Take, Eat

black and white image of hands buttering a piece of naan on a stack of thin silver plates atop a table covered with newspaper. By Sneha Abraham.

I clutch the edge of the cracked leather seat and close my eyes as the van rattles out of the city towards the slum settlement.

The three-hour church service in Ludhiana, Punjab, India, left me hoarse and sticky: hoarse from leading the worship; sticky from sitting on a plastic chair in a packed second-story room with a single creaky ceiling fan.  

“I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.” The song I led during that morning’s worship is resonant in my mind as we drive.

The van lurches to a stop. I look out the window and see huts constructed out of mud, cardboard, tarpaper, and tires, and a crowd gathered.

I am following Jesus to a godforsaken place, the thought rises and then I shake it. I am curious—and perspiring. Sweat mingles with dust on my skin, beading on my forehead, dripping down my back. I am from Southern California, where the sun smiles. On this August day in India the sun is harsh and unyielding.

We are here to dedicate a school established by local evangelists from my father’s missions organization. During our childhood trips to India my siblings and I had encountered countless beggars seeking alms; however today we are not handing out a few rupees and rushing by. Today my father wants us to really see the poor.

But right now they are looking at us. I fidget with my watch, then my hair.

We file out of the van and into the circle of waiting people. I am of Indian origin, but I feel conspicuously American. I paired my Indian attire with Adidas sneakers because, as my father said, “a slum is no place for sandals.” [Read more…]

Muddy River

an image of a black and white subway car moving in a soft blur through a subway station.By Jen Pollock Michel.

It was the summer of Leiby Kletzy, the eight-year-old Hasidic boy kidnapped from his Brooklyn neighborhood in broad daylight and brutally murdered. It was also the summer I almost lost my seven-year-old daughter Camille on a Toronto subway platform.

When I turned, from inside the train, to see my daughter—outside, standing alone—my feet became bricks of indecision. The doors chimed and began closing. A stranger jumped to pry them open, and I pulled her inside, smothering her small body to my chest. She didn’t even know our phone number.

Six years later, I am preparing Camille to ride the subway unaccompanied for the first time. Almost thirteen, she is the happy new owner of a cell phone. “You’re going to have to look for the stairs that say “Northbound’ on the way home,” I say, rehearsing the route she will take home alone.

The train rumbles in as we stand several feet behind the thickly painted yellow line that portends the sheer drop onto the tracks. I imagine the accident, the surprise violence that sends us, unprepared, over its edge. [Read more…]

My Bad Italy Novel

Caravaggio's painting of Saint Matthew's inspiration. Matthew stands partially kneeling on a tall stool, looking upwards to an angel who is giving him words. As Michelangelo looks up towards the young angel, he also writes.February is offseason in Rome, so today the city is a little gray, a little quiet, if ever it could be such a thing. I’m standing on the steps of San Luigi Dei Francesi church, buzzing a little from a sugary espresso.

I’m gearing up to enter the church and see, for the fourth time in my life, one of the most gorgeous triptychs ever painted: Caravaggio’s Life of St. Matthew, comprised of The Calling, The Inspiration, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.

I’ve thought about these paintings so many times since I first saw them as a doe-eyed twenty-one-year-old that I can conjure their presence as fast as I can start my car:

Matthew at a table strewn with coins in a dark tavern, a slice of light preceding a burly Peter and a chiseled Jesus, who lifts a languid finger towards him; gray and bearded Matthew hunched over a scroll with a quill, an angel hovering above his head; Matthew splayed over a pit, one hand up, waiting to be stabbed a second time.

The only problem, aside from a stabbing pain in my right foot, is that there are two Italian soldiers guarding the church doors. They have berets perched on their angular heads, looking both jovial and severe; one of them is smoking a cigarette, the other is making funny faces at a toddler. They wear bulletproofs vests over their thick chests and over those they hold matching M-16s.

I am wearing a silly brown hat with a wide, flat brim, which serves the triune purpose of keeping the Roman sun off out of my eyes, covering my bald spot, and declaring, if it wasn’t obvious enough already, that I am an American. [Read more…]

Calling the Lapsed

Black and white film image of the interior of a large white-wooden walled church, with high vaulted ceilings and large windows at the top of the walls. There are three enormous white balloons floating near the ceiling. To the left of the room is a table set up with things on top of it (maybe food). Several people stand in the center, holding a large balloon, and helping set up. The left and right side of the image is a blank strip of light from the film being exposed to light.By E.D.

The parish party was a bust. As a member of the Parish Council, I had promised—yet not followed through—on calling the database of lapsed Catholics the Council had acquired by asking parishioners to fill out notecards during Sunday Mass, listing friends and family members who had fallen away.

Of the targeted invitees, the lapsed Catholics, only one showed up. And the Council attendees ambushed her, four of us at once, smiling so hard our faces hurt.

I needed the party to be a success—mainly because it was only when I arrived on scene that I saw how hard one councilmember had worked to make it happen.

Sure, a few of us brought cookies, but otherwise, she alone had called the database; she alone had brewed the coffee; she alone had bedecked the folding tables with festive runners and golden coins filled with chocolate; she alone had been there since three decorating and putting out coloring pages and crayons for the children.

The initiative was her brainchild, since she herself, once lapsed, has only been back in church a few years. She is on fire, so excited to be Catholic again, which is a beautiful thing to behold, the energy she conjures for things about which the rest of us have lost hope. [Read more…]

Inheriting Trauma

Image of a porch with a wicker chair and a floral couch with a blanket over it in black and white.By Callie Feyen.

Until a few months ago, I thought Aleppo, Syria was one word. I’d never seen it in print, only heard it, and just once, from the lips of my grandmother. “I was born in Aleppo, Syria,” she said, and since there was no pause between the “o” and the “s” I figured she was referring to a country somewhere in the Middle East.

“You know, Damascus?”

That’s what she said next. I know because I have it on a cassette tape. I recorded her for an Oral Interpretation class I was taking in college.

This was probably my first tryst with the genre of creative nonfiction, and I loved it. I’ve always been shy and so it was freeing to immerse myself in another world while using my voice, my body, and my personality to portray that world. Learning someone else’s story helped me learn about myself.

My grandmother lived about two blocks from Calvin, the college I attended. The day I came with a recorder, she made coffee and “S” cookies,” buttery cookies smothered in powdered sugar. I had a list of questions for her, but once I pressed “record” my grandmother took off. “I was born in Aleppo, Syria,” she began.

I sipped my coffee, ate cookies, and watched. She looked pretty in a navy blue sweater, happy to her tell stories. She sat up straight and her hands rested on the table or around her mug, except every once in a while when she used an index finger or palm to thump the table when she wanted to drive a joke home. [Read more…]