by Lyle Enright
In the opening pages of her Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor explains her project to God:
“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.”
I felt a delightful irony as I read this, because I had come to O’Connor’s journal with the inverse attitude: she longed to “write a beautiful prayer,” though she had “nothing to do it from.” I had nothing from which to pray, and so I wanted to pray her beautiful prayers—hers among others—to try and find it.
I grew up in a praying household, one which included me in the dinnertime rotation and set aside time to ask protection over our doors and windows at night. All of these were good things, but they never moved in me the ways they did my mother and father. I often parsed those prayers for the right economy. My mom, at least, still remembers one time when I systematically thanked the Lord for every item on the table, down to the napkins and the ketchup. My father did the most pious thing he could have done and laughed, prodigiously, though I was sure I’d provoked some sort of blasphemy.
So when I learned the Lord’s Prayer, it was one of the most liberating moments of my early religious development. The roteness and authority of it were exactly what I needed to get through meal- and bed-time rituals. However, my father (in an exceedingly strange move for a pastor, I felt) rarely let me get away with simply praying to God the way God prayed to himself. “I want to hear your words,” he would tell me, yawning as he tucked me in. “I want to hear what you say, what you think.”
The idea that this had ever been the point of prayer was news to me, though I didn’t tell him that. I obliged, but somehow never really felt right about it. This is still true, over twenty years later, and all the more acute. Years of literary theory have ruined me in the search for “my own words”—though perhaps Christian college prayers, with their variously recombinant vocabulary of “just,” “good,” “father,” “move,” and the occasional “Whattap Jesus” did that for me a long time ago.
There is an undeniable pragmatism, under such circumstances, in defaulting to “groans too deep for words” but that doesn’t nourish forever either, and I realized that what those groans lacked was grammar. The language of everyone around me was sincere, but it often prayed God down from Heaven into “this place” (wherever that was). I wanted to pray God up, through my body and into the world, and had no vocabulary for doing so. Not until I looked, of course.
Slowly, I found that what I wanted was in those “rote” prayers which so many people had told me were empty and made you complacent. I found it first in the poetry of John Donne and Czeslaw Milosz, then in the Prayer Journal of Flannery O’Connor, but most of all I found it in the Prayer Book of the Orthodox Church, in the trisagion and hesychasm, in the Third Prayer of St. Antioch. Again I felt liberated; I wasn’t stumbling over myself, looking for words to say, but was mulling over the words in front of me, wondering what logic or wonder knit them together this way, how I might be changed by their mere presence. Strangely, I didn’t feel so much that I was using these prayers as being used by them.
So when my cousin went into labor toward the end of December, I did something I’d never done before: I went alone into my office and said vigil. I got on my knees, barely recognizing myself: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us,” I said three times, crossing myself, bowing. “I entreat You who loves all people to bless Your servant who is with child.” I was amazed that someone in the past had penned this prayer for this purpose. “Ease her labor, bring her to safe delivery. Open the treasury of Your mercies and Your compassion to her.” I did this ritual three times, each time becoming more convinced that I was in the proper place, the proper posture for something like true intercession—facilitating willing Spirit into rigid, anxious matter.
I bowed one last time and left my place. My mother called me the next morning to tell me that a healthy baby girl had been born, an easy delivery.
“I know,” I said, cutting my words short so as not to carelessly say: “I was there.”
Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where he studies religion and literature. He blogs inconsistently at allmyfootnotes.wordpress.com , and you can also follow him on Twitter @YnysDyn.
by Hailee Meyers
- Loved ones over ambition.
- Be a better big sister.
- Take care of yourself.
- Talk to God.
Our house is divided into three piles: the things we will give away (a substantial pile), the things we will keep (a less substantial pile), and the things we know we shouldn’t keep but can’t bear to part with yet (a decent pile). We are stripping our house layer by layer, occasionally stopping to wonder out loud if it feels like we’re trying to erase her and purify this space. Our mother is in every facet of the house; she picked the colors, sewed the curtains herself (one handed, no less), and embroidered half of the wall decorations. Her cookbooks still overwhelm the bookshelf in the kitchen. Her British television shows now fill her empty bureau. Her blankets are piled in an armchair in the corner. A rose colored handkerchief I found tucked in her scarves is now in a glittery stemless wineglass on my bookshelf.
We removed the painful things first, anything that reminded us of her physical hardship: her wheelchairs, the walker, the Hoyer, her BiPap machine. Those were an easy choice, the first things we all silently agreed to move the next morning. They weren’t her; they were a reminder she was trapped in her body every day. The space they occupied was avoided, and the house seemed quieter once they were taken away, like the spoiled foundation removed. Now we could mourn without being reminded of her pain.
Ending the year with a death marks every New Year from now on with a two-fold grief: the anniversary of her death and a reminder that we are heading into another year without her. There’s a vacuum of space that now occupies our lives, sometimes so large and unyielding that I can’t imagine ever finding a way through it or around it. There are times when forgetting for a few moments brings a larger bout of grief, and I wonder whether the sense of loss I feel is big enough to match how important she was.
- Loved ones over ambition (because one more night a week would have meant more time with her).
- Be a better big sister (because it’s one of the last things she made you promise).
- Take care of yourself (because if you had gone to the doctor earlier, she may not have gotten sick or you could have given her your antibiotics).
- Talk to God (because she went peacefully; she didn’t suffer, and you had a chance to say goodbye. That’s more than you hoped for. Thank God every day that you had more time with her than anyone expected).
- Be kinder to yourself.
Hailee Meyers is a 2015 Whitworth graduate with degrees in English and Political Science. After earning a certificate in publishing from the Denver Publishing Institute, she took a job with the Sheriff’s office to be close to family for her mom’s last few years (or months as it turned out). Currently, she is earning her next belt at Krav Maga Spokane and planning a re-entry into publishing and writing.
by Karen Bjork Kubin
There’s so much in the news these days. So much in the lives of those I love. The stakes are high everywhere I turn, and everything demands a response. So I find myself renewing old vows: to care for myself better so I can better care for others. To stand tall, both physically and emotionally. And to adopt and live out a new word for something I have been working at for several years, now.
I observed Advent the last few years by looking for light of all kinds and sharing it on my blog. It is a tradition that feels increasingly important. What better way to handle the shortening days? What better way to wait for the Light of the World than to keep my eyes open for harbingers? This year I got completely distracted, though, when I took a picture of the Christmas tree through the lens of a teleidoscope. A teleidoscope is a type of kaleidoscope with an open end and a lens which, instead of making patterns out of shifting beads, allows a person to make patterns out of the world around them, broken and reflected. I fell in love with the possibilities. Everything I looked at was changed. A pile of laundry became a bouquet of poinsettias. The fish tank turned into a mosaic from some ancient holy place. The bare ceiling in the hallway burst open with glowing petals.
All of this took work. The teleidoscope my husband brought home from Salvation Army is heavy brass, and nearly as long as my arm. Pointing it at my subject was not a big deal. Adjusting the lens, maintaining the angle, and then holding my phone up to the eyepiece and trying to focus on the image inside was a lot more difficult. I usually took pictures until my arms were too sore to keep holding it up. But the effort was worth it. It is a powerful act, seeing the world transformed.
What does this mean, exactly, that I will twist and tire myself with the effort of turning laundry into something beautiful? It will still be laundry. And I do not mind—let it be laundry. But also let it be beauty, and mystery. This is where my resolve lies this year. I am attaching myself to the word shift. I want to hone it to a fine blade and carry it with me everywhere. Shift perspective, shift my focus, shift my gaze. Acknowledge what is there in front of me, always. But then see it new, and more, and beyond.
A violinist by training, Karen Bjork Kubin works as a free-lance musician, teacher, and conductor in a small Midwestern city. Her poems and essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, Whale Road Review, Off the Coast, How to Pack for Church Camp, and American Suzuki Journal, among other publications. She blogs occasionally about life, art, and other things at kbkubin.blogspot.com.
by Sunni Wilkinson
In The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” backup singer Merry Clayton reaches a peak of such emotion, such electricity, that her voice breaks as she practically screams the lyrics (“Murder”) just before “It’s just a shot away.” If you listen carefully, you can hear someone in the background holler, “Wooh!” and you can almost see the people in the recording studio stand back a little, as if they just caught the woman levitating for a moment, reaching into a place deeper, more primal than we normally dare go.
In an interview with NPR back in 2013, Clayton describes how she was pregnant at the time of that recording, how she had no idea who the Rolling Stones were, how she got called at midnight to go in and do a recording that took a total of three takes and became the hallmark of her career. And how that very night she miscarried.
Music elicits a physical response from listeners. Sometimes we sacrifice part of us to it. Sometimes we’re given something back.
“I think.” That was all she could say. She could never finish the statement: about my mom’s haircut, my boyfriend who shyly waved and smiled, the state of her fingernails. After a massive stroke left my grandma almost unable to speak, she had to defer to comical facial expressions, pointing, and shaking her head to communicate. But the two words she could still hang onto were “I” and “think,” and it struck me as deeply profound that she could tell us, in two words, that she was, in fact, still entrenched in thinking, still there, a tiny “I” in a wheelchair considering the world around her. Even though she couldn’t finish the statements, we learned to read her. My mom’s haircut looked nice. My soon-to-be fiancé was a keeper (the wink helped). Her fingernails needed some attention. Would I use that shimmery pink polish in the top drawer? (She fumbled for it and pulled it out with a nod of approval.)
In this way, and over the course of six years, we had conversations about everything we always did: she, giving her approval or disapproval, poking me in jest or flashing a look that said she still worried about my parents’ marriage; and me, laughing in return or quietly taking her hand for a minute while we both shrugged our shoulders and felt the weight together.
Expression was not new to her. Years before, when my cousins and I were young, we would gather around for her recitation of “Little Orphan Annie.” She’d playfully poke us, like a witch with her gnarled witch finger, when she came to the part that said “and the goblins’ll gitch you if you don’t watch out!”
But it was music that drew out her deepest emotions, her greatest performances. When we were very young, she would sing to us at night the saddest songs you can imagine. One was about a child searching for her kitty all over the house and yard only to discover that her father has drowned it. “Kitty oh kitty, my poor little kitty” went the refrain, and her voice would reach up into a wavering falsetto, and we felt a great sadness wash over us. Another song called “Hobo Billy” described the life of a lonely hobo, and at the end she’d yodel “ho-oo-oh bo-ooh-oh, Billy!” in a way that mimicked the call of the train carrying the old hobo away.
My mother had been telling me for months that something miraculous happened to my grandma at the church services they held in the care center where she lived now. I was sure she was exaggerating, willing herself to hear things, to believe in healings and the proximate business of angels. But one week when I happened to be in town on a Sunday, I agreed to accompany my mom and grandma to church. Services were held in a small “chapel” – a large room decorated with vases of fake flowers and paintings of Jesus, a baby grand piano in a corner.
As I settled into a chair next to my grandma’s wheelchair, the pianist started to play a hymn – “How Great Thou Art” or “Sweet Hour of Prayer” or one of the usual Mormon hymns we all knew by heart – and a look of excitement crossed my grandma’s face. As the music conductor lifted her hand to lead the singers, my grandma raised her head a little higher and, to my utter surprise, began to sing out – clearly – every word of the hymn. She sang words she hadn’t spoken for over six years, sang them loud and with the same vibrato she’d always had.
Song, memory, and the body are inextricably linked. A study on the American Stroke Association website recounts the story of a young man who lived in Sweden in 1736 who was brain-damaged after an accident and rendered speechless. He astounded townspeople one day at church by singing church hymns alongside them as clearly as he ever did.
The study refers to the language disorder as “aphasia” and says that “every clinician working with aphasia has seen individuals who can produce words only when singing.” But the songs can’t be made up just to sing what they want to say. They must be familiar to the patient, music from their past.
Melody and lyrics occupy a particular place in the brain, a place distanced from language. Aphasia typically shows that while the left side of the brain (language ability) is damaged, the right side (music and “the melody of speech”) is unharmed and still able to perform.
My grandma had been a nervous person, unsure of herself and even afraid of other people at times, something that had escalated just before her stroke. But she’d always seemed perfectly confident, perfectly at ease with herself when she was singing.
When Merry Clayton reaches her music-induced out-of-body moment, my whole body is listening, feeling it along with her. She’s stretching the fibers of something deep within. It’s a reaching that, for her, means something breaks. For others, like my grandmother, it’s a loosening, a sleeve snagged on a branch and wrestled free, a bird lifting off, almost weightless, after a long, heavy night.
Sunni 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
by Carrie Heimer
Literature can be a training ground for putting faith into action. Even second-hand or imagined encounters can spur real compassion in the physical future. When we reach out in words, where we’re safe, we prepare to cross a boundary with respect at our next opportunity. We prepare to offer the comfort we weren’t able or brave enough to offer when our last chance arose.
In “For the Homeless Woman Whose Nails You Painted,” allowing a stranger to hold her hands gently and long enough to paint her fingernails was intensely vulnerable. My friend who shared the story made the gesture as part of a group offering dignity to homeless women in Portland by restoring some safe measure of a femininity too often exploited. My heart breaks for all the ways the female body becomes a target and a burden. The impulse of my poems is to offer the dignity of recognition. I write to say I see you, which is what God says to us again and always. I see you, and you are valuable to me.
More of Carrie Heimer’s work is available at poetryissalt.com.
by Lauren Klepinger
Bookworms and publishing nerds at AWP often feel like Christmas came again in the spring. You enter a magical wonderland with all of your favorite literary paraphernalia, and you go home loaded with gifts (for others, or for yourself). So, it’s only fitting that I represent my experience with the fictional character who can best match the enthusiasm of a writer/editor/bookworm landed in
the AWP conference Literary Mecca: Buddy the Elf.
Of course, the hype for the book fair had been going on for weeks.
And when we stepped through the double doors for the first time, our faces looked something like this:
You can find programs and publishers for virtually any specific literary interest.
I found my own favorite booths…
…and visited them a few too many times to deliberate which books were worthy of my precious luggage space:
When I got back to my hotel, though, I realized I still took too much free stuff.
Of course, we also spent plenty of time selling our own merchandise with that good retail smile.
I also can’t leave out the panels and readings, equal parts entertaining and informative:
But no true bookworm is satisfied without also taking a tour of the local coffee shops…
…and finishing off the day with some good food.
All told, AWP is a whirlwind of enthusiasm for literary culture and all the unique and rich artifacts it produces. And it makes me never want to leave.
Lauren Klepinger is a junior English major at Whitworth University, and the Assistant Poetry Editor for Rock & Sling.
by Joshua Tuttle
This was my final pilgrimage to AWP as staff member of Rock & Sling, and I’m having some trouble absorbing that fact. It feels like maybe six months ago I walked into Thom’s office and said I wanted to be part of the magazine. In reality, that was years ago, and as I look back on the last few years, I can’t recommend joining a magazine enough. You meet weird and wonderful people, you get to learn about literature, and you get to participate in making the world a more beautiful place.
This AWP felt different than previous ones. The impact of the election was everywhere, and in some ways that saddened me. I know that they say art is always political, but in past years it felt like there was more emphasis on the fact that art can change the world through beauty. This year, it felt more like everyone was hung up on the ugliness, and were so eager to fight it that they forgot that our chief weapon in that battle isn’t anger, but beauty. Considering where the artists are coming from, I think their reaction is appropriate, but I hope that as a community we remember our mandate to speak truth rather than thrash about in the name of resistance.
This AWP was also the most editors we’ve brought to AWP since I’ve been a member of staff. I still haven’t adjusted to the fact that I’m the senior-most member on student staff, but I have adjusted to the fact that AWP isn’t the frenetic overwhelming thing it once was. No longer do I stand paralyzed, unable to take everything in or even figure out where to begin. Now I walk the book fair looking for editors I know, magazines who have published me, pitching project ideas, and talking to authors I’ve published. My first thought this year was “oh, there’s Image,” not “oh my god what is this.” I think the most rewarding part was to see how our younger editors have flourished, and quickly become savvy AWPers. They had their panels lined up, their readings selected, and as they shuttled from place to place like clockwork they stacked up heaps of swag. The pure joy that I read in their faces was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.
So now I close, bittersweet at the close of this chapter, but what a good time it was.
Joshua Tuttle is a senior English major at Whitworth University, and the Assistant Fiction Editor for Rock & Sling.
Contributors for Rock & Sling 11.2 reflect on their work from the issue.
An old Zen tale says the relationship between truth and words is like the relationship between the moon and a finger pointing out the moon’s location. I wonder if faith is another pointing digit. I don’t usually think in terms of faith. This stems partly from awareness that literature, faith and fingers can point at objects other and less beautiful than the moon. Or they can point at nothing at all. My reluctance to speak of faith also stems from my preference to think in terms of choice. I choose to pursue, in my wavering, all-too-human way, Gautama’s compassion, Christ’s “seven times seventy,” Saint Paul’s agape. I choose these because I love them — not because I have faith that they are True or that they will ultimately triumph. Is the poem “What We Know” about Dulce’s faith? What can I say about that? I was her English teacher, not her confessor. I would rather say the poem is about the truth that I have strong feelings for Dulce despite the fact that she and I knew little about each other. We interacted, and did so beautifully, in our own little Cloud of the Unknowing. What interests me is how we humans feel and what we do as our lives unfold in the bigger Cloud. Some years after Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, when his creed had become unclear to the public, an interviewer asked him what he believed in. He replied that he believed in the songs. I thought I knew what he meant by that and I thought I agreed with it. As I write this wonderfully unorthodox contributor’s note, it occurs to me that what I really believe in is the singing.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery
Literature is a way to voice the unspeakable, to make the unknowable more concrete. It makes visible those ambiguities that flit at the edge of our understanding, and in doing so allows us to connect with the abstract in tangible ways. These poems are my way of honoring the mysteries of the natural world—weather, geology, our human impermanence—using metaphor and image, rhythm and form to understand our roles in such an intricate system.
As a child I was frightened and confused. After brushing my teeth, after being read to and tucked in and kissed good night, after asking that the door be left ajar and the bathroom light turned on, it was then I’d stare into the dark and cry. Sometimes I was imagining what would happen if I lost both parents. Or what it would be like if, indeed, I “laid me down to sleep” and never woke up.
But, more often than not, I’d cry and not know the reason—there was some presence in my room I could not understand. I didn’t have a vision. I saw nothing. Rather I perceived it–some loving conscious electrical force of an immense pure “Other.” And it terrified me.
When my father would come to my room, as he always did, for one final nighttime check, he’d find my sheets wet with tears. Then he’d gently ask what caused me such anguish.
But I couldn’t speak. I hadn’t yet learned the words for “magnificence” or “holy.” How could I describe the overwhelming presence of the perfect now that filled my room? Or convince him that I knew the difference between it and my usual fears? Could I really say this presence spoke to me without words?
I didn’t understand I’d turn again and again to this presence all the days of my life. As I grew, I would recognize this same presence in myriad forms—in nature, in literature, in people. And this turning toward is what people would call “faith.” Later, I discovered Poetry’s power to speak of this presence, and to it, and with it. Poetry is the only way I know how to crystallize the unseen.
“Reaching Out to Beauty” is by Sara Whitestone, one of the contributors to Vox, a special issue of Rock & Sling. Vox is available for $5 at AWP.
By Sara Whitestone
I live in Virginia, where just a few months ago in my small town the truss plant closed and over 400 workers lost their jobs. They are angry.
I teach at the largest public university in New York, where sanctuary is being promised to thousands of students who are afraid.
In Virginia I have a dear friend who is a Vietnam veteran. He wonders if his service and his sacrifice in that war were worth it. In New York I have an articulate student-activist whose family is from Yemen. He wonders what will happen to him just because he is Arab.
What can I offer them—my unemployed neighbors, my alienated students, my soldier friend who questions the fighting of his past, my Arab activist who questions his fight for his future?
These people, so seemingly in opposition, are yet so drawn together—so united—by their need for hope.
What can I offer them? What can I write to them when their fears and questions—along with mine—are so loud in our ears?
My daughter is a violinist, and sometimes she wonders what the value of making music is, in this raucous world today. My son is an editor, and sometimes he gets discouraged. What can the mere sprinkling of words bring against a torrent of rage? Aren’t music and art trite and trivial? Isn’t beauty impotent against the fears, against the difficulties, against the disappointments?
But it’s all I know to do—this reaching out to beauty, this reaching for what is good. Because it’s beauty, not fear, that quickens positive pulses—that thrills in its aliveness. It’s beauty, not anger, that soothes and quiets and then soars. Anger shouts and blusters and blinds and buries. But beauty whispers, “Look. Look up. Look towards good.”
So I write poetry because beauty matters. I make music because beauty matters. I play deeply—with the unabashed abandon of a child—because fun is beautiful, and beauty matters.
And I laugh. I laugh loud and long. Because laughter is lovely both to the ear and to the belly. And in even that—especially in that—my body tells my mind that beauty matters.
In times of fear, in times of anger, I search for beauty—in the symphony halls where the voices of fifty rise as one, and in the still moments when stars shine between the bare branches of winter’s sky.
Because in the art of words, in the cadence of music, in the awe of nature, there is power.
And it is this—this power of good—that lifts our eyes from our troubles and re-tunes our ears so that we can once more see. And hear. And hope.
Sara Whitestone is a novelist-in-progress, an essayist-in-practice, and an un-tortured-poet-in-process. In exchange for coaching in creativity, Whitestone’s diverse students introduce her to the mysteries of the world. Her works have appeared either in print or online in The Portland Review, Word Riot, Literary Traveler, and many others. Whitestone’s current project is a fictional autobiography titled Counting to 100. To learn more about Whitestone’s inner and outer adventures, visit sarawhitestone.com and follow her on Twitter @sarawhitestone.
After the 2016 presidential election, we saw artists responding in many ways, along with the rest of America. One of art’s most valuable functions is to help us know who we are as a people, and we want Vox to function as a collection of voices that help us hear. We make no claims about its contents, other than the work we chose exists both as art and as a cultural reflection. Our goal is not to pass any judgement other than aesthetic. We are not interested in who is right or wrong, politically, but in capturing the voices in the discussion. We attempted to present as wide an array of voices as we could. Of course we are limited to publishing what we receive, though we made an effort to solicit voices from many perspectives. We have entered a time of strident opposition and activism, during which the American people will likely redefine our values, processes, and institutions. We hope this issue reflects the appreciation and care with which we and our staff received it. We hope to continue publishing Vox, collecting and sharing your experiences of witness to this time and place. Here is where we live and work and create—in pain, in love, and in God’s grace.
Vox is available at AWP for $5.