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Burnt Straw III



Every time I hike in the local wood everything is more golden. I wonder if there is anything more beautiful than watching a leaf dancing its one dance earthward, or even sweeter, into a still pond. I have always loved Fall, second only to Spring, with the beauty of transfiguration shining through, even in death and decay.

Fr Benedict

Fr Benedict Groeschel died on the eve of the feast of St Francis, October 3. To some he is best remembered for some clumsy statements he made about abusive priests well into his dotage. While some cynics suggest that he was allowed to speak publicly when he was clearly, and painfully, in decline because his order saw him as a cash cow, anyone who knew Father understands that no friar wanted to approach him with such a suggestion. And anyone who knows the friars knows how foolish such an explanation is. Like you choose to sleep on the floor with a thin mat and live on alms and you are a religious materialist?

Benedict was ornery, and a lot more interesting than most of the hagiographical eulogies floating around suggest. He was a great man and a holy man.

But not a holy card man. He could be an asshole.

While I have long thought that I should write about Fr Benedict when he died, now that he has I cannot.

In time I will tell my tales.

We’re Number One

There is a woman on my route, a retired professor at the local college. She is a Republican of an almost vanished kind: prochoice (she gives money to Planned Parenthood), an environmentalist and birdwatcher, anti-union, concerned about illegal immigrants, scared of ISIS and Ebola, and a Unitarian.

Just about my political and religious opposite, aside from the Green stuff.

I like her very much. She is vibrant, and of an indeterminate age. She works hard, gardening, mowing her lawn in the summer, shoveling her long driveway in the winter. She is a lively conversationalist and great fun to talk to, though we agree about hardly anything.

She has a sister and brother in law who have lived in Switzerland for many years. She was telling me about their son, a musician who became addicted to opiates. He was sent to a rehabilitation center for three months, where he kicked his habit. The cost was the equivalent of $50,000, which was covered by the State.

We talked about the contrast with the American approach, which would have been to spend far more money incarcerating the young man, which would have done him, and his community, little good. Or more accurately, would have brutalized him.

That is how insane America is: we imprison people who are in pain and seeking relief. We have the largest incarceration rate in the world, mostly because of the ‘War on Drugs’.

As many wags has said, drugs won.

Although the lady does not believe in State sponsored health care, we at least agreed that if money is to be spent it is wiser to spend it on healing than punishment.

I love it when affectionate opponents agree.



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Owen White, who sometimes comments here, is asking a number of people 10 questions, including me. The questioned comprise a pretty wide swathe of  humanity: from a monarchist monk to a socialist, with lots of contemporary Orthodox and Catholic writers and thinkers, including a representative or two of  the emerging New Catholic Left, which is nothing like your mother’s Catholic Left. What all these folks do have in common is an abhorrence of capitalism, the economic system from Hell. Here are my answers, along with Owen’s introduction, which I have filed away for days when I feel alone and misunderstood. Though the Trollope comment is not accurate at all. Clerks spend their days indoors with forms and numbers and bureaucratic nonsense. Carriers are outdoors most of the day and the work is physical and often grueling, just about the coolest working class job around, quiet,solitary, clean, plus you work even in inclement weather. Owen has promised to answer the ten questions himself, which I will publish here. You can see his other interviewees here, on the sidebar:http://theochlophobist.blogspot.com/


Daniel Nichols. Writer. Painter. Iconographer. Postman. Daniel blogs at Caelum Et Terra (he will hit his 10 year mark in January!). Prior to that he edited and wrote for the physical Caelum et Terra journal, which is where I first encountered his work. I was working at Loome Theological Booksellers in the 90s, and my good friend Chris Lentz, a manager there, had every copy of Caelum, all of which I devoured, cover to cover, over the course of a few months.

Trying to make the Leftist sentiments I was raised with fit into a “faithful to the magisterium” American Catholic ideological framework, I looked to Catholic agrarianism as a potential way out of the godawfulness I saw in those camps influenced by the likes of Neuhaus, Fr. Fessio, and Tom Monaghan. I had gone to the occasional Chesterton Society meetings, and had met a lot of self-proclaimed distributists via my position at Loome’s, but it was very obvious that none of those folks had a damn clue what farming life or even working American life was like. Most of them were very poorly read as well. Hell, the head of the Chesterton Society in the U.S. was there in MN, a frequent visitor of ours at the store, and I still chuckle when thinking about this guy who lived smack dab in the middle of the suburb that is home to the Mall of America, and made his very much not untypical middle class life work by being a lawyer for some super rich rancher who was suing the U.S. govt because the Air Force flew over his ranch, this Chestertonian guru having on the side (and later as his bread and butter, thanks EWTN) a hobby preaching to American Catholics about the wonders of guilds and the agrarian life. But that sort of thing was not at all anomalous — I heard so many times in those circles men who had zero working class life experience wax on regarding how guilds needed to replace unions and how Social Security and all the apparatus of the nanny state was actually hurting the working classes, and so forth.

But with Daniel I found a voice that wasn’t like these. Someone who actually knew something about actual work, and actual farming. He wanted that agrarian dream to work too, and the history of the in print Caelum could be said, among other things, to be a maturing realization that agrarianisms and the like were simply not going to provide a way out of our late modern, late capitalist existential and religious and social predicaments. Daniel laid it all on the table. He still does.

Daniel, on his blog and others, and on social media, serves as a prick to the consciences of middle class (and wealthier) American Catholics who want to rest in their petty and determinedly ignorant addictions to movement conservative Paul Ryan / Raymond Arroyo and/or libertarian Acton Instituteish patronizing tropes regarding what working people in America need to do and have done for them in order to thrive. He is that rarest of birds – an actual working class person who has lived the life he was supposed to (big batch of kids, etc.) by conservative and trad Cath standards, someone who understands First Things / EWTN neo-Catholicism, and can speak that language, but yet has the real working class knowledge and life experience to speak to the bullshit that is that aggregate of “believing” American Catholic answers to social ills and political and economic policy postures. And the integrity of his life and his writing is not as easily dismissed as it is ignored.

One of the most compelling, interesting, and exemplary posts that brings out the milieu Daniel is great at cultivating is his now famous (and in some circles infamous)  NFP post and thread. It might take you some days to read all (as of this writing) 770 comments, but it is worth the read if you are at all interested in American Catholic ideology and experience regarding birth control.


Both sides and all sorts of experiences present their cases and their stories and their arguments, and the result is such that anyone who comes away from it feeling triumphant and confident about their beliefs about ABC and NFP and the like must be either a blazing idiot or demon possessed.

Daniel has been a thorn in my side on occasion, and I in his on perhaps more occasions. I tend to be sympathetic, in principle if not in immediate advocacy (for tactical reasons) to old Leftist “solutions” to certain problems. Daniel tends to stress mercy and non-violence and all that jazz. I suppose we are good for each other in any number of ways. Daniel has become a friend, one I trust, and one whose life narrative and writing I hold in very high regard.

And that he is a postman gives him all the more charm, especially as he so often writes of his working life, particularly the walks and conversations he has. I like to think of Daniel as a radical, working class Trollope (who worked for the Royal Mail as a bureaucrat and inspector) for our generation.

Here are Daniel’s answers to my 10 questions:

1. A friend offers to make all social/vocational/financial arrangements in order that you may spend 3 months in the location of your choosing. Anywhere in the world. Where would you go, and during what season?

DN: Family legend says that before my father’s family were in Ireland, where the name was ‘Nicol’, they had come from the Isle of Skye, in the Scottish Hebrides. Irish genealogy generally hits a dead end in the 18th century, but there is a Nicolson clan on Skye and I generally trust oral tradition. The place has always seemed magical to me, so Skye beginning in very early Spring.

2. A friend who has suffered considerably in recent years asks you to recommend a novel that you found moving, and/or which helped frame how you view human life. Which novel would you recommend?

DN: I am not aware of a novel that formed me in any great way. I would suggest instead to read the gospel of John.

3. You may have any (living) musician or group of musicians in the world come perform a concert at the location of your choosing for you and your friends and whomever else you would invite. What musician(s)at what venue would you choose?

DN: Are Fleet Foxes still together? If so, that would be great, and the venue would be my friend Will Hoyt’s farm in the eastern Ohio hills. Before they are all fracked up.

4. If you had to work with your hands in order to make a living(trade, craft, manual work of some sort) what tactile vocation would you like to do?

DN: I would paint, as I do now, except make a living at it. And I once sculpted in stone, and loved it, though I would want to use sharper chisels than I did.

5. Describe a garden, or a field, or a forest that was or is important or notable in your life.

DN: Five minutes from my house there is a state nature preserve, the Jackson Bog, around 90 acres of fine low wooded hills and ponds and fen, which has been a source of sanity for me through the years.

6. You may have a meal and drinks with any living person on earth with whom you have never had a conversation. Name the meal, the drinks, and the person.

DN: I would do what I do now, stop at the Wooster Brewery for an IPA after work and strike up a conversation with whoever is sitting next to me. The clientele is so diverse there that it is nearly always fascinating.

7. Name a painting that has moved you (and perhaps tell us why).


DN: The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, at San Marco’s in Florence. This mural is at the top of the stairs, and the serenity and the purity of color is breathtaking, not captured at all in reproductions.

8. A student tells you that she plans on memorizing one poem, and intends to recite that poem at least once a week for the rest of her life. She asks you for your recommendation for said poem. What poem do you recommend?

DN: ‘The Waking’ by Theodore Roethke, my favorite poet; the second poem with this title that he wrote, the one that begins ‘I wake to sleeping and take my waking slow’.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

9. Describe your ideal quotidian evening? [Nothing special, but as you like things to go.]

DN: A quiet evening, uninterrupted, with my bride. With eight kids this pretty much never happens.

10. You are on a nose-diving plane that is obviously going to crash,bringing about your certain death. You intuit that you have between 30 and 60 seconds before you lose consciousness. What words come to mind during this last bit of time you are alive?

DN: Dear God.

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Burnt Straw II



So Sam had a check up yesterday.

Sam, who is an almost preternaturally happy baby, started crying hard as soon as he saw the doctor in her white coat approach him. He associates such things with suffering.

The doctor said Sam is all but healed, though his skin is still red. He will have no scars, the doctor said. She wants to see him in a month.

And we walked out of the hospital with our child.

I thought of my recent wrestling with ‘God’, my asking why.

And I felt bad. I became acutely aware that we were walking out of the hospital with a living baby, one who can walk and is starting to talk. I thought of the many parents who have walked out of Akron Children’s Hospital, their children’s bodies left behind.

When I got home I happened upon a story about the pope. Francis was commenting on the reading from the Book of Job in the Roman liturgy for the day. He noted how Job’s prayer in the first reading sounded like  a curse.

“He had lost all patience and he says these things. They are ugly! But he was always accustomed to speak the truth and this is the truth that he feels at that moment,” said Francis, and he noted how the prophet Jeremiah  had cursed the day of his birth.

“But is this man blaspheming? This is my question: Is this man who is so very alone, blaspheming? Is it blasphemy when Jesus complains – ‘Father, why have You forsaken me?’ This is the mystery.”

The pope also made some remarks about not overdramatizing your situation, about remembering those with much greater sufferings.

So maybe the guy bitching about his broken smart phone needs to remember my scalded baby. Just as I, walking to the car from the hospital with my baby sleeping on my shoulder, needed to remember  the parents who have made that same walk with no child in their arms.

But it is not blasphemy to chafe under the load of circumstance. Nor to speak the truth as you know it, even to the Absolute.

So long as you remember the conclusion of the Book of Job.

Which, okay, is maybe a little too much, but the part before Job gets it all back and then some is profound.


Remember last fall, when I wrote of the destruction of two huge trees, an oak and a maple, on my route? The man who owns the house had previously cut down a row of evergreens that ran along the border of his property.

He was not done. This past summer he cut down two of the three remaining smaller trees in his yard. He also removed all the large shrubs around his house and replaced them with small boxwoods, surrounded by gravel. I had to touch them to make sure they weren’t plastic.

His lawn had been pretty weedy, and so he cleared it of old grass and reseeded it. Apparently he chose one of the cheaper landscape companies, because when the grass sprouted it was obvious that there were a lot of weeds in the seed. No doubt when he called to complain he got a recording saying that the number had been disconnected.

So now his house sits surrounded not by the lush lawn he had intended but by a weedy mess. It sits as if in a wasteland.

I wish I could say that I feel bad for him.

Though actually I do feel bad for him. His wife died a couple of years ago, age 60 or so. If I have a package for him he always answers the door in his bathrobe. He rarely leaves the house. I just wish his grieving had not resulted in the death of so much beauty.

I also, later in the fall, reported that the largest tree in my 25 mile commute, an ancient white oak, had been cut down. For a long time there was just a big area of sawdust to mark its place. Then one day with a shock I saw that the place where the big oak had been had been paved over.

If it had been me I would have left the stump as a sort of monument.

To pave it with blacktop seems a sort of blasphemy. But then I have always revered trees. After women and babies and small children they are probably my favorite creatures.

If there is anything good that came from the deaths of these old trees it is that my mourning over a beech tree, one of my favorites on my route,  that had been trimmed of all its lower branches is mitigated. Sure, its glory is diminished. But at least it lives and is still beautiful…

Photo by Ritva Kovalainen

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Burnt Straw


Why and Where

After my baby’s scalding I posted several versions of ‘why’, directed at the holy Being we call ‘God’.

Please note that I have never asked this question when I have personally been punched in the soul by tragedy or medical crisis, as I have many times. I do not know if it is the cultural and familial Calvinism that I have come to realize forms a large part of my outlook in spite of myself, or just the simple perception I have always had of the absolute perfect holiness of the One, but I always figured I deserved worse than I got and did not complain.

But a baby. A fat happy baby. One who had already faced more physical trauma in his first year than I did in my first forty.

I asked why.

And my dear friend Mary, the atheist mystic, said ‘Gravity. I think it was gravity.’

And you know, that struck me. It was gravity, whatever other explanation we can salvage.

For this is the uncharted territory of mystery, of theodicy. Even the Bible does not offer one answer to the problem of evil. Job thought that God was the author of both good and evil. Other texts suggest an invisible hostile intelligence is responsible. Or see a direct link between our personal sin and evil consequences (which theory Jesus pretty much demolished).

I do not know, but I think gravity was to blame.

You would think that for a convinced apophatic that this would be effortless, the embrace of mystery, but I am the sort of apophatic who can’t help but try to unscrew the inscrutable.

But it hit me the other day that however we try to untangle it that  there is one place that God Is. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, as we say in the Creed. He was present in the Life surging in my little one’s body, in the way that he so quickly began to heal, in his bravery and easy smile, even through the pain.

And He is present in the outpouring of love and prayer that occurred in response to Sam’s injury.

Sam had Catholics and Orthodox, Baptists and Pentecostals, monks and bishops and witches and libertarians and communists and astrologers and atheists all praying for him, though the atheists would not use the word.

It’s all good, this tide of love and concern for a small person suffering.

Which small person is doing fine, happy and smiley and healing well.

Thank God, and thank all of you.


Real True Stories Plus Alleged Poetry

Okay, I am going to post a link to my top secret blog, the laboratory where I was going to write anonymously. You know, the secret one with my name in the web address.

Which pretty much reveals my technological competence. It is not well known, but until only a few years ago everything I wrote for the blog, or the magazine before it, was handwritten on paper and mailed to Maclin and Karen Horton, who typed it for me.

Now, are those friends, or what?

After Maclin left to write exclusively for his ‘Light on Dark Water’ blog, I had to learn to use this thing. It had been so forbidding, but I learned quickly that it didn’t take that much, mostly cutting and pasting and other simple things.

So my new blog, ‘Every Birdsong a Blessing’ which will be memoirs and poetry, with the secret stuff in unpublished draft form, was a real achievement, as I set it up and designed it myself. Yeah, I know, big deal. But for a temperamental luddite, who accepted the internet only slowly, and who can figure out not much on his own, it seemed an accomplishment. I really like the way it looks.

I doubt I will post any more poetry here. The one alleged poem I published the other day, hoping for real criticism, was a disappointment: one positive review, one guy who prefaced his remarks with ‘I don’t know much about poetry’ and then went on to prove it (sorry Zeb).

So if you are interested:http://dnichols72153.wordpress.com/

Journalistic Negligence

A few weeks ago, when President Obama was still trying to figure out a strategy for dealing with ISIS, I was driving home. I usually listen to music these days, but I was skimming the radio. I came to the Catholic station, and Al Kresta was on. His guest was talking and had a notably annoying voice, droning on in a boring tone, interrupted regularly by guttural ‘Uhhhh’s as he gathered his thoughts. He was making the case for Ukraine and against Russia. At the break Kresta mentioned that his guest was George Weigel, and that they would discuss Iraq and ISIS when they returned.

Weigel. My nemesis for thirty five years, and I had never heard his voice. I do not know much about Ukraine and Russia, only that it is heartbreaking to see the heirs of such a beautiful culture, peoples indistinguishable to any but themselves, killing each other.

But if Weigel is for it, it is probably safe to be agin’ it. General rule.

When the break was over Weigel launched into a familiar narrative. Obama was Chamberlain and ISIS was Hitler, yada yada yada. American military force must be employed against this latest threat to the homeland (okay, so he did not actually say ‘homeland’).

Did Mr Kresta ask Mr Weigel if he regretted, in light of the total disaster that had unfolded in Iraq since 2003, that he had travelled to Rome with Michael Novak to make the case for Church approval for Mr Bush’s preemptive war? (They were shown the door).

No, he did not.

Did he ask Mr Weigel if he felt at all responsible, as a leading voice in favor of that American aggression,  for the rise of ISIS, which directly corresponds with the rise of Sunni unrest in the aftermath of that debacle?


Did he ask Mr Weigel how he sleeps at night in light of the thousands of dead Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, all to establish the present chaos?



Pure journalistic negligence.

Shame on you Mr Kresta.

The Paradox of Universalism

It occurred to me the other day, praying the Lord’s Prayer, that every time we pray that prayer we are praying for universal salvation: ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.’ St Paul tells St Timothy that God wills all to be saved, so praying for his Will to be done is to pray for eternal life for everyone.

It cracks me up that Calvinists and others who claim and, one senses, hope, that they are among the chosen few, pray the Our Father.

May God grant their prayers and confound their idolatry.

If the Church is Universal…

…then shouldn’t the term be not ‘Roman Catholic’ but  ‘Catholic Roman’? Or ‘Catholic Byzantine’, etc?


Photo by Ritva Kovalainen

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Seven Stones

anne bullwinkel


Walk the half mile to the pond
through the low wooded hills.

Do not look for flat stones to skip.

You will miss too much:

the morning light riding the cool air

down through the trees

the chipmunk crossing your path

the last jewel weed blossoms
the fading asters and goldenrod.

Wait for a stone to call you.

Seven stones will beckon

one a near-perfect triangle.

At the clearing by the water
between the silver maple and the sassafras
the green leaves touched with gold

Stand still

Breathe deep.

Watch the stillness of the pond.

See the small fish in the clear water.

Breathe deep.

When quiet

weigh the stone in your hand
sift it
feel it.

Find the place
where your index finger
fits the contour
to give the most spin

with a sidearm throw.

Breathe deep

and as near the surface as you can
let it fly.

One skip or two or four or seven
or none at all

stand still

breathe deep.

Watch the ripples


and break

forming patterns
on the water
under the water
colors changing

everything changing

instant to instant

breath to breath

the bright moving circles on the surface
reflected leaves
gold and green

The lines of light

where the sun washes through
to the earth beneath
the water.


until the circles calm
the interplay quiets

and all is resolved

into one still


Breathe deep.

til seven stones are thrown

the triad last.

Gaze at the water
until undisturbed.

Breathe deep.

Return now

pausing to pray
before you leave.


Painting by Ann Bullwinkel

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The Difficult Art


Poetry is the most difficult art.

Every other art allows adequacy: the readable but forgettable prose, the landscape painting that is pleasing without being original or brilliant, the pot thrown with a modicum of skill.

Not poetry. A poem is either good or it is crap, and most often the erstwhile poet is the last to know.

I wrote poetry a lot when I was young, mostly in a sort of ecstatic utterance. I never rewrote or edited. How it came out is how it remained. I was too close to it to know if it was brilliant or crap, though it all felt brilliant when I was writing it. When I look at it now it is clear that most of it was the latter, with but a few keepers.

I have recently begun writing poetry again, after about twenty years. Most of it is of the ‘ecstatic utterance’ persuasion, love poems to my bride, but I have been working on one poem lately, rewriting, trying to get it just right.

This is new, poetry as a process instead of an outburst. When I have finished -I am having trouble with the ending- I will post it here. I am also posting it on my so-called secret blog, the one with my name in the web address. That, I have decided, will be a place for poetry and memoirs, and anything too personal will just remain a draft, unpublished. I will post a link to that site when I post the poem.

I sincerely desire feedback, honest feedback, on my effort.

If you have ever asked me to read and critique something you have written you know that I will be honest. I will not flatter you but offer what I think about it.

I can’t tell you how many feelings I have hurt by doing this. Most often after I return an edited manuscript I never hear from the writer again.

So I can take it. And if you think I should stick to prose please tell me.

Poem to follow…

Painting by Paul Ranson


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Two Whys

Skipping Stones 48x31.5x2 oil-wood panel-Carver

My Sam

Our baby Sam went to the hospital for a check-up today. The doctor says that he is doing great, and they removed most of his bandages, so he no longer looks like a little mummy. He only has three bandages, and the doc says he will not need surgery. So I thank God, as it could have been much worse. On the other hand, I also ask God why the hell this happened to an innocent baby, one who has already suffered so much. God does not answer. I think of St Teresa of Avila, who was thrown from a wagon into a stream, when she had a fever. And I think it was raining. She said “If this is how You treat Your friends no wonder You have so few.” And she was not watching her baby suffer or anything. Me, I have been insisting that God is not an asshole, defending Him against His enemies, and even more importantly, against His erstwhile friends. And then this?

I still believe He is a loving Father, full of mercy, because Jesus tells me this is true, and the alternative is unthinkable and unbearable.

Sam, by the way, has become my Most Admired Person. He has suffered more in his first year than I did in my first forty, but he is so resilient. HE is not bitter or pissed at God or anyone else. He is as smiley and sweet and funny as ever, my big fat happy baby.

Meanwhile, a Koan

My almost-four year old Will said to me yesterday “Why did God make us so stupid?”



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