Palm Fronds

a palm leaf in black and white, a close up of the main stem with the fronds coming off of it, nearly centered image.My daughter held the palm frond as if she’d never seen such a thing. I gave mine a perfunctory wave. We were both visitors, standing in the foyer of an elementary school turned church. The pastor was a friend, but in the ten minutes before a worship service—especially during Holy Week—I wasn’t going to latch on to her stole and demand hand holding. So we stood away from the growing group of congregants, clutching our fronds.

I turned to trivia.

“You know about Ash Wednesday?” I asked my daughter.

She nodded. “They smudge stuff on your head.”

“Ashes. And they get them by burning the previous year’s palm fronds.”

I smiled, knowing I hadn’t punctured the thirteen-year-old’s ennui, but was still pleased with the information. Her casual, “Oh, neat” emboldened me.

“Do you know about Holy Week?”

She did not, which struck me with a momentary panic. The fronds-to-ashes bit was admittedly an outside pitch. Something I didn’t expect her to know. But this—a fundamental part of the faith—was a watermelon over the plate. [Read more…]

God is a Wild Old Dog

Drawing of a dog with its front paws off the ground. The dog is looking backwards slightly, and its tail is up. God is a wild old dog / Someone left out on the highway

—Patty Griffin “Wild Old Dog”

It is the first week of spring and I sit in the small cemetery on our community property. The bench underneath me is green and mossy from the confusion of a mild winter that left us with buds in February and tornado warnings in early March. The daffodils are the earliest signs of life as they begin to bloom around the small gravestones here, some of them marked for infants who died just after birth.

All these natural metaphors are not lost on me: I am seven months pregnant with our fourth child, mourning the death of my dad and the death of our community. After our baby is born, we are likely to move on from this place to another, packing with us all the excitement, grief, worry, and hope we cannot leave behind.

Life, death, suffering, and blessing are huddled so close together that they often resemble one another. It can be confusing to pick through them.

Maybe it is because of my privilege that I don’t wonder where God is in all of this: even if my husband is without a job for a few months, we still have family and friends and savings to fall back on. Or maybe it’s because I’ve discovered something strange about God in the midst of all this confusion and grief. [Read more…]

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. 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…]

Dancing with Words During National Poetry Month

Impressionistic painting of an expansive room with vaulted windows that open to the green of the outside. In the room, various dancers gathered by a bar or in the center of the room, practicing pointing their toes and stretching out their legs. They are wearing loose white and pale lavender tutus and leotards. In the left hand corner, an instructor in black sits and observes.Here’s your assignment. Choose a poem you’ve written (it could be any piece of writing, really, an email message, a shopping list, a complaint to a cable service provider, a toast for a wedding—you get the idea. If it’s a poem, chose only a few lines. If it’s another piece of writing, choose a portion of it. Then, translate those lines.

But here’s the thing. Don’t translate a word from one language into its equivalent word in another language. Instead, translate each letter of each word, in the order in which they appear, into an image, a concrete noun or active verb (“be” is an active verb, too!). What does the shape of each letter resemble? That “h”, is it a shovel? That “s”, is it snow or a leaf falling to the ground?

First do a raw translation, letter to word (or words), letter to word, letter to word. Now, using these words, arranging and adding words as needed to write complete sentences, write a poem. Or, if poetry isn’t for you, write a new shopping list! Or a letter to your senator! In this visual language, tell your senator to protect funding for the NEA! Or write a confession to God. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Last Supper”

photo of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. A long white table sits in a large, well lit hall. In the center of the table, Jesus stands, leaning over the table. Around him crowd his disciples, spread and talking amongst each other.This poem is a meditation on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper.” But the meditation moves in an unexpected direction. The first stanza stays with the painting, though with a comical interpretation of “torn bread” scattered on the tablecloth. In stanza two, the poet moves to the wine—“or seeming / lack of it.” In the painting, no chalice is visible—nothing “bigger than a shot glass.” It’s from this image of a shot glass that the poem’s speaker takes off in stanza three. He seems to be pondering its meaning, as he twice says “that makes sense.” What makes sense now to the speaker is that a single shot of liquor suffices: it reveals “the power” that a bartender serves (as Jesus serves God?); it is sufficient for lingering camaraderie. From here, the speaker reflects on other smallnesses that are sufficient in life: “Only a heartbeat /of belief is necessary.” And “by small increments we learn to taste.” To taste what? The poem doesn’t say, but in the context of the de Vinci painting, I recall a song that we often sing during Communion in my Catholic parish: “Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]