All the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.

 

                               from Godric                                  Frederick Buechner

 

faces of grace


Visitors to this page looking for typical features of an author web site may view my narrative professional biography, which summarizes my teaching and writing; or my formal curriculum vitae, which lists all publications and career details. 

I am taking another approach to my biographical page, one that affirms what I have been given rather than what I have accomplished. I am not sure what to call it: Blog of Blessings?

We are all formed by our responses to the tragedies, failures, and faults that mark our lives. I have known an ample share of each, and I view my writing, particularly poetry, as part of the work of redemption. Here, however, I focus on the gifts of people, places, and events that have lifted and sustained me. I hope these images and words serve a purpose beyond information about me, to remind you of the faces of grace in your own life.  

 


 

 

                      Beloved        

       Toil- bent hands, dusted with flour,

pull

       me to a worn apron, faded gingham dress,      

       Vellkommen thick with old country,

       new-baked loaf,

       warm enough to melt butter

still.

 

 

 

                                                                                                                   

Susanna Schmidt 1890-1969


 

Sehnsucht is a kind of aesthetic experience that consists of a simultaneous longing and fulfillment. C.S. Lewis called it Joy, and the search to understand its source led him ultimately to God. According to the poet William Stafford, early experiences of this kind often give birth to writers. The poem below, based on a famous poem by William Carlos Williams, records my earliest clear memory of such a moment. I was amazed later to find a photograph that may have been taken the same day. 


 

 

 

      Phoenix, October 1961

 

So much follows

A red Schwinn

Wheeling down a hot sidewalk

Beside pastel houses.

 

One insignificant boy

Keds pumping

Dylan in his head

The answer, my friend—

 

And the wind created met

The song created met

The boy created

That still blows

How many times?

 

 


 

My father impressed upon me the importance of delivering an accurate curveball, amassing a pile of money, and maintaining an attractive head of hair. Some kids just don't listen.   

 


 

 

Likely or Not

My high school years involved an enormous transition from undersized "debate team geek" to a student leader who was asked to speak at commencement and was voted "most likely to succeed." At times I am haunted by those heady days and the expectation that I would achieve fame and influence. I hope that I can still achieve a measure of wisdom and kindness.  


  

 

         Mabel Iehl  1885-1979

 

 

 

Mabel

As a college sophomore, while visiting a convalescent facility for the poor, I met the most powerful person I have ever known. Mabel was then eighty-nine years old, and for twenty-five years she had been institutionalized, alone, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and disfigured by cancer. Amazingly, she lay there day after day quietly singing hymns, praying, and as she put it, "thinking about how good God has been to me." I visited her weekly for three years and never witnessed her faith waver. What kind of power must a life like this require, and where does it come from?  What does it have to do with me? I have spoken and written about Mabel, but she remains a mystery. After these many years, I still encounter her in dreams, and I wake asking the same questions.       

  


Hidden House

Senior year of college was idyllic. I lived with four good friends in a rundown, tree-sheltered chalet next to campus, I had a light academic load, and I was in love. The two Garys, Curt, Bill, and I often sat on the roof and sang, or dreamed aloud of how our lives would turn out. The year was an extended moment of community and hope, or maybe the end of childhood. Just hours after this photograph was taken, I was in my car heading home to work in a factory, crying so hard I could barely see the road.      


 

 

  Cambridge University

 

 

          Doctor Tom  1985

 

 

One of the happiest days of my life was spent alone, driving across England from Cambridge to Wales, singing at the top of my lungs out into the late spring air from the open car window. I had just passed my oral examination for the PhD and would carry the name of a great university with me for the rest of my life. I have discovered, however, that the most profound impact of intensive study and much reading is to convince me how little I know.


 

 

The Like-Minded

Although I treasure friendships with dozens of individual students, two groups stand out. Pictured above are the Homophrones (Greek: like-minded), who for three years gathered to discuss books and enjoy other activities, including travel together to the UK in the summer of 1992. They are pictured here at a high point, having just read together the ancient liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on the Scottish island of Iona, where Saint Columba brought Christianity from Ireland in the 6th century.   

 

The Membership

The terms pizza parlor and philosophy class are rarely used in the same sentence. But this remarkable group of high school seniors from the Laguna class of 2005 met off campus weekly to chew on both, from pepperoni and Plato to mozzarella and Marx. I have never encountered a group of students so capable and so eager to discover truth, goodness, and beauty.  

 


 

 

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

              

We wept with Bilbo over Thorin's death;  

Mourned Wilbur's loss when Charlotte said Goodbye;

Felt magic deep in risen Aslan's breath,

And in I love you, Charles! Meg's rending cry.

Redemption courses through our storied past,                     

A river perilous in lands of play;

Where Huck and Jim meet Tom upstream at last,

But Terebinthia is swept away.

All night good Mole and Rat seek little Otter,

Then find him sleeping in the Piper's care;

Dark swirls around that island, deadly water, 

But they find only help and healing there.

       Not every little one is saved in time;

       The Piper does not always sing in rhyme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susanna Jane Schmidt 1987-1997

 


                                                           Friends for Life


  

 

 

 

My sister Liane is my oldest best friend. After I lost my daughter, she took me into her home during the hardest times, the first birthday and Christmas. The following year, I confided in her that what I missed most was Susanna's voice and touch; and God, as Spirit, could not give me that kind of comfort. "Oh, dear brother," she replied, "Do you not know that all these people who have loved you this past year, they have been God's voice, his hands, his arms?"

 

 


Dave and Judy

 

Dear friends, who loved my sweetest little one, 

And held me when my father’s day was done;

Who learned the worst of me, and loved me still;

Amazing grace to know you always will.

 

The gain of you has grown with every loss:

Could I but find a fire or path of nails to cross,

For you I’d try, to show some small return,

For incarnated love from you I learn.

 

 

 

 

 


        Lyle Hillegas  1934-2008

 

 

 

Lyle was the father I wish I had.  As a former pastor and college president, he understood the context of my faults and failures, and he took them seriously. Yet no one was so ready to forgive, to restore, and to believe in me unreservedly. Three days before he died, I asked Lyle how he was feeling about the coming great change. He whispered one word: "Ecstatic!" Is this not how we all hope to leave this life? 

 

 


                      Merry in 2001

 

Middle School Lesson

Shall I begin with "once upon a time"
To tell the legend of our love's first sight?
At least, you see, I make the story rhyme:
A literary touch is only right.
For it was in an English class's clamor---
Where I was hired to tame the savage horde,
To teach them poetry, essays, and grammar---
That I first saw the one I've since adored.
They pointed to you in the playground mob,
An iris rising from a field of weeds:
"That’s Merry, whom you'll sub for on this job;
Ask her for help if you have any needs."
     But when they promised you'd show me the ropes,
     Who knew you'd hoist my heart beyond my hopes?

 


Merry came with a bonus: instant children, all grown up! Jane, Stephanie, and Dan make us proud and thankful. They are good people building meaningful lives, devoted to each other and to family, and always enjoyable company.   

 

 

 


Rooms with a View

The physical context of our life has involved great beauty. Pictured here are views from the living rooms of the three houses in which we have lived. From the Pacific Ocean over Santa Barbara rooftops, to the Applegate River in Oregon,       to the verdant mountains of Vermont, we have enjoyed extraordinary views. But Home, we are grateful to acknowledge, is wherever we are together.

 

 

 


 

 

I Live!  Pay Attention!

 

In August of 2010, my niece, Rachel, called to tell me that she had just given birth to a girl and named her . . . Susanna.

So the name grows more precious, now reaching from past to future across three centuries, and on into a new generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                       

                                Susie  2010 -

 


Mema and Bapa are Born

Our beloved son-in-law Chris joined the family in 2010, a year after proposing to Stephanie during a Christmas Day family gathering. In May 2012, Stephanie and Chris welcomed Avery into the world, and Merry and I became grandparents. A year later, we moved to Vermont to begin life as an expanded family--one of the best decisions we've ever made. 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Avery grew, he named us Mema and Bapa. For me, is this a circle or a line forward, once again to hold a child to my heart, to be part of a family? I am too busy playing with trucks to figure it out.  

 

 

 

 



 

  Sonny Arrives, January 2015

Waiting

before I knew your name,

I imagined your cry and thought,

This will be a new sound

Never before heard

in all the sad and lovely world.

What you will tell us has never been told

by any who ever were or are

who whisper or wail

curse or call

bless or beg

sing or sigh.

Not one of these sounds,

not one of these souls

was or is you.

So welcome

and be loved,

you.