Confession after a Phone Call


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I wanted to call Mike the other night, but my premise was flawed so I didn’t make that call. I wanted to ask a simple question, but with a lot of expletives and modifiers. The basic question–minus the expletives and modifiers: “Why did you die?”

Mike has been dead nearly two years. His death was one of more than a dozen family and friends who died in the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019. I’ve asked that question whenever I see these different names in my phone list and among the text messages still on my system.

For me, the grief of the COVID-19 pandemic stirs up older griefs and concerns. They seem to nurture one another, even those ancient griefs that seemed long ago to have had resolution. The grief demands and steals the energy and passion we normally have for other pursuits.

I remember a short story by Henry James titled “The Altar of the Dead.” The story, published in 1916, concerns a man who tries to keep alive the memories of deceased friends. It is a typical Jamesian multilayered story that deals with mortality and grief, conflict and love. I do the story no justice when I note that the protagonist establishes a memorial altar in a church at which he places candles in remembrance of friends. James wrote:

By this time he had survived all his friends; the last straight flame was three years old, there was no one to add to the list. Over and over he called his roll, and it appeared to him compact and complete. Where should he put in another, where, if there were no other objection, would it stand in its place in the rank?

While I have not outlived my friends, I do keep my own inner altar for the dead. The altar seems larger than normal these days. The world is in grief because of the pandemic. The earth groans with this grief. The world senses an archetypal exhaustion.

Despite and because of the grief, we struggle still to use our abilities and gifts to establish a new and humane normalcy that cares for all the earth in love and grace.

The Remote


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Ms. Anne closed the coffee club because of the COVID-19 virus. While coffee is a basic food group, we’re not considered essential and we don’t want to spread the virus to anyone. Ms. Anne has always opposed drive-through windows. She also opposes take-out orders because of the potential harm to the environment. Her Old-World attitude is refreshing. “Sit, drink, talk, relax.”

So we’re closed. I don’t know how she is covering our salaries.

I’ve heard from different customers who are working remote. They express surprise that they’re doing more effective work in less time and feeling better about their projects.

No surprise to me.

In a previous chapter of life, I headed a small publishing unit within a larger corporate entity. I managed, despite some corporate objections, to have my editorial staff work part of the week at home. They came to the office one day a week to touch base and deal with corporate matters. No surprise that they were more efficient while working at home and their attitudes toward the work became more passionate. Then changes came in the corporate structure and the new head eliminated the remote work option. Ten or so years later the entire organization works on a remote basis. A temporary solution certainly, though I hope that the corporate entity and many other corporations learn from this isolated time.

Maybe we will come out of this pandemic with new understandings and ways of connecting with what we value.

A Distant Remembrance after the Tornado


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I missed the service of remembrance and hope held outside the destroyed sanctuary of East End United Methodist Church in Nashville. I am not able to go to the memorial service for David Olney. The two lives are connected.

I lived in Nashville from 1988 through the end of 2009 when I left the city. I lived in East Nashville, the section of the city hit by tornadoes in 2020 and 1998. East End United Methodist Church, the congregation in which I participated, survived the 1998 tornado with minimal damage. Not so in 2020. Photos of the remains are grotesquely painful in the way of the wreckage of every building.

I grieve the loss of that familiar building even as I celebrate memories of place.

My family and I began going to East End five months after moving from Virginia to the Historic Edgefield neighborhood. I developed and edited children’s Sunday school resources. Soon I began testing curriculum ideas for preschoolers in the East End Sunday school. I also edited a resource intended for church after-school programs. Thanks to what I learned from the East End after-school program, that resource was redeveloped for a much broader age group.

I met David Olney at East End. He lived down Holly Street. One Sunday David said, “You play piano. Could you handle a synthesizer?” “Sure,” I said, though I’d never touched a synthesizer.

“I gave Kenny a couple of songs I wrote for Christmas and he arranged them for the church. It’s like I gave him ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and he turned it into Bach.”

David gave me directions to Kenny’s house for practice. I didn’t know Kenny Moore beyond a nod and the passing of the peace at church. At his house I saw gold and platinum records on the walls and learned that he had played with David Allan Coe and Steve Earle. Kenny later served as organist at East End.

My spouse and I divorced. East End was warmhearted enough to make space for both of us and to give support to our children.

East End was a curious blend of the old and new Nashville. The neighborhood was undergoing transition. Dick and Dorothy Battle represented the old East Nashville. They lived in Dorothy’s family home Dick worked at The Nashville Banner as a reporter-columnist for more than 50 years. On the other side of the East End membership mixture, Bill Purcell, a newer resident, served two terms as mayor of the city. Homeless people and people in transition participated in the life of the church. 12-Step groups were important.

The neighborhood continues to change. I am proud that East End is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network in The United Methodist Church, a congregation inviting all people to know the love of God.

For the ten-year remembrance of the 1998 tornado, the church commissioned music. Our choir sang that musical prayer—four pieces—for the city, for nature, for the Vanderbilt student who died, and for all losses. Perhaps another work will be commissioned in remembrance of the 2020 tornado.

To say that a church is more than a building is a theological cliché. I know that East End United Methodist Church will continue to reach out to the larger community in love and grace.

With gratitude and love.

Thirty Minutes


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Twice a year I return to the familiar territory of Virginia’s Northern Neck to rest within sight of the Great Wicomico River and to visit friends along Dividing Creek. This year I had tea with Dr. Hawkins, whose age remains unknown. He is a sage who spent a lifetime or more in the realm of healing.

After he poured tea, he said, “You haven’t been here to visit in about ten years. What have you learned?”

His question should not have surprised me. I took a deep breath to give myself time to form an answer.

“I learned more of the ways people relate to one another and treat other people in a retail establishment. But I think the way they treat servers in a coffee shop indicates how they treat humanity in general.”

“You probably knew that after a month of business.”

“Right you are, Doc.”

“What have you learned new?” He smiled and waited. I didn’t know how to respond.

“Now? I’m here right now. Is there something else I should know? Are you sick? Am I sick?”

“You’re close to what I would nudge you to realize. In fact, you said the words. Here! Now! I keep meeting people who spend time talking about future plans and all the great ‘what ifs’ that waste time. I want to pass on basic wisdom: Be here. Now. The present. Not the future. Not the past. Here. Now.”

And we sat for another thirty minutes because neither of us needed to say any more. The best thirty minutes of the last ten years.

There Was and There Was Not


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Diana Der-Hovanessian wrote a delightfully evocative poem titled “Shifting the Sun,” which deals with cultural responses to the death of a father. Read the poem and see how she wrote:

your sun shifts forever / and you walk in his light.


Sometimes–and then

we witness other deaths, which connect new forms of awareness.

Armenians fables tend to begin simply:

There was and there was not.


There was a young man and then there was not.

Journalists were older and wiser

And then they were not.

Doctors and teachers were older and wiser

And then they were not.

There was joy and there was not,

And there was grief and there was not,

And there was and there was not.

A Saroyan Visit Before Christmas


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“He came here last night,” Ms. Anne Thrope nodded toward the painting of William Saroyan in the coffee club. I sometimes think Saroyan is the patron saint of coffee or maybe only Ms. Anne, but I know better. A saint probably wouldn’t haunt a person.

“What were you doing?”

“I closed the shop, went over the daily totals, and then pulled out my address book to write some Christmas cards. Don’t even say what you’re thinking about my address book,” she said.

“No, I won’t, because you already know that I think you should go electronic.”

“Maybe next year. My address book is in sad shape, but I like it. Not just physically because it’s been hanging around fifty or so years. I look through it and most of my friends are dead or they’ve moved so many times I haven’t been able to keep up with them. Mostly dead. So I was staring at the letter M. I counted and it had 37 people and their addresses, but only two were still alive. So I was feeling sad—and that’s when he showed up.

“No smoke or lightning. I heard his big fat laugh and then the voice spoke in Armenian. I didn’t understand it exactly, but it was something about sharing sadness and sharing laughter. I’m sure it was an old Armenian proverb because he does that.

“Before I could object, he said something in English that I did understand.” She stopped.

I waited. “And? Don’t take me to the edge without a resolution.”

“He quoted himself. He said, ‘Remember that line in Bicycle Rider? People thought I was being cynical about friendships, but I think I was simply being honest. Well if you don’t remember the brilliance of my memory, here let me quote myself:

 “Many friendships are swift and accidental, the result of a chance meeting, followed by a permanent separation.”  (The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills)

“Saroyan carried on: ‘I wasn’t being cynical. I was remembering friendships from the orphanage and youth and the Army and other places I’ve done time. We’d be best friends for a day or a few months or a year and then move and never see each other again. Except for birthday or Christmas cards. And that’s fine because we’re not meant to stay friends with everyone we meet over a lifetime. When would you have time to think? Or dance or drink or laugh? And in my case, I’ve done a lot of those things.’”

“Then he was gone,” and she laughed. I waited.

“Only Saroyan would quote himself. Typical of my life with him. Shows up and leaves. And you know, he’s right. I couldn’t have stood being with him forever—and I know I couldn’t stand being with the people I was friends with when I was ten, twenty, thirty years old. It’s good enough to remember them.”

And so we started working the last week before Christmas at the coffee club began.





Modern Antiquity


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“I’m glad you people always listen to your customers. Maybe it’s because you treat us like family. Or better than family, eh?” said Fred Moderatum. “Not like those coffee shop chains that are too busy with the next order to listen.”

“I’m glad to listen. Sometimes I feel like Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke, but no one remembers old Sam. Hey, you ever realized that the two most famous bartenders on television are named Sam? Sam on Gunsmoke and Sam on Cheers! Well, this isn’t a bar and if you get drunk or high off Armenian coffee, we’re doing something wrong.” A slow afternoon at Ms. Anne Thrope’s Coffee Club so I was glad to have the conversation because any conversation is better than sweeping the floor or cleaning countertops for the twenty-eighth time in one day.

“Let’s sit down. I need to unload my legs and unburden my mind,” Fred said.

“Sure. The customer’s generally right—and if someone comes in, Strawberry will be here in a few minutes to cover.”

“Good. I got a strange problem. I was thinking about Christmas cards and got out my old address book. I’ve used it since Gerald Ford was President. It’s served well. Good system. They don’t make them like this anymore—but you don’t need to know about that. Here’s the problem. About 90% of the people in the address book are dead now. I got whole letters—take M, for example—it has thirty-two people listed and only two of them are alive now. What do I do?”

“Get a new address book? Or get new friends?”

“I got new friends. I still make friends and they’re the age of my children and grandchildren, and sometimes I feel I have more in common with them than people my own age. I got their email addresses and their phone numbers! I don’t need anything more than that, but I can’t mail them Christmas cards the way I sent cards back when I was younger.”

“So Fred, I don’t understand the problem.”

“I don’t either. I look at the address book and feel a little sad because of the people who aren’t breathing with me, but they’re all in my head anyhow, and I look at my email and I can’t take care of all the people I know there. “

“I think you need to relax and find a new problem for worry. Take that old address book and put it in the back of a dresser drawer so you don’t have to look at it except when you absolutely want to. Or maybe hide it so well your kids will find it after you and I are both dead. That’ll give them something to remember you by and maybe a laugh or two. How about you tuck a couple of old letters in there and really give ‘em a thrill. But man, keep going forward.”

And we finished our Armenian coffees. I did Fred a favor and read his coffee grounds. I showed him a figure that looked like it was blowing a trumpet and told him that he would soon get some good news, but the cup didn’t give me enough information to tell what kind of good news. Time for me to go. Strawberry was on the clock and Ms. Anne was arriving for the late afternoon crowd.



Customer Service


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Doc, you know every night I have dreams,” said Mickey Pharr. “For the most part they’re enjoyable and it’s not like I have the same dream every night. What do you think?”

“Enjoy them?” I said. “That’s not a question actually. It’s a suggestion. And you know I don’t want you to call me Doc. I haven’t been in that world for long years.”

“OK, Doc. But you know I tell people about my dreams and all they can do is ask what I ate the night before. As if whatever went into the stomach has an immediate impact on the brain. What’s the matter with them?”

“I don’t know. But I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago about dreams. She’d found a book written maybe fifty years ago that was about dreams and the idea that God spoke through our dreams. I started asking questions and she told me about all these dreams in the Bible. It’s like the dream is there in the Bible and we think, ‘Oh yeah, God spoke to Jacob or Daniel or Moses or Joseph or Mary’—like it’s a story device, but what if it really was a dream? How would you know? Or how would you prove that it wasn’t God speaking? So this book seemed to make a compelling case that God spoke through dreams then and if then, why not now? Well, why not?”

“Yeah, well, you don’t have dreams like mine,” said Mickey.

“I’m sure I don’t. At the same time, I have dreams and I’ve begun to write details of those dreams in a logbook. What’s fascinating to me is that sometimes the dream makes no sense until I come up with a title for it. Then I realize that the dream is really helping me to resolve a problem that came up during the day or simply trying to help me face something. Pretty cool, I think!”

“You got that from talking about a book? Now I’m interested. Fifty years old, you say the book is?”

“Yeah. I haven’t read it myself, but I learned a lot from my friend. Hold on. I’ll text Flora to find out the book’s name.” I sent Flora the question and she replied:

John Sanford. Dreams: God’s Forgotten Language. I told you to get it.

I forwarded the text to Mickey. “There’s the book. You can get it online somewhere. Now what can I get you?”

“Yeah, I shouldn’t have been talking so much, Doc, because I don’t have my coffee. Shouldn’t have distracted you, I know. The usual cup.”

On it goes.


Around the Block


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A slow afternoon at the coffee shop. Joe Tarnush was working on his fourth cup of Armenian coffee as he typed on a laptop. Sometimes Joe seemed like a throwback to the Damon Runyan-Grantland Rice era of journalism. His newspaper column was titled “Tarnush the Thought,” which felt corny to most readers who eventually ignored the title and went straight to his writing.

His writing was good, and he covered many topics. One day a nostalgic column about the day Eleanor Roosevelt stopped in our town to dedicate a library and another day a truth-telling column about the problems caused by the town council’s inability to settle on a school matter. He sometimes wrote about local sports, and people always remembered columns he wrote about his children and now his grandchildren.

I sat down opposite Joe and asked about the column.

“I’m writing a column about writer’s block. A column that incorporates quotations from people like Red Allen and Charlotte Bronte, Ernest Hemingway and Count McAvorsky. They all suffered bouts of writer’s block. They complained about writer’s block. They cursed it. They tried different diets and concoctions and changed their routines.”

“Sounds interesting. I like your column a lot—and not just because you write it here at the shop. Where do you get your ideas?”

“Sometimes people email suggestions. Other times my editor suggests something or people say things that spark something. Sometimes I get ideas by looking around and paying attention.”

“That makes sense.”

“Now take this column. I’m writing it because I’ve been having problems trying to meet a book deadline. I have an editor in New York who wants the book, but the material is not coming out of me. So if I name the sickness in me, maybe my writer’s block will lose its power. And that would be easier on my body than drinking all this coffee because I can’t handle the buzz much longer,” and he laughed.

“Whatever you want works for me, Joe, and I hope you get the book written. I appreciate your writing—the only reason to keep looking at the paper. Nice talking with you. I need to get behind the counter because folks are coming now for their afternoon breaks.”


Moving toward Normalcy


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Too long away from Ms. Anne Thrope’s Coffee Club I have been because of multiple griefs and conflicts. The misanthrope in me warred with my inner social being. Time to return to familiar places and commitments, and so I start again.

There Is When There Was Not

Armenian fables begin simply:

There was and there was not.

There was a young man and there was not.

Journalists were older and wiser

And then they were not.

Doctors and teachers then were older and wiser

And then they were not.

There was joy and there was not,

And there was grief and there was not,

And life happened.