I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally I didn’t like it. I was in college and trying to like Woody Allen and be “cultured” and I claimed it was a rip off of Annie Hall. I think it was because of the montage sequence showing Harry and Sally ordering in a restaurant, dropping mail at the corner mailbox, and lugging a Christmas tree home through the streets of New York. Something in there – along with Sally’s high-waisted baggy pants and the brimmed hat she wears walking through the park being reminiscent of Diane Keaton – reminded me of Annie Hall. I can remember claiming to think Annie Hall was a much better film, probably because I had just seen it and back then people only used sophisticated revered tones when talking about Woody Allen.

But this is not about him. It’s about Nora Ephron, and so I have to come clean about that embarrassing and off-base first impression/pose I adopted in my misguided youth.

I don’t know how long it was until I gave When Harry Met Sally another try but from then on I have done nothing but love it more and more. I guess that’s appropriate, given their description of the evolution of their own relationship:

Harry: “The first time we met we hated each other.”

Sally: “No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.”

Harry: “I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.”

Sally: “We were friends for a long time.”

Harry: “And then we weren’t.”

Sally: “And then we fell in love.”

Sometimes you do not just know – at least not at first – the way you do about a good melon.

Drop me down in this movie and I can find my way out. Just start me on a line of dialogue and I’ll keep going, like being plopped down in a familiar liturgy or hymn, one you weren’t sure you had memorized until it bubbled up from within. I once bet a lawyer friend who loves When Harry Met Sally as much as I do (and who shall remain nameless in case this is searchable in court documents somewhere) that he couldn’t find a way to slip an actual line of dialogue into his oral argument. Granted, he didn’t go for a laudable degree of difficulty with something like the “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” but he did manage to say to the other lawyer, a la Harry on the airport moving sidewalk, “I’ll just let you go ahead.”

But this isn’t really about When Harry Met Sally, either. It’s about Nora Ephron.

I have a deep vein of kinship with Nora though we were generations apart, geographically mismatched, and the only religion she ever wanted to claim was her adherence to the principle that you can never have enough butter. She was a funny feminist, a sensible artist, a die-hard New Yorker, an astute cultural commenter, and a damn fine writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora recently, after watching Everything is Copy, the documentary her son, Jacob Bernstein, made about her. In the film, several of Nora’s friends confirmed my belief that her great and final film, Julie & Julia, is her love letter to love and partnership and marriage, especially her own to Nick Pileggi. I stayed up late to watch the documentary and felt like I’d visited with an old friend when it was over. In the way of devotees, I spent a few days afterwards reading articles about her online, re-reading her essays, and buying books I didn’t already have.

In my internet oblations, I came across this NPR interview I’d never heard, part of a series in which they asked writers to name a scene they wished they had written themselves. Nora chose a scene from another of my all-time favorite movies, Tootsie. Strangely, my relationship to Tootsie, as with When Harry Met Sally, also began with my own stupidity and stubbornness. I was in high school when it came out and I irrationally and snobbily decided that since all of America was raving about this movie, there was no way I would be interested. So I wasted about four years until I saw it in college and then promptly loved it and began a long term relationship with it, too. The point being, of course Nora loved Tootsie.

I don’t know if I have an inner New Yorker, but if I do, she’s named “Nora.” And she probably exists at all because of Nora. I grew up watching and re-watching I Love Lucy with my mom but whenever Lucy picked up the phone to order a side of beef delivered to the apartment, I zoned out when she gave the address, “623 East 68th Street.” It didn’t sound like addresses where I lived (and yes, I know now that it’s a real street but not a real address, unless they lived at the bottom of the East River). There were too many numbers. It didn’t mean anything at all so I simply heard “numbers, numbers, address.”

This was the case until my early 40s when we stayed at my in-laws’ apartment on the Upper East Side and walked everywhere. That weekend I was reading Nora’s I Feel Bad About My Neck for the first time. In the chapter called “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” Nora shares her quest for a savory cabbage strudel she once had in Manhattan but which had since disappeared. She tried for years to find a bakery that made them until one day a friend gave her a tip about a Hungarian bakery “on Second and Eighty-fifth Street.” I looked up from the book and out the window, thinking about the cross streets and how many long blocks we were from Second. I hollered out to my husband in the other room, got my shoes on, and we set out to find cabbage strudel, returning within the hour with our prize. It was the single most New York moment of my life, thanks to Nora.

If Nora herself had been in the bakery that day, I probably would have been too shy or too play-it-cool-with-celebrities to speak to her, even though I am intensely jealous of Lena Dunham and would love to have been taken under Nora’s wise wings. Even so, I’ve known Nora and her work for a long time and, thankfully, this is the sort of relationship that continues past death. I’ll be re-reading her essays and watching When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia until my own end. I’ll keep wishing I’d written any single one of the many oft-quoted lines she penned.

I’ll also continue to feel a little bit bad about my first impressions, but I think Nora would understand.


photo credit: “Katz’s Deli=When Harry Met Sally,” © 2006 by Aaron_M, CC BY 2.0

Campus Ministry Stocking Stuffers

There comes a time when you need to make a list and leave it out next to a plate of cookies… Here’s one I made, with a few suggestions for campus ministers (and others) who are looking for new books, shows, and resources for enlivening faith and community. Take a look over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog…and feel free to leave your browser open where someone jolly might see it and pick up a thing or two for your stocking.

WoodySherman2014_close up Xmas tree with bow and lights

Grace on the porch

I’m a sucker for a good porch. It’s possible I could write my spiritual autobiography traced through porches I’ve known and loved, from my grandparents’ painted cement slab porch where we ate tomato sandwiches in summer…to the rustic framed Appalachian porch painted with the reminder to “Be still, and know that I am God,” in bold blood red letters hanging over the view…to the wide, wrapping Adirondack refuge of a porch, with nap-assisting furniture and a constant breeze at the lapping edge of the lake… Asked recently for images of God’s grace and presence, I replied in complete honesty, “Porches and Communion.”

So when The Walking Dead decided to pause a while on one of the porch-fronted fancy houses of Alexandria this week during the season’s opening episode, I smiled. [Light spoilers ahead.] They had my attention from the beginning of the scene, where Morgan was perched on the porch steps, tending his walking stick/weapon. This is the first time I can recall any lingering on one of the pretty porches of Alexandria. Mostly folks just stand on them when they are waiting for someone to answer the door.

As Rick and Morgan get reacquainted, Morgan persists in seeing Rick as the man he once knew, back at the start of this whole thing. Rick persists in explaining how he’s not that guy anymore. They’re both a little right and a little wrong. [Early last season, Rick and Tyreese shoveled graves behind the church for their cannibalistic captors, but as this season begins, Rick considers leaving the body of a more recent enemy in the woods to rot. Morgan starts shoveling the grave but Rick doesn’t (until his encounter with the dead man’s son). Are the ethics of The Walking Dead measured by when they stop burying their dead properly?]

In a moment I think they underplayed, Rick offers for Morgan to hold baby Judith. Underplayed, because imagine having been on your own as (we assume) Morgan has been, without any company for all this time, fighting every moment for your life against walkers and the occasional humans with nefarious designs on you. Imagine that as your existence, and then imagine just seeing a baby, much less the wonder and intensity of holding one again. I can’t imagine anyone in that scenario not crying from the relief and hope of that touch. They don’t play it that way but the rest of the scene takes place with Morgan holding one of the most precious and vulnerable parts of Rick’s life.

They’re discussing an incident between Rick and Carter, one of the inexperienced Alexandria men who doesn’t know how to fight and yet doesn’t want to follow Rick’s lead. Rick and Carter just had a showdown where Rick stood over a crumpled Carter, gun pointed at his head, before finally lowering it without shooting. One of the main tensions of the story right now is how unprepared the Alexandrians are for the world as it is now because they haven’t had to fight for survival the way Rick and his crew have. The ethos of Alexandria has been to fortify and stay out of sight, but Rick knows how vulnerable this makes them – and how they don’t even recognize this yet.

Trying to explain his actions and who he is now to Morgan, Rick says, “I wanted to kill him, so it would be easier. So I wouldn’t have to worry about how he could screw up or what stupid thing he’d do next. Because that’s who he is, just somebody who shouldn’t be alive now. I wanted to kill him, but all that hit me and I realized I didn’t have to do it. He doesn’t get it. Somebody like that, they’re going to die no matter what.”

The dumb luck of the naïve and sheltered and the gritty determination and survival skills of experienced fighters amount to the same thing: being alive at this moment. In both groups there are those who shouldn’t be alive, if the world were logical. A defenseless baby, formerly abused women, nerdy super-brains afraid to fight, people who’ve made terrible, hurtful choices, and others who’ve made room for their journeys toward reconciliation and redemption.

That’s how it is with the grace of God, offered lavishly to each of us regardless of merit. None of us deserves to be here or to get a second chance. But here we are, in the midst of an ongoing battle where we are both who we once were and no one like that person anymore. Here we are, out of the jail cell and on the porch, holding something as miraculous as a baby in an apocalypse, and invited to come live inside the house with the family.


Traveling Companions: Hair, hair bands, and driving with the windows down

old car radio

[This summer’s Traveling Companions is a relaxed blog series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way. This is the fourth in the series; other posts are here, here and here.]

This was not part of the plan when I started this series. I mean, Jackson freakin’ Browne is still waiting his turn. Or I could go Van Morrison next, or Sara Bareilles. But last Friday a totally un-August-in-Virginia day befell us – upper 70s and not a lick of humidity. I cannot stress enough how unlikely this was.

I had an errand to run down the road in our county and my hair was still wet from the morning’s swim. The day was so gorgeous, just driving through it wasn’t enough, so I opened the windows and let the wind do its worst, tangles be damned.  I found the local classic rock station, the same one whose station promo, back when I was in college, was “lock it in and rip the knob off.”

It’s been a while since my hair was long enough to whip in the wind. As soon as I picked up speed on the curvy road I felt like the students moving into their dorms this week – young, free, invincible, like the road was opening up before me into possibility and promise.  Not just the road.  The Road.  It’s the way I’ve always felt when the air kisses my skin just so and the wind whips my hair and the radio’s up loud enough to hear over that noise.

I wondered as the feeling washed over me if this is the way I’d always feel, in a car with the windows open and good tunes on the radio.  When I’m 85 will those sensations still combine to fool me into a carefree younger-than-I-am moment?  When I used to look over at my white-haired, arthritic, sun-spotted grandmother, driving the truck to town with the windows down when we’d visit in the summers, is this how she felt?  When I saw a comfortable, soft, old woman was she feeling The Road and existing as a young girl in her own mind?

This is really the kind of thing my mind does.

Anyway, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” came on in the car last Friday. I can still remember the black and white grainy MTV video and the intense longing the song, the band, and the sight of Jon Bon Jovi’s hair brought out of me at a certain point in life. For a while, I had a picture of Jon, cut from a magazine and taped to the visor in my car, so I’d see it any time the sun was in my eyes.  My friend Katie and I would flip it down even on rainy days, because sometimes you just need to see something beautiful.  Eventually I became embarrassed about my visor and my interest in Bon Jovi and started listening to other things, but last week in the car I let my Bon Jovi freak flag fly unapologetically, singing along at full volume.

Like my own personal “this is your life” tour of college days, the next tune up was “Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes. Every time I hear it I’m transported to a certain stretch of Interstate 64, heading east from Richmond, the place where we were when my friend Molly called it the “Sahanahanaha” song, which, you have to admit, is exactly how it sounds when they sing it.  (Go on, listen and you’ll hear it.)

I almost waited until I could get it together to write about Jackson Browne.  I mean, I don’t even own any Black Crowes or Bon Jovi anymore.

But this summer I’ve been writing about Traveling Companions and the best of them are the ones who, despite the odds, are still accompanying you, even when you no longer have their albums…even when you see each other more on Facebook than in real life.  The best traveling companions are the ones who awake in you someone you thought you’d let go of but who, you realize, you miss sometimes.  Maybe they can even still see your younger self when your grey hair is flying about in the wind.


photo credit: © 2014, Feddacheenee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Traveling Companions: Susan Werner and “Barbed Wire Boys”

[This summer’s Traveling Companions is a relaxed blog series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way.  This is the third in the series; other posts are here and here.]

I used to drive a stretch of I75 in Kentucky, from Berea to Lexington.  Listening to the radio on one of these drives, I heard a new voice singing, “Here I come, banging my broken drum…there will be no more standing in my own way.”  I knew something about getting in my own way, blocking my own steps forward.  The song and the singer’s strong, clear voice resonated.  By the end of the track I was singing along, like it was my own manifesto.  The radio station must have done a “twofer” because the next tune was the same gorgeous mystery voice, telling the humorous and heartfelt tale of waiting around on the next train to show up (“Time Between Trains”).  With descriptions of boredom captured in the image of counting the ceiling tiles of the train station, the song is a metaphor for time in between loves, waiting on the next person to show up and feeling ready long before s/he comes around the bend.

Susan Werner outdoor concert PA

If you have the opportunity to hear Werner play live, take it! She’s a superb performer and she plays great spots, like this (free!) outdoor summer concert in King of Prussia, PA. At the concert we attended this summer, she sang “La Vie en Rose” in flawless French.

I have been an evangelist for Susan Werner ever since.  I haven’t yet introduced her to anyone who couldn’t appreciate her talent or didn’t like her and I’ve nurtured several fans almost as ardent as I am.  (So beware, reader, of your iTunes behavior after reading this.)  That first song I heard, ”Standing in My Own Way,” was written by Dana Cooper, but other than a few covers and her cover-concept album (Classics, which showcases her perceptive arranging talents), she falls squarely in the singer-songwriter camp.  By that I mean she mostly writes her own music, though the style ranges from singer-songwriter/folk to Americana to pop to jazz standards to gospel to torch songs.  She plays and composes on both guitar and piano, thought at one time she’d be an opera singer, and earned a master’s in voice from Temple University.  The woman’s got range.

The same album – sometimes the same song – can go from hilariously irreverent to beautifully poignant.  Her most recent album, Hayseed, includes “City Kids,” the revenge fantasy for farm kids who grew up jealous of the kids who lived in town, alongside her affectionate and cheeky tribute to her home state in “Iowa,” and the lovely and reflective words of advice to other young Iowans dreaming of pulling up stakes for the big city in “Something to be Said,” the chorus of which ends with “There’s something to be said for blooming where you are planted,” with “planted” landing in her lowest register, like a seed being pushed deep into the earth.  An older album, New Non-Fiction, boasts another fine use of extended metaphor in the darkly funny and sweetly hopeful “Misery & Happiness,” in which lounge lizard womanizing Misery, “sings at the Hilton…sways his hips and smooths his hair back, winks at you and gets you thinking/ He’s handsome from a certain angle.”  Misery “woos you when his show is over, buys you drinks and keeps you laughing while he’s looking down your shirt.”  Over in the corner, good guy Happiness is keeping a watchful eye while he “doodles on a cocktail napkin and waits for you to figure out that you should really lose this loser,” saying, “call me when you want to come back home.”

Piano, guitar…it’s all excellent.

To pick a favorite Susan Werner song would be an enterprise in frustration and never-ending “but then there’s…” so I won’t name just one.  I will say “Barbed Wire Boys” (New Non-Fiction) is pretty near the perfect song.   If I were teaching either a writing or songwriting workshop, we would start by listening to and looking at this song. It’s a tribute to and portrait of the men in the rural Iowa she “knew when [she] was coming up,” and though I’ve never been to Iowa and only fleetingly lived in rural communities as an outsider on an extended stay, one listen and I know who she means.  “Barbed Wire Boys” is a complete short story in three minutes and twenty seconds.

Like any great writer, Werner’s language is precise and revealing, as she describes the men who “were sober as coffee in a Styrofoam cup” who “sat at the head of the table and prayed before meals/ Prayed an Our Father and that was enough/ Pray more than that and you couldn’t stay tough/ Tough as the busted thumbnails on the weathered hands/ They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands.”  It’s a full moment, presiding at the head of the table, nodding to the depth of faith and family – but just a nod, no tears, no extraneous words.  It’s a portrait of working class life, summed up in the detail of the “gold plate” worn off the wedding ring by hard, continuous, feed-his-family work.

Looking back on a childhood surrounded by barbed wire boys, the adult Werner wonders about the dreams these men may have had for life and considers their unexpressed deepest hopes “beat[ing] like bird’s wings in the cage of their chest.”  It’s a love song at heart, for a place and a people and a way of life she took for granted as a child and sees differently now.  It’s an ode of deep appreciation and hero worship for the overlooked men who “[held] up the sky” and made way for dreamers and artists like Werner:

And now one by one they’re departing this earth

And it’s clear to me now ‘xactly what they’re worth

Oh they were just like Atlas holding up the sky

You never heard him speak, you never saw him cry

But where do the tears go, that you never shed

Where do the words go, that you never said

Well there’s a blink of the eye, there’s a catch in the voice

That is the unsung song

Of the barbed wire boys

If you haven’t heard it yet, you can listen here to a live version that’s a bit more slowly and reflectively paced than the recorded version on the album.  At first I preferred the tighter, faster recorded version but each has its merits and the song itself is so utterly perfect it shines through each arrangement.

I hope you enjoy it and the unfolding journey of getting to know Susan Werner’s music.  She’s worth the trip.


[A note on the text, or, How I Wrote Something and Then Completely Disregarded It:  Yes, my previous post was about how I was going to forge ahead into the one space world and try to curb my many-decades worth of two-spaced typing after sentences.  I’m still trying to change that but, after a nice break from writing and work, traveling to see family and Susan Werner, I completely forgot about that goal until this very moment as I had it all uploaded and ready to publish.  So, I won’t go back and painstakingly take out the extra spaces.  I’m a work in progress.]

Traveling Companions: Amy, Emily, and Chapin

[About this summer’s Traveling Companions blog series:  To give myself the excuse to listen to more music this summer and to evangelize a little about some of my favorites, I decided to do a relaxed series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way.  Here’s the first post in the series.  I promise this whole series won’t be about the Indigo Girls, but they have been traveling with me for a long time now and I just saw them in concert last week, so here they are again.]

When I was 23, I sang along to all the songs on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Shooting Straight in the Dark album.  One of the songs, “Middle Ground,” has the lyric, “She’s 33 this time around” and whenever I got to that line I sang, “23” instead, feeling in synch from 10 years behind MCC.  Around this same time I made a mixed tape (translation for younger folks: playlist) of favorite songs, including that one, and called it my “Trying to Tell You Something about My Life” tape, titled after a line in the Indigo Girls’s anthem “Closer to Fine.”  I gave copies to close friends and I played it until it wore out.


Those were the years between college and seminary, the first time I lived in Appalachia.  There was no internet.  We thought nothing of driving 2-3 hours to visit friends for dinner and then driving back home again the same night.  There was ample time for listening to music and dreaming.  I stayed three years before heading to Atlanta for seminary.

On the way to Atlanta, I lived in Nashville for about 6 months.  I was ready to go but nervous about the change in work and the pace of life there.  The night I arrived, my friend took me to dinner at a sushi place near Music Row.  As we sat at our table chatting, I heard a voice I recognized at the table behind me.  It was the low, sultry, very-slightly-southern voice of Mary Chapin Carpenter and something about hearing and seeing her there on my first night in Nashville served as a blessing on the new chapter I was beginning.  I would be all right.  I wasn’t accustomed to asking for or looking for signs but somehow seeing and hearing her right then seemed to be a good one.

About four years earlier, still in college, I went to my second Indigo Girls concert.  It was a summer night at Wolf Trap, where we spread a blanket on the lawn and looked up at the stars while they sang.   They were touring for their first widely distributed album, Indigo Girls, the one with “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears” (which featured Michael Stipe in a haunting harmonizing vocal).  When they were getting ready to sing “Kid Fears” they paused to introduce a special guest about to come out and sing that third vocal with them.  The kind of people who yell out commentary from the audience were yelling, “Michael Stipe” – which I was pretty sure wouldn’t happen since he didn’t live near Washington D.C. and since he had his own tours to carry out.  I was aware that MCC lived in the D.C. area at that time and I had this small sliver of hope it might be her, though I’m not sure I had any proof before that night that they even knew each other.

I was right.  It was a special treat to hear that version of the popular song, and to know these three women I admired and listened to actually knew one another.  At the end of the concert during the encore, Amy and Emily brought Chapin back out and they capped the evening with an a cappella version of “The Water is Wide.”  It was chilling.  For me, it was church.  I have remembered it – the sounds, the feeling, the moment of it – for 26 years.  (And, no, I never once before this moment thought of looking on YouTube to see if there was a recording of them singing this together!)

Over the ensuing decades, I’ve heard them all play many times and brushed past them in real life.  When I lived in Atlanta I found myself pumping gas next to Emily Saliers one day.  Heading down the stairs from Eddie’s Attic one night, I heard an unmistakable voice talking to friends heading up the stairs and looked over to see I was passing Amy Ray.  A few years back I attended a wonderful preaching/writing workshop co-led by Emily and her father (and my seminary professor) Don Saliers.  The past few Advent seasons at the Wesley Foundation, we’ve become fond of singing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come Darkness, Come Light.”  She now lives in Virginia, not too far from me, so I wasn’t surprised when we were in the same Starbucks getting coffee last year.

Last week my husband and I went to a benefit concert for the Charlottesville Free Clinic.  From the moment I heard the Indigo Girls and MCC would be the performers, I hoped they might sing together again like I have remembered all these years.  Amy and Emily sang the first set, then Chapin sang.  At the very end, she called Amy and Emily back out and the three of them sang “Closer to Fine.”  Then, just as I’d hoped, they sang “The Water is Wide,” first with accompaniment and then, on the last verse, only their three lovely, miles-traveled-together voices floating into the sticky hot night.  I looked up at the stars again but I also closed my eyes to drink it in.  It was worth waiting 26 years to hear again.

I own every album Chapin and the Indigo Girls have put out, I’ve gone to countless concerts, and we have crossed paths over many years, though I realize I’m the only one of the four of us who realizes this.  That’s fine.  Each of those crossings has been a blessing and a sign, a reminder of the places and times they’ve been my traveling companions.  I’m 47 this time around, which means Chapin’s 57.  I’m still singing along.


photo credit:  © 2006 Mike Evans, CC BY 2.0

Traveling Companions: New Music

Back before the Internet, when downloads and iTunes didn’t exist, I drove to another state for the new Indigo Girls album.  It was 1990 and I spent my day off driving from Jonesville, Virginia, to Kingsport, Tennessee, to the mall.  Remember mall record stores?

I had recently upgraded from my first car, a 1968 Dodge Dart named Arthur (yes, it was incredibly old even then), to a nondescript K-car.  I got air conditioning and FM radio in the upgrade but no tape player.  So, on road trips I’d bring along my radio/cassette player and one of those power cords that plugs into the cigarette lighter.  It didn’t play through the car’s speakers, I just blasted it as loudly as I could from that sad little “box,” sitting, speakers up, on the passenger seat.  It takes about an hour to make that drive, which means I got to hear the whole album at least once on the drive back.

I want to say new albums meant more when obtaining one was an event like this, but I don’t think it’s true, even though I remember small, specific details of that day, like how steamy the car was when I got back in at the mall parking lot, wrestling with the thin, tight-wrapped plastic to open the hard, textured-plastic case around the tape.  Like putting my sunglasses on and hearing “Hammer and a Nail” for the first time, making my way back to the highway.  Like I was recognizing something I’d heard before yet couldn’t wait to hear revealed.

I want to say this but then, today, on retreat in a remote locale with a one-bar signal, I managed to download the new Indigo Girls album, One Lost Day, onto my phone in decent time.  And when I heard “Elizabeth,” the sound of summer and longing all mixed up with their voices – like another summer whose stormy soundtrack was Rites of Passage (“Ghost,” “Romeo & Juliet”), like the epitome of late-summer ripeness and longing I can actually taste every time I hear “Mystery” (Swamp Ophelia) – memory of that drive flooded back.

It took a lot less time to procure this album, but I’m in the same place, transported.

Driving to my retreat yesterday, I listened to another musical traveling companion, Susan Werner.  These days I can plug my phone straight into the car’s sound system to listen, but the essence of companionship is the same.  Driving alone through the green gorgeous western Virginia mountains, Susan sang to me about “the greenest corner of God’s green earth,” and though she meant Iowa, it resonated.

Lately I spend most of my time in the car navigating appointments, with NPR on in the background.  Yesterday’s drive reminded me how much I need music and what great musical traveling companions I’ve spent time with over the years.  To give myself the excuse to listen to more music this summer and to evangelize a little about some of my favorites, I decided to do a relaxed series here called Traveling Companions, telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Why I Watch The Walking Dead


I’m a squeamish watcher.  If it’s a cop show and someone gets shot in the leg, my hand instinctively grasps my own leg.  If it’s a horror movie, I involuntarily repeat-shout “Don’t open the closet!  Don’t open the closet!”  One time, watching the first X-Files movie, I started to wonder who in the theater was talking so loudly before I realized that coming from my own mouth was this high-volume mantra, “Oh, no!  Oh, no! Oh, no!”

So, I’m not a likely viewer of The Walking Dead.  [Spoilers ahead.]  I don’t care about zombies, just like I didn’t really care about vampires when I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel (in my book, still the only worthwhile ones among the many vampire-themed shows and movies).  I’m not especially interested in knowing the “rules” of how zombies are made and how they can get you and what attracts or repels them.  For me, zombies are just a vehicle for delivering story in a heightened and focused way.

Here’s the kind of thing I mean:  In season two of The Walking Dead I realized with a start that until that very moment I’d never wondered or even considered what anyone (besides Rick, the obvious sheriff) did before the world started to unravel.  During a scene on the sanctuary-for-a-while of the farm, Andrea and Dale are talking. Dale says to her “But you were a lawyer.”  Andrea, practically and matter-of-factly says “I’m nothing now.”  In that moment – a season and a half into watching the show – I realized I’d never once considered anyone’s previous jobs.  When’s the last time you spent time with anyone for more than ten minutes without obtaining this information?  What do you do? is almost always one of the first things we learn about someone.  I’d spent a season and a half with these characters and never even wondered about past lives because, in the world of this story, all that’s important now is what kind of person you are and how you can be part of the group in order to survive.

I routinely look away when zombies are eating or when something particularly gruesome is happening – I don’t need to see (or hear) that in order to get the point.  But I can’t look away from the show as story because it’s telling some of the most soulful, character-driven stories out there…  Who are you when everything and every one you knew and loved is gone?  How is community created and sustained?  What do we retain and preserve from our previous lives and culture when the rules have completely changed?  Where’s the line between caution and hospitality?  In what ways does violence change who we are and in what ways does it show us who we are?  What does leadership look like?  How do we make ethical choices when all the parameters for ethical behavior have changed?  How to we (re)define good or bad?

One of the most beautiful, pregnant-with-meaning, but spare scenes in the series to date was during last week’s episode.  Rick and Tyreese are standing outside a white wooden church in daylight.  They’re both holding shovels, standing in front of holes they’re making, with bloodied sheets covering a pile of dead bodies next to them.  The bodies are those of several people they’ve killed the night before in a kill-or-be-killed battle.  The dead had previously held them captive and were intending to butcher and eat them – that was their answer to survival in this bleak time.  But Rick and company – though they knew they had to kill the cannibals in order to live and so that others might live – do not leave them uncovered and unburied where they’ve fallen.  Because of Rick and company’s answer to violence, ethics, and survival, they are taking the time to bury the people who acted like animals and who had treated them that way.

The scene would have been enough just for that.  Enough just to see Rick and Tyreese completing the sweaty, hard work of burying people behind the church, working side by side to keep the smallest semblance of order and dignity and ethical behavior in a crazed and panicked world.

It would have been enough.  But they say just three lines of dialogue.

Rick says to Tyreese, “I never asked how it was for you, making your way to Terminus [the place the cannibals lured them].”  Tyreese, who had to kill a child along the way, says, “It killed me.”

They keep shoveling in silence.  We are watching them in a wide shot, edge of the church in one corner, pile of bodies covered with a bloody sheet next to the holes, green woods behind them, birds singing incongruously.  Not breaking the rhythm of shoveling, Rick says, “No, it didn’t.”

No, it didn’t.  Those who are dead feed on others.  Those who are dead don’t bother to properly bury the dead.

This is why I watch, sometimes holding my hand up to block the parts I can’t watch.  I watch because when everything else civilizing has been ripped away, what you do with the dead and who you become in the places you thought were dead tells the story I need to hear.

[Bonus:  For those who weren’t geeky enough to pause this week’s episode and copy down the Bible passages listed on the wooden board in the church, I’ve got you covered.  They deal with life in and after death, God bringing life to lifeless places, suffering, and resurrection.  I imagine the priest putting those up on the board after everything started going down, long after there were parishioners left to read them, in an effort to make sense of the terrifying new reality in terms of God’s promises. Here they are:  Romans 6:4, Ezekiel 37:7, Matthew 27: 52, Revelation 9:6, and Luke 24:5.]


photo credit: “Zombie Apocalypse” © 2005, Stephen Dann, CC BY-SA 2.0