by Julie Riddle
Once the carefree summer days of my youth (floating the stream that winked past our house, playing baseball on a freshly mown field, tanning at the lake, my skin shiny with baby oil) gave way to the horrors of adulthood (global warming, suspicious-looking moles, wrinkles), summer became my least favorite season. A season to endure, to get through, to grit through, passing those endless, blazing months confined in my dark, curtain-drawn home, emerging in the early morning to walk the dogs and in the evening, slathered in sunscreen and wearing a ridiculous floppy hat, to weed the yard (yet another horror of first-world adulthood). I know, I know: Poor me.
But a few weeks ago in late June, as Spokane set a triple-digit record for heat, I surprised myself by saying to my husband, Garrett, “I’m having a great summer.”
“Why’s that?” he said.
I gave it some thought and realized that, for the first summer in nine years, I have not been writing a book. That book, a memoir, is now in production with the publisher, which means I have free time. And I’ve filled it with reading. Lots and lots of reading.
Garrett and I kicked off this summer with a weeklong road trip, starting with the Oregon Coast. I toted a new poetry collection, Among the Missing, to Ecola State Park and read Cathy Bobb’s moving poems to Garrett as we sat on the sand.
The robin announces the night,
the gathering in of what we see,
dusk subtracting the elements of our life.
The lilacs, white as love, persist.
Later, as the tide ebbed, Garrett and I walked side-by-side, searching for shells. We both spotted a sand dollar at the exact same time. It was tiny – barely larger than a pencil eraser – bright white and perfectly formed.
After the beach we hit Portland for two days. Which meant we hit Powell’s Books for two days. Which is when my summer reading really took off. When I wasn’t in the café, stuffing my face with gluten-free rugelach, I was scouring the literature room, searching for books whose names I had jotted on a list prior to our trip (I had gathered the titles from reviews in The New York Times, from mentions in The Writer’s Almanac, and elsewhere): To the Wedding, by John Berger; An Unsuitable Attachment, by Barbara Pym; The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene; Last Night, by James Salter; Someone, by Alice McDermott. And of course, I brought home a few titles that weren’t on my list: Gilead, by Marilyne Robinson; The Sea, by John Banville; and A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster (which I almost didn’t buy because I was sure I had read it. But it turns out I had only watched the movie a handful of times; I still had the book to relish. Yay!).
I have read these books during lunchtime, at bedtime, in the evening, curled on the sofa with a dog draped across my bare feet, and yes, even outside during searing midday, reclining in the lacey shade of a tree, sunscreen coating my arms, the ridiculous floppy hat on my head, encountering each book with wonder and delight, like I had just found a gleaming seashell at the beach.
Julie Riddle is the author of The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness, forthcoming in April 2016 from the University of Nebraska Press. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University.
Photos courtesy of Julie Riddle
People often tell me in hushed tones that they delight in book sniffing. These confessions are wrapped in happy, faux-guilt-laden shrugs of pleasure. There’s something magical in that almond and vanilla odor that wafts from books, with pages sometimes yellow-edged, finger-smudged, marred by the occasional coffee or wine ring, a store-branded bookmark, a price label peeling off, a flower or ticket stub tucked inside. A teardrop wrinkles a page—was it joy, or sorrow, or both? In summer, when the days stretch long, we too stretch out with books in our hands, to read and sniff, perhaps to nap. We digest books in a more leisurely way. The lighter the read, the faster we turn the pages. But there is nothing hurried about summer reading; it is nourishing, not rushed, as we prolong the tangible experience.
For many, new popular fiction is retrieved from the public library. As we know them today, public libraries appeared first in the nineteenth century, where collections could be used freely and exuberantly by the public. Demand was met by (or driven by) production ability; in 1814 the London Times was pulling up to 250 sheets an hour, up from the former 100 sheets pulled manually in preceding years. Rising affluence allowed for more frequent recreational book buying and reading. Voracious readers consumed unprecedented amounts of leisure reading, seen in sales of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold copies in the hundreds of thousands. We in the 21st century have inherited this insatiable appetite.
Lazy beach reading is a personal activity, allowing our brains to connect in ways quite dissimilar from any other activity; for something so apparently passive, it is remarkably dynamic. Curled up, stretched out, perched, cuddled, lounging, we experience these novels and non-fiction trifles at close range, both physically close and psychologically near the characters and author. We can’t put them down, we soak them up and the hours tick by; but no matter, we’ve traversed the globe, travelled through time. We were someone else. It is a process of sensory stirrings, a re-awakening from our quotidian realities at work or school. The book is “assimilated into the reader’s reservoir of personal experiences.” It’s a Velveteen Rabbit experience during which we bring characters to life while they in turn make us more real, more deeply feeling individuals, adding to our reservoir of experience. Our pulse slows and our empathy grows. Empathy softens our boundaries, giving us the “ability to resonate with the feelings of another while maintaining an awareness of the differences between self and other.”
And isn’t this at the heart of our summer reading? When we traipse off to the beach with our blanket, hunting for a weathered Adirondack, we have a book in our tote, a book that will both whisk us away into the “other” while focusing us even more precisely on ourselves, in the chair, feeling the breeze, sipping the umbrella-ed drink.
George Hagman describes this empathy as “a special, transcendent form of union, a bond of beauty.” For those moments we are transcendent and the beauty is in the book itself, the rustle of pages, that soft odor of vanilla. Author of the popular book The Time Traveler’s Wife (2004), Audrey Niffenegger believes that books—like her tragic hero—transcend time and space: “To make a book is to address people you’ve never met, some of them not born yet.”
The author of the novel—popular or elevated—has created for us, the readers, a portal to other worlds. We are transported and transformed. As C. S. Lewis said, we do this so we “know we are not alone.” And for this summer pleasure, we are granted longer days, with earlier sunrises and later sunsets, so that we might indulge our desires to read, to sniff, to dream.
Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director and Assistant Professor of Art History at Whitworth University. She has published in the areas of contemporary artists’ books, architectural history, and library as place. Clark holds a Ph.D. in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.
 Henry Fountain, “Digging Into the Science Of That Old-Book Smell,” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast), New York, N.Y, 17 November 2009: D.3.
 Warren Chappell and Robert Bringhurst, A Short History of the Printed Word, 2nd edition (Vancouver, BC: Hartley and Marks Publishers, 2000), 193-195
 Michael Winship, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: History of the Book in the 19th-Century United States,” paper presented at Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Web of Culture Conference, Hartford, CT, June 2007.
 Eileen Wallace, ed., Masters: Book Arts – Major Works by Leading Artists (New York:Lark Crafts, An Imprint of Sterling Publishing, 2011), 6.
 Catherine Hyland Moon, Studio Art Therapy: Cultivating the Artist Identity in the Art Therapist (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002), 49.
 George Hagman, The Artist’s Mind: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Creativity, Modern Art, and Modern Artists (New York: Routledge, 2010), 115.
 Audrey Niffenegger, “What Does it Mean to Make a Book?” in Krystyna Wasserman, ed. The Book as Art: Artists’ Books from the National Museum of Women in the Arts (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 13.
by Nick Avery
Natalie Young is a founding editor and graphic designer for the poetry magazine Sugar House Review. She received her BFA in art and an MFA in creative writing. Natalie works as an art director for an ad agency based out of Salt Lake City. Her poetry has been published in Rattle, Los Angeles Times, South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Green Mountains Review, in Rock & Sling 9.2, and elsewhere. I recently reached out to Natalie over email.
Nick Avery: Natalie, thank you so much, again, for agreeing to do this interview. I first encountered your work while I was laying out issue 9.2 of Rock & Sling and absolutely loved how your Monster poems signified a complex and imagined world. They almost seem to fall within the fantastic subgenre. I was wondering if we could start out by talking about the Monster poems. What was the impetus behind these poems? Why conceptualize this myth to delve into the larger concepts—as you detailed in your contributor’s note—of faith, environment, history, and religion?
Natalie Young: I do have a propensity toward fantastical and speculative fiction. So it will come as no surprise that I’m a fan of The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, super heroes, fairytales, etc. The initial concept of the monster came from the graphic novel The Lagoon by Lilli Carré, given to me by a friend. I loved the illustrations and the haunting idea of the lake monster, but I finished the book and wanted more information about the monster. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Thus, my monster of the Great Salt Lake was born.
This is the first series of poems I’ve written. In the beginning, it just seemed like a good exercise to establish a setting and characters and see what would happen. I didn’t intend to write so many poems about the monster, nor the series as a whole, but they just kept coming. This series has allowed me to establish a world and characters based in both reality and fantasy. The setting creates the time and space to delve into the themes you mention above. These themes have always been a part of my poetry, but somehow, they are less invasive when explored through this fictional world. Which is what myths do, right? They convey big ideas through a story, rather than a sermon.
NA: Let’s continue with the Monster poems for a moment. How do you see place and space functioning within this trilogy? I mean, because on some level the Monster is an alien, an orphaned creature that occupies a given environment. At the same time, I can’t help but feel the loneliness the Monster experiences in these poems. Does a division exist, then, between the Monster and place?
NY: It was a conscious choice to keep the poems almost exclusively set in Utah. This limited the space my characters inhabited, and it was a space I am both familiar with and connected to, having lived in Utah my whole life. The monster’s space is even more contained, living solely in the Great Salt Lake. Having a limited and known landscape makes it easier to establish the fantastical elements—like aliens living on earth and a lake monster that’s been around for centuries—while at the same time being able to deal with the realities of Utah’s culture, history and environment.
The monster is definitely lonely. He’s the only one left of his kind and has lived through vast amounts of time. You hit it spot on when you say he is an alien—not a space alien, but an alien in his own home, which is a sure division in space, place, and identity. His home is shrinking, the lake just keeps getting smaller, while at the same time, human civilization keeps expanding and he’s in the middle of it, but not a part of it.
NA: In “What She Misses About Being Mormon,” you write about the comfort that comes from community, rituals, and certainty. Yet, the subject of the poem acknowledges that hymns are what she yearns for after leaving the church. Why hymns? Is there a connection to be made with this type of song and poetry, or is this a slight overreach on my part?
NY: It’s kind of a bizarre thing, right? There are a number of amazing things a person can get from organized religion, but this character misses singing hymns the most? She’s found new rituals, new community, maybe given up on certainty, but she can’t replicate the experience or feeling of singing with an entire congregation. It’s a combination of the familiarity of notes and words sung again and again over the years and making a collective noise.
Hymns definitely have a close link to poetry. Several commonly sung Mormon hymns were written by Eliza R. Snow, (one of Brigham Young’s wives), who was a poet.
NA: Ok, last question about the Monster poems. In “Pretending to be interviewed” you utilize the structure of an interview—sort of like what we’re doing now, oddly enough—to explore the Monster’s inner thoughts. Why create this simulated dialogue that occurs between the Monster and, presumably, the Monster? Additionally, from a composition standpoint how did the writing and formatting of this poem differ from your other Monster poems?
NY: I wasn’t sure the format would work, but I liked the humor and absurdity of it, as well as what it could convey about the monster. How lonely or bored does one have to be to conduct an interview with one’s self, and then end the interview because it’s too emotional?
None of the other monster poems have any first-person narrative. In fact, none of the other poems in the series do either. So, while it’s absurd in concept, it allowed me to write directly from the monster, to give the monster an actual voice. The questions are written pretty cut and dry without much poetic language, split up by line breaks. The monster’s answers start out very short and reveal more as the interview moves along.
NA: I’d like to move from here to questions about writing as a career. At Whitworth University, there’s a huge push for students to find their vocation and calling. Do you see poetry as your profession at this point in your life? For that matter, what do you think a career poet looks like in 2015? I guess what I’m really trying to get at is this: What do you see is the role—if there is one—of the poet and do you conform to this position?
NY: Robert Frost said, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” I would guess most poets would agree, perhaps in large part because it’s so hard to make a living as a poet. I got a BFA in art and my day job is graphic design. I’ve always loved visual art, but it’s my profession now; poetry has become more of my passion. I went back to school to get an MFA in poetry, and it was what I call a “selfish degree.” I did it because I wanted to get better at reading and writing poetry, not because I wanted to use it as a career path. I realize I’m in the minority of people who are “serious” about writing poetry. In recent history, the typical path for someone who wants to be a career poet is to teach poetry and/or related studies, usually at the university level, and then, theoretically, have time and resources to write. But with a saturated market of talented, educated poets and most of the new positions now being adjunct—with no benefits and low pay—I think something’s going to have to change. There’s no reason a poet should feel like he/she needs to be so intimately tied to academia. There are other ways to create and be a part of a poetic community.
I don’t know if I subscribe to any certain role for the poet. Some people say it’s to speak the truth, to declare it to the world, and certainly, I acknowledge that poets have risked much and played an integral part in certain histories, and that shouldn’t be downplayed. I do believe that poetry can be an amazing tool for healing and change, both for the writer and the reader.
NA: Why did you choose Rock & Sling for these particular poems? What other publications do you frequent—either for reading or for submitting your own work?
NY: I was first exposed to Rock & Sling when I met Thom Caraway at AWP and we set up an ad trade for our magazines. I was immediately taken by how beautiful the journal is, both design- and content-wise. I felt like this batch of poems fit into Rock & Sling’s aesthetic of faith.
There are too many publications that I admire to list here, but a few include: burntdistrict, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Tampa Review, Jubilat, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review and Smartish Pace.
NA: This issue was interesting for our staffers because we received a number of submissions concerning Utah and Mormonism. At one point we started to joke that 9.2 would be known as the “Mormon issue.” Two weeks ago I mentioned to one of our editors that I’d scored an interview with one of the issue’s Mormon poets, a comment she was kind enough to admonish me for—considering that there is a lot more to a person’s poetry than a particular tradition or religion. I was wondering if you could comment on this idea, that is the concept of what makes up a person’s poems. Do you think that poetry is forged by those conversations we have about things like whether or not someone’s Mormon or do they stem from universal ideas?
NY: I don’t consider myself a Mormon poet, but I can’t deny that my poetry is influenced by my experience and identity of being raised Mormon, both as part of the religion and the culture. I think poetry is forged by the culmination of experiences in a poet’s life, including religion and universal ideas.
Sugar House Review just celebrated its five-year anniversary. In those five years of reading many, many submissions, I’ve seen an incredible universality in what people write—for better or worse. Every community seems to have a current flowing through it that individuals tap into consciously and subconsciously.
NA: This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask our Rock & Sling contributors, since I, myself, have spent such a long time trying to navigate the subtle line that exists between the two: Where do you think the rift—assuming there is one—liess between faith and religion? More importantly, how do you see life operating within their structures?
NY: I think that every religion requires faith, but faith doesn’t need religion. Faith and religion can be a beautiful combination and provide things we mentioned earlier—answers, community, ritual—but I don’t trust blind faith. There have been too many tragedies throughout history spurred by blind, absolute faith. Faith seems stronger when it works through some doubt and allows for others’ faith.
May Swenson, who also grew up Mormon in Utah, said that poetry replaced religion in her life. That is how I feel as well.
NA: Where do you find the motivation to write? Where do you start when you get an idea for a poem? At what point do you recognize a poem for what it is—either good or bad? Ok, so that was more than one final question, but if you could indulge me, I’d appreciate it.
NY: My motivation to write comes from my love of words, the need to write as a form of therapy, spirituality, and accomplishment, and it’s become a habit. I feel off-center and guilty when I don’t write for a while. I get inspiration from reading, not just poetry, but all kinds of books and magazines, weird news stories, other art forms and just daily life.
In the last few years, I almost always start a poem by handwriting a really rough draft in a notebook. I leave it for a while, let us both have some space, and come back to it a few days or weeks later and sort of edit on top of that draft—crossing things out, writing new things in, drawing arrows to move lines and words around. The next step is typing it up on the computer, but I don’t do that unless I have a fair idea of what I want it to be. So I guess it’s between paper and screen where I usually recognize my poem.
Nick Avery is a senior (’16) at Whitworth University where he studies English literature and writing. He is the assistant managing editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal housed at Whitworth, and the poetry editor of Script, Whitworth’s student-run, undergraduate literary journal. When he isn’t frantically running around the English Department, Nick can be found reading David Foster Wallace or writing creative nonfiction. Nick plans to attend graduate school once he completes his B.A. at Whitworth.
Image is from kristalco.com
by Polly Hollar Pauley
I recently read that Japanese ceramic artists think that an item that has suffered damage becomes more beautiful, and that when an item is cracked they will fill in the cracks with gold.
This evening we went to church for a hayride, one of the many advantages of an uber-rural congregation. I hadn’t been on a church hayride since before we had children, and today we snaked up the hill past the cemetery where my mother’s grave is, curved into the vast cornfield and continued to where the corn stops and the clearing begins.
At the clearing, under a low and overcast sky, I suddenly wasn’t hearing what anyone else said. I saw myself as a child, hiking the field with my mother and sister, in the snow, hunting down our Christmas tree. I saw us riding in the back of my father’s pickup truck, bouncing along the edge of the pasture where the Holstein grazed. And as we continued on the ride, I realized we were about to enter the woods.
Years ago I was a child who lived on the edge of those woods. Some pretty mornings we walked to church this long, back way. Our ancient house had its back to the highway and faced, instead, the old road in the woods–the road that twisted and curved up, up, up to the pasture and the cornfield and the church.
I had not been in those woods since I was little. Time and space twisted. My husband commented that “this was a long way to walk to church!” but I could barely hear anyone. I saw myself walking that road.
As the house came into view I couldn’t hear or think properly.
* * *
Who is the ghost? Was it the little girl who looked out of the north bedroom windows? Was it the child who would sit and watch the trains as they crossed the valley? I thought of that girl, of her hurts and fears and hopes. I thought of her sitting at the kitchen window in the dark months, waiting for mom to return home from work. Happy to see those headlights coming down the gravel driveway. I thought of her practicing piano at the old Stieff, roller skating over the freshly-waxed floors, fading into herself one vicious winter.
I thought of the secrets she left buried in the house when we moved–letters in a little closet. Things she thought she could leave.
Or am I the ghost? In the recesses of that girl’s mind, did she ever think that in twenty-five years she would suddenly be face-to-face with her adult self, bumping along on the back of a haywagon with her arms around her son? Did she stand back there now, puzzling over a fleeting glimpse of a little daughter with hair the color of hay, curling in the evening drizzle, wrapped inside her daddy’s arm?
When I think of that house on the side of the mountain, I see the devotion my mother gave to us, and the love my father had for us, and I see the cracks that split me, that kept me split, for years.
And what I know of God is this: He fills the cracks with gold and He does it in a way I can never, ever understand or predict. Because the ghost of that girl could not comprehend the woman who passed by the house tonight. She would feel the damage and the history and the cracks that were already splintering her. But somewhere in between the stacks of hay and the bare November trees, I hope she also saw a glimpse of the gold.
Polly Hollar Pauley’s poetry has been published in The Hollins Critic, Cider Press Review, Artemis, and The Allegheny Review. She lives in the Appalachian Mountains with her husband and children.
Photo credit: Linvilla Orchards (www.uwishunu.com)
by Holli Steinmetz
David Ruhlman has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History from the University of Utah. His work has been featured in over 20 exhibitions from 2008-2015 and was used in the 9.2 Fall issue of Rock & Sling as both cover and content art. David’s gallery features paintings, handmade books, collaborations and fascinating newspaper clippings.
Holli Steinmetz: In the pieces we used for Rock & Sling 9.2 issue, there are many images of Jesus Christ and lambs. Do you have a religious background that encourages these paintings, or is it more of a fascination with these figures?
David Ruhlman: I would say that there is a deep fascination with religious symbols and figures. In college I took a class called “Myth, Magic, and Religion,” which I loved, and I think those three words encapsulate much of my work and interests. Religious symbols and images hold so much power and sway that as an artist I wanted to try and transform them.
HS: What was your inspiration behind the Cat/astrophe series?
DR: It is quite an old series. It started after viewing a photo exhibit documenting the children of the Chernobyl disaster. It was horrifying and incredibly moving. The images stuck with me. I also found some old children’s chalkboards at a thrift shop. I had a fantastic little cat named Suzy and one day an image of a sad injured cat came to me. So I decided to do a series of injured cats based loosely on the disaster. I haven’t thought about those paintings in a while but they each still hold a little piece of my heart.
HS: From looking through your gallery, I’ve noticed a consistent use of newspaper clippings. What was your intention behind pairing, for example, the felt pictures and the Russian newspaper in “Everything has a shape (part 1)”? Or the Russian newspaper and the brighter geometric pictures in “Rabbit sees radar”?
DR: I have always been fascinated by art that is difficult to date or place in time. Regarding the Russian newspapers, aesthetically I find them quite beautiful. For me there is a timeless vernacular quality to the newspaper and a slightly unnerving presence. he painting “Everything has a shape (part 1)” came about after finding a packet of felt pictures at a thrift store that were used for Sunday school lessons. I liked the idea of placing these images in acts of lasciviousness and danger. The “rabbit sees radar” came after covering a board with book pages and burying it for the winter. After unburying it I wanted to use geometric shapes instead of my usual narrative images.
HS: Some of your inspiration comes from subject matter that could be considered disturbing/gruesome (specifically the Found (1931-1946) series). What kind of message do you wish to portray using/creating “dark” subjects/images?
DR: I am drawn to the transformation of an object. Also rather than gruesome I would replace it with having a dark humor. The Found (1931-1946) series were a packet of newspaper clippings that I found at a thrift store. I think looking at many of those clippings you cannot help but chuckle at some of the stories. It reminds me of a quote of Jean Dubuffet: “Art should always make people laugh a little and frighten them a little. Anything but bore them. Art has no right to be boring.”
I paint the things that interest me and that I would want hung up in my house. Many of them are little stories that I am fascinated by or ideas that I want to develop. This world is a strange and endlessly compelling place that I try and understand and experience through my art.
HS: I was looking through your gallery of handmade books and was fascinated by both “A life leading towards disappearance/ Die Frau, Die War” and “Are we not ghosts confined.” Each book has such a unique style but I find them both equally haunting in a way. What was your intention/inspiration behind these books?
DR: The whole book series came about after a friend gave me the front and back cover of a book that he thought I would like. I quickly and punched some holes in it and put a few pages in. I found that I loved making them and over 2-3 years made around 45 handmade books with many of the books having 20-30 pages of art. I hadn’t taken art classes and used these books to teach myself how to draw, collage, and finally paint.
I would find a old book, take out the existing pages and sew in my own. I would usually start with a title or an idea and work tirelessly to finish it. I think they played a huge part in my painting style and aesthetic. They are slightly hermetic, filled with personal symbols and mythologies.
The “A life leading towards disappearance/ Die Frau, Die War” was created using dirt, oil pastel and pencil. As the title suggests it was created after an especially difficult event. On the other end, “Are we not ghosts confined” was my last book of the 45 that I created (I have gone back in recent years to make a few new ones.) I bought some crappy gouache and thought I would try my hand at painting. I didn’t feel it went too badly so I then thought I would paint on wood panels that I could put up on my wall. So that was the last book before I started trying my hand at painting.
HS: What is it about this specific medium that draws you?
DR: I taught myself how to paint using gouache, so it is familiar to me. I love the matte quality of gouache and the vibrancy of the colors. Most of the acrylic that I have seen or used has a glossy finish that I hated. Gouache is pretty difficult to use because it is water based, so if it gets wet even years later, it reactivates it and can ruin the painting. I wouldn’t mind finding better quality acrylic but so far gouache works great.
HS: Do you keep some kind of running list/notebook/journal of ideas/inspirations for future art?
DR: I sure do. I have a sketchbook that I use and also usually have paper and pen in the car and beside the bed. The sketches are usually very rudimentary. I usually work things out as I paint. I have lists of titles that I like and I usually have a painting or two planned after the current one I am working on. I have Paul Klee’s quote in my studio that states “every day a line,” so I always try and get in and work out current/future paintings.
Holli Steinmetz is a junior English Major on the Writing track at Whitworth University. She is the Assistant Fiction Editor for Rock & Sling. Outside of school Holli is an aspiring artist with interests in 2D art as well as sculpting.
by Jackie Wallace
When I was seventeen, I read a book called Paper Towns, by John Green. You may have heard of it due to the upcoming release of its movie adaptation. More on that later.
The book tells the story of a teenage boy who idolizes the girl next door. The girl disappears, leading the boy on a journey to find her. By searching for this girl, he realizes that he has dehumanized her by idolizing her. To refuse to acknowledge weakness and imperfections is to deny that person’s humanity. It’s a story about empathy, and brokenness, and valuing our weaknesses and imperfections.
I was suffering a nervous breakdown the first time I read this book. I felt broken, and isolated, and hid my overwhelming anxiety as thoroughly as I could. The more I fell apart, the more desperate I was to appear put together. My weakness terrified me. I was paralyzed by the fear that someone would eventually realize that I was broken. I read Paper Towns, and connected with the undercurrent of isolation that flowed through this girl, who everyone loved but nobody knew. The characters blossomed from the page as their own brokenness came to light, and I felt dazed by the beauty.
Near the end of the book, there is a passage that describes how people start out as watertight vessels. Then others hurt us or leave us or bad things happen to us, and the vessel starts to crack. And maybe the vessel will never be repaired, and we’ll always be damaged, but it’s not until we break open that we can see into each other and understand each other. My favorite line of the book is, “The light can get in, the light can get out.” I originally planned to get a tattoo of the quote.
A couple of years passed, and I went to college. I had another breakdown. My brokenness still terrified me, but it was the concept of weakness and imperfection as necessary for human connection that helped me recover. The book is still important to me, but I began to value the ideas behind it more than the book itself, and so decided not to get a quote as a tattoo.
I’ve reread Paper Towns half a dozen times. I have to avoid most media coverage about the movie adaptation, because I get my feelings hurt far too easily by others’ opinions about the book. I don’t usually feel protective of the books I love; I’m fine with film adaptations, and fine with others having whatever opinions they please about the story. But this is my book. I am willing to act selfishly to protect this story. I have high hopes for the film adaptation. I also know I will have to tune out the voices of every movie critic and twelve-year-old with an internet connection if I want to survive the ordeal.
I can passionately defend the value and beauty of imperfections and weakness, but the truth is that I still haven’t internalized it. I am still ashamed of my brokenness, of all these cracks in this vessel. But now I understand why I need them. We connect when we recognize vulnerability in another, and say, “me, too.” Our brokenness is not only necessary, but so incredibly valuable. It lets light in, and lets it out. And so I made a promise. I promised to always choose my true self. I choose the self with the cracks and scars and weaknesses. I won’t reject, hide, or wish myself away anymore.
There needed to be a sacrament to seal the vow I was making. I decided to get a tattoo showing the light that comes from the crack in the vessel. I liked how permanent it was, and that it would always be with me; I can’t exactly go back on my promise now, can I? When I’m overcome by feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, I imagine the light pouring from my shoulder, flowing in and out with my breath, like the tide. The light comes in. The light goes out.
Jackie Wallace graduated from Whitworth with a B.A. in Psychology in 2014. She spends her days pretending to be a writer while actually binge-watching kitschy television shows. Her favorite people are her pet rats and young nephews. Her blog can be found here.
by Sunni Brown Wilkinson
The care center smelled on par with all the others I’d ever been in: musty and antiseptic with a passing breeze of mothballs. I’d always found them depressing, but this one at least made very sincere efforts to keep things upbeat, even jazzy. One day, they hired a guy to come in and, accompanied by synthesized, pre-recorded back-up music, croon such classics as “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” to a crowd of cheery residents who clapped and sang along. The phoniness of this guy and his artificial “music” made me cringe. But it made the residents happy.
I was there because, as a Mormon missionary, I was required to fulfill at least four hours of community service each week. Aside from the usual teaching, training, and studying, I was to volunteer in the community where I currently lived which was, in this case, Vineland, New Jersey, a large suburban sprawl in the southern half of the state that seemed to be perpetually covered by gray clouds.
It’s not that I didn’t love the work. I did. Or the people. Some people we taught were like family to me. But sometimes I wasn’t sure who was teaching them.
The cloistered life of a missionary promotes a kind of erasure of one’s personal identity: my first name was replaced by “Sister,” so that I was known for 18 months as “Sister Brown.” The only time I heard my first name was when I called my family back home, and that was only permitted twice a year, Mother’s Day and Christmas. And I was to put away all significations of my old life that could distract from my focus of sharing the gospel message. This included no TV (though we caught bits of game shows and novellas glimmering from people’s front rooms in the evenings), no movies (though my mother was saving for me a list of “must sees” for when I got home), and no secular music. And while I generally embraced it and enjoyed focusing on matters of the spirit more, that last one was still a hurdle.
In the cast that made up my childhood, the biggest star was classic rock. “Oldies,” as the radio stations called them, provided the soundtrack to our family’s life. Hippies in their youth, my parents brought us up on the good bread of church, the outdoors, and the music of their generation. My mother, who prefers her music loud with a touch of blaring, would open the front door and turn up Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin on the stereo to the point where I could play in my friend’s front yard – three houses away – and still sing along to every song. My dad even set up speakers on the back of the house so that Cream or The Beatles or Jethro Tull could accompany our volleyball games or gardening. To this day, whenever I hear certain songs, I’m immediately in our garden, under a blue summer sky, facing the mountains and picking raspberries.
This particular day at the care center, I found myself throwing a beach ball around to a group of senior citizens whose wheelchairs had been parked to form a circle. This was not the group that clapped and sang along about doggies in windows. These were the extremely quiet ones who didn’t complain about the food or look anxiously for family members to visit. Most of them had a look of absence about the eyes. But they could catch a ball, and it was my job to stand in the middle and keep up their daily “exercise.”
In the corner, a small radio sat on a table. So far, all I’d heard from it were songs I vaguely attributed to my grandparents’ generation. But as one song flowed seamlessly into the next, something happened. A renegade from my other life burst in.
The first notes of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” started. And something way down in me broke loose and bubbled up to the surface. I stood there, holding a beach ball in the middle of a windowless room, surrounded by strangers and empty stares and, for the first time in months, felt wholly myself. And along with myself came everything else. Some memories came with logical connections (dancing in the front room with my little brother Riley, brooms for guitars or wooden spoons for microphones). Others clung to those connections like lint on a sock and so came along with them (the smell of the Wasatch mountains in spring rain, all the places I’d ever camped, the wallpaper of my childhood bedroom).
“I really want to see you… but it takes so long, my Lord,” he sang. And I got it. Even the Hare Krishna chorus that he repeated like a prayer.
This was another way to worship.
A song becomes “ours” because it gives us back to ourselves. It unlocks remembrances that are sacred and unexplainable. And in doing that, it reminds us of that longing for the God we know and don’t know yet. It was really me, singing my heart out: “Really want to know you Lord but it takes so long, my Lord (hallelujah).”
I believe in the value of traditional “church,” but I also respect people who use their voice, their art to search for God. What they create becomes our search too. Our stairway to heaven, our bridge over troubled waters, our sweet Lord.
My top 10 list of “oldies”:
1) “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison
2) “That’s the Way” by Led Zeppelin
3) “Songbird” by Fleetwood Mac
4) “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson
5) “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones
6) “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison
7) “I’ll Be Your Lover Too” by Van Morrison
8) “Moonlight Mile” by The Rolling Stones
9) “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
10)”Going to California” by Led Zeppelin
Sunni Brown Wilkinson holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Her poetry has been published in Weber: The Contemporary West, Red Rock Review, Gulf Stream, Rock & Sling, and other journals and anthologies and has been nominated for two Pushcarts. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons. She also blogs at www.allthelivelystones.blogspot.com
Image from 45cat.com
by Andy Zell
Let’s talk about Doubting Thomas.
First off, he’s got a branding problem: he’s forever known as a doubter. He can never simply be Thomas anymore. He can no longer hide in the back with Bartholomew or Jude when the Twelve get together. He’s recognizable. He can now be summarized in a single word. Talk about pigeon-holed. A one dimensional character.
It’s not like he denied Christ three times in one night. He didn’t sell out Jesus for pieces of silver. He didn’t even cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest with a sword. All he did was doubt the resurrection of Jesus. He wanted proof that Jesus wasn’t still in the tomb. Specifically, he wanted to see Jesus with his own eyes and put his hand on the wounds of Jesus. Sounds reasonable to me.
When faced with the incomprehensible, with apparent contradictions, with paradoxes both divine and human, doubt is only natural. I used to think doubt was the enemy of faith. That it was a slow destroyer of true belief, eating away and hollowing out from the inside. If faith is like a seed that grows into a tree, then doubt is like Dutch Elm disease. But now I think doubt is more like digestion. It allows beliefs to be broken down into usable bits and pieces, to be absorbed and to nourish a person while what is left over can be discarded.
Beliefs really can originate in the gut. Or our metaphorical gut, anyway. According to Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionism theory of moral psychology, we often make moral judgments based on feelings and intuitions rather than rational thought. It’s only later that we then justify those judgments with reasoning. Here’s how it worked for me.
The things I believed spiritually growing up were fed to me at home, at church, and at school. It was my milk. It was pre-selected for me and fortified with everything I needed to grow. And it made sense when my spiritual digestive system wasn’t fully developed yet. I was still in what Robert E. Webber in Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail calls “familial faith,” the faith I grew up with. I still had to transition through “searching faith” until I settled into “owned faith.” My familial faith had all of the essentials: Jesus’ death and resurrection, love and grace, creation and covenant, sin and salvation. But it had a lot of other beliefs as well, including all manner of extrapolations heaped on top of those essentials. For instance, I believed that the creation had to be six literal days and that homosexuals chose to live in sin.
I was in college when I started to have doubts about the creation narrative in Genesis. I didn’t understand how that six day account of the beginning of the universe could line up with my growing sense of wonder at the big bang and the evolution of life. How could I still believe in the Bible? The old formulas weren’t working for me anymore. Instead, the scientific explanations made sense to me. They felt right somehow. A recent study suggests that belief in evolution can come down to a quick intuitive response. But did I have to reject modern scientific explanations in order to hold onto faith?
After college I had more doubts when friends from high school and college started to come out of the closet and reveal that they were gay. I loved and cared about my friends, but I didn’t see any way out of my interpretation of the Bible that prohibited same sex relationships. It nagged at me, though. I asked myself why my friends would have chosen to have the attractions that they did. It went against everything they had been taught, and certainly didn’t make their lives any easier. And if they didn’t choose, then I didn’t understand how God could make someone desire relationships and intimacy that they could never have. I was at a loss, floundering in my confusion. Could I continue to trust my old interpretations of the Bible? Did I have to believe my friends were living in sin? And if so, how could I believe in the goodness of God?
The cognitive dissonance I experienced with these doubts caused a lot of inner turmoil. I felt uncertain much of the time, like I was teetering on the edge of a precipice, and if I fell off, I might not land safely. It took me years of processing to come to the beliefs I now hold, that are part of me. Those doubts worked like all the elements of digestion (saliva, gastric juices, intestinal villi, even bacteria in the colon!) to extract what was most important in my belief. In the end I didn’t have to discard my faith. I could hold onto the nourishing elements of belief and let the rest of the crap go.
You know, Thomas wasn’t alone in his doubt. He had good company, actually. His infamous time in the spotlight comes from John’s gospel. But over in Luke’s account, all of the disciples doubted until they too had concrete proof that Jesus was truly resurrected. It wasn’t even enough for them to see him. They weren’t able to come to terms with his resurrected body until he ate fish with them.
As for me, I still have lots of doubts. It’s the only way I can process my belief. But I think now I’m okay with the label of a Doubter. After the next church potluck, I’ll just be sitting over with the rest of the Thomases, digesting.
Andy Zell spends much of his time wiping poopy bottoms as a stay-at-home parent to his three preschool children. As it happens, he also recently read Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Those two factors probably explain his recent enthusiasm for digestion. In his “spare time” (that’s a joke other parents will get) he blogs about literature, history, politics, religion, identity, and whatever else he’s thinking about, and he’s still trying to figure out Twitter.
Image from flickr.com