by Kristine Langley Mahler
2016 was filled with surprises that have challenged my resilience—an experience to which I’m sure many others can relate. As I reflect on the books I read last year, I’m startled to realize how much I connected with the messages of my top four recommendations: I was riveted by my ancestral past while afraid of the implications for the future (Barkskins), worried that naming my fears would not help combat them (This Is Only a Test), aware, more than ever, of the rural population whose discontent has come from being ignored (Throwed Away), and scrutinous as I examined the implications of restriction on my eating practices (Bread). Books, at their best, provide templates for comprehension and coping, and I recommend these four books (three are nonfiction and the fourth is grounded in nonfiction) with my whole heart. May 2017 bring, for us all, more insight and empathy to guide our actions.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
This is the culmination of the best of Annie Proulx; it is the book I didn’t even know I was waiting for. I have been researching my ancestors who arrived in Quebec around 1660, so the fact that Barkskins is, essentially, a genealogical tracing of the lines of two Frenchmen who arrived in Quebec in the late 1600s was providence.
Rene Sel and Charles Duquet’s paths take dramatically different turns as Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman (and Proulx traces the fate of the indigenous Canadians through his line) and Duquet sneaks out of his indentured servitude to start a logging empire (and Proulx presents an extensive account of logging throughout the world through his). People die, people are born, people succeed and people fail, and the two lines reconnect at the close of the book as we, as readers, see where the choices made by Sel & Duquet’s generations have led the world. Do not be daunted by its length or a fear of genealogical confusion. There is a family tree that you can reference throughout. The last line of the book gave me a long, cold shiver up the base of my spine, so please, please, when you read this book, do not skip to the end. The end has to be earned. And you will likely feel the same exhaustion and fear I did, because it is what has been wrought; it is what we have brought.
This Is Only a Test by B.J. Hollars
I love B.J. Hollars’ voice and I love his relentlessly inquisitive approach to writing through discovery, and so I love this essay collection about fear. We begin in a bathtub in Alabama, where Hollars and his wife wait out the tornado that devastates Tuscaloosa, and we walk into the wreckage afterwards, following that Minotaurian thread through the maze of fears against which we cannot protect ourselves enough: natural disasters, drownings, nuclear fallout, and the little frightening moments that happen when you become a parent. I still think about the story Hollars writes about Buckethead, the mythical kid at his summer camp who supposedly hid in a refrigerator during a game of hide-and-seek and a maintenance guy shoved the fridge into the lake as an anchor and the kid drowned; for several days it was all I could think about, especially since Hollars’ subsequent essay examines the apparent frequency of refrigerator deaths in the 1950s. Hollars researches well, Hollars writes well, and Hollars knows that confronting these fears is all just a test of our resilience, but it’s a pop quiz we can’t prepare for.
Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina by Linda Flowers
“Throwed away,” as Linda Flowers wrote, is an expression peculiar to eastern North Carolina. If a piece of land or a person or a stretch along the highway looks ‘throwed away,’ it can be in no worse shape. The expression is pejorative, though often but mildly—sadly—so.
Flowers, who came from Duplin County (just south of Pitt County, NC, where I lived) published this incredibly important memoir/nonfiction research book in 1990. It follows the demise of tenant farming and the rise of manufacturing plants in the coastal plains region of North Carolina while also considering the lack of proper education and the frustrating results of industrialization on a population who weren’t considered important. The strengths were the memoir sections—Flowers had a beautiful grasp on her subjects and her home. Flowers passed away in 2000; a shame, because her work on the collective ignoring of rural people who felt “throwed away” is particularly relevant today.
Bread: A Memoir of Hunger by Lisa Knopp
Lisa Knopp’s memoir of her disordered eating—not “eating disorder,” because there are such strange, stringent criteria one must meet to be “officially” diagnosed—Knopp refers to it as her “malady”—traces the connections between experiences and anxiety, between hunger and craving, and between the awful shifting attitudes of society towards eating behaviors. Knopp restricted her eating, in different ways, during three separate periods: as a 15-year-old high school student, after college at 25, and as a 54-year-old woman, and she writes with a precision and poignancy that took my breath away. Knopp began restricting as a response to her hunger for her mother’s presence; she began restricting again as a response to a lack of control and fear for the safety of the things she consumed, and finally, as she grieved for the changes in her life as well as a response to her health concerns.
Disordered eating is manifest, it’s everywhere, and no one is talking about it because it’s not a “real” disorder. But Lisa Knopp is talking about it, and she’s also talking about the other shunted-aside population—older women, who’ve learned how to hide their behaviors. This book is vitally important, and the vulnerability it takes to write about a disorder-no-one-calls-a-disorder is immensely moving.
Kristine Langley Mahler has essays published or forthcoming in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Tahoma Literary Review, Rock & Sling, and the Brevity blog, among other journals. Her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award from Crab Orchard Review, and she recently received a university grant to complete a creative nonfiction research project about her Quebecois great-great-grandfather and immigration/inhabitation on native land. She is an associate nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work can be followed at www.kristinelangleymahler.com.
by Michael Wright
In a discussion on kairos and chronos time in A Secular Age, Charles Taylor invents the phrase “kairotic knot,” an image for graced moments that gather our daily lives into deep significance and mystery—an experience of the presence of God. The arts can facilitate this kind of gathering, each form offering its own interwoven experiences of time—helping to envision the future, lift the gauzy veil of the present, or in the case of The Normals’ Coming To Life, reanimate my past.
Released in 2000, The Normals’ second album is squarely in the CCM folk soundscape of the time (bongos and strummy guitars, harmonicas, upright piano), and Andrew Osenga, the lead singer and songwriter who would later join Caedmon’s Call, carries each song with an earnest and reedy voice. Taken as a whole, the songs explore faith within the quotidian—there’s bad weather and prayer, confessions of faith and road trips, couches and doorways and the longing for restoration. Like the psalms, Coming to Life is a daybook for frayed emotions and the daily struggle to cultivate an authentic faith.
Listening to these old songs, my past and present shift and gather together, not into specific memories of the music (although it was one of my favorite albums at the time) but into a kind of sympathetic vibration between memories and music.
As the first song “Every Moment” begins, I am walking down the empty hallways of my high school into my biology teacher’s classroom, a lunch-hour haven for awkward teenagers. I watch him laugh and hug the custodial staff—one of the few teachers to call them by name. I place my lunch on the lab table, swivel toward the other students who crave that same loving attention, and we sing lovers and loners and vagrants and kings we’re finally home.
Now I’m skipping mandatory chapel to argue with my Bible professor, a debate that blurs into multiple meetings during my senior year where he gives me permission to ask questions that scare the both of us, and in our prayerful confusion, we bow our heads and sing, When we’re both lost, God is found.
I’m crying into my hands on a couch in my youth minister’s office. I’m confessing to him that God feels far away, that I feel numb during the very worship services I’m supposed to be leading, that I feel confused and alone. He shares some theological advice, but neither of us knows that I’m beginning my first year of a decade-long struggle with undiagnosed depression. This time, Andrew Osenga is in the office too, singing on my behalf, I know peace lies in silence / And prayer is its heartbeat but / I don’t feel it beating in me.
And when I hear the chorus of the title track, more memories braid together into a single knot, each thread essential: a conversation with my mother in an idle car, unexpected tears at a film, reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking On Water, a preacher shocking me into insight, discovering hymns hidden in poetry, all of it gathering together into a crowned knot of fire—
I am coming to life.
Michael Wright (MA, Theology and the Arts) is the associate editor for FULLER studio and magazine at Fuller Seminary, and he writes and lectures on religious poetry, popular culture, and spirituality. Connect with him on Twitter at @mjeffreywright.
As we move toward the reality of Donald Trump’s pending presidency, artists are responding. Rock & Sling wants to produce a cross-section of that work, to be released at AWP in DC, two weeks after the Inauguration.
We are looking for any kind of artistic reaction to the election and the weeks that have followed. Photo-documentary, essay, allegory, graphic shorts, fiction, satire, poems, visual art: we want it. What are your fears or frustrations? Your hopes or hesitations? We want to hear from the whole spectrum, all of the kinds of reactions we see. We want to hear from undocumented artists and from Christians, from Muslims and artists of color, and from conscientious conservatives.
Rock & Sling is a journal of witness. We believe that the power of witness, of truth-telling, is a good human act and a good human outcome, enabling the reader to enter the life of another self and thus to grow in empathy, compassion, and understanding.
Prose: 1500 words or less (includes, fiction, all cnf, satire, allegory, commentary)
Poetry: No more than 3 poems
Art: No more than two pieces, or query
Submit work at https://rockandsling.submittable.com/submit
Contributors will receive a copy of the publication as payment for their work.
During this time, we will be closed to regular submissions, which will reopen in the spring.
Submission deadline, Dec. 18 at midnight (Sunday night).
by Kate Reed
In the most selfless act of love I have ever committed, I told my husband that once a year on Halloween, I would watch a horror film with him— his pick.
On year one of this new agreement, he chose The Conjuring. Have you seen The Conjuring? In case you haven’t, I’ll tell you a story to illustrate how thoroughly petrifying it is: after we finished it, I could not sleep for more than an hour at a time— basically as long as it took for me to enter a dream state. Once I started to dream, I jerked awake, literally choking on my fear— breath stopped, body rigid with adrenaline, cold sweat. When the night was over, I’d somehow pulled a muscle in my neck and pinched a nerve in my back. I could not turn my head for three days.
My husband was kind enough to rub my neck while hiding giggles; he thought it was hilarious, in a very empathetic yet condescending, you-poor-puppy way. At moments, I got it— I mean, really? Come on? How scary can a movie be? At other moments, I had to fight urges to punch him in his neck, which enjoyed a smooth and full range of movement.
Needless to say, we don’t watch horror films anymore unless I approve the pick first. This limits us to the occasional mumblegore flick and any horror film Joss Whedon happens to make. And it also allows for a few TV shows, which leads us to the subject of this blog post: The Fall.
Recently, I was chatting with someone about how excited I am about the second season of this show, in which Gillian Anderson plays a gorgeous, obsessive, and detached detective pursuing a gorgeous, obsessive, and detached serial killer, played by Jamie Dornan. My friend was all like, “What?! Doesn’t it scare the shit out of you?” Followed quickly by, “How can you handle that but not supernatural scary stuff,” specifically the supernatural scary stuff in The Conjuring.
And I don’t know what it is about The Fall–which, yes, does terrify me in a way–that somehow makes it palatable. Shouldn’t real life be scarier? I mean, all kidding aside, I don’t think a month goes by without my being afraid of some sort of assault, even if it’s just a wisp of fear as I walk down the street, and this is number is down considerably from when I was younger and in possession of traits that made me more culturally desirable, like a flat stomach and a penchant for putting myself in dangerous and dumb situations. And I’m not alone in this fear of assault, especially among women. So it would make sense that I would be afraid of the violence committed by the serial killer in The Fall, who stalks his victims, murders them, then dresses them up nicely and paints their nails. (Not joking. It’s much more unsettling acted out than it sounds here).
On the other side of the horror coin, I should not be scared of an old haunted house, because exactly no times in ever do I think about ghosts torturing me so intensely that I hang myself in my basement.
I’ve been trying to bring some order to this dissonance. Someone suggested that The Fall is less disturbing because Jamie Dornan is that beautiful. Which I think infers that we don’t mind imagining him murdering and defiling us. And although obviously no one is that beautiful, I have to think his looks play into what people find so compelling about the show. Despite the fact that he is clearly a sociopath, you find yourself sort of liking him. And there is absolutely nothing besides the fact that he is achingly pretty to make you like him.
Recently I heard and took at face value immediately without researching it at all that our brains can’t differentiate between what is happening to us and what is happening to the people we’re watching on the screen. In fact, our brains can’t even differentiate between what we’re thinking about what’s happening and what is really happening, which is why visualization is supposed to be so powerful.
I started wondering, maybe it’s the fact that I do fear stalking, sexual assault, and murder— that they are tangible things that happen to people, that could happen to me— that makes me like The Fall. Which: ugghhh. I feel weird admitting that, even though I’m separated from you, reader, by space, time, and a lot of wires. Why would I want to expose myself to these terrible things? That are happening to real people?
I don’t think the super-true scientific fact that we think we are in whatever TV show or movie we are watching is something we do consciously. But I’m trying to observe myself when I’m in front of the boob tube. And as far as I can tell, I put myself in their shoes. And by their, I mean pretty much whoever is on the screen at a certain moment. But once I’m in their shoes, I find myself doing something else: I imagine myself even better.
And with The Fall, you get it all. The characters are so grossly flawed that there are endless places to imagine yourself better. You get to be the hero, but also know when to pat yourself on the back and step away. You get to be the guy pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, but you don’t kill anyone in the process. You get to be the victim, but you somehow become clever or strong enough in the last moment to get away. And all the while, you get to be gorgeous, obsessed, and detached, which in my darkest of hearts, is the answer to why I ever turn on the Big Screen at all.
In addition to serving as the fiction editor for Rock & Sling, Kate Reed works at Spark Central (a non-profit creative learning center in West Central) and at her desk (shhh! it’s actually a couch) writing fiction and the occasional blog post.
by Andy Zell
I forget how I won the gift certificate to the local Christian bookstore. Perhaps it was good grades or perfect attendance in 8th grade at my private Christian school. What I do remember is looking over the wall displays of cassette tapes filled with Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and selecting Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man for my very first music tape. Smith was one of the biggest names in CCM. My older sister had his second self-titled album and I really liked some of those songs. I took the cassette home and eagerly put it in the deck, listening to it many times over the next few years. Later I moved on to more alternative Christian music, and some years after that I stopped caring whether an artist was a Christian or not.
It’s hard to for me to go back and listen to this album. It’s not merely the drum machines, synthesizers, and guitar solos that sound dated. It’s the poorly worded messages that typified my faith at the time (In a song about loving others, he raps the words “Light a fuse—make a spark. Try to penetrate a heart. There’s a burning need to fill the world with love.”) I never burned my secular albums on a bonfire, but I did erase my dubbed copies of “Weird Al” Yankovic albums because they weren’t bringing me closer to the Lord. I didn’t know how to interact with culture, believing that its influence would sully my conscience, so in the spirit of the album, I fled west to the Christian subculture of Christian music and books.
The first two tracks each employ troubling and problematic metaphors. Go West Young Man invokes American Manifest Destiny in a song about the importance of avoiding temptation (“Go west young man when the evil go east”). The original exhortation is attributed to Horace Greeley in the effort to encourage Civil War veterans to take advantage of the Homestead Act and settle on the frontier. The pioneer life sounds romantic and idyllic: staking a claim on the land and making a life where there was open prairie before. But the encroachment of settlers led to conflict and displacement of the Native tribes and often to their slaughter.
The next song “Love Crusade” references the centuries long conflicts from the Middle Ages in its title (and features a chorus of “na na na” and a truly unfortunate rap section that I’m sure Smith himself regrets), but uses the call to arms for the purpose of loving everyone. A year ago there was a lot of talk about the Crusades because of the President’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. The President pointed out that Christians have used violence in the past so it’s no use casting stones at other religions. In response, many Christians pointed out that the Crusades are complicated or that they were in response to centuries of Islamic conquest. No doubt there is truth to these assertions, but there are also the horrors of the Crusades such as the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland or the sack of Constantinople.
Granted, the metaphors in these first two songs are in the service of good messages—fleeing temptation and loving one’s neighbor— but their casual use is troubling. I now see that even when I started listening to more alternative Christian music, troubling metaphors didn’t cease. Two examples should suffice: A Violet Burning song called “Love Is the Loaded Gun” has the same trouble conveying loving others with violent imagery as “Love Crusade”; The Dimestore Prophets had a song comparing apathy at the suffering of others to Eva Braun, aka “Hitler’s Girlfriend.” Metaphor can be tricky to get right.
When I first listened to Michael W. Smith’s songs, I didn’t know anything about history (or about music), so I didn’t see anything amiss. Mostly I was drawn in to his crossover hits “Place in this World” and “For You,” anodyne songs about figuring out meaning and purpose in life and the importance of friendship, respectively. They’re pleasant, and I can appreciate why they had broad appeal, but they’re bland and universal the way pop songs usually are. They’re not the type of songs I go for now.
Now I want higher quality music with specificity and complications, something that speaks to my doubts and questions. I don’t want simple answers, and often I don’t want answers at all. I want to understand a small part of someone else, or perhaps even myself, and, every once in great while, some ineffable glimpse of the divine.
5 Spiritual Songs I Listen to Now
“Take Me to Church” (Sinead O’Connor)
“Ya Hey” (Vampire Weekend)
“Say” (Cat Power)
“Where Are We Now” (David Bowie)
“Song for Zula” (Phosphorescent)
Andy Zell still loves to listen to music. Now that he has four kids ages six and under, a lot of it tends to be They Might Be Giants and Wiggleworms. He writes about books, music, faith, and life on his personal blog and occasionally uses Twitter @strangerextant.
by Karissa Knox Sorrell
A couple of months ago, I went to a funeral. It was for a woman named Joyce whose husband had been my pastor at one time. When I greeted him at the front of the church, I unexpectedly burst into tears, and he took me in his arms and cried with me.
Two days after that I went to the cemetery. It was the day my brother died, sixteen years earlier. We let off balloons at his grave and watched them float up and up until the sky swallowed them.
Three days later, fifty people were gunned down in a nightclub in Orlando.
* * *
In his famous poem “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee writes, “There are days we live/as if death were nowhere/in the background.”
Those days seems far from us now. Death is all around.
* * *
A canvas painting of a Mexican Day of the Dead skull hangs in my living room. I found it at Goodwill and purchased it on a whim. It is a bit startling, but it’s beautiful. Bright colors pattern the skull, pouring a bit of beauty over a sign of death. I know that death is not beautiful, though. I know how deep and dark is the cavern of grief.
But I’ve always loved Dia de los Muertos. The holiday somehow merges joy and grief, light and dark, fun and memoriam. So even though some visitors in our home don’t particularly like a skull smiling down at them, I don’t take it down. Perhaps it is my reminder that death cannot overcome love. Perhaps it makes me think of my brother, his fun spirit, his constant jokes, his infectious laugh. Or maybe, I leave it up for the promise of joy, even when I’ve encountered death.
* * *
On Orthodox Holy Thursday I went to church and watched my priest nail an icon of Jesus to the cross. I sobbed. I cried because they shouldn’t have done it. They shouldn’t have beaten him. They shouldn’t have stripped off his clothes. They shouldn’t have crowned him with a crown that cut into his flesh. They shouldn’t have driven the nails through his hands. They shouldn’t have stood at his feet and mocked him. How inhumane can humans be? It felt utterly and incomprehensibly wrong.
I used to have all the answers about the atonement, but now I just ask why. It seems like God could have saved us all without having to kill himself.
On Holy Friday I went to the Lamentations service, which is basically like a funeral for Jesus. The deacons carried the bier around the church, and we followed and sang dirges. The little girls tossed rose petals into the air, and I wept. I wept for Jesus, for my brother, for my dwindling faith.
* * *
We moved last year, and we have a peach tree in our new backyard. This spring, we worried because the tree remained bare while all the other trees in our yard burst with leaves and blossoms. Finally, some green appeared on the tree, but there weren’t many blooms. We’ve only found one peach so far.
Lee’s poem I quoted above is about eating peaches in the summer. “O, to take what we love inside/to carry within us an orchard, to eat/not only the skin, but the shade,/not only the sugar, but the days.”
The days are sweet with life and death. Each bite of fruit is a reminder of the beauty and life in the world, and of the fact that my brother is not here to enjoy it with me. I remember other foods we shared: snow cream our mother made, homemade ice cream on our grandmother’s porch, sticky rice and chicken in humid Bangkok. I can’t bring him back, but I can remember him.
Death is in the background, but it is coupled with love. The only way I know how to move forward is to accept the presence of both in my life. Maybe this is what the cross means. We cannot escape sorrow, but we are not alone in it, either. We are the blossoms that push through winter and adorn the trees with beauty.
Karissa Knox Sorrell is a poet, writer, and ESL teacher from Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Evening Body (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Gravel Mag, and Two Cities Review. You can connect with Karissa at karissaknoxsorrell.com or on Twitter @KKSorrell.
by Ann Marie Bausch
Once upon a time, I was lucky enough to be invited on a free trip to Paris. I encountered the usual teasing beforehand—“Say you’re Canadian”—and after I came home—“Was everyone really rude?” I always responded that I encountered no more rudeness in a week in France than I did in a week in the United States. In fact, standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower, looking up into its glittering lights, was such a soul-stirring experience that it fills me with profound sadness that those feelings won’t survive me when I die, floating through the air to land in the hearts of others and fill them with wonder and joy.
Where I grew up: a different story.
I fled Fairmont, West Virginia the moment I was able. In the decade plus since my parents divorced, I’ve probably been back three times, including for a friend’s father’s funeral, and once, prepared to testify in my mother’s restraining order hearing against my dad. In my mind it is a place of pain and fear, of mediocrity coated with dust. The place where I was ostracized for being the smart kid, and the setting of my emotionally abusive upbringing.
But now I am in my late thirties, and I am starting to suspect that this dominant narrative I’ve carried with me about my childhood and my hometown might not be the whole story. I wonder if I’m the only one?
Something tells me I am not.
In the summer of 2016, West Virginia was hit with terrible flooding in which dozens of people died. I had recently moved again, so I was wide-open for sweeping life changes and new thoughts. I watched the suffering of humble people on television, many of whom, as a friend pointed out, lived in centuries-old homesteads and had never carried insurance. I tried to think in a new way. Absent my home life, had I really encountered more unkindness in two decades in West Virginia than in the two decades everywhere else I’d lived? It took a few deep breaths to be able to say…no.
This wasn’t the first time I’d had thoughts like this. I had been through years of therapy that enabled huge strides toward helping me “unfreeze.” And this is one of the great tragedies of trauma, large or small: it can and usually does stay with us forever, coming back just when we’ve forgotten it; protecting our psyches from danger, but unintentionally cutting us off from so much of the beauty that can help us heal.
I have friends and classmates who have stayed. Some may fit my mental picture of having, or assuming they have, no other options. But some have become lawyers and journalists, people with mobility, and for so long I have wondered, “Why?” Why would they stay, when other places seem to offer so much more?
And so I have begun anew to mine the place in my mind where the hurt is lodged for what is good about my home state, and to embrace the fear and discomfort that come with doing that. There is the natural beauty. The lack of pretentiousness among its people. The work ethic. The stubborn insistence on survival, and the struggle to grow and evolve: so many of the qualities I admire and hold most dear. Indeed I have pitied some of the friends I have made since I left there, who are burdened with a sense of entitlement, who wring their hands and cannot feel satisfied without things—the big house in the perfect neighborhood, the luxury car. They suffer so needlessly.
Appreciation for the earth, humility, passion for the needs and causes of the poor and disadvantaged—did I learn all of this in the suburbs of Washington, DC? Is Fairmont, West Virginia the only place where straight-A students take some teasing, where kids have troubled relationships with their parents? A few deep breaths…
No. Simply, no.
It may take the rest of my life, in phases and moons, to tend with compassion to the wound. For years now, I have been pushing away, disdaining, even hating a whole town, an entire state, because they have become synonymous in my mind with the sadness, the denigration, the ugliness. With being yelled at and manipulated. I have made the actions of my father as grand as the mountains.
They are not.
This suit of armor is how I’ve kept myself safe. Over the last couple of years, I have dipped my toes into the waters of meditation and Buddhist psychology, and one of the many things I have learned is to try not to “second arrow” myself—have a set of painful feelings (the first arrow) and then lay self-judgment on top (the second). It’s all right that it’s taking a long time. I want to greet the whole process with compassion.
And I want my home back. The state of West Virginia does not belong to the pain, or to my father. It is a place where trees blanket hills like ripples in water, where people lower themselves into the chasms of the earth to provide for their families, never certain if the industry that employs them will keep them from harm. A place that needs kindness and attention, understanding and love.
Just like me. We deserve—this place and I—not to be separated any longer. At least in our hearts. And so does everyone else, with whatever small town lives in an anesthetized prison inside you. Whether it’s a divorce, a lost loved one, or a place you’ve left behind, we all have one.
I’ve moved away now, and I intend to stay where I am. It’s the right place for me. And just as we can forgive a person and decide never to see them again, we can appreciate a place and never go back. Or not. Life is about what’s right for us here and now. Usually, part of that is finding a way to let go inside, so that we don’t carry the weight of the past on our backs ceaselessly into the sacred present. I wish that for everyone. I wish that we all may stand at the base of the Eiffel Tower, with the hills of West Virginia in our hearts.
Ann Marie Bausch is the writer of the blog Seeking and Speaking. She is a graduate of the George Mason University and West Virginia University creative writing programs, and lives in Virginia Beach, VA with her husband, Wes, and their two dogs. Follow her work at seekingandspeaking.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @seekandspeakVA.
by Kenneth L. Field
If someday they take the radio station away from us, if they close down our newspaper, if they silence us, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left alone, a people without priests, each one of you must be God’s microphone, each one of you must be a messenger, a prophet.
Óscar Romero, July 8, 1979
I recently completed a chamber opera entitled, “Romero: God’s Microphone.” This was a four and a half year journey from conception to completion. As it turns out, this period also coincides with a spiritual journey of my own. Rather late in life, I decided to return to my music composition background which started in my teens at Interlochen Arts Academy – a private arts school in northern Michigan – where I graduated from high school. Many years later, shortly after completing a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Santa Barbara in 1997, I married my wife, Rafaela, who was finishing her Master’s degree in Latin American & Iberian Studies. Two years into our marriage we ended up in the Los Angeles area where I was leading a worship team consisting of drums, acoustic guitar, bass, and vocalists at a small church in Pico Rivera. The roots of the worship music was mostly from the Vineyard Christian Fellowship and a few songs I had written myself. The style ranged from reflective to rock-and-roll. Rafaela was teaching history at two local community colleges (and playing drums for the worship team.)
As my involvement with music increased, I realized deep down inside that there was an unfulfilled longing. I was being drawn back to my classical/art music roots. My hope was to compose music which spoke to both the intellect and the heart and to also bring to light social injustice and prejudice. I craved musical expression that was deeper and more intellectually satisfying and challenging than the praise and worship songs I was leading every Sunday morning. But I was burdened with guilt because I felt that the musical expression I desired to create was too esoteric to make any real difference to those who were suffering.
Around this time my wife and I were given a book that brought some clarity to my confusion: Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. Her premise was that there was no difference between Christian and non-Christian art. Good art is good art. And what I mean here by art is not just the visual arts, but all art – painting, literature, sculpture, music, etc. For me this new understanding meant that worship and praise music was not on a pedestal or somehow more blessed than any other kind of music or art. This understanding was very weak or almost non-existent in the Protestant tradition that I came from. For me, this insight opened up a new vista for me and allowed me to set aside my guilt. So I applied to California State University in Fullerton with the hope of getting a graduate degree in music composition. Despite not having an undergraduate music degree, I was accepted, and started classes in the fall of 2001.
This new understanding of art also led to an in-depth exploration of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy where the interaction between art and faith is better understood. One of the best examples of where art and faith meet is in the concept of the Eastern Orthodox ikon. An ikon in the Eastern Orthodox understanding is not just a painting of a Jesus or Mary or a saint. An ikon is a window into heaven. One common misunderstanding is that the Eastern Orthodox pray to ikons, but this is not true. Rather, they pray through them. They are not the object of prayer but rather a means to facilitate prayer.
One of the benefits of this investigation into Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism was that it allowed me to step into the shoes of the other and see the world from a different spiritual perspective. I discovered that there was a oneness that was the Church, but that over the centuries it had divided into multiple traditions. These in turn grew, matured, and split apart even further over time, resulting in manifold factions, branches, and identities. So that now, individuals have become so rooted in their own cultural/religious traditions that they are unable to see beyond their place of identity and accept the differences of the other. The outcome of all this is that religious traditions and denominations that grew from the same source dismiss each other as not being true to the faith. We are no longer brother and sisters but competitors – even enemies. Rather than finding common ground where we can stand together, we use our belief system and doctrine as a badge to identify what club, branch, or sect we belong to. If our badges don’t match, we are at odds and the result is disharmony – not unity. My spiritual journey has led me to reject the outside pressure to categorize myself. It has challenged me to accept the other and seek common ground.
In the spring of 2003, I graduated with an M.A. in music composition. Shortly after this Rafaela was accepted in the Ph.D. program in the history department at UC Santa Barbara, so we moved back in the fall of 2004. With my music degree behind me I struggled (and still do) to find the right expression for it. Then in the spring of 2010 I came across a call for chamber opera scores. If your work was selected, it would be performed. The idea was to send a ten minute excerpt fully scored and the complete libretto – which is the sung text and storyline for the opera. I had six weeks to finish this enormous task. What would be my subject? What would the opera be about? Most operas revolve around heroes and heroines, lovers and cheaters, sexual liaisons and murder. Not quite the subject matter I was interested in. But the one idea that interested me was that the hero or heroine almost always dies in the end. Then I remembered a movie that I was introduced to while Rafaela and I were still dating: Romero starring Raul Julia in the lead role. I had never forgotten how the movie had impacted me. At the time, I was more interested in China than Latin America. (Rafaela soon changed that.) But the story of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero had struck a chord in me. With my wife working on her Ph.D. with an emphasis in Latin American history, I had the perfect go-to person to help me with my research on Óscar Romero. I read about his background, I read his homilies, his weekly radio addresses, his diary, and the details surrounding the last few weeks of his life. I found out he liked to listen to Marimba music to relax, so I made the marimba one of the central instruments in the opera. I read about a life-changing encounter that a nun named Eva had with Romero and made this into one of the scenes of the opera. I was able (somehow) to finish the libretto (in its initial form) and the opening ten minutes of the opera and submitted it to the competition. After a few weeks of anxious waiting I found out that my work had not been selected. I inquired why my work had been rejected and the answer I got – much to my surprise – was that it was too violent. They were looking for something with a more pleasant, lighter topic – or perhaps less challenging. Romero went on the back-burner.
The following year Rafaela accepted a faculty position in the History Department at Whitworth University. In the fall of 2013, our family had the opportunity to go to the Costa Rica Center (an extension campus, now closed, for Whitworth students) where Rafaela would be teaching a full load. I was teaching one class but I needed something more to occupy my time. So I brought my Romero score and music notation software thinking I might have some time to work on it. The decision proved to be fortuitous. On the first full day I walked into the men’s public restroom at the Costa Rica Center and there on the wall was a large painting of Óscar Romero. There he was – staring right at me. That painting in the men’s bathroom was like an ikon for me – a window of transcendence. So I started looking at my score from three years before.
A few weeks into our family’s stay at the Costa Rica Center, all the Whitworth students, assistants, and faculty participated in a week-long trip to Nicaragua. We all hopped on a public bus and rode the eight hours from San José, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua. On Sunday morning we visited a base community church – a Catholic Church that was formed during the Nicaraguan revolution in the 1970s. We were all struck by the fact that there were only a few older men in attendance – the congregation consisted mostly of older women and their families. We surmised that most of the men had died in the revolution. The church welcomed us with open arms and even invited us to take part in the Eucharist – even though most of us were not Catholic. There was no priest. A woman led the service and administered communion (which is practically unheard of in the Catholic Church at large). Although my Spanish wasn’t that good, I was deeply touched. After the service ended we were mulling around the small church. On the back wall were three framed pictures: one of Pope John Paul II kneeling before a shrine to Óscar Romero, one of Pope Francis, and a poster of Óscar Romero commemorating the 18th anniversary of his death. March 24th of this year marked the 36th anniversary of the day he was assassinated while celebrating mass.
As I looked at this display in the little Nicaraguan church, it was at that moment I realized Romero was already treated as a saint in Central America. There are even songs sung in the church service about him. All this had been happening years before his recent recognition as a martyr by the Vatican. On May 23, 2015, 35 years after his assassination, Óscar Romero was beatified in San Salvador, the first step towards being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
About eight weeks after our trip to Nicaragua we all went on another side trip – this time a week-long trip to Cuba. While we were in the San Salvador airport, waiting for our connection, I was stunned when I noticed a large painted mural in one of the airport concourses: it was of Óscar Romero – in the very city where he had been gunned down by a government-sponsored assassin. This mural was for me another ikon. And it was a sign that the example of Romero was there to stay in El Salvador. Death could not keep him silent. And in a way it fulfilled his words:
I have frequently been threatened with death, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility.
Óscar Romero, From an interview, March, 1980
Between our trips to Nicaragua and Cuba, I arranged for a room where I could write privately. I started working daily on the opera. I threw out most of what I had written in 2010 and started over. The initial attempt was framed in a modernistic musical idiom – very dissonant and much harder to grasp conceptually due to the lack of a key center and few memorable melodies. This avant-garde musical style is usually not as well received by the general public. So I decided that I would stay closer to the tenets of minimalism – known for its repetition and more pleasing harmonic style. I wanted something that would quickly draw people into the story rather than alienate them before the story even began. The libretto, the lyrics or storyIine of the opera, had been completed in 2010. With only a few minor changes and some needed editing, I finalized the libretto and moved on to the music. With the private room, I was able to spend one to two hours a day composing mainly on weekdays. This continued for a number of weeks. I have probably never written so much music in such a short period of time – almost 40 minutes worth. I was able to finish nearly two-thirds of the opera while I was in Costa Rica.
Upon our return to Spokane in January of 2014 and our re-entry into the American lifestyle, it took a number of weeks before I got into the habit of writing again. And with some valuable input and editing from Paul Raymond and Brent Edstrom – both professors in the Music Department at Whitworth – I was able to put together a final draft of the opera in October 2014.
With the recent news of Óscar Romero’s beatification I feel an urgency to share his story. When he was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, he did so at a turbulent and complicated time in Salvadoran history. He was considered by the government and the Catholic Church hierarchy to be a safe choice. Trained in Rome, it was assumed that he would not make waves. But under Romero’s watch the political situation evolved in such a way that a strong state, backed by a traditional oligarchy and a strong military, became increasingly repressive towards a population that demanded freedom for workers to unionize and demand better wages, access to healthcare, and freedom of the press. After Romero’s death the situation worsened and escalated into a civil war that didn’t end until 1992, claiming tens of thousands of lives.
Not long after Romero was appointed, it became clear that he was not going to be the Archbishop the government and Catholic hierarchy wanted. Only a month into Romero’s tenure, Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest with whom Romero had become close friends, and two others who were riding along with him were ambushed by paramilitary forces. The three were shot and killed while returning in a Jeep from Aguilares where Father Grande spent most of his time ministering. The death of Father Grande changed Romero. He took the time to personally meet with his parishioners and to listen to their stories and concerns. He traveled extensively throughout El Salvador and heard their stories about oppression, murder by government allied forces, and all the men and women who had disappeared and never returned.
Rather than side with the oppressor, Romero sided with the oppressed. He was simply following the example of Jesus. And this did not go over well with those in high places. Over the course of the next three years, five more priests were assassinated by forces siding with the government and countless civilians as well. Every Sunday in his weekly radio address Romero would preach the gospel and call for peace. And everyone had radios and everyone listened.
Then on March 23, 1980, a Sunday, in his homily at the Sacred Heart Basilica in San Salvador (the largest church in El Salvador) he asked each soldier to follow his conscience and not shoot to kill his fellow Salvadorans, even if he was ordered to do so.
In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression!
Óscar Romero, From his homily of March 23, 1980
Archbishop Romero had to have known that he was likely signing his death wish by asking the soldiers to disobey the orders of their commanding officers. The next evening, March 24, he was celebrating Mass at a small church in San Salvador called the Divina Providencia Chapel. That night he read the gospel passage which was from the church calendar for that week.
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
John 12: 23-26
As he was raising the bread and wine to heaven and calling down God’s blessing down upon them, a single shot was fired from outside the open doors of the church. It struck Romero square in the forehead. The bread and wine fell, the body and blood of Archbishop Oscar Romero was spilled on the floor of the church. The seed died. The nuns wailed. The assassin walked away and was never found.
Retelling the story of Romero in opera is for me one way of being God’s microphone. His story is just one of many that needs to be heard. The opera actually opens with Romero’s assassination and then flashes back to a few weeks before his death. In addition to Romero (whose role is sung by a tenor), the list of characters includes an apparition of Father Rutilio Grande (a bass), a Carmelite nun named Eva (a soprano), and the assassin himself (a baritone). Many of the words the Romero speaks are words that were actually spoken or written by Romero himself.
The small ensemble that accompanies the singers includes a string quartet, a contrabass, a piano, two marimbas, a percussionist, and a brass trio. There is also a chorus of four nuns and four paramilitary soldiers. The chamber opera lasts just over an hour. I am currently pursuing avenues to get the opera performed in whole, but it is more likely at this point that smaller sections or arrangements will be performed first.
Whether you consider yourself religious or not, the example of Romero cannot be ignored. He knew what was required of him and he did not flinch. Romero followed the example of Jesus. He stood up for the poor, the oppressed, the rejected, and the ostracized. He called on those who remained after his passing to be “God’s microphone” – an allusion to his weekly radio address. 36 years later, we are still called to be God’s microphone. We are called to speak the truth about injustice and prejudice, even though it may hurt us. May we all have the courage to follow the example of Romero.
Kenneth L. Field graduated in 2003 with a Master’s in music composition from California State University Fullerton where he studied under Pamela A. Madsen. Previously he graduated in 1997 with a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California at Santa Barbara. For many of his works, Field’s linguistics background informs his music compositions. His 2002 work fifty seven one for sixteen vocalists is built upon waves of sound created from the different phonemes of the English language. The work was recorded in 2006 by The Kiev Chamber Choir and released on CD in 2008. In 2004, his work The Beatitudes, for tape, was presented as part of the Electrolune Festival in Lunel, France. This work’s sound source is a recording of the Beatitudes from the gospel of Matthew spoken in six different languages. Small snippets were manipulated in various ways to create this ten minute sound canvas. A work consisting mainly of guided improvisation, Baptism – a musical rite of passage – for Ean, was performed by ThingNY on Feb. 25 at SPAM v. 2.0 at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, New York. A prerecorded version of his 2011 work, Saint Brendan and the Lyrist, for soprano and tape was presented March 5, 2011 at the CSUF New Music Festival in Fullerton, California. The sound source for the tape portion of this work were manipulated recordings of his son Brendan’s toys. In October of 2014, Field completed a chamber opera entitled Romero: God’s Microphone, which covers the event’s surrounding the last few weeks of Archbishop Óscar Romero’s life up until his assassination on March 24, 1980. Las Calles de La Habana (The Streets of Havana), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano was completed in May of 2015. This work was predominantly inspired by his weeklong trip to Havana in November of 2013. It recounts the feeling of traveling the many streets of Havana and meeting and listening to the Cuban musicians in the Plaza de Armas. In December he completed a miniature for soprano and cello entitled, Unwind. His next work will be a song cycle for piano and soprano based on texts by Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas Merton, and Ernesto Cardenal.
You can find recordings of some of these works at: kennethlfield.bandcamp.com.
Photos 2-5 courtesy of the author. Photo 2: An early ikon of Jesus: Andrei Rublev’s Christ the Pantocrator, 1410
by Karissa Knox Sorrell
When I write, I turn my back to the saints.
We moved into a new home in August. With our home came the blessing of an extra bedroom in the basement, which became a guest room/office combination. When searching for a space for our Orthodox icons and home altar, my husband suggested this room. He arranged our icons to the wall across from my desk, which faces a window. A few times a week I sit there, looking out into my backyard, trying to churn out meaningful words while the saints stare at my back.
The past three years have been a time of unraveling. I have questioned the Bible, the reason why Jesus died, and if we even need to saved. I have faced my own damaged self-worth and realized that the church was, in part, to blame for it. I have fumed when seeing Christians and Christian organizations judge and belittle others. There have been Sundays full of tears over having to go to church and Sundays full of guilt for not going.
My faith is fluid and faint now, my questions and doubts finally outweighing the certainty of belief I used to have. Layer by layer, I have peeled away every skin of armor I used to wrap myself with. It has been a painful, lonely process, but now I find myself in a place of quiet. I’ve stopped raging. I’ve stopped agonizing over what I believe. I’ve mostly stopped writing about spiritual topics. Do I know what I believe? No. Do I think God exists? Maybe. Have I completely abandoned Christianity? I’m not sure. And yet, none of this bothers me as much as it used to. I, quite simply, have just gone still.
When my husband nailed our icons to my office wall, the sight of our saints threatened to push me out of the calm and back into the storm. I didn’t want to look at Christ, or Mary, or Saint Nonna, my patron saint. I didn’t want to look at my children’s saints, Mary Magdalene and Ephraim the Syrian. I didn’t want to be in their presence or to remember how dear they used to be to me. I didn’t want to recall the many times I had prayed before those icons or the sweet faithfulness I had when I first converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
I still have not made peace with the saints. When I write, I turn my back to them.
The saints remain, though. They watch and wait, and perhaps, if they are real, they pray for me. For what are icons but windows to heaven, images we look through to find the meaning beyond? It feels like a beautiful concept, though I’m not sure if I believe it. Yet in that space, in that blessing of a place of my own in which to write, a creative spirit often finds me. For me writing is an act of birth and rebirth, over and over. The saints are my witnesses, and for now, that is enough.
Karissa Knox Sorrell is a poet, writer, and ESL teacher from Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Evening Body (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Gravel Mag, and Two Cities Review. You can connect with Karissa at karissaknoxsorrell.com or on Twitter @KKSorrell.
by Andy Zell
As I write this, we are expecting our fourth child in a matter of days.
A few days before the birth of our third child, my wife asked me if I had looked into home births. She had come across a website called Idiot’s Guide to Emergency Home Births and thought I should take a look. I didn’t know why she thought her labor might be so quick. I blew her off and joked that I didn’t need to look anything up. Nothing to it but catching the baby. Easy peasy.
I never expected our third child to arrive so quickly. All of our children have been late.
The first arrived almost leisurely—my wife’s water broke in the middle of the night before any major contractions. We called and were told to wait until morning to go to the hospital. After my wife labored all day, we welcomed our firstborn in the early evening. Our second was induced after being more than a week late. This time my wife labored all night and we welcomed our daughter in the early morning.
The day our third was born we were informally timing the contractions. We had called my wife’s parents so they could start the all-day drive to come help us with grandparent duty. A good friend was coming over to watch our other two kids in the meantime. She had no idea what she was stepping into.
Labor appeared to be progressing slowly. I went out to fill up the van with gas, figuring that our friend and definitely the in-laws would want to tote around the kids. I kept my phone on me. My wife sorted laundry, made lunch, and laid on the couch, trying not to make our two little ones nervous. When the friend came over, I showed her around the house, explaining the kids’ routines and how every little thing worked. Then my wife’s water broke.
She was alone in the bathroom and tried to call out to me. I couldn’t hear her. I was too busy explaining how all of the remote controls worked. Then she screamed, and we rushed to find her. Contractions were coming so hard and fast she could barely move or talk. She wanted to start pushing. Our friend wasn’t ready to deliver the baby and neither was I. I didn’t know what to do. Should I call the hospital or 911?
My wife somehow managed to hobble out to the car while I carried the small suitcase. I imagined having a police escort to speed us to the hospital, knowing it would never happen.
I gripped the steering wheel, trying to stop my arms from shaking. We had barely begun when another contraction hit. My wife screamed for me to pull over. She wanted to push the baby out. I switched to the right lane and started to slow down, but then I realized what that meant. It meant that I would have to deliver the baby by myself. I sped up and moved back to the left lane.
When we hit a red light, I immediately altered my course and turned right. When we hit another red light later I turned right on red and then took an immediate left into the parking lot of a fast food chain, cut through, and continued on the road to the hospital. A small part of me felt like I was in a movie chase, but without the suspension of disbelief. I had to speed to the hospital without breaking any laws.
Another contraction jolted her while I navigated the streets. “Ahhh! Pull over! I’m going to have this baby!” she yelled. Again I slowed down and then accelerated. I didn’t know what to do. If I made it to the hospital, then I would have made the right call to keep driving. If she had the baby in the car, then I should have stopped.
I pulled the car up to the emergency room doors. I ran in to tell them to bring out a wheel chair. When I came back my normally modest wife was stretching out of the passenger side of the car and taking off her pants so she could deliver herself of our child.
After what seemed like 15 minutes but was probably two, a whole host of people in scrubs came out with a gurney and lifted my wife onto it. They covered her with a sheet and hurried inside. I parked the car and then I raced inside. Someone pointed me in the right direction. I arrived to find my wife looking around frantically for me.
No one would check under the sheet to see if the baby was coming. Instead they fussed with vital sign measurements and an IV line. It seemed that the room was packed with people lined up along the wall. More people than needed, really. And still no one was ready to catch our son. Finally someone came down from the OB floor and with a push he was here. He was beautiful.
I’m a father, so this is merely an outside point of view on the birth of my third child. It doesn’t do justice to my wife’s experiences, especially how in the car she managed not to push when every instinct told her it was time to deliver.
I’m supposed to take care of my pregnant wife. Even the schlub played by Seth Rogen in Knocked Up gets his act together when the Katherine Heigl character goes into labor. He demands that the on-call OB follow the birth plan. He is her advocate when she is unable to make her desires clear.
I barely got her to the hospital in time. I managed to hold her hand during those last five minutes before our son was born.
Hours later, when describing the frantic drive to family members on the phone, I couldn’t stop trembling. I still felt shaken, on high alert.
So we’re having another baby any day now, our fourth. I think we’ll go to the hospital at the first sign of labor this time.
I think I know what to expect.
Soon after writing this, Andy Zell became the father of a fourth child. And yes, they made it to the hospital in plenty of time. He tutors writing part time, but mostly he’s a stay-at-home parent to their three preschoolers and kindergartner. When he finds time he blogs about books and life. Occasionally he tweets.
Photo credit: Andy Zell