Poetry Friday: “Japanese Wall Hanging”

black and white image of a heron in midflight, wings floating above themI find myself reading this poem both literally and as a metaphor for our lives. On the literal level, Moira Linehan focuses with intensely loving detail on the Japanese brush painter. The first four lines list with tender concern all the things that might go wrong in the painting process. The next five lines move into the painter’s being: his years of training, his now “leaning back on his heels” picturing a heron that will soon return to his pond. Then the poem’s final sentence holds its breath, as the painter waits, patiently alert, for hours—waiting for the “floating line” of the heron’s descent to “take over.” In his integrity, the painter can’t draw this line until the heron’s descent first traces it. So, metaphorically, how does this poem suggest a way to live our lives? First, there are the risks inherent in just living. But, then, do we rush ahead, stumbling through each moment, inattentive to harm we might be doing to ourselves or others? Or do we train ourselves, like the Japanese painter, to pay intense attention to what comes to us each moment—and to wait? Of course, we must go about our daily business; but do we do so in an attitude of alertness to whatever perfection might float our way? And do we allow “that floating line” of perfection to “take [us] over”?

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Courting Babel

This month I thought it would be a good idea to take four hours of Arabic every week and an intensive JavaScript course all while working full-time.

I was nervous about the Arabic, scared that I wouldn’t remember how to read or speak politely after three years away from formal lessons, but strangely, it came right back. Maybe it was the pressure—a nervous stomach that forces letters into words and meanings.

I left the first class feeling happy, my brain overjoyed to have been given what it craves: a problem to solve.

“You’re so strong,” my sister said to me a few weeks ago.

But what I’ve been saying to myself several times a day is: “Natalie, you can’t be scared of everything, all the time.”

Maybe it’s the sudden summer heat, a combustibility that seems to feed a frantic impotence that can turn on a dime into panic, a chain of worry that feeds itself inexhaustibly. Until I’m too exhausted to feel it any longer: a welcome reprieve. [Read more…]

A Conversation with Lauren Winner, Part 2

By Mary Kenagy Mitchell
Continued from yesterday.

This post originally appeared as a web-exclusive feature accompanying Image issue 84.

Each chapter of Lauren F. Winner’s book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne), explores a single biblical image of God through a mix of exegesis, cultural history, and personal essay. I asked Winner about her new book, her love of history, her punctuation, and the politics of writing about the Bible.

Mary Kenagy Mitchell for Image: Could you talk about what you think makes a good history book, the kind you like to read?

Lauren Winner: I’m interested in histories of daily life, of ordinary people, and less in the history of ideas. Though even as I say that, I see a false dichotomy.

I have just read an amazing study of women in nineteenth-century southern households, Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage. There, the history of daily life is absolutely inseparable from politics, from ideas about (as well as practices of) slavery, freedom, and power. As Glymph puts it, to talk about freedom in the postbellum south is to talk about wages and political participation, but it is also to talk about:

Virginia Newman’s idea of freedom: “a blue guinea with yaler spots.” This was Newman’s first “bought dress,” and it represented, for her, control over her “whole life” and, concomitantly, the diminished control white people had over it.

There you have it: state power, consumerism, ideas, and what I’ve unhelpfully glossed “daily life” all rolled into one—and rolled into one in such a way as to diagnose the political work that my own depoliticizing language of “daily life” actually does. I am interested in books that draw, or expose, connections between the daily and the political, the kitchen and the state, the object and the idea. [Read more…]

A Conversation with Lauren Winner, Part 1

By Mary Kenagy Mitchell
This post originally appeared as a web-exclusive feature accompanying Image issue 84.

Each chapter of Lauren F. Winner’s book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne), explores a single biblical image of God through a mix of exegesis, cultural history, and personal essay. The chapter excerpted in issue 84 is about bread. I asked Winner about her new book, her love of history, her punctuation, and the politics of writing about the Bible.

Mary Kenagy Mitchell for Image: Your new book is about overlooked images of God in the Bible. I imagine there were some images you found that didn’t make it in. Could you talk about some of those?

Lauren Winner: In the scriptures there are a lot of animal and nature images for God—water and rock and so on. I’m especially interested in two from Hosea: there God is likened to dew, and to a tree. I’ve spent time with the tree image, thinking about what trees are, and I have a nascent spiritual practice of tree gazing, where I regularly stare at a magnolia in my yard as a practice of attentiveness.

I love the song “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” It’s not widely known, but it’s wonderful. It’s sung mostly in English churches, or at lessons and carols services at Christmas. I had it sung at my ordination, and I make groups of people sing it whenever possible: [Read more…]

Reading Love Nailed to the Doorpost

If you want to be submerged in the depths of Jewish spirituality, this is the book to read: Love Nailed to the Doorpost, by Richard Chess.

No, not “read”: at least not “read” in the way you would read an email or a newspaper or a novel. The poems and prose-poems collected in this book draw you beneath reading to a meditation, a pause, a reflection, another pause….

And not really “Jewish spirituality”: for Chess’s spirituality, while deeply Jewish, is more deeply his own particular living of Judaism.

Take “Mezuzah,” the poem in which the book’s title appears. It looks deceptively straightforward on the page. But starting right from the epigraphs, we have to be engaged.

From Emily Dickinson we’re given “Tell all the truth but—”; followed by Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love…” In both cases we’re expected to fill in the blanks ourselves. We know that “tell it slant” completes the Dickinson line. And we know that Deuteronomy 6:5 continues with “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).

But if we read further in the Deuteronomy passage we come to God’s command to “Keep these words in your heart…and write them on the doorposts of your house” (6:6-9).

This is the commandment for the mezuzah that’s nailed slant on the doorpost of every Jewish home. Chess’s poem then follows: [Read more…]