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October 5, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Conversation of a Lifetime

by Karen Bjork Kubin

How do you pick the next book you will read? Do you read for love? For knowledge? Out of duty? I myself am a somewhat undisciplined reader. Life is short. Mostly I follow my heart. Sometimes I buy or borrow books I consider “shoulds:” should own, should read, should be able to speak about intelligently. But what I finally sit down with almost always comes down to something else. Not that I necessarily know what that something else is—the book just calls to me. I answer in hope of a deep conversation.

Sarah Nelson writes about the conversations between one’s life and the books one is reading in her memoir So Many Books, So Little Time: A Passionate Year of Reading. Like her, I find the conversation between life and books fascinating. There is always some kind of rich interplay between why I choose a book (the questions I’ve been asking, the problems I am chewing on, where my longing lies) and how the book speaks back into my life. Sometimes it is a balm, sometimes it offers strength, sometimes it is a disruption. Often it provides insight or encouragement. Certainly the list of books and authors to whom I feel eternally grateful keeps growing.

During the summer, especially, I find this interplay augmented by travel, as place adds a third layer to the mix. The combinations can be potent. Take Sense and Sensibility, which I read for the first time many years ago on a trip north from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula into Canada. Storms followed our car all day but never caught us, culminating in a night lit almost continuously with heat lightning. It was my first Jane Austen, part of an attempt to make up for all the literature classes I missed as a music student in college, and I was expecting something dry. Instead I was struck by the flashes of humor and pure enjoyment of the story. And I had time to enjoy it—my 22 month-old son was at a happy, easy stage and my daughter was two months from being born. Everything seemed new, and I felt an intense awakening of the mind as well as new hopes for my family. I believe my mind was flying as fast as our car. I determined on that trip to share my love of reading with my children as long as possible.

I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake years later on vacation at a family camp in a different part of Michigan’s U.P. My kids were getting older, and as they started to differentiate themselves from the family, I found I also had to see myself in new ways, both connected to and separate from those I loved most. Once in a while I found myself walking through pine trees alone, not constantly needed. At night, while everyone else slept, I read voraciously. The pages illuminated by the light of my cellphone, the sounds of my children’s breathing mingling in the background, I hungered to see how Gogol Ganguli would untangle the ties of family and tradition and self. I had become someone who read from the perspective of both parent and child, and this book was bringing up questions I had not yet thought to ask.

Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee, was the first book I read after foot surgery last summer. It is a beautiful, beautiful book about loss and love, that likely hit even harder than it might have because of my weakened physical state—confined to my bed, foot elevated, in pain and on medication. Not traveling in this instance, but still outside of my normal realm. Begun as a read-aloud with my 9 year-old, she found it too painful for reading before bed, and so I finished it alone and felt both the loneliness and the connection to my daughter amplified. One of the authors, Alison McGhee, was a teacher of mine in high school, and someone I now consider a friend and mentor. Recognizing her voice within the pages, even as it mingled with another’s, served as counterpoint to the loneliness of the reading—I truly felt guided-through.

I started Li-Young Lee’s book of poetry, Behind My Eyes, on an overnight flight to meet up with my family after a week at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Glen itself is a heightened experience, and by the end of the week I was exhausted—head and heart so full of words and ideas I hardly knew what to do with them. As with Maybe a Fox, I read in something of a dream state. Poetry, for me, is an experience of understanding and not understanding at the same time. Letting each poem both sink in and flow over. Diving into these particular poems was a deepening of the questions, conversations, and readings I heard and took part in throughout the past week. As I flew through the air away from that sacred space, I read with the hope that what was in my head and heart would not fly away, but stay and grow.

I read Wintering by Peter Geye just recently on another trip north, this time to pick up my son after a year away at an arts boarding school. The book is still fresh, not-yet-settled within me, but as our family was deeply immersed in conversations about the future and adulthood and how-best-to-get-there, I was deeply moved by the bonds of love in this book, and the importance of our stories. I was moved, too, by how it spoke to my own struggle with desperately wanting my children’s transition to adulthood to be smooth and easy, against the knowledge that it is impossible, that strength is not nurtured by ease.

Looking back on these books, and the times, places, and states of mind in which I read them, I am struck less by specific details of the books than by the experience and feel of them. Flashes of delight, searching in the dark, trying to grasp my own thoughts and questions. Together they form something new and move forward with me to the next moment, and to the next book that calls.

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, including an upcoming poem in the Main Street Rag Anthology Of Burgers and Barrooms. She blogs occasionally about life, art, and other things at kbkubin.blogspot.com.

September 28, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Poetry as Antidote to Apathy

by Kathryn Smith

I am tired of violence. I am tired of lies and hateful rhetoric. I am tired, but it’s not time to go to sleep. It is time to wake up. These three poetry collections are the antithesis of lazy summer reading. These books shun complacency. These are books to stay awake by.

The Big Book of Exit Strategies, by Jamaal May, Alice James Books, 2016.

“It’s funny, she says,
how many people are shocked by this shooting
and the next and next and the next.

She doesn’t mean funny as in funny, but funny
as in blood soup tastes funny when you stir in soil.”

The first time I read these lines, which open Jamaal May’s poem “The Gun Joke,” it was the day of, or maybe the day after, an act of newsmaking gun violence. It’s funny, in the way May’s poem says “It’s funny,” that I don’t remember now which shooting it was. I think I might have been Philando Castile, a black man in St. Paul, Minnesota, who was shot in his car by police while his girlfriend and young child sat by and watched, helpless to stop what was happening. But I don’t remember for certain. They blur together, these acts, and this is part of the terrible joke of May’s poem, from his second collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies. May’s poems are as lyrical as they are wrenching, and they will open your eyes to a world that is both terrible and beautiful.

olioOlio, by Tyehimba Jess, Wave Books 2016.

Tyehimba Jess’s latest poetry collection was on my reading list even before it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. I wanted to read it because of two words I remembered from a friend’s recommendation: conjoined twins.

Among the many personas Jess adopts in Olio, he speaks from the points of view of Millie and Christine McKoy, known as Millie-Christine, conjoined twins born into slavery in 1851. Like much of Olio, these poems are sonnets, but get this: Like the twins, the sonnets are conjoined. Each poem contains two voices, some lines individual, some lines shared, so that each of these sonnets can be read three ways: Millie’s version, Christine’s version, and the combined version.

Jess employs these voices and the voices of other freed slaves and musicians to create his Olio, which he defines in an introductory note as both “a miscellaneous mixture” and “the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.”

Olio is a textbook of poetic forms, a lesson on slavery’s history and its continuing reverberations, an homage to musicians in the Black tradition, and a collection of remarkable poems.

directedbydesireDirected by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, by June Jordan, Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

Directed by Desire collects June Jordan’s poetry from 1969 through 2001, a career’s worth of  unapologetically political yet deeply personal verse — poems about being, as “Poem About My Rights” puts it, “wrong the wrong sex the wrong age / the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the / wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic / the wrong sartorial.”

While this book isn’t new, it’s undeniably timely. I took comfort in Jordan’s poems in the first few months following the presidential election. Maybe “comfort” isn’t the right word. I steeped myself in her poems. I let their cadence propel me as I struggled to find a way forward in what felt like a surreal new reality. I read her fearless words and willed myself to feel less afraid.

While unflinching in its honesty, Jordan’s deftly crafted poetry manages to instill a sense of hope, to offer up the energy to face the world even while grieving war, rape, discrimination, and oppression.

Kathryn Smith’s first full-length poetry collection, Book of Exodus, will be published by Scablands Books this fall. www.kathrynsmithpoetry.com.

September 21, 2017 / jennrudsit

Postpartum

by Abbie Smith

“In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice.” Psalm 55:17[1]

Home in 20,” his text read. “k. love you. even tho i burnt the lasagna.”

Prior to having kids I judged parents who snapped at their kids. Now I empathize, and beg for the grace to be compassionate and slow to anger. My two children have taken me to the brink of a boiling point I didn’t know was there.

My days feel erasable so I’m writing in pencil. The long-awaited letter came. “With sincere respect, your manuscript is not a fit for our publishing house,” the editor told me in pitch-black Times New Roman. “Screw your respectful publishing house,” my flesh snapped back, spinning in rejection, questioning my worth and worthiness. I didn’t know how meaningless my life as a mom felt until opening that envelope; I didn’t know that book proposal held a convincing assurance that my days mattered. And now they don’t. Maybe I don’t. My pity party can last about thirty minutes and then two little people will wake wanting cheeks wiped and Cheerios poured in a bowl, which feels like anyone with half a brain could do.

It’s been one of those weeks. My son, Eden, can’t fall asleep. Normally his five-month-old frame would sleep till summer if I let him. This evening he’s restless, as if aware of a world not right, feeling crammed into a space not intended as home. I hold his tears, their authenticity reaching in to mine.

Postpartum depression has rudely interrupted my life. It’s been dark and scary and paralyzing, hollow and anxious, all in one breath. I went on medication. My friend Stephanie told me that was brave.

About three months after Eden’s birth, I realized it was more than newborn fog. A toothpick could lean the wrong way and I’d end up sad, scared and anxious. With few  commitments, even, my limit felt tapped, always at my edge. Removed and apathetic, I tended robotically to Elliana’s and Eden’s needs, desperate for Micah’s return from work. I wasn’t tempted to drive off a road, per se, but there were certainly times I wouldn’t have been surprised if I did. “Oh that I had the wings of a dove!” my soul empathized with the Psalmist, “I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.[2] Happy, giggly, intimate moments happened, but only about 3% of the time. When I called my OB, the on-call nurse responded with a sarcastic version of, “What are the symptoms that would make you think you have post-partum?” I started crying and hung-up. The nurse who called back was a gem and applauded me for having the courage to reach out.

Eden rocks in my arms and I cry out to God for reprieve from the depression, and the spinach that’s had me down with food poisoning, and the friend who told me today of her crumbling marriage. I remember Micah talking about Isaiah 53:11 as we lay in bed last night. I imagine it was interesting, but was honestly half-asleep and don’t remember. This morning I looked it up again.

“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.”

An astounding prophecy about Jesus and motherhood. Out of the blind anguish of my soul, Father, you are healing my sight. Tedious and stubborn though the process, you are teaching me to see and be satisfied. But Daddy, the growth feels painstakingly slow.

Gray-navy eyes searched my blue, as if for a quiet corner of the ocean after an exhausting storm. Eden’s body was calm on my chest now, forehead nuzzled in my cheek. He has set your feet in a spacious place[3], God said. Weeping may spend the night, but there is joy in the morning[4]. Moisture rolled from my eyes, as if Eden’s eyes had spoken to mine. As if they’d said, “Home is not all the way here yet, and it’s gonna be okay.”

Eden and I lay in this gaze for a while. Then I served burnt lasagna and told Micah again that I loved him.

The above is an excerpt from Abbie Smith’s new book, Stretch Marks I Wasn’t Expecting, a memoir on early marriage and motherhood, releasing this month with Kalos Press. She’s a graduate of Talbot Seminary’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care and works alongside her husband as the caretakers of Wesley Gardens Retreat in Savannah, Georgia. They have three children, one of whom they recently traveled to India to adopt. Please visit Abbie at www.abbiesmith.net.

[1] This translation is from The New Jerusalem Bible, as noted in Phyllis Tickle’s, The Divine Hours, Prayers for Summertime.

[2] Psalm 55:6-8

[3] Psalm 31:8

[4] Psalm 30:5

August 30, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Water I Gladly Drank

 

by Julie Riddle

This isn’t about summer reading, but about how reading returned to me the summers of my college years and rendered them anew. I worked four summers for the U.S. Forest Service, and was based at the ranger station near my hometown of Troy, Montana. During chilly early mornings and hot, hazy afternoons my boss and I cleaned a route of campgrounds throughout the county – we picked up trash, and hosed down the insides of outhouses and poured glugs of a foul-smelling liquid down their holes to mask the fouler-smelling human waste heaped at the bottom of pits I avoided looking into.

My third summer with the Forest Service I was made the leader of a riparian-mapping crew. Two co-workers and I, wearing hard hats, long-sleeved shirts, jeans, leather gloves, and leather boots wedged into clumsy hipwaders, hiked (or crawled) the length of mountain streams, mapping their banks and the surrounding vegetation.

In late July through August each summer my daily work would be interrupted when I was summoned to join crews fighting wildfires sweeping across mountainsides in northwestern Montana, as well as in Idaho, Washington, Nevada and northern California. I kept a bulging backpack at the ready so I could leave at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I was gone for a few hours, sometimes for up to 10 days. A few times I worked alongside shackled prison crews, and once I called my parents from a payphone at a fairground after working a 44-hour shift; my crew was the first to respond to the fire and we had arrived in the middle of the night. When my parents asked where I was, I looked around dumbly and said, “I don’t know…somewhere in California.”

I was fresh out of high school when I started the Forest Service job. I soon learned that Spike, my campground crew boss, was hilarious and shockingly profane. During those summers I also learned how to drive a stick shift and how to fell trees with a chainsaw. I rode in a helicopter for the first time, and dragged a skinned, human-looking bear carcass from a river. I learned to identify native plants, read a topographic map, and evaluate the effects of stream erosion caused by clear-cutting. At wildfire-fighting camp I learned how to back-burn with a drip torch and wield a Pulaski, and how to locate hotspots by hovering my bare palm slowly over ash.

As entertaining as some of these stories might be, I have not written about my summers with the Forest Service. I sensed, but hadn’t been able to express, deeper significance in my experiences, and so these memories remained colorful anecdotes I used to share with family and friends, but seldom think of now.

But then, this spring, The Writer’s Almanac featured the following poem by Wendell Berry:

VII.

What a wonder I was
when I was young, as I learn
by the stern privilege
of being old: how regardlessly
I stepped the rough pathways
of the hillside woods,
treaded hardly thinking
the tumbled stairways
of the steep stream, and worked
unaching hard days
thoughtful only of the work,
the passing light, the heat, the cool
water I gladly drank.

(“VII.” by Wendell Berry from A Small Porch)

As I read the poem’s final line my chest ached and I felt briefly stunned at the recognition Berry had raised in me, twinged with gratitude and wonder and a quick stab of grief. Berry’s poem distilled the meaning of those four summers into the clarity of spring water cupped in my hand, and elicited poignancy like the hotspots my palm had sensed hovering over ash. Berry, a prolific poet and novelist, and an environmental activist, lives in Kentucky and is now 83 years old. Yet he articulated for me a time when I (of curious mind, able body, and vital spirit then) lived connected and attuned to the natural world.

After reading the poem, I remembered once, while mapping a stream, stepping from shaded forest into a small meadow, lush and glinting with sun-dappled aspen, the stream winding quiet and slow between low, grassy banks. I stopped and stared, feeling as though I had just stumbled into Eden. The crew and I did our work and ate our lunch there. I didn’t want to leave. We had traveled veining roads high into the mountains to reach the stream, and I knew I would not come back. It seemed, in fact, that the meadow would disappear as soon as we left it, too beautiful and tranquil to be of this world. Berry’s poem restored this fleeting Eden for me. I hope that place still exists, wherever it may be, even though I can never return.

Julie Riddle is the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling and the craft-essay editor for Brevity. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University and is the author of the memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press). Learn more at www.julieriddle.net.

August 17, 2017 / jennrudsit

Meet Rock & Sling’s New Web Editor

by Jennifer Rudsit

My favorite thing about blogs, and about Rock & Sling in particular, is that they create a space for dialogue. Blogs are accessible and easy to share, connecting people from around the world who wouldn’t otherwise coexist in the same space. I especially respect Rock & Sling’s desire to “continue to be a hallmark of quality writing, embracing broad differences in experience—spiritual, cultural, or political….We hope to serve as a forum for an open and vigorous intellectual and artistic discussion, and a meeting place between those elements of our world that are often so diametric.” As divisive as the world feels right now, working with a blog that allows writers to bear witness to that divide while also creating respectful discussion around it is refreshing and necessary.

Each contributor for Rock & Sling submits engaging, valuable work that spans a huge spread of topics, and it is humbling and exciting for me to work with each of them. Like books, blog posts plunge me into a perspective different than my own, but in a way that is immediate, a compact chunk of text to absorb while taking the bus to work, multitasking during a Netflix binge, or sitting on a park bench during my lunch break. The great posts divert me from my comfort zone, helping me see myself, my community, my life, in new ways, sending me back into my day with a subtle shift in perspective, a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge to keep chewing on this new idea.

As I’ve read and worked with Rock & Sling, a lot of the posts have resonated with different threads in my own life. Lyle Enright’s piece, “Make it New: Prayer” was posted while I was attempting to revamp my own spiritual life, processing what “make it new” meant for me. “Sweet Child, You Are Loved,” by Julie Riddle, spoke of an experience I have never gone through, but shared words of comfort and wisdom that heal regardless of the situation, words that I desperately needed to hear. And the Summer Reading Series, currently happening on the blog, helped get me excited about reading again, during a time when I struggled to get into almost every book I started.

I hope Rock & Sling can become, or continue to be, a place where you feel engaged, challenged, comforted, and heard; a place where you begin seeing threads from your own life put into words by others.

If you are interested in becoming a contributor for the Rock & Sling blog, please contact Jennifer Rudsit at jennhruds@gmail.com with a writing sample and a paragraph about your writing interests and experiences. We are always looking for writers who will bear witness to this world, people engaged with art, music, books, politics, faith, doubt, and everything in-between.

Jennifer Rudsit is a recent Whitworth English Department grad. During her time at Whitworth she was an Editorial Assistant for Rock & Sling, and has been the Assistant Web Editor for the blog this past year. She is currently an Administrative Assistant at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Her hobbies include wandering around Seattle Center on her work breaks, looking up knitting patterns on Etsy, and frantically attempting to complete the Seattle Public Library’s Summer Book Bingo.

August 13, 2017 / thomcaraway

Valuing Our Roots: A Reflection on Charlottesville

by Katherine Karr-Cornejo

The phases of my life have offered many opportunities and challenges, and when I think of my years in graduate school, I remember a time of my life that I value, but that I’m also glad I’ve completed. The intense and all-encompassing focus on my professional training and development, to the exclusion of so many other parts of life, shaped who I am both personally and professionally. But I am glad to live my post-graduate life, with a different rhythm and in a different place.

Place and space have profound effects on my intellectual and spiritual development, as I know from my experience moving around as a child. The sense of being from or of a place was never one that I felt I could put on with any sort of authenticity, because my roots are in people and experiences and places in particular times that no longer are. Even in my thirties, when I’m asked where I’m from I’m never sure what to say, or what people mean by it.

I have strong roots. They’re just not linked to a place that exists anywhere outside of me.

Places where one might think I could say I’m from – my parents’ cities of origins – are places that I’ve only visited or lived in as a college student. The different cities and towns that we lived in while I was growing up all left their mark on me, but none of them are today what they were then, which is as it should be. I have always treasured the advice that my mother gave me: always value a place for what it is. It is impossible to recreate an experience from another time or another place, and to expend my energy doing so only brings pain and disappointment.

This brings me to the odd fact that Charlottesville, where I lived for six years while completing my MA and PhD in Spanish, is the place that I have lived longest in my life. But when I think of Charlottesville today, the people with whom I had the closest relationships living there have moved elsewhere, and I find myself thinking of Charlottesville not as people but as experiences and places that no longer are.

The first few years I lived in Charlottesville I had a very limited experience of the city and region. I depended on public transportation. I was trying to sort out getting married to someone living overseas. I had very short personal funds. I spent all of my time teaching or studying. The 45-minute winding (but free!) bus ride one way to the grocery store was time I could use to make a dent in the pile of grading. My only additional activity was attending church, and I ended up at my parish, St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal, because I could walk there in a half hour from my apartment. I lived my life in an area of less than a square mile.

I did not find myself downtown often, as I had to take the trolley, and I didn’t have much money to spend once I got there. It wasn’t until I had lived in Charlottesville for 3 years that I found myself taking the downtown walking tour that the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society offered. To my surprise, an older woman who I recognized from church was our guide, though she did not recognize me. Of the tour itself, I remember enjoying going inside different houses of worship and hearing about their architectural histories, and the oppressive humidity of being outside in Charlottesville in the summer, even though it was early in the day. We stopped in both Emancipation Park (at the time, Lee Park) and Justice Park (at the time, Jackson Park), and in both our guide drew our attention to the statues of Confederate leaders. She said, at the foot of the Stonewall Jackson statue next to the courthouse, “I just think equestrian statues are right pretty.”

I have that quote written down in a small journal, a few pages after my notes about my spouse’s immigration paperwork and others about 19th century Anglican attitudes towards candles in worship. The statue to which she referred was next to the courthouse that I had to go to in order to get a court order to hyphenate my name when I married, because the Virginia DMV would not accept my marriage license as proof of marriage. In my gut I still remember standing in that room, shaking, as a clerk called the authenticity of my marriage into question, and my anxiety having to go through the paperwork in the courthouse.

Much to my shame, I have a picture from the end of that tour of downtown, grinning with two friends in front of the Stonewall Jackson statue. Much to my shame, I didn’t understand much about who he was or what he meant to people in Virginia, especially to African-Americans. Much to my shame, I didn’t recognize the problem of my lack of knowledge, and went back to my square mile of academic life, focused on my own area of interest, and didn’t realize until years later what exactly it was that I had seen. Our guide’s comment about equestrian statues seemed off to me, but I just chuckled to myself as I wrote it in my journal, thinking of it as an eccentricity.

It’s not. Reducing Lost Cause propaganda—the statue was installed in the park in 1922, and was the focal point of the first major white supremacist rally this summer in Charlottesville—to eccentricity is denying its connection to the systemic racism that pervades our country and popular memory of its past. We (white people) need to look at the narratives we tell ourselves about history with a critical eye. We (white people) want to be the exception, the person who hasn’t benefitted unfairly from the oppression of others. I still remember my own attitude during 8th grade social studies in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, and my sense of smug superiority of being a Northerner whose side “won” the Civil War when we were taught North Carolina history. I had no idea that racist attitudes and policies were also prevalent throughout the north, even after the abolition of chattel slavery. How many times have you heard someone say, “my ancestors never owned slaves”? How many times have you said it yourself?

Whether or not your ancestors participated actively in the Atlantic slave trade is beside the point. We cannot control the actions of the past. We can, however, work to understand those actions and their impact and, where appropriate, dismantle the systems that perpetuate the inequalities and dehumanization that have resulted from those actions.

Every white person in the United States benefits from the ideology of white supremacy, even those of us who recognize its harm and desire its destruction. The content of your character doesn’t depend on the actions of your ancestors, but rather, on how you react to your own ignorance about those actions writ large. Our roots can intertwine with others, and in the process they can lift us up, together and stronger, as a wonderful and diverse community. Or they can drag us down into cycles of exploitation, inequality, and pain.

 

 

Katherine Karr-Cornejo lived in Charlottesville, Virginia between 2005 and 2011. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches Spanish and Latin American literature and culture at Whitworth University. She misses the fried chicken and Alderman Library, but not the humidity.

 

July 31, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Spending Summer Scared

by Lyle Enright

Winter tends to be the time that many associate with the darker parts of the imagination. The cold drives us inside, the sun goes down early, and we celebrate that turnover at Halloween. But summer also has its ways of luring us into dark places, and it isn’t only because the Hollywood Blockbuster season gives us our yearly dose of creep. Bats sweep through the air against huge, sad moons the likes of which you never see during the winter. We spend more time outside, hardly noticing the settling dusk. These are the conditions for real exploration, as kids sneak off to cemeteries or abandoned buildings, wandering around to see who gets spooked first.

“Think of just about any horror film,” says Houston Baptist professor Philip Tallon, “and you will find that it works upon us by tearing down some boundary we had in place, but perhaps forgot was there.” Tallon explains that this sense of violation “is a discomforting aspect of horror, but there is also a desirable quality to it. It terrifies us and gives us a sense of moral, social, and aesthetic stability.” Perhaps, but do we really believe in such stability today? Is there a place for such stories–or even their subversion–when our politics are unpredictable, people live in fear of being scapegoated and harassed, and it seems the threat of a new war is around every corner?  In a widely-read essay appropriately titled “Real Horror” (2003), the late professor Robert C. Solomon said that “art-horror” provided a buffer for our psyche simply because it wasn’t real; that buffer collapsed on September 11, 2001 and took the pleasure of horror stories with it.

And yet, if anything, horror seems to have seen a renaissance in the 21st Century. Films such as The Ring (2002), Saw (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and most recently Get Out (2017) are all powerful standouts, while in the world of literature Stephen King continues to publish prolifically alongside such recent successes as Coraline (2002), Let the Right One In (2004), World War Z (2006), and John Dies at the End (2009). What is it that keeps us coming back to such stories, when it seems that all we need to scare ourselves is to turn on the news?

Reflecting on the works of Hans Christian Andersen, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska said that “The Importance of Being Scared” is less complicated than Tallon makes it out to be. Rather, it involves recognizing that “evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.” If Szymborska is right, and evil is a form of intellectual poverty, this is a lesson that is often lost under the din of partisan politics, where the “bad guy”–the “monster”–is always someone else, whether it be the person in power, or the person who wishes they were. Perhaps horror stories remain a better, subtler means of drawing us towards that realization and placing us on our guard, even against ourselves. That, at least, is the rationale with which I will be teaching my students in the Fall. During the Summer, I’ll be re-reading my way through the course syllabus, and re-learning the lessons I hope to convey:

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818). The fragility of human mastery is a major element of Frankenstein. At a time when we seem to be returning to science as a discourse of control and mastery in the face of “post-truth” politics, perhaps Shelley’s novel still has other ways to humble us.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897). Manifesting anxieties over modern psychology, sexual politics and xenophobia, Stoker’s Count Dracula is also an excellent example of a character whose malice survives any sort of deconstruction or Hollywood domestication.

Select Fiction by H. P. Lovecraft (1917-1935). Lovecraft’s “weird” fiction demonstrates a uniquely Darwinian sense of horror, framing humanity as a cosmic accident. What makes Lovecraft’s fiction so uncomfortable is the way his huge themes play off smaller details; it is easy to abhor Lovecraft’s politics, but the deeper question of his writing is whether any of it really matters.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter (1979). This collection of re-told fairytales gets underneath the roles of fear and power as tools of control, but hardly in a liberating sense. Rather, when Carter shifts power to otherwise marginal characters, she is quick to remind us that in such cases, someone still has power, and as we know, power corrupts… 

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson (2000-2015). Perfect for summer reading, Jamaican speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson infuses her stories with Jamaican folklore and magic to create tense and unsettling post-colonial scares that touch a number of nerves.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay (2015). A postmodern love-letter to The Exorcist (1971), Tremblay’s novel is also a thoroughly 21st Century scare written for university humanities students, accusing academic “Big Theory” of being a coping mechanism rather than a cure and demonstrating that trauma continues to run deeper than our diagnoses.

Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago. Horror fiction is his favorite way of taking a break from his dissertation, which explores intersections between contemporary literature and political or “radical” theology. Lyle has also written for Renascence, Textual Cultures, Relief, and Homebrewed Christianity to name a few. You can find him at allmyfootnotes.wordpress.com, or on Twitter @YnysDyn.

July 20, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: It’s All About the Setting

by Sunni Wilkinson

The summer I worked in Alaska for a helicopter tour company, I spent as much time reading as I did camping, or working for that matter.  Sometimes I read in tandem with working or camping, either to pass the time at the front desk before another gaggle of tourists came in for a flight to the glaciers, or in my tent next to Lower Dewey in the evening as I reassured myself that the rustling outside the thin skin of my tent was the wind and not a lumbering, hungry bear.  The book I kept with me most of the summer and took my time enjoying (at a whopping 688 pages) was Middlemarch by George Eliot.  Just now, as I opened the book to see what I’d underlined, I found some fireweed I’d pressed between pages 220 and 221, a reminder that this book was good company in a wild setting.

For some reason, the books that stand out to me most carry along with them the memory not only of the plot, the characters, and the language, but the setting where I read them.  Middlemarch is the name of the fictional town where the story takes place, and while I loved the setting – pre-Industrial Revolution, old English estates, country churches – it seems pertinent that I read it in a quiet place where the reaches of the sky and the ocean reflected the vastness of Eliot’s insights.  It’s a story whose two main protagonists face their own limitations and those of the people they love, live through both success and bewildering failure, and (spoiler alert!) die more or less unheralded for their life’s work.  But it’s apparent to the reader that both characters have been selfless – something Eliot clearly celebrates – and have made life better for others.  That’s a lot to take in, and believe in, and it helps to have the company of trees and lakes and mountains while you absorb it.

Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto was a perfect beach read for me when I visited Hawaii for the first time several summers ago.  Set in some unnamed locale deep in South America, the story shows how the lives of illustrious guests at a party (an opera singer, a Japanese businessman, diplomats) change drastically and forever when they are suddenly besieged by local terrorists.  The tension of a hostage situation is never more powerful (or pertinent) than when you are baking in the hot sun and waiting for the crowd to thin so that you can wade into the water without too many people scrutinizing your cellulite.

The summer I turned 17, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula every evening before bed.  Somehow listening to the crickets or the hum of our air conditioner and knowing that a bright and cheerful sun would rise the next morning soothed me, so that I could happily remind myself that no vampires were going to lure me out of my bedroom and suck my blood.  Summer is just too cheery a time for such things.  If I’d read Dracula in the fall, I would have found myself sleeping on my younger brother’s floor every night.  Overactive imaginations have their downside.

This summer while my kids spend hours jumping on the trampoline with the sprinklers and dripping Otter Pops all over the patio, I will be finally attacking what I have, to this point, considered a beast of a book: The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  At 841 pages, it’s behemoth, like that food chain demonstration where one seemingly large animal (say, for metaphor’s sake, Middlemarch) is devoured by an even bigger animal (Emerson).  It’s so big that I am already planning to skim parts and skip around at my own whim.  But there are treasures there I know I need as a mother who is desperately trying to reclaim her brain cells.  One of them I’ve already located, and it sheds light on how and why we read in the first place: “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven.  Know then that the world exists for you….Build therefore your own world.”  Isn’t that what we do when we read, when we choose what and where and when to read, when we process stories and language in a way that becomes a part of our lives?  Every time I sit down in just the right setting with just the right book, I feel like I’m building another corner of my world.

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.

July 13, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Ann Marie Bausch

I might never have discovered one of the most important books I’ve ever read if not for an unlikely ally: Fox News.

In 2009, author Reza Aslan did an interview on the network to discuss his latest book, a history titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The clip circulated widely on social media and other TV programs. The reporter seemed to have been given instructions to scowl as much as possible and to repeatedly accuse Aslan of concealing the fact that he was a Muslim writing about Christianity, and, of course, concealed or not, how dare he.

With cordiality and graciousness, Aslan reminded this reporter of his educational credentials (his degrees include a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard and a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California) and, of course, that he had chronicled in the introduction to Zealot how he, as a young Muslim boy, became interested in Christianity. As is often the case when a book is disparaged by a so-called authority, the result was predictable: I and millions of others went out and bought the book. Sales soared.

This was all great fun, but I am sincerely grateful to this news clip for bringing the book to my attention.  Raised Catholic, as an adult I felt suffocated by dogma, frustrated by the Church’s judgmental politics, appalled by the scandals, and doubtful of any of the literal ideas about the divine presented by organized religion as certainties not to be questioned. Zealot sought to reveal the Jesus of history—not the deity, the Messiah, the Christ, but the man of flesh and bone who walked the earth, who breathed real air and talked and ate and slept and contemplated violent political revolution during the Roman occupation of 1st century Palestine.

Zealot might not be the kind of book everyone would consider a “summer read”—but really, aren’t we past being limited to breezy love stories with no substance? This is a book that is worth all of the buckling down, you’ll need to apply to reading it.

My copy is now full of dog-eared pages and underlined passages and notes penciled in margins.  Here are some of the ideas I found most intriguing:

“Luke himself, writing a little more than a generation after the events he describes, knew that what he was writing was technically false.  This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp…most people in the ancient world did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience.  That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.  It would have been perfectly normal—indeed, expected—for a writer in the ancient world to tell tales of gods and heroes whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false but whose underlying message would be seen as true.”

Gasp! You mean…I now have permission not to take every word of the Bible literally but to glean a story’s general meaning and move on?

On the commonly held view of Jesus as an “inveterate peacemaker who ‘loved his enemies’ and ‘turned the other cheek,’” Aslan presents evidence that the early Christian church largely concocted this idea after Jesus’ death to avoid the wrath of Rome:

“The Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence…how else could [the Kingdom of God] be established upon a land occupied by a massive imperial presence except through the use of force?…There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions.  But he was certainly no pacifist. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.’ (Matthew 10:34 / Luke 12:51).”

Other historical facts:  Jesus had brothers and sisters. He was almost certainly illiterate (“There were no schools in Nazareth for peasant children to attend.) He may even have had a wife.

One of the loveliest qualities of Zealot is that nowhere, not for a moment, does Reza Aslan seek to disparage or disillusion anyone’s Christian faith. What he does is to distinguish faith from history, and to examine how the terrestrial events of the first century became the religion we know today. In our current political climate, could there be anything more important than separating facts from myth?

What all of this amounted to for a reader like me was relief. Relief from the burdens of modern ideology. A dissolving of hostility and suspicion anytime I heard the word “Christian.” An ethereal figure who looked down upon me from a cloudy place in the sky—that had long been inaccessible and alienating. But a real person who struggled, who suffered, who was often misunderstood but strove mightily to do what he believed was right: this I could connect with.

And so it was that a Muslim writer separating history from religion awoke in me a deeper interest in Jesus than any Christian church service ever had. Freedom, surprise, fresh ideas: what more could one want from summer reading?

Ann Marie Bausch is a writer and dog mom from Norfolk, Virginia.  In addition to the Rock & Sling blog, her nonfiction has appeared on The Mighty, and her fiction is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine.  Find her at seekingandspeaking.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @anniebausch.

June 28, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Delights of Defiance

by Amanda C. R. Clark

The house is quiet; parents are sleeping. You create a tent under the sheets; you switch on the flashlight. You fumble the book open, acutely conscious of its crinkling pages. And then, you read. Just you and the book and the delightfully stealthy act of being awake, late into the night.

There is a joy, too, in reading as adults, in the summer, at leisure. It is a luxury we rarely allow ourselves, sometimes only on planes or on vacation. But do you remember that stealthy act of reading, under the bed-tent, late at night, in the dark?

Sometimes our world goes dark, and we need reading more than ever. Sometimes reading is our deliverance.  

China’s infamous Cultural Revolution, from 1967-1977, is often called, in China, the “ten-year catastrophe.” Books (and the libraries that housed them) were deemed part of the “four olds:” old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Books were destroyed, often by fire, in order to “free” and “save” the country from an oppressive, feudal past. It was a misguided effort to wipe the slate clean and start anew.Picture1

Those who had formerly lived a life of the mind—scholars, writers, students, artists—felt the deprivation of books and libraries in an especially profound and painful way. Some sought, and obtained, illegal books to read, doing so at the risk of various punishments including beatings, public “struggle sessions,” detention, limitation or denial of food rations, unemployment, and forced relocation into harsh and remote labor camps. Rather than being deterred, many intellectuals became obsessed with secretly obtaining contraband books, both foreign works in translation as well as classic Chinese Confucian texts. The literature—and the physical, defiant act of reading—had a profound effect on those who dared to read, revelations that are expressed repeatedly in the memoirs and autobiographies of those who lived through this era.  During this time, when the illiterate were praised and the literati were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated,” and when forms of communication were state-controlled, watched, and scrutinized, reading was a defiant gesture of independent selfhood. Although most intellectuals eventually were able to return to the cities, they were forever haunted by the shadow of a violently ruptured past.

coverIf there is one book you schlep to the beach disguised between mindless paperbacks, perhaps it will be the short but captivating novel by Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Dai draws us into the world of the Cultural Revolution following the path of a pair of lovers and their love for the secret reading of forbidden Western books. At times an uncomfortable and disappointing book, the themes of power, fear, passion, education, and longing, stay with you long after the last page is read. While drawing you close to questions about knowledge and the power of print, it will take you far away, not only to the China of the mid-twentieth century, but to rural China during a time of tumult.

George Santayana quipped that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I suspect there is much that those of us living in the contemporary United States can learn from China’s twentieth-century past. Is monetary wealth a source of liberation? Or is it knowledge, literacy, and education? Will we again, as adults, return to our late night, flashlight-lit, under-cover reading habits? Will the thrill of reading return to embolden and mature us as it did once did before?

Recommended reading:

Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel (2002).
Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2003).
Kang Zhengguo and Susan Wilf, Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China (2008).
Wu-Ming-Shih and Pu Ning, Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-Six Years in Communist Chinese Prisons (1994).

Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director at Whitworth University. She has published in areas of architecture, biography, book arts, and the significance of books. Clark holds a PhD in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.