Archive for September, 2014

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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Straw for the Fire V



A Return To Normalcy, Sort Of.

Well the baby is home, and he is doing better than I had imagined, toddling around and smiling and being Sam. The main thing that is different is that he gets fussy when it is nearly time for his pain medicine. And then there is the daily ordeal of bathing him and changing his bandages. He goes back for a checkup on Tuesday.

I posted on Facebook after Sam was scalded and updated about how he was doing regularly. I must say that while I am ambivalent about Facebook it was heartening seeing all the people who were praying for him, including a lot of people that I generally do not see eye to eye with on much. Sam had Catholics and Orthodox, Pentecostals and Evangelicals, Witches and astrologers and Buddhists, liberals and conservatives, communists and libertarians, all praying for him.

Even a couple of atheists, though they would not use the word.

It all counts, all good will directed toward a poor baby.

Sam thanks you, one and all.

My Hope

It is my hope that in the next political cycle the biggest issue in state elections will be the need for justly ordered congressional districts. The existing jerrymandered  quilt is a crime against democracy, insuring in many cases an entrenched minority rule. The maps are bizarre, a harlequin jigsaw puzzle of injustice. A simple grid, adjusted only for population, would assure a more representative electorate. Existing township grids in most places could serve as a rough template. But this is one step toward representative government that is long overdue.

The other issue everywhere in local elections should be the militarization of the police. Everyone is sick of bully wannabe commandos, who are in truth, like all bullies, brave only when they possess overwhelming force. Sheriffs and city councils and mayors, which appoint police chiefs, are directly elected, at a level where democracy can really work.

Nationally, the most important thing to be done is to establish momentum to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which gave corporations and billionaires incredible power and cloaks their activities in secrecy, as if the deck were not stacked in their favor already.

And I think we need a nonpartisan bumper sticker: DO NOT VOTE FOR MILLIONAIRES.

Weird Economics

I have been thinking how strange it is that erstwhile Christians endorse Capitalism with some enthusiasm, when that system is clearly based upon the love of money, which St Paul said is ‘a root of all evil’. I have never understood how someone can read the Sermon on the Mount and then say that an economic system based upon greed and predation is somehow compatible with the gospel of Christ. It may be compatible with our fallen nature, but that is what Jesus came to heal.

First Principles

Because among the things that have been stripped down to the bare bones essence in recent months has been my understanding of social principles.

The first principle of social justice is the Universal Destination of Goods. That is, ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. All things are created for all creatures, loved by God. The earth is rich and fertile and generous. It is a sin against all that is holy that anyone suffer need in this world so full of beauty and abundance.

The primary virtue for a just society is solidarity. We are all in this together, brothers and sisters, children of God.

In other words, I am now a utopian communist.

No, I am not a utopian in the sense of thinking that human nature can be altered by force to make a perfect society. Indeed, I believe that every human endeavor however noble is doomed to unintended negative consequences (I call this ‘The General Principle of Fuckupedness’, or in polite society, ‘Fallenness’, or for short ‘The General Principle’). I am ‘utopian’ in the sense that I begin with Perfection and measure any human effort or theory in that light.

And I am not a ‘communist’ in the sense of identifying with any party or state that claims that name and then attempts to establish a bureaucratic monopoly, in the name of “The People” on the means of production. Let alone one that would oppress or silence or kill anyone.

But it is clear that in the perfect world, what Jesus calls Heaven or ‘the Kingdom’, and for which he gives clear instructions in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, that state of being where Love rules, all would be held in common. The early Church intuited this and tried it. In keeping with The First Principle, it did not go so well, though monasteries, which exist because certain people are born with an urge to live a more perfect life, continue to live with all things in common.

Of course, given The General Principle, this always goes badly, sometimes even at the inception.

So I combine an intuition of the highest good with the utmost pessimism about attaining perfection. Keep the ideal in mind, but do not refrain from what limited good can be attained.

So for expediency’s sake, given the fact of a fallen world, I would settle for a distributist solution, as if that is any more attainable.

Art by Michelle Dick


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Hooray! Sam is coming home!

Photo 25

I just talked to Michelle and she said that Sam will be coming home this afternoon.

The two littlest boys and I were at the hospital yesterday and Sam was his normal self: happy, rowdy, funny. Can’t wait to have the little guy toddling around the house again.

Now we can return to our normal chaos.

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Sam’s Good Day

Photo 9

I just got back from the hospital. Sam’s bandages are mostly off, and the doctor says that he will not need surgery and he may be able to come home Friday.

Sam acted more like himself today than he has for the past week. He was animated, and the nurse said we could take him for a walk. So we went to the lobby by the main entrance, where he watched the ‘ball machine’, a Rube Goldberg-style contraption that has a lot of little balls moving through a complex moving maze. And Sam and I rode the glass elevator up to the eighth floor and back a few times. He giggled when he saw his mommy far below waving. Then we went outdoors, where he wandered through the landscaped grounds, picking up acorns and watching the numerous chipmunks.

And he growled (Sam growls).

His burns look horrible, but he is healing well.

I can’t wait for my bride and my baby to come home.

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Sam’s Progress

kenneth D Dowdy

The doctor today said that Sam is doing well. One large area on the baby’s chest that he was worried about healed well, but there are still several smaller spots on his belly, leg, and arm that may need surgery. They are going to change his dressings daily and assess his progress. The worst possible outcome, at this point, seems to be some scars in places only seen when more or less undressed. So thank God for that. What is hard on a parent is seeing your baby wrapped in bandages and suffering. And the poor little boy has already been through so much in his short life.

I sometimes only believe that God is good and loves us because Jesus told us that, and Jesus taught us the Way to live in peace in the Sermon on the Mount, which those who say they love Him generally ignore or explain away.  And He lived the perfect life and suffered and died and rose triumphant.

So Jesus has credibility.

So I do thank the God who loves us (because Jesus told me so) that Sam’s injuries are not worse, that the scalding tea missed his face, and that my union job means that I will be paid while I stay home during the time it takes for his healing.

While my life, with one income and eight kids, more resembles that of the working poor than that of my comfortable two income two kid coworkers, it is so much easier than the lives of most of the people in my neighborhood, who would lose money for every day they missed work and probably be fired if it went on for more than a week if this happened to their child.

Lord have mercy.

And God damn.

Icon by Kenneth D Dowdy

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Sam Falls in Love

Spent the day in the hospital with Sam and his mom. A doctor came in after they had changed his bandages to tell us that there are two places, on his thigh and on his arm, where the burn appears deep. We will know for sure on Monday if he will need surgery.

Sam, who is usually happy and rowdy, has been subdued with the pain medication. He will smile weakly and play for short spells, but mostly he nurses and sleeps. He has been wary of the nurses until a young nurse with pretty eyes came in. As soon as he saw her he smiled, and then he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. He gazed at her with a sweet smile, like he was in love, and cried a little when she left the room. And she was so good with him, clearly someone who loves babies. Like I said, everyone at Akron Children’s Hospital has been great, with Sam and the many other times our kids have been there. If you work there you love children and see them suffer daily. It is a No Asshole Zone. But this young nurse was, even in this environment, extraordinary.

Me, I spend most of my time trying not to cry for my poor baby.

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Pray for Sam

Our baby Sam, who is one, pulled over a pan of hot tea on himself this morning. He is at Akron Children’s Hospital with second and third degree burns over about 20% of his body. He is awake, medicated for pain, fussy and needy, but he smiled at me a couple of times. There were only minor burns on his face, thank God. We will not know until the dressings are removed on Thursday if he will need surgery, or if he will be scarred. So, prayers, please.

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