Finding Your Voice?

Writers and literary critics often talk about ‘voice’. A writer’s having ‘voice’ is a positive statement, meaning that there is authenticity to what the author is relating–particularly with fiction. Many years ago I was talking with a chap who had recently finished his PhD dissertation and was trying to find an academic post. I suggested that getting some or all of his dissertation published would be a big help in the world of ‘publish or perish.’ He averred it was a good idea, but then stated that he would defer trying to get published as he hadn’t yet found his voice. It was a sad statement…and his academic career actually ended there. In my previous blog I quoted Oscar Wilde’s aphoristic: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” So if one cannot find one’s own voice…well…any other would simply be imitation.

Without wanting to sound puffed-up, the voice with which I write–fiction or scholarly articles–is the one I’ve always had. I don’t mean my vocal chords and speaking voice, as in the above diagram, but the voice which plays inside my head. Most of us experience a voice which narrates our lives, thoughts, amusing stories, angry narratives, etc. Writers simply write things down: stories, histories, poetry, sermons and the list goes on. The ‘trick’ for any writers-to-be is simply to trust the voice you have been given. It’s the same voice with which you tell jokes, relate sad events and speak words of endearment to a loved one.

Now I invite you to take the next leap with me: vocation. Vocation is a term which, in English, has usually been reserved for religious professions or trades. But that is a much reduced usage of its original and full meaning. The Latin vocatio literally means a ‘calling’ and applies to anything we feel we are made/created/built to do: art, engineering, farming, parenting, etc. The idea of calling is theological: God calls us into being and endows us with specific gifts, talents, abilities. Vocation is that inner voice which sings with delight when we live, act and do what we feel we were made to do. In Carl Jung’s Psychological Types, he writes that each of us has a type which is essential to who we are. But he did not mean this as some sort of limiting determinism, but rather that we are meant to develop within the type we have been given. There are certain aspects of our lives that we cannot essentially change: height, hair colour, inherited traits and more. (And, yes, I am ignoring all of the many ways we try to change our appearance.) The point of this life is to take what we have been given–our talents, interests, abilities–and use them to make us into the best selves we can be. No one else has your voice or your calling; no one can take it from you; but only you can free it to blossom into the life you want to live.

Being Who We Are

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” That was both a pithy and witty way of putting what so many philosophers and spiritual greats have discovered and shared over the millennia. Most of us waste a lot of our years trying out different personae mostly to gain acceptance with others–usually in our work and our relationships. We are driven by existential questions such as: How do we want others to see us? What will help us to succeed? What will help us to ‘get ahead’…but ahead of what or whom? (And what would happen if we actually got ahead of ourselves? Then where would we be?!)

I spent most of my life as an ordained minister in various contexts: prison chaplaincy, parish ministry and academic teaching. In my second novel, No Good Deed, one of my characters says to a friend considering parish ministry: “Being a minister in a church could be likened to being the screen in a movie theatre…except it’s made out of toilet paper—people project onto you all of their hopes and fears about life…and God. And when you don’t live up to their expectations, they tear you up and flush you.” Well, that was my experience, in any case. If one tries to live up to the various expectations of others, one becomes nothing to anyone. For the record, prison chaplaincy was by far the most natural setting for me. (Make what you will of that! Many have.) Working with people who have had their names dragged through the press, police and court records, and have been tried, convicted and sentenced creates an overall atmosphere of brutal honesty–nothing like the tea and crumpet, go-lightly superficiality in most churches. The longer I was in parish ministry the more my clerical collar felt like a noose: ‘be like our former minister’, ‘don’t joke around so much’, ‘don’t ever discuss politics’, etc. In other words: ‘Just be nice to us and have no strong opinions about anything.’ No wonder Jesus never worked in a parish! But then, had parishes existed in his day, he wouldn’t have been ‘selected’ for ministry in the first place!

So back to me…that’s me in the photo above: the guy holding the goat (Rocky). I like that picture more than most any other of me in recent years, because I was just being me. Just being me usually means wearing trousers with muddy hoof prints on them, an old jacket which also has the hoof prints (I’m thinking of starting a fashion trend called ‘Off the Hoof’) and Wellingtons…covered in goat and chicken shit. I LOVE animals (wild and most domesticated). I love animals more than most people because they meet you fully as who they are. (I once held a lost, newborn fawn and it was one of the purest, most joy-filled moments of my life.) People usually take longer to grow on me. I own that some of that is probably because my personality is a mix of Kierkegaard, along with Groucho and Harpo Marx.

I think I will be inclined to revisit this topic in the coming days and weeks; but as this is the first day of 2022, I want to put these questions to the handful of inquistive types who read my blogs: What does it take for you to be truly yourself? How much time do you spend hiding the bits you think other people won’t like? (And do you really need to spend time around those people? If not, then why do it?) And most importantly do you have friends or family with whom you can truly be yourself? I hope so; if not, work on it! There is only one you.

Kyle Shittenhouse

It’s time to express my bile, so that I might experience some peace during Christmas. Yes, as so many of us feared, Kyle Shittenhouse (I refuse to use a photo of his smug, homicidal face) has now become a political hero among America’s right-wing, neo-facist population. He has been greeted as a celebrity in an event which resembled the Oscar ceremonies…all for killing two fellow citizens and maiming another. (What a different picture had he been black!) Ah, but among the Republican party of today, such people deserve to die, as they are among those from whom they must “take back their country.” No longer is it ‘our country,’ as in e pluribus unum, comprising differing viewpoints, faiths, political parties and races. Now ‘our country’ equals those who wish to kill, eliminate, erase all those who are different from them. Of course, were their perverse dream-war to be realized, and all ‘others’ were eradicated, it wouldn’t be long before they would find the differences within their own cult of death–and then start to eliminate each other. But sadly, that would only come after any sensible opposition had been destroyed. What a nightmare has the American dream become. I now seriously doubt whether I will set foot in my home country again, but at the same time, I give thanks for the land of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, which has given me and my wife asylum. Perhaps our greatest Christmas present arrived yesterday: our titre de séjour, or residency visas. God give sanity to the American people. Joyeux Noel.

The Rittenhouse Solution

Are you one of the 1/3 of US citizens who are finding it increasingly difficult to share the same air, water, streets, laws, voting rights–hell, even country!–with people whose skin colour, beliefs, voting tendencies, accents, sexuality, etc. are different from yours? Do you believe that black lives really don’t matter; that police shouldn’t be held accountable for killings such as George Floyd; that black people shouldn’t jog in predominantly white neighbourhoods; that Jews invented the Holocaust, that Covid is fake news and vaccines make you magnetic? If so, then Good News! You can now invoke the Kyle Rittenhouse Solution! That’s right, now you too can pitch up at an offensive synagogue, AME church, LGBTQ rally or legal protest armed with an assault weapon of your choice. All you have to do is take aim at the offensive soon-to-be-victims (Oops! Musn’t use that word!), take aim and, when the worthless scum try to defend themselves (with bare hands, skate boards, Bibles–whatever), you can BLOW THEM AWAY because you are only defending yourself! God save the Second Amendment and God help those who get in your way!

To the other 2/3 of Americans, white vigilantism is now officially sanctioned, so watch out. The defendants in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trail must be rubbing their hands with glee. Their plea of self-defense will now be strengthened by the Rittenhouse Solution. I mean, come on! Three armed white men against a lone black man? Those poor white guys only had a shotgun and a pistol–not much against the strength of character of one lone black man. (Hey, if being white is such a great thing, then why are black men so goddamned scary? Shouldn’t simply being white put one above such petty fears?)

To the other 2/3 of Americans, be careful not to disagree with Trumpublicans–they will take it as an assault on their person/freedom and kill you in self-defense. Don’t argue over parking spaces, Covid masks, vaccines, sports teams…well anything! If you have opinions, don’t express them. The Second Amendment now trumps (pun intended) the First. America is well and truly fucked.

Ruben et Moi

A few days ago, Chris and I went for a walk with Marie-jeanne and her grandson Ruben, nearly 5. Well, in fact we all went for a walk with Ruben. That is not Ruben in the above portrait; rather it’s his portrayal of me. Not bad, eh? It hangs on our fridge, as I promised him it would, after he drew me a few months ago.

For a lad of nearly five, Ruben is rather small—although you’d never know it from his voice or energy. His hands are tiny, yet dexterous, which he proved as we hunted bugs, toads, worms and one particular grasshopper. Ruben had decided that I was okay on the day he drew my portrait. In fact, he offered me juice and a biscuit whilst completely ignoring his grandparents, his mother and Chris…truly an honour. And he took me to see his room, replete with pirate ship bed, a toy pirate ship and many other fun things. Nous sommes copains.

Our walk was along la voie verte, a disused railway line that is used for walking, cycling and exploration. La voie verte is actually comprised of thousands of kilometres of former railways. We managed about four kilometres that day because we were overwhelmed by discoveries. For example, as Ruben put it,  « Il y a beaucoup d’arbres! » Certainly, the forest is composed of many trees—a lot of them. This can escape the notice of busy adults. And then came THE grasshopper, which Ruben caught and then gingerly carried between his thumb and forefinger. In fact, we all had the opportunity to guard the treasured grasshopper—who, in fact, survived all of us and even managed to escape just before our expedition was finished.

Oh, Ruben gave me a stick, which is indispensable on an expedition such as ours. We used our sticks to push aside tall grass, dig holes, etc. Ruben’s little hand was engulfed in mine as we slid down the river bank to search for stuff…and things. I also hauled him back up the slippery bank (and he still had the grasshopper in his left hand!). Although he yowled two or three times when a bug bit him, he was never put off from finding the next critter. My townie grandkids would have abandoned the hunt long before the third bite. But Ruben lives on a farm, where things bite and peck and butt. And despite living on a farm, he still finds interest in EVERYTHING. When we three adults walked too far ahead of Ruben, we heard a VERY loud  « ATTENDEZ! » And so we stopped. We knew it would be important. When I saw two ladies approaching us with a pram, I informed Ruben they were probably pirates. He gave me that knowing look which said all: «Pirates? Really? They are only found on the high seas. » I suppose he was right, for just as we greeted the supposed pirates, the grasshopper escaped and one of the ’pirates’ caught it and returned it to Ruben. Real pirates would have kept such treasure—as Ruben well knew. So I went back to looking for bugs, which by this time were safely carried in his cap.

If this story has bored you, then it is clear that you need a Ruben in your life, to (re)introduce you to this fascinating planet on which we live. There is so much to discover!

If we live long enough, we eventually come to retirement. This author has, over the years, discovered that no two retirement experiences are exactly alike. For too many people, retirement is simply a long ending. But not so for the characters in my latest novel, The Woods. Here’s the blurb from the back cover:

Carolina Woods— “Where You Live Your Dreams.” After years of work and routine, isn’t this what retirement is all about? And Carolina Woods seems to have it all: situated alongside a thriving university town where one can find culture, leisure activities, intelligent companionship and more. “And more,” aye, there’s the rub; for Carolina Woods is no run-of-the-mill retirement community—it is enchanted. Something not mentioned in the brochures or by the staff. The Woods, as it is known by staff and residents, has a way of revealing everyone’s underlying nature. Be it the inner, playful child, the political fascist, or sex machine, The Woods will peel back the protective layers until all is revealed, to the joy, bafflement, fear or delight of all—and especially for you, the reader. Come take a walk in The Woods. 
Available from 1 October 2021 on Amazon or from Wings ePress.

I’ve known Jack Lawson for forty years. To spend  time with him is to watch his towering intellect, his soulful altruism and his wicked-dark sense of humor spar endlessly with each other. Sometimes it’s inspiring. Sometimes it’s challenging. And sometimes it’s just twisted fun. Welcome to his novel The Woods.—Jim Borgman, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and co-creator of the comic strip Zits

Calloused Hands

I have been noticing hands more and more since moving to rural France. We live in Lower Normandy, where nearly everyone–female or male–works with his/her hands in some fashion. We are surrounded by farmers, mechanics and engineers. The mayor of our commune is an engineer for Eaux de Normandie. And just try to find a household which does not have a substantial amount of vegetables and fruit growing–and then come the animals!

Thus, it naturally follows that many people have calloused hands–including myself for the second time in my life. When I was young–beginning at about the age of eleven–I managed about ten lawns/gardens for neighbours. I cut their grass, raked their leaves, shoveled their snow, chopped wood for fireplaces, etc. When I went to college, I worked on construction sites. I also was an avid tennis and racquetball player for decades. Even during seminary I managed the woodland (60 acres), lawn and flowerbeds for a wealthy couple. Thus I had calloused hands…until I finished seminary.

Once ordained, my work was more from the head and heart, and much less from my hands. After my doctorate it only got worse! Preaching, teaching, doing research and writing gave my hands the pallor of a privileged white guy. To some degree I forgot about the simple joy of manual labour. Now lest you think I am going to write a paean to the ‘working class hero’, let me be clear: manual work is hard; and not to be entered upon lightly. It is no less noble and no more noble than any other work–however, there is something different about ‘sweat equity’ and its rewards. Having grown and harvested your own food, having built something with your own hands–or having simply put in hours pulling weeds in a flower garden–all of this yields a tangible sense of accomplishment that pure mental/desk work can never provide. Never. And the only way to prove it is by doing it!

And so, after 40+ years, I’ve come full circle in my life (and not for the first time!). I live once more in a house heated by wood, work on fences, tend goats and chickens, pick fruit and more. And I have calloused hands. But it’s really not come as a surprise…about 50 years ago I took a mind-altering substance while sleeping in the open loft in one of our barns with a college companion. I liked the fact that I could look out at the night sky while listening to the background music made by a mountain stream which gurgled nearby. At some point during that ‘trip’ I looked at my hands, only to see that they had become gnarled, arthritic and wrinkled–just like the ones typing this blog today. The experience wasn’t ‘freaky’ but fascinating–and it was a foretaste…a very accurate foretaste. My point? I’m not exactly sure! But start studying the hands of other people and then you can draw your own conclusions.

The ‘Least’ in Society

I was recently asked by a friend to share a reflection on “the least of these” from Matthew 25:31-46. It was for an upcoming retreat. That passage has been foundational throughout my ministry: from my beginning as a prison chaplain to parishes wherein I founded charities which worked with substance misuse, homeless/hunger and community mediation–and all-too-often with resistance from ‘good church folk!’

It’s interesting to note that the early Christians in Jerusalem were referred to as ‘Ebionites’, coming from the Hebrew אביון (,ebyon, meaning ‘poor’, ‘needy’ or ‘least’). Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus identifies the least as his brethren—those close to his heart? Sadly, the identification of Christianity with the ‘least’ is now only true in places like Africa, the Middle East or Asia. In the West, and particularly in America, the ‘gospel of prosperity’ has become the dominant force within the church. Too many Christians (read ‘evangelicals’) would not want to be associated with the ‘least’ of society–and certainly not with ‘losers’, as a certain ex-president so often called them. We don’t mind giving money for faraway missions or even missions closer to home, as long as it is we who are giving the helping hand. One hand gives, while, all-too-often, the other hand keeps the least (homeless, addicted, jobless, prisoners, hungry) at a safe distance; because, at some deep level, we feel their condition is their fault–and it might be contagious! But happily, Jesus stills comes to change all of that!

It is only as we discover our poverty of spirit that God can fill our empty spaces and bring light to our dark places. Ultimately, we are all the poor in spirit and in need of God’s grace. The good news is that we are all called to receive the nourishment that God offers us when we choose to follow Jesus’s example and share God’s grace with others–particularly the ‘least.’

A God (Hot)Spot?

I spent most of today at St. Martin Hospital in Caen, where my wife was having an outpatient procedure–for which all went well. I had hours on my hands; but only the busy lobby or the hospital café offered space to sit. Outside offered the Normand rain. Despite its noise and rush of people, I chose the lobby. All through the morning, in addition to driving my wife to hospital and getting checked in, I had been thinking about, praying for and corresponding with a dear friend in England who was in a quandary about accepting a priest-in-charge post in the Church of England. Her messages were not sounding like someone keen to embrace a new ministry. As the decision had to be made today, I offered to listen and, if desired, offer feedback. I received a ZOOM link with the next message.

Ah, ZOOM…love it or hate it, it has saved jobs by making remote working possible during the Covid pandemic, has kept friends and family connected, and has provided not a little amusement! Electronic communications aren’t all bad. And in this particular instance, it transformed a noisy spot, next to the escalator, in the middle of a large hospital lobby, into a God-spot. As ambulance drivers asked ambulatory patients sitting near me if they were awaiting transportation home, people entering the hospital behind me checked their temperatures, cleaning staff came along to tidy up after messy humanity, my hard chair became a sacred space of love and concern, tears and questions, frustration and mental wrangling. It was nothing if not an act of divine grace that I was able to tune out all of the potential distractions!–not least my proclivity for people-watching!

But there were were, in God’s hotspot–she in England and me in France (and my wife in the operating theatre!). What had promised to be a backside-numbing four-hour wait was transformed into a holy time of mutuality–in the least likely of spaces. And so I proclaim with Jacob, after his night of holy wrangling: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven!”

Random Grace?

I have been working outside between showers lately. Yesterday I stopped to take note of pansies growing through the gravel on our drive. (I now park our car in another spot.) They are beautiful in their random appearance. That got me thinking about randomness in life, the universe and everything. Our news media tend to focus on the random acts of violence or natural disasters in the world. I recently read a statistic which said that Americans have a 1 in 315 chance of being shot during their lifetimes, while chances of winning the lottery are something like 1 in 14 million. It’s a stark difference in odds or randomness.

Since the early 20th century, those of us who actually believe scientists make a positive contribution to human existence and knowledge, have learned about randomness in our universe via quantum theory. However, it seems to me that for most of us non-physicists, we see randomness as a threat to carefully planned lives. Thus the adage: ‘shit happens.’ But where would we be in a world without (literal) shit? A lot more bloated, for one! Not enough fertiliser, for another. Thank goodness for those who advocate random acts of kindness or pay it forward as an antidote to negativity!

So back to the pansies and their random beauty that I had nothing to do with, any more than the air that I breathe, the rain that falls, the people in shops who help me with my imperfect French or that 15 year old bottle of Bordeaux that a neighbour brought by for my birthday. (We now tutoyer😉!) For those of us who have a faith in God, the Great Spirit, יהוה, the I AM or Being Itself, and also see scientific endeavours as an integral part of the search for Truth that many of us revere, God’s randomness might just as well be called ‘grace’—a gratuitous free gift that we can’t earn, buy or demand. All we can do is open our hearts, minds, eyes, hands and accept it. Providence is the now out-of-fashion word for it: God’s provision or provide(nce) of all the things we need in life but which we have had no hand in bringing into existence—including beauty. (As a novelist, I can honestly say I do not plan what I write or what my characters say. The words are given to me.)

I am not the first, nor will I be the last, writer to posit that maybe, just maybe, grace/love/beauty are in fact the hidden glue that holds everything together in our world. Yes, the very things that we either take for granted or ignore in our mad dash between complaints and rants about the shit that happens in life, while ignoring that God has provided more than enough toilet paper! Take a slow, deep breath and think about it.