by Leah Silvieus
In Xoxocotlán Cemetery tonight, the night before El Día De Los Muertos, life and death sit vigil together: families picnic while setting up shrines for their loved ones, grandmothers hold babies while parents arrange flowers on the headstones. The night is still beneath the nearly full moon, and the air blooms with the scent of marigolds, copal burn, and hot wax. Our local guide hands us each a shot of mescal, along with a candle and bouquets of coxcomb, clover, and baby’s breath. Offerings. Find a grave that has few decorations, he says. Lay your flowers there. I am uneasy with the intimacy of these moments – as outsider among Oaxacan families. The thin curtain between life and death that is almost translucent, here.
* * *
While in Oaxaca for the U.S. Poets in Mexico Conference, I gave a workshop on poems’ endings. We began the workshop discussing what a good poem ending feels like. Almost all of the ways our workshop group described great endings were those of in-betweenness: the pause between inhaling and exhaling a breath, the sensation of standing on a cliff, the moment before flight. The amazing poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar spoke of the poem’s ending as a hinge upon which the poem opens and closes – which reminded me of my favorite mystic of distance and threshold, Simone Weil: “The world is a closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time, it is the way through.”
I wonder if, on some level, my difficulty in negotiating poems’ endings has something to do with negotiating my own limitations. Diana Fuss writes in Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy: “Writing is dying, a way to experience, over and over again, one’s own sudden, inexplicable disappearance.” A poem begins and there are words, and then more words, then no more words. We write and then come to the end of our writing. We send the poem off or put it away for a time. The ending of a poem is a departure. Do we shut the door quickly without looking back? Do we leave it open behind us? Some of the poems’ endings that I’ve struggled with most intensely are those whose stakes are most difficult to face. Given violence, given loss, what is there to say? How can a poem’s ending avoid both sensationalism and pat closure?
I’m not sure of the answers to these questions, but there are poems that give me endings to aspire to, even if I have yet to unravel their mysteries completely. I think of Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song,” one of the first poems that rendered me breathless. Despite the cruelty and the sorrow that occurs in the poem, there is this resonance, this song that echoes throughout the poem and beyond it: “This song / Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.” There is that door again, closing, opening. The song becomes not only about the girl and those boys and her pet goat, Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, but also about the songs that rise about the cruelties that inhabit our world. I carry that last line around with me, almost like a mantra. The poem sings beyond itself into the world.
* * *
Among the marble graves overflowing with gladioli and chrysanthemum, there is a flat stone, unlit and dark with weathering, its name and date worn away. I place my flowers there and try to light the candle despite the cold breeze that’s just picked up. As we make our way to cemetery’s entrance where we’ll meet the rest of our group, I see my candle has already gone out.
* * *
“A poem never ends,” one man said to me that week in Oaxaca. “You have your work cut out for you.”
Poems end and they do not end. Poems’ endings are those doors of which Laure-Anne spoke: they are openings. They are invitations back into the world, into other texts, and sometimes back into our own lives. They bear witness to the world by confirming that the last word isn’t the final word. Just as the final line of “Song” leaves us with its bittersweet music, powerful poems’ endings sing us back to their beginnings, as if saying again:
Leah Silvieus is an interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received fellowships from Kundiman and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & Writing, CURA, The Collagist, and diode, among others. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Miami and currently divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her online here.
Photo courtesy of the author.
by Tania Runyan
Last weekend the “if-I-were-to-get-a-tattoo” topic came up again, this time among members of the church worship team, many of whom sport whirling trinitarian symbols on their biceps.
“I keep having this conversation,” I say, scooting forward in my chair, already feeling younger and edgier for even addressing the subject. “Maybe one of these days.”
“What would you get?” Elizabeth, the bass player, asks.
“I don’t know. Maybe a stingray?”
A blank look: “Oh?”
“It’s my favorite animal,” I offer. “I’ve pet them before.”
Elizabeth then describes her experience swimming with stingrays off Grand Cayman Island. “They surround you like puppies when you have food,” she says.
I nod. I’ve never actually seen one in the wild. I’ve reached into a tank and tickled their slimy skin a few times at the Milwaukee Discovery Museum. Suddenly, I feel like my third-grade self who told her friends she’d stayed overnight at Disneyland when she’d really just left at 9pm and fallen asleep in the car.
“Well, I’ve seen some intricate designs online,” I say. “Like Celtic patterns on their fins.”
The fact that i’m not Irish is irrelevant.
The real question is why a tattoo? If I loved those undulant sea creatures so much, wouldn’t I invest in a coastal swim myself? Or at least get a stringway charm or T-shirt?
What do I, a woman who had a panic attack when a nurse poked around a few times to get an IV in, love enough to print on my body? I’m lucky enough to live a life in which everything I cherish is close to me. I kiss the most important faces, turn the most beautiful pages. I feel the strings of my beloved violin under my fingers every day. An image or description of these marvels would seem redundant. And my faith? I’ve made invisibility somewhat visible with my chi rho necklace, which I’ve worn every day for twelve years.
Maybe if I ever lost that necklace. Maybe some ink then.
But I’m a person who already wears so much–emotions, opinions, successes, and failures– closely and honestly. I’ve rarely succeeded in hiding my feelings. And, as an apparent Enneagram 3, or Achiever, who finds value in how an audience perceives me, I wonder how much a tattoo would contribute to my angst. I love staring at my friends’ tattoos: bright tapestries of birds, vines, flowers, and script that appear with a simple removal of a sweater. But if I were to get a tattoo, would I derive more joy from looking at it or from wondering what others see? Am I looking for some kind of affirmation, a last hold on youth? And what, exactly, would people be looking at? As another friend of mine commented recently, “If you have to think up an idea for a tattoo, then you probably don’t need one.”
These days, amidst some of my midlife struggles, I’m starting to realize that rather than make more statements, I should hold some things invisibly close.
In The Naked Now, Richard Rohr explains how the Sacred Tetragrammaton YHVH, the ancient Jewish name for God, was breathed, not spoken, “in an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation.” We rarely notice our own breathing, but it is always there, invisibly creating and recreating us.
Every day, somewhere around twenty thousand times, I speak the name of God. I could get his name printed on my skin, but he is already on, in, and under it. When everyone and no one is looking, it’s always just the two of us, breathing together, his name written in my cells.
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was released in 2014. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Nimrod, and the anthology A Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.
Image is from here.
by Megan Hershey
The first time I saw a Brio magazine was during a sleep-over at my friend Jolynn’s house. I was 12 and the magazine felt almost forbidden – yes, it was published by Focus on the Family and therefore both wholesome and Christian, but it was also the closest thing to a Seventeen or Cosmopolitan that I could get my hands on. It was an icon of the teenage world I was so eager to join. Jolynn was remarkably nonchalant about the stack of slim, glossy magazines on her living room floor, but I was mesmerized and spent the rest of the evening reading the beauty tips (how to apply eyeliner!), the advice column (Dear Susie: what is French kissing?), and the feature articles about real girls doing good deeds (a missions trip changed my life!).
Soon after, I convinced my mom to purchase a subscription for me. She was supportive, but asked each year if I wanted to continue receiving the magazine – I’m sure she could have made good use of the $25 fee in the household budget. I read every issue cover-to-cover (it would have been an affront to my Type A personality to read the articles out of order) and soaked up the lessons about adolescence.
Over time, Brio changed. The magazine updated its font and layout. It split into two publications to better minister to both the tween and conventional teen audience. Since I was in the older category my copies now contained edgier articles about eating disorders and herpes (you can get it *just* from messing around, a young woman wrote in a fictionalized letter to her younger sister).
I was changing, too. The first time I disagreed with Brio was over a review of the most recent Boyz II Men album. My best friend and I – as well as the two coolest boys in youth group – were obsessed with Boyz II Men. The longing in “End of the Road” summed up my suburban teenage angst, yet I wasn’t about to abandon my morals. Just because the group sang about throwing your clothes on the floor didn’t mean I was about to, and Brio’s suggestion that I might succumb to the Boyz’ vocal wizardry in this way was offensive.
By 16 I felt I’d outgrown the magazine, or at least enough to feel guilty about the subscription cost, yet I kept the back issues stacked in my closet through college. Brio is no longer in print, though the editor, Susie Shellenberger, is still active in various evangelical ministries. Susie, it turns out, is an ordained minister (Nazarene), something that was never revealed to Brio readers. As I reflect on how Brio helped me through the challenges of adolescence I wonder how much more the publication could have done if I had known that Susie was not just an editor and advice columnist, but a pastor as well, someone who held spiritual authority.
Megan Hershey is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Whitworth University. During the week, she can be found standing at her desk reading one of her other favorite blogs, Africa is a Country. Her fondness for sensible, secondhand shoes makes it obvious that she no longer reads fashion magazines of any kind.
by Kathryn Smith
First, Marion insists I take her peaches. A few weeks later, the pears start falling, and Meredith and Blake hand me bags of them over the back fence. Then, from the corner of the backyard, enough plums overhang that I could never imagine needing a tree of my own.
Such is late summer’s bounty of fruit I did not tend or cultivate, fruit I did not harvest. It’s the overflow, the nobody wants it, the too much of a good thing.
And with it, the fruit flies.
The flies overrun my kitchen, though I’ve been trapping them for weeks, setting out jars of molasses-spiked vinegar, covering all the ripe fruit so they’ve nothing to feed on, nowhere to lay their eggs that I can see. Somehow, they proliferate. It’s what they excel at: eager reproduction and robust survival.
As a student, I never cared much for science. I did well enough, but it didn’t inspire me. It was something to be learned, to be passed, to move beyond. Now, I watch fruit flies and wish I’d learned more. Insecta seems so far removed from mammalia—wings and metamorphosis versus flesh and veins. Yet both are animal. Both are common. Both eat the same fruit.
Humans and fruit flies share about 60 percent of their DNA. Some human genes and fruit fly genes are identical. This has ramifications for scientific study, for research into the treatment of certain diseases and the cause of certain birth defects. The specifics of this are beyond my ability to explain; my grasp on what genes and DNA and chromosomes even are is tenuous. But I know that these things, to some extent, make us who we are on a biological level. And so I am like the fly, and the fly is like me.
We share the genes that tell cells what to become. The Hox gene mutates, and the human embryo grows a sixth finger. The Hox gene mutates, and the fruit fly grows an extra pair of legs where its antennae should be.
Sometimes I wonder if I try too hard to make connections between living things. I envy the simplicity of insects’ lives: the concrete, complex social order of ants, the singularity of purpose that determines the fruit fly’s course. To know where I’m going and to go—no such thing as second-guessing, no such thing as awkward. Insects look for what they need, and nothing else, nothing more.
But this thing I envy, this thing I desire to resemble is the thing I strive to kill. To live wholly by animal instinct is to resign oneself to death beneath a sneaker sole, death by drowning in sweet, pungent vinegar.
Scientists consider the fruit fly a “model organism”: its four sets of chromosomes, the ease with which it’s cared for. And I am 60 percent the same. I look for these connections to better understand myself, but the parts of me that confound me are not viewable under a microscope. They are not dissectible or diagrammable.
I’m relatively symmetrical: the standard numbers of limbs and digits, just one foot slightly longer than the other, one eyebrow higher, my smile a tad crooked. Sometimes I wish for the mutation: the malformed arm, the extra set of wings. This seems like it would explain things, though I’m not sure what “things.” Why I sometimes feel misshapen, I guess. Why I sometimes feel wrong in the world.
Is this in the other 40 percent of my DNA? Not likely. I know I am more than my genes, my chromosomes, more than the microscopic bundles and spirals that swim within me. Being human is confounding stuff: chemical, biological, yet somehow spirit. Somehow we know to avoid the trap. Thanks be for that. Thanks be this perplexing condition, the thing within us that makes us neighbors with our fellow humans, that calls us to wave over the fence, to say “thank you” and to smile our crooked smiles, to share a fruit tree’s bounty and to accept the gift, even if it means welcoming the pest.
Kathryn Smith received her BA from Whitworth in 1999 and her MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 2004. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Rock & Sling, The Cresset, Floating Bridge Review and RiverLit, as well as local anthologies. She sometimes thinks she might have been an entomologist were it not for the existence of earwigs.
Drawing of an adult female shoepfia fruit fly was made by the Division of Plant Industry.
by Laura Reber
Her prophecy seemed a bit dramatic, but I noted it in my journal anyway, as Lord knows I needed some help with my seemingly endless transitions. I left the counselor’s office anticipating the rush of a new adventure and getting out on the road. I had just completed my year off from the previous 20 years work in fire service administration and I was searching for a job outside of Spokane, Washington. My entire existence thus far had played out within a five mile radius of my childhood stomping grounds. Perhaps that was what fueled my passion for travel.
This time my wanderlust was taking me to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I would crash with a friend of a friend to check out the area for possible relocation. The two and a half day road trip through parts of the country I had never seen gave me plenty of time to think, and to be amazed even before I reached my destination. I was processing the grief and anxiety of the previous four years of compounding loss, including my dad’s recent passing, on top of choices I had fully and intentionally made to change my life’s direction. Although I still believed the choices were good, it was taking more time and energy than I had expected to release whatever the heck I was supposed to release in order to find a sense of normalcy again.
I’ve always found driving long distances to be great therapy: to be alone with my thoughts, to pray, to sing, to cry, to scream, to laugh, and to experience the numbing “stillness” of the world passing me by at 70 miles per hour. This trip was no different, except for the words of the counselor rattling around in my head. “You will meet a shaman who will help you bury your baggage on a walk in the desert. Release. Reclaim. Recharge.” Okay. Whatever.
New Mexico’s state motto is “The Land of Enchantment,” and that it is. The people I met, the conversations we had, and the experiences of synchronicity were off the charts. But I would have to say that the greatest take-away from this trip was my introduction to the labyrinth walk by my host’s neighbor, Ruth, who joined us for dinner that first evening in a small Tesuque neighborhood in the hills above Santa Fe. With my host working most of the time I was there, Ruth would be my guide – my teacher and my healer, my shaman – as I navigated my walk through the desert.
The first morning I set out alone to discover what the city had to offer. Art, culture, gardens, gastronomy, shop-keeper-philosophers and architecture were some of the highlights. As I explored the grounds of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis near the city center I made my way to the front and observed people randomly walking around a design inlaid in the pavement. It was circular, with alternating red and grey stones. I quickly discovered it wasn’t random at all, but an actual pathway. I waited for the area to clear and approached this strange configuration. Like a child trespassing in an unknown place, I quickly walked the path, entered the center noting its brass inlaid Crusader’s Cross encompassed in a floral pattern, and then made a beeline for the Cathedral, hoping nobody noticed the awkwardness of my unfinished labyrinth walk.
Later that day, I reconnected with Ruth who had become an instant friend and confidant. I told her about my adventures in the city and mentioned my experience at St. Francis. She asked what I knew about the labyrinth walk, which was nothing, and then asked if I’d like to learn. I met her the next morning wearing the suggested hiking boots, prepared to head up into the high desert hills of Tesuque. On the way we talked about the life paths that led us to this point. The questions about where I would go next and the clarity I was seeking. When I said I was considering a career in Expressive Arts Therapy she told me about her life as a musician, and working in thanatology with Hospice. She plays music for the imminently dying, “to bring peace and comfort to their transition.”
As we approached the labyrinth in the desert, I could sense it was a sacred place. I removed my boots and socks and exposing my feet to the rough sand and worn rocks.
“Okay, so how do I do this?”
“There are no rules,” Ruth encouraged me. “You just walk.”
She went on to explain that some people will hold a question in their mind on the way to the center with expectation of receiving an answer on that way out. Others will pray or sing or dance their way through …as the Spirit moves.
“Release all expectations and see where it takes you.”
The sun rose higher in the morning sky and warmed the sandy pathway outlined with rocks pulled from the arroyos’ scarred landscape. On this my second labyrinth walk I mostly just found more questions, but released some of the awkwardness and walked out the same way I walked in, completing the circuit.
As my trip continued, I would come upon a new walk each day – literally a different labyrinth presenting itself wherever I went. Day three was a labyrinth made of brick pavers and overseen by cherry blossoms outside on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill plaza. I walked with a little more confidence now, feeling refreshed and reclaiming my openness to experience life with all its unknowns. Later, inside the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, I breathlessly navigated the Navajo exhibits as the Spider Woman revealed her own ancient versions of crosses and labyrinths in her woven blankets and baskets. Back in Tesuque, Ruth had prepared a Passover dish of fruit, nuts, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg served with unleavened bread and fresh horseradish. We talked about her traditions, and taking the bitter with the sweet in life. We savored the food and fellowship under the cottonwood trees, serenaded by Tesuque Creek until the desert cold compelled us to go inside by the fire.
Day four was a gift from a woman working at an artists’ co-op in Madrid, south of Santa Fe. I admired the labyrinth motifs in her fire-smoked pottery. I told her I was just learning about labyrinths these past few days. She told me about the movement in the Santa Fe area to build labyrinths at schools, hospitals, and churches as well as private properties. She then wrote down the address to her own home on property in the desert south of Madrid and offered her personal labyrinth as part of my journey. By the time I completed my fourth walk in the desert, I knew I was receiving something significant. Something I would forever carry with me. These sacred spaces were allowing me to get past the constant chatter in my head and to rid myself of the old baggage I carried all these years. I had found a walking meditation providing a new way to listen and receive. I was experiencing Saint Augustine’s Solvitur Ambulando, “It is solved by walking.”
I decided to end my visit to Santa Fe a day early with a new sense of clarity and a readiness to move on. I wanted to be at the ocean for Easter. I spent my last evening with Ruth feeling like I was leaving an old friend – grateful for the time we had shared, the wisdom I had gained, and knowing we walked this path of life together whether or not we would meet again. She played a lullaby on a native flute as the flames danced in the oversized stone fireplace. The music brought peace and comfort to my transition as I released the life I once knew that was no more.
Since that original walk in the desert I have found there is a lot written about the labyrinth, including an online worldwide labyrinth locator. This ancient tradition found new light in a rediscovery movement with the writings and teachings of The Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress from the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California. The Veriditas website instructs, “The labyrinth is not a maze. There are no tricks to it and no dead ends. It has a single circuitous path that winds its way into the center. The person walking it uses the same path to return from the center and the entrance then becomes the exit. The path is in full view, which allows a person to be quiet and focus internally. Generally there are three stages to the walk: releasing on the way in, receiving in the center and returning when you follow the return path back out of the labyrinth. Symbolically, and sometimes actually, you are taking back out into the world that which you have received.”
Release, reclaim, and recharge.
After my one-year planned sabbatical turned to two-years of unemployment, I was still unable to extricate myself from Spokane and then found myself working at Whitworth University – my alma mater and the epicenter of my life’s five-mile radius thus far. The four years of grief advanced into a grueling seven-year whirlwind of loss, and I continued to heap changes on top of that fire. As for finding that sense of normalcy, I can only refer back to my favorite line from a movie: In Awakenings there is a scene where the mother of Leonard Lowe stoically proclaims, “There’s no such thing as a normal life, there’s just life,” as her son slips back into his catatonic state when medical treatments fail.
I Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah making his escape from the wrathful Jezebel. He journeys into the desert, and is provided for and instructed along the way by an angel. He is then told to “[s]tand at attention before God. God will pass by.” God’s presence was not to be found in the wind, the rock-smashing earthquake, or the fire, but in a still small voice. Elijah is then instructed to return the same way he came, with a new charge.
I’ve spent many hours re-centering at the labyrinth in nearby Suncrest, built by the parish of Our Lady of the Lake. I’ve carved my own temporary labyrinths in the sands of the Richland desert, in the depths of the Inland Northwest snows, and on the beaches of the Oregon and California coastlines. I’ve even taught a labyrinth workshop at Whitworth, renting the portable canvas labyrinth from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane. The imagery I love about the labyrinth walk is that it reminds me of life and how God is revealed when we stand at attention: as with life, there is only one way in and one way out. As you follow the path before you there is a central destination in your site, yet just when you think you’re about to arrive the path takes you off in another direction. You know, eventually, you will make it to the center so with faith and malleable intent you just keep walking one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you walk with friends, sometimes you walk with angels in disguise, and many times you walk alone. In walking the labyrinth, the entrance truly becomes the exit into a new reality as you are not the same as when you walked in. Releasing the cacophony of life and standing at attention in the center enables us to hear that still small voice, a gentle quiet whisper, knowing that God is near and providing a new charge with which to exit. This walking meditation reminds us that just as the entrance is the exit, in life an ending is a new beginning. And so it goes, one step at a time.
Laura Reber is a compulsive learner with a passion for experiencing life through travel, photography, and stories. She earned a BA in Music – Arts Administration and a Master in International Management from Whitworth University, where she now works as a training manager in HR. Laura also serves as chief person and food-bowl-filler to two basset hounds, with whom she enjoys sharing the four-season splendor of her backyard just a few miles from the Whitworth campus in Spokane, Washington. Her interests include transformative learning and expressive art therapy, and she is currently working on a book titled Images of the Sacred.
by Jacquelyn Barnes
I live in the collision between slowing down and being ambitious, between experiencing and interpreting, where freedom meets commitment.
I believe in the power of the will. The greatest obstacle we face is a lack of will. Willpowerlessness. I take my goals and my commitments very seriously. I was raised to.
They are always crashing into one another.
My parents told me I could do anything I set my mind to, but my mind refuses to settle on any worldly thing. While I find this frustrating, I also believe it’s an expression of God’s grace, keeping me set on what I actually think matters: that he is setting—has set—my path.
I studied to work in a publishing house. I wanted to work for Tin House magazine. To go to graduate school and study publishing. Then there was community, then there was a calling to Spokane where there is no Tin House, and where literary jobs are hard to come by. I stayed in Spokane because I believed—and maybe still believe—that I can be a part of what it is becoming, that my creative life could impact this town.
Graduating from college led me deeper into the Spokane community. I coordinated a concert series. I did faux finishing for a neighborhood restaurant. I worked in the mansion garden and the bed and breakfast kitchen. I helped cater a wedding and was a hostess for a few days in a brand new restaurant. I wrote for that restaurant’s blog and took photos of their food, which I then ate.
I began editing books for local authors—some more stubborn than others, but I found little work that I actually felt proud to have helped make its way into the world of readers. I edited few books I would ever recommend.
I taught myself hand-lettering and got a job at a local coffee shop. Online classes, reading books, designing greeting cards and wedding invitations. Learning how to taste coffee. Discovering I have a sensitive palate.
I always have goals, goals I could achieve if I could only choose one.
There is only one goal that I can choose, and I choose it over and over again. One constant goal. It is to know—and point to—God. My God. Jesus Christ. If I cannot stop at any given moment and let the Holy Spirit wash over me anew—if I am going too fast for that—then I have failed.
As an artist, I feel I have so much to prove, reaching for excellence in everything I try, but I am in such a hurry to see myself succeed. I feel the pressure to stay afloat, get what I want, contribute to my family, serve God and others.
To slow down, to make something beautiful only because beauty points to heaven, seems impossible in this life. So I am waiting for a better life.
Some people have goals like a staircase. They know exactly where they are going, rigid step after rigid step underfoot. That’s how my dad’s career has been and my mom’s Ironman training. I come from a family of determined, successful people, but I have goals like a river. It knows where it is taking me, but I don’t. What I strive for as I float seaward is to keep splashing my face with the water, play with the fish, keep looking at the stars, jump in every once in a while, to travel with company.
Jacquelyn Barnes is a freelance copyeditor, writer, and designer—as well as a barista at Indaba coffee bar (because she loves West Central and needs a reason to get out of the house on a daily basis). She has a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Whitworth University. Although originally from Portland, Oregon, she has elected to stay in Spokane where she currently lives with her newly wedded husband, Ty.
by Karissa Knox Sorrell
I live in a world where people pitch tents all time. I see them in their tents every day on Facebook, blogs, and Twitter. They stake their claim on a spot of land and defend it vigorously. Sometimes I put up a tent, too, on top of a tall soapbox from which I rant and rave. The problem is that for every tent up on a mountainside, there’s a tent in the valley, claiming that its place is better.
It’s getting harder and harder to see where I am. I was so busy setting up camp next to the right people and right opinions that I missed the doe and her fawn sneaking through the brush. I was so focused on defending my territory that I ignored the star-rise in the twilight sky. The air was laced with fall bonfire smoke, and I might have pulled up a chair to warm myself, but I was perfecting the inside of my tent instead.
The Christian faith has been reduced to argument, to fact and certainty, to proofs and defenses. I can’t wade through it all anymore. We’ve tried to contain God inside all of our human semantics and projections, but he is too big for that. I long to sense him away from all the theologizing and theorizing. I want to know him simply, naturally, without fuss and pomp. Perhaps finding him is easier than we make it out to be.
In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about being at the edge of the spiritual map: “There were no slate roofs or signs to the restroom out there, no printed programs or friendly ushers. There was just the unscripted encounter with the undomesticated God whose name was unpronounceable – that, and a bunch of flimsy tents lit up by lanterns inside, pitched by those who were either seeking such an encounter or huddling in their sleeping bags while they recovered from one.”
Give me the wilderness, because that’s the only place I can find God anymore. I can’t find him in the emotional gushing, and I can’t find him in the ancient prayers, and I can’t find him in the scholarly theology. But I can hear his presence in the wind, and I can see his greatness in the round, full moon, and I can taste his beauty in fruit from the tree.
Give me the wasteland, because that’s where I belong now. The tents out here are old and torn, and sometimes the sand and rain get in. But the touch of the natural elements on my skin speaks of creation and mercy.
Give me the misfits, because they look like me. Exhausted from trying, frustrated with old formulas, in awe at the beauty of their new home out here. I open my ragged tent to them, we share some bread, and I find hope in their eyes.
Give me the silence, because it has so much more to say that the arguments do. I listen carefully, and the silence sings of rest, nourishment, and gifts. My stuttering heart relaxes and welcomes a world full of fingerprints and footprints of beloved creatures.
I’ll pitch my tent at the edge of map, wherever that is. I hope you might join me. Together we can carry the buckets of water from the stream and gather twigs for the fire. As the day gets dark, you can tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine, and maybe, just as the last streak of light flickers on the horizon, we’ll find God.
Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer and educator from Nashville, Tennessee. She has an MFA from Murray State University, and her poetry and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Catapult Magazine, Parable Press, and Flycatcher. Karissa works with ESOL teachers and students in Nashville’s public school system. Read more of her writing on her blog, or follow her on Twitter @KKSorrell
Image is from here.
by Shannon McKee
I’m not sure when it was that I stopped dancing. Not with a company or with a performance group or in clubs, but just dancing–in the kitchen on a cool evening, in my polyester nightgown, moving to Whitney Houston. I know why I stopped, though. It likely had something to do with maturity, with growing up, with advancing to more important things, like anxiety and stress and looking respectable to peers.
Last fall, while studying abroad in a small Italian village, I lived in a renovated convent with seventeen artistic, intelligent, and passionate students. Free from the perks and pitfalls of technology, we were forced again to imagine.
One October evening, I heard music coming from the end of the hall. Intrigued, I strode down the long corridor, opened the door, and discovered two of my friends in this state: lights off, music booming, moving their hips and spinning liberally around their tiny room. I paused, stepped inside and began to move with the beat.
That first unselfconscious dance of my adulthood set my feet in a spacious place. In that moment, I realized there was no standard to be met; no committee stood in the corner, rating the point of my big toe. I threw perfectionism aside and took hold of delight.
Now home, I make sure to dance at least weekly. Truly, you can catch me if you ever stop by! You’ll find me often in the kitchen, playing Bethel or Bruce Springsteen, dancing made-up ballet, finding my way into praise.
But it upsets me that dance is no longer a distinctive part of my culture. Gradually, we’ve come to think the art belongs only to professionals, club hoppers, wedding-goers and children. But dance– whether amateur or professional, ballroom, ballet or crump– should be standard to us, because it ushers into freedom. It liberates us from the confines of strict movement, from using our bodies only to achieve tangible outcomes– hanging up the clothes on the line, pushing the lawnmower, writing the to-do list.
When we dance, our movements take us out of the ordinary, which are no longer executed with a task in mind, and we come to understand without thought that we were created to be. Our leaps and whirls begin to imitate both the disappointments and the deep pleasures of our hearts. And somehow, in the act of zealously moving our bodies, we are able to forget them.
If, as Paul writes, we don’t fight against flesh and blood, then the actions of our bodies must matter in the spiritual realm. If the body is capable of leading us into evil, then what if the body is also capable of conquering it? Joshua walked around Jericho, and walls fell; Elijah laid his body atop a dead boy, and the boy rose bright-eyed to life; Jesus refused food for forty days and opened the gates to His ministry.
Who knows what a midday jig might do. When God “turns our mourning into dancing,” He frees us from a despairing spiritual state by way of a physical one. When we dance, we engage in spiritual combat. We battle for joy.
The summer before my junior year of college, I coached a volleyball camp for high school girls. One afternoon, I happened to notice the court across from me, where an incredibly intense game was unfolding. During a break in play, the entire team stood huddled near the net, seriously discussing strategy for their next set–except for one girl, who clearly carried no more anxiety about the next game than about what she would eat for dinner afterwards.
Right there in the middle of the court, and with all her might, she was twirling.
Shannon McKee majored in English writing at Messiah College. She now cares for youth who have crossed the U.S.-Mexican border unaccompanied by their parents. She enjoys black tea with cream more than most things, adores her one-year-old niece, and would like to fly kites more frequently.
Image above is from here.