sort of faith in humanity or faith in God really makes a difference?

VI: And all wrapped up in a love story and a romance?

PURA: Love doesn't stop even when there is war and cruelty and darkness. That is one of the great blessings of the human race - an ability to love and forgive and hope and seek for something more true and more real no matter what else is going on.

VI: So is White Birds a book of hope?

PURA: Yes - of honesty about what humanity is capable of on the dark side, but great hope about what humanity is capable of on the love side.

VI: Before we go, I want to mention that you have two new works of fiction being released on January 1st, 2012. One is with Barbour Publishing and the other with Harvest House Publishers. Are these volumes going to be different than The White Birds of Morning?

PURA: Quite different. But still stories of love, courage and faith in the midst of great struggles and challenges.

VI: Well, we look forward to discussing those two titles with you in the fall. All the best with your writing plans for the summer months.

PURA: Thank you very much.



VIRTUAL INTERVIEWS ANAM CARA™ plans to interview author Murray Pura about his two new books in September, 2011. His other works of fiction presently include Mizzly Fitch, Zo, Mister Good Morning and The Poets of Windhover Marsh. Recent non-fiction includes the books Rooted and Streams, both published by Zondervan. He has been a finalist for the Dartmouth Book Award, the John Spencer Hill Literary Award and the Kobzar Literary Award.

The White Birds of Morning is published by Windhover Marsh, an imprint of Clements Publishing of Toronto. It was released in April 2011 and, if not on the shelf, can be ordered through your favorite bookstore or online through Amazon.

the parable of the king

THE KING, THE PRINCE AND THE PEASANT

by Murray Andrew Pura


Long ago and far away there lived a good king who ruled wisely and justly over his kingdom. Often he would leave his throne and take off his crown and dress in the simple clothes of a beggar. Attired like this he could wander about his kingdom without being recognized and visit with his people in their homes or take meals with them in their taverns. In this way he understood what was truly going on within his borders and what his people needed and what they feared.
But he did not go out on these excursions in disguise only in order to help his people. He also did it because his very best friend was a peasant who raised sheep on a green hill by a small cottage. At this cottage the king could laugh and sleep in late or help shear the sheep. He could talk about anything he liked. Walk about the cottage with one shoe off and one shoe on. Cook the food. Eat coarse black bread and yellow cheese. Ride a horse without his bodyguards. In short, he could be himself.
It was his friend who made this possible. Even though he was at least 20 years younger than the king he was not afraid of the great man. He did not expect him to act like a high and mighty king and he did not expect to be treated like a lowly peasant. He simply enjoyed the king for who he was, crown or no crown. And this was precisely the atmosphere the king needed in order to relax and be refreshed and renewed in his body and his spirit.
“You remind me of my son,” the king said one day, sitting at a table near the fire with the peasant. They were both eating black olives and spitting the pits into their hands.
“What is he like?” asked the peasant.
“Young like you. Quiet. A good listener. Someone who brings freedom to those who know him.”
“I should like to meet him.”
“That day will come. Perhaps this summer we will both show up at your door as tinkers. We will be riding mules and selling pots and pans.”
The peasant laughed. “That is a pleasing image. The king and his son riding mules rattling and clanging with tin pots.”
The king smiled. “It would not be such a bad life.”
Now one morning, many months after the king’s last visit, the peasant rose early in the morning to tend to his sheep. It was lambing season and he was anxious that he should lose none of his newborn to the wolf or the fox. He quickly took some bread and cheese and olives while it was still dark, wrapped his cloak about his shoulders, picked up his staff and went up the hill. Two lambs had been born during the night and both were doing well, taking their mothers’ milk. He could see that many more of his ewes were ready to give birth at any time. So that night and for many nights after he slept on the hill with his flock. He lit fires and sang songs and thanked God for every lamb that came into the world. When he slept he rolled himself into his thick cloak and used a smooth flat stone for a pillow. Twice he chased off foxes and once a wild dog, threatening them with the tall staff that he had cut from an oak tree.
One night the bleating of his sheep woke him and he sprang to his feet ready to wield his strong staff. At first he could see nothing in the darkness. Then he heard a grunt and spotted a man lifting a lamb under each arm and loading them into a horse-drawn cart. He ran up and demanded angrily, “Neighbour, what do you think you are doing?”
The big bearded man was startled by the peasant’s appearance but quickly laughed it off and scooped up another lamb. “I work for your landlord. You are behind in your rent and I am here to take what is due him.”
The peasant seethed. “In ten years I have never missed a payment on my rent.”
“Well,” the big man answered, loading two more lambs into the cart, “rent went up the first of March. And you haven’t paid the increase. But not to worry. Your lambs will make up what’s owed.”
“I was never told about a rent increase.”
“Well, you’ve been told now.” The big man counted the lambs in the cart. “Twenty. That ought to do for this load. I’ll be back in a few days to pick up the rest.”
The peasant blocked the big man’s path. “Put those lambs back with their mothers.”
The big man guffawed. “What is this? The mouse that roared?”
The peasant lifted his staff. “Put them back.”
The big man shook his beard. “I don’t have time for this.” And he lifted the peasant in his brawny arms and threw him to the ground, almost splitting his head open. Then he turned to take the halter rope of the horse in his hand and lead the mare down the hill. “I’ll be back on Sunday,” he said. “See that you have the newborns ready for me.” And with the lambs crying for their mothers and their mothers crying back, the big bearded man began to walk the horse and cart down the slope.
The peasant got to his feet, shook his head, heard the bleating of the lambs and picked up his staff. His head pounded. Fire roared up through his arms and chest. He raced up behind the big man and shouted, “Put them back!” And when the big man growled and turned to fight, the peasant struck him once, twice, three times with the oak staff until the big man collapsed on the grass. Panting, the peasant bent over the man. When he saw that he had killed him, he carefully lifted each lamb out of the cart and took them back to their mothers. Then he pushed and pulled and loaded the big man’s body into the cart and led horse and cart down the hill to the village to knock at the door of the sheriff.
That day the king watched the sun rise in a glorious rainbow of reds and golds and purples. Then he washed and ate a hearty breakfast and put on his kingly clothing and sat on his throne to conduct the business of the day. He could not believe his eyes when the doors to his chamber opened and the guards brought in a man, a peasant, his friend, chained hand and foot followed by the sheriff and a whole mob of people weeping and shaking their fists.
“He has killed my husband!” shouted one woman.
“He has murdered my son!” shouted another.
“He has slaughtered this lad’s father!” shouted yet another.
“Silence!” thundered the king and all became silent. He turned to the sheriff. “What is this?”
The sheriff bowed. “It is not a difficult case, your majesty. This peasant confesses to the crime. There was a quarrel over some sheep. This peasant struck the dead man three times with his staff. He killed him.”
“Murder! Murder!” cried one woman.
“We demand justice!” yelled a large man. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!”
“Enough!” The king thumped his sceptre against the floor and the jabbering again ceased. Then he looked the peasant in the eye. “Is all this true?”
The peasant lifted his head and looked at the king. There were no beggar’s clothes on his friend now. No olive pits in his hand. Instead he was dressed in scarlet and gold and a crown blazed from his head and the sceptre flashed like lightning from a clenched fist. There was no laughter on his lips and his face was as fierce as a hawk’s. The peasant swallowed and bowed his head. “All that your sheriff says is true, my lord. He claimed he was taking my lambs for overdue rent but I did not believe him and I struck him down.”
“That is so, your majesty!” called a thin man with the face of a weasel. “This peasant was months behind on his rent and I sent the man he murdered to collect. A most trustworthy man.”
“I knew nothing about an increase in rent,” the peasant said.
“Is that cause enough to kill a man?” the sheriff asked quietly. “Why did you not come to me before striking him to the ground?”
The peasant shook his head. “I lost my temper. I am sorry.”
“Sorry?” screamed one woman. “What good does that do?”
“Words mean nothing!” yelled another. “A life for a life!”
“We demand justice from the king!” shouted a third.
“The law is clear, your majesty,” the sheriff said while family and relatives wept and raged. “The peasant killed for no good reason. His life was not threatened. The landlord had a legitimate claim on the sheep for rent due him. Instead of coming to me for assistance, the peasant took it upon himself to take the law into his own hands. Now a man is dead and his family mourns. The laws of our kingdom are clear and they are just. A life for a life.”
“A life for a life!” the mob roared.
The king rose to his feet. The mob grew quiet. “I will pronounce judgment,” he said. He looked his friend in the eye and raised his sceptre. “With your own mouth you have confessed. An apology does not bring the dead back to life. Our law knows of no other remedy than to pay back eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. You will be taken to the place of execution tomorrow at dawn. There your head will be separated from your shoulders. The debt of blood will be paid and the kingdom will continue to exist in harmony and in peace. This is the decree of the king.”
“The king has spoken!” all the people responded.
The peasant was led away by the guards and taken down deep into the bowels of the castle and thrust into a dirty cell in the dungeon. There he was chained to the wall by his arms, in addition to remaining chained at his ankles and wrists. The dungeonmaster laughed. “You won’t be needing your arms. We don’t feed the guilty the day before their execution. We feel concerned about their souls. We think a fast is good for them. Helps cleanse them of their sins.” And he closed the iron door to the peasant’s cell with a crash.
Meanwhile the king remained on his throne throughout the day, settling every matter that was brought before him with wisdom and with justice. But at night, alone in his bedchamber, he laid his sceptre on a red velvet cushion and placed his crown on a white marble table and sank his face into his hands and wept. Great sobs shook his entire body. He knelt by his bed and tried to pray but he could not. And his loud groans reached the ears of the prince.
Now the prince had just returned from a long ride on his golden horse, examining the woodcutting that was going on in the huge forests that lay just beyond bowshot of the castle. He was washing his face and changing his clothes when he heard his father crying. He came and knocked on the door and entered the king’s room.
“Father,” he said in alarm, seeing the king collapsed by his bed, “what is it? What has happened to crush your spirit like this? Are you ill? Has someone died?”
The king rose and hugged his son close to him. “My boy,” he said, “you speak the truth of it. A good friend, my greatest friend, is as good as dead. And I am the one who has executed him.”
“What? The peasant? Is he guilty of a crime?”
“Aye, guilty, he confesses it. It was done in a hot temper. No doubt he thought he had reason to strike the man taking his lambs. But not to kill him.”
“Can’t you pardon him?”
“What? With the dead man’s family and relatives baying for his blood like hounds on the hunt? The law is irrevocable. He took the life of a man. Now his life must be taken. If I break this law for him I break my kingdom. I break justice. My name will be muttered with a curse in all corners of our land. My rule will be at an end. The blood debt must be paid, my son. Or the world that we know will come off balance. It will fall to pieces.” The king turned from the prince and walked to the window to look out at the gathering darkness. “No. He is lost. I cannot save him.”
All that night the king did not sleep. He sat at the table in his room. Or he looked out the window. Or he paced. Nor did the peasant sleep. Even if he had felt like resting, he could not. Whenever he tried to relax his legs his arms burned like fire as they strained against the chains on the wall. He looked and looked into the windowless darkness and listened to the rats chittering in the corners. The prince did not sleep. He worried for his father and he worried for his father’s friend. He called for his counsellors. “Surely there is another way of satisfying the law and rendering justice in this case,” he said. His counsellors shrugged. “The law is the law,” they answered him. “When it comes to death there are no loopholes.” But the prince studied the great books of the kingdom himself until dawn began to crack the sky.
As soon as a slit appeared between heaven and earth the dungeonmaster unlocked the door to the peasant’s cell with a clatter and two guards came to drag the peasant to the place of execution. It was a large open square within the castle. A massive block of oak, stained black with old blood and scarred with cuts from the blows of the mighty ax, stood in the centre of the square. Guards in armour ringed the block and the dead man’s family and friends seethed and surged around the guards. The king stood with his retinue on a dais. A path was cleared for the peasant. He was taken to the block and told to kneel. A monk in a long brown robe prayed over him. Then the executioner appeared, walking slowly out of a door in the castle.
He was a big man with thick arms and legs and a chest like a boulder. A black hood covered his face. His hands were like stones and in them he carried the great silver ax. He stood over the kneeling peasant. Even the crowd was afraid of him and ceased to move or speak. He looked up at the king and waited.
“Now justice is seen to be done!” cried the king.
“Now justice is seen to be done!” responded the crowd.
The executioner lifted the enormous ax and swung it up over his head in a smooth arc. He paused. The muscles in his arms and wrists suddenly bulged and the ax dropped.
“Stop! In the name of the king!”
The executioner grunted and halted the ax blade just inches from the peasant’s neck. The crowd turned to look at the prince. He was striding across the square, his cloak of scarlet flapping behind him. “Release this man,” he commanded the guards. The guards looked up at the king.
“What are you doing, my son?” demanded the king.
“Doesn’t our law say a life for a life?” the prince asked the king.
“Yes, my son. You know it.”
“Then I claim the ancient law of exchange. A life for a life. Let the prisoner go free. I will take his place.”
“No!” shouted the king.
“No!” shouted the crowd.
“It is the law!” cried the prince. “No one may hinder me! I do this act freely and of my own choosing. No one has forced me. No one has put any gold in my palm. I gain nothing. But.” And suddenly the prince’s hard and frosty face warmed with a small smile. “But my father will gain a second son.” He turned and looked at the crowd. “It is my right. It is the law of exchange. A life for a life.” He looked up at the king who was trembling and whose eyes were shining. “Do not be afraid, my father. I am going to God. And you will join me when he sees fit.” The prince helped the peasant to his feet. “Do not be afraid to be free. There is much good you can do. Just remember who your father is now. The same man who has been my father since I was a newborn.” He turned to the hooded executioner. “Do your duty. See to it that the blood debt is paid. Set my spirit at liberty.” Then the prince knelt at the block of oak.
“Now justice is seen to be done!” cried the prince.
“Now justice is seen to be done,” murmured the monk. But only he spoke. Everyone else was silent.
The executioner seemed unsure of himself for a moment. Then he hefted the huge ax in his hands and lifted it up over his head. He paused. Then he threw his muscles into the blow and brought the blade swiftly and surely down onto the prince’s neck. As the ax struck home a guard slashed the through the chains of the peasant with one stroke of his sword. “Now the law is satisfied,” said the guard. “Go. You are a free man.”
The peasant stood in that light of purest gold that always cloaks the earth for a few minutes at the beginning and the end of each day. He watched the crowd turn from the block with their heads down. He saw the executioner wipe his blade clean with a red cloth. He followed the movement of the king as he came off the dais and knelt and held the body of his son. He heard a lark singing and the king weeping. Then he turned and fled, the broken chains clanging against the ground as he ran.
He did not stop running until he reached his cottage. His sheep were milling about the door but he thrust through them and went inside and barred the door. Then he sat on a chair in front of the ashes of the fire and buried his head in his hands. The sun spanned the sky and disappeared. The earth grew dark. He could hear the bleating of his flock. But he did not move. He did not eat or drink. He acted as if he were dead.
At midnight there was a knocking at the door. The peasant did not get up to answer it. The knocking came again. And again. Still the peasant would not rise from the ashes of the fire. Finally a voice came through the door. It was the king.
“My friend. Open the door. It is I.”
But the peasant said nothing.
“I come in peace. I have brought some bread and cheese. Let us share it.”
Still the peasant said nothing.
“I have travelled a long way on foot. I am tired. I am cold. The night is dark. Open your door to me. My son.”
At these words the peasant slowly rose to his feet, walked to the door, unbarred it and opened it. There stood the king in the light of a waxing moon. He still wore his royal robes but they were torn and stained. The peasant stood just inside the doorway. Both men had the footpaths of weeping upon their faces.
“I am not worthy to be called your son,” said the peasant.
“Your brother thought you were,” answered the king.
“He did not know me.”
“But I do.”
The king embraced the peasant and kissed him on the cheek. Then he came inside and set a leather pouch on the table. Out of it he drew bread and cheese and, a rarity, one red apple. He took two of the peasant’s pewter cups and dipped them in a bucket of rainwater and placed them beside the apple. Finally he knelt at the hearth, took some wood, blew on the coals banked in the ashes and kindled a fire. It’s yellow light filled the room and began to work heat into their bones.
“Come and eat,” said the king.
The peasant sat at the table with the king and tried to chew some of the bread. The manacles on his wrists clanked against the wood. “Wait a moment,” said the king. He took a large key from a pocket. He smiled. “The dungeonmaster gave me this.” The peasant also gave a small smile: “I’m certain he gave it willingly.” The king laughed and reached over to unlock the broken chains on the peasant’s wrists. Then he knelt and unlocked the manacles on the peasant’s feet.
“How does that feel?” asked the king.
“Much better.”
The king threw the chains out the open door into the night. There was a clatter of hooves. “My sheep,” said the peasant. The king nodded. “They’ve missed you. Let us eat up quickly and tend to them.” “All right,” answered the peasant. The king took a small knife out of the pouch and split the apple. “Would they still be lambing, my son?”
The peasant looked into the king’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Then we had better be prepared to sleep outside a few more nights.”
“I think so.”
“Do you have a heavy cloak I can borrow?”
“I have several.”
“One will be enough. Or do you think my bones are so old that I will need three or four?”
“No. One good one will be all you need. Here.” The peasant got up and took a blue cloak from a hook near the fireplace. Then he offered it to the king. “This will be just right for you. Father.”
The king smiled and nodded and his eyes gleamed. “Thank you, son.”
So they finished what they could of the food and went out into the night and walked up the hill and the sheep followed them. The peasant counted and then counted again. “There are six new lambs,” he said, “but one ewe is missing. She has probably gone off to some little nook or cranny to give birth. I doubt she’s gone far. I know her. Sit down and rest, father. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“Not on your life,” replied the king. “I’m coming with you. I’ve been locked up inside that confounded castle long enough.” He got to his feet. “Let’s go.”
So father and son walked out under the stars together to look for the ewe and her newborn. As they went they both thought of the prince but talked of the weather. They searched for an hour before they found the ewe. The son went to pick up the lamb but the father beat him to it. They returned to the flock and bedded down for the night. But not before the father pulled a large gold ring off his finger and slipped it onto the finger of his son.
“Thank you,” said the son.
“You have probably not thought of it,” said the father as he burrowed into his blue cloak, “but you are a prince now. What do you think of that?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“A prince has much to learn. But there will be time enough for that. Right now there are more important things. The sheep. The hill. The stars. Bread and cheese. Olives.” He peeked out at his son from under his cowl. “And pots and pans. Do you think we’ll have a few weeks to spare to be tinkers before we return to the castle? I know a man who will lend us a good mule.”
They both laughed. Night became morning and morning became many days and many days gathered themselves into months and years and they lived and breathed and ruled the kingdom with wisdom, with justice and with mercy. And of all people in all worlds, possible and impossible, the two of them lived to the height, to the depth and to the breadth of all that was brightest and most wonderful.
And they never forgot.

portrait of a great soul

Portrait

by Murray Andrew Pura


He was the greatest painter in the land. And he took for his subject the very least person he could find. “I would like you to sit for a portrait,” the painter said to the beggar when he found him on the street. “Please come with me to my studio.” Befuddled, the man walked beside the famous painter up one avenue and down another. His clothes were in rags. His teeth were black and crooked. His hair hung like weeds down past his shoulders. Leprosy had rotted out his nose and made stumps of his fingers. One eye was white with a cataract. The other often rolled back up into his head. Sores broke and bled over his skin. And his skin was as rough and grey as the bark of an elm. Nevertheless, once they arrived at the studio, the painter sat the man down in a chair of golden oak and spread a backdrop of blue velvet cloth behind him. Then he brought out his palette and sable brushes, propped up a white canvas on his wooden easel, and began to paint.

It took several weeks. At night the painter gave the man his bed to sleep in and curled up on the floor. They shared soup and bread and cheese together and pot after pot of strong hot tea. Colours worked themselves under the painter’s fingernails and over his ebony skin. He chewed the ends of his brushes when he was trying to think. On sunny days he opened all the shutters and let light blaze over teacups and saucers and the man’s face. If it was overcast he kept the shutters closed and lit one or two candles. Once he asked the beggar to sit in the chair until four in the morning. The man could barely keep his eyes open. But the painter rewarded them both with a bar of Belgian chocolate as long as his arm.

Finally the portrait was done. “Come and look,” the great painter invited the man. When the beggar limped over to see his portrait he was stunned. “But this is not me!” he protested. The man in the portrait had hair that was washed and combed and that gleamed like silver. His skin was clean and whole. His nose sat strong and straight in the centre of his face. His eyes were rich and brown. The hands folded in his lap had fingers that were long and delicate. His lips curled in a small smile that hinted at the sturdy white teeth behind. The painter put an arm around the man’s shoulders. “Everything I have painted,” he said, “I found in your face.”

Once the canvas was perfectly dry the painter placed it within a gilt frame and gave it to the man. “Cover it with a rag,” he said. “But show the portrait to everyone who puts a coin in your cup. Tell them it is a painting done by the Master. Word will get around soon enough.” The man did as the painter told him. At first very few people would pay to have the rag removed though many asked what the rag concealed. “A portrait done by the Master,” the man would tell them. “Nonsense,” he was told. But the mayor of the city finally came and asked for the rag to be removed and placed a large coin in the man’s cup. When he saw the portrait the mayor was astounded. “I had heard rumours that this was in fact a great painting,” he said, “but now I can see for myself it is a masterpiece. It could be hung in any gallery in Europe and command attention.” Soon the mayor’s words spread from one end of the city to the other. Hundreds and thousands came to place a coin in the man’s cup and then wait to see the rag removed.

The man used the money to buy better food to eat and white soap to scrub his hair and skin with. He paid a doctor to remove his cataract and straighten his crooked teeth. A nun found him and cleaned and bandaged his sores. A woman who owned a clothing shop came and placed soft deerskin gloves on his hands. A man brought a glistening burgundy scarf to wind over the hole in the centre of his face. As the coins spilled over the top of the man’s cup he bought food and clothing for the other beggars on the street.

Many people asked the man to sell them the painting. But he would not. He slept with the painting in his arms and he carried it with him wherever he went. But an old beggar who befriended him stole the painting one afternoon while the man was napping in the warm yellow light. When he awoke he cried out and limped through the city looking for the portrait. But he never found it. Soon enough his money ran out and no one came to place coins in his cup anymore. His hair grew scraggly again and his skin thickened with dirt. The gloves rotted from his fingers and the scarf became a black rag. In a few months the leprosy took both his eyes and ate away his entire face. He died and his body was scooped up into a cart with the other street dead and carried outside of the city to be burned. By the time the master painter heard of the man’s plight it was too late.

The portrait passed through many hands and many countries. After several centuries it grew dark with dust and grime and, as the great painter who had done the portrait was no longer in vogue, it was placed in storage in the basement of a museum behind rows and rows of other old paintings and forgotten. Yet the memory of the portrait was not quite forgotten. When the great painter became fashionable once again people hunted throughout the world for his painting called Portrait of a Leper. Its worth was estimated in the hundreds of millions. But no one ever found it.

One year a restorer of paintings was looking through the storage area of a museum for paintings that deserved to be reintroduced to the public. For months he ignored the dark painting every time he worked his way down its row. However one morning he paused to consider it. He felt its restoration would be something of a challenge and who knew what the removal of the grime and darkness would reveal? He set to work on it at once.

He carefully cleansed the canvas. Matched faded colours and reapplied them. Removed flaking and painstakingly rebrushed the area. A cheerful face slowly revealed itself. “Why, this is marvelous,” the restorer said to himself, “but whose face is this and what is the name of the artist who painted it?” When he finally reached the lower right hand corner the name of the great painter emerged. He brought the painting immediately into the office of the museum’s curator. “This is the work of the artist who painted Portrait of a Leper,” he announced.

A special show was arranged around the unveiling of the restored portrait. Thousands of art critics and connoisseurs descended upon the museum. When at last the face was revealed everyone was astonished. “This is a painting of his that was never known,” they declared. “It is a new masterpiece.” When one critic wondered aloud whether it might not indeed be the missing Portrait of a Leper he was scorned from New York to Paris to Rome. “Take a look at that face,” the others demanded. “Is that the face of a man ravaged by leprosy? Look at how beautiful his features are.” So it was decided that the restored painting should be named Portrait of a Great Soul.

looking for alexandria

this story is posted in dedication to Morganne Jones, writer, poet, and dreamer



LOOKING FOR ALEXANDRIA


She bent with the brown and green grasses that bent in the wind off the sea. Sat in the sand and hugged her knees and curled herself into a ball. Her hair lifted and streamed toward the east like robins. You are dying, Mother, you are dying, dying. I do not know what to tell you. I cannot give you shiny cards with pictures of flowers and sweet verses from the Bible. I am the one who must talk to you. It is my words I must use. But I do not have the vocabulary, I do not have the syllables, I do not have the grammar or the syntax, I do not have the rhyme.

She traced letters on her palm with her finger. Part of her mind struggled with the words, another part with the whole pattern that was emerging like a skein of geese unravelling in the sky, another part was conscious of the wind and the grasses scraping against one another, yet another knew the sea was behind her and that it was boiling with whitecaps. No. The word is too long. The sentence does not work. This close to the sea the waves do not sound like wind in the treetops. They are brutal. Another word, this word, is better, all right, come, the rest of you come, tumble over me. Even with this sweater, this thick green sweater, I am getting chilled. I don’t care. I have to write it here. My room has too many walls and its air has no water or salt. That works, that works, that flow works, come on, stream into my arms and fingers. Time for the paper in my pocket and the yellow pencil and the creases I must bump the letters over and the curve of the rock I must follow. The paper is like a whitecap curling out of my lap. I can see the waves behind me breaking open white and clean like this paper I am writing black letters on. Black letters like the bits of debris in the grey ocean, the green ocean, and there is that gull talking again, muttering like Professor Reamings lecturing us about Virginia Woolf. Now my fingers are cold splinters of granite scratching up the page. But I am going to finish it here, Mother, right here, because this was where you took me for picnics. Except you could never turn your back on the sea and the miles of painted air.

“So you wrote this?”
“I did.”
“And you thought it would be appropriate.”
“Yes.”
“You never had any second thoughts about it?”
“No. I wrote it for my Mother.”
“You gave it to your Mother before she died?”
“Yes.”
“Did she read it?”
“I read it to her.”
“Good God.”
“She liked it.”
“How could she like it? A poem about herself rotting out. A poem about cancer.”
“A poem about life.”
“Is that what you think?”
“A poem about love. She understood it.”
“How do you know?”
“She has a way of smiling.”

The pastor took off his glasses and leaned back in the chair behind his desk. The three deacons, one man and two women, took this opportunity to look at him so that they didn’t have to stare at the young red-haired woman sitting in the chair. The pastor blew some air out of his mouth in a gust and glared at the line between ceiling and wall.

“Alexia. When we gave you the church paper to edit it was with the understanding that you’d keep any poetry experiments to yourself. We want inspirational writing in the paper. We want to build up people’s faith. Not tear it down.”

“That’s why I put the poem in.”
“What?”
“To build up people’s faith.”
“Are you joking?”
“You seem to be making some kind of assumption that faith grows without any struggle. No rain. No darkness. No frost.”
“Alexia, in case you haven’t noticed, people don’t come to church for struggle. They get enough of that during the week. Here is where they come for peace and happiness. This is where they come to rest their souls. They come here for answers. Not questions.”
“That seems very different from the way Jesus treated people.”
“What do you mean?”
“His sentences were like razors, don’t you think?”
“No. I don’t. Alexia, do you have any idea how many complaints we’ve received about your poem?”
She shrugged.
“Twenty-six. Twenty-six complaints in a church of two hundred and fifty.”
“Did anyone call to tell you they liked it?”
“One person.”
“That’s something.”

“That’s nothing. Alexia, we’ve always thought a lot of you and your Mother. We’ve thanked God for you in the past. So we’re willing to give you another opportunity to do it right. Some people want us to take the paper out of your hands. We think Christ would give you a second chance.”

“However,” spoke up one of the women, the one Alexia thought of as Mrs. Watermelon and Cucumbers because of the scent of her perfume, “you need to let us see the paper each week before you print it.”

The pastor nodded. “That’s right. We’ll look it over.”
“Especially the poetry?” asked Alexia.
“Everything. If we like what we see we’ll give you the all clear to print the paper and distribute it to the congregation.”
“What day do you want it?”
“You print on Thursday, don’t you? I’d like to see the proof before the Wednesday night church supper and prayer meeting. The deacons will be there as well and they can take a look at the same time. If everything is fine we’ll give you the green light.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“You’ll have ample time to make corrections.”

It was Tuesday. Alexia went home to her apartment, fixed supper, sat looking at the wall while she ate. Then she washed and dried the dishes and put them away. It was a warm night in September so she stood on her fifth floor balcony and looked out over the city to the sea. She could always catch a glimpse of it between two highrises. A half moon ignited a flat calm. You are the poet, God. Compared to you I feel like a fraud. You say stronger things than I do. You say it better. But this is what you put in my fingers so I have to do what I can. She went back inside, got into her black robe, brushed out her hair, and tucked her legs up under her on the couch. She held a red spiral bound notepad and a navy blue pen that wrote in green. I wonder if they would agree to all these colours?

Some of her poems game out in a gush. A artesian well of words and sounds. Tonight she scribbled and scratched and balled up sheets of paper and finally gave up in disgust at one o’clock. What is the use in praying if you won’t even help me? She lay under the covers in her bed and stared at the squares and spheres of city light bobbing on her ceiling. I was going to buy heavier curtains to keep out the light. Or vertical blinds. Would this bunch have let you print and distribute Job to the churches of the world? How about Ecclesiastes? Or Psalm 73? Or Psalm 88? The darkness is my closest friend. How did Heman get that one past you? Maybe I ought to try that. Throw Job and Gesthemane and Psalm 88 into one pot and see how the colours mix. If they argue with me I’ll tell them you wrote it. She sat up and turned on her bedside lamp and, not wanting to go out to the living room, opened a bonded leather Bible from the table next to her pillow and jammed words together on the blank pages at the front with a red pen. The more she wrote the better she felt and by three o’clock she swelled with a white light and a white heat. Her mind and heart and the flow of her blood glittered with the purest fire as she finally lay back to rest. When I worship like this it’s easy to think of dying. It’s easy to think of loving you forever. Everything inside me has been rinsed by a stream that is clear and cold and hard and emerald.

The next day should have been difficult. She’d only had five hours sleep. But the bright flames of last night’s creating still licked up and down the veins and bones of her arms. Teaching Shakespeare and Milton and Dante at the college she felt like she was standing in silver rectangles of radiance. She brought the four page church paper to the potluck that evening, contributing three bags of potato chips, the only person who ever brought ketchup and dill pickle and roast chicken and then mixed them all together in one bowl. The pastor and his three deacons ate quickly and left together for his office with the church paper in one of his hands. Five minutes later Mrs. Watermelon and Cucumbers was sent to fetch Alexia.

“All’s well?” smiled Alexia.
“Nothing’s well,” said Mrs. Watermelon.
The pastor was at his desk again. “Alexia, everything is fine except for the poem. It’s one of your poems again, I take it.”
“Sort of.”
“The Darkness Is My Closest Friend. Good God. What kind of title is that?”
“It’s God’s title.”
“What?”
“I took it from Psalm 88.”

The pastor and the deacons riffled through their copies of the Bible. “It’s not in mine,” said one. “You’ve taken it out of context,” said another. “When it says the darkness is my closest friend,” sniffed Mrs. Watermelon, “it doesn’t mean the darkness is my closest friend.” “Look,” said the pastor in the manner of pronouncing the final word on the subject, “just because God does it doesn’t mean you can do it.”

“So you’re rejecting it?” asked Alexia.
“Not the whole paper,” said Mr. Sharpe, a lawyer. “Just the poem.”
“You want me to write another poem?”
“Or drop it,” said Mrs. Bland, the other woman.
The pastor took off his glasses. Alexia became a soft smudge and he felt comfortable looking at her. “What time do you print?”
“About four. At the college.”
“If you write a new poem bring it to me here at noon tomorrow. If it’s good I’ll give you two thumbs up. All right?”

Alexia sat through the prayer meeting that night as if she had been calcified. When people shared scripture passages she wanted to stand up and quote from Psalm 88 or Psalm 42 - “All your waves and breakers have swept over me!” - or shout: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!” She wanted to strike a Shakespearean pose and sweep a dark cloak about her and mutter, “This too is of God.” But she remained sitting with her eyes closed. I am not one of your people. I am not one of your people. Knives worked themselves up under her skin and pried it from her bones. At one point she opened her eyes and read her poem again, creased and crinkled in her lap.

At home she peeled a banana but only took one bite before putting it down on top of a book on the coffee table. She did not get into her robe. She did not brush out her hair. She did not clean her teeth. She sat on the couch and scrunched her knees up under her chin. I felt so good with you last night. I felt so good about the poem. Now it’s gone. I am not going to do this all over again.

The cover of the book under the banana showed a man sitting on the banks of a blue stream. It reminded her of how she used to put her poems underwater after she wrote them. This was when she was ten or eleven. She would put each fresh poem in a ziplock bag and place it in the creek near their home and weight it down with stones. A full hour was required to make the poem a true poem. She loved to watch the running water slip blue and green and white over the plastic bag and cause her printed words to flicker or elongate or disappear or pop up in big silver bubbles. Finally she would pluck the bag dripping out of the creek and remove the poem. “Now it is yours,” she would say to God as she stood with wet hands under the willow trees. That night she would place the poem in her Bible and slip the Bible under her pillow so she could sleep with God’s words and her words. She was also sure this would give her inspiration for her next poem.

“What did I do with all those poems?” she asked out loud.

It was just past midnight. Another late night. I can’t keep up this poet stuff. Give me another calling. It’s as bad as being a prophet. Always getting caught between the horns of the altar and slain. The title of the paperback on the coffee table was The Distracted Preacher and other stories by Thomas Hardy. Hardy made her think of another Thomas, another T.H., Thomas Hooker, and thinking of Thomas Hooker mader her think of another Anglican, John Donne, which made her think of another Anglican and pastor and poet, George Herbert. A verse may find him, he had written, who a sermon flies, and turn delight into a sacrifice. She tapped her fingernails against her teeth. Which one of them had written about truth coming through the brittle crazy glass of their lives and words? Like sun through the erratic shapes of stained glass? She picked up the remote and pointed it at her TV. Someone came on singing with their dog about a new minivan and she clicked it off again. The pastor did not want her to talk about death. He did not want her to talk about suffering. Perhaps he would let her talk about truth, about all the pastors and priests who had been poets and had invited God to pour hot light through them.

“Why are the personnel managers or the businessmen or the evangelists or the entrepeneurs the only role models for pastors and priests? Why shouldn’t artists be role models too? Why not poets? What is the Bible? A work of art or a Volkswagen manual? Poetry or a spreadsheet?” She said all this to her bathroom mirror where she had gone to splash her face with cold water. Twisting her hair up on her head she thrust several pins through it. Then she went back to the couch and picked up a pen she had been using to underline passages in Hardy’s book. The only paper close at hand was a stack of white napkins. She scrawled on these.

I need a stronger metaphor. Stop doodling. That is a police siren. No, it’s a fire truck. God, help them help. Don’t imitate Hopkins. Write your own writing. Something with an A. I’m starving. I’m freezing. Where’s the red throw that’s supposed to be on this couch? That’s too weak. I hate it. This is better, let it come. I should have had some coffee. It’s too late for coffee now. Light, patterns of light, shadows, long shadows in the afternoon and small shadows when the sun is overhead and no shadows when the sun is obscured. Deep lines etched in a deep face. Faith chiseled in skin and bone. I need another syllable. That word is no good.

She hurried from a staff meeting to the pastor’s office at noon the next day. He was eating a tuna sandwich with sprouts. He leaned back and closed his eyes and chewed. His glasses sat on the desktop. “Read it to me,” he said. She pulled the crumpled napkins out of her purse. It was a good thing she had numbered them all at breakfast.

The sunlight coming through the venetian blinds made stripes on the pastor’s face as she read. His eyes were closed. He had stopped chewing.

“I was inspired by other pastors when I wrote this,” she said when she had finished. “Donne. Herbert. Hopkins.”
He finally spoke. “Who are Hopkins and Herbert and Donne?”
“Ministers. Hopkins was Catholic.”
The pastor’s eyes blinked open and he looked at her.
“No darkness,” she smiled.
“Some.”
“Hard to talk about what light is if you can’t define what darkness is. They play off each other.”
The pastor drummed his fingers on his desk. “English wasn’t my strong suite in high school. But I did well with Math. At seminary I won the Greek language prize.”
“Can I print this poem?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“It’s not as bad as the others. But it’s still not good enough. Why do you make this so hard, Alexia? Go down to the store and pick out a couple of cards. That’s all the poetry you need.”
“You want us to have a Coutts-Hallmark faith?”
“That’s all our people require. Look, Alexia, if you want to go to Hamlet or Macbeth on Friday nights, go. But our people don’t want to go there. They don’t want a faith built on beautiful language and fancy words. They don’t want to think. They want their faith to be a faith of action. They want things in bite-sized chunks. Concepts they can get a hold of immediately.”
“You mean like bumper stickers and T-shirts?”
“They don’t need a dark night of the soul. They don’t need light that’s too bright to see. And they sure don’t need all your similies and metaphors and distractions. Just tell them the truth straight out. Don’t beat around the bush.”
“You mean no parables. No stories.”
“I mean keep it simple. The people in our church don’t want to be deep sea divers, Alexia. They’re beachcombers. Give them stuff they can recognize instantly and pick up and take home.”
“You want me to write a poem about beachcombing?”
“I don’t want you to write a poem at all. The paper is good as it is. Just print what you’ve got. You can show me another poem next Tuesday. And please. For my sake, Alexia. Could we have something where the sentences make sense and I don’t have to scratch my head? Something where the words rhyme? Make God happy and me happy at the same time.”

She finished typing the paper on her computer at five o’clock. She put a happy face where the poetry was supposed to go. I don’t care. I just want to go to bed early tonight. I’ll write something else next week. A book was open on one corner of her desk. She had been looking up All Saints Day earlier in the week. The word Alexandria caught her eye. Alexandria in Egypt was second only to Rome in importance during the height of the Empire. Its fame as a centre of rich Christian thought dates from the end of the second century AD under the influence of Clement and Origen. It increased in importance under the bishoprics of Athanasius and Cyril in the fourth and fifth centuries. It contained the most important library of its time, a library that was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. The collection of books was damaged by several wars but maintained significance until its final destruction by the Moslem conqueror Omar in the seventh century. Alexandrian theology was profound. It emphasized the reality of the spiritual world and the allegorical interpretation of scripture. It also stressed the divine nature of Christ. There was no hesitation in declaring that when the Incarnate Christ suffered it was God suffering. A great seaport, ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan, Alexandria was one of the brightest jewels of the early Christian faith, providing a mixture of profound faith and orthodoxy along with a marked creativity. It also contained all the challenges to that orthodoxy that the Roman Empire could spawn. Nevertheless, it was here that Athanasius, though exiled five times, made his stand for both the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Alexia looked at a map of ancient Alexandria which showed where the city walls were located, the dockyards and quays, the amphitheatre, gymnasium, stadium, hippodrome, medical school, hall of justice, library and museum. The lighthouse known as the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, had been almost 400 feet high and stood on Pharos Island, just offshore from the city. Alexia’s imagination was crammed with ships driven by red and orange sails and a blue Mediterranean waterfront teeming with people of every sort of colour of skin and every sort of garment and costume. Chariots rattled over the sunburnt stones and Roman armour blazed in the packed streets. She stood amongst hundreds of thousands of scrolls while dust motes sparked the air. Modern Alexandria, Al Iskandariyah, is the second largest city of Egypt and its chief port. It is built over the streets and the ruins of the ancient city which have never been excavated. Alexia tapped a pen against her teeth. The new was built on the old. Forgotten. But still in existence. She gazed at a colour photograph of Corniche Drive in Alexandria, a street that ran along the crescent shape of the harbour, along brown and yellow beaches, and she looked at the Mediterranean sea and beyond it to the desert over the housetops, the desert that swept and surged a thousand miles to the south, the sands and heats and flies where the desert mothers and fathers had forged their gleaming spirituality out of thin air. Desert asceticism, the book said, brings to life the philosophers’ dream in the midst of ordinary people.

Alexia was alone. All her colleagues were gone and the offices were silent. She opened a can of Coke that popped and fizzed and bit into a multigrain bagel. I can go to Alexandria. It is still there. I can go to its modern streets and tear up some of the asphalt and get down below to the city’s foundations. I can find pottery and bones, maybe Athanasius’ bones, maybe Origen’s, I can find scrolls with wisdom the Christians once knew but have forgotten. I can find the desert where Saint Antony struggled. I can take a boat or a plane and go there. I can find Alexandria. I can find Alexandria’s God. “Only a poet,” she said to the clock on the wall, “could understand enough of the significance of Alexandria to even begin to convey the chiaroscuro of it to the modern ear.” Mumbling Athanasius contra mundum she deleted the happy face from the computer screen and began to fill the empty space with words that came in a jumble and a jangle out of her head. The keys clicked softly under her white fingers. It was two o’clock before she had printed 75 copies of the paper and returned to her apartment. She stood in a sea breeze on the balcony for a moment before collapsing into her bed. It’s just as if you had kissed me.

That Sunday she stood in the church foyer and handed out the paper just as she did every week. The pastor came up behind her and patted her on the shoulder. “Mind if I take one?” he asked. “Here you are,” she said. He walked away but was back in a minute, his face flushed.

“Give me the rest of those,” he demanded in a whisper as people came through the door.
“No,” she whispered back.
“You are finished, finished here,” he grated. “You will never edit this paper again. You will be given no leadership responsibilities in this church.”
“Did you read the poem?”
“I don’t have to read the poem. It’s there and it’s not supposed to be there.”
“I can’t believe you wouldn’t like the poem.”
“That’s not the point. You didn’t pass it by me first and you knew you were supposed to do that. I’m responsible for what goes into these people’s heads.”
“Well, I would give you the rest of the papers but there aren’t any left. I’m afraid the poem has already gone to the people’s heads.”
“We’ll see about that.”

Alexia stood at the back of the church as the service began. After his opening prayer, and before the choir sang, the pastor smiled and said, “You were all handed the church paper when you came into the sanctuary this morning. Unfortunately, we need to ask for the papers back. Their distribution was premature and there is some misinformation that needs to be corrected before we can return them to you. If you’d like to hand your papers down to the end of each pew the ushers will collect them. Thank you very much. I’m sorry for this inconvenience. We’ll get them back to you just as soon as the problems are sorted out.”

There was a rustling as the papers were handed from person to person. The choir began to sing Amazing Grace and Alexia turned and walked through the doors and down the concrete steps. Elms were yellow torches up and down the street. She paused and wondered which way she ought to go. Someone called her name. Mrs. Marsh was coming slowly down the steps using her cane.

“What is it?” asked Mrs. Marsh, squinting at Alexia from behind her thick glasses. “Something you wrote again? One of your poems?”
“Yes.”
Mrs. Marsh had been a high school Math teacher for forty years. She handed Alexia her copy of the paper. “Go ahead and read it to me. I can’t be bothered fishing out my magnifying glass. It’s so big and clumsy.”
“You want me to read it to you right here?”
“No better place. But let’s walk down the street a ways and settle into a bench there. The one under the tall elm.”

They sat together on the green iron bench. Cars and buses drove past. A few yellow leaves landed on the round navy blue hat Mrs. Marsh wore over her stiffly permed white hair. “All right, my dear,” she said. “You go ahead.” Alexia leaned close to her so that she wouldn’t have to raise her voice.

“Well, fine, that’s just fine, that’s lovely,” said Mrs. Marsh when Alexia had finished. “I don’t know what they get excited about. Morton wasn’t that good at Math and that’s why he can’t understand poetry. It’s about rhythm and metre, isn’t it, my dear? No, he had a hard go of it in Math and Mrs. Williams told me he was no good at all with the English language. I expect that’s why he went into the ministry. Well. That wasn’t kind of me, was it?”

“Perhaps he’ll still read the poem. I think he almost liked my last one.”
“Perhaps. Who knows? I don’t imagine he believes poetry has anything to do with God.”
“Not my poetry at any rate.”
“If he got a proper translation of the Bible, one that didn’t hide all the poetry in paragraphs, he’d soon be seeing God’s world in a different light.”
“I did mention Donne and Hopkins to him.”
Mrs. Marsh snorted. “Morton would think they played for the Mariners or the Seahawks. Now. Enough of that. Did you bring your car? Why don’t you come over to my apartment for lunch? I’ll brew some tea. I have some fresh scones from my daughter.”
“I’d be happy to come over, Mrs. Marsh.”
“Well, help me up and let’s get on about it.”

Alexia did not return to the church even though the pastor left plenty of messages on her answering machine about wanting to get together for coffee. Instead she booked a flight to Egypt where she intended to spend her Christmas holidays. And she read more about Alexandria. Euclid had lived and studied there. Julius Caesar had accidentally burned part of the library in the Alexandrian War in 48 BC. Did Mark Antony compensate for the loss by giving Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls from the library at Pergamum, a library that was Alexandria’s only rival? The Roman Emperor Aurelian damaged the library again in 273 AD as he fought to reconquer Egypt. The city planned and built by Alexander the Great was in ruins by the time Napoleon arrived in 1799. At that point it had been used for hundreds of years as a quarry for new buildings. When modern Alexandria was erected on the same site most of the ruins, including those of the library, were eliminated.

“But something, something could still be there,” Alexia told her mug of coffee.

At night she sat up in bed and held the book in her lap that contained the map of ancient Alexandria. She traced a line she would walk. From the lighthouse to the Temple of Artemis and the Royal Palace. Down through the Gate of the Moon, past the army barracks and along the Boulevard Argeus into the Jewish Quarter. Through the Canopic Gate to the Hippodrome and then south along the canal to the Gate of the Sun. Up the Boulevard Serapis and right on Meson Pedion to the Library and the Mausoleum. Finally to sit down at a stone table with two or three scrolls and carefully unwind them. Reading words that had been lost for more than two thousand years, ideas and wisdom and history that no one knew, theology that no woman or man had ever considered. At sunset to hold all she had seen and walk up through the Necropolis, then down to Eunostos Harbour and along the waterfront to the shore of the Eleusinian Sea. Waves and red sun and the dark.

From the history of Alexandria she turned to reading about Origen and Clement and Cyril and Athanasius, especially Athanasius and his books on Saint Antony and Christ’s Incarnation. This led her to read The Sayings of the Fathers which had been written by hermits like Antony who had lived along the banks of the Nile River not far from Alexandria. Then The Conferences of Cassian which recorded John Cassian’s interactions with the desert fathers. She saw herself sitting in the desert and fighting sapphire-eyed demons with prayer and fasting. Every Friday she went without food from dawn to dusk, then took bread and wine in Christ’s honour and went to bed.

An old man said: I never wanted work that was useful to me but loss to my brother. For I have this expectation, that what helps my brother is fruitful for me.

A brother who had sinned was expelled by the priest from the church. But Abba Bessarion stood up and went out with him, saying: I too am a sinner.

Abba Poemen said: Teach your mouth to speak what is in your heart.

Amma Sarah said: If I pray to God that all people might be inspired because of me, I would find myself repenting at the door of every house. I would rather pray that my heart be pure toward everybody.

Every Sunday she had lunch with Mrs. Marsh at the elderly lady’s apartment.

“You ought to let me treat you from time to time,” said Alexia.
“Never mind. This is good for me. People still ask about you.”
“Do they?”
“Are you still reading about Alexandria?”
“Yes.”
“Still intending to go there at Christmas?”
“Yes.”
“Well, there is nothing wrong with that. But if Alexandria can never be here - ” she banged her cane against the floor several times - “right here, then it will not be anywhere.”
“Alexandria can help me understand what it is that is supposed to be here.”
“It can. It might. I suppose you have been reading the desert fathers? Yes. You told me you were. Well, I found something in one of my anthologies.” She picked up an index card from beside a plate that had a sliced muffin on it. The handprinting was large and dark. “Abba Sisoes said: Seek God, and not where God lives.”

Alexia drove down to visit her father in Portland one weekend. On Saturday night after he had gone to bed she clambered around in the cold attic opening boxes and trunks. She’d had a dream of a small red suitcase. It was something she had used when she was a child. She found it under a pink strip of insulation. Her poems were inside it, all the ones she had placed underwater, stacked neatly in piles of twenty and tied with green and blue ribbons. The ribbons were stiff and brittle and broke apart when she tried to untie them. She sat on the bed in her old room and read each of the poems. My God, how can we be so wise when we are ten about rain and beetles and plum trees? And so obtuse when we are thirty?

“We used to be warriors fighting evil in our hearts,” she complained to Mrs. Marsh. “Wrestling dark thoughts and wicked inclinations. We used to be wise women dropping words into souls like stones into brown ponds. We used to be poets. Now it is all about numbers and how we can keep people in our programs and our pews.”
“We are usually more reckless when we are children. More spirited. It is just as true of a young Christianity.”
“And my poetry. I always thought of myself as childlike. But I look at these poems in my handwriting with all the perfectly round ohs and prefectly green caterpillars and perfectly yellow owl’s eyes and I am nothing like that now.”
“The new city is still built on the old.”
“Yes, but what good is that if the old is obliterated? It is one thing to keep some of what is old and work it into the new. But what if none of the old is left at all?”

She walked on the beach in a sunset that was a conflagration. Out there is Alexandria. Out there is our childhood. Our youth. But what is left? What will I find? Broken things. Missing things. New buildings. The old structures razed. Young Egyptians who do not care about hermits or monks or bishops that have been dead for almost two thousand years. If Alexandria is not there anymore, not even under the pavement or out in the desert, where is it? Where can I find it? Is it only in my mind? Or does it still have skin tissue and blood vessels and green eyes? If it is still here, where is it sitting? How does it breathe?

Two weeks before Christmas she had just finished supervising an exam when Pastor Morton showed up in the doorway of the classroom. He was in jeans and a sweatshirt. He smiled.

“Alexia.”
“Oh. Hello. I’ve just finished an exam with my students.”
“An exam for poets?”
She laughed. “I suppose.”
“Alexia. I wanted to tell you. I read your poem. The last one you wrote. It took me awhile to get around to it, didn’t it? Listen. I had to tell you in person. I don’t understand all of it. But something in me wants to. I think it’s a fine piece of writing.”
“I’m very surprised. But thank you.”
“I want you to come back to the church.”
“Pastor. I don’t think it would work.”
“I want you to write another poem. A lot more poems. I want you to read them to us.”
“I can’t go through all that again. I guess I’ve become something of a hermit in the past few months. Praying. Reading. Struggling. I don’t think I can come back and be cross-examined by you and Mr. Sharpe every Wednesday night.”
“There won’t be a cross-examination. You can stand up and read them from the pulpit.”
“Without you knowing what I’m going to say?”
“I’m going to take a risk.”
“What do the others think?”
“They think the poems you write matter.”
“All of them?”
“Enough of them.”
“I don’t think I can do it. I’m sorry.”
“Alexia. We need God to speak to us this way.”
“Why?”

The pastor’s lips and face jerked as he tried to explain. Alexia thought he was going to collapse. “One of the Benjamin children took ill after you left. You must remember Justin. It was diagnosed as leukemia. I preached and preached but it made no difference. The family withered away as Justin got worse. We all withered away. He died. The way I spoke. The way I prayed. It was like a thick grey dust that settled on everything. I found a poem of yours between the pages of a hymn book. I read it to the congregation a week after Justin died. For a moment it was like a clean rain. But then it was gone. Alexia. We’re drying up. And you’re the only poet we have.”

That Friday night she broke her fast with a small round of bread she had baked herself and a cup of dark red wine. This is my body. This is my blood. Rain clamoured to get into her apartment and, remembering the ten year old she had been who understood storms and showers, she opened the balcony’s sliding glass door and let it gust over the ceramic tiles of the floor and over her face and hair. Tell me what to write. Put into me what I can write. Don’t you come from God? Then she shut the door and smoothed down her hair against her wet skin. She plucked a red throw from the back of a chair, wound herself in it and squirmed into a comfortable position on the couch. What am I supposed to say? Am I suposed to give them back their childhood? Show them the star over Bethlehem? Build each one a hut in the desert? Coax them to put a finger in Hopkins' inkpot?

There was only a stubby yellow pencil on the coffee table, a cold cup of Earl Grey tea from the night before and a book with a red cover entitled Western Asceticism. The rain talked on the glass. She began to print words on the inside of the front cover. There were two blank pages and when she filled them she turned to the back of the book where there were three more. Although she had begun with printing it turned into her written scrawl halfway down the fifth page of the poem. Her face was warm. When she became stymied she rubbed her hand up and down her leg and made vertical lines, up and down and up and down, with her pencil. She always began again in a sudden fury of sentences. When she had used all the blank pages she stopped.

“That’s enough.” she told the rain. “I have nothing more to say to you.”

She thought about placing the book under her pillow but it was too fat so she left it by the bread crumbs and the small ceramic cup with a dark ring at the bottom. Then she brushed her teeth and brushed her hair and got into bed. Her childhood poems were stacked on her bedside table and she thought about turning on the lamp and looking at one or two. But she closed her eyes, suddenly opened them again and glanced around her, then lay her head back so that her hair spread over the white pillow. It appeared as if someone had composed every delicate strand to lie in a precise way.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

january 1st 2012 release dates

I've just gotten word that two of my books will be released in the US market at the same time by two different publishers.

A Bride's Flight From Virginia City, Montana, a kind of love story-thriller set in 1875, will be published by Barbour Publishing of Ohio and hit the shelves January 1st.

If I Take the Wings of Morning, a love story set during World War I that has an Amish twist (conscientious objectors), will arrive at the same time, January 1st, 2012, courtesy Harvest House Publishers in Oregon.

Virtual interviews, Q&A, promo material, etc., will be released on this site starting in the summer/fall. There will also be special emailings to any who are interested.

Thanks for your support and I look forward to interacting with many of you about these books, why I wrote them and what they are about (without giving away too much and spoiling the stories :o)

I expect the books can be pre-ordered so that both titles can be presented as Christmas gifts in 2011. More on that as I know more.

I continue to work on new writing contracts with the Oregon publisher at this point and will give you future updates on how those books are doing.

A blessed Memorial Day Weekend to my American friends. We'll talk to many of you soon.

Murray

Thursday, May 26, 2011

the bible study

THE BIBLE STUDY


Now there were two women. Both went to different churches but they got together once a week to talk with each other and to discuss the things of God. The first woman was in a Bible study group that helped them learn what they were supposed to believe. They merely directed their questions to the leader of the Bible study, a pastor, and he gave every question a definite answer. They simply had to memorize what he told them and they had the solution to each of their problems. This brought them great satisfaction and a great deal of peace.

The second woman attended a Bible study in her church where the leader, also a pastor, would not give them definite answers to their questions. In fact, he hardly gave them any answers at all, but instead preferred to answer their questions with another question, which would get them thinking about why they had asked their questions in the first place. They wound up reading the Bible on their own, even praying, and they always came back to the Bible study group with more complex questions than the simple ones they’d started out with. This did not bring a great deal of peace, it brought about a great struggle within each person. Some of the members of this Bible study group left - they wanted a Bible study where they would be able to get plain yes and no answers to their questions, plus whatever additional information the pastoral leader might deem appropriate. After all, why were they paying this fellow?
Despite all this, the second woman enjoyed the Bible study, enjoyed the struggle, though it sometimes cost her sleep, though it sometimes cost her peace of mind and heart.

When the two women got together, the first woman would say: “How good our Bible study leader is, how wise, how many answers he has, he has set everything straight for me. I have the understanding I craved for all the things that happen in my life. I have found peace and truth.”

And the second woman would say: “I cannot tell you that I have answers for all the things that happen in my life. I cannot say I have peace or have all the truth. But I certainly have prayed more and read the Scriptures more since I joined this Bible study group. I feel I am wrestling with God.”

“Well,” responded the first woman, “suit yourself, but if you ask me, anyone who lacks peace in their Christian life isn’t getting enough of the teaching they need.”
So the one woman had her peace and the other woman had her struggle.

It happened that in the first woman’s church, her Bible study leader, the pastor, had an affair with another woman in the study group. It was discovered and he was fired from the church. Soon after, the first woman experienced a suicide in her family, and then her husband contracted cancer, followed by her youngest child being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. These blows, falling one after another, shattered her peace, and when she sought answers from the Scriptures, she could not find them. The answers the disgraced pastor had given her, all of which she’d memorized, seemed empty. She did not know who to turn to and there was little within her own self to rely upon, her faith had been built on her pastor’s, and her pastor’s faith had fallen. He was living with the woman he’d had the affair with. He told anyone that tried to contact him that he was sick of performing and of having to play God. He wanted nothing more to do with churches or Christians. The first woman was crushed.

The second woman also experienced a good deal of hardship at this time. Her husband was pinned under a heavy piece of metal at work. One leg was severed at the knee. He was bitter and angry. The woman’s children could not accept their father in this state, nor could they talk to him, so they stayed out increasingly, kept away from the house. She agonized about the trouble they might get into. On top of it all, her mother, with whom she was very close and in whom she confided everything, suddenly collapsed with a stroke. By the time the woman had made it to the hospital her mother had lapsed into a coma. She did not know where to turn - except to where the struggles of the Bible study had always taken her. She fell on her bed and prayed to God and poured out the pain of her heart.

Catching her by surprise, many truths she had fought and struggled with God over welled up in her to answer her cries. She knew them to be real for she had wrestled them through for herself. This was no second-hand faith God had fashioned in her. The Scriptures blazed with light. No, it was an authentic faith God had personally forged in her soul. She was able to get up off the bed with the peace she had never had before. When she learned of the plight of her friend, she went to her immediately and gave her the strong comfort she could out of the peace and faith God had worked in her own heart. And together, through the Word, through prayer, through the Spirit, and through the fire, the two women entered into life - a new and hitherto undreamed of reality between themselves and the One who was there for them.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

the last honest man

The Last Honest Man


Everything Arden said about other people always turned out to be true so he knew he was not doing wrong. “I’m God’s last honest man,” he liked to tell people. He had a calling, he said, to tell the truth even if it hurt, to get it all out and let the chips fall where they may, to stir the pot and make sure what was below the surface came to the top. He even had a T shirt made up that said, A Honest World Is An Honest To God World, and had a bumper sticker on his Porsche that read, It Ain’t Gossip, It’s God’s Truth.
Many times men and women had come to him and begged him not to speak up about something he knew. It will cause incalculable harm, they told him, it will start a war in our church, in our family, in our city. He always shook his head. “Honesty is the best policy,” he responded. “It’s closest to God’s heart.” When his words brought about the predicted turmoil and hatred and strife he would admit it was rough to watch. “It’s a tough love,” he confessed, “ but the truth is out now and God knows what he’s doing.” He ate well, slept well, was a good husband to his wife and a good father to his children. “An honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind,” he was fond of saying. He did lose friends and gain enemies because of the path he took but he shrugged his shoulders: “That’s what happened to Jesus and the prophets, right? Woe to you when all men speak well of you. But blessed are you when are reviled and persecuted. Great is your reward in heaven.” Without truth, there was no faith, no spirit, no God. So Arden continued to speak up, went to church on Sundays and Wednesdays, read his Bible every morning and evening and worshipped God day and night. He lived the good life.
One night as he slept alone in his bed a sound woke him. He sat up and stared into the darkness. "Who is it?" he asked. The room erupted with white light and white flame. His skin felt like it was burning off. He cried out, "Oh my God, oh my God," and put his hands to his face. Words came to him out of the light like physical blows, softly at first, then louder and harder and more rapidly as if stones were crashing onto his head.
Inflicter of pain, he heard. Arrogant one. Heart of flint. Sower of dissension. Spawner of turmoil. Grief giver. Dark gatherer. Smug. Pitiless. Preventer of life. Grace killer. Confuser. He who cloaks in depression. Man of no mercy. Stone thrower. Torturer. Hell nurturer. Hope smotherer. Fosterer of anguish. Breeder of war. Blocker of truth.
"No, no!" he shouted out. "I am a truth teller. Always. I do not lie."
"But you do lie. I am their righteousness and you speak those words to me."
He did not want to open his eyes but he could not help himself. He sensed he was about to see Jesus. Images of a man in a beard riding a donkey and healing the sick and breaking bread flitted across his mind. What he saw instead was a pillar of scorching flame. Eyes blazed out of it. There were feet like lava. A face emerged that was a pitiless desert sun. The voice was a storm of wind and water and rock.
"You accuse your brothers."
"No."
"You curse your sisters."
"No."
"You spit on your fathers and mothers."
"I only speak what is truth."
"If there is no love there is no truth. If there is no love there is only noise. If there is no love there is only fear."
He was overwhelmed and fell forward on his bed. A dread that made him sick to the core of his being passed over him like a wing.
But God is love, he thought.
No sooner had these words crossed his mind than the feeling of dread vanished. He opened his eyes and sat up. The room was still white with light but the flames danced now and heat no longer burned his face. The voice sounded like a brook moving among the stones, green and bright and speckled with trout.
"Speak the truth. In love. Give all you possess to the poor. Move mountains. Surrender your body to the flames. In love. Exchange fear. With love. Do the greatest thing. Love."
Suddenly the room was empty of white light. He got up, slightly light-headed, went to the window, parted the vertical blinds and peered out at the street.There were stars in the sky but the east was pale. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the glass.
They say he was a different man after that night. He still went about speaking the truth to people. But some who looked on protested that all he really did looked suspiciously like love, no more. You are supposed to tell the truth to these people, they told him, not love them up. Which is easier? he responded. To speak the truth to someone or to say I love you? The truth is, he smiled, that there is no difference.
He infuriated a great many. But he brought truth to a great many more. Families were healed. Friendships restored. Faith replenished. Those who wanted truth that was not truth, because there was no love in it, spent a lifetime among shadows and stones and dry stream beds. For those who wanted more of it, there was more of it, more than a lifetime. And for those who wanted more of the truth that was truth, and all the love that went with it, there was more of that too, as much love as there was God and just as endless.

the Las Vegas god

THE LAS VEGAS GOD


At first, all goes well.
He marries an outstanding woman, he invests money wisely, he becomes a millionaire. He makes international news early on when he hands Mother Theresa a check for for fifty million dollars. “My tithe,” he laughs.
All the Christian talk shows want to interview him. “God made me rich,” he tells them. “I give the good Lord the credit. There are certain universal laws that God has laid down. Provided you go along with them and don’t commit any violations, God will bless you. It’s as sure as gravity. And we’re not just talking about spiritual blessings, as important as those are, of course. We’re talking about the material world. The Lord knows we need money. He used money when he was on the Earth. He had flesh and bones to feed. He had to put clothes on his back. He needed money. So he gives us money too. My favorite Bible verse is that one where Paul says, ‘My God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory.’ Yes, amen. My own life proves the truth of that. I made my first million selling pews to churches. Now that’s a fact.”
James Oscar Buttering; his face on TIME, NEWSWEEK, and CHRISTIANITY TODAY. A model home. A model wife. A model car. All postpaid from God.
He played God the way some men play VLTs or the machines at a casino. He reasoned that if he pumped in enough prayers, enough worship services, enough charity and tithe money, sooner or later God would come across with paydirt - the right business merger when Buttering needed it, the right car, the right solution for a critical family problem. He was not an insincere man. He considered that his tithing and his church attendance and his humanitarian deeds were investing in God - he expected a return on his investment. And God always came through. He was not only practical with his blessings but dependable. You might even say predictable. You live holy and give God ten percent of your income and don’t swear or smoke and sure as the sun would rise God would fix you up like the Prince or Princess of Wales on their wedding day. He had another favorite Bible verse, “Come unto me all you that labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” but he always misquoted it, saying instead, quite innocently, “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you the rest.”
But troubles will attend even the most rock-solid investment. And after you’ve lived a while you know, as William Shakespeare said, that troubles prefer to travel in bunches, they like to keep each other company. So it was for James Oscar Buttering.
First it was his wife. She left to find herself. Then it was his home: half his children wound up on drugs and the other half disappeared. Then it was his car, or at least one of his cars - it broke down, utterly fell apart, on his way to work. When he finally got another limousine out to where he was stranded on a traffic-jammed freeway, it was only to pick up his car phone and learn that oil prices had plunged, ruining a third of all his investments. But not to worry. Diversification. Unfortunately, the troubles had learned all about diversification themselves.
A revolution the government had sworn to him would never get off the ground did, destroying his coffee stocks. His airline went bankrupt. South Africa froze his diamond assets. His fleet of luxury liners all went down in the same harbour on the same day due to a freak out-of-season storm. He couldn’t collect on the insurance because none of his vessels was carrying coverage for that kind of storm. “It wasn’t an act of God,” said the broker, “it was a typhoon, and as you see, clause F.4 specifically rules out coverage in the event of a typhoon.”
By the time James Oscar Buttering got to his office, it was all he could do to push through the reporters, the stock brokers, the government officials, the politicians, the bank managers, and last, but not least, the lawyers, and get into his private washroom to take the rumpled, sweat-stained shirt off his back - the state in which James Oscar Buttering remained the rest of his life. Peeking out behind the washroom door, he wondered that there wasn’t a clergyman or two on hand in the crowd to administer last rites. There wasn’t, but they showed up soon enough.
It was a week later and James Oscar Buttering had just finished lining up at the food bank and he had his feet up because they hurt like blazes. He had a cold room in a warehouse with a hot plate and a seaweed green fridge. He had been living on macaroni and Libby’s beans for five days and was resting a bit before he got back on his feet and started to boil the macaroni for the required seven minutes. His thumb was bandaged, sliced open on a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, a low calorie can, as a matter of fact. James Oscar Buttering still had enough left in him to snicker at someone’s concern for the poor’s cholestrol intake. He’d forgotten what butter and eggs and red meat looked like and he’d already lost thirteen pounds.
The clergymen, however, three or four of them, had not lost any weight in a long time. In fact, they were quite plump - a sign of grace according to James Oscar Buttering’s pre-bankruptcy theology. All of them had known him in his earlier life. Now they sat around on such things as they could find to sit around on. They coughed and smiled and mentioned the weather. Finally, they got to the point: Did James Oscar Buttering want to pray?
“Not particularly,” said Buttering.
The clergymen exchanged glances. One of them leaned forward.
“James,” he said, “this mess won’t straighten itself out until you lay it all before God and ask for forgiveness.”
“Me?” snorted Buttering. “Why should I be asking God for forgiveness? God should be asking me.”
That started it. The clergymen began to accuse Buttering of arrogance and blasphemy and of having a cold heart towards God. They probed for the sins that had led God to punish him with his bankruptcy. When he answered one, another immediately began to argue with him.
“You have said it yourself a thousand times,” they cried. “If you are good and holy, God will take care of you and bless you. But if you break God’s laws in some way you can expect trouble and a miserable life. Isn’t this what has been happening to you?”
“I did nothing wrong!” Buttering raged. “I did no sin. I never shirked any of my responsibilities. I went to church. I tithed. I prayed. And this is how God repays me. He ruins an innocent man. I loved God but where has it gotten me? You think I’m corrupt, my former business colleagues sneer at me when I shuffle by in the streets, people look the other way when they see me sitting in the park, even children call me names and throw things at me. This is how God rewards his friends. I shouldn’t have wasted my time being so good and religious.”
“Ungrateful man!” the clergymen responded. “After all God has done for you!”
“God was just playing with me the way a cat plays with a bird,” snarled Buttering. “He was setting me up for the fall. Now I’m here, right where he wants me. God betrayed me!”
Buttering made a fist and raised it towards heaven, shaking it, his face clenched in anger.
“Who do you think you are?” roared Buttering. “Who do you think you are?” Prayer can be an interesting thing, for certainly, shouted as it may have been at the top of his lungs, what Buttering had uttered had still been a prayer. We often pray because we were raised by our parents to pray, or because the Bible and the minister say we ought, or because it makes us feel good inside, or because we’re desperate. Whatever prayer means or doesn’t mean to us, we certainly would be surprised to realize God was actually listening, God, the Maker of the worlds, the Spirit beyond time and beyond earth. Imagine if God talked back. There we are, mumbling something over our chicken and salad, and a voice comes back at us out of thin air.
In this respect, James Oscar Buttering was very little different from any of us. Prayer was fine, but there was work to do, and even Jesus had said he had to be about his Father’s “business”. So James Oscar Buttering had prayed dutifully and worked heartily and when he raised his fist to God and raged it was, if not exactly rhetorical, certainly a personal indulgence, a venting of his emotions. He did not expect an answer. He got one.
It is difficult to relate exactly what happened. Talking to the clergy about it later, they merely glanced away and muttered a few indistinct phrases. James Oscar Buttering would nod and sometimes smile and say things like: “I looked into my soul.” Or even worse: “I looked into God’s soul.”
Apparently, what had occurred was this: As James Oscar Buttering shook his fist at the sky, or to be precise in this instance, the warehouse ceiling, a voice came crashing out of the rafters, “I am not a Las Vegas slot machine, James Oscar Buttering.” Then, instead of the usual Hollywood pyrotechnics, a breeze fresh with the smell of earth, and forest in the rain, and salt sea blew through the warehouse. Nor was the voice a bass.
What God said in that warehouse full of wonderful breezes and scents went something like this: “I’m not your good luck charm. I do not fit into your wallet with your credit cards. I am not a bank. You do not find me in toy stores. You do not find me in pet stores. You cannot put a leash on me. I do not do tricks. I am not for sale. I am not a Pisces or a Capricorn or an Aquarius. You cannot predict me. I am not your employee. You cannot hire me. I do not answer to your laws. I do not answer to you. I am, James Oscar Buttering, the living God, and you are not my equal.”
When I was piecing all this together, I looked Buttering up. He was hoeing a modest squash patch behind his small home. He had remarried and his children, one still struggling with an addiction, lived with him and his new wife. It had been an extremely warm fall and a thunderstorm was coming on. It was that still and calm half-hour before it broke that we talked, he leaning on his hoe, I leaning against the white picket fence.
“I’ll tell you what came out of it,” he said. “We hear a lot about wife abuse and child abuse these days. We even hear about animal abuse. But we never hear about God abuse. I was using God. I couldn’t take him as he was. I could only have a relationship with him if he was the kind of God I would be if I was God. He had to measure up to my standards. He had to be my “yes” man. Or he wasn’t worth having. I’ve learned since then to get to know him. I’ve learned to value him for who he is, not for what I can get out of him.”
Buttering died a few years later of leukemia. The pain was intense. I visited him once in hospital and his face was shriveled and far away. He was muttering under his breath. Then he looked up at me. “I am angry about this disease,” he whispered. “At the warehouse God told me he had answered me because it was the first time I’d been honest with him. He said he could handle criticism and he told me to keep it up. I have.”
I was the only one at the cremation. His new wife had lost interest in him when he had contracted his illness and his children were living their own lives in other parts of the country. I kept the urn and buried it in my garden to see what would grow over it. But I kept a handful of ashes in my pocket and climbed a hill near my home. I threw the ashes into the air and the wind snatched them, sifted them, and carried a few of them off. It seemed appropriate.

amish grace

I picked up a film this past Christmas for my wife.

I bought it to go along with a book by Kraybill et al on the same theme: the Amish school shooting of 2006 in Nickel Mines, PA.

The title of both is the same - Amish Grace.

Not having heard anything about the film, since it isn't a Hollywood release, I was taken by surprise.

The acting was so real that, at times, I felt I wasn't watching a movie anymore, but looking in on actual events through an open window.

The script was top notch. The cinematography was excellent. Direction was crisp and the pace of the film perfect.

The movie does not dwell so much on the actual shooting of the ten schoolgirls, five of whom died, but on the emotional aftermath of the terrible act.

It shows you that, yes, the Amish community chose to forgive the killer (who shot himself) and to love and embrace his wife and children. But it also shows you it wasn't always easy. The Amish are not stoic chock-a-block religious monoliths - they are human beings who weep and agonize as we do. It's just that they go to a deeper place with God than most when they suffer. And, above all, they constantly challenge themselves to live like Jesus.

The movie was so well done that I felt the emotional impact for days afterward. I still feel it as I write this.

It would be a strong enough story even if it were fiction.

The fact that the shooting actually did occur and the Amish, including the parents of the slain girls, actually did respond with forgiveness instead of vengeance, with the love of God instead of hate - especially when they had every reason to indulge in wild grief and fury and hardness of heart - makes this one of the most important films I have ever watched. Were I still pastoring at the present time, I would build a whole worship service around the viewing of the movie.

It is an astonishing story.

I offer it to you as an important gift. If you have ever suffered acutely, in particular over things that made no sense in their cruelty and which, despite hours of prayer, could not be undone - if you have ever been badly hurt and had, or still have, trouble forgiving, yes, even forgiving God - if you wonder what it means to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable and to do so in the spirit of Jesus - please find this movie and put aside a time of quiet to watch it.

And let me know what the movie has meant to you by simply writing a comment below this blog.

in Christ

Murray

the kite shop - a story about oregon

the kite shop

THE KITE SHOP (a story about Oregon)


The rains swept in off the Pacfic, long grey clattering chains of cloud and wet that battered the pavement and knocked the light out of the sky. They chilled skin and bone and blood. Inside me, Simon thought, all of it is inside me. He pulled off the highway into a motel parking lot. The t was missing in the sign. Mo-el, he said with his lips. It sounded like Hebrew. But what did it mean? God of what?
“What?”
His eight year old boy popped up his head from the back seat of the SUV.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“God of what?”
“Nothing.”
“Nothing what?” His wife opened her eyes. She had been napping in the seat beside him.
“Nothing, that’s what,” he said.
“Dad was talking about the God of Nothing.”
“What?” His wife looked at him.
“Let’s just stop the whole what thing right now. This is the place, right? I’ll go in. Is Cheyenne awake?”
“I’m awake.”
“You and Austen can come in and help me pay for our room.”
“Okay.”
After supper and TV everyone bedded down, Austen in a hide-a-bed, Cheyenne in a single twin, he and Alicia in a queen. Rain cracked its whip against the windows. Simon lay awake. He moved his lips in the dark: Three days in this stinking rain. Then he had another thought: The rest of my life in this stinking headspace. Where is the God of all mercy? Where is the God who turns darkness into light? He finally began to dream and when he did it was about building a huge boat that kept listing to one side and taking in water.
It had stopped raining in the morning but the clouds, it seemed to Simon, were only about a foot off the ground. The kids were racing around scooping up breakfast items laid out buffet style while he picked at his grapefruit. He glared out the window at the soggy sky.
“Why are we staying here?” he complained. “Let’s push on to California. It's almost Christmas.”
Alicia took a bite out of her slice of toast. “Our rooms aren’t ready yet. We aren’t due to be at Disneyland until Friday.”
“Let’s rent rooms somewhere else in Anaheim.”
“Do you know how expensive that would be? We’ve already paid for three days here.”
“Why are we doing this to ourselves?”
“Because the Oregon coastline is beautiful.”
“What coastline?”
“It’s across the highway.”
“A rock beach, right? Rock and stone and lots of boulders.”
“Is the grapefruit sour,” asked Alicia, “or is it just you?”
The beach turned out to be smooth and wide and white. Quite pleasant, Simon admitted to himself, if it wasn’t for the cloud cover scraping its belly across it. Austen chased Cheyenne with a seaweed whip and Alicia twisted her fingers around his as they walked.
“Honey, you can’t think about the church forever.”
“Why can’t I?”
“It’s over. Give it to God.”
“What is he going to do with it?”
“At least we got a nice vacation out of it.”
“That’s right. Two weeks in Costa Rica, all expenses paid, and then you come back, well rested and full of the Holy Spirit, and they fire you.”
Alicia kicked at a shell. “I guess that’s the only way they felt they could soften the blow.”
“Ah, yes. These three remain. Faith. Hope. Love. And the greatest of these is guilt.”
It began to rain again. Not too hard, he thought, just enough to trickle down the back of your neck and makeyour shirt cold and damp. Cheyenne was calling that she had found something in a pool and Alicia went over to her. Simon stood looking at the body of a dead seabird half-buried in the sand.
“The beautiful coastline of Oregon wasn’t very beautiful to you, was it?” he said.
He walked past. The wind began to blow. The Oregon coastline hasn’t done a heck of a lot for me either, he thought. Rain kept hitting him in the eyes but he refused to wipe it away. All he would do was shake his head. Like a bulldog with a grip on something, Alicia said, watching him. But speaking so quietly Austen and Cheyenne never heard a word as they dug a hole in the sand and planted gull feathers around its perimeter.
The rain increased during the night and Simon felt trapped. He put on a jacket with a hood and slipped outside without waking anyone. He crossed the highway and trudged along the beach until five in the morning. Dawn was the colour of mopwater. The black of the night, Simon decided, had been more attractive than the light of day.
“Nice place you got here,” he said to God.
Simon was a stormcloud all day. There was one walk in the rain - "It feels like pins against my skin," Alicia said and he responded, "Or like nails" - a pillowfight in which he was far too savage and had to apologize for making Cheyenne cry, TV shows the others liked but which brought out his sarcasm, a row with Alicia over who had eaten the last chocolate bar. He rumbled out into the night again and let the rain flatten his hair against his skull. Ugly outside, he thought, ugly inside. Light from streetlamps made the roads and lanes shine like plastic. He crossed over to the beach and went up to his waist in the saltwater. Waves churned and sloshed around him. One surge broke over his head and made him cough and spit.
"Your waves and breakers have swept over me!" he shouted. "With all your waves you have overwhelmed me!"
He crept back into the dark motel room and towelled himself off in the washroom. He lay down quietly beside Alicia but she was not asleep.
"You used to fly once," she whispered. "You had big wings. You went high above the canyons."
"I used to lead the procession to the house of God. With shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng."
"You smell like kelp."
"I went for a swim."
"Will you be any happier in California?"
"Not if it's raining."
It was still black as Coke when he got up at four and went outside. A massive cloud was being tugged out of the sky towards the north and the air all about him had a freshly washed gleam. He stood in the middle of the empty highway. He could smell the wet pavement. Seaweed from the beach. Sand. Saltwater. And something else. He could smell the sun. He looked inland to the east and there it was, the top of a yellow translucent head edging over a wall of earth. Enormous. Filling more sky every time he breathed. Black became metallic blue. Venus was as white and sharp as a silver pin. More blue now, more and more of it, seven shades of it, moving in and out of one other as if they were liquid, as if a silent wind were shaping them and reshaping them into an intentional cosmic pattern. That is what I would like it to be inside me, he thought. This moment. This dawn. These colours. This beginning. That is what I want inside.
It was Christmas Eve. He was quiet as they ate breakfast. Cheyenne held his hand as they walked the glistening white sand and Austen kept showing him crabs. Alicia sat with her legs stretched out in front of her gazing at waves bright as the tip of a welder's torch. A few dogs raced back and forth and several people had kites up. They were bits of colour loose in the air.
"Dad!" said Austen. "Can we get a kite?"
"Would you like one too, Chey?" he asked his daughter.
"Sure," she smiled.
The four of them went into the town and walked up and down the streets. They wound up back on the strip that faced the highway and the beach. Cars and trucks in a hurry flashed past. Austen pointed. "There's a shop."
It was long and low and more like an old cottage than a shop. The roof sagged, the windows were large and framed by unpainted grey wood, kites hung limply from the eaves right around the building. The windows were crammed with more kites and spools of string and long cloth tails. It seemed untidy to Simon.
"Look at the colours!" Cheyenne shouted and the children yanked open the shop door.
It was much bigger inside than he had expected. And darker. And cooler. The only light was what came in through the windows. The owner smiled through his grey and white beard and glasses and said hello and went back to talking with a customer. People were scattered throughout the store. Simon's family roamed from one display to another. Kites hung from the rafters by the dozens, they hung from pillars and posts, they rested on counters. There weren't really any aisles. You just made your way around as best you could.
Simon stood by himself next to a kite that was a biplane. He could hear people talking, even his own wife and children, in subdued voices, as if they were in some kind of gallery or sanctuary. There was a rustling and a movement around him every time the door opened. A dragon stirred over his head and nearby a unicorn tossed its mane. You seem anxious to get out of the store, he said softly. The sky is where you belong, isn't it?
"Gettin' kind of warm in here," said the bearded owner and he propped open the door with a great slab of silver driftwood.
The sea breeze moved into the store unchecked. A diamond kite squirmed on the left, a delta kite on the right near the ceiling. A spiral banner spun and stopped. A hawk on a shelf grew restless and sprang up and onto the floor at this feet. He picked it up. You are being cautious, Simon said to the wind.
A sudden gust made the store jump. Every kite leaped and strained at the string that held it. The breeze steadied and then came on without stopping. Colours whirled and fabric fluttered. All the rafters danced with eagles and dolphins and flying fish. Light flashed back and forth. The walls moved and the entire shop seemed to spring into the air, spin and drop. Brightness surged up in Simon's chest. Everywhere he looked there was life and a yearning for air and space and freedom. I would have to buy you all, he said with his lips. Then he scopped up an orca and a diamond with porpoises sewn across it and headed for the till.
"Come on, let's go!" he shouted above the flapping and creaking. "I've got two kites. You guys get two more."
They filled the blue sky that day because in the end they bought seven kites and put them all up to colour dance in the sun. Simon sprang across the sand and in and out of the waves. All that night they slept with the kites in the room with them and all that night everyone heard the kites moving about in the dark. They did not go to Disneyland and they did not care because the sun rose again and the west wind came swiftly across the waves of the sea and the kites flew and were free and they were free with them and it was the morning of Christ's birth. Simon returned to the kite shop - banners streamed from its rooftop, the kites attached to its eaves hurled themselves up against their strings and swirled, the entire store swooped and swung - and walked up to the bearded man.
"How can I help you?" asked the man.
"I will buy the shop," said Simon. "How much?"
The bearded man squinted through his glasses. "How much for all our inventory?"
"How much for all the inventory, all the kite tails, all the spools of string, all the windows and all the walls and every corner of the roof."
"You want to be a kite seller?"
"I will sell kites and they can have God as well."
The man looked at Simon, took off his glasses and looked again, breathed on his lenses and rubbed them with the bottom of his T shirt, put the glasses back on his face and smiled at Simon as if seeing him for the first time. He put out his hand. "I think that can work," he said.
Simon preached there and the kites spun and lifted over the heads of all the people who sat and listened. The door was always open during worship, even during the winter rains, and the entire shop seemed to smile because of it. Alicia played her cedar flutes and Cheyenne her keyboard and Austen his hand drum but when the church prayed there was only the sound of the kites moving. They were sold on every day but Sunday and once a month in fine weather the whole congregation trooped down to the beach with their favourites and let them fly free and high while they sang hymns and Simon fingerpicked the tunes on his Bernardo Chavez Rico handbuilt acoustic guitar.
Simon came back to life, he forgave and was forgiven, he loved, and stood on the beach most mornings and faced the sea and the west wind and prayed to God and put saltwater to his face. Deep calls unto deep, he said with his lips. And they never called the church anything else but The Kite Shop and a lot of people found life there, not just Simon. They stopped often on their way to work during the week to look at the cottage dance in the wind and the kites pull their strings taut and ache for the sky and to watch Simon stand among the kites and move his lips and, every now and then, as if he were a kite himself, stretch his arms towards heaven and float above the earth.