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Filtering by Tag: Christina Lee

Space for Affection

Christina Lee

7140209563_cb9bc71f5e_z I’m armed with 409 and paper towels, wiping down the desks in my classroom. A few have accumulated clandestine graffiti, the kind made by etching the top layer of wood laminate with the metal tip of a mechanical pencil.

It’s very polite graffiti. So far, I’ve found and excised the following: “I love me.” “Tim is fat.” “The end.” “Andrew + ---” (the name is scratched out).

As I scrub, I remember the students who’ve filled these desks—growing so fast, full of so much, trying their best (usually) to pay attention to my lessons while also trying to make sense of their emotions and their bodies and their world.

(I worry for whoever carved “The End.” It seems so ominous. But who knows? Maybe it’s a ska band.)

Near the back of the room, I find another one: a heart tucked into a desk’s inner edge. This one is deeper, more visible. It must have taken weeks to carve. I know I should be annoyed, but as I wipe out the graphite, I feel an overwhelming sense of affection for my students.

In 2001, Wendell Berry gave an NEA lecture called “It Turns on Affection.” In his own quiet, thoughtful way, Berry wages war on “the industrialization of everything” and on corporations seeking “the highest possible profit, ignoring the side effects,” devastating the land and the farming industry.

Instead of simply seeking profit, he argues, we must cultivate affection for the land and those who farm it. Affection, in his mind, is a powerful tool, one we discount too quickly.  “Affection can teach us,” he writes, “if we grant appropriate standing to affection.”

I’m not a farmer (in fact, I’m shocked my grocery-store basil plant has made it through the week), but as a teacher, Berry’s words resonate with me.

My first day back at school, our staff is trained to use a program that promises to produce “data-driven lessons.”

We’re told that after we administer a two-hour, web-based assessment, we’ll be able to generate dozens of reports displaying our students’ deficiencies. Our trainer suggests—straight faced— that if we’re not happy with a student’s performance, we should tell our junior highers, “I just don’t think your data is reflective of your ability.”

As Berry says, “Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time.”

Berry’s lecture calls attention to the great harm done when “people of land economies are reduced to statistical numerals,” and I see the same danger in our schools, which often default to a corporate model, merely dubbing “test scores” over the word “profit.”

Remember “No Child Left Behind,” the law mandating that 100% of students score grade-level-proficient on state tests by 2014—even students with learning disabilities, even non-English-speaking students, even students grappling with severe trauma or family dysfunction? Schools were told that if they didn’t reach that 100% mark, they’d face restructuring and loss of funding.

What a perfect illustration of Berry’s words: “They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line.”

Even after NCLB failed, data is still revered in school settings. It’s universally understood that data finishes conversations, and data definitely trumps affection. Go against this norm and you’ll only embarrass yourself.

It’s right after our data-driven training that I end up cleaning the desks. After I’m done, I sit down to rest in the one marked “The End.” I try to imagine who will fill this seat tomorrow and how that student is feeling about school right now. I try to remember how I felt starting junior high.

"By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members…with whom we share our place," says Berry. "By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection."

I know it’s necessary to assess my students’ skill levels. And I know I will work very hard every day this year to ensure that my students reach their data-driven goals.

But to have any real impact on my students’ lives (measurable or otherwise), I must leave space beside the data for “informed, practical, and practiced affection.” As Berry says, “It is by imagination that knowledge is carried to the heart.” 

Sour Beer

Christina Lee

beer-199650_1280Since my first timid slurp, rife with notes of Palmolive and expired milk, I have distrusted sour beer and all its enthusiasts. Each one has been served by a smirking bartender who addresses my splutter with a smug, “Yeah, it’s not for…everybody.” 

Who is it for? I imagine a backroom speakeasy for sour lovers, swapping words like “rhizomes” and “I.B.U.” and high-fiving. No, definitely something way hipper than a high-fiving. Fist bumping? No. See, I don’t even know.

After a few bad experiences, I gave up trying to drink sours and began instead enthusiastically professing my hatred for them.

So, when we were out to dinner last night with a friend who’s a brewer, and when he and his wife ordered sours, I went on the defensive.  

“Ugh, gross,” I said intelligently.  

Brian looked crestfallen. I braced myself for the judgment. But then, instead of dismissing me or patronizing me, he offered advice. 

“You just haven’t tried the right sour…we just need to find you the sour that you like, and then you start to get the flavor! And then it’s so complex and fascinating. That’s what I had to do.” 

He loved his craft in such a whole-hearted, relaxed way; he had no room left to take my reaction personally. He was so genuinely enthused. It caught me off-guard. I wrote down the names he recommended as “starter sours” and promised to give them a shot.

A colleague of mine, a legendary music teacher, retired this year. When I say legendary, I mean it. This guy made Mr. Holland look like a total schmuck. At his very last concert, he told the audience he knew the three steps to living a full life. We all, teachers and students, leaned in to listen.

“Find what you love,” he told us. “Get really, really good at it. Then give it away.” 

I’ve thought about his advice nearly every day since. It’s pretty much the key for writers, and artists, and teachers, and people of faith, and every human being on the planet. Before last night’s dinner, though, I thought that last step, “give it away,” could only be a grand gesture— teaching a class, opening a school, starting a non-profit.

Of course, those are excellent gestures. But Brian’s sour-beer evangelism reminded me that this generosity should also happen in everyday, “throwaway” moments. It is vital there, too.

When I tell people I studied poetry, I get a lot of “poetry just isn’t my thing.” And if I’m tired, or feeling judged, or just feeling lazy, I dismiss them. I shrug and say, “Yeah, it’s not for everybody.” I shut them down because I feel shut down, which is the opposite of generosity. I love the idea of finding “starter poems” for the poetry-suspicious, of that being part of my job—to give away what I love.

They might not change their minds, just as I might not be a full sour convert. We’re entitled to our own tastes, after all. But who knows? I’ve already tried the first beer on the “starter sour” list, and actually, it’s pretty delicious.

The Folded Lie

Christina Lee

(Image of Auden from the January, 1957 cover of The Atlantic, by Stanley Meltzof, via Roger Doherty)

The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again.

These words were written by a gay man—a man who had recently met the love of his life, a man who did not feel safe to speak openly about this love, a man under threat of incarceration and violence because of this love. These words were written by a man facing news of tragedy—a horror caused by politicians’ greed and stupidity and inability to live in peace, a horror which he’d been through before, a horror which seemed to be repeating itself in a nightmarish, unstoppable cycle.

These words are W.H. Auden’s. They are from his poem “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of World War II.

America loves this poem. We turn to it in moments of national mourning. It was ubiquitous after the 9/11 attacks. Politicians quoted it. Newspapers reprinted it. I myself have shared it with students and on social media during each of the recent mass shootings.

When we reach for the comfort of this poem, we don’t usually leave time to discuss Auden’s sexuality. We don’t pause to decode the poem’s references to the struggle of being queer in the 1930s. In fact, in some versions reprinted after September 11th, 2001, all sections that hinted at this were snipped out.

These references are obscure, so they probably just seemed confusing and off-topic. (Remember Auden, as a British citizen, lived under threat of criminal prosecution for sodomy—references to his homosexuality had to be coded. This was more than a stylistic choice.)

Nothing hateful was meant by the shortening of the poem, right? It just seems pointless to bring up Auden’s queer identity, right? Pointless to acknowledge that the first line, “I sit in one of the dives /on Fifty-second Street” is most likely a reference to a gay bar. What good would it do, bringing that up? After 9/11, it probably seemed like an irrelevant detail. In the wake of the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub, it seems less so.

You can posit that an author’s sexual orientation is nobody’s business, or claim we shouldn’t bring biography into art. But we live in a society where straight is default, so to say nothing is to imply heterosexuality.

So with a writer like Auden (or Whitman or Dickinson or Shakespeare or Woolf or Cather or Bowie or St. Vincent Millay or Oliver or Cohen or Ocean or Jónsi), to say nothing is to be complicit in a lie of omission.

This lie is convenient, as most lies tend to be. It lets readers absorb all the beauty and comfort and strength of a poem without ever even knowing that they’ve been identifying—on a personal, emotional level—with a queer writer. Many Americans who drew strength from Auden’s poem in 2001 never had the opportunity to grapple with the fact that its author was queer, simply because they didn’t know.

When we read, we are in someone else’s head for a minute. Through this mind-boggling miracle that is literature, we learn to listen to voices other than our own. We develop empathy.

Some might say, oh, let me just enjoy the beauty of this art without worrying about its context. Nope. You don’t get that luxury. Our country has an empathy deficiency. Does that sound dramatic? Consider the conservative churches who wondered “how to respond” to the mass murder at Pulse, or worse, responded with hate. Consider that threats toward the Muslim community in Orlando have already begun.

Queer voices are already included on required reading lists in nearly every high school. These could be a powerful weapon against hate and ignorance, but we can’t activate that power unless we acknowledge the sexuality of the authors we teach. (And of course, we need to drastically increase the diversity of those reading lists, too.)

If you’re familiar with “September 1, 1939,” you’ve probably heard that Auden later disowned his poem. The line he hated most was “we must love one another or die” because, he said, “we die anyway.”

Here’s the stanza in its original form:

All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.

I can see why Auden would write off that last line. After the war, it must have seemed so naïve. And the famous image in the poem’s final stanza—lights dotting a dark horizon—can feel a little pat in the face of so much tragedy.

The poem has value, though. Maybe not so much to comfort, but to challenge. When I read the line “all I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie,” I think of the many “folded lies” we face today: the NRA’s bizarre grip on our legislation, bigotry thinly disguised as patriotism, religion being twisted to justify both hate crimes and hateful responses. And the folded lie of heteronormativity that continues to be told through the censorship and casual omission of queer voices, both in literature and in life.

So many lies, folded up so tightly. It is overwhelming. That’s probably why Auden wrote (and why most of us still like) that comforting-if-slightly-illogical line about love.

We can’t undo all the lies at once. But we can honor Auden’s voice. Re-read “September 1, 1939,”—all of it—and remember it was written in a gay bar; read it in remembrance of the 50 beautiful lives cut horrifically short on a Sunday morning in a gay bar. And when you finish the poem, spend some time reading the stories of the victims. Find yourself in these stories, even if—especially if—they are different from your own. Mourn for each lost voice. Mourn for all of us.

You Learned What You Were Ready To Learn

Christina Lee

The Sower - Van Gogh Of all the pranks I’ve ever pulled, my favorite remains convincing every guy in my music theory class to dress up like our professor.

We loved Dr. Clemmons. He was kind, funny, patient and generally excellent. He was also sartorially predictable.

Stonewash tapered jeans, sneakers, white tucked-in button-down, red tie, brown belt, wire-rim glasses. This was his daily uniform. And the night before the final, I called every guy I knew on campus to rustle up 15 identical outfits. The next morning, the guys paraded in one by one.

Surrounded by his clones, Dr. Clemmons laughed, high-fived, and took time to pose for plenty of pictures before he settled us down and passed out our final exam.

I was so proud of myself. It didn’t really occur to me that he might have preferred I spend finals eve studying for his test. I don’t remember my exact grade in the class, but it’s safe to say it was less impressive than my costuming skills.

Years later, we ended up attending the same church, and I worked up the courage to ask him, “How did you put up with all of us? I wish I could go back and take your class now. I’d be such a good student!”

My former professor laughed and said, "Well, you learned as much as you were ready to learn.” 

This spring, I’m teaching poetry, and I think about those words most every day. Seventh grade brains are all over the map, developmentally. While one girl is crafting an iambic treatise on good and evil, the chick beside her is writing a rambling declaration of war against the girl who stole her boyfriend, and the boy behind them is writing a very descriptive piece re: failing to hold in a fart.

And I swear to you, these students are all doing their best.

I can get disheartened, bringing my students everything I know about poetry in the best way I know how, and getting back poems about farts and hot dogs.

Henri Nouwen said that when serving others, he was always fighting “fear of rejection, hunger for affirmation, and a never-decreasing search for affection.” And I notice this neediness in myself sometimes.

I can still remember one student from last year (we’ll call him Jake) standing before the class, intoning his poem about chips in a mortified monotone, “So crunchy /so crisp / the salty surface / I lick.” As he spoke, his eyes blazed with the injustice of my assignment.

This year, we held a school-wide poetry slam, and I got to see many former students perform. This slam was voluntary; so imagine my surprise when chip-boy bounded up to the podium. As he introduced himself, I steeled myself for a rough few minutes.

But his poem was incredible. It was clear and vivid and powerful, and he spoke with pride and confidence. As he strode off stage, I hooted and hollered with the crowd, but I felt a little twinge behind my smile. What had I done wrong last year? How had his current teacher helped him unleash this masterpiece? Why had I ended up with a listless ode to Hot Cheetos?

Breakthrough moments like this are a teacher’s version of a bonus check, so it makes sense that sometimes we’d be a little greedy for them. But these moments belong to our students, not to us.

Don’t get me wrong: a good teacher never stops asking a student for his best. She gives feedback and sets high expectations. But she also knows how to release control, to trust her students, and to allow them to develop at their own pace.

When we release our students from our own “hunger for affirmation,” ironically, that’s when we teach best.

Rilke says, “In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry, he can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly transmuted into summer. The earth bestows.”

As I prepare to say goodbye to this year’s group, I hope I have taught them well. I hope I’ve helped them understand a little more about writing, literature and poetry. Yes, I even hope they did well on their state testing.

But I also hope I’ve helped them feel permission to be themselves, and gracefully accepted the gifts they have brought me, even if they weren’t the ones I asked for. I hope that I’ve let them to learn as much as they were ready to learn.

You Must Change Your Life

Christina Lee

railway-station-1007167_1280 Naomi Shihab Nye describes poetry as “a conversation with the world, a conversation with those words on the page allowing them to speak back to you—a conversation with yourself.”A few weeks ago, at AWP, I heard Nye speak on a poetry-activism panel with Luis Rodriguez and Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Griffiths’ photography and poetry gives voice to the grief and rage she feels at the police brutality in America. Rodriguez, the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, has seen poetry unite his diverse, complicated city. All three poets spoke with a beautiful urgency, reminding us of the power in our art.  

This seemed to be the theme of AWP. Claudia Rankine was the keynote speaker. Her book, Citizen, is the perfect example of revolution-inciting poetry.

In fact, every session and panel seemed to be built on this same idea. Throughout the conference, I kept thinking of the last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” After contemplating the beauty and power of the statue, the speaker feels an edict: “You must change your life.”  

The Monday after the conference, I drove to work in a bit of a funk. I missed the urgency and energy and buzz of the conference. Then the story of Dagmar and Wali came on NPR and reminded me that returning to regular life was the whole point.  

The story concerns a very odd couple: Dagmar Nordberg is a 60-year-old Swedish museum director. Wali Hafiz is a 23-year-old Afghani engineer and refugee. Wali was brutally beaten and left for dead by the Taliban after he refused to support their efforts. He was forced to leave his wife and young daughter and flee to Sweden. This excerpt from the NPR transcript describes Wali and Dagmar’s first encounter:

They met on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.

"He was standing there in a T-shirt, with his jeans and his cotton shoes," Nordberg recalls. "And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I've come to that age where I can say things, so I just passed him by and I said, 'It's winter!' "

Hafiz says he had so many problems he couldn't think about the weather. And besides, he didn't own a jacket. Nordberg remembers he was so stressed that he was sweating, but he replied politely.

"He said, 'I know, ma'am,'" she says. "That was the first time I heard Wali's voice."

Nordberg says she understood then that he was a lost refugee and she could either go on with her life or help him. "I just knew I had this choice here and now, and whatever I do will have consequences," she says.

So she took him in, taught him English, and secured him an apprenticeship. If you play the story to the end, you’ll hear them laughing together at her kitchen table…two unlikely kindred spirits.

I’m sure Dagmar, as a museum director, would have liked what Nye, Rodriguez, Griffiths and Rankin had to say at AWP, if she’d been able to hear it. I’m sure that when she curates the art in her museum, she looks for works that challenge and inspire change.

What amazes me is the way she altered her life in one moment, because of one encounter. Her story reminds me that it isn’t enough to listen to great speakers or to feel moved by great art. We must also be willing to take action.

I can’t get over that line she called out over the train platform— “It’s winter.”

Those words did what Nye says all poems should do. They connected strangers and moved them from hostility to understanding. They began a conversation. And ultimately, they transformed.

Printed out on a page, separated from their story, they might not look like much. 

It’s Winter.

Still, that’s the best poem I’ve heard in years. 

Rilke and Foolishness

Christina Lee

Rilke in Moscow by Leonid Pasternak Sometimes, when I’m burnt out, I look to Rilke. Not his Letters to a Young Poet, or his masterpiece, Duino Elegies, but to his very first collection, Wegwarten. It was self-published, and he handed it out on street corners. One version of the story even claims he did this while “dressed in the black habit of an abbé with long curly hair.”

I really hate feeling foolish. I think, perhaps, it’s my deepest fear. I know, I know….my deepest fear ought to be something more lofty or noble, but honestly, embarrassment terrifies me.

I teach junior highers, so basically, I spend my days with 130 walking manifestations of this fear. They are never still—always tucking, brushing, fixing, sweating, lip-glossing, whispering, watching. They are little machines of anxious, self-protective energy.

When I think back on my own junior high years, I remember how intensely I wanting to blend in—to disappear, be it through diets, trends, or the right hedge of friends who would shield me from the blinding glare of individuality.

Even as a writer, even all grown up, I struggle with this. I obsess over how to write what I think editors want to read. How to snuggle into a writing community in which my voice will be welcomed and lauded. I skip certain contests and journal submissions, just to avoid the embarrassment of unrealistic expectations.

Of course I also fear writing forgettable poems, yet my pride steers me away from topics that would fuel really memorable poetry—family dysfunction, social justice, feminism, sex. Topics with the potential for embarrassingly spectacular failure.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury writes,

You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.

As I write this, I am a few days away from working  The AWP Conference & Bookfair, and I know my first instinct will be to try to blend in with the crowd. But I’m going to try to shake off that fear. I’m making it my goal to embarrass myself early and often, for the sake of celebrating writing. To strike up a conversation with the writers I really admire, or share poems with fellow attendees, or hit up an open mic. Knowing me, it probably won’t go 100% smoothly. I’ll probably suffer at least a slight scrape to my pride.

After the sting fades, I’ll remember Rilke handing out his poetry on the street. Wegwarten was universally panned. In that moment, Rilke looked pretty foolish. But you know what? It worked out okay for him.

The Reader’s High

Christina Lee

Reader's High I am a trail runner. But when I tell you that, you will get the wrong idea about me. You will picture someone with gleaming calf muscles and a wardrobe stuffed with Lulu Lemon gear.

That’s not me. I am the type of runner people roll down their windows to cheer on because I look like I might keel over. I am short-legged and hippy and I take frequent walk-breaks.

And no, I’m not downplaying my athletic prowess for modesty’s sake. Want proof? A man once stopped me on the trail just to remark, “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone running this far up. How do you do it? Is the trick to just go super slow like that the whole way?”

Yup. It is.

Despite all the huffing and puffing and the occasional backhanded compliment, I can’t quit trail running. I’m hopelessly in love with the runner’s high.

It’s usually somewhere around mile three. My body throws an endorphin party and every organ’s invited. It’s usually around the same time I’ve reached the curve in the trail that shows the whole valley spread out before me. And it’s always enough to keep me coming back for more, to keep me hitting the trail even when I’m achy and slow.

I’ve never joined a running group or trained in any official sense. One day I just decided to see how far I could go without stopping. The process felt natural to me, and for inspiration, I found myself drawing on an unlikely (and very nerdy) source—reading. Specifically, reading the classics.

I’ve always had a fascination with books that look daunting. They feel like a steep hill waiting to be climbed. They require the same sort of grit, and they provide a similar reward. At the moment, I’m halfway through Middlemarch by George Elliot. And as much as I’d like to tell you I’ve been riveted by every line, that would be a lie. Some moments have felt like a very slow trudge.

But then, last week, I came upon the most beautiful passage. I’ll try to describe it, but I think part of its impact may have come from the way it burst forth after pages of rather dreary narration.

Dorothea, who has wound up in a rough marriage partially because of her overly pious, prideful nature, tells her husband’s cousin Will that she is now learning to live “by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”

Will understands, and listens, and Dorothea feels heard and valued for the first time. Will is in love with Dorothea, but she doesn’t know it. There’s just a charge and power to the whole scene.  Eliot finishes with the charmingly apt description:

“They were looking at each other like two fond children who were talking confidentially of birds”

When I came upon this scene, something similar to a trail runner’s high flowed over me. Sandra Scofield, in The Scene Book, describes scenes like this as focal points. They are “where the essence lies, the point at which everything changes.”

And isn’t life like that, too? Think back over your week—there are probably whole hours that got swallowed up in the ordinary. Hopefully, though, you can also conjure up in memory at least one swift rush of joy.

As a teacher, February and March can be dreary months. Days can tend to drag on, weighted down by the mundane. When I find beauty on the trail and in literature, when I experience these micro-rushes—a beautiful run, a perfect scene—I’m reminded to seek this out in my daily life, too.

The Think System

Christina Lee

"Shipoopi" by is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Over the holidays, my mom popped in our battered VHS tape of The Music Man. This was my favorite movie as a kid. Somehow I never grew tired of watching Professor Harold Hill dupe the citizens of River City, Iowa.

Hill is a total fraud, but he’s so slick that the town believes his promise to form a boy’s band. Under his spell, the troubled youth stop being troubled, the tightly-wound maiden librarian unwinds, and the whole town gets together in the park and dances the Shipoopi. Everyone is too delighted to notice the lack of an actual band. He excuses away his lack of musical knowledge with “The Think System.” He tells his band, “if you want to play the Minuet in G, think the minuet in G.” The boys nod solemnly and warble in unison, “La de da de da de da de da, la de da, la de da…

Half-way through the movie, I realized I’d found my writing resolution for 2016. I’m giving up “the think system.”

See, the discipline of daily writing is grueling. Facing down a blank page at the end of a day of work is daunting. Submission is nerve-wracking and painful, and rejection is inevitable but still discouraging. It’s much easier to just think about submitting, or think about what it will be like once I’ve submitted, or think about which residencies I’ll attend whenever I find time to apply, or think about searching for a writer’s group that will help me hone my craft.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima expresses this same idea when he says, “active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams.” He is, of course, speaking of Christianity, but the quote applies to writing, too, as it does to most disciplines.

I’m not saying writing should never be joyful. What’s life without a little Shipoopi? We must have moments of joy to cling to. A breakthrough in revision, an acceptance letter thanking me for “sharing delightful work,” memories of a sunrise kayak session at a writer’s retreat…I hope every writer has similar moments to return to on hard days. But those are the exception, not the rule.

At the end of the Music Man, Harold Hill is put on trial, and to save him, his “band” miraculously manages to squeak out a horrible rendition of the Minuet in G. After a moment of stunned silence, the parents of River City rise to give a standing ovation. They loved it! It turns out River City didn’t need music, when they needed was an experience. It’s sort of a beautiful, if illogical, premise. By believing so fully in his lie, the town has transformed it into their truth.

It’s a sweet and clever ending for a musical, but it’s not the way I want my own story to end. I don’t want my daydreams of success to become my best product or to give my own mediocre work a standing ovation and call that a happy ending.  

So this year, when I catch myself thinking about writing instead of doing the work, I picture the River City Boy’s Band, singing the Minuet in G over and over and never touching their instruments. And I get back to the real work, harsh and fearful as it is.

The Case for Krampus

Christina Lee

"Vintage Christmas Postcard Krampus" by Dave / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons Good holiday stories need a villain. Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, Hans Gruber. And of course, Krampus.

Krampus is having a moment—he’s acquired a Los Angeles fan club with a pretty spiffy web page, he’s been featured on the Colbert Report, and he’s even starring in a film. This half-goat-half-devil Austrian folk creature dates back, most believe, to Norse mythology. He’s St. Nicholas’ other half—he handles the kids who’ve been nicht so gut. 

He’s horrific, yet Austrians seem to view him rather fondly. They send kitschy cards stamped with Gruß Vom Krampus!" (Greetings from Krampus), and host Krampuslauf (Krampus runs) in which hoards of young men don devil-goat costumes and drunkenly run the streets on the eve of St. Nicholas’ visit. 

It feels a bit goofy to ascribe deep symbolism to Krampus, a character dreamed up largely to terrify children into behaving. If we’re looking for meaning though, it seems obvious that Krampus and St. Nicholas act as foils—the evil preceding the good. As Mental Floss puts it, they form a “Christmassy Yin and Yang.” Krampus reminds us there is darkness as well as light in the holiday season. 

North Americans generally prefer their holidays free of ancient goat devils. Our classic tales, even the really good ones (think Charlie Brown or Miracle on 34th Street) involve only one horror—a lack of the holiday spirit. (Die Hard, it should be noted, is a refreshing exception to this rule.)

I assumed the movie Krampus would be different, but in the film, Krampus is summoned when a boy loses faith in the season and tears up his letter to Santa. Our narrative, “be merry or die trying,” runs deep. 

If you, like me, feel sick of this storyline, please consider as antidote this Youtube footage of an Austrian Krampuslauf. It’s pretty grim. I only made it three minutes in, right to the part where one of the thousand Krampuses rips a little child from his mother’s arms and hisses in his face. I was cowering in fear at my laptop screen, but the kid? The little dude smiles. Tough as nails. He was probably brought up on a steady diet of horrifying Bavarian folk tales. 

Yes, the Krampuslauf seems awfully brutal for the holiday season. But there's a villain in the nativity story, too—Herod. And he isn’t stealing a roast beast or shouting “Bah Humbug.” He is committing infant genocide. Lurking right outside the glow of the manger is a madman, thirsting for power and control. 

I’m not saying we all need to sub out our shiny family photo Christmas cards for Krampuskarten. But it is problematic to remove all darkness from every Christmas story we tell. That’s like editing John 1:5 down to just “The Light shines.” So what? 

The holidays can seem like a very small light in a very dark world. Christmas comes in the midst of war, in the wake of tragedy, mass shootings, devastating personal loss, systemic injustice. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

With that in mind, our obsession with cheer for cheer’s sake feels just as bizarre, and maybe more pointless, than any Krampuslauf.

So Merry Christmas. And "Gruß Vom Krampus," too. 

Joy Williams and the Psalms

Christina Lee

Photo by Shane Adams on Flickr ? CC BY 2.0 Joy Williams’ recent release, VENUS, received lukewarm reviews. Rolling Stone claimed Williams’ voice couldn’t “hold the space" of her orchestration. NPR, not unkindly, labeled the album “Lilith Fair 90s'."

I can see where they’re coming from. But I’m still into it. It’s music that makes me want to scale a mountain in a glittery sports bra brandishing a fist and shouting “Womanhood!”

Or, you know, fold a giant pile of laundry on a Saturday morning.

I’d rolled about half my mountain of socks when I realized something was off. Spotify was shuffling through all of Joy Williams’ records, and not just VENUS.

That explained the Prozac-fueled ballad (“It’s all good/ask me to explain it and I could/ I’ve got the love of my Lord and I could/it’s all good”) next to the warbled lament (“I’m gonna stand here in the ache / until the levee of my heart breaks”).

On shuffle, Joy Williams’ canon is…unnerving. It’s odd to hear her so giddily sure of herself and then immediately so devastated. It made me think of the Psalms.

Her album covers reflect this tonal shift. Her three early albums all feature a toothy blond in a cute sweater, squinting at the camera through sun-rays. On VENUS? A naked brunette, hunched over and in shadow, face obscured.

Williams herself, of course, is aware of the changes. She left a blossoming career as a Christian artist because of its limiting nature. In 2009, she said, “Everyone sees life through a grid. Part of my grid is faith. When I was in CCM, I was just singing about the grid. I’ve come to a point where I want to sing about what I see through the grid. In CCM, I was always pushed to sing about faith from a “victorious” angle, when I feel like so much of faith is wrestling through questions.”

In Case for the Psalms, N.T. Wright echoes this, saying when we “invent non-Psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, we risk being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”

Clearly, Williams knows her early records would benefit from a more emotional honesty. I’d argue, however, that she might have “filled that space” better in VENUS if she’d balanced those emotions with one less lament.

Balance is hard. Just a glance at Williams’ album covers show they are packaged to sell an image. Shorthand for “Christian artist” seems to be is soft-focus grinning blond who will breathily assure you that “it’s all good.”

This is a frustrating image to every Christian woman I know, but especially to artists. It’s natural to want distance from that. But I also know (from experience) that if my art is only created as a reaction against that “it’s all good” girl, I quickly veers into melodrama and navel-gazing.

Wright reminds us that the Psalms encourage us not only to write out of the “truthful, sincere outpourings of who and what we are” but also to “trust that we will be remade". This Advent, I’ll be reading them through again as a reminder that high highs and low lows—hatred and the contrition and ecstasy and shame—can all exist together, as sacred text no less.

Emotional Truth in Memoir

Christina Lee

Karr For months now, I’ve been trying to write about my dad walking me down the aisle. I’ve been failing miserably and I haven’t known why. Of course it’s partially family loyalty: any time I talk about his depression, even casually, I feel like a kid cussing on the 6th grade playground. There’s also the fact that my wedding was the best and most fabulous day of all the days—why focus in on the bittersweet?

The smoldering wreckage of this draft was on my mind when I booked tickets to see Mary Karr, the patron saint of memoir, speak at the L.A. Library’s lecture series, Aloud. I hoped just being in her presence would help me.

I was right. At the risk of sounding like a super-fan, pretty much everything she said was awesome. (And she said it all while wearing killer gold-chain-bedecked boots.)

I was especially struck by her ideas on truth. She began by reminding us that all writers fight the tendency to sensationalize. In extreme cases, this leads to James-Frey-level disaster. Of course, most of us know not to cross that line. (Whenever I’m tempted to, I imagine a giant, sprinkle-coated hand descending from the sky to choke me.)

Most of us struggle with a subtler lie: the lie we’re telling ourselves. We find our own experience a bit boring, so we tell little lies as escape. We undervalue the real story, so we ramp up the drama.

On some level, I already knew to be on the watch for both these pitfalls. What surprised me was Karr’s claim that our truth is actually more interesting than our dramatizations. As she writes in The Art of Memoir, “A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.”

To illustrate this point, Karr told us about her process of writing Lit. She said she wrote several drafts vilifying her husband. Then she wrote one vilifying herself. Neither felt true. Many drafts in, she realized the real story was how she’d held on to hope for her marriage long after she had reason to. Her hope was so strong, she said, it embarrassed her.

Here she turned to the audience, in her very warm way, and said, “you know?”

The whole crowded nodded—one motion, like a group heartbeat.

And I got it. I got what she meant. The power in memoir isn’t in the tallness of the tale, but in the knowing together, author and audience. And to get to that point, what you say has to be true.

So I looked back at my draft. Most of it was a lie. Not a sprinkled-hand-level lie. The sneaky kind…a lie to myself. I’d been wrapped up in being dramatic, and I’d been writing myself as the saintly, victimized daughter.

What, if anything, do I really know about the ten years we’ve lived with my dad’s depression?

This is what I know: 1.) His depression has hurt me 2.) I can’t seem to find the words to describe that hurt. And I don’t just mean writer’s block. I mean that whenever I try to write about it, I clam up, emotionally. If I resent him, I’m selfish (and also a cliché…another female writer with daddy issues). Do I get to feel anything other than thankful he’s alive? Do I get to feel abandoned? Can I claim this story, or is it only his to tell? And if my words don’t heal him, what are they even worth?

Alright. So all I know is I don’t have the words. For a writer, it’s a very odd discovery. Even weirder: it’s the first thing I’ve written about him that actually feels true.

I should note that there’s a sharp distinction in Karr’s book between interior truth and cold hard facts. In The Art of Memoir, Karr clarifies this—we are not supposed to be producing “crisp external events played from a digital archive. It’s the speaker’s truth alone. In this way, the form constantly disavows the rigors of objective truth.” However, this is not permission to ditch our emotional honesty. As she says, “I couldn’t report a malicious quip from my ex-husband without mentioning that he never spoke to me that way.” We don’t have to obsess over getting every practical detail right, but we do have to let truth guide our narration.

Armed with all this, I begin another draft.

Here is a memory of my wedding day: I’m at the top of the Carmel Beach stairwell. I’m watching the choppy waves and straining to hear my entrance music. Dad turns to me and says, “Did you know I had several seizures today.” And I say, “I’m sorry. Are you proud of me, though?” And he says, “Yes.”

But just now, as I write this down, a different memory surfaces. This time he says, “Remember how we used to come here on vacation? This is so neat. This is just so neat.” He squeezes my hand.

This essay will take me a long time, but I’m okay with that. Now, more than I want to write something dramatic, or something sad, or something to publish, I want something true.

Rocks and Salvation

Christina Lee


I can remember the moment I fell in love with Yosemite. I was 18, standing in the meadow facing El Cap, watching speck-sized rock climbers make their assent. It was sunset. The late red-gold sun was filling up the valley. It was the rocks I loved—their permanence.

See, I grew up with the concept of a very personal God—a find-the-car-keys God, a Jesus who wept if you let your friend copy your math homework. This theology has its benefits. But for a hyper-conscientious kid, it also has drawbacks. Namely: it is really exhausting.

The granite rock faces flanking the valley seemed ambassadors of another God. One whose immovability invited me to rest.

My love for Yosemite has led me to John Muir’s writing. I read him because of the way he captures the park, but also because his works deal with spirituality in a refreshing way.

This is surprising considering Muir’s upbringing. His father practiced a zealous, exacting brand of Christianity: he whipped his son if he did not memorize his daily scripture, and he repressed most of Muir’s ambitions and hobbies, claiming they demonstrated vanity.

Muir broke away from this religion. But no resentment or fear shows up in his spiritual writing. Instead he takes an exuberant, almost child-like tone when he writes of God.

In an essay about a solo climb up a glacier, he describes the whole landscape as involved in worship: “This was the alpenglow, to me the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of the divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed like devout worshippers waiting to be blessed.”

In a letter to a friend, describing his return to Yosemite after time in the city, he writes that “all the rocks seem talkative.” Such a lovely, living echo of “the rocks will cry out!

And, after describing a tough climb up to a view of the valley, he describes the scene, finishing with the meditation: "wholly infused with God is the one big word of love that we call the world.”

All throughout Muir’s work, there is this sense of relief. Relief at the discovery of a tangible God—one different from his father’s, one he could understand and worship.

Some have claimed that Muir’s spirituality is suspect because he renounced the black-and-white language of his father. I remember once being told to “be careful of Muir, because he wasn’t saved,” while watching a sunset in Yosemite.

Ultimately, it’s not my job to determine Muir’s salvation. And if I tried, what a waste that would be! I might have missed what the spirituality of his writing has taught me: Namely, don’t let the wounds of the past rob you of your sense of wonder—be open to beauty, and let that beauty reveal the divine, and let that become your new narrative: a world "wholly infused with God.”

Find the Story Inside You

Christina Lee

Word Fingerprint For as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been giving the same assignment. I ask my students to write a story about their lives, a “personal narrative.” And when I explain the assignment, I’ve always, always, met with a chorus of “but nothing’s ever happened to me! My life is so boring!”

At this point I always tell the story of Joseph, an English Language Development (ELD) student from my first year teaching, whom I can only describe as a 15-year-old curmudgeon. Interrupting my description of the assignment, he stubbornly yelled that he “had no stories in him.” (His words, as often happened, became unusually pithy due to the language barrier.)

I asked him if he’d ever been in trouble. His eyes flickered. And in almost one breath, he told a hilarious story of being three and nearly burning down his own house.

“Write that,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said. And he did. And when he turned it in, he grudgingly admitted that he’d loved writing it.

I’ve given this assignment for nearly ten years, so you’d think I’d be tired of it by now. But I’m not. There’s power in asking someone to tell you a story. And there’s something about my classes after they’ve submitted their stories: they stand taller. They participate more actively. In the years that I’ve made time for them to read their stories to one another, the change is even more pronounced. They are kinder. They listen to one another more willingly.

Because there’s something really good about knowing you had a story inside you, and even better about being able to give it to someone else for safekeeping.

Now, I’m making the whole process sound utterly dreamy. Of course it’s not. There were some dark days this year, grading 140 narratives. One boy wrote a three-page saga about finding worms in his kindergarten lunch box (this one lacked any decipherable moral and most punctuation, but was rich in figurative language). Another submitted a technically flawless essay about having the stomach flu, also rich with metaphors and sensory imagery (I suspect this to be passive revenge on me for assigning the essay in the first place, or else a far-too-literal interpretation of my “find the story inside you” pep-talk). One student misunderstood my prompt and penned a sweeping, 15-page elementary school memoir. He’d also missed the part of class where I imposed a page limit.

After they turned in their papers, I asked my students for a metaphor for the process of writing about themselves. Some of my favorites: “looking for the whitest flower in a field of white flowers,” “peeling back layers of skin, but not in a way that hurt” and “staring into a fun house mirror for a long time.” And of course, there was the “falling down a deep pit of despair.”

But even as I’m accused of inflicting despair, I consider this a noble task. And I consider this lesson perhaps the most important one I will teach: you have a story in you.

The Messiah

Christina Lee


As a college freshman, I was assigned a class called “Choral Union.” I assumed this was some sort advocacy group that made sure everyone had fair access to sheet music and water breaks during rehearsal. Whatever it was, I—as a new music major—was game.

It turned out to be conscription in a weekly three-hour evening rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah. The “union” merely signified that the whole community, regardless of musical ability, was invited to join up.

This should have sounded fun to me. But it did not. I’d never heard the term “oratorio.” I’d never seen a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Of course I’d heard the “Hallelujah Chorus;” I’d even sung it. But I had no desire to spend three hours a week singing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” fun as it had been. That seemed excessive.

As I’d feared, rehearsals were tedious, often dragging on past their promised 9:00 dismissal. Our zealous, rubicund conductor was nothing if not thorough. Movements were broken up into tiny chunks, every measure picked apart for its diphthongs and dark vowels and sagging pitch. Hours were lost on a single page of the score as earnest, tune-deaf community members gave it another go.

To be fair, the music was hard. Much harder than what I was used to. I wasn’t so great at it myself. Inevitably, right when I would catch the tune, we’d be angrily cut off with a baton tap and a vociferous, “like women, please, not little girls.”

Our conductor’s face would purple as he reminded us, “it’s the KH-LORY of the Lord. Not Gulory. KH-lory.” As everyone around me earnestly took down this note, I doodled sad little sketches of angry penguins in the margins of my score.

Is it embarrassing to me, now, my attitude? To think that I would have preferred to be back in my dorm room, gossiping about boys and listening to Savage Garden? Of course it is. It’s mortifying.

The real embarrassment? I so utterly lacked curiosity about the work we were preparing to perform. It never once occurred to me to sit down and listen to the piece, so I couldn’t hear the beauty we were working towards as we picked at it in rehearsal.

I’d like to tell you that, on the night of the performance, I was struck by the glory of the score and I repented of my grouchiness. I cannot. I was so fed up by then, so jealous of the soloists mincing out in their shimmery ball gowns, so tired of being yelled at to sound “more like a WOMAN,” that the performance was blur.

My conversion came years later, when a friend invited me to attend the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Messiah Sing-a-Long.” The thought of the music still made me a little nauseous, but I’d always wanted to see the Disney Concert Hall, so I went. The hall was filled with giddy Angelinos clutching their battered Messiah scores. As we launched into the first movement, I noticed two things. First, the notes came back to me as if I’d rehearsed them yesterday (confirming my grudging suspicion that that conductor was a very talented man). Second, this music was glorious. It was soul-rending to lift my voice with these 2,000 others. It was euphoric.

As rich, rippling chords splashed around the curved walls of the hall, I glanced at the score for my next cue and caught a glimpse of the angry penguin brigade, circa 2002.

And I remembered grumpy little freshman me, surrounded by all this glory yet totally deaf to it.

If you have a few minutes, sit down and listen to my favorite movement: “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs.” I dreaded this piece most in Choral Union. I slouched through it, rolling my eyes as our long-suffering conductor barked out, “CH-UR-LY, people. Not Surely. Ch-ur-ly!”

Sometimes I listen to remind myself that, while grueling, measure-by-measure rehearsal is necessary, it isn’t the end result. And you can’t let yourself drown there, in the details.

When I listen now, I think about the classes I teach. I think about the family relationships I’m working to mend. I think about the poems in my “keep revising” desktop folder. I listen to remind myself not to stall out in the measures I’m slogging through, so I’ll be able to hear the beauty when it comes.

Denise Levertov’s Birthday

Christina Lee

henry lamb Very recently, I turned thirty.

It’s a bit of a no-man’s land, emotionally, this turning thirty business. Anyone older, even by a few months, will dismiss all your grumbling (and will probably be strongly tempted to dismiss this post) with a patronizing chuckle and an eye roll. Anyone younger will take your grumbling far too seriously, and will try annoyingly hard to commiserate with and console you.

The morning of my 30th, facing my mortality, I scanned my bookshelves for some appropriately somber reading material and found Denise Levertov. I thumbed through to find one of Levertov’s long poems, “Relearning the Alphabet.”

I love this book. I’ve read it many times. Yet for the last three years or so, it has been gathering dust. As I re-read, I was shocked to discover that certain lines brought up vivid memories. Especially a passage near the end:

Heart breaks but mends like good bone. Its the vain will wants to have been wounded deeper burned by the cold moon to cinder.

At twenty-three, heartbroken, I scratched my ballpoint pen emphatically beneath those lines and felt the haze of a painful breakup begin to lift. My twenty-five year-old self, devastated by the loss of a teaching job, found the lines again and muttered, “mends like good bone” like a mantra through the difficult end of that year. At twenty-seven, mourning a soured friendship, I circled “the vain will” and swallowed my pride.

I’d like to forget those low points, those past versions of me. They embarrass the cooler, calmer, older me. I hadn’t meant to revisit them on my birthday morning, of all days. But oddly, I drew strength for the coming year from those memories. Strength that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else.

I once heard Robert Pinsky say that the reason poetry differs from all other writing is its physicality. It’s written to be spoken, so you not only hear it, you feel it—even reading silently, he said, your body imagines the words spoken within you. Perhaps it’s because of this physicality that poetry can carry memory, just the way a scent or a song stores memories.

Here’s my advice, from the crone-ish perch of this third decade (cue the well-deserved eye-roll): Find yourself a few poems that will travel with you, like dear friends. And visit them often.

(Painting by Henry Lamb)

Taizé & The Glass Siblings

Christina Lee

StainedGlassSpiralThe first time I read Franny and Zooey, I was captivated by Franny Glass’s (admittedly unhinged) plan to repeat “The Jesus Prayer” until it became as natural as a heartbeat. I was less impressed by her brother Zooey’s admonishment, later in the story, that Franny should stop using the prayer “as a substitute for doing whatever the hell your duty is in life, or just your daily duty.”

Upon a second reading, it dawned on me the reader’s sympathies ought to lie with Zooey (if the reader was the type of reader who could ever really sympathize with a Salinger character) and that Franny’s approach to the divine was a little precious, a little selfish.

Franny’s been on my mind lately, as I’ve started attending a weekly Taizé service. Taizé is a distinct style of worship, based out of a monastic community in France. The service is a series of repetitive chants interspersed with prayers and readings.

We meet weekly in the front corner of a beautiful, cathedral-like sanctuary. A circle of chairs surrounds a large wooden cross. The chants are simple — one line is sung 15, 20 times. One is even a Kyrie — the same words as Franny’s Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

It is a beautiful, sacred hour. The repetition is soothing and calming. Like all meditation, the chants open a space for mindfulness of my breath, of my heartbeat. Of all my chaotic worries that swirl up to cloud the quiet.

That hour focusing on repetition has made me more aware of the many less-sacred patterns in my weeks. I drive one route to work, morning and evening. I teach the same class to five periods of students. I put on the same make-up in the morning, and take it off every evening. I cook; I do the dishes.

Tallying up the hours I devote to these repetitive tasks gets discouraging. Oppressive, even. Zooey hones in on this feeling, describing a particular moment when the mundane hit him hard:

Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady.

Later, he clarifies this rather bizarre image by telling Franny, “Don’t you know who the Fat Lady is? Ah, Buddy. It’s Christ himself.”


My favorite lines from the Taizé prayers come near the end, after most of the chants have been sung:   

Waiting for you, by night and by day, means letting our hearts grow so open to all, that as the years pass, we wish more and more to burn with one and the same love ours and Yours.

This is followed by a chant:

Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless Gods holy name Bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life.

The words acknowledge the circular nature of life: “waiting for you by night and by day.” Yet they also give hope of growth and expansion with the lines “so that we may turn to what lies ahead” and “our hearts grow so open.”

As Rilke says in The Book of Hours, “I live my life in widening circles.”

The Taizé service is another circle in my week now. Each Thursday, I sit in the darkened church and quiet my heart and blend my voice with the others and watch the stained glass blaze and fade into evening. And I draw strength from the beauty of it. Then I leave, and I do my best to bring that beauty with me into the less-lovely patterns in my week, that they might also lead me into life.

Both Glass siblings have a point — we should pray unceasingly for mercy, but we should do it while we “polish our shoes.” This, I believe, is how the circles of our lives begin to widen.

Columbo and the Melancholy Dane

Christina Lee

PETER FALK In a chapter of Works of Love entitled “Love Believes All Things –And Yet is Never Deceived,” Kierkegaard describes two levels of love: the lower level, self-love, which seeks out self-affirmation and is easily deceived, and the higher level, the level he tells us we must reach — a love so strong that it wards off all deception.

I’ve read this chapter many times, but it never quite clicked for me. Until I started binge-watching “Columbo”. God bless Netflix.

Let me tell you a little about Columbo. First of all, I adore him. At this point, I’ve logged so many hours with the old codger that he seems like a dear uncle. He’s a mess: he drives an old beater, he wears a ratty raincoat, and he never combs his hair. He’s stingy, groveling, and usually hungry. And he always gets his man.

As for the plot of the show, the formula never wavers: a murder is committed in the first few minutes, on-camera. Columbo shows up at the scene of the crime. He slinks through the crowd, often being mistaken for a bum or the help. Soon, he’s sniffed out the murderer — usually a vain, powerful and smooth-talking fellow

As Kierkegaard points out, “Do you know any stronger expression for superiority than this, that the superior one also has the appearance of being the weaker? Consider someone who is infinitely superior to others in understanding, and you will see that he has the appearance of an ordinary person.”

The murderer dismisses Columbo because of his clothes, his shoes, his height, his propensity to bring his dog on assignment or to ramble on about his extended family.

Columbo just doesn’t care. He knows where his self-worth lies — not in their opinion, but in unearthing the truth.

Since we, the audience, have witnessed the crime, we side with Columbo, no matter how he appears to bumble. We’re in on the joke. We understand Kierkegaard when he writes, “True superiority can never be deceived.”

As the plot unfolds, the murderer grows more confident, just as Kierkegaard describes those embroiled in self-love: “The cunning deceiver, who moves with the most supple, most ingratiating flexibility of craftiness — he does not perceive how clumsily he proceeds.”

This is the joy of the show — watching the murderer simmer in his pride. It doesn’t hurt that, since the show is 30 years old, the murder’s “slick” persona is often laughably dated.

Kierkegaard claims that once we view love in the right way, not as a currency to be hoarded and stolen, but “precisely in not requiring reciprocity,” we’re freed of the danger of deception. We’re freed into a love that “believes all things — and is never deceived.”

It is when you have this love, this truth, that appearances stop mattering. Love is no longer a currency, something to steal or sell. It is just there, as solid as truth. A constant. Kierkegaard’s point is that those who can’t see this look as foolish as Columbo’s smooth-talking, designer-bell-bottom-sporting, doomed murderers. Those who get it are freed of all fear of deception and of judgment, freed to don wrinkled raincoats and scuffed shoes and the “courage to endure the world’s judgment that it is so indescribably foolish.”

At the end of the chapter, Kierkegaard admits that reaching this higher understanding of love is really, really hard. Even if we can grasp its goodness, we’ll still approach it like “a dog, which can indeed learn to walk upright but still always prefers to walk on all fours.”

Maybe that’s why Columbo did so well — for an hour a week (or, these days, as many hours as you’ve got to plop in front of your computer) you’re automatically on the right side, lifted to the higher level. The natural temptation to be suckered in by vanity, self-deception, and a well-groomed mustache is gone.

When I first read Works of Love, I interpreted this higher view of love as total detachment. But Columbo actually posits something a bit more complicated.

Columbo is not freed of caring. He’s just freed of caring about the wrong thing. Columbo is obsessed with justice. He doesn’t give a rats-ass about what people think of him. And I think that’s the goal — understanding the nature of love frees us to practice that love.

Dancing for the Crowd

Christina Lee

dancing I spent the afternoon before I gave my first poetry reading drinking wine in an outdoor café in Santa Fe. Although I’d set aside the time as a sort of toast to my two years of grad school, although I instagrammed a glow-y shot of the wine and my manuscript and the robin’s egg sky (#nofilter), I was miserable.

As the hours passed, I grew increasingly terrified at the prospect of giving a reading. I read a few of my poems, felt sick to my stomach, read a bit out of the amazing chapbook from the visiting poet at our residency, re-read my own work, grew more nauseous.

My carefully chosen words suddenly felt all wrong: obvious, trite and forgettable. Fears choked me: Would my images be clear enough? Would anyone fall asleep? Would the audience provide the appropriate amount of guttural, congratulatory hurrrms?

I ordered another glass of wine.

I’m (usually) far too proud to discuss this sort of thing. Also, I also have a poet’s revulsion of the cliché (e.g. tortured artist drunkenly mopes in cafés). This means I can’t really even indulge in self-loathing without loathing the very self-loathing in which I’m attempting to indulge. It’s layer-loathing. To me, it’s akin to layer-cake, not in that it is enjoyable, but rather in that it usually ends with me stress-eating a layer cake.

It was getting dark. I packed up and shuffled out, hoping I’d make it back in time hit up the residency dessert table (e.g. cake).

On the way to my car, I passed a crowd gathered for an outdoor concert in the Plaza. A man strummed a guitar on the gazebo stage and buzzed his lips into the microphone like a trumpet.

As I edged in to get a better view, I noticed a young couple dancing. They caught my eye because they didn’t really look like dancers. They clothes were simple, almost grungy. The guy’s smile was masked by an unkempt beard; the girl’s hair was cropped, showing off a harshly pretty face. They looked more like backpackers a few days out on the trail.

But they were amazing dancers. They moved with the smoothness of water. They shimmied and twisted and slunk. They didn’t seem to be following a routine. The guy would just whisper something in his partner’s ear and she’d sort of glow and nod and then they’d start moving together differently. Every few minutes they would lock eyes and laugh—not embarrassed laughter, or ironic laughter, the way I would have laughed dancing for a crowd. Just deep, satisfying, honest laughter.

They didn’t even notice us watching. They were too lost in the mercurial joy of moving together. They made me think of Eliot's still point of the turning world.

The musician switched to a new song, and others began joining in. First a white-haired woman in a floppy-brimmed hat stood up. She moved like a fish caught on a wire, jerking toward the guitar player when he strummed a percussive downbeat then springing away to lift her face and hands up to heaven. Then a mom pulled her daughter, who had Downs syndrome, onto the floor. The girl spun and clapped and beamed as they shuffled.

As the courtyard fluttered with dancers, I could still catch glimpses of the couple, laughing together and slipping deftly through the crowd they’d created.

Dean Young calls for poetry that “has the supreme confidence of handling elemental fuels.”Those two dancers moved like fire, like the best kind of poem. Their confidence made me ashamed of the way I’d spent the afternoon, paralyzed by my own ego and fear of failing.

The next morning, as my name was announced, as I strode to the podium, I pictured the dancers. I channeled their ease and their relaxed joy. And I took a deep breath and started to read.

Naming the Silence

Guest Blogger

edge1 Tuesday, I give my junior high ESL classes a simple homework assignment. As you speak English, I say, pay attention to where you fall silent. Notice the words you don’t have English for. Then choose one of those that you think you really ought to know and look up the English definition.

I assign this mostly because my students, who speak Chinese at home, are having trouble wanting to speak English. I want them to start listening, and to be a little curious.

The next morning, the students remind me that they are ready to share their words. For once, everyone has done the homework. Their words are scribbled on small bits of paper: bride, executioner, honesty, forgive, ensue, barrette, vacuum cleaner, voodoo.

Lilith has brought in phenomenon. She says she means a word for “the strange and beautiful clouds.” Phenomenon fits, sort of, but I suspect that her Chinese word is more casual, less scientific. There are so many words like that. Words that fit perfectly in the shells of their original sounds. Words that resist being pried out and served up in just any language.

I help each student pronounce the English they’ve chosen. After I do, the students teach me their Chinese word.

Or rather, they try. Chinese has always been hard for me. My students wave their hands like orchestra conductors, trying to signal the up and down inflections of the Mandarin tones that fit so naturally on their tongues.

It takes a long time for all 19 students to share words. I keep expecting the class to get restless, but they stay focused, listening in a sort of reverent silence.

I’ve been thinking about that silence ever since. That’s just not an everyday mood in a junior high classroom. What made that assignment so different?

I had asked my students to teach me something very personal about their learning, and about their lives. It was something that allowed us to step into each other’s experience. Together, we were naming the silence between us—now we could both say the word in our home language.

Really, poetry is a similar act. As poets, we learn to listen for moments in life for which we don’t yet have language. When we find these unnamed spaces, we translate them for others. It’s not always a perfect translation, but in the act of naming what was a silence, we are drawn together.

- Guest Blogger, Christina Lee (Read her poetry in Relief 7.2. Purchase here.)

Photo by Mikko Lagerstedt