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March 26, 2015 / nicolespokane

An Interview with Gerry LaFemina

little heretic cover

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.

March 19, 2015 / nicolespokane

On Cat Ownership

cat with boat

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

March 2, 2015 / nicolespokane

On the Advent of an Unbroken World

beer sessions

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 FlycatcherKarissa 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

February 10, 2015 / nicolespokane

The Gaze of Kindness


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.


January 30, 2015 / nicolespokane

The Motherhood of the Traveling Hoodie

red sweatshirt

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.

January 19, 2015 / nicolespokane

“The Heart Dies of This Sweetness”: On Endings

Oaxaca Leah Silvieus

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.

January 12, 2015 / nicolespokane

Invisibly Close: Why I Won’t Get a Tattoo

Southern stingray

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.

January 2, 2015 / nicolespokane

Once More, With Brio

brio magazine

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.

December 24, 2014 / nicolespokane

You Are 60 Percent Fruit Fly

adult female fruit fly

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.

December 16, 2014 / nicolespokane

Solvitur Ambulando


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.


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