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Filtering by Category: General Curiosities

Shrouded In Myth

Callie Feyen

golden-rain“Stick to the daily learning targets. Do not get off track.” This is one of my administrators, the one that meets with me once a week to go over my lesson plans. Daily Learning Targets are like Bible Memory Work: we are to write these words on our hearts and minds. Do not stray from these words. And it’s not that I stray, but if I were to claim a characteristic of my teaching it’s that when I begin to study and discuss a story, I tend to walk my students down a path that we didn’t know we were going to walk down. Mayella Ewell’s geraniums, for example. The grace in Mercutio. Voldemort’s broken heart. All of these are bulls’ eyes; I just didn’t know I was shooting in their direction at the time.

Today, my “DLT” is to get my sixth graders to cite evidence from the text we are reading when answering questions I give them. We are reading a short essay titled “Shrouded in Myth.” It’s a piece to introduce the students to mythology because we are going to read one of the Percy Jackson books. On their copy of the essay, I have my students write the definitions down for “cite,” “evidence,” and “shrouded.” Shrouded is my favorite: to be cloaked or covered in mystery. Shrouded is how I feel standing here in Detroit. Shrouded is how I feel walking around Ann Arbor. The cloak is heavy; the cover thick.

“Why was Zeus so drawn to Danae? How did Zeus get to her?” My students are supposed to find this answer in the essay. “All you have to do is highlight the words in the text that answer the question,” I tell them. They pop off their highlighter caps, happy to use something besides a pencil.

“She was stunning!” one exclaims brushing the text with her highlighter. “He turned himself into gold rain? What?” another one says.

“Yeah! And then she gets pregnant!”

“That’s stupid. Everybody knows you can’t get pregnant when it rains.”

“It was gold rain, though.”

I fight everything I have within me that wants to say, “So ladies, when it rains gold, stay inside.”

“So,” one student begins, leaning back in his chair, “Zeus gets Danae pregnant, and then what?”

“Don’t sit like that,” I say. Safety first. Then, “what do you mean?”

“I mean, where’s Zeus in the rest of this story?”

Sure enough, he isn’t mentioned in the rest of the six-paragraph essay we are annotating. He gets Danae pregnant and then the next thing we know Perseus is slaying Medusa.

“Ain’t that just like a baby daddy?” one student says, and the entire class hoots and mmmm hmmmms.

“Always leaving,” another one mumbles.

On page one of The Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson book we will begin tomorrow, Percy gives a warning: “If you recognize yourself in these pages—if you feel something stirring inside—stop reading immediately.”

I wonder if this will become a Daily Learning Target: “I can recognize myself in a story.” “I feel something stirring inside when I read.” Probably not. You can’t measure this.  Keep the mystery veiled. Walk in the golden rain while your stomach stirs and churns with charades you’ll never understand.

The Toil of the Porter

Aaron Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If It Is a Good Morning

Chrysta Brown

dawnThe sun is snuggled still sleeping behind the mountains. He pulls their snowy peaks over his head and indulges in another hour of sleep. Not me, though. I’m awake. I’m out in public. I am caffeinated and somewhat functional. I am not necessarily in a bad mood. It's just a morning one. I am working the opening shift at the cafe. The sky is still dark.

“Why?” a customer asks when I tell her what time I have to leave my apartment, 4:00 AM. “That’s ridiculous,” she says and orders a sugar-free, nonfat, vanilla latte. With whip.

But before that, before the customers, the questions, and the sunrise, I clock in, turn on the lights, the coffee maker, and the espresso machine. The espresso machine yawns out streams of room temperature and then hot water. Two espresso shots pour directly into the sink, and the machine spits out more water to wash away all evidence. Now it is awake and ready to work. Well, good. At least one of us is.

Who told you that you have to write in the morning?

Well, there is Julia Cameron and her morning pages. Somewhere along the line, there was a Christian artist that equated the first hours of the morning with the first fruits of the harvest. The writer of Ecclesiastes spoke of new mercies that come with the morning, and someone convinced me that mercies should be used immediately after arrival. There is also the serpent. I drank the kool-aid that I was told to avoid.

I don’t have a problem writing three pages or setting aside time for writing. My problem is the morning itself. Despite the demands of my profession, I am not a morning person. I despise them. I am like the sun, best and brightest at around 1:00 in the afternoon. Dancers are taught not to read too much of the first dress rehearsal because it will be bad. Writers are told not to judge the first draft. Baristas throw out the first espresso shot. Why, then, do we demand so much from the first hours of the day?

Yes, there are people who thrive in the mornings. As a writer friend of mine once said, “Good for those people. Jesus loves them.”  But I have to wonder if we get so caught up with the Biblical authors’ praise for the morning, that we forget the stories about God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, or the one about Jesus asking his friends to stay awake a little longer. There is room for them in the Bible. Shouldn’t there also be room for them in our workshops and libraries, or is creativity limited to when and not if it is done at all?

At the literal and figurative end of the day, there are few things like falling into the arms of a good, firm (or even a mediocre and squishy) mattress and feeling the days work drain from your spine. This a gift that, in my mind, is far superior to the first few notes of my alarm clock that stab me awake well before dawn. When it comes, shades of orange and pale pinks stretch and shift across the sky. The sun takes it time rising, and the sky is still dark, but give it a moment. Light always comes later in the day.

Falling Through Words

Tom Sturch


Either do your homework or you're grounded.      —Mom

If she had written it down it would have included the close, “Love, Mom.” Not that she'd have had to. The love of my mother was and is implicit. But being careful with words allows passion to enjoy reason, care to invoke care. The complementary economy of actions and words are how we are human.I just finished watching Season 1 of Mr. Robot. (Andy Greenwald's S1 review here.) There's adult content and it's not for kids, nor for adolescents without a lot of following discussion. In Mr. Robot's world, words can mean anything. They are a means of exploitation. Avoiding conversations and relationships is a means of survival. So Mr. Robot's world operates on the assumption that the only trusted language is computer code. Binary code. Where specific actions are the result of precisely arranged words with singular meaning.

Mr. Robot's world is Marshall McLuhan's “global village” in shards. It is the world of philosopher Jean Beaudrillard in which society has accepted fatalistic economic slavery through veneers of corporately-mediated normalcy. It is post-human and post-urban. It is a post-apocalyptic world in which the apocalypse has come silently. Life is fabricated and virtual. It is medicated, isolated and schizoid. And it is celebrated.

* * * * *

Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.     —Jean Baudrillard

* * * * *

In the beginning when God speaks light in Genesis we see there is no space between what he says and what he does. God's word-act is one thing. But it is mediated through his being, which is love, and in this way it is triune and highly faceted with relational meaning. It is  multiplicitous in its work of creation. In Mr. Robot, the space between word and action is rendered with such certainty there is no space for translation. No space for transformation. There is only transaction. It makes the world by extraction and destruction. Light is relegated to wires. The mediation of the knower is superfluous. Every act is a yes or a no. A one or a zero.

Elliot, the protagonist (Rami Malek) is part Everyman, part Superhero, with a foot in two illusory worlds. Elliot is a debugger by day and a hacker by night. Matrix fans will not miss the reference. Like Neo, he speaks the bug well. He has affections, but they are given to fixing lives around him, not loving. He's armed with godlike access to information and cannot resist using it in the balance of justice. But he knows too much. He lives suspended on the fault line and struggles with which world to live in. And neither world is Zion. I root for Elliot just to let go.

* * * * *

Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory.     —Jean Baudrillard

* * * * *

Genesis 1 is liturgical poetry. It is an ancient way of ordering words and meanings within dynamic and generative relationships. It was probably read regularly in worship gatherings so the people would remember how to keep knowing God as Lord. Genesis 2 and 3 is God's garden play in which the knowers abandon relationships to hack the boundaries of knowledge. At the end of the play God slays an animal to cover what they've become. It precedes what theologians call the Protoevangelium (literally, first gospel). There's hope. But it will have to be teased out of a barren, scorched, and littered land. It will be life as situated in the shadow of death.   Here we find ourselves. The blood of Christ re-mediates our humanity to its Lord and Garden while we do the creative work of remembering who we are. Light breaks out, and in. The downside is the grief of falling from a world that is cratering above a real and suffering one. But if we're lucky, we'll get grounded. If we're smart, we'll do our home work.

Why Leisure Matters - Part 2 of 2

Joy and Matthew Steem

canoeing-1081890_1920Read Part 1

For Josef Pieper, leisure is certainly connected to the older Platonic and Aristotelian concept of leisure as contemplation; however, it’s more than just that. For him, in the classical sense, leisure was something tied to the liberal arts: human activities that are separate from the servile works (those works that have a utilitarian purpose) and which have an end beyond themselves—a practicable, utilitarian result.

But leisure is not merely contemplation. Pieper calls it "a mental and spiritual attitude" and "a condition of the soul” that goes against the "exclusive ideal of work as activity.” Instead, this attitude is one “of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being busy but letting things happen."

It is possible that some may read Pieper’s views and wonder if he considers work ethic alone as a bit … shallow. Is he saying that leisure ameliorates a working life?

No indeed. Yes, Pieper believes leisure can restore a person’s mental, physical, and even psychical state, but its impact is far greater than that. He goes so far as to call leisure “the power of stepping beyond the workaday world, and in so doing touching upon the superhuman life-giving powers which, incidentally almost, renew and quicken us for our everyday tasks.” He sees leisure as a means to opening the “gate to freedom,” where one can escape the world “where work and unemployment are the two inescapable poles of existence.’”

Many times we do not attain leisure precisely because we haven't a clue about the function of work and what humans are actually placed on earth for. It is a confusion related to issues such as materialism and consumerism.

When another excellent author, Sebastian de Grazia, was asked what his book Of Time, Work, and Leisure was about, he said his questioners laughingly had responses such as: “when you find out where to get it, let me know, because I desperately want some.”

To read Pieper is to rediscover “the point and the justification of leisure.” It is ultimately a pursuit of wholeness.

To be human is to be whole; and work alone will never make us whole. Work is but a part of our life: it contributes to our needs. However, it is never an end. Pieper tells us that if we feel that we must always be working, it may

be ultimately due to the inner impoverishment of [that] individual: in this context everyone whose life is completely filled by his work ... has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that [he] can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing.

This last part “and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing,” seems to speak to many of our culture, no? How tragic. Thomas Merton, who loved silence for its stilling and centering effect, spoke against the seeming need of our society to dull our real human desire to be whole. He saw noise as an opiate.

We want noise because we are not comfortableyet we know something is amiss. You will probably recall that Pascal spoke of this a long while back: “All human unhappiness comes from not knowing how to stay quietly in a room.” Pieper speaks to the silence issue as well. He tells us “leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.”

And so back to the initial assertion about work being divine, and to repudiate it is to commit suicide. This is partly true. We are to take value in work. But this is not the ultimate conclusion of our life. We are to live, and to know why we live requires leisure.

Why Leisure Matters - Part 1 of 2

Joy and Matthew Steem

Peasants harvesting crops, by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, 17th century

Work is divine. God is revealed as the great worker and it is through work that men become like God. It is through work that man finds his life and his life is measured by his work ... to run away from work is to run away from life. To repudiate work is to commit suicide.    —Gus Dyer, columnist in the 1930s

Many times the happy benefit of belonging to a certain nationality is that one can riotously criticize it, where otherwise it would be sacrosanct—and worse, politically incorrect! Anyway, coming from a rural German Protestant family I know a thing or two about a work ethic. Cleanliness might be next to Godliness, but work is even holier than soap. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right”? Ever since being young enough to remember, a pristinely praiseworthy comment was, “oh my, but that person is a good worker.” And when that worker was me it was enough to motivate the righteous action of “putting one’s back into it” even more.

Oh yes, you could know a person by their fruits. In fact, chances were that if those fruits reeked of sweat and toil—Jesus was totally happy too. After all, you will remember scripture commanding, “do it as unto the Lord” (i.e. the Lord wants your all) and do it with all your strength (with that I would ask myself, “would Jesus be ok with just an 8 hour workday?”). If doing for God and with all your strength wasn't enough, the proviso was added, “do it without grumbling and complaining too” (you wanna argue with Jesus?!! Now get back to work, slob! ... after all Jesus went to the cross for you).

God bless my grandmother, but even when it comes to potential relationships, work ethic is one of the first questions asked. “Is this person a good worker”?

Thanks grandma.

And so I was stilled for a moment when I read “have leisure and know that I am God” in Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture (which has an excellent introduction by T.S. Eliot, by the way).

The search engine in my mind came up with nothing like that in the scripture I had read. I had never heard that verse before. (This will show my lack of Catholic bible tradition.) Trusting Pieper’s credentials, I went on to one of the most contrary ideas I had come across in my German upbringing, and it was written by a German none-the-less! Stupendous.

So what of grandma’s high valuation of a good work ethic? Well of course a good worker is something to be valued. If you have read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism you will have read that capitalism itself has been greatly shaped by it. (It should be noted here that good ol’ Weber was prone to cherry picking quotes—a horrid thing—and his thesis actually shouldn’t be taken quite as serious as it is, considering proper historiographical methodology.)

Pieper is not against work itself—in fact, he says that you can't have leisure without it! —however, he asserts, since God’s creation is good, our enjoyment is of the utmost to God. And of course enjoyment is not merely efficiency or production. It can include that, but those things in themselves aren’t ends. Ultimately, it is ends with which Pieper is interested.

Enter leisure.

To be continued tomorrow.

The Piano and the Wren

Tom Sturch

ThePianoandtheWren The wren is a big song packed into a tiny brown dart of a body with an inquisitive personality. Looking, it hops and tilts its head in that stop-action way. And it instinctively sings what is beautiful within their prodigious range of sound. One interrupted a rest between notes in a bar of music I was playing. I got up immediately, forgetting my music, and moved to the window hoping for a glimpse.

The experience is always astounding. He was picking up after the night visitors. Morning and afternoon my cat and I feed the squirrels peanuts in the shell. We watch them haunch in the lawn chairs, peel and eat and scan for threat. And jays are never far, swooping as they do from nowhere. Pairs of cardinals, ground feeders, flit in as well. The hawk is in the distant wetland. After sunset my wife puts out a heap for the family of possums that frequent. And by morning the remaining crumbs are just the size for titmice and wrens.

I might say more about the passerine wren, its syrinx throat, its more than thirty phrase patterns. That it mates for life. How we transcribe their vocal variations into a Jabberwocky vernacular of whee-udel, whee-udel, che-wortel, che-wortel, or the romantic come to me, come to me. But that would miss the interruption, the irruption of the bird into ordinary days as the gift of a taste of answered longing.

Today I am dusting and noticed I left the piano on. It's an electric piano. It has presets I can push to play pre-recorded music, but I never do, even though my playing is elementary and poor by comparison. I remember the wren and why the piano is on. It occurs to me I should revise the word “instinctively” I used above, in case it carries a residue of accident or gracelessness. In case it bears a lack of will. That the bird in that moment could ever be unresponsive to the realized phenomena that is the world it sings in and how the world is there because of it.

Is this too abstract? I should not make it less so. Go play your instrument. Love your poverty. Greet what breaks in to sing.

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.

Ice Cream Poems

Jayne English

pjimage It’s summer, the sky’s a hazy blue and the clouds are piling up like ice cream scoops in a bowl. All motion rendered lazy by the humidity allows my mind to wander. I wonder how many poems there are about ice cream. I know one by Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” But I stop my languid search as soon as I find Charles Bukowski’s “The Icecream People.” Thinking about the differences between the lives and writing styles of these two poets is as delicious as sampling dulche de leche ice cream and rocky road.

At first, I didn’t see similarities, except that they cohabited the same blue Earth for about 35 years. Wallace was a Modernist poet, breaking with the pre-modern forms of rhyme and the usual subjects of nature and religion to explore ideas about reality being a confluence of imagination and perception. He writes in elegant language with a well-varied vocabulary. Bukowski is also a modern writer who carved a new niche for himself sometimes called “dirty realism.” His poems, short stories, and novels chase a hard, fast line of drinking and women and running riot.

The two poets’ upbringings were very different. Stevens was from a wealthy family and benefitted from his father’s guidance regarding his education and career. Bukowski, who emigrated as a child from Germany to the U.S., was from a poor family. Bukowski’s father’s guidance came on the end of a leather strap that he used to consistently beat him.

Stevens’ education led through Harvard and then New York Law School. He eventually became an insurance executive with The Hartford, and lived a comfortable lifestyle in Connecticut. Bukowski dropped out of Los Angeles City College after two years, and moved to New York to begin a career as a writer. After receiving more rejections than his psyche could tolerate, Bukowski took off across the country on a ten year bender that nearly killed him. Once back in Los Angeles, he began to write again, and began to be published, at first by small publications.

Their book titles alone are interesting contrasts, and give us a vision of at least some of their personality layers. Stevens used elegant titles: Harmonium; Ideas of Order; The Auroras of Autumn. Bukowski’s titles took a different slant: Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail; Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window; and Love is a Dog from Hell.

Their language and imagery is wildly different. In the two ice cream poems alone, we come across words and phrases like these in Bukowski: pecker, leper, “nary a potential suicide,” jails, hangovers. In Stevens’ poem we see: concupiscent, “let be be the finale of seem,” “embroidered fantails,” “lamp affix its beam.” Stevens’ thoughts are more abstract, and he dresses them up. As Robert Frost complained, “it purports to make me think.” Bukowski’s ideas are clear, as John William Corrington says, his poetic world is one “in which meditation and analysis have little part.” Bukowski doesn’t dress up his ideas, he strips them naked.

Once his poems are naked, Bukowski speaks of a quasi virility, for example, like this in “The Icecream People”:

the lady has me temporarily off the bottle and now the pecker stands up better.

While Stevens expresses the loss of the same in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” like this:

We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed, The laughing sky will see the two of us Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.

While their lifestyles and writing styles are polar opposites, the two men have commonalities. One is a vulnerability to pain. We’ve already seen how Bukowski spent formative years beaten by his father. He said this experience benefitted his writing because through it “he came to understand undeserved pain.” Once on his own, Bukowski lived life running across broken glass—chasing women, gambling, and drinking excessively. Stevens had his miseries too. He married his wife, Elsie, against his father’s wishes. When no one in the family attended his wedding, he never saw or spoke with his father again. In later years, Elsie became mentally ill, showing signs of paranoia about neighbors and the couple’s daughter’s childhood friends. In a review, Helen Vendler calls Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” his saddest poem, “in which a man realizes that he must make something of a permanently wintry world of ice, snow, evergreens and wind, attempting to see ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’”

Perhaps it was his sorrow over Elsie that led him into confrontations we’d expect more from Bukowski. Stevens argued on two separate occasions in Key West with Robert Frost (they had strong feelings about their own ideas of poetry), and said things he shouldn’t have said about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway afterwards started a fist fight over it and Stevens returned home to Connecticut with a puffy eye and broken hand.

Stevens and Bukowski, despite their differences, had another important characteristic in common. They had to write. As one Stevens biography puts it, he saw poetry as “the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality.” His poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” puts it this way:

This endlessly elaborating poem Displays the theory of poetry, As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

Bukowski talked about the need to write poetry this way:

unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don't do it.

Considering the differences and (maybe) surprising similarities between these two poets, which flavor would refresh your summer day?

Glorious Potentiality

Aaron Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Howard Schaap

marsh-wren-bird-brings-food-to-the-nest-cistothorus-palustris-680x544 (1)A friend of mine who wants to put baseboards in his house was told what it takes to do good baseboard work: a thousand cuts. I can’t tell if that’s a type of hope, as even the best get to be the best through tedium not talent, or a type of torture, viz., death by a thousand maddening cuts.

I’ve spent this summer trying to make things:  I made a duck cage; I helped a friend put up a garage; I vinyl tiled a room checker board; I hung cabinet lights in wall recesses; I made a cardboard Pac-Man for the town parade. It’s been a summer of measuring and figuring and cutting.

And it’s fixing to drive me mad.

It’s all the precision: miss your mark, cut long or short, and the piece won’t look right at best and may throw off the entire structure at worst.

A great aunt of mine once engaged an essay I had written for a school publication first by applauding the effort and then by taking issue with a word I had used: epiphany. “I would have used a slightly different word,” she said, “something more precise.”  She wasn’t wrong. As a young writer I was tempted to fling words as opposed to measure them.

I still am.

In all sorts of ways, we take measure of the world with the words we use. We frame it or misframe it, in precise and sound ways or vague and off-kilter ones; with thin beautiful lines or smudged or gaudy ones.

“Persimmons,” by Li-Young Lee begins with the confusion of language.

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker slapped the back of my head and made me stand in the corner for not knowing the difference between persimmon and precision.

Among other things, “Persimmons” is about language and how it frames our existence, how words get tied into experiences, how they might remain distant or be shared intimately.

Other words that got me into trouble were fight and fright, wren and yarn. Fight was what I did when I was frightened, Fright was what I felt when I was fighting. Wrens are small, plain birds, yarn is what one knits with. Wrens are soft as yarn. My mother made birds out of yarn. I loved to watch her tie the stuff; a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

By the end of the poem, Lee leaves “precision” behind in favor of “persimmons,” because writing is not like laying pipe or building a structure that we think will last forever if only it’s precise. Words open up possibility and imagination. “Persimmons” begins with the precision of language but it ends with art, with a father’s painting of persimmons, and his deep knowledge and associations with the word.

Some things never leave a person: scent of the hair of one you love, the texture of persimmons, in your palm, the ripe weight.

Poetry is the possibility through precision. Or beyond it.

Both ways, it’s a labor of a thousand cuts.

These Marvelous, Speaking Bodies

Brad Fruhauff

people-690953_960_720These bodies, how they speak. How they signify, the mouth still. How their poise and rhythm scores a city sidewalk, their movements trace meanings on the moist air that separates us.

In high school my speech teacher stood before us in his green sweater vest and red knit bow tie and said, “You are never not communicating. Even the attempt to not communicate tells us something about your mind, your mood, your personality.”

My willful spirit revolted, my puzzler brain set to work on this conundrum, but it was insoluble. A hermit in the remote Amazon under a vow of silence has already told us what matters most to him.

Today I pulled my son behind my bike in a trailer, my oldest son riding his bright orange Schwinn several lengths behind us. Holding my arm so, I signal to all around me that we are turning right. Holding my arm so, we are turning left. I point, my son tightens his line along the right side of the street, or against the endless stacks of parked cars. I hold my palm out and point it down; we both slow to a stop.

Even on quiet streets, my senses busy themselves recording and analyzing the world around me. The breeze, faint but essential. The patches of shade cast by oak and maple trees. The grey fist of cloud that must be spitting these few drops of rain. The dog-walker on the sidewalk. The SUV up ahead with its blinkers on. The pickup truck that just turned onto the street behind us. It’s a leisurely, pleasant ride, but it remains my job to keep these boys safe, to preserve the patina of recreation, security. Things work out. We’re always okay. The world is safe and wonderful.

I cross streets slowly, standing on my pedals to make myself tall and obvious, while my son scurries across beside me. The cars notice my peculiar behavior, my odd performance. They consider, they look about, they see the child with me, and they wait for us.

Sometimes the boy lags, so I coast to the middle of the road and wave for him to come along. I can see the drivers turn their heads to seek the addressee of this gesture. My little performance instantiates a homely family drama, invites them in. They look, they see. A dad and his kids out for a ride. Perhaps not unlike they used to do. Perhaps not unlike they will do later today. We all pass safely.

If you showed us a statistic about how much of our social fabric depends on unspoken assumptions, nonverbal gestures, glances of acknowledgment, a nod of the chin, we’d never believe you. It’s too irrational, too loose to analyze, to impossible to quantify.

Some intolerable pragmatist within us would counter that everything has an explanation in self-interest, in the denial of death. Those unwritten laws that bind us to our fellow humans comprise merely the unanalyzable surplus of existence, what matters only after we meet the needs of the day.

I don't think it is Pollyanna-ish to reject the logic of exchange as a metaphor for reality. To reject the cynic’s certainty that suffering defines what’s “really going on.” It’s Pollyanna-ish to accept these views and still to believe we can survive on our sunny dispositions.

It’s a bold, countercultural act of faith to believe that the world is gift, abundance, relationship, story. Every time we step out the door we are like the bird that hops from its nest, certain that with an habitual gesture some invisible force will sustain it, and not wrong to think so, though the world spins it toward its center.

Without that force, we would be little more than a car dealer’s wind-blown dancing stickman, flapping without meaning. And yet, miraculously, even the dancing stickman says, “I am here.”

But the man on his bike, hauling a trailer, says so much more: “I am a father, riding down the streets of my city with my children. I beg your patience as we pass, just as, I hope, I will one day wait for you.”

And I have been the driver in the car, brought to a harder stop by the appearance of the bicycling family, suddenly made aware how absorbed I had become in my own agenda, to the exclusion of my care for the world. The father watches me, understands that I have seen them and will wait, gives me a quick nod with his chin. “Thanks, buddy. We’ll be on our way, now.”

And they pass like ducklings, picking a path to a place they hope, with good reason, to arrive at safely, where they will greet a loved one with the gestures and touches that both ground us and lift us up.

Vitreous Humor

Tom Sturch

pie-fight-primary What they don't tell you is that getting older comes on you like a pie in the face: suddenly, unjustly, and funny to onlookers. And not funny to you. It comes like a slow-motion pratfall. It feels like a prank show genius has studied your increasing night-time eliminations and booby-trapped the route with a banana peel, a toy truck and a hoe in perfect succession. Aging comes blindly, symptom by symptom, each with its own joke.

For instance, my glaucoma came first as night visions. The ones like shadow people. Presences by your bed at three in the morning that wait for you to wake up enough to give you a heart attack. They'll tell you later it's just the vitreous humor in your one eye increasing pressure on your last nerve, or something like that. But until they do the shadow people will get their nightly kicks at the price of your terror. And then once you know, it's as if the eye doctor and the soul-stealing succubi are in on it together. They aren't of course, but you'll swear you can hear the laugh track.

And here's the truly absurd part: I am giving you an account of what it's like to get older, but until you're there these stories will be about someone else and not you. And though you'll have been warned you still won't see it coming.

When Jesus was transfigured, even after forty days of enjoying his post-crucifixion presence, the disciples despaired for their imagined messiah: the one of a conquering hero who would restore Israel to glory. But instead he is one in a world of darkness as gradually dawning light.

If you're as lucky as me you'll survive the indignity of aging to discover the benefits of professional advice and new habits. I'm getting better sleep now. The shadow people are dissolved into a fuller reality. The same is happening with my wife. She was fitted with a continuous positive airway pressure device. You know the term CPAP. It's one of those things no one wants to have. An alien on your face and Wife of Darth jokes. You wear facial indentations to work every morning and swear people are thinking, Weren't you in Mad Max? or, Hey, Bane! But for years my wife was beset with irregular heart beats, palpitations that made her feel her chest would explode. And now she's better. We're better.

The face of love changes. You won't see it coming.

Kicking off the Tarp

Callie Feyen

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The year I was going to be a senior in high school, my youth group went on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico to build houses for people who didn’t have them.

The homes we built were simple: four walls, a foundation, and a ceiling. I remember my youth group director, Bill, showed me how to fold thick, black paper into fourths, then prick the nail through it before hammering it into the wood. He told me to tap the nail to stabilize it, then with two or three whacks the nail would slide into the wood, securing the wall. It was repetitive, satisfying work.

One of the houses we built sat on an edge of a cliff. The man we built it for was currently living underneath a blue tarp held up by sticks. On breaks, we climbed down from the cliff, sat around for a few minutes, drinking pop. Somebody figured out that you could jump from the road, fly through the air and land on the dirt without getting hurt. It was like a sand dune.

We jumped from the road and into the bright blue sky for a few minutes every afternoon. I practiced my toe touches, having ample time to fly in the air, lift my legs and reach my arms towards my toes. I sailed in the air for about three seconds, gracefully let myself out of the pose, then tumbled down the mountain, laughing and spinning. I remember my brother, Geoff, did cannon balls with the same skill. Sometimes, we jumped together and even then there was plenty of time to jump and fly and fall.

I remember on our last workday in Tijuana, Bill handed the hammer to the man who would live in the house to pound in the last nail. The man sobbed while he hammered and I worried he’d hurt his fingers. I remember wanting to kick the blue tarp off those sticks, and hoping the wind that rarely blows in Tijuana would pick it up and sail it off the cliff.

*                *                *

We went to San Diego at the end of our work trips because I think that was Bill’s hometown, and he had a connection to a church so we could stay there for a few days and unwind. I remember we went to a Dodgers game, Bill’s favorite team. I remember walking up what felt like a mountain to the ballpark. “This isn’t Wrigley Field,” I complained.

The night before we left, I called my parents from a pay phone across the street from the church to say hello and check on my flight. My mom and I chatted for a few minutes, confirmed what time I’d land in O’Hare, and then her voice changed when she told me that several days ago there was an accident. She told me that Tim Lutz, a boy I had known since I was six and who lived down the street from me, got hit in the head, lost consciousness, and died.

“He was playing basketball with his friends,” she told me. Tim got hit in the side of the head with a basketball. He was knocked unconscious and never woke up.

All of this, including the funeral, happened while I was in Tijuana, twenty-three years ago this June.

Tim had brown eyes with long, thick eyelashes. He had freckles on his nose and cheeks that I swear danced when he laughed, and he laughed a lot. To say he was a baseball fan is an understatement. He and my brother were on several baseball teams together, and growing up, summer meant watching them run the bases and slide into home plate whether they needed to or not.

I think a lot about the details of Tim’s death, especially when June arrives, and what I was doing while it happened. It seems morbid, maybe even perverse to admit that. Was I hammering nails into wood when he got hit in the head? Was I jumping off that cliff when he was rushed to the hospital? At night, while Bill led devotions, and we sang songs under stars so bright I believed if I stood on my tiptoes I would at the least feel their heat on my fingertips, was Tim taking his last breath?

I could ask my friends. Decades later, I know at least twenty people who would tell me the details, go over dates and times and days. It would take three texts, twenty-five minutes on Facebook, a google search with key words: Tim Lutz, June 1993. But I don’t do any of this. Every June I think about it, and every year I do nothing.

*                *                *

I once saw Tim catch a baseball in the middle of Gunderson, the street he and I lived on. He was in mid-air when he caught it, and I was driving away in my car towards who knows where. His friend John, who lived across the street, threw the ball at him and Tim ran into the street, caught it, then threw it back to John. I saw it all in my rearview mirror.

I consider asking about the details of Tim’s last week on earth, and end up here, on Gunderson, with Tim playing catch with his buddy as the streetlights flickered on and the fireflies showed up. I’m not even sure how accurate my memory is, but I don’t care. Maybe it is like the blue tarp I didn’t kick off in Tijuana years ago. Maybe I thought I was protecting something for this man. Maybe I was afraid I was being disrespectful. Maybe it is easier to think about a memory I cannot create.

Unsafe Zone

Jean Hoefling

waiting_room_by_calbux Kiss me, and you will see how important I am. —Sylvia Plath

I sit on a worn chair in the waiting room of the local government-funded mental health center—our county’s Medicaid destination. Will comfort be found in such a place? The lone potted plant languishes, badly in need of water. A wall poster of a fierce-looking young woman with tattooed biceps admonishes victims of abuse to find a Safe Zone. Patients check in and quietly sit and leave the room as therapists summon them. They seem overly careful of every step, as if falling down is a contingency they are not prepared to handle. Most wear broken-down shoes and odd clothes. No-money-for-luxuries shoes and clothes. I glance into the streaming eyes of a young man with a red, oddly twisted face. My eye contact seems to wound him. Someone else implores his caseworker to understand how really fast he used to be able to run. An old man clutches multiple zip-lock bags of medications in his lap while a nurse asks personal questions within sight and sound of the entire room. The man’s face twitches at every juncture of orifice and skin. His mouth kneads his tongue as though trying to coax moisture from it—the incessant thirst of the medicated. I need more Lexapro, I can hardly function right now, he says. I lose interest in my book. I pray for the patients—for blessing, stability, something. What would Jesus do?

The tasteful outfit of one of the caseworkers catches my attention as she stands at the counter. She returns my look, a bit too long. A swell of panic hits my throat: She thinks I’m one of the patients. I look down. My Mary Jane flats are old and scuffed, my outfit mismatched. I got up too late to pay attention. Broken-down shoes, like the man with the zip-lock bags wears. My note pads and books are spread across three seats. Wads of paper, a caved-in water bottle—my morning life splayed out. Clearly, a patient without boundaries, the caseworker is thinking. I resist going to her and saying, I’m here because I drove a friend. I’m waiting for her. I was in the driver’s seat. I drive them and pray for them and feel bad for them. But don’t make me identify with them, kissing and mingling my healthy juices with their sick ones. Don’t think I’m a mess myself. God forbid I be a mess—lowly, disturbed, poor. One of those last and least who might one day be first and most.

Confessions of a Musical Voyeur

Jayne English

WDF_2521026 And every one of them words rang true And glowed like burnin’ coal Pourin’ off of every page Like it was written in my soul from me to you    — Bob Dylan

You know what it’s like to be a literary voyeur. You see a photo of someone in front of a bookcase, and what’s the first thing you do? Tilt your head and read the titles on the shelf. And if you’re a serious voyeur, you make a list of books to add to your collection. In addition to being a literary voyeur, I’m a musical voyeur. I have always listened, over the shoulder, to other people’s music. Growing up as the youngest of five, there was no way I was going to get to the record player first. This set the pattern for being a passive music collector. Music is like a dandelion that sends its seeds on the breeze; even though I didn’t search it out, music always found me. Because it’s the heartbeat of varied people, my music over time has become a colorful and eclectic collection.

If left to myself, I may still be singing along with this, the first song I picked out myself, and the first 45 I ever remember buying. See how it’s a good thing that I’ve been a musical voyeur?

At first, my voyeurism led me into things like Broadway musicals. I’m pretty sure I can still sing the songs from West Side Story and Funny Girl. I vividly remember tucking away in my room and soothing my moody teen blues with Carole King’s Tapestry, or wearing the grooves down on Jesus Christ Superstar, feeling a little reckless singing with Herod.

Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs still sow seeds through my day, as I continue to discover the sacred – mystery and brokenness, wonder and longing – in a broad scope of music. I return to some of the artists whose music travels on the winds of home. Dylan, for instance, whose simple, expressive metaphor for longing, “tangled up in blue,” still captivates me. Even after time, it’s as resonant as a song should be that took “10 years to live and two to write.” Then there are the Beatles’ hard to surpass imaginative lyrics, like the ones flowing from Lennon yielding to his Alice in Wonderland muse:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river With tangerine trees and marmalade skies Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

There are the “sweet and lovely” intricacies of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk in this. I glean from the harvest of those listening to music around me: Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, Alan Parsons, Neil Young, Beethoven, Debussy, Sufjan Stevens, Aesop Rock. The only genre I haven’t enjoyed too much is rock and roll. Mostly for the reason Dylan notes, “The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough. . . There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”

Listening to these deeper feelings makes me a better listener as I lean into someone else’s musical perspective. Picking up music from others almost always involves interesting conversations because people love to talk about the music that is “written in their souls.” This connection leads me to identify with the music in a different way than I would on my own. It fills my life with the nuances and layers of new musical languages.

This year I discovered some music on my own and welcomed more that I picked up from others, making it a great musical blend that I love for many reasons: joy and pathos, simplicity and complexity, lyricism and artistic experimentation (someone asks if this might be the first hip hop song). There is also recent music from artists I am privileged to know personally, like these songs as described in one word by the artists themselves: licentious and manic.

And now I wait, for new favorites to drift through an open window. As Donne says,

The heavens rejoice in motion, why should I abjure my so much loved variety?

Making a Harp - Part 2

Joanna Campbell

"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Read Part 1

I’ve learned not to expect Dennis, my harp maker, to have the same needs and desires as I have. I often invite Dennis to walk with me on the beach. The answer is usually, “Sure, at some point.” We don’t need to have the same tranquil, renewing, or magical moments. I’m not twenty-one. I’m forty.

As I write in the back bedroom, Dennis wanders in with a cup of coffee. “I thought you might like this,” he says as he hands me the cup. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he continues, “I found a bunch of shells.” I assume he means he opened a drawer somewhere in the condo and found shells. “I walked to the end of the key early this morning, and I picked these up along the way.” Suddenly, I have no interest in writing. In our five years of marriage, I’ve never known my husband to walk on the beach by himself. My invitations to walk together usually mean tearing him away from a book or a project or cooking. “Come see what I found,” he says.

He lifts up a large and intact cockle from a pile of smaller shells. “I need to wash my vest because I filled my pockets until they bulged.” Dennis shows me ponderous arcs, oysters, scallops, and clams. There are dozens of cross barred venuses. I wonder if this is the same face he made on Christmas mornings when he was a kid.

“I had an idea that I could shave down the broken ones and use them as inlay on the harp.”

“Really?  You can do that,” I ask.

“Sure. I’ve got all the right tools.”

“What about these?” I show him the jingle shells I’ve been collecting. They are paper thin and iridescent.

“Oh wow,” he says, “These are beautiful  Let’s find more of those.”

My earlier agitation at sawdust and noise feels puny. My pettiness is a freakish chin hair that keeps coming back no matter how often I pluck it. I give up on writing at the beach. Instead, I walk the surf and collect shells for my husband. They will make us so much better

'But I Can Do It Afraid'

Jill Reid

ear-191625_1280I was 27 years old when my daughter, my only child, Ellie, was born. It took years to conceive her, and then suddenly, on a pre-dawn Saturday morning, my water broke like the rainstorm that always arrives on days a meteorologist has confidently assured you, “Enjoy, folks. Today will be a sunny 70 degrees.” There were no signs Ellie would be a full three weeks early.

There was no packed bag. There was no gas in the car. I was down to two public-presentable maternity outfits. And the cute one was dirty. I was stunned to be so irrevocably out of time. I thought there would be weeks yet to locate the inner courage to properly and calmly  and bravely bear a human life. Instead, I pulled wrinkled maternity jeans from the hamper and ran them through the dryer. My husband and I scraped toward the hospital on a quarter of a tank of gas and even less courage.

Labor contractions are big bullies. There is often no warning when they will hit you hardest, and once they begin in earnest, you are at their mercy. But that sort of unstoppable force can also be a kind of relief. There’s no thinking. There’s no planning. There’s just bearing. During birth,  life leaks then shatters its way into the world, and you are the conduit through which it will pass. And it’s beautiful and joyful and terrifyingly unstoppable.

The next day, groggy and elated, I remember my husband telling me how brave I was during labor. I also remember looking at him like he had turned purple. This was not bravery, I thought. This was a matter of going on. A child ready to be born must be born. Bravery was something noble and solid that filled up a person from head to toe, that gleamed within like a warm, steady light. I was not brave. I was scared and tired and an absolute shaky mess of hormones and relief. I had even opted for the epidural.

*                *                *

When Ellie turned three, I was rain-storm shocked again. This time, I found myself “single mom-ing” my life with her. Each day, I went to work, paid the bills, made the dinner, read the bed-time stories, drank too much coffee, and lay awake at night convinced at how royally I was screwing things up. Because I was always scared, I also believed that I was not really brave but simply acting, as I did in that delivery room, at the behest of life and doing my best to keep up and remember to breathe. Somehow, I had forgotten that bravery does not exist apart from the very fear that requires it to form, solidifying like a rock we sling against the darkness.

A few weeks ago and at eight years old, Ellie begged to have her ears pierced. At this, I caught my breath. I vividly remembered from my own childhood experience that ear piercing involves pain. My writer’s sense of imagery brought visions of needles. Sharp objects would make a space for themselves in her skin. I also knew she would be terrified once she sat in the chair, and the process began. So, I told her that maybe she should wait, that it was okay to take more time to gather up her courage if she wasn’t feeling brave enough right now.

But Ellie stepped into her own story like the heroine I want to be. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, Mommy, and I am really scared. But I can do it afraid.”

Already in the car from school pick-up, we rushed to the mall. I held Ellie’s hand, and quiet little tears fell down her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her right hand shook in her lap while courage bloomed as two dainty studs in Ellie’s pink earlobes and caught slivers of the ceiling’s fluorescent light. Ellie smiled at her image in a mirror. I sucked in a gallon of air.

Ellie did it afraid.

What I have forgotten about courage, Ellie has reminded me. Courage is at its finest in the company of fear. Courage is at its most beautiful in the hands and heart of the underdog, of the grieving, of the single mom or dad, or in the brimming, tight-shut eyes and terrifically shaking hands of an eight year old kid. In his Narnia books, C.S. Lewis describes bravery in a passage I’ve often read and always forget to apply to my own life, “Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do.” Thank God we don’t have to feel brave to be brave.

In a few weeks, Ellie can change out her first pair of earrings for another. I will take her to the shop where her ears were pierced. I will let her choose two shiny new pairs of earrings. I will help her slip them into the healed spaces opened up by both her fear and her courage, and I will watch her smile at the gleam she gives off in the mirror. Maybe, “doing it afraid” is the only kind of brave that matters.

Shedding My Skin

Cathy Warner

snake I found the skin of a snake in my backyard last summer while I was crawling on my hands and knees pulling weeds. Sandwiched between stalks of crocosmia was an entire body case, white and transparent, stamped with tiny squares, like thin patterned tissue paper. Resting there whole, without the snake itself, I thought of the disciples finding Jesus’ grave clothes in the empty tomb. Where had he gone?

I’d seen the snake before, both of us startled the first time I rustled my way through plantings, serrated yellow trowel in hand, digging up the long roped roots of bindweed. I’ve never liked snakes. In addition to the bad rap from Genesis, a baby rattler bit my dog in our Santa Cruz Mountains backyard years ago and I spent thousands of dollars on antivenin to save him.

I knew this snake, a garter, wasn’t poisonous, and so I chose to greet it with friendly respect as I would a feral cat, remembering the words of the herpetologist I paid a thousand dollars to inspect our mountain property for more rattlesnakes: snakes are a sign of healthy ecosystem.

Snakes are also, as the mystics in my life tell me, a sign of transformation. So it seemed right and fitting—since I left California for Washington’s Puget Sound and discarded my former identities for new ones just forming—to welcome this skin skin and the snake, as signs of my own resurrection into a new life. I wonder if the snake felt the loss of its former self as I do, or if it’s simply a relief to shed a skin too tight to allow for growth and becoming. I know I felt cramped, fighting to fit inside the container I spent years constructing. Like the snake, my slip into new life wasn’t seamless. It was nothing compared to Jesus’ journey, his relinquishment of his very life to an existence beyond our imagination, but it required twisting and thrashing. You have to be a contortionist to escape yourself, to surrender your old identity and leave it behind.

There are moments when transformation feels like loss—I panic like the disciples wondering how I can go on. But I wonder if the past is ever really gone, or if we don’t gather up our old selves like the snake’s spent skins and stitch them together hoping for something familiar to clothe the new self, to keep us warm through winter and sane through old age. What we lack in craftsmanship we make up for in desire, so we parade in our patchwork flesh, hoping those threads will connect us to the Divine.

I wish I’d seen the snake that day, iridescent and incandescent, stretching boldly into its new skin. And oh, how I’d love to walk down the street dazzled by the sight of all-new Easter people walking tall, chests open, shining bright while our pasts are scattered like forgotten love notes, our shed skins and grave clothes fluttering high into the wind.

Christ in a Corset at Comic Con

Brad Fruhauff

DSC_0006 N.B.: Follow links at your own discretion; some content may be unsuitable for work or children.

My boys were enthralled with playing Super Smash Bros. on an old Nintendo 64, so they didn’t notice the black-bearded man in the long, bleach-blond wig, white halter, cape, and white g-string pulled up over his basketball shorts (imagine a dude in this). It was my third Comic Con, so I knew to expect a range of costumes and costume quality, but this was the first where I noticed the cross-dressing cosplay they call “crossplay.”

If you go to Comic Con, you’re going to see some stuff, and it will teach you something about how you see—especially as a male. Imagine if every fifth woman you saw was squeezed into Harley Quinn spandex or Catwoman leather or some suit that projected her bared chest out for the world to admire. One needs to watch one’s thoughts.

There were impressive male costumes, too, like Captain America, Mr. Freeze, or Cardinals Iron Man. And there were playful, elaborate costumes like the Charizard with extendable wings or the 8-foot-tall, Ewok-piloted AT-ST with articulating legs, or even the girl in the BB-8 dress on white and orange roller skates—not to mention any number of winged, intubated, or grotesque characters I didn’t know.

I’m ambivalent about taking my young boys—four and seven—into these situations. Most of the time they don’t seem to notice the more unusual or “adult” costumes since they are distracted with the Pokémon and Storm Troopers. When I asked, afterward, if they’d seen anything they didn’t understand or if they had any questions, they shrugged and kept eating their graham crackers.

What would I say, anyway? I don’t quite understand a lot of cosplay, much less crossplay, despite my penchant for choosing female video-game avatars or my fondness for Spider-Woman and Wonder Woman.

Frankly, a lot of cosplay seems garish and in poor taste to me—and I’m not a big fan of camp. It doesn’t ruin my time or offend me; it’s just not what I would choose to look at, certainly not to do myself.

I get that it’s about transformation. It’s like Halloween in HD. For a brief time you get to participate in the existence of another persona, you get to alter your habitual way of being in the world, even if you don’t look great doing it.

But it really started to click for me when we passed a group of four very large women corseted up in gothic leather with plenty of ties and laces. Their hair and makeup was blue and black, their skin pale, their breasts almost obscenely bulging out of their tops, and there they were, sitting in a circle on the floor with their hot dogs and their plastic bags full of toys and comics like it was a normal thing to do.

If you clicked through any of the links above, maybe you felt that mixture of contempt for “the nerds” and envy at their dedication to their passion. It’s easy to feel superior at Comic Con, but if you are at Comic Con, then you’re the nerd in someone else’s eyes.

But I didn’t see nerds in that circle of busty, hot-dogging Goth girls. I saw regular people searching for the story that would make their reality match their inner sense of their universal significance.

That’s not vanity, that’s the imago Dei in them. Aren’t we all destined for something greater than earning a paycheck and consuming entertainment media? Whatever their errors, the “nerds” understood the importance of belonging to something greater than themselves.

Maybe heaven will look a little like Comic Con: a mass of society’s oddballs glorified in unexpected ways by grace. The challenge of being a good artist—or human—I think, means trying to see that shimmer of Heaven through the cleavages in the present.