I have a confession. I have a terrible time receiving love. I’m sure that this is true of almost everyone, so, I’m reluctant to make any big claim about it.

And yet, that too is a strategy I use to avoid the possibility that you, unknown reader, will not love what I have written. “Oh, god, not another carping complaint. It’s all about him, again. Bastard. Why doesn’t he write about me?”

How quickly I hear disparaging criticism. How even more quickly do I anticipate it. There is virtually no critique that I have not already baked into my work.

“How,” you might imagine, “do you manage to write at all?”

Dear reader, I imagine the same thing.

My creative process is a headlong rush between the giddiness of discovery, and the wrenching feeling of anticipated disdain. When I can hold it in balance, the disdain can provide a critical foil that hones the writing; when it runs wild, my work shrinks to a barely whispered voice. Less. Years have passed.

Harder yet, is when this dynamic creeps into my other parts of my life. Wait, it does not creep. It storms in—jack-booted, kicking down doors, taking the me hostage.

You would think, after 58 years, after a modicum of personal and professional successes, that this would not trouble me. I can be an interminable optimist. The bright red balloon of my heart can soar into possibilities. There is a court jester’s sensibility that makes for easy humor, tinged with sarcasm, but also with an abiding love for the queen (you!) that seeks only to please.

However, I harbor a vision of disconnection and interpersonal doubt that would make Henry David Thoreau or Holden Caulfield seem sunny by comparison. Call it cynicism, or realism (GAH!). When I am at my best, I recognize this darker vision for what it is—a diversion from the bright path that waits. Just. Over. There. And when you are at your best, my heart gladly joins in the song you sing. But when the two of us (or more, and more) sink into dissension and doubt, then I am challenged to rise to my festive best. Then the Hobbesian vision kicks in, and the only reason we find any accord is to put off the never ending war of all against all.

I write, and love, to assert a vision of life that encompasses all the bright possibilities. And that acknowledges the deeper disconnections—not simply disagreements or differences—that drive us apart. I know that there are such divisions, but I believe in the power of writing and love to bind up the old wounds, to forge a new path, and to discover new hope.

Sometimes, all it takes is writing. And that is what I have forgotten too easily over the years. The writing will carry me back to the world of connection, possibility, and yes, love. And so I write, the cloud lifts. The lesson is learned.


I begin easily enough. Before I know it, a length has passed in the pool—most of it underwater as I dolphin kick on my back until the flags at the far end of the pool pass over my head. Or a new job begins, with all the attendant paperwork and the meetings with people who think they know my job better than I do. They know something better, and I try to learn, as quickly as possible. Or a new romance, which is like falling, and is as easy as falling, the way falling is entirely effortless. What comes next?

The grind of workout #89, when the music on the waterproof MP3 player fails to inspire a quickened pace, and the bottom of the pool is endless. Or the month after the initial set of grades are due, and the fourth set of essays come across my desk. Not again. Not the same mess of misspellings and three page paragraphs. Or when the obligations of work and family eat into the blissful times, and bliss becomes quotidian. Imagine that, quotidian bliss.

In every aspect of my life, the transition from beginning to middle happens almost by accident. Like tripping over a carpet. I get used to the puckered places on the floor—or tug the whole thing up, and set it back down again, flat, until the gremlins shift it around again. And then I tug it up again. And again. One time will not do. One run of the vacuum. One load of laundry. Another set of tests to grade. Another and another and another.

But some things bear repetition, even improve. Like love. While it is hard to make the transition from falling to landing, it is better still to learn to fly, to find the joy. The old joke about, I just flew in from Los Angeles, and boy, are my arms tired. I would live for my arms to be so tired with the effort of flight. And it would be worth the effort, each fluctuation of my unseen wings, soaring in unison with my love.

It is the same with writing. I have used this blog as practice off and on for the past few years. It has been a way to scribble and not to worry about the duration of longer effort. Longer effort—let me call it what it is, a novel—can be daunting. What if, like falling and flying, one mistimes the creative leap and ends up hobbled or broken, with months of work sent to sea like Icarus? I only I can think about something longer as, well, 1000 word spans. 1000 words is nothing. 60 days at that pace, and… But let’s not get ahead.

Is writing something longer romantic? For me, yes. I have fallen out of love with several novels that I have begun. The ideas and characters have soured, or I have not loved them well enough to let them live beyond my narrow conception of them. For me, as much as writing is a commitment of ass to chair (scribble, scribble, Dr. Brennan), it mimics the action of reading—a generous engagement with a book. Seymour Glass’s best piece of writing advice ever— “Imagine the book you most want to read. Now go and write it”—has always resonated with me. And until now, other than some shorter pieces, no longer piece has fully met that criteria. Or, I was not up to the flight.

In the end, really, I don’t write because I have something to say, but still, because I want to discover something. Before I was a writer, I was a reader, and I still love to read. The same way that I love to travel, I love to discover ideas and characters in books. It is flight into unknown places. I love discovering what I do not know. Somewhere along the way the creative process seduces one into intention—I get caught in the web of intention—thinking about what I want to say instead of praising what I see. And letting my words find a way.

I take refuge in Michelangelo’s vision of the sculpture already extant in the stone—we aren’t creators so much as revealers—discoverers if you will. So too, with flight, while there may be a destination, there are also loops and rolls and fields long enough to land, and walk to an untended apple tree, pick a ripe crisp fruit, and eat. Discover this on the journey.

How many other aspects of my life follow this impulse—reveling in discovery more than intentional design? I think too many. Most people still live their lives primarily by design. There is security and satisfaction in the sense of agency that willfulness bestows. My students clamor to know what they need to do to earn an “A,” or a higher score on an exam. How unsatisfyingly do I answer, “Discover more.” That is no way forward, at least no specific way. It is an attitude and not a route.

And frankly, in romance, I have scuttled relationships because I have fought against others’ plans, not happy to simply follow the natural stages of things, and unhappy when a relationship settled into a routine. Of course, life is routine, a series of repeated rituals, a hundred thousand undulations of wings. But that routine, those rituals, can, should, must help one reveal what is hidden in the marble, or what might be found when gloriously in flight.

Perhaps, what I wanted, without knowing it, was someone who was willing to fly with me. And in my writing, something that had the chance of slipping the bonds of my intentions. A goal I could fly toward, that would transport me the same way that love transports and transforms me.

There is a little secret though. I do have at least one intention, and that is for this longer work to last, for it to remain engaging and vital, even when the effort strains my arms. And so, I take small flights. And share these flights, for now, with one who flies with me. I discover something new, one winged trip at a time.

Falling in love with a nomad heart, means being prepared for the moment she says, “My soul grows one hundred feet when I go…I feel alive when I go.” When she says that—and I know it is true, have known it from the first time she showed me her photographs of ancient cities, lost on plains in countries with histories that stretch back thousands of years, countries torn by wars and still carrying their past, when she showed me and her eyes lit up under the night sky—one part of me understands. Another part, feels jealous—but jealous of what? Of the world? How can that be, when the world calls to me just as strongly?

Of course, I have not traveled where she has. My nomad heart travels to places that give me pause, and I have known, since we began falling in love with each other, that she would travel to such places. Once in her life, years before we met, she was a soldier, and now, she works in countries where our country is still at war, helping fund projects that have a chance at changing lives. How can I not love that devotion?

The world cries out for those who see what is needed and then who attempt to do what is needed. My nomad has seen a world that cries out with need—need for help, need for aid, and need, most dire need, for simple recognition. Instead, what is offered, so often, is misperception, some well meaning observation, or self-preserving admonishment. And yet there are those who see more, who find a connection. People whose hearts carry that nomad spirit.

I have traveled less, and this surprises those who know me, because they expect a history to match my vision. I have seen the world beyond the boundaries of my limited travels through other people’s eyes. I have borrowed their senses as they traveled. I feel the limitations of their visions, not because they are wrong, or even short-sighted, but because I know how I see and feel. I know my limitations, but also my strengths. I can see without thinking how someone or something is like me.

My nomad heart has looked more within, and while I know this will not replace travel, what is the point of travel if one only carries a mirror, or travels to find the origins of me, or uncover the failed roads that lead to this pinnacle of man? These days I see “Not all who wander are lost” bumper stickers and spare tire covers on the backs of SUVs. Why not get lost? Why not find a path that leads to discovery not of oneself (Now I have had my vision!), but to some other self, someone whose story demands to be told, neither because it is great, nor because it is tragic, but simply because it is. Show me something, someone, I do not know—not to uncover me, but to reveal some place, some you who waits to be known.

And so I am prepared, poorly, for the day when I take my nomad heart to the TSA line, and turn away to head back to my world, while she steps into line and toward a place where she will travel under the eyes of guards, and where she will see a world I can, for the moment, only dream about. “My soul grows,” she says, and when she says this, my heart grows. The world calls.

“What do I have to say?”

How I wish that more people asked this simple question before adding to the public discourse. Instead of wondering about their particular expertise, or wondering about how their experiences have shaped them, most people weigh in, almost automatically, on nearly any occasion. We have become a nation of opiners, flexing our incredible verbal muscles in a display that rivals any body-building competition.

And for what? What are the effect of our words? What spaces do they carve out in the public square? How do our voices land in the ears of those around us? How does what we say actually represent our thoughts and feelings, and how much is made to simply compete with what we hear—a kind of verbal pyrotechnics meant to outblast, if not outshine, the sound and fury of our neighbors?

It is enough to make one meek. Since everyone expresses opinions at a level of intensity that rivals Jonathan Edwards—dangling our audience over pits of damnation—a quiet measured voice is like a spring zephyr in February—lost in the midst of winter rain and sleet, unless one can open oneself for that fleeting moment that the season will change, and that the one breath of gentler warmth can ease its way into our winter layers. But who has enough patience to be that harbinger? To breathe softer words? To hint?

And who would listen?

I begin with no grand proclamation to shout. My students would laugh to hear me say that. I have shouted, exhorted, acted—overacted—and entertained in classes for years. Inevitably, I will announce “Dr. Brennan’s Rule for Life #7,362: Buy flowers,” and acknowledge that there are as many rules to the north and south of that number. However, my students are a captive audience—they have to at least pretend to listen to me. The same goes for my daughters, or even the members of the congregation I served for nearly a dozen years. Yet, I never take any listening for granted.

Maybe this is true of others as well, and maybe this is part of the reason that there is so much shouting in the square—as if volume could take the place of wisdom. Say something loud enough and someone will pay attention. Get enough people to pay attention, and some number will believe what you are saying. Get enough people to believe and rule the world—or some slice of it.

What if all you want to do is quietly share. I saw this… I heard this… I thought this… I felt this… What if you wanted to just add to the world and not bend it to your will? To inspire some stranger to go and see, or hear, or think, or feel? To suggest, perhaps to persuade, but not to cajole or chastise?

I do not know. I wonder if there is a wisdom or wisdoms that might be shared, if a thought precisely crafted and shared will find purchase. Is there a value in inspired rumination? My students read Walden and bristle at Thoreau’s adamantine vision. Who is he to insist on how we should live? Didn’t he die penniless? Where did he go to school? Why isn’t he as well organized as Emerson? I don’t think about my pants. The same holds true for Whitman’s kosmic voice, and for Dickinson’s route of evanescence. Writers who stake a claim turn readers away. If that selection seems too narrow, Ellison’s blindingly light filled room, Woolf’s roomier postulations, and Marquez’s endless Aurelianos also turn readers into pillars of salt.

But, declare I must, because silence is not a story, and words may find purchase, somewhere, somehow. Time to work.

My friends are pointing fingers, locking their anger on that man, laser focused, sharpened wits at the ready. Especially today, the day after he mocked the woman who stood up and made her claim. And yet, it is never one man who makes the hatred possible. It takes a thousand voices, a million. And they are ready, adamant, and they will do more than vote.

The easy comparison has been to the fiendish orator from the 1930’s in Germany. But are we not living in the Weimar Republic, trounced and wounded and in the middle of a seemingly intractable economic crisis, with people wheeling barrows of devalued currency to the store for bread. No. We are great. We gather to watch football in the fall. We go to the beach in the summer. Our lives are country sweet.

And yet, when one man strokes the match, we burn, ready to ignite a fire that can be seen across oceans—or at least into the homes of those who would stand against our righteous anger. If he throws the match, we provide the kindling and hardwood to guarantee the night will not take us.

And we are, somehow, inexplicably, afraid. Of what? Of whom? Of the stranger. And he brings evidence—these families torn apart by them, those strangers to our great nation. Or this woman, whom he mocks for being imperfect. And all the while, the danger comes from so much closer. For every brown and black assailant, there are a thousand who look like us, who live in our homes and worship at our churches. Are we afraid of them, of the familiar danger that sleeps next to us?

Perhaps, but how much would it cost us to put an end to that? How many families would be torn apart if we laid bare the terrible secrets that line our streets like so many comfortable white fences? Not him. Not one of us. And yet, that is where the danger waits.

And so, because we face an unnamable threat, because we dare not speak its name, we are ready to foist our fears, whole and significant, onto others. Or even take them upon ourselves—blaming the crimes we daily face on ourselves. Not smart enough. Not cautious enough. Not brave enough. Too foolish. Too sexy. Too brazen. Too forthright. Too outspoken. And we do not turn to those we love and say, “Stop. Stop yourself. Stop your friends. Stop the faceless brigades of those who look like you. Stop.”

Until we do, until we stop those who would persecute our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our daughters, our sons, until we name the true source of our gnawing fear and endless recrimination, until we demand a true accounting for the actions, not of a few, but of the many, and stop blaming the hurt, the wounded, the abused, the battered, the raped, and the killed, until we recognize that it is not that man, or those strangers, or those women. We need to do more than hold that man accountable.

It is time for us to hold ourselves and our men accountable. It is time to name the fear. And act.

I do not know Bret Kavanaugh, nor do I have any idea what Georgetown Prep, his high school, was like. I attended an all-male boarding school (The Hill School, in Pottstown, PA) and graduated in 1978. The school taught me explicit and implicit values. What I remember most about my late adolescence was that the values I was taught were not enough for me, that I needed bigger lessons, more durable lessons, lessons that would help me grow up and become a better man. When I decided to apply to and accept admission to Swarthmore College, some of my classmates teased me because The Insider’s Guide to Colleges mentioned that Swarthmore had a gay student organization. The teasing stung, but I knew that one of the reasons I chose Swarthmore was because it was a more open community, and that it would expose me to ideas that were foreign to an all-male campus.

We were never taught explicitly about what women were like, and perhaps that’s not a surprise given that it was the late 70s, and teaching boys—boys who lived at school with each other and without women—would’ve been tantamount to a revolution. What we learned about women came mainly from pornography or word-of-mouth; neither of those sources were particularly well informed. The female characters in our literature classes were the attendant characters in Shakespeare, The Glass MenagerieEmperor Jones, and later in an Ethics class, the mother in Mishima’s Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Certainly there was literature that would’ve helped address some of these issues: Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Virginia Woolf, others; but we stuck to books like Billy Budd.

On reflection, maybe there were enough lessons in those books to teach us about how we should behave in the world. The lessons of the handsome sailor have always resonated with me. There was—is—a better way to be. There was—is—also a darker impulse, based in part on jealousy, and then something unmistakably evil. Each of us carries a Claggart—a heart of darkness—in us, whether we like it or not, and if we don’t wrestle with that presence in our daily lives, and set it back where belongs, then we will be susceptible to those darker impulses.

But how helpful it would’ve been, to learn about how women thought, not just about sex, but about how they felt about their lives, and about us, and what they expected from us. Those lessons came later, and not easily. Maybe they don’t come easily for anyone, whether they spent their adolescence in an all-male environment or not.

The first yearbook I saw at my school featured Christian Nestell Bovee’s quotation: “Our first love and last love is self love.” I’m not sure whether the boys who chose that quotation meant it as an ironic statement or an actual claim of principle. But we were taught to love ourselves. That could be a selfish kind of love, when you are at the center of your own universe all the time. It took me years to knock myself out of that center, to learn how to lead as a form of service, not simply a form of heroic self-proclamation. We spend so much time as adolescents and young men planting our flags declaring ourselves, and declaring our desires, that we forget that there are other flags, other desires, and other selves beside our own. We think our anger is the most important anger. Our selfishness the most important selfishness. Our success the most important success. And of course, and in some ways it is. But when we live that way, we don’t think and we don’t consider. We become islands.

And so we end up 17, thinking that we can have whatever we take for ourselves. Or we end up 35, or 50, or 70, with that same notion stuck in our brains. We enter a kind of Hobbesian world, where the strongest take what they want from those who are weak, where life is short, nasty, and brutish unless you are strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, to define the world on your own terms. The only way to succeed against such impulses is to be like Billy Budd the handsome sailor, excellent on your own terms in a way that is beyond grosser manly definition. A glowing exemplar. Untouchable. And yet, fatally flawed.

In time I would learn other lessons, and they were among the most valuable lessons I ever learned. I learned to complicate my world, to see beyond my immediate desires, to see into the world. I learned this from teachers who were women from classmates who were women, from the authors who were women, from philosophers for women. They deepened my understanding of the world.

I cannot help but wonder what my life, and the lives of the young men with whom I went to school, would have been like if we had received those lessons then, from our male teachers. I am well aware that some people—and not just men—will hear lessons from women differently, less seriously, because it is not a male voice speaking, because it is not a voice that is endowed with wealth, and worldly success. This is a loss, a fatal and horrible loss. Our world is made up so much complexity so much richness so much that is valuable. When we exclude ourselves from seeing these things because we are men, who once were boys, we fail. We fail the women in our lives, and we fail ourselves

I don’t know Bret Kavanaugh, but I know something of the world of boys and men. We have an obligation to be better, to expect more, to not hide behind the “boys will be boys” mantra of the excusers and justifiers. We did learn to be better. And we did not. We own this one, and so does he.

My cat is dying. I have four cats, and one of them is dying. In the past 35 years, I have had 9 cats. 5 of them have died. I have been present for the deaths of 4 of them—3 in the auspices of cat hospitals, where their deaths were hurried on beyond their suffering, 1 as renal failure finally blotted out his light. The cat who is dying now has some kind of neoplasm—a cancer—and his descent has been swift. He is just under 7 years old; he entered my life 6 years ago.

When you adopt a pet, you know you are, for the most part—tortoises and parrots aside—going to outlive your pet. Your cat or dog will die. Children’s first experience of death often happens when a pet dies (or Santa Claus is excised from their lives, another kind of death). But, by the time you are older, mortality has been hanging around, making itself known. It’s a savage kind of knowing.

I’m in the middle of teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets—bouncing between the appeal of the “eternal summer” and hard fact of Time’s “bending sickle’s compass.” There is no comfort in death, or in the slow inexorable passage of time. All the comparisons he discounts in Sonnet 130–the sun, coral, snow, roses, perfume, music, goddess—are ideals that flower easily in the imagination. These are worth striving for! And yet, we are all “Time’s fool”—how can we be anything else? We must “tread on the ground.” Life—and its end—happen here.

Of course, I hear Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And I do. I wear glasses that alleviate the dimming light. I adapt. I go to the pool and the gym, preparing to extend that rage, thinking “Only halfway!” Perhaps the rage blinds us to the grimmer particulars. Then I’ll take that blindness for now, and rage.

Still, my cat is dying, and is confused and anxious about what has happened, is happening to him. I try to comfort him, and know that in the end, easy passage may be the way (I have phone numbers at the ready). I wish I could hold him, pet him, and reassure him that his girls—the two kittens he tended when they followed him into my household, who are now 5 years old—will be all right. That I will take good care of them. That he has been a good cat and a good companion. And I know those reassurances are echoes of words and thoughts I had for other cats. And, of course, for other people.

I may be done with death, but death, I know, is far from done with me.