Contact Us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right. 


123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789


You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.


Filtering by Tag: Aaron Guest

From a Place of Anger

Aaron Guest

ennegra I write this from a place of anger. And I think it’s a good place for me to write from.

Over the past two years I’ve been able to invest more time into understanding myself. It began when a friend introduced me to the Enneagram. It’s a personality test that assigns one of nine “types” to people based solely on their motivations. From “The Perfectionist” to the “The Peacemaker”, it definitively accounts for the way I, and others, behave.

The Road Back to You is a sublime primer on the Enneagram. Written by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, it’s witty and informational and I highly recommend it. The book explains the way the Enneagram demonstrates the spontaneous and unpredictable beauty of being human, and how it can flourish and flounder in a predictable away.  

Discovering my type has changed the way I understand myself. For example, as a 9 (“The Peacemaker”), when it comes to anger I have an innate ability to dissolve it. To bury it and effectively pretend that it wasn’t a big deal. Sometimes it’s not. But sometimes it is. Like today. The day after the election. This is a big deal and it can’t ever not be.

I also have this incredible ability to put everyone’s desires ahead of my own. I rarely ask myself what I want to do. None of these are de facto negative qualities, but they can be. And my tendency is to let them cripple me. To let them prevent me from doing something, from speaking up.

The Enneagram has also shown me how the people closest to me are very different from me. None of us are the same types. And the Enneagram is at it’s absolute best when it’s showing how the types respond to each other in relationships, in decision making, in conversation. It has become the single most useful tool to help me listen and understand the people around me. We are different. We are each our own type, with our own motivations for action and inaction, for decision and indecision, for happiness and sorrow. The Enneagram advocates for empathy. It lights a path to loving our neighbors in a very real and bright way.

One day soon I will see that the evangelical church I am angry with is made up of different people, with all types of wants and fears. But today, in the days after election day, the Enneagram is teaching me about being honest with my anger. To kick over a few tables—to borrow from a famous scene in the Gospels. American evangelicalism has made a mockery of my faith.

So much of my life as a Nine is to seek peace. To deny my anger because it brings disharmony to my life. But, what looks like my desire for peace is really just a desire to shy away from conflict. Should I pray that this anger translates into action? As a nine, when I move toward action because of anger, I enter into a state of becoming. I awake, soul intact and strong and true, into a better person. And I realize that behind all true peace there must be pain and conflict. As Fr. Richard Rohr says, “The only way to overcome the bad is to be the better.”

May I need to want to be better. May I need to want to not be scared. May I need to want to speak up and fight and change this.

Lord, let me stay angry.


Aaron Guest

William Blake - Europe a Prophecy - Creation of the World (1794, mirrored background) Sports have made me a superstitious person. Whenever Tottenham plays I wear a particular shirt. When I take foul shouts I spin the ball, bounce three times, spin the ball and shoot. Once, during a playoff game between the Red Sox and Cleveland in college, I refused to exit the dorm during a fire drill because I didn’t want to disturb the thin fabric between me and the late-inning rally occurring a thousand miles away. (Also: the guy who organized the fire drill and physically removed me was from Cleveland, so…) Because it seems to alway work, this entrenches the superstition.I do this with writing, too. Limiting the number of drafts, pre-determined writing times, who and who doesn’t read it before I feel it’s complete, writing in the study vs writing in the kitchen, surrounded by books or surrounded by the kids.

But perhaps these replications aren’t superstition. Maybe it’s more scientific. Because whenever an experiment is produced, one that yields results, science demands that same experiment be exactly replicated. As Alan Lightman says, “the results must be reproduced… in order to gain acceptance.”

The deeply humorous Jorge Luis Borges examined this same tendency in the fantastic short story-disguised-as-an-imaginary book review, Pierre Menard, Author the Quixote. Menard wants to write Don Quixote. However, he does not want to compose another Don Quixote, or even an anachronistic 20th century version of Don Quixote. Menard wants to compose “the Don Quixote.” He wants to match it word for word, sentence for sentence, idea for idea. Don Quixote being an “accidental book”, Menard’s endeavor to recreate it will make it better.

He believes there is a way to accomplish this: “to know Spanish well, to re-embrace the Catholic faith, to fight against the Moors and Turks, to forget European history between 1602 and 1918 [the year this story takes place], and to be Miguel de Cervantes. Menard dismisses this method it for it’s obviousness (and impossibility!). Instead, he suggests it is infinitely more profound to be a 20th century author and arrive at Don Quixote. Borges reveals that Menard does accomplish this task and though the texts, he says, are identical, Menard’s is infinitely richer.

But literature (and all Art) isn’t like science. It absolutely balks at the need to be reproduced to find acceptance. That’s one of the ironies Borges is getting at, I think.

Because we homeschool, it’s our task to teach science. Whenever I recreate a science experiment for the kids, there is a certain awe that permeates. Because here I am, recreating this truth that helped change the world — whether it’s understanding the rotation of the earth or why things float or what happens to water at different stages of matter. I’ve found that these simple truths of science, so widely accepted, resonate even more strongly because I’ve made them occur myself.

Would it be better if writing worked liked this? What if you or I could compose a great work of literature verbatim? Would our exactly replicated version of Don Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or Things Fall Apart be better? Would this diminish the work itself because it ceases then to be unique, or would this cement the truth of the work more firmly?

The Toil of the Porter

Aaron Guest

pexels-photoFour of the five years I spent selling myself to creative writing programs, I used this gem in my personal statement: I am overwhelmed by my bookshelf. Everything that’s been written in the canon of literature has said all there is to say. I do not purport to say anything new. It’s a wonder why they rejected me. Who wants a writer who thinks they have nothing new to say? Especially when that writer goes on to swing a metaphor as dull as a spoon: My aim as a writer is the toil of the porter… All I strive to do is haul my bookshelf up a floor.

However much it hurts to read that conjured bit of word magic, ten years removed, I wonder if it’s true. Do I have anything new to say?

Josh Ritter spoke candidly of a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing while at work on something that looks and smells like a novel in the same way a pickle resembles a cucumber. He called it feeding the monster, “a creature so voracious… it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path.” The sanitized notion of this is probably “research”. That process of pouring through books and essays and poems and personal experiences for information that you can use to fashion a story. But how do I use that?

A writer I deeply admire once told me about a particular line in their story, “I stole that from Denis Johnson. Here’s a writing tip: steal anything you can.” My head must of cocked at a visibly affronted angle because it immediately was clarified. “Obviously don’t rip it off verbatim. But steal the hell out of everything you like.” I went back and compared the lines in the two stories. Unrecognizable unless you knew the other author, the story, their love of Denis Johnson, and, even then, had heard the confession itself.

Stealing the hell out of other works has occurred throughout history. It goes back as far as Genesis and the story of the Flood, where non-Jewish cultures already had their own flood stories. The late literary theory wizard Umberto Eco believed that all works were birthed from other works: “The reader has to fill the blanks in the text and to relay it to the intertextuality from which [the text] is born and in which [the text] merges.” Texts are going to arise from other texts and then speak on behalf of or point to those other texts. Springsteen certainly helped point many unlikely readers toward Flannery O’Connor’s writing in his famous song Nebraska.  

For this novel project I’ve cracked a small notebook and filled it’s pages with lines from novels and memoirs and essays I’ve been reading. Ritter claims to satiate the monster is crucial, “If you don’t give the monster what it wants, the damned S.O.B. will never give you anything in return. But if you do a good job feeding your monster, it’ll occasionally let you have a little inspiration.” And my notebook is annotated with sentences and words and phrases I hope to alter the time signature of and make dance to the tune of my own work.

But it’s a fine line to tread between plagiarism and creative license, isn’t it.

So am I stealing? Or simply bringing ideas up to the next floor?

More importantly: do I really have anything new to say?

Working Words Through the Body

Aaron Guest

512px-J._K._Rowling_at_the_White_House_2010-04-05_9I worked a number of positions in television news, and the only aspect of it I really enjoyed was the news writing. The experience taught me a great deal about the kind of writer I wanted to be. And until recently, I’d forgotten I’d wanted to be the kind of writer whose stories are read aloud. There’s a power in telling stories for all to hear.

While I’d been able to read aloud The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, My Side of the Mountain, even Beowulf and the Aeneid to our kids, it hadn’t become a regular practice. This past Christmas we received the new illustrated Harry Potter and I thought, “What the hell, they’re old enough.” So I started reading it to the two oldest kids. I figured they’d be awed from the start. They weren’t.

One of the habits of being a news writer was to read out loud everything you wrote. It helped if you were able to mimic, to some degree, the anchors who would read the story. And while I wasn’t great at completely aping the sound of their voices, I could get the cadences down, I could wager where they’d be likely to pause, speed up, or slow down. It made me a better writer to understand how my anchors would speak.

And so after the first chapter of the first Harry Potter books fell flat, I realized I needed to become a better reader. These characters had incredible voices. So I began to use them. Harry’s was, obviously, a proper Cockney; Vernon Dursley’s weight and anger meant his whole body should shake when he speaks from the back of his throat; Dudley whines. Hermione has a slightly pressured speech; Ron is quite certainly from Boston. It’s been an enormous success, even if I’ve had to adopt upwards of twenty distinct voices as we’ve progressed through six books. (My favorites are Dumbledore’s Scottish drawl and Ginny’s Irish lilt.)

Gina Ochsner has written a marvelous novel called The Hidden Letters of Velta B. I implore you to read it. The main character, Inara, narrates the stories of her life to her son while on her deathbed. Ochsner’s brilliant writing absorbs the euphony of oral story-telling. The voice of Inara is so sublime that you’ll find the words tumbling out of your mouth in an empty room at 1am.

Inara believes inviolably in the telling of stories out loud because in this way we can “bury them deeply and firmly, pushing them down to an unshakeable foundation, a bedrock of truth.” And on this we can begin to build, to connect to each other in new ways. My experience in reading to the kids has had this effect. I’m often called upon to do one of the voices while making dinner, giving baths, saying goodnight. These stories, heard aloud, have come alive. For example, my son mimics well my voice for Luna Lovegood. During a theater class he used the voice to perform a short monologue. Based on the way I’ve read Luna’s character it fit perfectly into the character he assumed.

But I have questioned the effect of my reading efforts. Have I somehow warped the story to my own whimsical adaptations? Or prevented them from fully grasping the weight of it? They did not respond to a main character’s death with any emotion (I even read it during the day so they wouldn’t fall asleep heartbroken!) And what about when I read these books again and I do some of the voices differently?

Inara’s son Maris questions the logic of verbal story-telling. Here’s how Inara responds:

If you stand in a river you will never feel the same water touch you twice. A story is never told exactly the same way… The words work on us differently each time we hear them…As familiar as they are, they will never grow old. We stand in those familiar waters and feel ourselves transformed anew. This is the power of word worked through the body.

This is why we must tell our stories.

I know that reading Harry Potter through out loud this time has worked such an exact magic over me. It’s an altered experience to dart around the room reading about when Harry wins the Quidditch Cup. To shake and growl out Hagrid’s bellowing because his spider has died. Or to work Harry’s anger toward Dumbledore through my jaw. To squeak out Neville’s bravery in book one and know what happens in book seven.

There is a transformative energy that come with sending words up and out through the body, whether they are your own or someone else’s. And even though my youngest daughter often comes into the room to tell me I’m being too loud and she can’t sleep, I can’t ignore the refrain of Inara’s dying exhortation: “Let us baptize our world in words.”

Glorious Potentiality

Aaron Guest

By Oliver Vass - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, On the first day of 7th grade my history teacher asked us to write down a nickname she should use for us in class. Did she mean we could choose a nickname we wanted to be called by? An Aaron by any other name? I had felt so penned in by name at 12. It had already been egregiously mispronounced (“erin”) and misspelled (I possess a litany of incorrect name tags). Back then I didn’t know of any really admirable Aaron’s either — Aaron Sele, a first round pick by the Boston Red Sox, would not make his debut until I was in 8th grade. These days it’s still burdensome: The double A’s mean I get butt-dialed all the time.

If this comedy sketch had been around 24 years ago… my name and nickname would’ve been coveted by all.

Naming is not an endeavor, whether for my writing or my children or my own self, that I approach lightly. Madeline L’Engle, in Walking on Water, believes Naming to be one of the impulses behind all Art, a way to aid in the “creation of… a wholeness”. Naming is incarnational. It portends what the Caedmon’s Call lyric deems “glorious potentiality”.

I think in this way, too, Naming is an Art. And Art, considering G.K. Chesterton’s humorous and brilliant definition, is limitation: “If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature.”

When it comes to naming the characters in a story, whittling away hours searching for the correct name is a foolproof way to not end up writing the story. Ron Carlson tells about the stock names he uses when he starts any story, waiting for the drafts to reveal the name. It works like this for me. Like the focus on a camera lens, the name crystallizes when I can see the potential of the character emerge on the page.

To some extent, my wife and I did this with our three kids. We didn’t tell anyone the names until each child was in our arms. My thought then, as now, is everyone has an idea of what an Isaac or a Lucy or a Vivian should look like based on “accidental laws” surrounding an Isaac, Lucy, or Vivian they have known. Everyone has their own interpretation of “what’s in a name.”

Take a look at the controversy over the actress playing the role of Hermione in the London performance of the new Harry Potter story. This Shakespearean question of “what’s in a name?” still generates robust—and asinine, twittish: ‘but we have a certain picture from the movies!’—discussion. I am ecstatic that Hermione is being extirpated from the cold, dead hands of those who wish to cement the accidental laws of Art onto her. What will make Hermione Hermione in this new chapter of Harry Potter is that she simply “retain that dear perfection [read: potentiality] which [she] is owed.”

I had had a thing for the The Hardy Boys in seventh grade. I wanted to bask in the potentiality of the name Frank. In his “keen-ness” for details, his ability to get out of jams involving criminal syndicates (just flex your muscles and inhale when they tie the ropes around you!), his sense of adventure and justice. And so I was forever Frank to my teacher: my sister had her for class six years later and was asked how Frank was doing.

I have loved, relished, treated as sacramental, the naming of our own kids. And so when they draw homemade wands from inside the pockets they have somehow sewn into old blankets doubling as robes and they are casting spells in English accents while being chased by my father pretending to be Lord Voldemort (yes, I said his name), I notice how gloriously long their necks are.

What Do You Say

Aaron Guest

party conversation wineI tag along with my wife to her work functions, mingle with people whom I am trying desperately to assign names to faces. I get the question often enough. And it’s begun to rattle me like empty dinner glasses.

So, what do you do?

I infer that “what do you do” is really “how do you make money”. For a long while my answer was simple and I gave it without thinking: I work in television. But these days I don’t get a paycheck. In The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a visiting parent to a university in Wisconsin observes that “it’s only Americans who insist on asking everyone what they do.” Perhaps because we are a country obsessed with wealth.

Maybe it sounds like I’m offended by the question? Resentful because I’m a man and I don’t make any money? I’m not. I see and know the value in being a stay-at-home father homeschooling three kids. And I love doing it. So this has become my polite response. After all, it adheres to the social mores of the casual conversation of the dinner party. And this way I can wrap it up and get on with enjoying my steak.

But my answer bothers me like a hangover.

In the Episode 3 of the Relief Podcast, D.L. Mayfield speaks about her hesitancy to call herself a writer. I don’t hesitate to call myself a writer. But I hesitate to say that writing is what I do.

The main character of The Art of Fielding is Henry Skrimshander. Without a doubt he is a baseball player with a work ethic not merely American, it’s near Herculean. I’m an athlete—or was until Howard proved me otherwise—and I can’t even fathom the lengths to which Skrimshander subjects his body. By the end it’s his singular determination to ‘doing what he does’ that becomes his undoing.

Maybe this is why I don’t want to say writing is something I do. I don’t do writing and then not do writing. It’s more than something I do. It’s who I am.

Recall Jesus with his disciples. The men and women who hung out with him. Followed him for years. Christ did a lot of things: healer, reformer, prophesier, miracle-worker, comedian, storyteller, etc. But it wasn’t a question of wondering what he did.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.

Imagine the eyes if I were to posit that question at a party: “Who do you say that you are?” I’d follow it up by finding another bottle of wine, or beer, and quoting Over The Rhine:

Come on lighten up Let me fill your cup I’m just trying to imagine a situation Where we might have a real conversation.

But I think it’s the better question. Because there’s a spark of being human we are snuffing out with innocuous questions about how we make money that waste, as Mary Oliver opines, “this one wild and precious life”.

The Fortune of First Impressions

Aaron Guest

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Calling_of_Saint_Peter_and_Saint_Andrew_(Vocation_de_Saint_Pierre_et_Saint_André)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall The simple answer to the question is: I’ve read enough great books to just know. But this isn’t about that answer. It’s too simple anyway—and carelessly arrogant—however satisfactory it is. Instead this is about the question I found myself contemplating after reading the opening salvo of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and knowing this would be the best book I’ve ever read.

The whole restless mob of us spread on blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.

I immediately read this passage aloud. Twice. Interrupted and read it to my wife. I have quoted it at length to people since then. Here, in one instant intake of words, was the story, the voice, the language that would entwine all the experiences in this book. And I just knew that this sentence (and many, many, countless others in this book) was sublime, exquisite, everything. Never has an opening to a novel forged such an indelible first impression.

To me this has always been an antiquated notion: that wonderful opening line to the novel as an edifice on which an entire story rests. Opening lines are great, but a novel is a marathon; how you get out of the blocks doesn’t really effect the race. So I’ve come to disavow any initial first impression of a book. I want to believe that I’m better off reading into it fifty to a hundred pages before I make any judgement. But this single sentence in Cloudstreet stripped that practice away like decaying plaster. I was given over to something instinctual. And I couldn’t ignore it. Couldn’t talk any doubt into myself. Why? Why did I trust this first impression? And why was it so very right some four hundred pages later when I read the last line and flipped back to this opening sentence?

I went back to Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling read BlinkAt length Gladwell talks about snap judgements, those based on the merest of slices of information. We are, he writes, “innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition” and that ours is a world “that assumes that the quality of a [judgement] is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it.” Gladwell concedes there is a fallibility in making snap judgements. However, there is just as much, if not more, good here as well. That these rapid assertions can be educated and controlled. We can trust our instincts. Blink is a long argument about how and why we should cultivate first impressions.

This brings me to the gospel story of Peter and Andrew. Upon hearing Jesus’s words, they made a snap decision to drop everything they were doing and could ever do. And what did Jesus say? “Come. Follow me. I will show you how to fish for people!” I think of them, there, in the dreamy briny sunshine in the middle of their living. This first encounter with Christ. How was it they had cultivated themselves, their spirits, for this moment? Did they know in an instant that trusting this sliver of a saying, this presence there on the hillside chiaking about going fishing for people, would be so significant?

Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes this in The Sabbath, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information [a thing], but to face sacred moments…A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time…It is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to a thing.”

So think of that initial pulse from a person, a work of art, a book, a song, a place. The feeling that transported you. Did you trust it? Should you have?

A Game of Refractions

Aaron Guest

A_family_group_playing_cards_in_the_Community_Building_on_a_rainy_day_at_the_South_Kawishiwi_River_camp_and_Picnic_Ground,_8_1_1940_(5188124888) As holidays with my extended family arrive, so does the expectation of playing games. Whether in a pool, in the snow, in a gym, on the floor of a living room, or, especially, at the table. Ah! The evening table game. We’ve played everything from “Awkward Family Photos” to “Risk” to “Tenzi” to “Reverse Charades” to the incredible, mind-bending card game “Killer Bunnies”.

It begins innocently every year. One person suggests altering a rule of a game because of an injustice. It descends quite rapidly. Soon we are borrowing the rules, pieces, boards, dice of any number of games and combining them into one. It is not lightly we alter the rules of games — but we’ve found it’s great fun to create new rules and new games. Especially when hilarious calamity can ensue: a roll of the dice being named after someone despite indignant protestations, a chandelier almost yanked out of a ceiling, a mirror nearly shattered, a dining room table upturned.

This suspension of the imposed order is the epicenter of creativity. We’ve all seen the phenomena of the broken straw in the glass, or the way a shimmying pencil bends. Quickly it is explained. There is nothing to see here, the rules are still in place. The pencil is still the pencil. But doesn’t creativity abound when we marvel at refractions, not define them? Perhaps it is a disservice to the immutable and often, in and of themselves, astounding laws of the physical universe. But give me a three-year-old and a No.2 and I can alter reality.

One game my family has successfully refracted is “War”. There are five pages of new rules; it takes a lot of energy and attention to play it. Our most clever rule is a combination of cards — a straight flush— that will reset the entire game. It’s likelihood explained away by statistics. It was foolish to think this could actually happen, but still we hoped.

It was nearing two am. Three players were left. The other seven of us watched. Nerves were frayed. The game had dragged on. A play of the cards. An almost straight flush. One number off. The ten of us froze before erupting into astonishment and agony —and admittedly gratefulness at such an hour— that it hadn’t happened. And as we resumed our seats around the coffee table, still hemming and hawing about the nearness of such a realized but possibly, now that it had almost happened, stupid rule. The remaining players played their next cards.

It sounds simplistic and obvious if I tell you what happened next.

So remember when you were toddling along unaware, and, then suddenly, in a flash, the rules that govern the universe could make a pencil bend.

A Displaced Person

Aaron Guest

(Wikipedia image)
(Wikipedia image)

Flannery O’Connor changed my life. Her work located me. Sought me out from the top corner of a near empty shelf of a quickly-going-bankrupt mass-market bookstore. I read one story and knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in any and all words and places and ideas I could generate. I have never regretted it, even if the writing life has brought unsubtle revelations about who I really am and how far away I may be always from the person I see myself as.

My attention was drawn back to O’Connor after David Griffith’s article in The Paris Review about her “least anthologized” short story “The Displaced Person”. I urge you to read the piece, regardless of your political leanings. Then read the short story. Or vice versa. On display is the inherent power of fiction; how it can carry a “dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality.”

The idea of displacement Griffith talks about in O’Connor’s story was reinforced just last week. Again from that high-on-a-shelf kind of unexpected angle: a trilogy of graphic novellas we picked up for the kids at the library. It’s called “Lost & Found” by Shaun Tan. These three short illustrated stories are immaculately drawn, layered with rewarding and minute details. There is an astounding force at work inside each frame.

The middle story in the collection, “The Lost Thing”, strikes at the heart of why I continue to feel displacement in my own life. How it continues to be a “question about belonging in the absence of any direct language”. The story illustrates the journey of a lost, voiceless creature and the narrator who tries to find a home for it somewhere in the city. After some missteps, a unique and unexpected home for the creature is uncovered. This placement of the creature, finally, reveals a startling idea: where a displaced thing ends up may in fact not be the place it actually belongs.

Exactly a year ago now my family and I intentionally displaced ourselves in hopes of finding a community to which we could belong. We had outgrown our home in a number of real ways and we couldn’t stay. We moved deeper into the midwest. A small town, still in Ohio. We have no business being here, outside of work. And yet here is where we are. Like the odd, eschewed characters of Tan’s story, we “are happy enough.” But still the irk of not belonging is persistent and indirect. It sweeps over us in quiet strokes on Sunday mornings, in silent nights on our unlit street.

Griffith points out that many of O’Connor’s stories deal with displaced persons. And how they are always subject to violence whether as the perpetrator—or, as “The Displaced Person” shows despite the faultless and hard-working Mr. Guizac—as the victim.

I know where I am. And here life is comfortable and cozy. I am happy enough, too. I do not openly wish for a change. After all, like O’Connor’s Astor says, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” But I know how a simple glint caught by the corner of the eye can violently change my life. So I merely hope I don’t become “too busy doing other things” to fail to notice. Because I am—and may always be—a lost thing.

On Entanglement

Aaron Guest

Photo" by GravesGhastly is licensed under CC BY 3.0 I was sixteen and my demand for God right then and there was that Crazy Timesby Jars of Clay would play on the secularradio station. If it did it would mean Lisa liked me. I turned on the radio and sure enough Crazy Timescame on.

These days Im more apt to display another type of naïveté and call that evidence of Quantum Entanglement. Spooky action at a distance, thats the more poetic phrase for this factoid about our universe. As I understand it two particles are connected, though separated by distances that would take a crazy amount of time to cross. These particles can communicate with each other so that they lose their independence, thus entangled.

Physics also tells us that particles are constantly being exchanged within matter. We all are tied up with a bit of Albert Einstein in us, a bit of our neighbor, a bit of stardust. In his cosmic fantasy novel, The Dalkey Archive, Flann OBrien comically explores implications of this very branch of quantum study. One of the characters has this Mollycule Theorythat posits people all over Ireland are turning into their bicycles and vice versa: you would be unutterably flibbergasted if you knew the number of stout bicycles that partake serenely of humanity.

For however wonderfully satirical OBriens novel is, I cant sleep on the Mollycule Theory. Books communicate to me, and I become them as I read. The good ones anyway; the ones that break off some humanity like its bread. So the goal is to read widely, diversely. The goal is entanglement with the atoms and molecules that compose words. Words and ideas and points of view that chase after what makes us live and breath, kill and suffer, laugh and shiver. And many, many times, usually at some distant point, Ive discovered its those books that suddenly turn themselves on like a radio.

I never had the guts to tell Lisa she liked me because I heard a song on a radio undoubtedly a good thing. But I havent learned my lesson. As a teenager in the bathroom I sang, You cant attract/the things that you lack. So Im still asking of radios, jokes, God, stories, songs, basketball shots, physics, to conjure connections that will deepen my entanglement with life.

Feel the Pull of Darkness

Aaron Guest

Guest dakness I volunteered to drive the night shift during a cross-country road trip last year. That meant the long drive through South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. Maybe my enthusiasm to take the short straw was the prospect of what singer/songwriter/writer Josh Ritter calls being pulled by the American darkness/the mountains, the rivers, the fields at harvest. Or maybe it was the goal of meeting the sunrise in Missoula. (I had long ago been lured in by A River Runs Through It.) I didnt want to come to such joy by sleeping until the morning.

A writing mentor told me once, You really like to write about losers.I do. I like stories whose characters experience the weight of evil and suffering dragging them down far short of redemption. I like stories and books and movies where eviland Im simplifying herewins.

In a recent conversation in Granta, Ben Marcus and George Saunders discuss darkliterature. Both writers make no apologies about being pulled to stories that, in quoting Joy Williams, deal with the horror and incomprehensibility of time.Stories not fleeing from fear or hopelessness or sadness. Characters whose experiences do not bloom into rainbows and sunrises at the end. Marcus sums it up best, Relishing this kind of writing does not mean we do not love life. It means we love life enough to want to be present to its difficulty and complexity. We experience pleasure when we feel that someone has arrived at something essential.

Growing up with faith I have been assured I am part of a great cloud of witnesses. But too often this cloudis paraded around as a heavenly choir singing only of glad tidings of great joys. Faith, like literature, if it is to arrive at something essential,needs to be honest with darkness, allow space for doubt, and ponder questions with answers that leave us far short of redemption. As Madeleine LEngle says, pretending there is no darkness is another way to extinguish the light.

It was nearly 2 a.m. when I crossed the Montana border in March 2014. Rolling hills were covered in frost and sparkling in the starlight. Just passed the state sign I pulled the car over and stepped outside. And, right now, as Im thinking about what I felt out there, another of Josh Ritters lyrics rings true,

A sky so cold and clear the stars might stick you where you stand and youre only glad its dark cause you might see the masters hand you might cast around forever and never find the peace you seek.

Out of Clumps of Books

Aaron Guest

Guest post Twenty minutes is enough time to visit a bookstore. Especially when your son asks to go to the bookstore and you only have twenty minutes. He scoured for spy books, startled me fifteen minutes later, pointing to a book on a top shelf in the fiction stacks.

“You’ve got that book,” he said. “It’s on the coffee table.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude. Read this when I was very close to giving up on writing.

“You’ve got that one, too.”

A few rows down, to my left, I removed a book.

“Yeah. You have that one. And the other one.”

East of Eden. John Steinbeck. A coworker and I started an unofficial book club on weekends when the news was slow. I didn’t finish it because we were moving and you had just been born. I finished it two years later, around the time your sister was born.

Color me impressed that my eight-year-old son recognized my books on those shelves. But he should. He and his younger sisters have made my modest study into their play area. They take my books off my shelves and use them for staging forts, small plays with puppets, pillows for dolls, items to buy from the store, planet surfaces for their pocket-size civilizations of legos and barbies.

With enough time Isaac may have been able to point to more books on the shelves of the bookstore. And I, perhaps, may have curiously realized I was not telling him about the book itself, but where I was and who I was and what I was doing when I read the book.

Orthodoxy. G.K. Chesterton. College Senior. Feet propped on a dorm desk. I had just started dating your mom.

City of God. Augustine. Unemployed and depressed, trapped for a weekend in an apartment above two chain smokers while the street outside was under six feet of water.

Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling. All seven books while trying to get you to sleep in your bed through the night.

Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace. Read when your aunt and three cousins came to live with us in our old house. This book kept me sane with so many lives in complete disarray.

The poet Anna Kamieńska’s Astonishments sits on a special shelf in my study. A shelf that the kids know is untouchable. In “Small Things”, she records a number of images quivering, thrusting, seeping, pricking, splashing from the detritus of everyday life. And these minuscule things, “[grow] enormous/as if Someone was building Eternity/as a swallow its nest/out of clumps of moments.”

Properly shelved or piled on the corners of yet another fort, I may not be able to tell you about all of my books as someone with a “graduate degree in books” should be able to. Still, it is clear what has taken shape around these spines. That day my son asked me to take him to the bookstore I bought a George Saunders novella. It was and is an awful book. But it is no small thing.

The Cantrip of Words 

Aaron Guest

12 Guest Post -Oct 2.15 My mother once asked us kids if we’d rather spend our February vacation at Disney World or spend a week at a camp in the middle of Maine. It was unanimous. Vacation would be in sub-zero temperatures. We’d jump off the A-frame cabin roof into fifteen-foot snow drifts. Walk across a frozen Ironbound Pond. Invent card games. Watch bad movies. Eat pancakes. Use an outhouse.

It was a shorter drive to the camp than to Disney World, but it felt like hours. Time is a curse of childhood. At the end of the trip there was a mile or so one-lane dirt road. It wound up and down and through a thick pine forest. Once the tires hit this road, whether it was dirt and gravel or packed slick with snow, the singing began:

We’re going up, up, up, to touch the sky. We’re going down, down, down, to touch the ground!

It wasn’t a lyrical song, but the words had meaning. It meant we were almost to a certain place. And we sang it on repeat until we reached that place. And my dad would take that final curve before the last hill so, so, so quickly.

Words are a legend, a key to understanding place. “Landmarks” is a book by British travel/nature writer Robert Macfarlane. It is obsessed with words. For Macfarlane the terrain, earth, quoting Proust, is “magnificently surcharged” with words that “bind story to place”. He tenaciously records hundreds of words of the British Isles and their meanings, “words act as a compass.” It is a book preserving the literacy of landscape, recognizing the “the power of certain terms to enchant our relation” to place.

Madeleine L’Engle said that “if we settle for a few shopworn words we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator.” Macfarlane’s book has words that confound the dictatorial spellchecker. But a word like rionnach maoim describes an event I have witnessed — shadows cast on the mountain by clouds moving quickly on a windy day — and now, knowing it has a name—that it is Named— affords me “the joy and privilege of incarnation”.

Our family spent a lot of summers, too, going to that place in the woods in the middle of Maine, to the place my grandparents built five decades before, and each time we sang our song. I sang, solo, the final time I made the trek. Then it was with my wife and our son, who was one at the time. It was a few months after Grammie passed away and already it had became too much for Grampie to maintain. It was time to sell it.

Macfarlane says words have a magic spell, a cantrip, and uttering them allows a place to be sung “back into being, to sing one’s being back into it.”

I miss Grammie and Grampie’s Camp.

Behind Every Beautiful Thing

Aaron Guest

12 Inside Out Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away Feel like my soul has turned into steel I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal There’s not even room enough to be anywhere It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I’ve thought about Bob Dylan’s song “Not Dark Yet” for over ten years now. Ever since a lonely plane ride back from Texas, where I’d just help relocate my best friend. Some moments press down a sadness and leave a mark. Songs are like that, too. 

With three kids, it’s no surprise I’ve already seen Inside Out. It’s Pixar’s best movie since that plane ride. It deals with emotions that are central to us all: joy, disgust, fear, anger, sadness. Each emotion is a character, each assigned a color: Anger = Red; Disgust = Green; Fear = Purple; Sadness = Blue; Joy = Yellow. There’s much to Inside Out that captures Pixar’s creative genius. But I also think it captures a crucial and necessary aspect of what Walter Brueggemann calls the prophetic imagination. 

It was my Texas friend that first recommend Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination to me. It’s a succinct little theological book that examines the role of prophets in the Bible. One important condition of humanity that every prophet explores, from Jeremiah to Jesus, is the role of grief and sadness. That’s also at the heart of Inside Out. 

In the film, Joy doesn’t want Sadness to participate in the emotional activity of Riley—the human girl to whom these emotions belong. Isn’t this the way we all view sadness? We don’t want sad memories to imprint themselves on us. Let only the positive emotion be the one in control; Sadness mucks everything up. So often I see Christians mistakenly characterizing joy in this way. It’s the attitude found in what Brueggemann calls the “royal consciousness,” where the goal is self-satisfaction; joy manages and rules all.

But to embrace grief and sadness is what it is to be fully human. True joy never outflanks sadness, suffering, grief. In fact, it comes only through those very emotions.  Brueggemann says it’s fully realized in Jesus, whose ministry is one of “entering into pain and suffering and giving it a voice.”  For Lazarus, for Jerusalem, his crucifixion, “his grief is unmistakable.”

Color has a very specific function in Inside Out. So when a character has another character’s color as part of their being, it’s not only for aesthetic reasons. Joy eventually learns that Sadness has always been present, just behind the memories that were the most joy-filled. The astute viewer has maybe even noticed that Joy’s hair is blue.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain Behind every beautiful thing, there must be some kind of pain

When I Talk About Mud Runs

Aaron Guest

12 Mud Run So maybe I have a hyper-competitive side; it’s been present since my youth. In Little League baseball, I was the first kid in my city ever ejected from a game. I’m also still bitter about the time I lost a foot race against Howard Schaap.


So at 35 with diminishing athletic skills, I find it harder than ever to satiate that nature. But I have to try, right?

This past month I ran another obstacle course race (OCR). Six miles through mud, ice baths, barbed wire crawls, log hurdles, creek sprints, and fire jumps. The terrain: a ski slope. This was my fifth OCR; it was the hardest. My wife, now a veteran of these races herself, asked me why I run in them—we were at the starting gate. It is the kind of question that goes unanswered when you’re staring up a thousand foot incline, as we were. The motionless chair lift above mocked like gargoyles.

The answer—if there is one, I think it changes—is also the answer to why I write and have faith. But to say “I just do,” empties the habit. There’s a grueling beauty present in endurance, though it abides like pebbles in your shoe. I might be justified in abandoning any task the second it sees the slope upward. But I don’t. Not even after weeks of writing draft after draft of a story that still exposes itself as shitty as that first draft. I don’t abandon my faith because I live in a world that doesn’t have the sense to get itself “undamned.”

So when I talk about mud runs and writing and faith, I know I’m talking about why I need community. I desire to be surrounded by people of all abilities pursuing the same end. Some who know that feeling of finishing a story. Or can scale a muddy twelve foot wall in three bounding leaps (let’s see you do that, Howard!). Or know, what Christian Wiman describes, as the “moments when we reflect a mercy and mystery that are greater than we are.”

I believe and write and race because others reach a hand down over the ledge and pull me from the muck. They say a part of the creed for me that I cannot say, uncover a character’s motivations I could not identify.

When I talk about mud runs and writing and faith though, I’m also talking about how sometimes it’s only me against me. And how I just have to sink the balls of my feet into the mud and ascend.

Time Travel And Fatherhood

Aaron Guest

Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine The drive home from college lasted about fifteen hours. My dad and I talked a lot during these quarterly trips; but by the end, our topics were the equivalent of a “Coast to Coast with Art Bell” radio hour. For example, the efficacy of Time Travel.

Now in my mind it’s an appropriate conversation between fathers and sons. There’s even a niche in cinema for it: Back to the Future, Frequency, Field of Dreams. But nearly all of these movies are about a son who yearns to regain some lost moment with their dad. Richard Curtis’s About Time is also of the genre but asks: What happens to the father when the son becomes a father?

In About Time, Tim, like all the males in his family, has the ability to travel backward in time. And the first hour of movie devotes itself, comedically and touchingly, to this “talent.” But as he holds his first child, the movie shifts gears. Tim realizes, “Nothing can prepare you for that love.” It also brings a conundrum in the movie’s Time Travel logic: if he is to travel back in time to before the child was born, it will yield a completely different child. And so find himself unable to prevent a misstep of someone whom he loves.

Luke Ripley is the father in Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story.” He, too, finds himself unprepared for how deep the love of a father truly runs. When his daughter hits and kills a man with her car, he rewrites the incident and sets himself up to take the fall. Such an act compromises his faith and, in Ripley’s mind, “does not give [me] the peace I once [had]: not with God, nor the earth, nor anyone on it.” But he is steadfast and cries out to God, “I love her more than I love truth.”

Ever since becoming a father I’ve wrestled with the role. Is it like Luke Ripley, am I willing to “love in weakness”? Like it was for Tim, does fatherhood mean I will inevitably be kept at a distance from other relationships? When my son was a year old, I wrote that he had so filled my life that it seemed to overflow into the past. The truth is I couldn’t and still can’t imagine him not ever being in my life.

SPOILER: In the movie’s final act, Tim’s father has died and the prospect of Tim having another child means having to fully sever the relationship with his own father. Tim and his father make the choice only fathers can make. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of love. The kind of love that’s as simple as Tim and his father throwing rocks in the ocean.

Or discussing Time Travel.

LOST Expectations

Aaron Guest

12 LOST Six years ago, my wife and I binge-watched the first five seasons of LOST. It took four months. Many nights we watched three or four episodes in a sitting, sometimes as a way to pass the time while my wife was feeding our infant daughter… or because we hadn’t finished the package of Oreos yet. Other times compelled by a look or a glance to “keep watching,” a willingness to relinquish the joy of teasing out possible meanings.

This caught us up for season six. But like the rest of the LOST audience had been, we were then dangled out over the cliff for an entire week, week after week. I locked myself into a habit of trolling message boards and meditating over the copious and astute Doc Jensen recaps. I lived, agonized by this hope of what could happen.

This comes to my mind now whenever Pentecost approaches. Maybe you can see where I’m going. How I’m picturing the disciples living in a type of cliff-hanger following Ascension. Trying to figure out the meaning of Christ’s promise and exactly what they could expect.

It so happened that the final episode of LOST aired on Pentecost Sunday. At the time, I felt this was significant for plot reasons—the Season 6 cast photo staging “The Last Supper,” and the smoke monster’s desire to get uncorked from the island and into the real world. As the final episode played out, people felt abjectly betrayed, denied some hoped-for reality.

Awaiting the arrival of a sought after book, listening in the two years between a band’s albums, thinking a Patriot’s 19-0 season is a foregone conclusion, again and again I raise expectations for an experience or encounter. Then the book is disappointing, the album sounds like a group popular ten years ago, and David Tyree haunts my dreams. I think I should learn from this pattern. It leaves me falling in an abyss for weeks on end…like after Manningham reeled in that catch.

“To raise one’s hopes is to risk them falling further,” Anthony Doerr writes in All The Light We Cannot See. Yet, I can’t help but find myself continually uncorking expectations. Even when it leads to the despondence that was first and goal for the Seahawks on the one-yard line, or the slog of Doerr’s overwrought writing.

Where were the disciples after their second cliff-hanger in two months? Ten days of wandering in a gray world, lost, locked away? Was there ever the hope that the doors and windows would be thrown wide? Should I raise my own expectations when again and again I am let down? But I do. I always hope for a book or poem or song—or that interception—to erupt in me a fiery joy.

Aaron’s Forearm

Aaron Guest

12 Tattoos A year ago at this time, I was fresh from completing graduate school. Ink wasn’t drying on a diploma—that would come the following month—but was scored into the skin of my forearm. It was my first tattoo and it will not be my last and I will not tell you what it means.

O.E. Parker, in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” could not tell you exactly what the Christ-figure on his back meant to him. He couldn’t even see it, which was the reason his back had remained the only part of his skin without a tattoo. But like Parker, I felt that same sensation for desiring a tattoo. The one that finds you “turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.”

So, why a tattoo? Why, like Parker, experience the pain associated with it, even if it was “just enough to make it appear… to be worth doing”? As a kid, I thought tattoos to be the indulgences of people with other vices. They were on the arms of the addicts and alcoholics to whom our church ministered. People who would stand and curse at my father during the Sunday service with outstretched green arms. I saw them with the same coiled eyes of Parker’s wife Sarah Ruth, as the “vanity of vanities”, or the sin of sinners.

Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, herself tattooed, flipped my perception of tattoos—“[h]uman bodies carry stories, and some people choose to carry those stories on the outside.” Grad school was ending and life was irrevocably headed in a new direction. Third child in tow now and a possible continental-sized move a-comin’. A longer road lay ahead, but I had been pivoted. So, I carry a story, now, on the outside of my body.

But why get a tattoo with a meaning I won’t share with those who ask? It’s not for not wanting too. You can use my son’s spy book to understand the symbols. But I can’t explain to anyone why the bread and wine doesn’t just taste like bread and wine.

Parker’s attempt to win the love of his wife, by getting a tattoo he believed she would find meaning in, ended with him being beaten to tears by Sarah Ruth and called an idolater. In a gesture of sacrament, I stretch out this wordless story as I write. Because, as O’Connor has said, “If it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.”

Teasing, Simple Sight

Aaron Guest

12 Eye sight The doctor told me people with my eye condition are odd, a bit off, weird. She added quickly that I was a rarity, a “normal one.” Kerotoconus—the eye condition causing my eyes to bulge out—makes you feel far from normal. It happens slowly, but for a contact wearer, kerotoconus makes the world go soft at the edges. You fuss at your eyes. Rub them. Wet your fingertips with your own saliva and massage them. Develop twitches. Blink, often. Incessantly squint. Anything to try to see the hard edges of things. It drives you mad.

During an “On Being” podcast recently, James Martin talked about Ignatian Spirituality. He exampled one aspect of the practice whereby we press ourselves into a biblical passage. A kind of midrash accomplished through prayer and contemplation. An opportunity for a story to be seen differently and anew, across the mire of time. There I am, standing by the side of the road in Jericho, squinting, wetting my eyelids, begging and pleading for sight.

I have these new hard-shell contact lenses now—lenses that require me to both remove and put them in with something affectionately known as an “Eye Plunger.” The results are astounding. Words emerge from across the length of a room. I stare hawk-like at a computer screen, my child’s face, the foam spilling over a mug of beer. I can see. I have perfect vision.

In “Habit of Perfection” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark/And find the uncreated light.” One can imagine Jesus leaning in and breathing these very words on that road near Jericho. An incantation for a man viewed as abnormal by the world. Maybe it took the man a few days to get all the caked mud out. To overcome the facial tics. The lifetime of odd quirks you develop when you are trying desperately to see.

Did the once blind man ever return to see Jesus? Jesus who said, “I am the light of the world.” Jesus, who with divine spit and the “ruck and reel” of this earth, “Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.”

Beginning Exploration

Aaron Guest

12 Books on Wall The downstairs bathroom was the most unique room in our home. Its walls were decoupaged with pages of poetry and fiction by the previous owner. I showed it off whenever friends came to visit—it’s even where my bio pic was taken. Then, the day before leaving for my first MFA residency, it flooded. We had gone to the water park and returned to discover my son had left the upstairs bathroom sink running with the drain plugged. The walls were ruined.

This past week we moved out of that house after eight years. I’ve been listening to The Mountain Goats song “Genesis 3:23” during this transition. This song details the experience of returning to a former home—I tend to get sentimental well in advance. In it, the narrator revisits his old house to “see how the people here live now.” New pictures abound on the walls, but the rooms are still “familiar and warm.” There is also the reminder of the “hours we spent starving within these walls/ Sounds of a distant storm” and the need to “dodge the ghosts in the hallways/ Duck and weave.”

Of all the crafted lines in this song though, I am intrigued most by the opening lyric “Picked the lock on the front door/ And felt it give.” In order to explore the former home, the narrator has to force his way in. I think that’s the nature of revisiting some memories. I have to force myself into those locked-away places. And doing so puts me at risk.

I’ve been re-reading T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets lately, too—the first book read for that first MFA residency. Sometimes I am loath to pick up a book I’ve already read, especially one that’s changed me in some way. Not even a year later, I cringed noticing the author—my favorite at the time—we’d used to paste over the wet spots on the bathroom walls. Revisiting a book or a work of art threatens me because of how often my perspective shifts, so will the book still give? But, there was the clarion assurance of “Little Gidding”:

 And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

Exploration of my past may change my understanding. Like the Mountain Goats’ narrator, we may encounter risk in returning and have to “break the lock on my own garden gate”. A nod, perhaps, to the next lines in Little Gidding:

Through the unknown, unremembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning;

We brought our three kids home to that house. We endured several career changes. I’m not yet fully aware how our present life was woven from the hard choices and the days when laughter overflowed inside those walls. But I realize, when the house sells, I will have to hand over my keys.