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September 26, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: Reading Toward the Stars

by Hannah Cobb

I grew up looking at the sky. My dad loves astronomy, and I think that one of his favorite parts of it is sharing his wonder with anyone who will listen. When I was young, he read dense books and then distilled the information for my siblings and I. When our family came home from somewhere late at night, before unlocking the door he would pause a few moments in the backyard and gaze upwards. He brought us along to “star parties” — gatherings of amateur astronomers, many of whom would bring their own telescopes to share with others. We’d arrive at a field or a parking lot somewhere far enough away from city lights to be properly dark, with telescopes scattered around pointing in various directions. We wandered from telescope to telescope, each one offering us a brief window into another world. I saw nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, double stars — my dad would explain to me what I was seeing as I stood on tiptoes to peer through a telescope’s eyepiece.

It was at one of these star parties that I first saw Saturn up close. It was a summer night, and I had spent most of my time swatting away mosquitoes. It was getting late, and I was tired. I had been standing in front of telescopes for what felt like a very long time, and my enchantment with the sky had broken a bit. My dad was talking to some other adult, and I was hanging back, examining the mosquito bites I had accumulated over the night and trying not to scratch them. My dad turned to me and asked if I wanted to see Saturn. I shrugged. I figured it would look like just another white dot in the sky, magnified by the telescope’s lenses to be a slightly bigger white dot, but I agreed to look through one more telescope. I put my eye to the lens, and then I saw the rings.

When I was a child there was a gulf between what grown-ups told me was true, and what I actually experienced. I knew that Saturn had rings, I had seen the pictures taken by space telescopes that showed Saturn’s array of rings. I accepted the rings as a true thing, but something that was true somewhere else — Saturn had rings in books and in space. In the real world, the one that I lived in, Saturn was just another luminous point in the sky, indistinguishable from all the surrounding stars and planets. Seeing the rings through the telescope was something new, something revelatory. “Wow,” I breathed, “Saturn actually has rings. There they are.”

“Yes,” my dad agreed, “there they are.”

These days, I still need moments like that. It’s so easy to forget to look at the stars, or to look, but forget to be amazed. When I start to sink into the mundane, I need something to jerk me upright and pull me out of complacency. Recently, I’ve been reading books about space to help me recover my wonder, and to remind me to stop in the backyard and look back up at the sky. Here are two books that have helped me do that.

planetsThe Planets by Dava Sobel

I picked up this book in a thrift store — enchanted, at first, by the beautiful cover art.

I quickly became enchanted with the inside of the book as well. Sobel is a gifted writer, and she makes the beauty of our solar system come alive in this account. The book deals with each of the planets in our solar system in turn, and also includes the moon and Pluto.

Sobel approaches her discussions of the planets from a number of different angles. She examines the history, mythology, and of course the science of the objects in our universe. Her energetic prose kept me turning pages quickly, eager to learn what new insights she had to reveal.

41JzeaHbQRL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Thirteen: The Apollo Flight that Failed by Henry S. F Cooper Jr.

Published just a few years after the 1970 Apollo 13 mission, Thirteen: The Apollo Flight that Failed is a meticulous technical account of the incidents which led to the failure of the mission as well as the methods NASA and the astronauts used to secure a safe return.

Cooper’s account is unwavering in its attention to detail, yet he makes difficult technical information accessible to the uninitiated reader. As I read this, I was amazed by the fact that the astronauts, with limited communication with NASA on Earth, managed a successful return. If you liked Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, you will be equally engaged by this true account of Apollo 13’s equipment failure and how they coped with it.

Hannah Cobb grew up in Salt Lake City in a house filled with entirely too many books. She now lives in Spokane in an apartment filled with entirely too many books. She graduated from Whitworth University in 2016 and is now an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University. You can find her on Twitter at @hannahthecobb.

September 12, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: Rejoicing in Reading

by Laura Bloxham

One summer, late in my graduate education, I took an undergraduate class in detective fiction.  I needed to enroll in a class, any class, in order to qualify for a teaching stipend that summer.  I was in the depths of quasi-despair, reading novels, plays, poetry, in a mechanical mode my graduate school mind had internalized: make use of this material for Ph.D. exams or for teaching the elements of literature.  I had lost much of the joy of reading that had led me to this enterprise in the first place.  I was a pragmatic reader, pen in hand, marking passages, adding marginalia to the text.  I was well-trained; I had internalized the success ethic of my trade.

That hot summer I sat in my basement apartment under an open window, dutifully reading first Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and then Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I had my pen in hand, but I found my reading pace increased to the point where I could not stop to mark or note points.  I read until 4 a.m. on occasion.  Once, in anger, I threw The Maltese Falcon across the room in an emotional response to the sexism of the author, the era, and the genre.  But I was also hooked.

For years after that summer, I used reading mysteries to signal the end of the semester, the beginning of a break, where I could indulge myself.  But it was not just the mysteries themselves, but the structure that relieved my stress.  In W. H. Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” he writes, “The job of the detective is to restore the state of grace” in the closed society where sin enters by way of the murder.  In my own terms, a mystery is satisfying because in the end justice is served, the disorderly world restored.   In the messy world of an English professor, nothing is tidy, not even the end of a semester.  There is always something dangling.  Yet in the book world of the mystery, the ending is always tidy, even if not always happy.  It is a murder mystery after all.

I am barely into retirement now, a world supposedly without deadlines and consequences.  But I still find the need for the structure of the mystery.  The content of any given mystery has its own messiness, but it also has that satisfying end, the restoration of order.  What brings me joy at the moment is my rereading of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels in chronological order.  I read my first Lord Peter in that mystery novel class more than forty years ago.  My professor told us he had lied about his age in order to join the air force and ultimately fly missions over enemy territory in WWII.  He returned home with what we now call PTSD.  In Lord Peter the professor found a comrade, a man who “In 1918 . . . was blown up and buried in a shell-hole . . . that left him with a bad nervous breakdown, lasting, on and off, for two years” (Biography of Lord Peter Wimsey, included at the end of Dorothy Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club).  He has as his valet, Bunter, who served under him during the war, and now serves Wimsey literally and in a compassionate fashion when the War comes back to haunt Peter.  Dorothy Sayers gives Lord Peter a fussy character, a silly persona, which diverts attention from his detection.  She gives him the family motto: “As my whimsy takes me,” a lovely play on trait and name.  This whimsical exterior also hides, most of the time, the shell shock that haunts him.  While many readers of the Lord Peter tales prefer the four Harriet Vane novels, where he meets and woos his equal, I prefer the earlier novels where Lord Peter’s past is raw, more exposed.  I am experiencing joy now, four novels into this eleven novel journey, in revisiting Sayers’ Lord Peter, paying particular attention to his developing character, and paying homage to a person who had a significant influence on my life, both for his introduction to me of the mystery novel and for this dear professor’s life’s experiences.

Laura Bloxham is a retired English professor who lives for books and baseball.

August 29, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: The Wide-Awake Princess

by Karen Bjork Kubin

There are certain things I expect from spring. Robins. The finally-some-color relief of forsythia, crabapple, and lilac. The way trees get the tenderest bits of green at their branch tips before exploding into that brief, first-green luminosity I love so much. The ramping-up of school activities and counting-down of school days. And for the really momentous years, graduation—along with the daunting task of figuring out What Happens Next.

I sort of know what to expect from graduation itself, but apparently it is something like childbirth in that I had forgotten the attendant discomforts of thinking about and planning for what comes after graduation. Maybe I blocked out the pain. As my oldest child prepared for graduation from high school, however, this spring brought a lot of talk about the future to our household. In theory I expected this. But in practice “talk” turned out to mean discussion, worrying, dreaming, arguments, sleeplessness, hope-lost-and-regained, and a fair dose of wonderment. And I wasn’t really prepared for that. Decision Day—which I did not realize was a thing until recently—passed without a decision, and What Happens Next was way up in the air for way too long. The issue, in our case, is how parents who work in the arts and arts education can help their own children pursue careers in the arts. My husband and I have always managed to make our finances stretch, for the most part. Our work is meaningful. But the cost of college has gotten to be an alarming thing and suddenly, at this critical moment in our son’s life, it seems we have very little to offer him.

The dissonance has shaken me deeply, left me questioning just about everything. Have I made every possible wrong decision? Going into music, working part-time when I became a mother, agreeing to be the tagalong spouse to a town where there is pretty much no chance of working full-time in my field? What, exactly, do my skills amount to at this point in life? Pretty much every combination I come up with leads me back to the arts. Is this the best I can do by my family?

In the middle of all this, I keep thinking of one of my favorite read-alouds from when my kids were young, The Wide-Awake Princess by Katherine Paterson. It is the story of Miranda, a long-awaited child whose birth to the king and queen goes virtually unnoticed—the poor are too busy working to stay alive, and the nobility are too busy leading selfish lives. When her fairy godmother arrives late to the celebration of Miranda’s birth she finds the entire castle asleep and decides to give the child the gift of being awake all her waking hours. Miranda grows up virtually alone, awake in contrast to those around her, wandering the castle grounds and wondering at all she sees. When her parents die and three nobles take over the kingdom, claiming she is not fit to be queen, Miranda decides to go out into the kingdom to see if she can learn to be queen. Every day she leaves the castle and travels through the land without telling people who she is, working alongside the peasants in exchange for food, and listening to what they have to say. She discovers that they are overworked and overtaxed, lacking in medical care and basic resources. They feel as powerless to produce change as she does. When she befriends one artistic family, however, she is inspired to work with them to empower the people: the mother uses her weaving to teach the history of their kingdom, the son teaches others to read and write so they can produce change in their lives, and the grandfather helps other families to make musical instruments so they can create their own beauty. And over the course of several years, the people grow stronger, ready to bring about change. The book ends with the peasants marching to the castle in revolt. Miranda, who is back at the castle, lets the three nobles acknowledge her finally as queen–they are afraid to face the mob themselves–and rides out to meet her people.

My children believe themselves past picture books now, but I hope they will change their minds some day when they are reading to the small people in their lives. The right picture book will speak as much to the adult reader as to the child. Thankfully The Wide-Awake Princess is still speaking to me. It feels old and new at the same time, satisfies my taste for fairy tales, and is hands down my favorite take on the whole princess thing, ever. But it also crystalizes for me the important role of the arts in changing people’s hearts and minds, and I can’t shake the way it inspires me.

First of all, there is the encouragement I keep finding within these pages: that there is much wandering, wondering, and listening to be done, and that these things are excellent teachers; that kindness and generosity must be practiced over and over, and when in doubt should probably be doubled; that leadership happens outside the castle; that change takes time; that sometimes what you do on the peripheries amounts to everything.

Second, I love this book because it is a portrayal of the artist not as a superstar but a regular person, and the artist’s work as work done in the trenches, in the everyday, among the people it seeks to reach. This quieter form must survive alongside the art in galleries and theaters and concert halls. We need it desperately: art-in-education, art-in-community, art-in-everyday-life. The books we read to children, the things we make with our hands, the way we use our spare time. The things with which we fill our homes, churches, schools, businesses, and public spaces. The light and beauty we pour into the world. How else are we going to wake up? How else are we going to stay awake?

I realize now that I have been asking the wrong questions. Are the arts valued in this culture, in this day and age? Sadly, no—not the way they should be, not in a way that sustains working artists. I’ve always known this. Are the arts valuable? Yes—immensely. I’ve always known this, too. My new mission, I’ve decided, is Find a way. Find a way to speak, to create, to write. If this means shifting tactics to survive, then so be it, but Find a way. Hold on. Keep working to say what needs to be said, and maybe my work will always be done at the edges of the day, or at the edges of society, but maybe that’s okay, because it all comes back to the peripheries. What we do at the edges means everything. Our work there forms an outline: it tells us where we’re going, where we’ve been, what it all means. This is how we begin to understand. This is how we will move forward.

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, the Main Street Rag Anthology Of Burgers and Barrooms, How to Pack for Church Camp, and American Suzuki Journal, among other publications. More of her writing as well as links can be found at www.kbkubin.blogspot.com

August 15, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Liz Backstrom

“The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing, on the radio, or for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television.” – Neil Postman

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I was one of the only people I knew who didn’t have cable TV or an at-home computer. This wasn’t an aesthetic choice on our part as much as it meant we were poor. I found this to be somewhat of a cramp in my style, especially when I visited the houses of friends with slick PCs and 200 channels. But mostly I read a lot. For better or worse, kids are adaptable.

I didn’t recognize it until later, but this experience instilled in me a lifelong love of books. More important, it gave me the ability to entertain myself for hours without electronics. I couldn’t have imagined then how useful that would be.

Today I have the money to buy a nice TV and computer. I’m writing this essay on one right now. But still, I prefer books, longform essays and newspapers (some in digital format, to be sure) to TV or mediums like Twitter.

That’s nice, you might be thinking, but why should I care?

Because the switch from a culture based on the written word to one based largely on images affects you, in ways you may not have realized. That switch is the subject of Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), by Neil Postman.

Much has been written recently about our current political culture and the divides it creates. Still more has been written about the rise of technology use, the dip in attendance at traditional community institutions like churches and social clubs, and how these changes affect the way we all view each other. Relatively little has been written about how we got here in the first place; that is, to a place where what is valued is speed, looks and attention.

Many of us are unhappy with the way things are. Or at least we feel a vague sense of being in a hurry or on display most of the time, yet we don’t know how to make it stop. We’re not satisfied, yet we have not wondered why this might be. If we have, we blame it on what are arguably symptoms (political candidates, news channels, electronic devices, work hours) rather than root causes.

Neil Postman is the exception to this norm. The author of several books and a professor for more than forty years at New York University, Postman was well-known as a critic of technology’s impact on culture before his death in 2003. He was not afraid to wonder. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a bible for the zeitgeist of today’s fast-moving culture and is worth re-discovering.

His witty and prophetic work is mostly about television, but it could apply word for word to the ways our culture has changed following the adoption of social media, data analytics and other tools.

He argues we have failed to examine the impact of the transition from a largely written-word society to one that is mostly image-based. The invention of the telegraph, and then the television, created ‘news of the day’ (events most of us might read about but will affect few). Attention spans shifted. No longer would audiences sit for events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted hours. Most of us feel deluged by news events we can do nothing about. The cultural implications, he says, are profound, and have gone largely unnoticed.

Think about the first 15 presidents of the United States. Most of their constituents would be unlikely to recognize them if they passed by on the street. No one knew what they looked like. Can you imagine?

These men were instead known for their speeches, for those who could hear them. For the rest of the country, they were known by newspaper accounts of speeches they gave, letters they wrote and whatever else the public could read about them.

Today nothing could be further from that reality. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, a large part of choosing our leaders has to to with their photogenic qualities. In your recollection, since the advent of television, have any of the presidents (or many governors, state senators, news anchors, celebrity pastors, etc) been bald? How about overweight? In the the fields of journalism and public policy, a good discussion of ideas is not worth as much as a good haircut.

Somehow, in the last half-century or more, we’ve completely switched our paradigm for viewing leaders, and in doing so, have created a culture of celebrity that has changed the way we view the pulpit, politics, journalism and almost every public arena. You might think this doesn’t affect you, but science shows us we’re all affected by bias. And most of that bias starts with what we see.

“Considerable evidence suggests that dividing the world into Us and Them is deeply hard-wired in our brains, with an ancient evolutionary legacy,” wrote Robert Sapolsky in a 2017 essay for Nautilus magazine. “We detect Us/Them differences with stunning speed. Stick someone in a “functional MRI”—a brain scanner that indicates activity in various brain regions under particular circumstances. Flash up pictures of faces for 50 milliseconds—a 20th of a second—barely at the level of detection. And remarkably, with even such minimal exposure, the brain processes faces of Thems differently than Us-es.”

Our human tendency to character by a face already exists. In a culture based on image, that weakness is increasingly exploited in almost every visible medium, and many invisible ones.

Postman’s brilliant critique invites us to closely examine not just the effects of these changes, as many of us have already done, but to look at the tools themselves and how they fundamentally influence our culture and conversation. When we make gains, (which he allows television provided, such as coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights marches in the 1960s) we make choices. We bring something to trade. The error isn’t in making the trade, but in leaving the trade unexamined.

He gives the example of clocks, which completely changed the way we think about time. Minutes, hours, and seconds play a pivotal role in our lives and in the way we measure almost everything. Yet they are, like most measurements, just an invention. Before we had clocks, we had the seasons.

“Moment to moment, as it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s,” Postman says. “It is man conversing with himself about and through a machine he created.”

As an artist, Postman inspires me because he is not afraid to examine the hard questions in our society. He takes almost nothing at face value, asks ‘why’ about everything and forces the reader to rethink almost all their long-held assumptions. He’s funny, for all that, and well worth the time spent on his work. If you want to know how we got to today’s media culture, Postman is an indispensable read.

Liz Backstrom is a freelance writer for Spokane Faith & Values and works as a grant writer for Second Harvest Inland Northwest. She has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and an MPA from Eastern Washington University.

August 1, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: Days with Frog and Toad

by Sunni Brown Wilkinson

Over the last ten years or so I’ve fallen in love with the drawings, stories, insights, and humor of an artist I took for granted as a kid and have rediscovered as an adult.  I turn to him on rainy or sunny days, quiet days on the couch with a toddler, days when my boys are sick and need comfort, nights when they need good company before bed, for good dreams and the promise of happy, simple times ahead.  Most of all I turn to this artist to teach my boys not only a love of stories but the ability to piece words together and read, and in reading to love the world. This artist is Arnold Lobel.

In case you don’t know him by name, Arnold Lobel is the creator of the Frog and Toad series that made its appearance in 1970 and is still in print.  You might know those books by the gold and green colors of their covers, where a frog and toad are reading together or riding a tandem bicycle or flying kites or making a snow frog.  Inside each book are 5-6 stories about the adventures in the friendship of these two amphibians who dress in slacks and corduroy jackets most of the year and serve each other tea in their little homes that look like English cottages.  But, as a grown-up who longs for simple, funny times, it’s the themes of the stories that satisfy me most. The joys of friendship, home, the seasons, and the delicious fulfillment of being alone and completely oneself are all truths these little stories offer up.  Some are wildly funny, others poetic and quiet.

A good part of the humor comes from the way Frog and Toad play off each other.  Toad is grumpy, likes his sleep, doesn’t take risks, is impatient with nature and time and self-conscious in his bathing suit. It’s easy to relate to Toad, frankly. All of those make sense to me. And then there’s Frog, a kind of Taoist counterpart who remains calm and thoughtful, who savors each snowfall and spring flower, who is patient and wise, who, in a beautiful story called “Alone,” travels out to an island by himself to sit and ponder how happy he is to have the life he does and to be a frog.  Toad is like most of us: awkward and worried and often very silly. If we’re lucky, we have a friend or parent or spouse like Frog who can see the bigger picture in life and who loves us despite our quirks.

One story in particular gives my toddler a fit of giggles each time.  It’s called “Christmas Eve.” In it, Toad waits for Frog to come to his house so they can celebrate Christmas Eve together, but as the evening gets late and no Frog appears, Toad begins to panic that something terrible has happened to him.  He gathers tools around his house to help him save Frog from the awful fate he’s sure has befallen him on the path to Toad’s house. One of these tools is a frying pan with which Toad plans to beat the big animal that might be eating Frog. “I will hit that big animal with this,” he says heroically.  “All of his teeth will fall out.” At that moment, on cue every time, my son is seized by a wild and artless laughter. How fun to imagine a scary beast dazed and toothless, and how comforting to think a small creature can defend his friend with a frying pan. We know, of course, that Frog is just fine, he’s just been wrapping Toad’s gift, but watching Toad overreact deepens both the humor and our love for him.  

Another story my sons know as “mom’s favorite,” but that’s only because of this revelatory moment in it that stung me one day, and I’ve never been able to read it the same since.  In “The Corner” it’s a rainy day and Toad is despairing of all being ruined when Frog tells Toad that spring is coming soon and that, when he was a tadpole, his father once said spring was “just around the corner.”  He then relates to Toad how, as a youth, he took this literally and left home looking for spring. At each corner of the wide world the young Frog encountered, he found something new and interesting, but never Spring.  Eventually, Frog tells a listening Toad, he’d begun to feel tired and sad. The picture next to this shows Frog walking home slowly, shoulders slumped and rain pouring down on him. His disappointment is palpable. Finally, Frog says, he arrived home again.  When he turned the corner of his house, he found his parents working happily in their garden, the sunlight shining over them, birds singing in the trees. The picture on this page is full of a simple warmth as young Frog and his parents wave happily to each other across the garden.  “You found it!” Toad cries out happily at the end of the story. It turned out that home was the corner that led Frog to Spring.

I read this one day to my oldest son when he was very young and I was a tired mother wondering if I’d ever publish my book of poems, if the daily domestic grind would really add up to something, if I’d ever make a difference in the world.  Here was an answer. In a few pages and a handful of sketches, two trousered amphibians reminded me that what I was looking for was already here, at home. I just had to wait. I remember choking up, barely able to finish the story, marveling that Arnold Lobel had touched on one of life’s greatest questions in a 12 page children’s story.  

Through two gentle, affectionate, and often silly animal friends, Arnold Lobel has taught me wisdom that feels ancient and yet never gets old. Some of the best times in my life have been spent sitting on our front room couch, sunlight filtering through the windows, a toddler on my lap and a pile of Frog and Toad books beside us.  The afternoon is quiet and wonderfully long and we are in no hurry to be done.

Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, BODY, Sugar House Review, Cimarron Review, Southern Indiana Review among other journals and has been nominated for two Pushcarts.  Her debut poetry collection, The Marriage of the Moon and the Field, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2019.  She earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University, teaches at Weber State University, and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons.

 

July 18, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: On Becoming Something, Possibly a Novelist

by Lyle Enright

My wife always spoils movies. Not because she’s seen them before but because she can predict what’s coming. At my worst, I discretely check Wikipedia while she runs down her hypotheses. Eight times out of ten, she’s right on the money. I tell her sweetly that we’ll “see what happens,” but there I am, cuddled up to the armrest of the couch and grouchy as hell.

In John Gardner’s Becoming a Novelist, the author names two kinds of writers. One is fascinated by their own inner world, crafting characters as they appear before them. I think of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway — the complex inner-life of a woman receiving the world like she’s casting a net into the sea and is more interested in how the net does its snaring work than in what she hauls in. Gardner says that this sort of writing rings truer to some than others. I have first-hand experience with this, sitting at a table with dedicated Woolf scholars, not getting it and realizing it probably has something to do with my chromosomes.

But I do resonate with Woolf, for the same reasons I resonated with Joyce or Pynchon: the brain-bursting paralysis, the insane conviction that insight ought to give way to action: if I could only think this thing aright, then—!

The other writer Gardner describes, the one with far more promise, is the one who is fascinated by other people. For her, as for Umberto Eco, everything is a possible center of something else. She is the sort of person who watches a terribly-written movie and predicts its outcome, generously invents motivations for characters whose actions otherwise make no sense.

Working in mental health has only honed my wife’s insights. She comes home emotionally spent, not from contempt but from compassion. She understands the complex cages that neurons sometimes build, trapping souls inside of them. She lives those tangles during the day, and at night, in soft pants and with a glass of wine, she can turn on the TV and relax to a period crime drama, its carefully-crafted twists and turns having nothing on someone with schizophrenia.  

I don’t have a cage like that, but I do have something; a propped-up box or mousetrap, something so obvious and so embarrassing to be caught in. But catch me it did, recently, and robbed my wife of some of that normalcy she counts on. I was behind a window, bouncing off it like a fly. She wanted me back in the world with her—in a place where my students don’t have energy to waste hating me and where our lives will not come to a halt if my best isn’t up to my own standards.

I think this was how I learned that just because the sky that’s falling is your own doesn’t mean it won’t still kill someone on the way down.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, I’ve since learned, isn’t too different from what Gardner describes as the work of the novelist. Some pain is an obstinate lack of lucidity; you must fight through it and back into the world. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that good fiction does much the same work. I did that work, mostly as a way of coping and preparing for disastrous course evaluations; I would survive the falling sky.

Then I learned that, no, my students did not in fact have time or energy to waste on hating me. In fact, they were pretty happy. My mediocrity had not crippled them for four months, only me—because I was thinking of me, and not them.  

The sky didn’t fall, did not implode. But it split up the middle, reminding me of the sun and space and of how very, very small my world had become.

“Whoever loses his life will find it,” Christ says, and I think I’m only lately getting it. The new self—the attentive, curious, observant self—can never emerge unless self-love dies. It takes profound trust in profound promises to let the anxious self go under, slough off, believing that something good is waiting underneath— Eustace the dragon ripped open, his true self torn out of him by the claws of Aslan.

But somehow this gives me joy. The person emerging from this process is the person who takes pains and can spoil movies. This person is free to notice the boy and girl in the booth beside him: nailed in conversation, neither knowing where to put their hands, his fly everywhere like knives in a kitchen while she keeps hers close and bundled. “Abundant life” means being free to see these things, and it’s encouraging to think that this is the life that God wants for us; that maybe it looks like becoming a novelist.  

Lyle Enright is a writer and doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago where he studies late modern literature, philosophy, and theology. He has written widely for both academic and popular venues, and you can find some of his recent work at Christ & Pop-Culture, The Englewood Reviewand Ruminate. You can also follow him on Twitter @ynysdyn.

July 5, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: When Pigs Fly

by Ann Marie Bausch

In mid-2017, I had my first short story accepted for publication, and almost immediately hit a suffocating stretch of writer’s block.  I was saved by a vegan photographer.

If you’re blinking your eyes in bewilderment, you’re experiencing much the same thing I did.

That summer, the viciousness of our national politics nearly did me in.  The inferno that was the health care standoff affected my family personally, and my emotional health plummeted.  And the tap from which my creative energy flowed seemed to run completely dry. I decided to ban myself from Facebook and Twitter for a stretch, and instead turned to Instagram, which I could curate to only show me things that made me feel happy and peaceful—travel photos, animals, and the like.  I followed Goats of Anarchy, which led me to other animal sanctuaries such as Rancho Relaxo and Twist of Fate Farm and Sanctuary. After all, what could be more antithetical to shouting on the floor of the Senate than saving a lamb from slaughter? The folks who run these rescues changed my life.

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Sammantha Fisher Photography

Through following their work, I was inspired to go vegan.  That’s a story unto itself. My spirit and my health began to recover and even thrive.  But my writing? The one thing I’ve ever felt I was put on this earth to do? All I had was an empty, taunting silence.

As I learned more about the rescues and began to follow their posts daily, I noticed that some of the pictures jumped out as being of professional quality, and the same photo credit kept showing up: @sfisherx. Sammantha Fisher. There are a lot of talented photographers out there, but some seem to have an eye that goes beyond basic creativity or artistic composition. They see with more of themselves than just their cameras.  Ms. Fisher is one of those. In photos of cows and pigs, I began to see sentient souls looking back at me. I would lose my breath at the beauty I had never known to look for in “livestock.” I felt myself peering into the eyes of a goat and searching for a language other than English in which to communicate, a language that has nothing to do with words.  Based on others’ comments on the photos, this perception seemed to be universal. Such is the depth of Sammantha Fisher’s talent.

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Sammantha Fisher Photography

I went to her Instagram page and her website and began to learn more about her work.  The gist is this: she travels the world photographing animals, and donates half her profits back to the sanctuaries that rescued them. In essence, she uses her creativity to do good. To feed compassion and gentleness to this world starving for any glimmer of hope.  And she is a young woman doing all of this with limited resources.

It’s time to get back to the keyboard, I told myself.  Writers and artists will always, always struggle with doubt, drought, lack of inspiration.  But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the work. If Sammantha could keep going, I thought, finding beautiful moments even while witnessing overwhelming cruelty—she travels to auctions and slaughterhouses too—I could do an hour’s work on a short story.  It was time to stop squandering my potential.

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Sammantha Fisher Photography

I don’t know how far out into the world the pieces I write will ever go, and I don’t know if they will ever reach someone the way Sammantha’s stirring images do.  And this was certainly not the last creative roadblock I will face. But none of this is an excuse not to try. These are times when just reading the paper or opening a news website can fill us with dread—getting through the day, much less creating art, can feel nearly impossible. Perhaps that is why I needed such an unconventional source to get myself moving again. If you’re feeling similarly paralyzed, whether you’re trying to compose music or greet customers or just compose yourself, you’re not alone. Perhaps try looking somewhere new for healing. I had no idea that farm animals could have anything to do with the writing of fiction.  But surprises are everywhere. When I found Sammantha Fisher’s work, I learned that pigs don’t just fly. They soar.

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Sammantha Fisher Photography

 

Ann Marie Bausch is a writer and dog mom from Norfolk, Virginia. In addition to Rock & Sling, her nonfiction has appeared on The Mighty, and her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine. Find her at seekingandspeaking.wordpress.com, on Twitter at @anniebausch, or on Instagram at @anniemb4.

June 14, 2018 / jennrudsit

Artist Series: Vinyl Melancholy

by Amanda C. R. Clark

As I move through different seasons of my life I find that different things delight the senses and tease the brain.  These days a cat’s paws move effortlessly across the wood floor while the mantle clock ticks rhythmically. Breezes pass silently outside my urban arched windows and within our small abode you might hear the crackly sound of a vinyl record turning lazily on the turntable. In these recent months I have delighted in listening to the depth and raw quality of records that date from the mid-twentieth century. People who know about such things tell me that vinyl records provide a greater range of sound, but if they in fact do I’m not sure I perceive it.  What I revel in is the ritual of the listening.

Crouching on the floor my fingers sift through the slender record sleeves, judging the selection on a mix of graphics, composer’s name, performers’ names, and attempting to let this information wash over me and then meld into a direction tailored for an ephemeral mood. Delicately the record is loosed and slipped from the sleeve and gingerly framed by my flat palms. I lay it gently on the turntable, relishing this methodical, deliberate process that heightens the anticipation of the music that will soon fill the room. I move the arm and let it hover over the record in a suspended moment in tension with imminent possibilities. The needle touches down releasing the first faint crackles and pops to reverberate out of the speakers.  Then, the music. To my twenty-first-century ears these may sound tinny or pale, but soon my ears adjust to this new set of expectations and I allow myself to fall under the spell. The record spins as my cats watch hypnotically, enjoying the whole, bizarre process.

Why does this bring joy?  Is it some harkening for a past?  Perhaps. Poignantly aware that the past is a foreign country and that the passage of time creates a reverse mirage of romanticism, these reasons fail to persuade. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.  Here the media—the outmoded form of vinyl on turntable—allows me to step out of the relentless grind of my daily life. The record will finish playing one side in a remarkably short period of time and beg me to return to flip it over or replace the record with a new one. It calls me away from whatever has absorbed me since the needle made contact, whether that be making dinner, reading a book, or in all honestly, scanning Facebook for an unattainable pleasure—what is it I am looking for? News?  Inspiration? Or more likely, comparisons to my own life, seeking the “better” in others that I secretly wish for myself, and then coming away feeling vacuous and empty, dissatisfied and lonely. I return to the turntable, an intimate object that needs me, and I it. Together, we make music. I find a new record and repeat the pattern. The crackle and then the notes emanate. For a fleeting moment, at the sound of those first few moments, all is right in the world. And then I return to my tasks and soon my perceptive and present ears stop hearing the lingering notes, but somewhere in my subconscious I continue to hear and hold onto the dream and promise of a past that has intercepted my present. My world becomes a little more simple, a little more tangible in those moments. I am present to something in the immediate moment that is tactile and impermanent. This nourishes me.

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.

May 29, 2018 / jennrudsit

Applauding Forever

by Courtney Murphy

In each issue of Rock & Sling that I’ve worked on, it seems there are at least one or two great poems that experiment with form in an interesting way, contain found text, or otherwise differ from most of the accepted poems in their appearance or structure. In Rock & Sling’s issue 12.2, the poem “Applauding Forever” was one of those poems. “Applauding Forever” is structured as a prose poem, with many forward slashes functioning as a type of internal line break to separate certain words, short phrases, and concepts from each other. Each of the long lines break at the end of the page, but the word choices at the end of each line seem not to be incidental. Each word or phrase followed by a forward slash is carefully selected to set up the string of images in the following line.

Throughout “Applauding Forever,” each section relates to both the preceding and succeeding sections. Each phrase usually complicates the meaning of the phrases it is following. From one long line to the next, lines do not always read as a coherent sentence. The first line — “like a symphony/ of bees exiting/ a shotgunned/ piñata/ stick up/ your arms/ ‘cuz I’m here/ to rob” — is especially full of physical action and reaction. This line, especially the first half, juxtaposes sound and motion, creating dynamic images and juxtapositions that shift in meaning depending on where you connect them within the line. The “symphony” gives sound and volume to the image of the bees, the seeming subject of this line. Then, “shotgunned” describes their mode of movement and “piñata” describes how they can be seen in reference to their direction and trajectory. In the second part of the line, the subject is reoriented to an assumed person who is instructed to “stick up” their arms in reaction to a threatening speaker, and the several phrases that seem to be describing the movement of bees are transferred to be a more holistic description of the arms’ movement. These shifts of the perceived subject happen frequently throughout the poem, and cause me as a reader to reread previous lines differently due to the knowledge gained from later lines.

In the next line, a collection of images — a lion jaw, an ancient telephone, even the ocean — are taken and engulfed, but then it seems the ocean is the thing that’s been engulfed. The subject is instructed to follow the speaker, and be engulfed as well. In the following few lines, the speaker and reader are disoriented by a collection of images that do not seem like they should fit together, evoking feelings of loneliness and desperation. The images are difficult to grasp, and seem to move and shift throughout the poem, mimicking the confusion and disorientation the speaker is putting the subject through.

At the end, the subject is supported and encouraged by the blind, those unable to actually see them for what they are, and is then stuck in place despite being “made of rain,” unable to be grasped. The ending of the poem offers little explanation or solace, but the form works in such a way that this intense sense of disorientation is justified. More of an attempt at grammatical accuracy or clarity of imagery in this poem would reduce its meaning and the disorienting movement created by the structure.

Courtney Murphy graduates this month with a bachelor’s in English Writing & Literature from Whitworth University. She’s from Olympia, Washington and is excited to be near the ocean again after graduation.

May 4, 2018 / jennrudsit

12.2 Contributor Notes

by Kyle Anderson

Faith is an unspoken truth in our daily lives. It is based both on our past experiences and the societal contract we believe we’ve all agreed to. When we’re drinking coffee in the morning, we have faith that it will help us begin the day. When we’re driving to work, we have faith that the roads will be flat and even, that there won’t be gigantic sinkholes swallowing the traffic before us. When we’re speaking to a friend, to a stranger, we have faith that our words will carry their intended meaning as they travel from mouth to ears. The same is true for poetry. With a poem, faith is a hidden constellation, beginning with the still-mysterious act of writing. The blank page, which is simultaneously white and dark, is the abyss each writer stares into until the moment, as Nietzsche said, where the abyss stares back into the writer. That’s when the miracle begins—something, somewhere, without origin or premonition, begins seeping out of us, like a stream that suddenly trickles out of the earth, taking shape right before our eyes. As these ideas from elsewhere become ours and start to align themselves, there is a faith that they are meant to be shared with the world, and there is a faith that their meaning will make sense to another person, that the words might move some feeling in their body, even if it’s only a quiver, a shortened breath, a brief spark inside the ribs. On the other side, the reader believes the author has some purpose driving their work, some intended meaning or message, some symbolic scent their mind’s nose can catch hold of. This dance of faith is what makes not only poetry so complex and beautiful, but the act of human communication at large. It is strange, messy, and always surprising. It is why I write, why I read, and why I hope you enjoy what I’ve made for you.