Cannery Row

SCN_0478After reading Cannery Row, I forgave John Steinbeck for writing Of Mice and Men.

In fact, I think high school students across America should read Cannery Row instead of Of Mice and Men.  The salty language, plus the fact that the main characters include a madam and a bunch of bums, may preclude that from ever happening, but still. Cannery Row is a book of hope and grace and love.

Golly, I love this book.

I love the humanity.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” and he would have meant the same thing.”

I love the people:

  • Lee Chong, who runs the grocery and of whom Steinbeck wrote, “It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.”
  • Dora Flood, the madam who ran, “no fly-by-night cheap clip-joint but a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who … has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind.”
  • Mack and the boys, Cannery Row’s bums, designated “the Beauties, the Virtues, and the Graces.” “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the town, thieves, rascals, bums.”
  • Doc, who “tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him. He can kill anything for need but would not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.”

Each person Steinbeck writes into the story is written with great love — an all-seeing love that doesn’t even attempt to hide their imperfections. It meets them where they are.

I’ve never been sure what the ultimate lesson from Of Mice and Men is.  That life is tragic?

I know what the lesson of Cannery Row is. Love and grace. That’s a better lesson for our high-schoolers, even if it does involve prostitutes and bums.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

The Netflix series, House of Cards, opens with these words:

There are two kinds of pain — the sort of pain that makes you strong and useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering.  I have no patience for useless things.  Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

Such is a politician’s view on suffering. They play God.

IMG_4876[1]Silence by Shusaku Endo upends every firmly-held belief you’ve ever had on suffering and what it means to love God. The book takes place in 17th century Japan, a time when Christianity had been outlawed.  Christians were being rounded up and tortured until they apostatized. Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest, makes his way into Japan where he witnesses and experiences unspeakable suffering.

Over the past week I have received an email, basically the same one, from several different people asking for prayer for the Christians in Syria.  The email draws on quotes from emails from missionaries in Syria.  Here are two excerpts:

We lost the city of Queragosh (Qaraqosh). It fell to ISIS and they are beheading children systematically…

…ISIS is systematically going house to house to all the Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus. He said so far not one child has. And so far all have consequently been killed. But not the parents….

Unspeakable suffering. I cannot imagine what it is to watch your child beheaded for Christ.

Where is God in the midst of this? Why is He silent?

The immediate feeling is that we must do something, and surely we must. Like Frank Underwood (in House of Cards), we feel like we need ” someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

The bigger battle, though, is an unseen one, a spiritual one. The obvious choices for the battle we see may not be the right choices for the real war. Plus, I would posit that there is no useless pain, only pain we wish we didn’t have to deal with.

At his darkest moment, Father Rodrigues hears Christ say,

…It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.

Silence is a book that raises more questions than it answers. It answers questions in disturbing ways. It is a book that will stay with me, or anyone who dares to read it, for a long, long time.


A better write-up, and what led me to this book in the first place, is “The Harrowing Silence: A Book Recommendation” by Pete Peterson at the Rabbit Room.

A Diary of Private Prayer

“Remember when we had a dial-up connection?” Helen asked me the other day.

I still remember the first website I ever saw on the internet. My brother, Stewart, was visiting Cooperstown and had a laptop — the Monitor or Merrimack of laptops —  that he hooked up to the phone line to dial-up the internet. I was amazed that he had the world at his fingers and asked him to show it to me .

“Hmmm,” he mused, “you should see a good website for your first one. Let’s try”

He typed it in and we waited. And waited. And waited. The page loaded incrementally and it took several minutes for the whole thing to appear. Still, I was impressed. If I remember correctly, there were flag gifs in the corners.  Like this:

FlagsRemember those days?  When gifs were everywhere?

In the early days of the internet — early for me, that is — I wanted to be a part of it. Philip, now a web developer, designed a page for me that is long gone.  I wish I could remember the website name.  The most viewed part of that initial site, though, was where I posted what we were having for dinner each night. For real.

My next attempt was called Homelife, on Blogspot, in 2004. I remember being frustrated with the site, not being able to get it to do what I wanted it to do, and not understanding enough to fix it.

Then life happened.  Full-bore, hard, heavy life. We moved. My mother’s Alzheimer’s became undeniable. Kids were growing up and having grown-up struggles. My faith was tried. I knew that writing would help me process all that was happening, but I really didn’t know how to blog. (See first attempt.)

So I did what I usually do. I jumped in, both feet, and started trying to figure it all out. That’s how this blog came to be.

I tell you all this because the blogging world opened up an amazing community to me.

It reconnected me with old friends — like Susan at awestruckwonder.

It brought new friends into my life — like Anna at The Annalist, and William Kendall, my most faithful commenter.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering when I am going to get to A Diary of Private Prayer, I’m almost there.

So I wrote about my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my faith. Alzheimer’s definitely hit a nerve — it’s such an awful illness and so many people are struggling to cope with its realities in their loved ones.

One person who began reading was a lady I knew from church. I didn’t know her well, but I knew who she was. Then she moved. Far away. Like Kentucky or something. But she kept following my blog and commenting, usually privately, to me on Facebook. Her mother had Alzheimer’s.

IMG_4864[1]One day three years ago a little package came in the mail from my Kentucky friend.  She was going through her books and thought I might like John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer. She had no idea that this would become one of my favorite books of all time.

Did I mention that I love this book?

So my point (and I did have one, as my sister likes to say) is that the internet, and especially blogging, has opened up worlds for me.  And as I have traveled its roads, unexpected treasures have come.

This book was one of the most unexpected treasures. Its title speaks for itself. The prayers in it are amazing — it covers a month, with prayers for morning and evening.

Even though I credit the internet for bringing it into my hands, it was really a person — flesh and blood — who stuck it in an envelope with a note and mailed it to me.

And people think the internet is destroying real world interactions.

Disciplines for the Inner Life

I turned the key in the van and heard the unfortunately familiar, whirrr-whirr-whirrrrrr…. Or sometimes, worse, just the click.

Last winter was brutal temperature-wise, and we were having problems with the van anyway.  The cable had broken to one of the sliding doors. I’m pretty sure that broken cable was causing a short circuit that was causing the battery to run down over and over and over.

We learned to keep the jumper cables handy.

And then we fixed the door.

IMG_4863[1]Disciplines for the Inner Life, by Bob Benson and Michael W. Benson, is my quiet time jumper cables.

When I first bought it in 1985, I went front-to-back through the book several times.  I haven’t gone through it in a number of years, but I do pull it off the shelf for a week or two every now and then.

It holds a year’s worth of devotions that is less formulaic than most devotional books. Oh, it’s formulaic — just not the scripture-followed-by-a-story-followed-by-a-prayer-and-all-summed-up-with-a-pithy-saying formula. Its formula requires the reader to engage, to think, to make choices.

The book is divided into five sections: Disciplines for the Inner Journey, Obstacles in the Inner Life, Patterns for Living Inwardly, Inward Graces of the Centered Life, and Outward Fruits of the Inward Life.  Each section has anywhere from 5 to 19 subsections, with the total number being 52, like 52 weeks in a year. Scriptures and prayers are laid out, but the meditations are from a variety of authors and can be tackled in any order and in any number on any given day.

This book introduced me to Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, and Evelyn Underhill, along with so many other writers  and thinkers from so many other traditions.  It crosses lines like nobody’s business.

Honestly, I don’t agree with everything I read in it, but I don’t think I was supposed to.  I was supposed to think. And I did.

It makes the list of 10 books that have stayed with me because it encouraged me — and still encourages me — to seek God.

When I get off kilter, whether through a short circuit or brutal circumstances, it’s also my jumper cables back to a faith walk.



The Big Sky

SCN_0477This list of books is not my favorite books.  It’s the books that have stayed with me.

I confess that I hadn’t opened The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr, since I first read it in the late 1970s. However, I have kept it with me, moving it from apartment to apartment, and then from house to house. I would look at its cover every now and then, and feel the weight of it in my heart.

It wasn’t until I was looking up information for this post that I learned it had sequels. Gosh, I don’t think I could read another book like this.

Well, the other day, I pulled it off the shelf to put it in my stack, and opened it.  I flipped to the last chapter.  The words were still there.

“The world’s a-comin’ at me like a sea,” he said, “a hill and then a holler rollin’ under my feet, tryin’ t’upset me.  I drunk too much, Dick, but I got to go on. Got to go for’ard.” His hand took hold of the latch on the half-opened door.

“Don’t hurry yourself. I ain’t got this bottle ready yet.”

Boone looked down in his palm, at the latch his hand had broken off. “It’s all sp’iled, I reckon, Dick. The whole caboodle.”

And they still hit me. Hard.

Sometimes we screw things up in a big way. Everything feels spoiled and ruined. Nothing will ever be right again.

That image of life coming at us, like a sea, with waves trying to knock us off our feet — yes, that.

But we keep moving.  Moving ahead, because we can’t go back.

It still gives me a pit in my stomach.

What The Big Sky leaves out is faith. Yes, we mess things up, but –

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3: 22-23

When life is roiling, we need to keep moving.  Even if it’s all spoiled. Especially if it’s all spoiled. That’s the lesson of The Big Sky.

There is always hope.  That’s the lesson of the Bible.


I’ve been thinking a lot about Betsey Bolt.

For several years I have been researching a local physician, William Purple, who practiced in my little town in the mid-1800s.  Through that research, I stumbled upon Betsey Bolt.

Poor Betsey Bolt. She disappeared from her house in the middle of the night and was never found. Her story has been pieced together, crazy quilt style, after the fact.

Let me say, up front, that John Johnson was found not guilty of her murder, but then again, no body was ever found. The jury deliberated for half an hour.

In 1844 Betsey Bolt and her husband, James, moved to a farm in Triangle (yes, there is a town called Triangle.) The wealthy landowner, John Johnson, offered to give Mrs. Bolt a ride there in the wagon while her husband drove the hogs, sheep, and cattle on foot.

When James got there, it was obvious something was wrong with his wife. He called in Dr. Purple, who described her as agitated, anxious, and disturbed. Betsey finally told her husband that Mr. Johnson had raped her. He confronted Johnson who confessed and offered to pay him in money or land, whatever he wanted, but James wanted justice. Shortly after that, his wife disappeared and was never seen or heard from again.

Nearly every witness for the prosecution was female.  They cited improprieties by Mr. Johnson, threats he had made about killing people, ways he had described getting rid of a body, and abductions purported to have been attempted by his henchmen.

Nearly every witness for the defense was male and authoritative.  John Johnson had a lot of money.  He hired the best lawyers and the best witnesses.

438px-Amariah_BrighamHis most convincing (and final) witness was Amariah Brigham, one of the fathers of American Psychiatry, who ran the Utica Insane Asylum. Below is some of his testimony at the trial:

Persons subject to hysterics for years have a tendency to insanity; and hysterical women do the most strange things of any class of persons, sane or insane. I speak from my own observation, and history attests its correctness.

Hysterical women will deceive their friends, and frequently their physicians, by inventing stories, with little if any regard to truth; and will, in carrying on the deception, submit to painful operations by the physician or surgeon, and I am not prepared to say but that they do in part deceive themselves.

I do not attribute their false statements to moral obliquity, theologically speaking, as the obliquity is produced by disease. They are apparently sincere, and I have never known one to own the deception. It is a diseased state of the nervous system, and I think the subject is irresponsible…

Hysterical females see visions and dream dreams, that are so vivid that they take them for realities.

… Hysterical fancies and strange delusions are very likely to occur in young females that menstruate.

Amariah Brigham

In 1852, a Dr. Grindrod added these thoughts on the matter:

Hysteria is a very common affection at the present day. It is a real disease, and should be treated always as such. But hysterical persons generally get little sympathy from friends or enemies. “She is only nervous,” is the common expression, as if nervousness were not a disease. “Nervousness” is, in fact, one of the worst of diseases. Let no one call an hysterical person well; such a thing cannot be. They are far from it; but we arc glad to say the affection is generally curable; perhaps, always, when not connected with some other and more formidable disease. Drug-treatment will seldom if ever cure it. Bathing, with suitable dieting, exercise, &c., are the means that should be employed.

Hysterical persons should not marry until they are cured. Once cured, the sooner married the better, provided there are no other obstacles in the way. How many miserable wives there are, who are not only miserable themselves, but make their husbands and others about them a vast deal of trouble, in consequence of the diseased state of their nervous system.

Some day, 150 years from now, someone will look back on events of 2014 and wonder how we could have thought or done such-and-such.

Some day all this present murkiness will be clear, and people will laugh pained laughs at our misconceptions and wrong judgments.

Some day we will know as we are known, but until then this glass is awfully dark and dim.



Aviary Photo_130529384584576130For Christmas, a dear friend gave me a journal.  It has become my prayer journal, but not your typical prayer journal, where prayer requests are written. No, I write prayers in it, a new one for every week. The prayers come from a variety of sources and are written by a variety of authors ranging from St. Augustine to Tozer to my brother, Stewart.

Last week I chose a prayer from the Syrian Clementine Liturgy called A Prayer for Peace.  I was concerned about the strife in the Middle East and was touched that this prayer, probably from the 5th century, also concerned itself with that.

Plus, it had the word “ineffable.”

I love words.  Always have. Always will.

Ineffable — what a great word.

Ineffable is one of those words that I sort of knew what it meant, but not really.  I looked it up in the dictionary and learned that ineffable means not effable.  Thank you, Mr. Webster.

What, then, is effable? Effable is “able to be described with words.”

Ineffable, therefore, is that which cannot be described with words, and usually refers to something too wonderful for words.  Like God.

Aviary Photo_130529385440450075Here’s where God is funny — and by funny I mean all-seeing, amazing, and knowing why this was the perfect prayer for that week.  There was an abyss in the prayer.  The prayer begins,

O God,  you are the ineffable Ocean of love,
the unfathomable Abyss of peace …

Who knew that my news-feed would be abyss-full following the news of Robin Williams’ death?

Depression was described over and over in news stories as an abyss, an apt description if ever there was one.  I know, because I, too, have stood on its precipice, feeling the earth crumbling under my feet, knowing that even a breath too deep could push me into that abyss.

The abyss is dark and black and unfathomable.  It may even be ineffable.  Those who have experienced it may very well say that it is ineffable in the darkest sense of that word.

But, you see, God wanted to remind me that if there is a dark and scary abyss, so there is also an abyss that is Him, an abyss of peace.

While the black hole abyss is ineffable in its darkness, so is He, Jehovah, I AM THAT I AM, also ineffable, and He is an Ocean of love.

In the time that it has taken me to ponder this thing (days and days), the news stories have moved on to other tragedies, equally abysmal, equally unfathomable — Amish girls kidnapped and innocence stolen, a black youth shot, bloodthirsty jihadists slaughtering Christians.

Yet God is unchanged — an abyss of peace, and an ineffable ocean of love.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Psalm 139: 6