The Heaven of Animals: A Coin in the Mouth

Guest Post

By Jen Hinst-White

“I have this mystical-schmystical idea,” one of my writing teachers once said, “that stories exist outside of us somewhere, and it’s our job to get them down properly.”

He was a hard-nosed editor and a robust skeptic, and he confessed this notion five minutes before workshop’s end, as if not to give his own idea too much credence. I suspect, though, that most of us knew what he meant.

And if we can be mystical-schmystical for a moment and imagine this is so: Well, what does it mean to get a story down “properly”? Skillfully, yes; honestly, one hopes; but do we employ the storyteller’s guile, or the sage’s compassion, or the filleting knife of the satirist? What do we do with the stories we catch?

I recently happened on The Heaven of Animals, the debut short story collection by David James Poissant, and it brought this question to mind. In it, Poissant casts his storyteller’s net and catches sixteen kinds of suffering. Here, a grief to ring the bell of every reader’s memory: deaths of friendships, parents, children. In several stories, it’s a marriage that dies, or else hovers in death’s doorway, waiting to tumble in or out.

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Crying Ocean

Guest post by Natalie Vestin

In Judith Kitchen’s essay “Direction,” she writes of traveling with a friend in Greece and being asked to step out of her cab on a dark road by a driver she doesn’t trust. She and her friend refuse to get out, not by saying no, but by huddling in the back seat and crying thalassa, thalassa. Ocean, ocean.

Crying direction and saving themselves.

I split this past summer between residencies in Minnesota and Nebraska, writing, thinking about ocean and about salvation. About what’s inside us—how the matter of our origins can save us. About love for the how of creation and a God who deserves to be loved for the how. About crying thalassa, saying “I am ocean and worth saving.”

I was writing about dance and thinking about bones, calcium, carbonate of lime. Calcium comes from water. When mammals were just a dream on a volcanic and shifting earth, bones were made by water. I’m water, carbonate of lime, the memory of a tide. I was formed by wetness and rolling wave. I’m light and breakable as heaven.

I’m taking some poetic license here. I’m also trying to take a little salvation where I can find it.

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Saint Death and Easter

Guest Post
By Chris Hoke

I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The voice was low, lifeless. He just got out of jail, and the guys in there told him to call me.

I function as a volunteer chaplain in Washington State’s Skagit County Jail, and I’m the closest thing to a pastor most gang members in my valley have known. Jail-tier referrals like these are how my tiny congregation grows.

The next day, I picked this new guy up and we sat at my kitchen table.

Danny was a quiet young man. He grabbed a coffee cup with a hand that had skeleton bones tattooed over his fingers, up over his wrist. A ghastly ink mural of a wide-mouthed skull poured out from his throat, darkening most of his neck.

He wanted help getting off heroin, he said. He heard we at Tierra Nueva Ministries help guys get a job sometimes, and that we do a spiritual drug recovery program. He wanted…”I don’t know…prayer, I guess. Right?”

So we prayed. I held his skull hands in mine. It wasn’t much of a leap: I asked if he’d ever given himself over to the power of Death.

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The Notecards of Paradise: 25 Years of Image

To celebrate Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary we are posting a series of essays from people who have encountered our programs over the years. Read the earlier installments, Stumbling into the Waterfall and Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out.

Guest post

By Linda Wendling

A Tuesday evening in Seattle. A cozy, one-room apartment on Queen Anne Hill overlooking bustling Nickerson and the shipping yards. If I step onto the balcony, I can see the Ballard Bridge and down the steps I can almost believe I see Rapunzel letting down her blue and yellow neon hair on the Fremont Bridge.

I am alone, my husband is in St. Louis, and I’m holding a mug of peppermint tea. I’m here because I’ve been selected by Image to receive its Milton Fellowship, providing me with a whole academic year to work on my first book (and more).

I have walked home from the Garfield Public Library—a cozy place to write if you don’t mind little kids climbing on the table beside you (I don’t)—and plunked down a rain-soaked bag of books—all research—on the kitchen counter.

Changing into a dry sweatshirt, I turn on the lamps and Zap Mama for atmosphere, and sit on the carpet. The sun is down, but I keep my windows open, all night long when I can. I like the sounds of Seattle, the poetry of rain, voices in traffic, music from a passing car radio to remind me that “one fine day, you’re gonna want me for your girl.”

I get up from the floor and go to my laptop. I add that moment to a story. Then I’m back on the floor beside the cooling tea, doing what makes me happy when a sharp knock at the door makes me jump.

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Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: 25 Years of Image

To celebrate Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary we are posting a series of essays from people who have encountered our programs over the years. Read the other installments, Stumbling into the Waterfall and The Notecards of Paradise.

Guest post

By Dan Wakefield

I was happy to be asked to speak at the first Image conference in Berkeley in 1992 and delighted to learn that Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest and Dutch theologian, would be there to deliver the Sunday homily.

My minister at King’s Chapel in Boston had introduced me to his work when he gave me Nouwen’s book Reaching Out: Three Movements in The Spiritual Life, and a friend introduced me to Henri himself when he was at Harvard Divinity School in 1983.

I had gone with a group of friends from King’s Chapel to hear Father Nouwen give a public lecture at Harvard in 1982, where the Divinity School had scheduled him in a room that held about a hundred people, which meant that another hundred or so had to be turned away. We learned later that some of the Divinity faculty were piqued that Nouwen had drawn such a big crowd—we were condescendingly described as “people from the suburbs,” i.e. non-academics, and Nouwen was whispered to be “popular,” a mortal sin in elitist theology.

The only speaker I have ever heard to match the power of Nouwen was James Baldwin, a street corner preacher as a boy in Harlem before becoming a writer. Nouwen spoke with a slight lisp, and his whole body seemed to bend forward with his hands sometimes “reaching out” in a physical effort to get across his message, not histrionically but with a passion to communicate, as if he were trying to implant his words in the hearts of his listeners.

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