Tuesday, October 28, 2008

BWC 17: The Condor meets Bart Simpson

This year I'm fortunate to help organize the 17th annual Baltimore Writers' Conference, a daylong gathering where writers who have published and writers who haven't drift around like bees in a garden of words, cross pollinating every which way. This is how amazing the conference can be: We've got the author of Six Days of the Condor, and a novelist who spent four years writing scripts for The Simpsons, and a short story writer who has won two of the major awards given solely to short story collections.

I'm eager to hear Bruce Jacobs, who wrote Race Manners and Race Manners for the 21st Century. In his book, first published in the 1990s, he described ways in which race can be discussed with candor and generosity of spirit. I've heard him speak before, and he's smart and kind. Another highlight will be sitting next to Lia Purpura as we run a panel about creative nonfiction. Lia is a poet and essayist, and she comes at creative nonfiction as a lyricist. As a nonfiction writer with a journalism background, I love reading and listening to the nonfiction writers who approach the genre from a lyrical, poetic stance. The workmanlike moth astonished by the butterfly, that sort of thing.

The whole shebang starts early in the morning on Saturday, Nov. 8, at Towson University. Be you moth or butterfly or bee, if you'd care to register, visit the BWC Web site.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Apple for Mr. Hall!

If you read House of Good Hope, you remember Joshua Hall, the young man (pictured right, from his senior high school yearbook) who grew up to live out his promise to live in Hartford and help the city by any means necessary. Joshua, a smart, passionate young man, became Mr. Hall, a smart, passionate social studies teacher at Weaver High School. He's been doing great work at the school, and his efforts are being rewarded by the good women of Iota Phi Lamba sorority, who will honor Joshua at their annual "Apple for the Teacher" award luncheon on November 15 at the Chowder Pot restaurant on Hartford's Brainard Road. Joshua will be among eight teachers recognized for contributions that have been significant to "educating children and making schools better."

You can read more about Joshua since his appearance in House of Good Hope here.

I've seen Joshua at work in the classroom. He is disciplined in his mission to teach students important lessons about America and life. He's a role model in the best sense, and I'm delighted that he is being recognized for his good work.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"It's Really Odd Being the Minister's Wife."

My students tittered. Some shook their heads as if no words could explain how weird the world is. I’d just told them that I’m an ordained minister and that I was off for a weekend to officiate at a wedding in Montana. Their looks said, “You’re making this up, right?”

I was not. I explained how a friend had asked me to officiate at her Montana wedding; all I’d need, she said, is ordination, which I could get via the Universal Life Church and its Web site, and like water to wine I’d be legal to solemnize the union of Courtney Lowery and Jacob Cowgill. Once I agreed, Courtney made jokes about me being a fake minister, called me “Reverend” and “Rev.” But I knew she was serious, too, and that my responsibility was to be sincere.

The idea of me as Man of God flustered me. I am not devotedly religious. At best, I can be described as a lapsed Roman Catholic. As a teacher, I hesitate to preach so as not to seem too much the scold. As a writer, I explore sin and human failing more than virtue and piousness. Moreover, my heart beats in a medieval, superstitious way. I’ve read Dante, and as a former altar boy who once served the Papists, I understand fully the punishment priests said awaits the blasphemer, the price of worshipping outside the doctrines that accompanied my baptism. When I joked with students about my trepidations, a nice fellow from the back row, with a broad face and an Irish last name, made it clear he understood, too. He said:

“You are so going to Hell.”

Maybe. But first I had plane tickets to Montana.

Courtney and Jacob chose for their wedding a lovely Montana site: an old ranch, with a red-board and stone barn (see picture), half a mile from fenced off black hills of coal and sky-high smoke stacks. Nothing says Montana quite like rural Romanticism mixed with rapacious industry.

Much of my work as minister had already happened, which was to help Courtney and Jacob write and edit the ceremony. We’d met, we’d talked, we’d even discussed how much God to include. Courtney and Jacob aren’t atheists, but their beliefs are perhaps as vague and ill-defined as my own. But, yes, they wanted God. So I took their ideas to my laptop and spent more than a few mornings mulling over marriage, Montana, and the love Courtney and Jacob shared. What I’d written comprised the bulk of the ceremony.

The wedding spot was a little plot of land by Prickly Pear Creek, south of the state capital at Helena, where cottonwoods broke up the sunlight into jewels that alighted on people’s faces. The wedding day started cloudy, but miraculously(!) the clouds gave way just as Courtney began her bridal march, her farmer father alongside in crisp blue jeans, bolo tie and Western vest, an image even more iconic than Clint Eastwood’s cowboys, because Clyde Lowery is the real deal. He walked with his daughter, and she came to Jacob in sunlight, and in sunlight they made their union. Many guests – my wife, Sheri, among them -- filled more than a dozen rows, and I nearly shouted the words so I could be heard in back. Because I shouted, because I concentrated to recite the words correctly and in the right order, I felt less an agent of something numinous than I did an emcee, a movie’s director, an enforcer of decorum and solemnity, whose role was to make certain people stood where they must stand, that the rings were safe, that players knew their roles. Soon, when the ceremony ended, I would become a bureaucrat, gathering the signatures of witnesses to make legal the license.

How I felt, of course, didn’t matter. I had to trust that the love and grace I had known when writing the ceremony still existed in the words, that the words I’d chosen and ordered carried their own spiritual heft, and that Courtney and Jacob, if no one else, would feel their power. I wanted them to have that gift. I hoped they would.

Here is the gift they gave me.

They had written their own vows, which I hadn’t read. They memorized their words, and spoke them, not profaning the words and sentiments by lifting their voices. They spoke clearly, beautifully. Jacob started, and when Courtney cried to hear him it was all I could do to stand in witness. Courtney’s words followed, and as Jacob teared up, so did I. What thing in any church could be more holy. Few guests could hear as Courtney and Jacob spoke, but I hope they felt, as I did, all the grace of love and joy and patience that radiated from the man and woman we’d gathered to celebrate.

That moment cleared away all doubts and confusions about my performing the role of reverend. If now I stand accused in the eyes of any true believer of a blasphemy, let it be so. If by being an accomplice to such joy, I have sinned, I am the happiest of sinners.

At the reception, we ate in the barn from bounty raised by Jacob at the farm where he works. Sheri and I square danced following the directions of a retired school teacher who had taught Courtney in elementary school. We talked with old friends, and with new ones, but mostly we wandered about, a little off balance. Sheri had said to me the night before, at the rehearsal dinner, “It’s odd being the minister’s wife,” and this from a woman who has known Courtney as well and as long as I have. What Sheri meant was that we were participating in a wedding in a way we never had, and that it was strange to be unaligned with family, not to be old college pals in the wedding party, nor casual friends who show for the ceremony, sit in the back, offer congratulations, eat and leave. We -- or I -- had played a necessary and important role, but also stood strangely outside the life of the wedding. Sensing this, we left early each night, quietly stepping into the backround, leaving the hardcore revelry to others, which seems to me the final kindness and final burden of all our solemn celebrants.