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. 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…]

Dinner with Dona Adélia 

Jessica Goudeau’s translations of the work of Adélia Prado, Brazil’s foremost living poet, appear in issue 91. 

The night I met Dona Adélia, she told me my husband was the perfect man. She came to the University of Texas for a poetry reading with her longtime translator and editor, Ellen Doré Watson. At almost eighty, Dona Adélia had aged with the grace of a self-possessed movie star, Sofia Loren as a Brazilian poet. Ellen, several years younger than she, translated her words with the ease that exists between women who have been friends for decades. They were traveling together with Dona Adélia’s statuesque daughter across the United States and came to Austin to read to a packed house.

The reading was a week after my dissertation defense. Kurt, my graduate advisor, had known Ellen since they were in school and had planned the evening. Dona Adélia lingered over one of her long poems dedicated to the figure of Jonathan, who sometimes stands in for the ideal man and sometimes Jesus, and about whom she has written dozens of poems, which differ from the earthier poems about her husband, Senhor José. When she heard that my husband’s name was Jonathan, she grabbed a pen to write in a copy of her book of poetry: “With happiness, for Jonathan (the perfect man) and his kind wife, Jessica.”

Over dinner at an intimate Italian restaurant, the scent of garlic and spicy wine mingling with candle smoke, we comfortably mixed Portuguese and English. Jonathan grew up in Brazil; we lived there together for a few years before graduate school. Ellen and Kurt and other translator friends joined us. Dona Adélia leaned in, breaking garlic bread delicately over her plate, asking questions in her melodic voice. We asked her about her poems, but she waved our questions away. She wanted to hear about what it was like for Jonathan to grow up in the western part of Brazil; they discussed fishing in the Pantanal. Dona Adélia’s children are older than we; we talked about how much she loved being a grandmother. When Dona Adélia asked about our children, we paused and looked at each other. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Intercession: For My Daughter” by Brett Foster

flowersWe pass into this world at birth. We pass out of it at death. And in between: holiness and horrors. This is probably the largest of themes that a poet could take on, and in “Intercession: For My Daughter” Brett Foster wraps his mind and language around it with consummate craft. First, to keep us grounded, there’s the reassuring pentameter beat. Then the three-line stanzas hold the expansive topic in a visual shape. And throughout: wordplay and stunning line-breaks elaborate the theme of our many “passings.” In stanza 1, the play with “helpful / and perfect, perfectly helpless.” In stanza 2, the play with “just being, / in being known.” “Still” in stanza 5 plays a double role: at line’s end it’s an adjective meaning quiet (“long and still”); but swept down into the next line it’s an adverbial “still / not length enough.” There’s more of this reverberating richness, but I want to point finally to the way the poem’s end (“The only place, this passing. There are so many”) circles back to its beginning (“There pass so very many”). Look at what Foster manages to do with the simple word “many”: there are so many passings, so many ways we pass into and through and beyond this life; and “so very many” of us enact these passings. All of us, in fact. [Read more…]

The Vegan at Our Chicken Slaughter

16658905467_1f9132c3f0_zA few years ago, we invited the newest neighbor in our rural intentional Christian community to help us slaughter the chickens we had raised for meat.

Our neighbor told us about his guest up the hill; he was visiting from the city and he was a strict ethical vegan. Our neighbor warned his vegan friend, whom I will call Tim, what would be happening down the hill that afternoon. So early that morning, Tim visited the doomed fowl and blessed them before death.

I appreciated such a blessing on our chickens. Blessings over animals before slaughter have been part of animal killing in many traditional societies. Some Native American tribes would ask for forgiveness for taking the life of the animal and then offer thanks for the provision of its life for sustenance.

When he was in West Africa serving in the Peace Corps, my husband participated in the killing of an animal during a festival. In keeping with Beninese tradition, he offered the animal a sip of water before he took its life, as a sign of respect. [Read more…]