Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy
while each leaf thrusts into the universe of air
and the light green haze of April rises like smoke
sweet in the nostril. Let the mind fill the hemisphere
of day while the sun beats a million white wings.
Let each yellow and red bud in the dew
blaze forth with a hundred suns while night
picks up her gauze and vanishes over the hills.
Let the rabbit’s eye shine while he drums the turf
summoning his brethren;
the squirrels spiral down, their tails like clouds,
to clatter among the woodsy rubble;
and the shrew shriek and hide herself under the root.
The cat stretches by the window and cries at the door;
the dog yawns, then yelps at the rising sun
that will run all day till it drops in the west.
The mattress creaks as the man rises to fix breakfast,
his back telling him he is—ah!—alive
while the neighbor’s car snorts and gulps air
in an ascending whine.
Children feel their way through cool porcelain bathrooms,
teenagers dream a world of shimmering electric presences
and clothes rise from the dresser to glide across the skin,
the belt firmly encircles the waist
and the tie mounts to prop the chin.
Yet, staring back from the bathroom mirror are
the ghost of the office, the boss’s purposeful smile,
fog of the night’s dream, the nattering conscience,
the gluttonous mortgage, the skin in love with gravity,
and the razor’s unkind cut—awareness of
what is done and undone—the thousand engines of destruction
the cerebral cortex draws across its synapses
toward the fragile sanctum of the present moment.
Let each ghost wither and vanish in sunlight,
crisp to the nothing it is,
while a joyful procession dances along
the myriad lightning pathways of the mind.
Tree and house are clear in this moment
when light is given shape and each thing pauses,
itself—before the frame blurs, the attention fails
and we fall into one or another distraction:
the horrors and banalities of the news, the half-typed letter,
the mysteries of long division, the tumbled tower of blocks,
regret’s heavy shadow or the usual obsession.
Lord, in the bright vehicle of this moment,
descend to us and spread your golden tent
that we might keep sweet breakfast together, your beard dripping
honey as we ascend the dayspring of your eyes
into an emptiness that is present, solid and real.
One of the blogs I follow is Good Letters, run by Image journal and authored by a diverse, gifted team of spiritual writers. Updated each weekday, it features short personal essays that make fresh connections between faith and daily life. Here are a few posts from the past month that I particularly enjoyed.
“Beginner Ballet” by Melissa Florer-Bixler: Like the author, I too took a beginner’s ballet class at a late age (mid-twenties), and her words capture my felt experience so well:
I assumed ballet would be an interesting and different way to exercise, the chance to try a new fitness routine and to escape the general chaos of my life for an hour each week.
But in this dance class, the ballet one does in socks after work, I discovered that dance offers an aesthetic world, a way for me to discover new possibilities for my body. How strange it was to push my energy down a smooth line as my body sunk to the floor, to wonder over the shape of my fingers, to imagine a string lifting me up, off my toes, to float an inch above the gleaming rehearsal studio floor.
Everything in ballet was strength in the service of beauty. Even the language was beautiful. . . .
“The Ordinary Time” (poem) by Dana Littlepage Smith: I love Good Letters’ ongoing “Poetry Fridays,” in which a writer will introduce a poem with brief commentary. A few weeks ago Suzanne Nussey introduced this little gem in which the speaker learns through the observance of barnyard creatures how to slow down and be more attentive to life’s ordinary moments, how to enter God’s time. (The title references the liturgical season the church is currently in.) As she considers the birds, she sees how they work with joy, singing as they build, and are content just to be. The poem opens with a beautiful image and a subtle admonition:
Goldfish in the horse trough
nibble at morning’s surface.
They are not busy;
they are breathing.
“On Writing Odes: Taking Time to Celebrate”by Tania Runyan: Runyan has been doing a Good Letters teaching series on poetic forms—sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and now odes, which are characterized by praise and celebration. Here she presents the ode “To Autumn” by John Keats as a choice example, and then shares one of her own, “Ode to a Bodhran Player.” (A bodhran is a traditional Irish drum.) She concludes with an assignment: “Find something that you love, or maybe even something you don’t, and regale it with an ode. Give yourself to the true, noble, lovely, and excellent practice of praise.”
“To Autumn” by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
“Emmy Watch: This Is Us”by Tania Runyan: Eric and I enjoy watching this TV show together and appreciate its complex portrayals of familial relationships: husband-wife, parent-child, and sibling (including siblings-in-law). Even within the parent-child category, different forms of parenthood are explored—biological, adoptive, and foster. Here Runyan writes about the show’s positive portrayal of open adoption, which is now more common in the US than traditional “closed” adoption. When Runyan and her husband adopted their son, Samuel, they chose the open option, which in their case means they deliberately entered into and maintain in-person relationships with Samuel’s biological family. (To read more about Runyan’s experience, see “He Fits Right In: Our Story of Open Adoption.”) Runyan shares a conversation she had with her son’s biological grandmother about the show.
The third season of This Is Us began September 25. It airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
“Leonard Cohen’s Holy and Broken Hallelujah”by Alisa Ungar-Sargon: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the most-covered songs of all time, and it’s full of biblical references. (Like the writer, my first introduction to it was also as a preteen through the movie Shrek!) “The song’s central premise is the value, even the necessity, of praise in the face of confusion, doubt, or dread,” writes Ungar-Sargon, who led her high school English students in an analysis of its lyrics as poetry.
Here’s a cover by the husband-wife duo Gungor (that is, Michael and Lisa Gungor).
Whenever I gather with friends, I like to ask them what they’ve been reading, watching, and/or listening to lately (a lot of the media I consume comes from word-of-mouth recommendations), and if they’ve visited any interesting new places. In the spirit of sharing, here are some things on my list this month.
WHERE I’M GOING
“East Meets West: Women Icon Makers of Western Ukraine,” St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Chatham, Massachusetts: This week I’m road-tripping up to Cape Cod with my husband and two friends to see an art exhibition organized by John A. Kohan. On display through the end of the month are twenty-three Ukrainian Greek Catholic icons by four female artists from Lviv who are representative of the eastern European sacred art renaissance sparked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union: Ivanka Demchuk, Natalya Rusetska, Ulyana Tomkevych, and Lyuba Yatskiv. This Thursday, August 17, at 4:30 p.m., Kohan will be giving a gallery talk discussing the artists and their context. I’ve been following these women online for the past few years through Iconart and am thrilled to be able to see their work in person. I’m not sure which specific works will be there, but here are examples of two of the artists’ work:
Two-day arts lecture and performance series, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina: Thanks, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts! Celebrating the opening of a new art exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art, “The Patience to See: The Sights & Sounds of Carlo Dolci” on Thursday, August 31, will feature talks by Dr. Ben Quash and Dr. Chloe Reddaway, live period music by top-tier orchestral musicians, and the premiere of Blue Madonna, an original composition by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, inspired by a painting after Dolci. The other program events, taking place on Friday, September 1, are “Secretaries of Praise: Poetry, Song, and Theology” and “Home, Away, and Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music.” My family lives in the Raleigh-Durham area, so it will be fun to spend time with them while also taking in some world-class art, music, and scholarship!
WHAT I’M READING
The Seven Deadly Sins: These seven small books (each about 128 pages) grew out of a 2002–2003 lecture series cosponsored by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. Each is authored by a different prominent writer and approaches the assigned sin through the lenses of history, theology, philosophy, psychology, ethics, social criticism, popular culture, art, and/or literature. (Several include a full-color insert of images.) My favorite is Gluttony by Francine Prose, in part because it contained the most surprises. Prose points out that one can make the belly a god not only by habitually overeating but by being obsessive about nutrition, calories, body fat, and pants size—being a slave to the scale or to a point system. That’s not to say that dieting and exercise are inherently idolatrous, but . . . you have to read the book. It diagnoses our culture’s “schizophrenic attitude toward gluttony”—inundate us with snack ads, restaurants, and recipes and encourage us to take pleasure in eating, then tell us we’re eating too much and brand us with a scarlet O for Obese, promising that a gym membership and such-and-such health-food regimen will remove that shame. On both sides of our ambivalence, someone is making money.
I also really enjoyed Greed by Phyllis Tickle (she takes a similar approach as Prose, majoring on Christian theology, literature, and art, and is a brilliant writer) and Pride by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor and ordained Baptist minister who focuses on racial pride (addresses why white pride is a vice but black pride is a virtue) and national pride (addresses the difference between patriotism, a virtue, and nationalism, a vice), describing very chillingly what it’s like to be black in America. Sloth is styled as a parody of the self-help genre and contains crude language, and I wasn’t too keen on it. I also wasn’t drawn in by Anger, which is written from a Buddhist perspective.
Acorn by Yoko Ono: Before her marriage to John Lennon, Yoko was a major figure in the underground art scene in New York City, and she continues to create today, mainly conceptual and performance art. On a whim, I bought her 2013 book Acorn on sale at the Hirshhorn—a sequel, of sorts, to her more famous Grapefruit—and have been enjoying reading and “performing” the “instructional poems,” or what I would call mindfulness exercises. Promoting better ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the planet, these exercises are given names like “Sky Piece” and “Sound Piece,” and each is accompanied by an amoeba-like dot drawing that gives readers “further brainwork,” Yoko says. (Click here to view sample page spreads, which include images.) My husband, Eric, thinks all the pieces are woo-woo—and some of them are. But others have deepened my wonder and praise, given my imagination some much-needed exercise, or convicted me of being a poor friend. Here are two:
“Earth Piece V”
Watch the sunset.
Feel the Earth moving.
“Connection Piece V”
How do you connect with people the most?
With the feeling of:
Make a list of people around you and see how it comes out.
Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the way you connect.
Don’t simplify the situation by just saying “I love/hate them all.”
WHAT I’M WATCHING
I just finished the first season of Rectify on Netflix, a drama about a man, Daniel Holden, who’s released from prison after spending nineteen years on Georgia’s death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. I’m hooked. A lot of it so far is Daniel learning how to use his freedom, especially how to give and receive human touch, and rediscovering the world—the weightlessness of goose down, for example, or the feeling of bare feet on carpet. I first heard about the show from the Televisionaries podcast, where Kutter Callaway, author of Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue, praised it for, among other things, giving high visibility to a Christian character who’s portrayed in a nuanced and noncondescending manner. We see evangelism, baptisms, people praying together, people owning their faith and struggling through it, asking hard questions. A second recommendation from film critic Nick Olson via Good Letters last month cinched my resolve to jump in. (Note to prospective viewers: The show is rated TV-14 for intense thematic elements, sexuality, and violence.)
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO
I’ve found that any album on the Deeper Well label is fantastic. Lately I’ve been listening to Wounded Healer (2012) by the Followers, who is Josh White, Eric Earley, and friends. The style is a mixture of soul, gospel, and vintage folk rock—what the group calls “neo-gospel.” The track below, “Enfold Me,” features the vocals of Liz Vice.