Monday, March 20, 2017

Broken Hallelujah--The Prequel: Leonard Cohen's Loving Brokenness

In my last blog, I confessed that I had set out to share a eulogy to the great poet and song writer, Leonard Cohen, who died not long ago. I felt moved instead to speak with my own voice. Thus came a meditation on broken, discarded toys under the title of perhaps Cohen's most famous song, (Broken) "Hallelujah."

I invite you now to consider the words of Cohen's close friend, Leon Wieseltier, for a flavor of this earthy-mystic; this joyful pilgrim on the pain-full path.

Here then, is that eulogy that moved me so. A worthy Lenten meditation (links to music at the end):

My Friend Leonard Cohen: Darkness and Praise

“Dear Uncle Leonard,” the email from the boy began. “Did anything inspire you to create ‘Hallelujah’”? Later that same winter day the reply arrived: “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case — it was given to me. For which I am deeply grateful.”

The question came from my son, who was preparing to present the most irresistible hymn of our time to his fifth-grade class and required a clarification about its meaning. The answer came from the author of the song, who was for 25 years my precious friend and comrade of the spirit. Leonard Cohen was the most beautiful man I have ever known.

His company was quickening in every way. The elegance and the seductiveness were the least of it. The example of his poise was overwhelming, more an achievement than a disposition, and much more than an affair of style.

He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he created by seeking it rather than by finding it. He swam in beauty, because in its transience he aspired to discern a glimpse of eternity: There was always a trace of philosophy in his sensuality. He managed to combine a sense of absurdity with a sense of significance, a genuine feat. He was hospitable and strict, sweet and deep, humble and grand, probing and tender, a friend of melancholy but an enemy of gloom, a voluptuary with religion, a renegade enamored of tradition.

Leonard was, above all, in his music and in his poems and in his tone of life, the lyrical advocate of the finite and the flawed. As he wrote to my son, who was mercifully too young to understand, he was possessed by a lasting sensation of brokenness. He was broken, love was broken, the world was broken.

But “Famous Blue Raincoat” notwithstanding, this was not the usual literary abjection, or any sort of bargain-basement Baudelaireanism. Leonard’s reputation for bleakness is very imprecise. His work documents a long and successful war with despair.  The shattering of love has the effect of proliferating it.

Leonard had an unusual inflection for darkness: He found in it an occasion for uplift. His work is animated by a laudatory impulse, an unexpected and profoundly moving hunger to praise the world in full view of it. His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as cheap as happiness.
Leonard sang always as a sinner. He refused to describe sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a condition of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless. “Even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”

The singer’s faults do not expel him from the divine presence. Instead they confer a mortal integrity upon his exclamation of praise. He is the inadequate man, the lowly man, the hurt man who has given hurt, insisting modestly but stubbornly (except in “I’m Your Man,” when he merrily mocked himself) upon his right to a sacred exaltation.

Leonard wrote and sung often about God, but I am not sure what he meant by it. Whatever it was, it inspired “If It Be Your Will,” his most exquisite song. He sought recognition for his fallenness, not rescue from it. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo. The teaching could not be more plain: fix the crack, lose the light.

All this gave Leonard’s laughter an uncommon credibility. He put punch lines into some of his most lugubrious songs. He delighted in expressing serious notions in comically homely ways. (On ephemerality, from an unreleased early version of a song: “They oughta hand the night a ticket/ for speeding. It’s a crime.”) We laughed all the time. At the small wooden table in his kitchen the jokes flew, usually as he prepared a meal. While he was genuinely in earnest about the pursuit of truth, Leonard had a supremely unsanctimonious temperament. Whether or not darkness was to be relieved by light, it was to be relieved by lightness. Before Passover, which commemorates the biblical exodus, he sent this: “Dear bro, happy Pesach. I miss Egypt! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” Before Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah in the desert, he sent this: “Dear bro, See you at Sinai. I’ll be wearing headphones! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” The laughter of the disabused was yet another of his gifts.

Eliezer was his Hebrew name. We sometimes read and studied together, Lorca and midrash and Eluard and Buddhist scriptures and Cavafy. We could get quite Talmudic, especially with wine. In Judaism there is a custom to honor the dead by pondering a text in their memory. Here, in memory of Eliezer ben Nisan ha’Cohen, is a passage on frivolity by a great rabbi in Prague at the end of the 16th century. “Man was born for toil, since his perfection is always being actualized but is never actual,” he observed in an essay on frivolity. “And insofar as he attains perfection, something is missing in him.

In such a being, perfection is a shortcoming and a lack.” Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of the
the lack, the psalmist of the privation, who made imperfection gorgeous.

- from the New York Times

(Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Kaddish.”)

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Broken Hallelujah

Broken and discarded toys can get to me. We see them every day in the trash. Most of the time I don't think much of it--headless Barbies, a trike without a wheel, stuffed animals--but once in a while the images speak to me of almost impossible joy and loss.

Little children imagine the world differently from most grown-ups. More truly, I think. They don't distinguish between an animate and inanimate world. Everything around them is alive.

When Charlie was six, we bought a newer car. When she was at school, we sold the green station wagon--HER car. The one she knew from her beginning.

The one that took her places while she had important phone meetings.

Cars, animals, stuffed animals, people, trees--all live together in the living world that children experience. So when Charlie heard on the way home from kindergarten that her beloved green car had been sold, she burst into tears: "I DIDN'T GET TO SAY GOODBYE!"

But she did get to. The new owners had not yet picked up the car. Still moist with tears, Charlie erupted with joy to see her beloved green car in front of the house. When the time came for her car to leave with its new people, Charlie tenderly walked up and patted the hood. "Goodbye," she said. Quite similar to the way in which she had said "Goodbye Nana." at my mother's casket the summer before.

My tears are too often sentimental. But children don't feel sorry enough for themselves yet to be sentimental. Their tears are direct, immediate and relational. As is their joy and wonder. This changes as we get older. Therefore the world, as we see it, changes. It can become a world of "things" for which we have little feeling. People can become things--useful or not--to us too.

Sometimes, when I look at a discarded Teddy Bear, it overwhelms me.  The hallelujah and the brokenness of our being-here. That which children are vulnerable to feeling unguardedly. That which mystics of any religion (or non-religion) see. About which poets write.

Jesus is said to have said, in response to his young men arguing over who was greatest among them, "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. For to such it belongs." Jesus' "kingdom" was a satirical inversion of the Roman kingdom. Fearless love over fearful power.

"And a little child shall lead them," declares Isaiah's vision of a peaceful kingdom. It's about unquestioned belonging, where everyone and everything is included. Exquisitely painful. I guess we are too afraid for that. Or are we?

(Note: I intended this blog to be a eulogy of Leonard Cohen. Thus the title. But I think his spirit overtook my hands. Maybe something more directly about him later...)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Few Minutes of Fame

 To my surprise and delight, StoryCorps picked up on Rev. Dr. Garbage Man, and thought my daughter, Charlie might interview him (Dad, Silly Old Man) for a segment. Thanks to my colleagues at Wisdom Ways who turned them on to this in the first place, Barbara Lund and Sonja Ausen-Anafrani.

My daughter, Charlie and I recorded for over an hour. They assured us that less than one percent of their interviews reach the weekly national radio broadcast. I was surprised then, when I got a call on Thursday, January 19th saying we were going to be broadcast on NPR the next morning. It was inauguration day. Our audience was huge. Bigger than any ever before, or ever after. Enjoy...

Listen to StoryCorps Interview Here

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Food Truck!

I am impressed by the amount of food that ends up in the trash. I recall somewhere that as much as 40% of the food produced in the U.S. is thrown out. So I looked it up:

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. This estimate, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. This amount of waste has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation and climate change:

  • Wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. 
  • The land, water, labor, energy and other inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food are pulled away from uses that may have been more beneficial to society – and generate impacts on the environment that may endanger the long-run health of the planet.
  • Food waste, which is the single largest component going into municipal landfills,external link quickly generates methane, helping to make landfills the third largest source of methane in the United Statesexternal link
This is according to the USDA, which has also set a goal for food loss and waste reduction:

On September 16, 2015, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg announced the United States’ first-ever national food loss and waste goal, calling for a 50-percent reduction by 2030. USDA and EPA will work in partnership with charitable organizations, faith organizations, the private sector, and local, state and tribal governments to reduce food loss and waste in order to improve overall food security and conserve our nation’s natural resources.

What I do not see specifically mentioned in this strategy is the impact garbage haulers could have on the problem. As the last point of contact with much food waste, we can make a difference. And we do. Consider:
Unopened and rescued. Charlie was grateful for a reprieve from sugarless peanut butter. And this:

Unopened, but perhaps a bit dicey. We decided not to eat it. Probably enough sodium to kill any bacteria. Holiday Gas Stations really know how to make a sandwich! And this:

Canned "meat" always a good bet. Charlie would have none of it, but...

 Waste not, want not.

Let's just wash those canned squid down with these discarded micro-brewskis! Mmm. Didn't forget to wash the tops before opening.

The best kept secret among trash-foodies is the abundance of raspberry bushes in the alleys of St. Paul. We harvest the neglected bushes and make ourselves sick. I will also say that one or two potentially award winning apple trees are in the alleys, picked only by us.

So yes, we haulers are recovering food heading for waste.Yet our current approach is sporadic and unorganized. To make a lasting change in our country, we need to come together. That is why International Haulers United to Reduce Loss of Food, or IHURLFood, is being launched, to rescue food otherwise headed for the landfill.

You are skeptical.
"Sure," you say, "but how much of what is thrown away is safe to eat?" Fair point. A very small percentage of what we find is in unopened containers with a shelf-life of forever. And yes, in the warmer weather there are maggots involved.

There is, thankfully, a well established and culturally accepted solution. In meat processing, it is called Advanced Meat Recovery, or more commonly known as mechanically separated chicken, beef or pork. This is what is also known as "scrapings off the meat plant floor" by people who shop at Whole Foods. Those of us who shop at Coopers call it hot dogs. The "scrapings--floor" myth is an exaggeration.

What they do is this: A machine scrapes (not the floor, but) the bones. Just like my dog, Toivo would do--so I guess it's natural. Then those natural scrapings are rinsed with ammonia to kill bad germs, just like we do to our bathrooms. So it's safe. Then it looks like this:


Then of course it is dyed to get rid of the ishy pink color that would make people think of what is in it.

With this technology and experience in place, there is no reason why even the most disgusting food from a garbage truck

cannot be reclaimed and made into a Happy Meal... for the good of us all.

And thank you for your support for IHURLFood.

Saturday, February 13, 2016


Words are telling...

Take "trash," for example. All language is built on images and metaphors, and "trash" is probably from Old Norse: tros--fallen leaves or twigs. At the dump there is a separate place to dump fallen leaves and twigs--apart from the "trash." They call it "yard waste." The old Norskies called a fenced enclosure a "gardr", which I guess yielded both "garden" and "yard" in English. One time I was hauling "yard waste" and somebody set out a bin entirely full of black dirt. It was so heavy, the hydraulic lift on the truck could not lift it off the ground. I had to call a buddy to help lift it. This is not "yard waste," this is "yard." But I guess it needed to go. "Insane," but more on that word later.

I do not understand some people and their "yards." Or their "waste"...

"Waste" evolved from words for "desert," or desolate places. But not until the 19th century was there a "waste basket."

What does this:
Have to do with:

But I digress.

In English, "trash" referred to people before it became household refuse. Shakespeare used the word in 1604 regarding persons of ill-breeding. These would certainly have been white people, being that it was 17th century England. Thus all "white trash" should own the term as given them by the most sublime of poets in the English language. Not until the 20th century did we "take out the trash."

Now "sanitation" comes from the Latin for "health" and "sanity." Sanitation workers are therefore, by definition, sane.

"Garbage" is from Old English (and apparently Old French-ish) for the discarded bits of animals headed for the dinner plate. Which reminds me of one of my first posts about picking up a deer carcass. Now that was "garbage!"

"Refuse," though, is a most telling word: What has been refused, rejected. Our "waste" practices betray an illusion of unlimited resources. That we can make stuff and throw it away, ad infinitum. The deeper meaning of "refuse" could be the refusal to see that this is not working. We are not looking 7 generations ahead, much 70 times 7. And maybe this is the connection our language betrays... the desolation of waste-full-ness. From T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. 
Have a nice day!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Route, a Rut, a Routine

I never had a job with a route before this one. I was never a paper boy or a bus driver. When one has a route, one is not rewarded for creativity or innovation. People like it not to be a surprise when their trash will be picked up. They tend to like it to be on the same day of the week, preferably at the same time. The simplicity of this form of physical routine has been refreshing, almost therapeutic, for me. I loved my Monday mornings this past year jumping on the truck in my grubby clothes after spending the previous day leading church services and interacting with lots of people--going from robes to rags.

There is a certain amount of routine to religious leadership and religious life, but not nearly so much simple routine as hauling trash. The routine sets one's mind free (potentially) to notice things, to experience surroundings, to simply be.

But routine easily becomes a rut. Pure drudgery. Living deadness. The difference is in the mind.

Route, routine and rut all come from the same root. Nice alliteration, eh? They have to do with an established, well-worn path. A couple years back I bought my mid-life crisis car. A Mazda Speed 3. Looked like a grocery-getter, drove like a bat outa hell. I took it up to Brainerd Raceway for Track Day with a friend who drove his Porsche 911. We got personal coaching from professional drivers and I had one of the most fun days of my life.  What intrigued me was that the teachers insisted horsepower did not matter as much as the ROUTE. Or, as they called it, the LINE. To prove the point, one professional took his Dodge Caravan onto the track while we were all tearing it up. He went head to head with a Corvette, and whupped him. Because he tracked the right LINE.

Professional drivers make smooth moves. They are not jerky and impulsive. They are not racing to get ahead, but focused on this curve, this shift, this move. I did a funeral for an old woman whose grandson raced NASCAR. He told me that in the heat of a race (and I mean heat; track temps get up to 120 degrees and these people wear the equivalent of snowsuits), at 200 mph. he can not only see the candy wrapper on the track, he can read the brand. He can see his family in the stands, and he finds inches between cars to be a mile. This is what routine can do. One can be transported to another level of consciousness when one enters with entire focus into a routine. Spiritual mystics know this.

When I climb onto the garbage truck, I enter the zone. It is all about the line. Time slows down. I am transported into another plane of consciousness. I see every wrapper and my powers of observation expand. This is why I call hauling garbage my spiritual practice. Plus I pick up the wrapper and throw it away. Or on the floor of the cab.

Monday, June 29, 2015


The best part of being a teacher is to learn from my students.

Let me introduce you to a student of mine, an amazing artist of the spoken word, who graduated this spring from the University of Minnesota in Youth Studies and Communications. This piece was inspired by the murder of a close friend and is a reflection on the funeral where they spoke of her friend as now being an "angel." I invite you to listen and pay close attention to this gritty, sublime poetry by Brynne Crockett, BdotCrock. She's been my teacher, even as I have been hers. Her words:

"Being an artist from North Minneapolis, a place so beautiful, yet painted so ugly by news sources, I feel its my duty to do my own type of reporting about the things that take place in my neighborhood. The song Angel is just me giving my viewers a glimpse into the sad reality that we are losing young people too often to gun violence. One of the young people I worked with for many years had been recently killed and I had a hard time dealing with the whole situation. As an artist sometimes the worst times bring out the best art and that's what this song and visual is about. I wanted to bring attention not only to the lives we have lost but also to how many more we will lose if we don't do something about it. The other artist on this song is another young person I work with that is very passionate about these issues as well. It was only right I had a youth bring their perspective to this song. I hope it moves people or at least starts the conversation!"