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Filtering by Tag: Rebecca Spears

A Voice for the Impossible

Rebecca Spears

luisespinalTrain us Lord to fling ourselves upon the impossible, for behind the impossible is your grace and your presence; we cannot fall into emptiness.          —Father Luis Espinal Camps, 1932 – 1980

In March 1980, the Jesuit Father Luis Espinal was tortured and murdered, his bound and gagged body found abandoned on a road outside of La Paz, Bolivia. Originally from Spain, Espinal had moved to Bolivia in 1968 to chair the journalism department at the Universidad Católica Bolivian. Two years later, after falling in love with his new home, he became a Bolivian citizen.

In Spain, Espinal had made a name for himself as an activist-journalist, writing articles on societal injustices, and this work continued in Bolivia. In fact, the priest became a more outspoken activist, living among miners and their families, and advocating for their rights. In 1979, he helped found the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights.

These things he did while the political climate was hardening towards dictatorship and control by ultra-conservative militarists and neo-fascists. During the short-lived dictatorship of Luis Garcia Meza (1980 – 81), political parties were outlawed, the press was silenced; assassinations and torture replaced any notion of due process. Espinal’s continued activism and denunciations of government actions labeled him an ardent left-winger, and marked him for assassination.

Some people in the world speak with the courage of their conviction on a daily basis and will not be silenced. They do this despite threats to their person and property, and despite reprisals to those close to them. Father Luis Espinal is one of those people. Common sense tells many of us to tone down our opinions when we are threatened.

I often think of myself as commensensical, and that handicaps me at times, when I don’t speak up. So I am grateful for the people who speak and act as Luis Espinal, not just for themselves but for the rights of others, for a free and more just society.  This quality embodies greatness. The odds facing Father Espinal were stacked against him, his task was nearly impossible. Yet he continued to advocate for the miners’ rights and against government oppression, putting himself in grave danger.

Today in Bolivia, under the leadership of Evo Morales, the citizens enjoy a more free and equitable society with a higher rate of literacy, less poverty, and a commitment to environmental stewardship. Many believe that the influence of Father Luis Espinal several decades earlier helped set in motion this movement toward a more equitable and free Bolivia.  

In July 2015, during Pope Francis’s visit to Bolivia, he stopped along the highway from the El Alto airport to La Paz to bless the spot where Espinal’s body was found. The pope told those who had gathered, “I stop here to greet you and, above all, to remember. To remember a brother of ours, the victim of those who did not want him to fight for freedom in Bolivia. Father Espinal preached the Gospel, and this Gospel troubled them, so they eliminated him. Let us spend a moment in silent prayer, and then let us pray together.”

How could I ever forget Father Luis Espinal’s work: his story inspires me. Though my work is on a much smaller scale, educating special needs students, I remember his words when my own work seem impossible to accomplish.  In fact, his prayer of the impossible has become a living thing to me. I’ve memorized the first lines, so that at times, I can repeat it to myself and keep working.

Let Me Be Maladjusted

Rebecca Spears

By Colin Mutchler from Brooklyn, United States (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. —Amos 5:24

Like most people, I’ve heard Martin Luther King, Jr. invoking the prophet Amos in old film footage.  In the 1960s, this particular verse inspired many people to advocate for civil rights, and later to advocate against US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Even now, Amos’s words are almost synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work for justice. Yet King’s reason for calling up Amos was to petition his own followers to become “maladjusted.” That’s an astonishing call, not what I’d expected.

So often the verse from Amos is quoted exclusively, and out of context. What King said as preamble is this: “I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generations.” What does King mean, maladjusted? I don’t think I’d ever heard that word used on a positive note, until my minister brought it into a proclamation a few weeks ago.

King turned the word into a call to righteousness, when he asked his followers to refuse to “adjust” to segregation and discrimination, to mob rule, violence, and militarism. He went on to name others who in their own era were “maladjusted” or “extremist,” who refused to adjust to a society’s injustices:

Lincoln, “who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free."

Jefferson, who declared that “all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Jesus, “who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man."

In the last year, it’s been troubling to hear the name-calling and degrading language used to describe recent immigrants and people of color and women, the veiled and outright calls to violence against those who are different from us. In my heart, I fear that people will become accustomed to the anger and vitriol that so marks the US political process now. This kind of language has been on the fringe for many years, not in the mainstream. This year, hatred in its various expressions has invaded the larger conversations of our society. I believe that language underlies, and underscores, people’s beliefs and intentions. We use language to make ourselves clear about what lives in our hearts. And this is where I think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the prophet Amos.

While I’m not a great leader or a great thinker, I do have the power to let others know what is on my mind and in my heart. I hope that we never become accustomed to the vitriol, and more importantly, to the anger and hatred that underlie such speech. I don’t want to “adjust” to a mainstream call to cut down the stranger, the immigrant, the person who doesn’t look like me.  So let me be maladjusted, and let me ask you to be maladjusted, too.


Through the Window - Part 2: The Open Portal and the Call to Prayer

Rebecca Spears


Read Part I

- Great trees, outspreading and upright, apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars they build in air tier after tier a timbered choir . . . Wendell Berry, “The Timbered Choir”

Writers and artists often use windows as a source of inspiration. Georgia O’Keeffe has a series of brilliant paintings that offer unique views of New York City from her perch in the Shelton building, where she lived with Alfred Stieglitz for twelve years in the 1920s and 1930s.

While a window can visually frame a scene, it can also frame sounds, letting us hear them in ways we hadn’t heard before. Wendell Berry’s window poems are a result of his placing a writing desk in front of a huge forty-paned window. For him, the great trees not only inspired him visually in their “weightless grace,” but also for their song, which left “a blessing on this place.”

On Easter morning two years ago, the bells of St. Sebastian’s Church in Salzburg rang and rang at sunrise, startling me from sleep. Briskly stirred to consciousness, I checked my watch. It was only six a.m. when an entire chorus of bells called me to the open casement window of my room at the Hotel Amadeus. All over the city, bells pealed from many churches, some tolling a loud bass, others chiming the middle tones, and some reaching the high, clear notes, closer to a soprano voice. What sounded like discord at first, soon shaped itself into celebratory clanging.

In the sprawling metropolis that I call home, I don’t ever recall hearing so many bells at once. My place in the Houston Heights is near a small Episcopal chapel, and occasionally, I will hear its bells on a Sunday morning, if I’m outdoors. Because Houston is the most air-conditioned city in the country, we keep our windows closed for many months of the year. I suspect that while I’m in my home, I miss a lot of curious sounds because of the air-conditioning—snippets of conversations from people walking by, sirens, soft rains, barking dogs, freeway traffic.

The call to celebrate Easter two years ago in Salzburg is one I won’t soon forget; it was entirely extraordinary. While Salzburgers are accustomed to hearing the bells all year long, at six a.m., noon, and six p.m., I was a visitor brought to the open windows, portals that animated me and gladdened my heart. The call to prayer felt like something that I had been missing all my life. I can still summon the bells in my imagination, and they still hearten me.

Through the Window - Part 1: Looking into the World

Rebecca Spears

Mark Chagal, Window in the Dacha Outside my kitchen window, a gingko tree bursts gold, fan-shaped leaves shimmering in fresh air. I have thought all morning about what I want, and it’s nothing.       —Elizabeth Drewry, “Nothing Is Wanting”

I have a wall of windows in my classroom, and I keep the blinds wide open unless I am using media that requires a darkened room. As soon as the media presentation is over, I let the blinds blink open so that daylight can flood the room again.

Recently, I’d been exploring my penchant for light when I came across Charles Hebermann’s entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia on “Windows in Church Architecture.” He has this to say about church windows, especially for people who are accustomed to a whole lot of light: “The temperament of the people of the East and the South where Christian houses of worship first appeared, required the admission of much light by large openings in the walls.”

In an earlier post, “How the Light Gets In,” I wrote about the plain church style of using clear-paned glass and how much this style appealed to me, not only in churches but in just about every other structure. I’ve lived in the American Southwest most of my life where bright days are a force of nature all on their own.  I love the light.

Windows are also essential to connect to the larger world, and as Michael Pollan notes in A Place of My Own, windows frame the landscape and let us interpret it. Looking into the landscape, we not only reflect on it, but it leads us to consider our lives and work.

Outside my classroom windows, my students and I have seen coyote, deer, rabbits, plenty of squirrels, and too many birds to name them all—great blue heron, egrets, carrion crows, red-tailed hawk, mourning dove, and robins. We’ve also watched other students working on large art projects, like sculptures and murals. Or we see the science teacher and his students outside our window, collecting samples of water and soil. Sometimes the life outside the windows has led us into brief discussions that might be related to our task at hand, or not, but our contemplations are always worthwhile.  

This life outside my classroom inspires me to teach my students in ways that will help them see the wider world. So I’ve structured my literature and rhetoric classes around themes that will help students think about how to live in the community and on the planet. All of this from windows.

Read Part 2

Degrees of Separation

Rebecca Spears

cabin-768716_960_720a“Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause.” — Bruce Feiler

I’m leaving soon, leaving the Houston metropolis and all of my artistic and creative friends, to say nothing of my adult children and their families, my church family, and my students. Finally. I love them all. I love the life that I’ve made here, but I am moving to my small cabin in the country. I’ve been planning this change for several years.

Sounds crazy, yes? Yet I won’t be so far away that I am unreachable. In another time and place, moving away usually meant a permanent good-bye to the life one knew. Maybe I am a little world-weary, though this move is more about being able to live a good life in a small community.

Still, world-weariness, or weltschmerz, has been on my mind for a while. A month ago, I read Casey Walker’s debut novel, Last Days in Shanghai, about a young Congressional staffer Luke Slade who truly exemplifies what it is to be world-weary. The novel demonstrates why some people decide to pause, reexamine their old lives, and begin anew.

Luke Slade accompanies his boss, “Lyin’ Leo” Fillmore, on a weeklong trip to China to check on a joint real estate venture. Leo is, of course, so corrupt that Luke almost can’t help but become involved in corruption by accepting bribes on Leo’s behalf.  This leads Luke to question his motives and the work he has chosen to do. Is he really willing to promote himself and his career at any cost? The central characters in this novel are compelled to consider the moral and ethical dimensions of their lives, and Walker manages to let the characters do that without seeming “moralistic.”

Midpoint in the novel, Li-Li, a young Chinese woman and Slade’s counterpart, tells Luke her dreams to leave the corrupt business life. Then we see hints of Luke’s own awakening in his response to Li-Li: “Go build yourself a hut on the most beautiful mountainside. Contemplate the stream water and the fog and light as morning wanes to afternoon and never for any reason let a person talk you back down to this world.”

Yes, he is also talking about himself. Some pages later, he declares, “A thousand years ago, a holy man, the wild Bodhidharma, who must have felt overwhelmed by the circumstances of his world as I now did mine, climbed up Mount Song and sat in a cave for nine years meditating. What puzzles me is that he eventually got up and left—that after nine years of contemplation, something became clear enough that he could get to his feet and venture back outside.”

Luke will have to leave his job—that becomes clear. He’ll need to withdraw from his corrupt business life long enough to find a new direction. That, I think, is one beauties of the novel. Having taken part in corruption, several characters have the courage to pause or retreat, and to redirect their moral and spiritual lives.

In our own lives, there are degrees of separation, aren’t there, and for differing reasons—but often those separations are in order to reevaluate and redefine ourselves and the lives we want to live. Less extreme, we opt for a retreat or a quiet hour in a church service.

There’s a church in Houston called Ecclesia. I got curious about its name recently, so I looked it up. I learned that it means not merely “assembly”; it also means “called out” or “called apart.” It strikes me that when we go into a place to worship or meditate, we are setting aside time to be separate and apart, to remember how we want to live and why. These small offices are a tonic against world-weariness.

Imagination, Intellect, and Good Works

Rebecca Spears

Retrato_de_Sor_Juana_Inés_de_la_Cruz_(Miguel_Cabrera) “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart”    —Matthew 12.34

Suppose at a very young age, you could read and write at an advanced level, and almost without effort. Imagine having a desire for knowledge that seems to take charge of you. You read everything you can get your hands on—sometimes your reading is directed and purposeful; other times it is rangy and anxious. What if you could turn on your imagination with hardly a conscious effort and turn words into fine imagery and figurative language?

This is Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651 – 1695), a child prodigy, who as a young adult, garnered the attention and support of Mexico’s leaders and courtly society. In her life, she became widely known throughout Mexico and in Europe as the Tenth Muse. Yet she lived in an era when women’s roles were tightly circumscribed and society was highly regimented. An unlikely celebrity, she was born an “illegitimate” child and raised by her mother, though she enjoyed the refuge of her grandfather’s hacienda during her childhood. In her grandfather’s library, she read hungrily. By several accounts, she was also a religiously devoted child. As she matured, she began to speak of her intellect and imagination as God’s gift.

At age 12, when her grandfather died, the girl was sent to serve in the viceroy’s court in Mexico City. She had expressed to her mother the wish to attend university disguised as a male, but she was forbidden from doing so. In the royal court, though, the viceroy’s wife helped her continue her education and writing. By all accounts, Juana Ines grew into a stunning beauty, catching the attention of several suitors. Yet she defied all expectations when she refused more than one marriage proposal and entered the convent in 1669. She did so, she said, so that her studies and writing might continue.

In the convent, Sor Juana enjoyed her own apartment and the protection not only of the Church, but also the viceroy’s court—for a time. When her most ardent supporters left “New Spain” for Spain, the Archbishop of Mexico and other church officials sought to forbid her from reading or writing anything that was not religious. Ultimately, Sor Juana bowed to the Archbishop’s pressure. However, her body of work, which includes drama, poetry, rhetoric, religious texts, and carols, is still the inspiration for many writers today.

Sor Juana came to my attention, during my days as an editor, when I was asked to copy-edit Willis Barnstone’s Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet. This volume introduced me not only to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, but also Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jose Luis Borges, and others. The world of poetry opened up to me when I read these translations. The only woman among these masters is Sor Juana. I took note of that.

It is a wonder that she is recognized at all. That she persisted in her writing for so long is because she was determined to use the talents that God gave her. She once wrote, “What garland can human wisdom expect when it sees what divine wisdom received?” Jesus, she reminds, brought divine wisdom to people, and yet the people executed him. Sor Juana knew that her studies and writing lay outside society’s role for women. She was prepared to face the consequences of her work. In that way, she serves as an inspiration to many, including myself. She did the good works she believed she was meant to do.

The Soul’s Tempo in Four Quartets - Part II

Rebecca Spears

St John's Church, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, UK, key in the inspiration for the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot. Taken by uploader, February 4, 2006. Read Part I 

“The Dry Salvages,” the third poem in Eliot’s Four Quartets, thinks about time from the wilderness of rivers and oceans, drawing parallels to the cycles of life and to eternity. Rhythmically, this poem feels like water lapping at the shore: “Where is an end of it, the soundless wailing”; “where is there an end to the drifting wreckage”; “where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing”; “there is no end, but addition.”

“The Dry Salvages”  (1941) evokes Heraclitus’ most famous observation: “One cannot step twice into the same river.” Similarly, in time’s currents, humans are no longer the same travelers they were the moment before; nor will they be the same the next moment.  We are ever changing, but this signals our aging as well. Implicit in wilderness is the idea of an older time,  before clocks: “The tolling bell / Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell, a time / Older than the time of chronometers.” This is nature’s movement, something quite larger than ourselves, something we cannot control.

In nature, time is both destroyer and preserver, signified by “the river with its cargo of Dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops.” Here, Eliot wants us to know that agony is timeless; when we are in it, it seems eternal: “People change, and smile: but the agony abides.” Also, “time is no healer”; instead, time always kills the patient. The speaker seeks refuge from agony in prayer, and finally turns away from ancient remedies of magic and sorcery. He concludes that the only way to live timelessly is through prayer and through the saints. “Little Gidding" (1942), the most overtly religious quartet, moves the speaker from the human experience of time to the threshold of timelessness. Little Gidding is a chapel Eliot made pilgrimage to in 1936, when England was nearing war’s threshold. So too, readers enter the poem at a transitory time, “midwinter spring,” “suspended in time,” where “the brief sun flames the ice.” As in Heraclitus, this flash of light compares to insight. Yet this light is also a “pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year.” We should approach this moment of light prayerfully, Eliot tells us, ready to see our folly and be restored by “that refining fire.” In prayer, a person prepares to cross the threshold and be “transfigured in another pattern,” experiencing visionary detachment that goes beyond desire to love. While history is “a pattern / of timeless moments,” to be transformed people must “arrive where we started from / And know the place for the first time,” “through the unknown remembered gate” (l. 246), to a place and experience humans have only glimpsed on the cave walls.  

My afternoon at the Menil that long-ago September, experiencing Mineko Grimmer’s Remembering Plato, the ice melting, the pebbles dropping and producing a watery music, the projected patterns on the walls constantly changing, I think I felt myself approaching a gate that wasn’t yet open to me. I still carry a vivid memory of that day when the experience touched me so deeply. In Four Quartets, Eliot works his way through ideas of memory and its patterns, and suspended time, toward glimpses of eternal forms, and finally, to the gate of timelessness, or eternity. Following the soul’s tempo, the speaker will gain “complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.”

Simply Enough

Rebecca Spears

"Wheat, Poppies, and Bamboo' by Kano Shigenobu When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop.    —Leviticus 19:9

At first, it’s frightening to say “Enough is enough,” but after a while it gets easier. These are words that we say mainly when we are frustrated or angry; they sound like a threat. But really, when I stop to think about everything I have—what I need, what I want—I’ve discovered that I have enough—food, clothing, furniture, a satisfying job, nights out, and hair products. At first, it may feel like denial, and who wants to deny themselves?

Saying enough, lets me look at what I do have. I have a son and two daughters, I have two grandchildren. That makes me happy. I love them. I like to write, and I get plenty of opportunities to do that. For a long time after my divorce, I flirted, I dated, I considered another long-term relationship. Now for over a year, I have been decidedly single. This state of being has felt like a blip in my life at times, and like desolation at other times. But then I have simply enough of everything else in my life—and that makes me feel pretty content with my lot in life. At first saying enough, I have enough, sounded like I was settling for less, which is not part of the modern dream I’d been chasing for many years.

During this Lenten season, I’ve decided not to accumulate any more stuff, except for the things I need to live in my ordinary world. Enough. I intend to live out the season with awareness of all that I do have. I’ve been spending more time working on my relationships, checking in on people I haven’t been in touch with. I’ve been devoting more time to writing—which is my way of meditating and reflecting. I won’t buy that new loveseat I was thinking about buying. I’ll put off that purchase a little longer. Actually, I do need, really need, new walking shoes. I have a pair that is wearing down fast. But you know what? I can wait another month to get those shoes.  

A couple of years ago, I started trying to do simply enough after I had a conversation with a dear friend. We were both feeling overworked and overburdened. My friend is no ordinary friend; I’ve known her since before first grade, so she’s like family to me. She heads a Social Work program in child welfare at a university, and I teach English and writing to high-schoolers, and occasionally to college students. We work too hard, we concluded, after going over all that was weighing us down work-wise. What could we do about our careers, which were overwhelming every other aspect of our lives? Enough. We would start practicing doing enough. What were the essential functions of our jobs? We each made a list of tasks that needed to be high-quality; then we made of list of tasks that needed to be good enough, and not more; finally, a list of tasks we could probably delegate. Could we do this? Could we each let go of the need to do more than enough at work?

It’s been a long process, but yes, we could. Sometimes we still check in on the phone or talk in person when work starts to occupy a bigger place in our lives than we want it to. That’s when the questions start: What is essential? What has to be done and done well? What can you let go of, if not forever, then for a while? Having a friend to touch base with has certainly helped me to learn what is significant and what’s minor. This process, the practice of doing, producing, and having simply enough on the job has worked its way into other areas of my life. I think you have to say enough to find contentment. The practice of simply enough leads to a state of gratitude. Don’t take more than your share. Leave some things for others, yes. It’s a generous gesture.

Dark Night: The Illness Narrative

Rebecca Spears

The Sick Child - Edvard Munch “Pale horse, pale rider done taken my lover away,” a line from an old spiritual hymn, is the inspiration for the title of Katherine Anne Porter’s novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. I taught this text, a rare narrative of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, to my students last semester because it provides an accessible introduction to stream-of-consciousness writing. More importantly, Porter’s story is autobiographical, as the author herself nearly succumbed to the flu. Through stream-of-consciousness, she shows the effect of a collective trauma on the individual psyche, a dark night of the soul.

The novella is set during World War I and opens with Miranda, a young newspaper reporter in Denver, sunk deep into nightmare. On her horse Graylie, she tries to outrace a “lank, greenish stranger” riding a pale horse. It soon becomes clear that this rider resembles one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, referenced in Revelations. In this dream, she does outrace Death; it isn’t her time to die just yet. Fragmented memories and images of death pervade the story—with “this funny new disease,” the Spanish flu bringing on a pandemic, even as young soldiers prepare to go overseas to fight and perhaps die. We’re with Miranda as she falls in love with a soldier, Adam, and as she becomes increasingly ill, struggling through semi-consciousness and delirium. The “pale horse, pale rider” spiritual, which Miranda and Adam sing, turns out to be horribly ironic because in the hymn, the pale rider eventually takes everyone but the storyteller.

Stories of illness serve several purposes, and one is to develop empathy in the reader for both the sufferer and those who care for ill loved ones. These narratives can show how the psyche experiences pain and how the soul aches when threatened with loss. When Miranda finally does recover from the flu, she discovers that Adam has succumbed to it while she herself was too ill to be aware of events around her. The novella then can be seen as a memorial to this Adam, and to Porter’s Adam who was also lost to the flu.

At the same time I taught Pale Horse, Pale Rider, I read a new book of prose poems, Stay, by Kathleen McGookey. By coincidence, a strong through-line in the poems is the illness and death of the poet’s mother and father. The father declines progressively from a “brain disease,” while the mother’s demise is sudden, from a deadly cancer. In Stay, the speaker’s shock and grief is laced with exhaustion, anger, and even brief moments of happiness and contentment. The poems give us a more intimate look at how wide-reaching the effects of illness are on an individual and her family.

In “Disease, in the Particular,” the speaker admits that her father’s brain disease “is real, stark, and incurable, so slow, so nearly imperceptible its progression, so—can I say this?—gentle, and so gentle his decline, how can I not cry?” And in this poem, the speaker knows she must accept what is terribly unacceptable: “I cannot hope to lift him out of his stiffening limbs and set him down shiny and baptized into the rest of his life.”  The poem works against any romantic notions of the father’s decline, showing the reader in particular that at some point our loved ones will move inexorably toward death.

“Sometimes the Ache Sleeps” delves deeper into the father’s illness and the mother’s sudden bout with cancer, while the speaker herself mothers an infant son:

When my dad reached unsteadily from his wheelchair to put my baby’s sock on, the baby clapped and waved. When I helped my mom to the bathroom, she whispered, My little girl. By then the ache was all around us.

In these few lines, we’re aware of the metaphor of pain, the symbol of life inherent in the baby, and the psychic turmoil in the speaker, who cannot fully experience the joy of the new child in the midst of the illnesses that will soon claim both her parents.

For the poet of Stay and the storyteller of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the painful reality they impart to us is that a loved one’s illness and death bring on conflicting emotions in the sufferers and survivors—love and grief, ache and anger, to name a few—and that recovering from such loss is not straightforward. Their stories remind us that not all illnesses can be cured, no matter our prayers, because to have a life here and now is to have a gift that we will someday have to relinquish.

Living with Armadillos

Rebecca Spears

Armadillo Scales by Baq_stock It had to be 98 degrees as I walked the perimeter of my cabin last summer, surveying the damage caused by armadillos. Wow, they had plowed up the entire hill where my cabin sat! They’d sent nearly all the topsoil down to the creek, exposing the underlayers to the heat and drought. No wonder a large crack had developed along the steepest side of the hill.

A year ago, I’d spent a lot of money for an engineer and an earthworks company to create a stable, level soil foundation for my cabin. In the months after, I’d spread topsoil, then planted grass and liriope on my hill, in an effort to create a natural barrier against soil erosion, crucial to the health of the house’s foundation.

I don’t live at the cabin full-time; I live in a city and commute to my place in the woods about six times a year. So it’s easy for a few armadillos to come in and wreak havoc without humans around full-time. The damage they can do in one night is astounding. Over a few weeks, their work can be monumental. I wanted to scream about the destruction, in fact, and strangle a few armadillos. The only reason I didn’t—I might be fined for throttling an armadillo, because this creature is honored as one of the “state” mammals in Texas.  

It’s amazing that I was once fond of armadillos, that just the sight of these “little, armored ones” was amusing, pleasing. Yes, they’re mostly gentle animals, foraging for insects near creeks and ponds.  And in this century, they’re a threatened species. What’s the harm in an armadillo? I never thought to ask such a question.

In the middle of my armadillo troubles, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo” inserted itself into my thinking. Truly, I’m a Bishop fan, and I like to revisit her work every so often. When I reread this poem, I didn’t consciously think it could help, but engaging with poetry is a source of meditation for me.

“The Armadillo” isn’t just about an armadillo, but about “the frail, illegal fire balloons” released during Brazilian celebrations of saints’ days. When the fire balloons “flare and falter, wobble and toss,” they suddenly become dangerous to wildlife, and this is just what Bishop wants us to see when  

                another big one fell. It splattered like an egg of fire against the cliff behind the house. The flame ran down.

Unfortunately, a pair of “ancient owls,” whose nest “must have burned,” fly “up / and up,” their undersides “stained bright pink” by the fire just below them. The armadillo of the poem “glistens” and is “rose-flecked by the fire,” leaving with its “head down, tail down”; its armor can’t protect it from the fire’s danger. The poet then shows us a small rabbit, “so soft!” but its softness turns grotesque “like a handful of intangible ash.” Here are the vulnerable animals whose lives will be cut short by humans sending up fire balloons meant to celebrate a holy day.  

While Bishop’s poem is ostensibly about the specific incident described, the dedication to her friend, the poet Robert Lowell indicates a larger purpose. Lowell, a conscientious objector during World War II, protested US firebombings of cities. In Bishop’s poem, the balloons that bring fire to the wildlife echo on a small scale what it might’ve been like to live in a firebombed city:

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! O falling fire and piercing cry and panic, and a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky!

The “weak mailed fist” suggests the soldier, who even though well armored like the armadillo, cannot win in a conflagration.

For readers today, getting at Bishop’s intention requires some digging. Yet her poem resonates for me in the way we humans have encroached into the natural world. In situating my own cabin, I know I’ve disturbed the wildlife, from fire ants to armadillos to coyotes. No, I didn’t wish to destroy the natural scenery, or animal habitats; and I do understand how much of the natural world we’ve already gobbled up. I’m aware that the East Texas woods now receive a lot less rain than they did in decades past. Just two years ago, wildfires threatened the areas close to my new habitat. There, and in “The Armadillo,” I’m reminded that we share the God-given world.

When I felt the urge to destroy armadillos after they destroyed my hillside, I scared myself. After all, these guys only did what armadillos naturally do. I don’t think I can return to my old fondness for armadillos, but I want to find a way to handle them without animosity—a fence maybe.

Genesis and the Fig Tree: The Creative Life

Rebecca Spears

Photo by Flavio / CC BY 2.0 I got lost in it and didn’t hear her at first. “It’s time to go,” my mother called out from the back porch of our neighbor’s house. Mr. Roberts lived alone, the oldest man in the neighborhood, over a 100 years old. I thought the fig tree must be that old—it was massive. It was easy to get lost inside the leafy, twisting branches. The tree, while two or three times taller than my ten-year-old self, also spread over a good quarter of Mr. Roberts’ backyard.

While my mother had a cup of coffee with our neighbor, I circled around in the tree’s low-lying branches, content to be by myself. Leafy doors to “rooms” inside this treehouse opened before me. Other branches bowered over me, the leaves crossing one another to make ceilings, yet there were plenty of skylights, too. When I brushed against the fig leaves, they set off a spicy smell like cinnamon and nutmeg.

My young mind was hooked, enchanted. I sat in one spot a while and made up stories of the fortunate girl living inside this extraordinary home, in charge of her siblings, because she was the only one who knew how to navigate the halls and rooms. I couldn’t live there for long, however. After a short half-hour, it was time to go home.

My mom and I walked home, just up the street. There, I wasn’t in charge. Home was a houseful of brothers, ever-active and more competitive than I was, particularly my oldest brother, who seemed to live and breathe just to taunt me or best me or race me. The only place I could be myself, it seemed, was in my imagination.

So I’d made my closet into a little room to hide myself away, a place where I could read or draw or live in my thoughts. This may be the real genesis of my creative life, but it is always connected to that fig tree, too. My closet wasn’t exactly a lovely place: it held a shelf of my toys, clothes skewed on hangers and hooks, shoes, and dust bunnies. The fig tree, by contrast, was a natural wonder and brightened all my senses.

Its huge leaves and swirling branches have charged my imagination all my life. I’ve got other early memories of fig trees. My grandmother and grandfather in central Texas, near Austin, had a huge backyard garden where they grew pomegranates, figs, tomatoes, squash, and beans. I felt that same state of wonder when I helped harvest the pomegranates or figs, or worked down the garden rows with my grandmother, picking the vegetables.

I’ve found I’m partial to stories that mention the fig tree, too, a tree which has been around since biblical times. There’s Katherine Anne Porter’s story “The Fig Tree” and Barbara Pym’s novel  A Glass of Blessings. Fig trees complicate and enliven the sacred stories as well. They appear in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden. The trees fed the first humans their plump fruits. I can see how the fig tree also made a convenient place to hide. And the amazing leaves—of course they could be used for a quick covering. Adam and Eve sewed the first clothes from fig leaves.

Included in the promise of the Promised Land is the fig. This place, sought by God’s people, was  “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey” (Deuteronomy 8.8, NIV). The fig tree also makes its appearance in other books of the Bible. George Tsakiridis, in “Vine and Fig Tree,” commented that George Washington often used the phrase “under their vine and fig tree” in his correspondence. He says Washington was referring most likely to Micah 4.4: “But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”

For Washington, the phrase symbolically indicated “the independence of the peasant farmer who is freed from military oppression,” an apt image that early American settlers aspired to. Washington’s own fondness for life at Mount Vernon can be tied to this image, his own place “under the vine and fig tree.” I think this is the pull of the fig tree for me as well. It represents the place of my independence, where my imagination took hold, and I began to grow aesthetically and intellectually.

The Sacred Harp

Rebecca Spears

26 Spears It’s the sacred harp—the voice. It’s also the eponymous title of a choral music book, first published in 1844. What’s odd about this book is that the music within it, from traditional hymns, appears in shape notes: Fa, a triangle; Sol, an oval; La, rectangle; and Mi, diamond. The book reflects a style of choral hymn singing, associated with the American South. Except now, it’s making a comeback, not only in the South, but in New England, the Midwest, and the West, as well as in Europe and Australia.

In July, two friends and I had gone to visit the Pineywoods Herb Farm in Kennard, in East Texas. Driving into Kennard, one friend called attention to a wayside sign in front of a plain, clapboard building with a wide garage: “Sacred Harp Singing, Tuesday. Covered dish supper 6 – 7 pm. Singing 7 – 8 pm.” A second sign attached to the building itself read “Kennard Auto Service.” My two friends had heard of such singing before, but didn’t really know what it was. For me, it was a complete mystery. And why was it at the Kennard Auto Service building?

As I soon discovered, monthly Sacred Harp singings take place regularly in East Texas, where the tradition has thrived for many years, although now the singings occur in all the major Texas cities, including Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. The East Texas Sacred Harp Convention (founded in 1855) is one of two of the oldest organizations in the country; the other is the Chattahoochee Musical Convention (Georgia, 1852). The singings in Kennard occur monthly in the old Kennard Auto Service building, which Jerry and Margaret Wright, bought and renovated inside as a singing venue. They decided to keep building’s original name, because people in the area know the structure by that name.

What has made Sacred Harp singings so enduring and pleasurable? Well, for one thing, the singer doesn’t need to be near-perfect or near-professional. Pitch isn’t absolute; it’s moveable to accommodate the voice of the song leader. The shape notes also help the average singer, who may not be familiar with a tune, to sight read. These singings are democratic; they’re participatory, reflective of the structure of many American Christian sects. Each part—treble, alto, tenor, and bass—is “singable” and “tuneful” by itself. The tune is often carried by the tenors, deemphasizing the melody that in traditional hymnody is carried by the highest notes (the trebles). The detail that has fired my imagination is the arrangement of the singers. Because the singings aren’t for an audience, but for the singers themselves, the four sections are seated in the hollow-square arrangement:


In this arrangement, singers often experience the power of their singing intensely. The singers take turns leading the hymns, and inside the square’s hollow is the greatest experience, participants say. All the voices, usually in harmonies of fourths and fifths, sing toward the song leader, lifting up their voices to God. The power of their singing becomes a felt experience of joyful noise. I have been listening to clips of Sacred Harp singing at,, and YouTube, and I feel drawn to it. You see, I am a failed choir member who loves to sing (I’ll tell that story another time). I believe Sacred Harp singing might just be where I fit in and I have hopes of attending a singing this fall. Stay tuned.

The Softer Emotions

Rebecca Spears

26 SpearsIn early summer, my friends and I organized a writing workshop led by poet Kevin Prufer. Since then, I’ve been thinking all summer about one topic that Prufer discussed, namely, sentimentality in poetry. I was intrigued when he took up the subject. I’d never heard anyone speak at length about it, and I am one who always feels like I’m fighting sentimentality in my writing. Call me a sentimental fool. I wanted to hear more; so did everyone else in the workshop, it seemed.  Prufer remarked that if a poem is labeled “sentimental” by a critic or a reader, then the person “damns it completely.” Yet he urged us not to avoid emotion in our writing, but instead to infuse our work with complexity: shifting dualities, ambivalence, nuanced thinking, competing visions. The problem with truly sentimental writing is that it diminishes language and feelings to their simplest level. In “Uneasy Meditation,” he writes, “It has less to do with too much emotion than it does with reduction, with the sentimentalist’s failure to think about a large subject, one we feel too emotional about, with complexity.”

As I said, I’ve been thinking about this topic all summer—and not just in my writing. In my faith journey, I often find myself awash in complexity. While I freely experience spiritual wonder, I can’t pin down my beliefs in just a sentence or two because “it’s complicated.” I have questions, I have doubts. I know that I believe in God, but I cannot define God exactly for you. I know that I believe in Jesus’ tenets, but the Trinity is a mystery to me. I am drawn to the sacred stories of the Bible, but does what is spiritually true need to be literally true?

I attend church regularly. Nearly every week, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, the proclamation, the confession, and even just the sanctuary space. And here’s where things get pretty complex because I cannot name all the emotions that I might feel in one service—joy, sorrow, confusion, hope, love. I might experience unburdened joy listening to a piece by Bach, Vivaldi, or Holst. Confusion may settle in me for a few minutes as I listen to the confession and then enter into silent meditation, perhaps wondering why I don’t find enough time in my daily life for this stillness. Sorrow and love, even guilt, charged me during the last week’s service, as one elderly member expressed his thanks to the congregation for its help, when he and his wife recently lost their home in a Memorial Day flood. (I say “guilt” because I’d experienced only inconvenience during the flood.) At the benediction, I almost always feel hope, when our minister blesses us.

I’ve taken to heart Kevin Prufer’s advice to include “truths that clash and compete” in our writing and not to avoid the emotional content. Engaging poems are “poems born of complex situations in which no thinking person could help but feel strongly in multiple, conflicting ways,” he writes in “Uneasy Meditations.” I believe him. So I have been working on new poems and revising poems to that end. My musing about my own faith journey has shown me, too, that I live with conflicting emotion and nuanced thinking—something to pursue when I am writing, for truth-telling.

Joseph Brodsky’s Utter Happiness

Rebecca Spears

a meandering intermittent stream courses through a foggy meadow in autumn Poet Joseph Brodsky began spending winters in Venice in 1972, and his holidays there continued for years. In 1989, he published his reflections of those winters in Watermark. In this lyric essay, Brodsky makes a rich physical and metaphysical journey into that city, where he calls up the primordial and the eternal, the fixed and fluid properties of the watery landscape, and the real and impressionistic architecture of the city.

Yet more notably, in this setting Brodsky is smitten with “utter happiness.” Newly exiled from his native Russia in 1972, he had come to live and teach in the United States, his “Purgatorio,” while Venice became “my version of paradise.” For one thing, the watery city reminded him of St. Petersburg, Russia on the Baltic Sea, where he spent his childhood. What’s more, the visual delights of Venice signified Eden to him. On first entering the city at night, Brodsky described entering “infinity,” traveling on a vaporetto over the water’s black surface. The city itself, he wrote, is “a porcelain setting by a crystal water,” where the Spirit of God might move upon the water’s face. Here, he wrote, people want to cover themselves because of all the surrounding beauty, “the marble lace, inlays, capitals, cornices, reliefs, and moldings . . . angels, cherubs, caryatids . . . and windows.”

I think we all have some notion of what is Edenic to us, a place, imagined or real, that brings on feelings of joy or comfort or rest. Like Brodsky, I appreciate both wintry and foggy landscapes—not because they remind me of my childhood, but because I am a creature of the endless Southwestern sun that often obliterates the views with its white glare. And like Brodsky, I “take heat very poorly.” No wonder I often find woods and forests, mountains and hills divine, especially in the summers. Yet even when I must summer in the boiler that is Houston, the softened panorama of clouded days and the obscurity of fogged mornings can remind me of God’s garden, however briefly.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker discuss early Christian concepts of paradise in their book Saving Paradise and especially in the article, “This Present Paradise.” The authors write, “In the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. Early images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies and teeming water of the Mediterranean world as if they were lit by a power from within.” This world, they say, was “a world created as good and delightful.” God was present in it, for in early Christian images, a ladder often appears, where not only people could ascend to heaven, but God could come down to earth.

In Watermark, Joseph Brodsky delights in the “present paradise” he finds in Venice; and I am easily pulled into in his enchantment with it. When I read Watermark, I understand the poet’s sentiments, his overarching love of place, the watercolor of Venice. Wandering in Brodsky’s descriptions, I think of my own moments of heaven on earth. In such moments, peace, utter happiness.

The Wilderness of the Unexpected

Rebecca Spears

26 hiking trail One summer day in Cuchara, Colorado, hiking on a mountain, my family and I found we had diverged from the trail, not far, but the particular path wasn’t well marked. And some storm clouds had appeared farther up the slopes. Because our kids were quite young then and hard to corral up the mountain, we usually began our hikes in early morning and completed them by noon, to avoid too much grumpiness or mad hunger or sudden storms and lightning. On this day, the clouds had gathered earlier than expected. Should we keep going up, or begin our descent?

In a couple of minutes, we had relocated the trail, with the help of a few signposts, which I later learned are called “reassurance markers.” In “Trail Signing,” the National Forest Service remarks, “To keep travelers on course, use reassurance markers at all intersections and locations where the trail could be uncertain,” to “reassure travelers.” The text also explains the materials, sizes, heights, and locations for all kinds of trail signs. And because of the Forest Service’s work, we could hardly get lost in the wilderness today. This is how I and many others, I suspect, experience the wilderness in relative safety these days.

Wilderness, in symbolic terms, is often portrayed by forests and deserts. We have the thick, mysterious forest in The Scarlet Letter and the jungle in Heart of Darkness. In our sacred stories, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years before they entered the Promised Land. Later, Jesus spent forty days in the desert, wrestling with evil. In these texts, wilderness symbolizes a place where danger and chaos reside. In the wild, people and characters are cut loose, facing the unfamiliar without a reliable guide, unable to read the signs. On the flip side, wilderness can bring about transformation, where the unfamiliar produces new ideas and revelation. Humans can be nourished and discover new strengths, by leaving the familiar for a time and facing a strange, unpeopled landscape.

In my own life, I have come to see unexpected situations as a type of wilderness, because I must grapple with conflicting ideas and emotions before I know how to move forward. When faced with my aging mother’s dementia, I have felt bewildered over and over, as her condition has progressed—from having her in her home with caretakers, to eventually moving her into a facility where she receives round-the-clock care. Moreover, I knew nothing at first about how to navigate the system of medical and social services to help my mother. I was nearly unmoored by the situation until my sister-in-law, who is a medical social worker, stepped in to guide the family in obtaining the right services for my mother. One aspect of this wilderness is the length of time I have wandered in it—this is the sixteenth year of my mother’s demise. Another facet is the unfamiliar and distressing condition of having a relationship with a woman who no longer knows that she is my mother.

On our morning hike in Colorado that summer when a sudden storm surprised us, we made the decision to turn back. We did get caught in a rainstorm halfway down the trail, but we had reached a place where we could shelter safely. In that case, I felt some exhilaration in finding refuge and waiting out the storm. Yet in the wilderness before me now, in dealing with my mother’s condition, I confess that chaos and unfamiliarity still form the larger part of the landscape. That I roam here in companionship with my family, the health care team, supportive friends, and yes, even with my mother, is no small part of the experience. At times, there’s a definite direction we take; other times we rely on one another for reassurance.


Rebecca Spears

26 boxes Donald Judd’s one-hundred large aluminum boxes live inside an old army building, under the auspices of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, miles from nowhere. On first seeing row upon row of Judd’s boxes, I had to ask myself, what’s the point? How did we get here—the hot, unending desert, another world not my own, all these boxes.

My daughter Claire, who had just graduated from high school, requested this trip sometime in late winter as my gift to her. We had planned the trip for late May—before she shattered her ankle, trying to jump across a concrete culvert, chasing her boyfriend’s dog. After a surgery to pin and cast her ankle, she had hobbled across the stadium field of her small high school to receive her diploma. I was amazed that she still wanted to explore the desert areas of southwest Texas after the accident, but she did. We packed up and headed for Fort Davis and Marfa one hot day after Memorial Day.

So there we were, Claire in pain, leaning on crutches, willingly looking at the boxes, and me, worrying about her. The scene is so absurd, ironic—here we are, in the hot, godforsaken desert, inside an old, slightly remodeled World War II prisoner-of-war barracks, with warnings like Verboten! and Gefahr! still stenciled on the walls. And sidestepping the question of art for a moment, I looked from one end of the room to the other, beginning to think about how the artist put the boxes together. What processes did he use? What tools did he need?—just as I had wondered, after Claire’s accident, how the surgeons would fix her ankle. I had asked the doctors questions about what they would do, the steps they would take, what to expect after the surgery, how long it would take for Claire’s ankle to heal. For a long time, in the waiting room, I looked out the full-length front windows, imagining the surgery, imagining afterwards and the bones beginning to knit themselves back together, becoming integral and whole.

Inside Judd’s desert army barracks, full-length glass panes have replaced the long side walls. The large, cool boxes look out and reflect the high desert plains, the distant lost mountains. Throughout the day, the boxes’ reflect the landscape as the light changes. The variations would be most notable at sunrise and sunset. Yet in the brief time we were at the installation, I noticed the changing reflections as several high clouds briefly covered the sun. Then I saw. I saw. The boxes were no longer boxes but cubic mirrors, fluid canvases. The art—oh, this was the art of it—was grounded in the stark scenery and in the daily cycles of sun and moon and weather. The brief changes we saw had a marvelous effect on us; we were attentive to the present, in the rhythm of the earth’s turning. Claire’s face transformed, as if there was no pain for her at that moment, any nagging thoughts I’d had about the “rightness” of this trip dissolved, all was right with the world. Even now, several years after we made that trip, the moment endures. It lives with me. It remains perfect, eternal, abiding.

Mary Szybist and Kevin Young: A Dialectic

Rebecca Spears

SONY DSC In late February, on a dreary night, I attended a poetry reading, featuring Mary Szybist and Kevin Young, an unlikely pair. It would have been easier to stay home. After all, it was midweek, pitch-black outside, and wet cold. Yet life’s promise is nothing if not contradictory, for this reading at Wortham Center in downtown Houston provided inspiration enough to carry me, and I daresay many in the audience, out of winter and into spring. Szybist read from Incarnadine, many of its poems focused on the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. Young’s poetry, from his Book of Hours, reveled in the birth of a son and grieved for the loss of a father. Heaven and earth.

In “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” Syzbist leans into the Virgin Mary’s troubling acquiescence to the news the angel Gabriel has given her: “I am looking at the postcard of Anunciación . . . I taped it to the refrigerator next to the grocery list because I wanted to think of you, and because I liked its promise: a world where a girl has only to say yes and heaven opens.” She follows later with, “All I see is a girl being crushed inside a halo that does not save her.” The speaker’s antithetical views are wrapped up in the longing for divine possibilities and the reality of Mary giving over her life, to serve only as a virgin vessel for God’s business. Szybist’s voice is low and calm, but the reading is electrifying.

Follow this with Kevin Young on stage, his voice rich and full, his presence imposing, impressive. He reads “Crowning,” about his wife giving birth to their son:

                       And I saw you storming forth, taproot, your cap of hair half in, half out, and wait, hold it there, the doctors say, and . . . [my wife’s] face full of fire, then groaning your face out like a flower, blood-bloom, crocussed into air.

This is real, this is visceral. On the surface, it is at variance with Szybist’s poetics, and yet Young’s work is every bit as galvanizing, and as devotional, as Syzbist’s. The wife’s face “full of fire” and the emergence of the son, his face a “blood-bloom,” portrays the reality of birth, even while Young also shows us a speaker awestruck by the moment of birth.

Whatever brought these two poets together that night (maybe it was just a happy accident), their readings and remarks made for an evening of contrasts and incongruities. That life in general is often a mess of contradictions, Young and Szybist demonstrated this in their poems, making startling connections. For several weeks after, my friends and I talked about what we had heard. What a difference they made one bleak night in a winter that had gone on too long.

Wendell Berry and the Prophetic Voice

Rebecca Spears

26 Farmer

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.  “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

 One thing I am passionate about is reducing my carbon footprint in the world, and I want not only other individuals to reduce their footprints, but I also want our society to change its course before we irreparably harm the earth. Many voices are urging us to do so. One voice in particular belongs to Wendell Berry, whom Bill McKibben and others have called a prophet. In a 2013 interview, Bill Moyers named Berry a visionary, who is “calling for immediate action to end industrial farming and return to the sustainable farming methods of years past.” But more than this, Berry audaciously tells us we need to return to an agrarian society, not only for environmental reasons, but also for social, moral, and spiritual reasons. I am with him on this.

Historically, we don’t treat our prophets well, especially the ones we don’t want to hear. Yet sometimes with all the bickering that goes on in the public sphere, it’s a monumental task to figure out whom we should trust in the first place. Even among the ancients, prophets’ words often went unheeded and the people suffered for it. It’s a bad habit we have.

When we hear prophet, the first thing most of us imagine is someone divinely inspired, who reveals God’s intentions to the people. We’re stuck on that definition, and we’re afraid to call anyone else a prophet because the bar appears too high. Often we don’t designate a person “prophetic” until after a great calamity—then we realize we should have listened to the prophet, and we should have taken action. Remember the individuals who tried to show us that we were headed toward the 9/11 tragedy or toward the recent collapse of our financial institutions? We didn’t recognize these voices until after the fact. Could we think of prophet in another way, as a person with extraordinary insight, an inspired person? Would we be more apt to listen to a prophet then, or more willing to act?

Early prophets of environmental stewardship, including Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, tried to tell us about the cost of industrial, quick-fix solutions to our problems. Wendell Berry, I think, speaks with the clearest voice today of one who understands not only the physical, but the spiritual cost of earth’s demise. He has said that it is important for people like him, “who have no power,” to speak about the madness of our industrial lifestyles because most politicians and highly positioned officials cannot and will not speak so plainly. He calls his way “leadership from the bottom,” and he is passionate that all of us start doing what is right for our earth: “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?” Quite simply, if we see a problem, we need to start doing something about it. That is all Berry asks of us, in the same way that other prophets have asked us to change our ways.

Chance Encounters and the Whole Story

Rebecca Spears

B6-A1m0CYAA67YS.jpg-large Given the disparate events in our world, we make stories of our lives bit by bit. This process we engage in can give us a unified field, a wholeness shaped from chaos. Some bits of our stories are easy to fit into the unified field—making a friend, getting a raise at work, hiking on a cool, sunny day. But I’ve been thinking about chance events, how they fit into a life, and how they can influence us in ways we never expected.

San Francisco-based reporter Marco della Cava recalls such a moment last August when the news broke of comedian Robin Williams’ death. While Della Cava felt terribly, he says his “sunken state was quickly buoyed” by memories of a chance encounter, an unexpected lunch he shared with Williams several years prior.

Della Cava had ordered a meal at an eatery in Mill Valley, California, and then quickly found an outdoor table in the sun. “Without looking at the stocky man in sunglasses, I asked if it was OK to share the table. ‘Be my guest,’ said Williams in his impossibly soft off-duty voice. I did my best not to do a double-take.” The two ate in silence, until a woman approached the actor to say that his movie The Fisher King had changed her life. After she left, Della Cava said to Williams, “It must be wonderful to know that work you have done can affect that people that way.” Williams replied, “It’s truly an amazing thing.” And a memorable conversation began, which ranged from the quality of Italian bicycles to the new Argentinian pope to Williams’ impromptu imitation of Brazilian samba-dancing nuns. A half-hour later, Williams offered, “Hey, thanks for the nice lunch.” Della Cava’s reminiscence ends with thanks to Williams for the work he has left to us, to the world.

The reporter’s story reminded me of a chance meeting with the writer Lucy Grealy, the summer before she died. In June 2002, Lucy was a faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where I was a student in poetry. Late one afternoon, a fellow student and I gave her a ride into North Bennington where her car was being repaired. We talked a bit, mostly niceties; then we dropped her at the repair shop. Of course, if we’d known that those two weeks at Bennington would be the last we’d see of Lucy, our conversation might have taken a turn from the mundane to something more substantial. Yet we weren’t confidantes, and I was oblivious to the addictions that would take her life.

That afternoon in Bennington, however, shows us to be fellow travelers whose lives intersected unexpectedly. This scene lay dormant in my psyche until the numbing news of Lucy’s death came via email from Bennington in December 2002. That chance encounter, and her early death, caused me to look again at Grealy’s work. After having beaten a rare cancer, Lucy had, of course, considered how to make meaning of unexpected events. She wrote in her essay “My God” that often enough, important moments become so only in retrospect, that we are slow to recognize meaning in our lives. She explained that “if you’ve denied every ‘now’ moment in your life, you are still moving forward toward that final inevitable moment,” when you must see meaning in your life.

In retrospect, I needed to know Lucy’s story and her perspectives. While I was finishing up my MFA that summer, I was also going through one of the darkest times of my life—from a drawn-out divorce after a long marriage to the deaths of my father and my brother. To be truthful, I saw very little meaning in my life that afternoon in North Bennington. Only several years later could I consider Lucy’s assertion in “My God” that we must see meaning in our lives. By then, I had taught a number of workshops on the power of narrative, and helped others to tell their stories. It was time to make sense of my own story. Thank you, Lucy.

Twenty Little Poems

Rebecca Spears

Old books “It is that incidental, almost accidental, encounter with memorable beauty or knowledge—that news that comes from poetry—that enables us, as the poem by William Stafford says, ‘to think hard for us all.’" — Tony Hoagland, “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

A friend sent me a link to Tony Hoagland’s article, “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America.” I am a poet and an instructor, so I should read this, right? The grand title gives me pause, but the case that Hoagland makes for his canon of twenty poems is astute. I have been trying over the years to inculcate in my students not only the pleasures of poetry, especially contemporary poetry, but also the necessity of poetry.

The word “save” is always intriguing. Often I use the “save” function on my computer to hold onto an article I’ve been reading or to keep my written work safe. Sometimes I will save something in the Cloud. I think about saving grace and salvation sometimes. Hoagland is suggesting a kind of salvation that comes from reading poetry, a national salvation no less. And he may be onto something. I have often thought that poetry has a saving power, a way to put us in touch with the magnificent and the miniscule. To read a poem well, we have to slow down and look closely. The close looking that poetry requires is akin to meditation, which is not exactly what Hoagland is advocating, but close looking often translates to thoughtful actions in life.

To acquaint students with poetry, Hoagland suggests using living, well-wrought contemporary poetry in the classroom, and working our way back to the classics. This is, in fact, how I approach poetry with my students. It makes so much sense to work our way backwards in literature, because language becomes less familiar the further back in time we go. But to return to the theme of salvation: Hoagland calls poetry “our common treasure-house” and explains:

"We need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling . . . . We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its preview of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak."

If we all subscribe to Hoagland’s argument, then we can collectively save ourselves culturally through a common currency of poetry. So Hoagland also offers up several ways to read poetry and acquire a common language. These categories are especially helpful to me, an instructor who likes to organize curriculum thematically. Hoagland’s topics range from poetry that teaches the ethical nature of choice or respects solitude and self-discovery to poetry that stimulates daring, rehabilitates language, and acknowledges trouble ahead. If as a culture, we had more poetry in common among us, language to help us appreciate the beauty and trouble of everyday living, we might also be shored up collectively, and eventually feel closer to that great shalom we often wish for among ourselves.