Wearing a Coat of Many Colors

orange coatAround eight years ago, I bought a coat. I hardly ever bought brand-new clothes, and this was a real splurge on a Bible College-student budget. The coat was from Target, and it was a bright-orange corduroy plaid. I loved how it made me stand out amid the sea of black pea coats in the dreary Pacific Northwest winter.

I come from a background of believing that fashion isn’t important at all. The larger Evangelical culture routinely rejects the body and adornments as unholy, as distracting, as weirdly sexual. Even so, I loved how the coat made me feel special, and different, and colorful.

A year or so after I bought the coat, I watched a documentary about labor practices around the world. For the first time, I started to understand the systems of oppression that modern American fashion is based around. Horrified, I swore off buying new clothes for good. I committed myself to secondhand shopping, to making do, or doing without. I started reading and learning more and more from people who were loudly opting out of the “Empire.”

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Everybody Should Write Poetry

Vision After the Sermon (1888), Paul GauguinPeople who read poetry but don’t write it are like those who have just heard about the burning bush. They’ve got to write poetry. They’ve got to read it also, because then they’ve heard about the burning bush, but when you write it, you sit inside the burning bush, which is different. I think everybody should write poetry.

This radical viewpoint is that of poet Li-Young Lee, speaking to the editors of a rich book published a couple years ago, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith. When I recently quoted Lee’s words to a friend who is a fine poet, at first he scowled. Doesn’t writing poetry take special dedication and talent and hard work? That’s what his scowl seemed to ask. And yes, of course, writing good poetry does take all this.

But that’s not Lee’s unconventional point. He’s saying, in effect: everyone needs to nestle down inside language to get to know its ways, to get comfy with how playful it can be, how expansive, how unexpected in its openings to new experience. [Read more...]

Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird and Me

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings

—Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Sympathy”


I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was thirteen. I discovered the book through an interview with Fiona Apple, one of the many female singer-songwriters whose mournful lyrics poured through my boom box speakers while I slogged my way through the kickboxing routine that, according to Seventeen, would slim my hips.

Thirteen was a difficult year; I was overweight, dorky, sarcastic, and sensitive. I spent my Friday nights eating Tombstone pizza and writing Tolkien fan fiction. And it was the last year my parents, whose marriage darkened our house, would live together under the same roof.

And what Angelou’s work did in my life, in that year, was phenomenal. [Read more...]

Sunday in Sweet Afton

Last Sunday my wife decided to celebrate the end of our semester by taking a drive on a scenic stretch of Route 151, a two-lane road that winds along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Lynchburg and Charlottesville. Often on this road, you find yourself sliding through a flashing green canopy of leaves. More than once, a climbing series of hairpin turns will open onto sweeping green valleys.

The mountains roll soft as the curves of a human body, and surround some valleys on all sides, creating a wide natural bowl protecting small Edens of farmhouses and fertile land. Yesterday, the mountaintops reached almost, but not quite, to the cumulus clouds—fat globs, heavy and motionless, as if they had been hung there by invisible wires and would drop of their own weight otherwise. It was one of those Virginia days in spring when the beauty of it all strikes you dumb but for exclaimed clichés.

Not that you would need more reason to make this drive, but strung along Route 151 are seven wineries, three breweries, one cidery, and one distillery—all do tastings, and some have restaurants. It is dubbed the Brew Ridge Trail, and it travels across Afton Mountain.

I once had a friend who smoked “Sweet Afton” cigarettes. Though they were made in Ireland, the package advertised them as “Virginia Cigarettes,” as this is where they got the tobacco. The name does not come from our Afton however, but from the Robert Burns poem about a river in Scotland. Under Burns’ picture on the pack, are these lines:

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Sleeping Beauty, Part 2

jan vallone

Today’s post, an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering, Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School, is continued from yesterday.

In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”

As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright. [Read more...]