The Great American Eclipse: What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Juliet tells Romeo that nothing’s in a name. “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet,” she says. And even Hamlet seems dismissive in his “words, words, words.” But after the Great American Eclipse, I must rebuff the beautiful maiden and challenge the churlish prince. Au contraire sweet Juliet. And as for Hamlet, well, a noble mind o’erthrown, and so forth.

The Great American Eclipse

photo of eclipsed sun

Monday afternoon, August 21st, my friend George and I watched the moon creep through those final degrees toward totality. The two of us and our wives were on a quest. Thousands of people rested in lawn chairs or lay on blankets before the capitol building in Jefferson City, MO. On the stage, set up on the capitol steps, the Fort Leonard Wood military orchestra performed. Kids tossed footballs, played in the fountains, chased each other through the obstacle course of resting adults. Clouds drifted lazily by, bringing with them some unease about missing the Great American Eclipse.

But when the final seconds ticked into totality, all eyes stared at the clear blue sky, and a roar went up from the multitude. Then just as quickly, the roar died into silence. Awestruck, we listened to the cicadas wailing in the mid-day dark. The bright corona flared around the black ball of the sun. It was an eclipse, but suddenly that word, which had been mundane, even common, was charged with mystery and awe. It had put on a stunning new mantle.

Words, Words, Words

A few minutes later George asked, “What word would describe the eclipse? What word would best communicate something beyond the ordinary, beyond the natural?” We rejected the word “supernatural” immediately as far too tired and burdened with the clutter of history. A dictionary reveals the problem: Supernatural: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially, of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil; departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature:  attributed to an invisible agent (such as a ghost or spirit). Nope, just doesn’t fit. What we had seen was governed entirely by the laws of nature.

The term preternatural offered itself, and we thought perhaps it would work. Preternatural: beyond what is normal or natural, extraordinary, exceptional, uncommon, singular, unprecedented, remarkable, phenomenal, abnormal, inexplicable, unaccountable; strange, mysterious, fantastic. That was more like it. All these words accurately apply to the eclipse. In fact, when taken together, they are, as a whole, a good summary of an abstract description of what happened in the sky above us. But our experience was not abstract in the least. Preternatural would not do.

The Spiritual

Each of us had experienced the eclipse as something spiritual (not supernatural), something natural that seemed to stop time, to pull us out of ourselves. And the response of thousands of people gathered there revealed that the immediate, shared human response was not just awe, but joy. A shout, clapping, and laughter erupted. We were all drawn totally into the moment, and in that moment there were no democrats or republicans, no liberals or conservatives, no northerners or southerners, no believers or atheists. There were only human beings sharing an experience of totality, an experience of total self-forgetting, of good will and unity. It must have been what the ancient Israelites felt when they saw God in a whirlwind or pillar of fire.

And Flannery O’Connor

Looking back now, those so-brief two-and-a-half minutes of totality, and the response that followed, tempt me to a bizarre comparison. Forgive the incurable English professor in me, but I think of the words of The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” after he kills the meddling, bossy grandmother: “She would have been a good woman,” he says, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Perhaps you can see where this is headed. In some future aeon, after humanity has destroyed itself, I see a cosmic Misfit, sitting on an asteroid, looking down at earth and shaking its head. “They would have been a good species,” it will say, “if it had been a Great American Eclipse to strike them with awe and wonder every minute of their life.”

From the Forge: The Humanity of Anton Chekov

Anton Chekov in suit and tie


Anton Chekov

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX/Shutterstock (3827651a) Portrait of anton chekhov, Russian author and playwright, 1900. VARIOUS

The Russian writer Anton Chekov is widely recognized as a master of short fiction. It is interesting that many people seem to dislike Chekov’s short stories because they tend to be open ended, lacking a comfortable, reassuring resolution. But Chekov’s place in the pantheon is secure. His influence on later writers has been enormous.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Siddahartha Mukherjee claims that Chekov “invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness.”

Sakhalin is the Russian island where Chekov spent three months at a penal colony, observing the suffering and the extreme depravity of humanity. His time there became a turning point in his life and his writing.

Mukherjee quotes Chekov as saying, “Six principles that make for a good story . . . are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.”

Anton Chekov and Leo Tolstoy 1900


Chekov and Tolstoy, Yalta 1900

The second and third of Chekov’s principles, “total objectivity” and “truthful descriptions,” no doubt come from his being a physician with a scientific turn of mind. His going to Sakhalin had more to do with Chekov the scientist than with Chekov the writer. But the last two of his six principles, “audacity and originality” and “compassion,” are perhaps the cause of his being so widely loved.

His “audacity and originality” are, I believe, part of why he insisted on the open endings of his stories. Open endings were not popular in the Victorian Period. The Victorians wanted the moral of the story to be clear. They wanted the good characters to end well and the bad characters to end badly. Chekov provides fully realized characters in a tragic situation, but offers no resolution. The reader must search for resolution in his or her own understanding.

But Chekov’s compassion for his characters, his intense feeling that they are simply human beings trapped in their circumstances, driven by their desires, endears him to readers. He does not judge his characters. He leaves judgment to the reader. But his sympathetic, humane treatment challenges readers to look in the mirror before they judge.

Am I in Your Book? Writing Characters from Real Places into Fiction

This is a guest blog post, purely tongue-in-cheek, I did Monday for Darlene Fredette’s blog Finding the Write Words. It considers the ways people respond to being made characters in fiction. It was written for other writers, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

Am I In Your Book?

When was the last time someone asked you, “Am I in your book?” It’s a reasonable question. Writers often use real people as models for characters in a novel. It’s a pretty good way to get back at the ex. The person who asks you the question might be excited about the possibility of being in the book, or she might be a little scared about how you describe the character modeled on her. It’s scary to think that you might be recognizable as the bitchy neighbor or the gossip down the street.

For the setting of my mystery/thriller novel Sacrificial Lam [Available Here], I used the small college campus where I taught for many years. Word soon got out to my old colleagues—faculty and administration—and to the many alumni to whom I am connected on line. The question began to appear in my inbox—“Am I in your book?” 

One morning I stopped by my favorite coffee shop, Pour Jon’s, and as I waited for my vanilla latte, inhaling the rich odor of dark beans being ground, I noticed the college chaplain sitting in a booth by the stairs. He waved and smiled. “I heard about your book,” he said. “Does it have an evil chaplain in it?” The book does not, in fact, have a chaplain in it at all, but I thought that’s an idea. So I said, “No, but he may show up in the next book in the series.” I couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed or gratified.

A couple of days later, the college choral director and chair of the Music Department responded to my Facebook promotion with, “Is there a creepy choral director in your book?” Again, the book does not, in fact, have a choral director at all, but again I thought not a bad idea. So I said, “No, but he may show up in the next book in the series.” I happen to know this choral director pretty well. We used to play golf together once a week. In his case I was pretty certain that he was both disappointed that he wasn’t in the novel and gratified that I would surely put him in the next one.

I did put a few of my old colleagues in the novel, not particularly well disguised, just for fun. One of them, a psychologist, read parts of an early draft to check its validity and give me ideas for types of disorders. But after talking to the chaplain and the choral director, I started imagining how I would respond to certain people when they popped the question.

What would I say if the college president saw me at the local Tai café and said, “Is there a diabolical college president in your novel?” Since I’m retired now and don’t have to worry about my job, I could say, “No, I was afraid you would sue the pants off me for defamation of character.” He was a lawyer in a previous life, Harvard Law School, in fact.

What if the CFO, the Chief Financial Officer, saw me at the bank, standing in line to make a deposit, and said, “Is there a conniving CFO in your novel?” I could say, “No, but for a price I can make you the hero of the next book in the series.” A ludicrous attempt to solicit a bribe, you might say, but worth a try.

I’m beginning to see the real value of the question, “Am I in your novel?” It could become the wellspring of concepts for future books. Or it could become a vehicle for revenge. And if I’m really lucky, it could be the goose that lays the golden egg. I can live with that.


I’ve started reading a very engaging book about emotional truth, emotional belief, and its validity. The title pretty much describes the contents–Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense, by the well-known British writer Francis Spufford. The book has been hailed widely by critics as a refreshing and challenging treatment of the subject, and it has been denounced by others, mostly for Spufford’s free use of profanity.

I’m enjoying it, including the profanity, and I’m sure I’ll be posting on it later. I’ll just share the last lines of the first chapter as a teaser.

He calls the book “a defense of Christian emotions–of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. The book is called Unapologetic because it isn’t giving an ‘apologia,’ the technical term for a defense of the ideas.  And also because I’m not sorry.”

Nuff said for now.

I Don’t Believe in God: God Believes in Me

Nobody really believes in God—Christians or members of any other faith community. Christians who say, “I believe in God,” actually mean, “I believe in a particular construct of God that was formed by a particular sub-culture’s reading of a book called The Bible.” That is all that can honestly be said about belief in God. The significant limitations inherent in being human prevent us from understanding, much less believing in, qualities like eternity, infinity, the divine—for that matter, the human.

Christians, or members of any other religious community, will not, of course, stop saying, “I believe in God.” There aren’t many good alternatives to “God,” and they tend to range from the impossible-to-say to the impossible-to-understand. You know, something along the lines of “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” That’s endearing. Thanks, Anselm. The very fact that it is called the ontological argument pretty much kills it for me. Then there is Matthew Arnold’s “stream of tendency, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness.” I guess I prefer that to Anselm. At least Arnold makes God the good guy/girl/thing/tendency.

Anyway, you get the idea. “I believe in God” may not be true, strictly speaking, but it’s easy to say, and heck, it would work well under pressure—for example, as a last testimony before the pagans chop your head off. Can you imagine trying to say, “I believe in that than which a greater cannot be thought” as the ax is falling?

So then, why say, “I don’t believe in God; God believes in me”? We all know the well-worn story of the alcoholic or drug addict trapped in a cycle of self-destructive behavior, whose life is transformed because someone else “believed in her/him.” It’s a beautiful story that touches people because it reveals something essential about human nature—that the faith and love of an other might change what seems unchangeable in us. The other believes in “me” and stays with “me” in the brokenness. Sometimes that is transformative.

The most addictive and self-destructive behavior in my life has been believing in God. Growing up in the Bible Belt, in a small Fundamentalist church, in a loving, believing family, there was never a time when I didn’t “believe in God”—by which I mean, of course, that “particular construct of God that was formed by a particular sub-culture’s reading of a book called The Bible.” It is almost impossible in that sub-culture to step outside the paradigm—comfortable and secure, beliefs constantly reinforced by reading a book that has been for all practical purposes deified, and interpreting personal experiences through that (particular) reading. That particular reading of the book and understanding of God was who I was—my identity, my worth—not just now, but for eternity. The investment in getting it right was staggering. Then when I was sure I “had it right,” it was almost impossible to consider, and certainly impossible to accept, any proposition outside that construct. I could not, without unbearable stress on my identity, my worth, and on my eternal relationship to God, risk such immense stakes.

I was, in effect, a Biblaholic. No, a Particular-reading-of-the-book-aholic. I was addicted to the particular way I had come to read the book. And I judged God and other people by that standard. And like an alcoholic or drug addict, under the influence I was able to justify saying and believing some pretty awful things about God and other people. But something inside kept pushing back, insisting there had to be another way. And then a door opened. Perhaps someone was knocking. I think someone was. Somehow I walked through. On the other side was peace. On the other side was all of creation, including me, and it was good. A different paradigm. The addiction and self-destructive behavior began to fade. No need to “get it right” so that I could judge God and other people. A relief.

Now, like all recovering addicts, I guard my heart closely to make sure I don’t relapse. And I remember that, if there is God, the path to God is God’s belief in us. And so—John 3:16 (Gary’s Revised Edition): For God so believed in humanity, that God became human, that everyone who was believed in would have life.

Branagh Ruined My Wallander

Here’s the scene: A detective—about forty, rugged good looks, speaks the Queen’s English as if he were once a broadcaster on BBC radio, dark clothing, fashionable hair, divorced, one daughter with whom he struggles to communicate, aging belligerent father from whom he feels estranged—returns from the scene of a grisly murder. He becomes immobilized by depression, nearly catatonic, weeping, whining, never sleeps, lives with a hangover, brilliant at solving crimes, but unbearable as a person. As I see it, this is an accurate description of British actor Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of the fictional Swedish detective Kurt Wallander.

Long before I stumbled onto the Branagh BBC series Wallander, I had very mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh—good in Shakespeare, awful in Frankenstein, and so forth. But as a real lover of Scandinavian crime fiction, I was up for giving the Wallander series a shot. After three or four episodes, I had had enough. Great Swedish settings (cold, dark, wet, but beautiful), interesting stories, good supporting cast, but I could not stomach Branagh’s overblown Existential angst in his interpretation of the title character.

The novels from which the Wallander series was created were written by the late Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, who died in 2015. About a year after I abandoned the BBC series, I ran across an inexpensive used copy of one of Mankell’s Wallander novels and decided to read it. I was not surprised to find really good writing, which is common with the Scandinavian writers, but was delighted to find a title character who was likeable—middle-aged, average looking, a little out of shape, no black clothes, plain hair, divorced, struggling with his relationships with his daughter and aging father. Pensive, a little brooding at times, but a far, far cry from Branagh’s morose, nearly suicidal cop.

Not long after reading the novel, I found a Swedish production of the Wallander series on Netflix and thought, why not? It was a jewel of a series–in Swedish with subtitles. The Swedish lead actor, Kristor Henriksson, an average looking guy, was a perfect balance between pensive and active, brooding and outgoing. No more weeping and whining, just quiet and thoughtful. Still brilliant at solving murders, but also an interesting person. I’d say that Henriksson saved my Wallander.

I may not in future watch a Kenneth Branagh production of anything. I will continue to read Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. If you like crime fiction, you need to introduce yourself to Scandinavian crime fiction. Henning Mankell would be a good place to start. The Wallander novels are good reading, and as a bonus you get the Swedish production of the TV series, which captures the best elements of the fiction.

Jesus and the Jewel in the Lotus, Part 2

Continuing with the discussion of Jesus and the Jewel in the Lotus mantra from a few days ago, we have the final three syllables of the mantra (pad-me hum) to consider. If you missed my last post, which considered the first three syllables of the mantra (Om man-i), you can find it here. In that post, I said that I prefer the translation by the Dalai Lama.

The first two of those final syllables, pad-me, mean lotus, and  the Dalai Lama says that the lotus symbolizes wisdom. Wisdom is a central tenet in the development of Christianity. The old Apostle Paul said that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” Sophia is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for wisdom in the Septuagint. In Catholic theology and in Protestant mysticism, Sophia is the wisdom of God.

So, up to this point, we have Om, which is purity of mind, body, and speech; mani, which is compassion or love; and now padme, which is wisdom. Wisdom is simply too abstract to translate into action, so I take the statement in Proverbs that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear (reverence) of the Lord,” and I translate “reverence” into faithfulness or trust. Those are terms I can see in action. So when I repeat, to myself or with others, the syllables pad-me, I am yearning for faithfulness and trust–i.e., faithfulness to “the way” and trust in the one to whom the way leads.

The final syllable in the Jewel in the Lotus mantra, hum, is translated by the Dalai Lama as indivisibility, or oneness. The indivisibility of method (compassion) and wisdom. But also the inter-relation or inter-being of all creation. All human beings are inter-related. We are, in a very essential way, one. As a species, we like to think of ourselves as separate from, or above, the rest of creation. Yet we were created from dirt (in the Genesis story), consist mostly of water, must constantly synthesize both air and the flora/fauna to live, and reproduce through a process of cell division, just like everything else in creation. When we die, the atoms that made up our physical form return to the storehouse of nature from which other creatures/things come. Oneness.

Often when I pray, I use the simple translations of the syllables of the Jewel in the Lotus as my mantra. Purity, compassion, faithfulness, oneness. Those are all important words/ideas in the teachings of Jesus. They are words that describe Jesus. We are told to be transformed, to have the mind of Jesus. In the beginning, Christianity was not called “Christianity.” It was called “the Way.” Jesus is the Way. Meditating on the words of this mantra is one of the ways I try to follow the way. I like to think of Jesus as the Jewel in the Lotus, the Compassion in the Wisdom.

Purity, compassion, faithfulness, oneness.



Jesus and The Jewel in the Lotus

One of the most popular Buddhist mantras is known as The Jewel in the Lotus, consisting of a six-syllable phrase that Jesus would have loved. There is some debate about the exact origin of the mantra, but it appeared in Buddhist teachings as early as the 11th or 12th century. A  mantra is like a short prayer, which tends to be a word or phrase that, when repeated continuously in meditation and worship, has a positive spiritual effect on the worshiper. Christianity has its share of verses, songs, and early prayers that have become mantras. Consider, for example, the Jesus Prayer (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, have mercy on me, a sinner”), which is used widely in Christian meditation, especially in the Eastern  Orthodox Church. Or phrases from the Gloria (“Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”) or the Phos Hilaron (“O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!”) or the Te Deum (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts”). Or hundreds of verses from both testaments of the Bible.

Buddhist Mantras are frequently not literally translatable into English, or only loosely so. The Flower in the Lotus is translated in different ways, but the translation I love is from the Dalai Lama. It is the translation I think Jesus would affirm. In the original language, the six syllables are “Om Ma-ni Pad-me Hum.” The syllable “Om” is the essential sound in the Buddhist tradition and has a wide array of applications. It’s the sound you always see/hear a group of monks chanting in any documentary on Buddhism. It is frequently translated for Westerners as the vibration of the Universe/God, which has no literal translation but has great spiritual power. The Dalai Lama translates it in a simple but profound way as purity of mind, body, and speech. I apply this translation in my own meditations as follows: Think only those thoughts that promote the good, the beautiful, the well-being of others; Do only those acts that are healthy for the body and make physical life good; Speak only those words that comfort, build up, and give dignity to other people/creatures. So the Dalai Lama’s translation of this simple syllable, Om, offers not just a definition of a word, but a way of life. Every time I sound that Om, to myself or with others, I am asking for purity of mind, body, and speech.

The next four syllables–mani padme–are generally translated as “jewel” (mani) and “lotus” (padme), hence the name of the mantra. The Dalai Lama considers the  jewel to be a symbol of altruism, compassion, and love. The lotus symbolizes wisdom. If we want to become like a Buddha, or like Jesus, these four syllables represent the path, the way. Compassion combined with Wisdom. Every time I sound the syllables Mani, to myself or with others, I open myself to compassion–from the Latin, com + pati (with + suffer) to suffer with. To suffer with those who suffer, to experience the deep sympathy that leads to action to relieve suffering. Consider Paul’s beautiful hymn to selfless love in I Cor 13.

Well, since I try to keep these postings to about 500 words maximum, I’m going to deal with the last three syllables of the mantra (pad-me hum), and why Jesus would love the whole thing, in another post, in a few days.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Anger as Hell

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Jesus did not say that if your are angry with your brother, you will be put in a place called hell. He said that if you are angry with your brother, you are already in hell. Anger is hell.” I like that. A lot. It is an intriguing reading of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus says there, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the fire of hell.” I have almost always heard this passage interpreted to mean that Jesus was ratcheting up the intensity of the law so that it would be impossible for a person to keep the law, and we would realize that only through grace can we escape the fire of hell. Not just murder will send you there, but anger and insults will, and of course none of us escapes both of those little numbers.

Here’s why I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s reading of Jesus’ words. I’m with C. S. Lewis all the way on this whole heaven and hell business. To oversimplify just a bit, Lewis saw heaven as the presence of God (Love, Light) and hell as the absence of God (Love, Light). Lewis says that we don’t just go to these places when we die, we are in them all along. So I understand Jesus, C. S. Lewis, and Thich Nhat Hanh to be saying that any time we step away from Love and Light (and by extension no longer communicate those things to others) we are in hell. And any time we experience Love and Light (and by extension communicate those things to others) we are in heaven. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce creates beautiful concrete metaphors for both those conditions.

Even Pogo, in the old comic strip, got got it right several decades ago when he said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It would be hard to put it more succintly. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Our enemy is not the other person, no matter what he or she has done. If we look deeply into ourselves, we can see that their act was a manifestation of our collective consciousness.” He means that we all have violence, hatred, and anger in us, and it is manifested by some people in extreme ways. This all reminds me of something else Jesus said, that the judgment you use against others will be used to judge you. That is a hard one, as so many of Jesus’ little broadsides are, especially in a time like ours, when every day the violence and hatred are manifested on TV and the internet.

Fanny Says What? Southern Culture from Nickole Brown

Earlier this year, Southern poet Nickole Brown published Fanny Says, an anthology that has been called “an unleashed love song to her grandmother,” who has left behind a presence as large as the living person. The early sections of the book speak with the voice of Fanny, a grandmother who was larger than life. Some of the poems in the final section speak with the voice of the granddaughter left behind, trying to co-exist with the Fanny’s ghost.

It’s a beautiful anthology. The emotions are sometimes raw. The language is often more than raw. If you are offended by vulgar language, this is not an anthology for you. In fact, if you are offended by vulgar language, this is not a blog post for you. Consider this your f-word warning. Stop reading now.

The first poem of Part I is titled “Fuck.” It’s a very funny rendition of all the artful ways Fanny used the word.  It was “the f-word made so fat and slow it was basset hound.” And in Fanny’s mouth, “fucker” became “a curse word made into a term of endearment.” Anyone who has loved someone like Fanny will love this poem.

Some of the later poems, the ones that offer up Nickole Brown struggling with the absence and presence of her dead grandmother, are touching without a drop of the saccharine. Her language is like a straight razor that cuts to the bone. One of the poems near the end of the book, titled “To My Grandm0ther’s Ghost, Flying with Me on a Plane,” wrestles with the paradox of not knowing how Fanny would respond to the fact that her granddaughter is a lesbian, not knowing whether love, after all, would be enough. The poem ends with a series of questions that include “Will you/ come get me, your hair piled high and white, when/ it’s my time to go? . . . ./ Or ashamed,/ will you turn away your face and hold up/ a shard/ of that mirror,/ showing me/ I’m going to hell?”

I love everything about this anthology. The language, the emotion, the wry sense of humor. I love reading some of the prose poems at high speed, being bombarded by voices and images that make it a thrill ride. Mary Ann and I heard Brown read from the book at the Arkansas Literary Festival last spring and bought it afterwards. I’m pretty sure, after reading it through, that I’ll read more of her work.