Back To Work

But did we ever stop? If, like me, you were fortunate enough to enjoy some vacation time over the holidays, did you actually stop working? Don’t worry: this is not email shaming. Even if you removed email from your phone and kept your concentration from your employer for multiple consecutive days, you were still working. Good for you.

We call work the thing that pays us, and many of us have a very unhealthy relationship to it. But what if you broadened our definition of work to all the things that matter–to us, the people we care about, our neighbors, the world at large? There doesn’t have to be a clean divide between work and leisure; leisure is only a different kind of work. Work is a privilege. We all have some of it to do.

The book I read; the breakfast date I had with my spouse; the toilet seat I replaced; the workout I did; the recipes I tried; the old album I replayed; the Godfather trilogy I watched; the kitchen I cleaned–all of it work. Some of it restorative, some maddening, but all of it work.

Good work.


I was the athlete between my brother and I, so we didn’t play a lot of backyard baseball because he wasn’t any good so he hated it. But on a summer afternoon when there was nothing else to do, I pitched him ball after ball, and he missed them all. I could tell he was getting angry, and my experience had led me to fear that he was about to quit, so I ultimately lobbed a soft one down the middle for him to square up. He hit it, softly, right back at me, and I caught it. But he took off running to first base. I watched him run all the way, then stared at him in confusion as he grinned triumphantly back at me.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “I caught it. That’s an out.”

“You dropped it.”

“What? No I didn’t. I have it here in my hand. I caught it.”

“No,” he continued. “You almost caught it, but then you dropped it and kicked it and picked it up again.”

My confusion became rage in an instant and I demanded he retract the fabrication and return to the plate for a clean count. He refused. At an impasse, I stalked away indignant. How could I play with someone who invented plays in his own head and who refused to concede to the things we both plainly saw happen?

Man, I’ve been thinking about that afternoon a lot these past few weeks.


I need to grocery shop for New Year’s Eve and the days that will cruelly follow. Two of the items on my list are a fennel bulb, for a dinner out of the cookbook mom got me for Christmas, and a jar of cornichon, those tiny crunchy pickles Laura loves so much.

At Target, picking up cosmetics Laura ordered online, I decide to see how much of the grocery list can be had. A lot, it turns out. And not just boxes and cans–also potatoes and jalapenos and brussel sprouts. But no fennel or cornichon.

I have several options for acquiring my remaining items between Target and home, ranging from the bougie to the pedestrian (the fun, quirky, option is lining customers up outside, but I’m not up for that–one less option). It happens that along my route the bougie store and the pedestrian store appear right next to one another: you can easily park in the lot of one but shop at the other. With the nasally “cornichon” in my ear, I park in the bougie store’s lot and walk inside. There’s lots here. The lady in the dedicated cheese alcove explains to me that “pecorino” is Italian for “sheep,” so a Pecorino Romano is not the same as a simple Romano. But there are no cornichon in the pickle aisle, only bulbous jars of slouching dill spears. Also, they’re out of fennel.

I place my bougie store bags in the trunk and decide to walk across the parking lot to the pedestrian store. It’s already dark, and the melt off from yesterday’s snowstorm has left a slick of ice on the pavement. If the bougie store didn’t have these items, how likely is the pedestrian one? Still, it’s only two items.

I don’t even take a hand cart with me to the produce section, so I’m able to lift one of several beautifully arrayed fennel bulbs from its perch with one hand and transfer it to the other in a single gesture, without even breaking stride. The cornichon are just as visible. My only delay in pulling a jar from the shelf results from needing to decide on a type–there are three. I didn’t know there was more than one kind of cornichon. I’m in and out in under five minutes.

On the way home I wonder what else my assumptions are making me miss.


I had a confidant in my first church, a middle-aged single woman with a son in his early 20’s. She had been a member of the church for years and years before I arrived. She raised her son in its Sunday School classrooms during the long tenure of my beloved predecessor, but by the time I got there her relationship to the church had been complicated by her out-of-the-closet son’s experience with some of the Elders. Still, she sought me out routinely over the phone in my three year’s there, and almost never to complain or make any kind of claim on my concern. She most often wanted to hear how I was finding being a minister or what I thought of some movie her son had recently recommended or to relate to me some hysterical anecdote from her job at the Salvation Army. She was genuinely interested in me and what I thought, and when she let slip some invective about the church she almost immediately apologized, guilty that she was corrupting my ecclesial optimism. Then she would cover her mouth with the back of her hand and laugh. She kind of fascinated me.

I left that church over 13 years ago, and as is appropriate with pastoral transitions, we did not keep up a regular correspondence. When I learned this week that she had died I found myself thinking back over those long conversations about her work and her son and her ex-husband, wondering what all was really going on. Her son is now 40. He’s not five years younger than me. It seems pretty clear she was mothering me. I think I knew that at the time, as I recall registering some unease about it to my wife as it was happening. But I almost always took her calls. We had a rapport that did me good.

One of the bits of advice I got before entering the ministry was to make friends with people outside the congregation I would be serving, in order to maintain healthy boundaries between my personal life and my professional relationships. I think the element of this congregant’s attention that I found so beneficial was that it felt like it was coming from outside the congregation. She didn’t have a view about the budget or the new worship songs, but she did have a view about how I processed other peoples’ views on those matters. It made her feel independent of the cycle of congregational life that was my constant concern.

Of course she was not. All of the churches I’ve served have at least one person in them who feels free to relate to the minister(s) as the disaffected outsider. It’s not bad so long as the minister recognizes it. I probably would have been a better new pastor had I leaned less on the attention of this confidant, yet I don’t really recall our interactions these many years later with anything other than appreciation.

The Albums of 2020

I still pay attention to album releases every Friday. There’s a Release Radar playlist on Spotify that populates first thing in the morning every fifth day of the week and that’s based on things in my library already. It’s very useful, but there are too many singles–many of them acoustic and remixed versions of songs already in my library–for it to be the go-to source for album releases.

NPR Music limits its Friday updates to albums, and the range of what it shares every week is impressively broad. If you have a lane, they’re sure to spend at least some time in it each week. But not enough. So I also check in every Friday with the reviews page of American Songwriter magazine. Landon and Marcus and Jeff are sure to send me things too.

2020 gave me a bunch of albums that I chose to stash in my “2020 Albums” playlist (below), but two albums dominated my attention disproportionately, and they’re not by artists I could have told you a year ago I would fall for: Sarah Siskind and Taylor Swift.

I had never heard of Siskind before “Modern Appalachia” came out in April. She’s spent most of her career writing songs for other artists to record and touring with headliners like Bon Iver as a backing vocalist. But the first time in played it, “Modern Appalachia” sunk it’s hooks into my ears. There is a gravity to it that felt so comforting during days that felt like they were floating away and out of control. Take a listen and see if you don’t agree (“Punk Rock Girl” is the song of the year for me).

Of course I’d heard of Taylor Swift before “folklore,” but I’m 44, so … no. I couldn’t turn it off. The songs on “folklore” are so good. “August,” “This Is Me Trying,” and “Illicit Affairs” are standouts, and I anticipated them every time I played the album, but the songs preceding and following my favorites refused to be skipped. It’s infectious without being earwormy. I played it more than anything else all year, which is telling; it wasn’t released til the year was half over.

There’s gold on this albums list (honorable mention to Ivan & Alyosha, Hailey Whittiers, Beach Bunny, Jason Isbell, William Prince, and Dave Hause’s terrific EP of Patty Griffin covers). But nothing commanded my attention like Siskind and Swift in 2020.

Go. First.

Some difficult decisions feel easier when we’re not the ultimate agent. Who wouldn’t rather say “This stinks, but it’s not my call” than “This stinks and I own it”? Given that preference, it’s tempting to put off hard choices in the hope that they’ll get made by someone else, in which case we can hang on to ambivalence. But the more meaningful things we have to do probably require making and owning decisions that might not be popular or that could turn out to be wrong.

What’s more, the decision we make and claim today may help someone join us tomorrow. We don’t know who else in our orbit are mulling similar choices and waiting for someone to go first.

We can go first.

Fix It

The computer I use for work came with this irritating audio control interface that sat on top of all of my Zoom calls. It could be minimized to a small square and dragged around the screen to get it out of the way, but it couldn’t be hidden. Attempts to uninstall it were successful, I thought, until my next Zoom meeting, when it reappeared. I searched online for a solution and tried all kinds of things like updating drivers and the like. I even went so far as to perform a software refresh, which reinstalled the entire operating system and explicitly promised to remove this thing. 30 minutes later the machine was bare, but the audio interface lived on. It was a roach.

Yesterday one of the IT people called about something completely unrelated, but while I had him on the phone I asked if he could help me with this pesky pop-up interface. He took control of my screen remotely, then I watched him click around in the computer’s settings, disabling this application, restarting the computer, renaming that process, and–voila!–within minutes it was gone.

In a time of long-term intractable problems, it made me happier than it should have to see this minor technical annoyance fixed.

The Roughly 30 Songs That Got Me Through 2020

More than previous years, music in 2020 had to cut through a persistent fog of fear and anxiety, restlessness, guilt and loss. I spent some time last night curating this list of songs that, for me, did that. I listened to some of them dozens of times and others of them less. There are clusters from a couple of albums I spent a disproportionate amount of time with, and I feel no shame including them all. There is a punch in these songs the year requires.


Shock about turnout is sinking in two days after the election. Many, many more people voted for the incumbent than polling suggested would. I don’t have a polling take or a sociological analysis, but I’ve thought a lot since Tuesday about something I witnessed at a church meeting years ago that suggests a partial explanation.

At a presbytery gathering, an overture was submitted by a session (the elected governing board of a congregation) that was related to a hot-button issue. This presbytery was deeply divided over this issue, as everyone knew. The overture was sent out to members days ahead of the meeting, so everyone showed up knowing that this would be on the agenda. I expected drama.

When the overture was introduced and the floor opened for discussion, the Moderator instructed those speaking for and those speaking against to line up at opposing microphones, so that he could call on them to speak in turn. Immediately a handful of bodies queued at the “against” microphone. Nobody stood in support. The Moderator called on the first “against” speaker, who said what she came to say and was rewarded with hearty nods from her against compatriots, and then the Moderator turned to call on someone at the “for” microphone, but there was still nobody there. He chuckled nervously and then turned back to the “against” line and called on another speaker.

When the second speaker finished there was still nobody at the “for” microphone, so the Moderator began to plead. “Is anyone going to speak in favor of the overture?” After several seconds of silence, someone finally stood and issued a few halfhearted sentences of endorsement from his seat. He didn’t even walk the 15 feet between him and the microphone.

Several more people spoke against and not another soul spoke for, so that when the time came to vote defeat was assured. And, as expected, the overture was defeated. By one vote.

I gasped. My perception of the people I was sharing that room with got spun around and upside down in an instant. I had mistaken the conversation for the reality. Half of the voters knew their vote before it was called for and didn’t feel the need to change a single mind about it. I suspected immediately that the pro camp had coordinated ahead of time, though I could never prove that, and even if they had that would be their right. Still, the incident shook my confidence in what I know about what is really going on during deliberations.

Democratic decision making (which my church uses) associates public statements with intention. I’ve long questioned that association.