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
by Kyler Lacey
Gerry LaFemina is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA from Western Michigan University. He writes poetry and fiction and has taught at several schools including West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He has been published in Rock & Sling 9.2 and many other venues. His most recent books include Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist (2013) and Little Heretic (2014).
Kyler Lacey: I read your poems “Divinity, Pennsylvania” and “On a Photograph Beneath the Headlines” in Rock and Sling issue 9.2 and was really interested in some of the images that you use, particularly the ones with the woman wrestling the Dalmatian into the minivan and the fireman that was either perspiring or crying. The whole setting and everything about the place in “Divinity, Pennsylvania” is really intriguing. Is this town based off of somewhere you have actually been or is it a construct?
Gerry LaFemina: Well, I’m interested in place and how we exist in it: personally, emotionally, spiritually. “Divinity, Pennsylvania” got its start driving through rural western Pennsylvania between readings. I drove by several churches, two different cemeteries, and several gas wells within a couple of miles. So the key landscape images came from that. The woman with the Dalmatian didn’t appear till later: that image evolved from roadkill, to an accident, to a lot of other things—I wanted ambiguity there though. Is the Dalmatian dead? Hurt? I wanted to suggest a possible rebirth.
And no, there is no place named Divinity, Pennsylvania—at least not that I know of. Pennsylvania has a lot of interesting names though (Eighty-four, Laboratory…) so I thought Divinity sounded like the name of a city Pennsylvania could have.
“On a Photograph Beneath the Headlines” came from my imagination: there had been a fire in town in which a couple of kids had died, and I tried to write about the ruins. The poem didn’t quite open up that way, so then I started to focus on people who might have been there. When I settled on the fireman, the poem found itself.
Most of my poems are constructs. I work with what’s possible. Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town that it’s important to leave one’s triggering subject as quickly as possible. That seems right. So whatever I observe becomes mediated by the imagination or else it’s just reporting or worse, solipsistic. My life seems pretty boring—I lived it, I’ve told its stories, so I’m much more interested in the life of what’s possible.
KL: I was also interested in your section in the contributors note’s. There are a couple of questions I have based on what you said, but first, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you do to get thrown out of the catholic school?
GL: I went to a Christian Brothers school (as opposed to say a Jesuit school) and the Brothers were less than open minded. There were five types of kids at my school: jocks, stoners, Guidos, preps, and homeboys. They all hated each other. There was also one punk rock kid—that was me. And whereas they all couldn’t stand each other, they all hated me. After one fight too many, the principal—a good Christian Brother—told me that I chose to get beat up because I chose to be different. When I pointed out his hypocrisy, noting that Jesus was also considered a malcontent and rule breaker, I was told I could change or leave. I used some good four letter words and was told I’d made my choice. I remain convinced that his sense of Jesus was ill conceived.
KL: You have a really good way of describing your relationship to faith in the note, as well as talking about an interest in “poems of doubt” and a willingness to be the “little heretic.” I would like to know more about this and the way you see that coming out in your writing.
GL: I have no interest in writing a dogmatic poem. I have no interest in writing propaganda. Every poem, for me, is an attempt at understanding the universe and my role in it. That means asking questions. I write what I know, but only insofar as it helps me explore what I don’t know. Although there are stitches of autobiography in my poems, I’m much more interested in exploring the imagined life. The imagination is one of the things that separates us from other species. Whatever “god” there is is surely well beyond the human (he’s no good uncle that we pray to for ten dollars, and he gives it to us—that makes god human) and human comprehension.
More, I distrust blind faith. Faith only matters in the face of doubt. St. Thomas is my favorite saint. Love is only powerful in the times its challenged. So is faith.
KL: I noticed that in some of your poetry, there is a distinct difference in place. What is the importance of geographic setting in a poem for you? Could a poem like “The Sacrosanct” have taken place in another major city like Seattle or Detroit?
GL: I’m very much a poet of place. I started the poems that inevitably became Little Heretic by wanting to write New York as an adult. I had moved out of the City at the age of 22, and it had dramatically changed in 20 years or so. I moved back to NY part time, and started to write the City as I saw it, complete with its ghosts.
“The Sacrosanct” could have taken place in DC maybe or London. But it would be a different poem in other regards. That poem is entirely a construct: nothing in it is based on an actual event, but it comes from my understanding of those locales.
That said, my poems have always moved around. Vanishing Horizon has poems that take place in the Caribbean, in West Virginia, in Michigan, and in New York—all places I’ve been. I can’t help but be influenced by my landscape. The next book will be less grounded in a literal place but more so in an emotional place.
KL: In doing poetry set in places like Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, how important is in-person research and experience to your work? Do you go to a particular place before writing something there?
GL: I split my time between Western Maryland and New York. So that’s my research. But I tend to travel with a little notepad, and I’m always jotting down images and lines that might become something. Still, I don’t really consider it research. I don’t go places with the idea of writing about it. I go places and if I see something that catches my eye and ear, I might write about it.
But the landscape is always a reflection of the emotional landscape or the spiritual terrain I’m in. Our moods and obsessions always affect what we “see” and how we interpret what we see.
KL: How did your career as a writer begin? I mean, when did you start to write for your own enjoyment?
GL: I’ve wanted to write all my life. I was raised before things like Head Start, so I went to a daycare in the Brooklyn Public Library. I was surrounded by books as a young child, and I wanted to be an author all my life. In the scrapbook of my childhood that my mother kept, in kindergarten I said I wanted to be an author or an astronaut. In eighth grade, I wanted to be an attorney or an astronaut. I wrote stories, poems, and songs my entire life. I wrote punk rock songs and performed in bands; I wrote poems for girls I was too scared to ask out (but I was too scared to show them the poems, too) and I wrote a lot of bad fiction. I actually went to college to be a fiction writer, but I fell in love with poetry and began taking it seriously at the end of my freshman year.
KL: Where was your first publication?
GL: My first publication (that wasn’t a high school thing) was in a small magazine called Williwaw. It’s a magazine that’s long out of print now. But I remember thinking, because the envelope was so thick (they had sent the poems they hadn’t accepted back to me in the SASE) that it was a rejection letter. I was having a bad week so I put off opening the envelope for two days! It was a terrific feeling—I remember going to Thomas Lux (my teacher) and telling him immediately. And when the poem came out finally in the journal, it was a bit like a first kiss. I wanted more.
KL: How did you find out about Rock & Sling?
GL: I’ve known about Rock & Sling for awhile. I co-edited an anthology called Evensong: Contemporary American Poets of Spirituality, and in doing the research for that, I discovered new journals of spirituality and faith, and Rock & Sling was one of them. When I was at the Festival of Faith in Writing at Calvin College last year, I became reacquainted with the journal and met some of the editorial staff. I really liked the poems and the poets in the issues I picked up there, so I decided to send. It’s often a challenge for me to send to places that have a spiritual bent because I don’t think of my spirituality as mainstream in a particular way.
KL: You’ve published several books of poetry. Tell me a little bit about the experience of not only being published, but being published multiple times. Is the first time as good as the third or fourth time?
GL: Hmmmm. They’re different experiences. My first chapbook, Rest Stops, was very exciting—of course. It was a part of cooperative effort and the press did books by several of my friends, too. My first full length book, 23 Below, was published by a small press, but it got little support. Each book has had a different experience—all of them good, but each unique. It’s almost like asking which ex-girlfriend was “better.” I dated them all so I must have “loved” each of them, but my understanding and experience of what love is was different with each one—in part because of what I learned from the experiences dating the previous ones. So too, each book has had its own unique and very exciting experience in the world. That said, some editors and some presses have made certain experiences more pleasurable or more rewarding than others—and there are many factors that go into that. I don’t regret any of the books, and am happy with the presses I work with now.
KL: When you are putting together works for a book of poetry, do you write poems specifically for a book, or do you write the poems and arrange them into a book?
GL: I have no project in mind. I write poems, and whatever my unconscious obsessions are, they bubble up. I knew, with Little Heretic, I was writing a New York book, but I had no other parameters for choosing the work other than it would be the New York poems written between 2008 and 2013. I was trying to see New York as an adult. But even then, the process was the same: I knew it was time to “move on” as it were. So I pulled together all the poems and then started sorting through the poems that were keepers, the poems that surely weren’t and the poems that might be able to fit (maybe they needed work, maybe they needed to be re-envisioned, or maybe some could be combined). Then it’s a matter of finding a structure, of finding how the poems talk to each other, and how to create an arc of tension within that dialogue between the poems.
I’m just starting to work on a new book manuscript, tentatively titled The Story of Ash. It has lots of fire imagery in it, which is different for me. There are probably some 200 pages of poetry that I’ve written since Little Heretic (and maybe some poems that weren’t New York based that were written previously). I’ll have to cut that down to about 80 pages. Now it’s possible once I have that arc, once I have the order of the poems, I might discover (and I have in the past) the book needs poem to fill in the gap. Then I have to write that poem.
For instance, when I was putting together Vanishing Horizon I decided to separate these short lyric poems titled after tropical fruits and to use them as subtle chapter breaks. Well, in order for those “chapters” to be roughly the same length and to make sense, I needed another tropical fruit poem, and it had to move the book a certain way. So I wrote “Pineapple.”
KL: How long does it take you to write a poem from start to publication? Do you usually take a long time and sit on it before sending it out? Or do you mail it off once you feel like it is ready?
GL: I’m in no hurry to finish a poem. It often takes months from initial line to final draft. A lot of times I have just a fragment of a poem for several weeks. Once I decide to type it up, then I play with it. I have a few people who see typed poems and may give me some feedback. At a certain point, though, the poem’s got to get off my desk.
I won’t deny, though, certain poems, for whatever reason, excite me to keep working on them: maybe I’m doing something new, or else hitting some subject or some spark of language that feels “new” or fresh and I want to explore it more. Those tend to go through early drafts much more quickly than others.
I don’t know how to decide a poem’s “finished.” Even poems that have appeared in journals may get edited before they get in a book, and in all the copies of books I regularly use when I give readings have handwritten edits in them.
KL: Is there a particular medium that you prefer to draft in? Pen, pencil, computer, typewriter, or something else?
GL: I write poems in longhand, preferably in a black, medium point, roller ball pen. There’s something about the rhythm of my hand writing that feels essential to the rhythm of my poems. But also, I don’t want to see the poems looking like they’re “in print” too soon. When I look at a poem that comes off the computer it looks so clean—I can even put it in a font I like, etc. It looks too finished, too polished, so it’s easier to miss some of the flaws.
KL: Do you feel like you feel like your teaching career or your time as a student has been more beneficial to your writing?
GL: My time as a student prepped me for my time as a teacher. My years doing an MFA helped solidify my foundations as a poet. But it’s my work helping others build their foundations that reminds me to ask myself the tougher questions about poetry—to keep pushing, and to remember that there’s still so much to learn.
Kyler Lacey is currently an undergraduate at Whitworth University on the road to graduating with his B.A. in English at age twenty. When he isn’t fixing typewriters or working on his pink ’57 Chevy, he likes to spend his time out hiking in the woods near where he lives in the Pacific Northwest.
by T.J. Pancake
“Any dog under fifty pounds is a cat, and cats are pointless.” – Ron Swanson
It seems that in the world of domesticated animals and owners, there is a hierarchy of sorts. Dogs, clearly, are the—ahem—top dogs, as are their owners who love them and rub their faces, feed them leftovers, and dress them up like Santa around Christmastime. Fish are probably next, mostly for children to win at carnivals, but they can also represent a level of sophistication that comes with top-of-the-line tanks and cleaning mechanisms and precision temperature monitoring and downed pirate ships. Bunnies and the hamster/guinea pig/gerbil family are cute, but more rare, and smell miserable—ask my sister. Anything reptilian is exotic in a way not offered by the mammalian options, although they’re generally for teenage boys who are a little bit strange, and might torture ants in the backyard, and be named Sid.
Cats, perhaps related to their personalities, are an enigma. No other pet causes such extreme polarization. Not even politics divide people the way cats do. I am generally of the persuasion that if God had created animals to be domesticated, he would have made them complete with tiny sweaters and collars, bowls that say Fido or Felix, and their own personal pillow to lie around on all day. But God did not. He created them with claws and teeth and strong hind legs to outrun and pounce on their prey. And if animals were created for the wild, why, in fact, do we not leave them in the wild? We invite these barbaric creatures inside of our homes to bite our children and “do their business” on our floors. What Madness! My wife does not share this persuasion about animals.
We have a cat. His name is Ron Swanson, after the character from the TV show Parks and Recreation. I love Karly, loved her enough to ask her to marry me, and I decided this past September, a month before our wedding, that I would prove this love for her by surprising her with a tiny wedding present that would cuddle up with her and melt her heart, and she would remember me, her hero, and would tell me that she loved me back. Therefore, when a coworker mentioned that his in-laws had a litter of kittens they were giving away, I got the address and told Karly we were going on an adventure. The kittens were so small they could stand on my flattened palm. One started walking toward us, jittery on its feet, like it was still working out how to use its legs. I think Karly cried a little. My plan worked.
When we first got Ron, he was extremely little, and, admittedly, cute. I would dangle an old shoestring in front of him, and he would chase it round in circles, rearing back on his hind legs, front paws up like a center in basketball, ready to swat. He would sprint across the floor with his back arched and his hind legs swung around like they were trying to outrun him. He would attack my hands, biting at my knuckles and my wrist, with his baby teeth. It tickled.
Now, Ron is a teenager, with all the rebellion that comes with it. I have kindly explained to him the value in staying off of the dinner table, as we would appreciate not eating his hair. I have disciplined him by spraying him with a high-powered squirt bottle in a futile Pavlovian attempt to train him. I have asked him to please, get his dirty, litter-encrusted paws off my table before I leave him out in the snow to fend for himself—“You live in my house, you live by my rules!” I have apologized after saying hurtful things to him. And yet, every time I leave the room, I hear him knocking around a cup or a plate, playing with the silverware. He will get up onto the coffee table, look me in the eyes, and slide a cup half-full of water off onto the floor without blinking. I wonder why I ever let this soulless beast into my home.
This is a new scene with Ron: I am leaving for work in the morning after Karly is already gone. I put on my coat and sling my bag over my shoulder. Ron comes up and lies down in the chair near the door. “Watch it,” I tell him, making sure he isn’t going to make a run for it as soon as I crack the door. He just blinks at me lazily. I open the door and slide out, pulling it shut behind me. I hear the blinds shaking as I lock the door and look over to see Ron, who has climbed up onto the windowsill and is watching me. He puts his paw up onto the glass. I walk over and tap the window with my index finger. There’s something about that inane cat that makes me love him despite the table-dirtying, cup-tipping, morning-waking, writing-interrupting madness he brings to my life. It’s something not quite deserved. He spends the majority of his time intentionally annoying me. I have given him clear instructions, which he has actively ignored. But he’s still mine.
I realize now that this is too predictable of an ending, where time and a cute little face melt the icy villain’s heart. But it occurs to me that it was less that I was won over by Ron in time. It’s more that I decided from the beginning that I was going to love him. I loved him before we got in the car to pick him up, before I explored the backseat with him when Karly went in to buy him food and litter, before he slept on my neck for the first two weeks we had him, and, yes, before he shattered three of our nice glasses and gashed my forehead while I was sleeping. I vowed to Karly that I would. So even when he is at his worst, I know that I will give him Grace, because he’s my strange domesticated animal and I love him. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
TJ Pancake went to Cedarville University, where he studied to Preseminary Bible in preparation for becoming a pastor. Through the years, he has continually rediscovered a love for writing. He lives in Dayton, OH where he is helping to plant a church and hoping to improve his writing skills. His essay, “Against Grandiosity,” appeared in issue 9 of Mock Turtle Zine. He also loves food. Especially when it’s fried. Image from pixshark.com
by Karissa Knox Sorrell
In his poem “Ode to the Unbroken World, Which is Coming,” Thomas Lux wrote:
It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
Once I would have thought of those two places as opposites. Churches were where the good people went, and saloons – or bars, in our modern day – were where bad people went. It’s so easy to slap labels on people, isn’t it? I bet that while I was looking down my nose at the bar folks, they were making fun of my goody-girl ways.
The thing that strikes me about these lines is that Christianity is so full of talk of brokenness, and Jesus is where we are supposed to find healing, redemption, and unbroken-ness. Yet Lux suggests that even the bar people are full of decency and renewal.
As a suburban mom, I’m not big into the bar scene, but recently I went to a bar to see a band. It was a local band that some friends and I used to follow right after we graduated from college. The band went defunct around 2009, but they were having a reunion show, and I thought it would be fun to relive old times with my friend Karla.
We sat in the balcony of the bar and I people-watched to pass the time until our band went on. The place was moving with activity: waitresses maneuvering around loiterers to deliver trays of drinks to tables full of glittery women, bearded men standing around the bar with beer bottles in hand, band members greeting old fans and friends in the middle of it all.
I watched Karla mingle with the friends she’d made during that time in our lives. Right before then, Karla had been halfway through seminary when she’d had to move home in hopes of getting custody of her nephew. The plan fell through, but Karla ended up staying and finishing her theology degree at a local university. Still, the disappointment was palpable. As I watched her laugh and reminisce with old friends, I wondered if the bar and music scene had saved Karla back then.
When the band we came to see finally went on, it was almost midnight. I sang along with the old tunes, remembering all those nights in our early twenties when we followed this band from venue to venue. At the time, I was trying hard to fit in. I’d grown up in an alcohol-free Christian home and I was exploring new territory. I usually ordered the only mixed drink I knew: rum and Coke. I would stand there, sipping on that tiny straw, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. The truth is, though I had some fun, I always felt like an outsider.
* * *
The thing is that sometimes I get the same feeling when I go to church. I stare at the icons with their blue and green hues and golden halos, and I listen to the harmonies of the choir. I chime in on the soprano line sometimes, and when it gets too high, I switch over to alto. I cross myself when the Trinity is mentioned, and I gently intone the phrase “Most Holy Theotokos save us,” which is sung whenever Mary is referred to. There is a quiet beauty to this place, these rituals.
I think what I can’t bear is the thought that we are, on our own, evil. That because a mythical man and woman ate some fruit long ago, we have been deemed broken. I don’t claim to believe that story anymore, although I don’t know what to do with Jesus without it. After all, this is how the world was supposed to be saved: through church, through Jesus.
I wonder if our idea of salvation got warped somewhere. I think it’s possible that God created us and thought we were good. And he still does. Maybe the way Jesus lived his life is our salvation, too. Perhaps it is in the living of it that we are saved: in the loving of outcasts, in the forgiving of others, in the dining with tax collectors, in the simple lifestyles, in the caring for the poor.
These thoughts, of course, go against the formulas and teachings of the church, so it’s no wonder that I feel a little uneasy at church anymore. I cringe at every talk of sin; I also wonder if I am being judged for my rebellious questions.
I can, however, believe in the hope of Lux’s unbroken world. I can believe that all things can be remade and renewed. At the end of his poem, Lux reminds us again of the promise of such a realm:
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks.
Again, he uses imagery from both church and an old western saloon movie. Can either of them save us?
Maybe I am simply one of the loudhailers, announcing with gusto that yes, a healed world is coming, someday soon, though I can’t exactly explain how.
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 from thebeersessions.com
by Amy Hendricks
What makes someone kind? Do they wear fuzzy sweaters and bake chocolate chip cookies all year round? Do they help you move a king-size mattress up to your fifth floor apartment and emerge with a smile on their face? Do they laugh at your stupid jokes at parties? Sure, these things show kindness, but what makes a person really kind?
I’ve been told God is kind, that his kindness is everlasting and is shown to all people. But perhaps that’s just hearsay or a pat answer to hush the negativity of the world. Sometimes, life requires more out of us than we can give, and we’re left asking, “where is the kindness?”
On May 10, 2011, I was hit and run over by a pick-up truck. Yep, this wasn’t just a bad day where I felt like I was hit by a truck. No, I was actually hit. I was on my way to work and, awaiting the “Walk” signal at the intersection of Riverside and Division, I remember taking a deep breath and thinking to myself, “It’s a great day.” The white lit stick figure appeared, and I began to cross the street.
I didn’t actually see the truck coming. I felt it. The heat of the front grill singed my left cheek, the bumper hit my left hip, and before I knew it, I was flying 20 feet in the air. While in actuality all of this happened in a matter of seconds, from my perspective every second bulged with thousands of movements, actions, and thoughts- like a sick, choreographed dance. The finale of the event happened quickly: Ladies and Gentleman- The final act- Starring Dodge Ram truck tire, and yours truly as the speedbump. Thump-thump. The truck skidded to a stop. A flurry of Oh Shits, sirens, police reports, ER imaging, and days in the hospital followed.
Three years later, I’m here. On the outside, I look healthy and talk normally. On the inside, broken- en route to healing- but broken. The accident left me with scars, broken bones, pain, and, most disturbingly, PTSD. The sound of trucks accelerating, the sight of crosswalks, the visual of oncoming traffic, the heat of the hood of a car- all of these serve as anchors that tether me to the undeniable truth- that this terrible, horrific thing was not a dream, or even a nightmare, but happened and happened to me. I am haunted by the ghosts of my own story.
So, what does all this have to do with kindness, and, most of all, God’s kindness? Mentally and emotionally, I return to the scene daily. I know every patch of concrete, every word exchanged, every sound. Just as the event carried me that day, I carry the event with me- an awkward piece of luggage I tote around. I find myself looking around at the people at the scene, still frames in my memory. I see mostly nearby drivers, a few construction cones, a piece of discarded gum.
But one figure stands out- a man on the sidewalk, hands in pocket, looking with deep concern and distress at each step of the event. He doesn’t run to the rescue, try to fix me, but stands there, tears in his eyes. In our culture, hands in pockets can communicate lots of things- awkwardness, bashfulness, or even nervousness. But for some reason, the fact that he stands there with his hands in his pockets doesn’t worry me. I am mesmerized by his posture. It’s a posture that surrenders me to the events at hand, and yet, as he gazes into my eyes, yields to horror of that day with the rawest of emotions: fear. I see him there as he enters into the chaos and the flurry. He is worried as I am worried, flattened as I am flattened. This figure is my kindness, and, if I may have such a wild-haired idea, is God- a figure that entered into the mayhem that day.
And, three years down the road, I have found that God continues to offer me this same mysterious kindness. I work at a thrift store, and the chaos, though different, lives on. I see a colorful bunch of people come into our store every day- homeless, drunk, wealthy, academic- you name it! Imagine a cesspool of cigarette smoke, cool clothes, and fake jewels. Some of our customers are what society would label “crazy”- they might talk to themselves, have bizarre twitches, or stink. But, in all their baggage, I see a part of me in them- maybe fear, loss, anger. Eddie confesses his love for strawberry ice cream for the fourth time, Mariam covers her bald head after having chemo and says she’s been on vacation, Tim hacks hard after his third pack of the day.
I see them like still frames in my memory- us humans together in all of our chaos and PTSD and shit. But, as we pass kindness to each other, we dole out waterwings- looks of concern, a listening ear, a knowing glance- that help us float, however awkwardly, through the muck and mire of life. I was hit and run over by a truck, and my customers, my friends, have been run over by addiction, cancer, or grief. My story, a tragedy, also tells the story of kindness, and has taught me to watch people, put my hands in my pockets, and gaze into the beautiful, chaotic face of humanity.
Amy Hendricks graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in Sociology in 2008. She currently runs a non-profit in Spokane with her husband, Brent, called Global Neighborhood, which provides development opportunities for former-refugees. Along with the three businesses Global Neighborhood operates, Global Neighborhood Thrift, GN Clean, and Blue Button, Amy delights in organic gardening, walking through the forest, and going on adventures with her dog, Henry.
Image is from here.
by Doug Sugano
In my mind, this post is about a red hoodie. You may disagree, but it’s my post.
My wife, Linda, and I have been friends with Jeannie and Tim for nearly thirty-five years (does it seem longer or shorter written out in words or numerically–35?). Many years ago, I was at grad school at UCLA, Linda was teaching, and we met Tim and Jeannie at one of those grad school Friday-night mixers at a classmates’ apartment. It was fairly uncomfortable for both of us, as we’re both introverts, and the room seemed to be filled with extroverted intellectuals clutching sophisticated adult drinks. Vicky and Richard (both in my program) introduced us to Tim and Jeannie, whom we were immediately drawn to–an Asian/EuroAm couple who weren’t out to impress the room with their literary, allusive banter. At that time, Tim was finishing his Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling degree at Fuller Seminary; Jeannie was working at the Clark Library, one of UCLA’s special collection libraries. Through that mixer, we discovered a lot of things in common besides our love of literature and English Department folk we knew. Long story short, we ended up fast friends–attending the same church and singing in choir together, being in the same Bible study, eating Primo’s donuts, and often meeting at the Zehnders’ house to sing, play music, and eat great food.
About four years later, we decided to vacation together since Jeannie had a line on a renovated fishing shack in Maine. Great trip, great food (incredibly fresh and cheap lobster), and great company. We discovered that L.L. Bean was the place to be on weekend evenings in Portland, Maine. I’ll always remember that Tim (now a therapist) felt the need to soothe the live lobsters (with warm water, thorax massage, and verbal reassurances) before we ate them with melted butter. On that trip, Linda (pregnant with our older daughter, Katy) picked up a red Port Clyde sweatshirt and has always fondly associated that hoodie with the pregnancy.
Fast forward 29 (twenty-nine) years. A few months ago, in June, our daughter Katy and her husband TJ met us at the beach. We were celebrating her pregnancy, and for the occasion, Linda decided to bring out the red hoodie which she had religiously kept for such an occasion. No magic or anything–just some old photo albums and some animated storytelling about a vacation in Port Clyde, Maine that we took before Katy was born, a long time ago.
At the beginning of August, we met up with Tim and Jeannie (whom we called “Jim and Teannie”) in Seattle because her play was being performed. Even though we’d kept in touch, we’d not seen each other for about 10 years. Jeannie, an actor, has been working on her craft as a playwright for a while. She’d spent several years on this play, Hold These Truths–first researching, then revising and workshopping it, all over the U.S. The play is the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, the famous World War II dissident who defied the internment order for Japanese Americans and finally won his case in the Supreme Court four decades after the event.
We were fortunate enough to hear Jeannie give a talk about her process in writing the play, and we finally got to see it, brilliantly performed by Joel de la Fuente. It was a breathtaking performance, not only because Joel played over twenty parts and because Jeannie had done such a marvelous job of writing, but because Hirabayashi’s story is also my family’s story of people denied their civil rights during WWII.
Rather than being maudlin and depressing, the play was alternately funny, deeply religious, and profoundly thoughtful. At several points in the play, Hirabayashi wonders about the condition of the world–whether the world is an inherently decent place (of light) that is checkered by evil acts, or an inherently dark and evil place that is occasionally dotted with points of light. The play routinely asked about the role that people of color, particularly Japanese Americans, played in US society.
During the performance, it was clear that Joel, the play, and Jeannie had control of the audience–gasps, chuckles, breath holding, a lot of crying (you know, men wiping their cheeks ) and finally, standing ovations for both Joel and Jeannie. Besides the personal pride I felt in being Jeannie’s friend, I also felt a sense of relief–that I could feel proud to be an American because there was, at least, a theatre full of people who understood how it feels to be allowed only partial participation in our society. That theatrical experience may have changed how those in the audience viewed Japanese Americans, folks of color in the U.S., and events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s sobering to think about how far our society needs to journey so that all are treated equally, but it’s also heartening to know that there is good theatre, literature, and art which can change our hearts, too.
The good news. Linda and I will be grandparents for the first time soon. Jeannie’s play, Hold These Truths, has been picked up by Seattle ACT for its 2015 season. Please look for it, and if you can, go see it. The red hoodie is likely not responsible for any of these things. Or is it?
Doug Sugano is now the proud grandfather of a lovely and healthy granddaughter, Naomi. Other than that, Doug has been teaching in Whitworth University’s English Department for a long time and currently directs Whitworth’s Honors Program, which has been up and running for over three years.
Photo by dangerismycat.
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.