•March 14, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Apparently the correct response to COVID-19 is to wrap it in toilet paper and build a bottled-water moat surrounding castle walls made entirely of stacked gallon jugs full of hand sanitizer.  At least, that’s what the empty store shelves tell me.  The CDC recommended that we stock an extra two weeks’ groceries and supplies in case of quarantine, but a lot of people have gone one, two, or a hundred steps further into preparing for a society-ending apocalypse.    They don’t seem to realize that their panic causes the very panic they’re panicking over.  They have absolutely no regard for the rest of us.  And did they not have hand sanitizer, soap, or cleaning supplies before all this started? Because that’s what they’re acting like, and I don’t want to go to their houses for dinner!

There’s a reptilian brain in all of us, a dark red spark ready to flare as soon as it senses danger.  Run.  Hide.  Fight.  Survive, at all costs.  To hell with everyone else.  None of us are immune, but some of us seem to flare faster and harder than others.   Why are we somewhat wary, while others at normal risk are on a hair-trigger? Why do we buy two weeks of groceries, while others buy twenty years? Why do we get by with washing our hands and avoiding unnecessary outings, while others are no doubt hiding with plenty of guns in their pre-outfitted bunkers?

Fear is its own kind of virus, and like any virus, some people get it worse than others.  Maybe we should take precautions against fear the same way we take precautions against COVID-19.  Take the sting out of it with a few common-sense preparations.  Practice social distancing from those who seem most sick with it.  Stock up on facts and don’t believe everything you read on Facebook.  Have some consideration for others; don’t cough your fear into their faces, don’t infect their kids with it, and leave them some damn toilet paper!

Above all else, remember what our earliest human ancestors learned long ago:  one person can’t outrun a sabertooth tiger, but several persons acting with one accord can fight one off.  We are stronger and safer when we overcome our reptilian fear response and work together. 

What Fear Teaches

•February 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Good Lord, these are ugly times we live in.  The news is full of terrible stories, each more hysteria-inducing than the last.  The Internet is full of vitriol and dire predictions as the absolute worst in people is on full display.  The swamp in Washington is not only not drained, but spreading out rapidly to suck the whole nation into the bottom.  We could be in the last days of America.  We could be in the last days of the world, at least, the world inhabitable by humans.  The crazy preppers don’t seem quite so crazy, and we find ourselves hanging on for dear life, like frightened cats gone too high up on shredding curtains, trying not to fall to ruination, to a premature end.

She and I are not immune to the fear.  To a certain extent, fear is good – it teaches caution, preparedness.  We forgo bumper stickers, tell no one how we vote, avoid crowded places.  We put in a garden, can the produce, fish, gather raspberries and walnuts, set up to manage power outages, learn to live a little closer to the land.  We have a plan if we need to leave quickly.  All these things are smart, they are good.

But there’s such a thing as too much fear.  After the 2016 elections we scared ourselves silly with apocalyptic what-ifs.  What if democracy is completely overturned? What if they come for us, for our children? What if World War Three happens? What if the waters dry up and we all die of thirst? And what, oh what can we do to prevent it all from happening? -Very little, very little.   So we vascillate between a fatalistic shrugging-off – the way I used to do as a teen in the eighties with the spectre of nuclear war – and a fearful hypervigilance, scouring like tense rabbits every corner of the Internet and every minute of the TV news for threats that might break down our door.

There is a third way, though, if we can be wise enough and brave enough to learn it.  The way of appreciating that life is fragile and finite and always in danger of ending, yet also appreciating that life is powerful and old and always finds a way.  The way of guarding against uncertain futures, yet also enjoying, as much as we can, the present.  The way of realizing that no one, we included, will get out alive, so don’t hasten death by worrying ourselves there.  Under the sun are evil and terror and injustice, but also wild raspberries hanging thickly on green branches, calling us to come and eat until the juice stains our lips and fingers.   The water in the creek at the bottom of our hill may not be safe to drink unfiltered, but is cool on our feet on a hot day in August.  Orion still rises and sets over our heads in winter, Cygnus still soars through velvet skies in summer, seasons cycle – with some recent variations – and somehow we keep waking up alive every day, navigating our unlikely existence the same way our ancestors did, by meeting one thing at a time.

Someday – if our descendants don’t run out of somedays – we will be entries in someone else’s family tree.  “Born in this year.  Died in that year.  Lived some fragment of time in between the dates.”  What have we done, what are we doing, what will we do with that fragment? In this ugly and fearful election year, on this particular day, I sound my barbaric yawp (thank you Walt Whitman), while sitting in the sun streaming through the window of our modest, solid house.  I lay down my thoughts, my fears, my hopes, in hopes that someone else might find in them some breadcrumbs to help them along their way.  When I finish here, I will go with her to the drugstore, to Harbor Freight, I will finish the laundry and stir the chicken in the Crock Pot.  I will copy down the pumpkin bread recipe to send to the kids.  I will feed the dog, the cats, make my lunch for tomorrow.  I will live.  I refuse to let fear kill me.  I will live.

First Full Poem In Many Years.

•November 9, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The Things I Tried To Save

Recurring dream:  Returning to a house I’d fled,

I walk through the almost-empty rooms, gathering up this and that.

But the piles keep growing, things upon things.

The lights won’t stay off and the water won’t stop flowing.

The walls crack and crumble.

Finally, the whole damn thing catches fire, driving me out empty-handed

to stand alone on the dark street, looking at all I couldn’t save.


It’s piled up in my head:

School papers, children’s drawings,

ordination certificate, some awards and all my sermons,

clothes and furniture and dishes, old toys, most of my books,

my Pink Floyd collection, two houses, one marriage and one man.

And my favorite hat.

I go back, I try to pick them up,

but I don’t know which landfills hold them.

The walls crack and crumble.  The lost stays lost.


“Material things come and go.”  So my wise daughter said.

“But you get to keep the memories,” she also said.

So I walk through all those houses

where the lights won’t stay off.

I keep the coffee-fueled hours behind those papers,

working while the babies slept, ideas flowing like water.

I pick up the full-throated Sanctus from my ordination.

I reclaim all those nights at Hemingway’s,

beautifully arrogant in my favorite hat, dreaming of being a poet.

I tuck away my children’s faces, beaming as they hand me their drawings.

Playing Pink Floyd in my head,

I put the dust of old books into my pockets.


This and that I gather, until I look around and see

that there is nothing left worth wanting.

I walk outside and stand alone on the dark street.

One last look.

I light the match.


-tms, 11/9/19


He lives in the world of what is.

•February 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

He’s got three different escape routes, a dozen places to hide, and a plan to fight when all else fails.  His school is collecting supplies to put, in every classroom, a “Go Bucket” filled with things for disasters both natural and man-made.  Flashlight, whistle, first aid supplies.  Multitool, hammer, lighter.  Rope to reinforce a locked door.  Wasp spray.  It has a long range.

We talked a little about it, but not much, two days after the shooting.  He knew about it.  Seventeen victims.  Kids his age.  Teachers like his.  He knows it’s not the first, and he knows it won’t be the last.  He shrugged at the possibility that it could happen to him, the same way I in Cold War days used to shrug at the possibility of nuclear war.   The world is a mad and violent place, full of things over which he has absolutely no control.  It should not be, but it is.  And he lives in the world of what is.  “If it’s my day to die, then there’s nothing I can do,” he said, and went back to his videogame.  I took the hint and went downstairs, went on about my evening.

After a little while, he came downstairs, “just to say What’s Up”.  Then he went back upstairs for awhile.  Then back down, just to chat a little more.  Back upstairs.  Back downstairs.  Up.  Down.  Retreat.  Check in.  “I’m good.”  “Hey Mom?”

At 10:15pm:  “Hey Mom? Do you want to make some cookies?” Honey, if it would help you feel safer, I’d get up and bake cookies with you at 3am on a worknight.   “Sure thing,” I replied, and so we made cookies.  Chatting about everything and nothing, the familiar ritual, he and I, trading off ingredients, taking turns stirring, working together to roll the little balls of dough, put them on the cookie sheets, wait, pull out the cookies, let them cool just a little, eat the first two still warm, with some milk to chase them down.  Then, at almost midnight, at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, he said,  “OK Mom, I’m going up.  Night, love ya.”  Like always.  “G’nite buddy bear, love you too,” I replied.  Like always.  The goodnight kiss he has to lean over, now, to let me plant on his head.  Like always.  A small plate of cookies disappearing upstairs with him.  Like always.

This, too, is his world.  Our world, his and mine.  The world of what is.  A little, for-here-and-now world where some things, at least, make sense, where some things, at least, are as they should be.  So fragile.  So terribly fragile.  But so good.

I still dream about him.

•January 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I was with him for half my life.  From our first date, March 22, 1985 at 7:10 p.m., all the way through to November 13, 2015 at 10:12 p.m.  Thirty years.  From age 16 to age 47.  We attended each other’s high school graduations.  We went to college together.  We married at age 23.  Had one child together, then another.  Raised them together.  Lived in nine different houses together.  Went through more jobs between us than I can count.   Laughed and cried and fought and got bad credit together.

But we weren’t really together.  It was more like thirty years of me trying to hold it all together while he tried and repeatedly failed to get himself together.  He was the drowning man who tries to pull his rescuer under, and he nearly succeeded.   I had hoped to at least make it through Son’s high school years, but came a little short.  Son later said that it was a relief.

I am happier now than I ever thought I would be.  She is loving and loyal and steady and strong, a hard worker and a sweet spirit and a true partner.   She is also stubborn and quirky and difficult and opinionated and set in her ways.  She could say all the same about me, and has.  For the most part we flow together.  When we butt heads, we work it out.   This is relationship.  This is normal.   This is good.

What I had with him wasn’t relationship, wasn’t normal, and wasn’t good.  But we still had some good times.  Still, somehow, managed to raise two of the brightest and best spirits to currently grace this planet.  Sometimes – when I watch a show that he liked and she doesn’t, or when a certain song comes on the radio, or when I run into a mutual friend – sometimes, I almost miss him.  Sometimes.  But not often.  And not much.

I still dream about him, more than I dream about her.  He’s burned more deeply into my subconscious, I suppose.   Thirty years is longer than two.  But I dream about him less than I used to.  Little by little, night by night, he’s fading.  And in the morning, she is there to greet me.

Snow Down.

•January 8, 2018 • Leave a Comment

“Nuisance snow,” they called it on the news; or, as we called it this morning, “Nope snow”.  Dutifully up and ready for work, we pushed the snow off the trusty Explorer, even as more came down on top of it.  We loaded our lunches and coffee mugs and winter-bundled selves into the driver’s and passenger seats respectively.  And started on our 35-mile way.  Two miles and two near-misses later, Wife said, “Do you really wanna do this?”

Wife has driven race cars, police cars, ambulances, and firetrucks, at various points in her past.  Wife has taught other people how to drive all of the above.  Wife has driven that Explorer for seven years now and knows exactly what it can do.  If Wife has doubts about whether we can make it to work in nuisance snow, then Wife should be listened to.  “Nope!” I said, and so we turned around and struggled back home, called off, and denned in.

Observed out the window, it doesn’t seem too bad.  A little snow on our short little street, and apparent wet-and-slush on the hill down to the “main” road – at least, what passes for “main” in our tiny coal patch town.  Only when you try to drive on it do you realize that the wet-and-slush is sitting on a fine sheen of ice – the road still frozen from two weeks in the deep freeze.   Things aren’t always what they seem.

Not so long ago, I would have been a hero about it; determined to get to work come hell or high water.  I would have been looking to score hero points, get acclaimed for bravely making it in against all odds to do the job that I and I alone could do.   Times change.  I’m over myself.  I’m exceedingly fortunate to have a job where I CAN call off without repercussions.  People’s lives don’t depend on me.  Anything time-critical about my job can be done by another worker, same as I do for them when they’re out.  Simply put, they can live without me for a day.  Wife does the same job I do.  Same story.

So here we are.  Wife puttering around in her workshop downstairs, me setting down some thoughts before moving on to baking.  The world handily turning without us.  The snow changing over to slop outside.  Later it will rain, and the ice will melt, and our jobs will be there tomorrow.  It really is OK to move at the speed of life.   Even when life is moving winter-slow.

Slow down.

Snow down.

I haven’t been to church in two years.

•December 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I left with her on a Friday night in November; understandable that I would skip church that Sunday.  Then, with one thing and another, I skipped another Sunday, and another, and another.  In time I would have gone back, but she can’t go to church because of Reasons, Good Reasons, and I don’t want to go without her.  Strange, when I didn’t think twice about going without him.

I miss the people, and still keep up with many of them.  I miss the music, and the way the sun shines through that one particular window.  I miss my dear friend’s heartfelt sermons, and the smell of old hymnals, and the cool shadows of all the tucked-away places.   I miss it.  But not as much as I thought I might.  Not as much as you might expect a former – “former”! – minister to miss it.  Part of that has to do with evolving beliefs, a far more Cosmic Christ, a far less systematic theology.  Part of that has to do with honoring my body, needing more downtime than I did before.   Most of it has to do with honoring my wife’s timeline.  It takes her awhile to work up to things, especially church, because of Good Reasons.  And part of it – a small part, a part that doesn’t by itself hold me back, but a part nonetheless – is a certain amount of trepidation.  How will Pastor Tracy be received when she shows up, two-years-and-change later, with a Mrs. In tow?

I already know the answer.  I will be received warmly, and so will my Mrs.  At least at That Church, My Church.  They are one in a million.  I say “will” because I will go back, some Sunday, so she can meet the rest of her family, and the rest of her family can meet her.  I will.  Some Sunday.

But not today, and it’s all right.  Church was the center of Pastor Tracy’s universe, and she revolved ever so faithfully around it, and it was, for the most part, good.  Church is not the center of Tracy 2.0’s universe.  Like everything else, it is a part of the web.  It will be there.  When I’m ready.  When she’s ready.  That is also good.

Who knows where life can take us? Such an interesting journey down the river.

A lot can happen in two years…

•December 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

My adult and nearly-adult children are decorating the tree with their father today.  Later they’ll come over to bake cookies with my wife and me.

Those two sentences will tell you that a lot can happen in two years.  New home.  New spouse.  New routines.  New ways of looking at the Divine.  Daughter grown and flown, more adult every time she visits.  Son right behind her, in the home stretch before what-comes-next.  New spouse is Wife, not Husband.  Wasn’t looking for that, but then, I’ve always been one to trip and fall over backwards into where I’m supposed to be.  It is good.  It is good.

I haven’t written here in two years, first because I was too busy living – with so much happening so blindingly fast, it was, as the kids say, “skate or die” – and second because it took a minute for my spirit to catch up.  So now I sit, staring at the blank screen, and I wonder:  How can I possibly put into words everything that I have learned? All that laughter and all those tears, all those losses and all those gains, all that learning and all that unlearning, and changes upon changes upon changes…all of it like pictures stuffed into an overflowing drawer, daring me to pull them out and arrange them neatly into albums.  Where do I even begin?

Begin first, I suppose, with a simple life lesson:  Never say “I’d never”.  I never took myself for the type who would leave a 24-year marriage and run off with someone brand new and marry her – Her! – six months later.  It was exactly the sort of thing I’d judged others for doing:  “I’d never do that!”  But then, I never was in touch with the deep part of me who knew she had to make a change or die.  She was crushed under the weight of him and his addictions.  She saw a lifeline.  In one desperate leap, she drove up through all of my thousand reasons and rationalizations, shoved me aside, grabbed hold of that lifeline, and jumped – all before I could think my way out of doing it.  She just did it, damn the consequences.

And there were consequences, of course.  Enough to make me wonder whether I’d do it again, knowing what I know…but even as I wonder, I know the answer.  I would.  Maybe a little more gracefully, or with a little more advance warning to those who needed to know, but I would.  I had to.  Because if I didn’t, I’d be dead now, or well on my way; and there can’t be amends, or apologies, or mending of relationships, or new normals, if you’re dead.  The dead don’t stand with their face to the rising sun, or watch the patterns of wind across new leaves, or watch the snowflakes dance in the Christmas lights, or enjoy the warm simple rightness of loving a true partner and being loved right in return.   The dead don’t wait expectantly on Christmas Eve for their young adult Daughter and nearly adult Son to come over and bake cookies, once they’ve put up the tree at their father’s house.  The dead don’t get to do these things.  Maybe they get to do other things, but they don’t get to do these things.

“Behold, I set before you life and death.”   Two years ago, on blind instinct, I overrode all my deadly programming and chose life.  And so I am here, on Christmas Eve, in the late afternoon, with a little cat asleep on my lap and my beloved Wife sitting beside me, and the house is modest and warm and the cookie ingredients are waiting in the kitchen, and the kids will be here soon, and it is time to go and be alive.

I miss hearing her play.

•May 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Go to Youtube and search “Sanctus from Saint Cecelia Mass” by Gounod, and you will find several lovely renditions; but you will not find the rendition my mother played.  Every Easter Sunday I stood with the choir in the rear balcony of our church, listening and watching as she sat at the organ, downstairs, with her back to us, playing the Sanctus.  She was not a professional organist, but she was good; and something about the Sanctus connected so deeply with her soul that, for that one Sunday a year, for the 3:28 minutes her version ran, woman and music became one.  I would stand in the back and see the music rise and hang and sparkle in the air like angels’ wings, and I would feel, for just a few seconds, the blast-furnace-and-butterfly’s-kiss of pure Ruach, swirling around and through me.

She retired long ago from playing.  In more ways than one.  The last time I heard her play the Sanctus was for my ordination thirteen years ago.  She came specifically out of retirement, that one time, and I stood in the back with the others, waiting to process, with tears streaming down my face – watching for the angels’ wings, listening for the Ruach, but mostly trying to absorb and appreciate the costly gift of love which my mother was giving on that Sunday afternoon.  I knew it was the last time I’d hear the Sanctus played by that particular, temperamental woman on that particular, temperamental organ, and I loved it, every last note of it, until the last note faded away.

Now, as we go about the work of downsizing her from an eight-room house to a one-bedroom apartment, I keep looking for her battered copy of the Sanctus.  Neither I nor anyone else could play it like she did, but it seems like a thing that should be kept.  Perhaps there is, on its yellowed pages, just a bit of dust left from the angels’ wings.  Perhaps a last wisp of music hangs in the air around it.  I don’t know.  But I would like to find out.  I hope she hasn’t thrown it away.

…”I’m Here.”

•February 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment

We know the day is coming, although we don’t know when or how, or whether it will come all of a sudden or creep up slowly from behind.  The day when you look at your parents and realize that they have become much shorter than you, and younger.  So much younger.  Too younger.  Parenthood 2.0 is upon you, ready or not, and “not” is not an option.

This early in the game, I am in full-on crisis mode: detached, efficient, dispassionate.  Call this doctor.  Order that equipment. Marshall the troops.  Pass the meds.  Arrange the time off.  Grief and anger are cobwebs to be brushed aside; primal child-terror is a background noise to be tuned out; overwhelmedness is a wave to be surfed in a surfed-or-die game where “die” is not an option.

Only in oblique ways does the emotion leak out.  Searching in the mirror for silver hairs.  Studying her form:  “Will that really be me someday?” And moments like this morning.  Daughter snapping awake as I pass her room.  “Mom?!?” the short sharp cry that sends me flying to her bedside, never mind her age.  “I had bad dreams,” she said, and I sat and wrapped my arms around her…still just old enough and big enough to hold her.

But I won’t be forever, will I? -without my consent the tears come and I hide them in her hair, forcing steadiness into my voice, speaking the truth that, for now, at least, still stands.

“I’m Here.”