The Poverty of Language

Another exercise. This one an exercise in seeing deeply, visualization, sketching from memory, and composing a written sketch of a photograph held in memory.

The photograph: Robert Frank’s “Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office, Butte, Montana,” published in his groundbreaking book The Americans.

Here’s what I asked students in my “Contemplation and Imagination” class to do:

1. Look at the photo projected on the screen.
2. Close your eyes and visualize, in as much detail as you can, the photo.
3. Look at the photo again. See if you notice anything new.
4. Close your eyes, paying attention to physical sensation.
5. Sketch the photo. (The projector is turned off.)
6. Look at the photo again.
7. Compose a written sketch of the image. (The projector is turned off.)

After this, I invited the students to talk about their experiences of the exercise. One soft-spoken student said, “the word wood to describe the desk—it misses so much.” [Read more...]

A Requiem for Rejects

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
—Isaiah 53:3

Six or seven years ago, a coworker of mine played a drunken game of chicken with a semi-truck on his bike at ten o’clock at night. His funeral doubled as a memorial service and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

My coworker, whom I will refer to as Flip, was an adjunct member of the faculty in the same university department that employed me as a lecturer. Flip was in his early forties, wore horrible Hawaiian-print shirts, and spoke with the glibness of a used car salesman.

“Got any advice on how I can butter up the ol’ boss and get a full-time job like yours?” he once asked me. Nope, not really, Flip.

I refrained from attending his funeral, but two of my coworkers went—out of obligation more than anything else. Neither of them knew him particularly well. They drove home absolutely gobsmacked by what they beheld that night.   [Read more...]

Stations of the Cross on the A Train, Part One

Hot town, summer in the city / Back of my neck getting burnt and gritty… goes the ode by The Lovin’ Spoonful, a radio staple at this time of year, its fevered melody symptomatic of the swelter it evokes: All around, people looking half dead / Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head…

And that’s just the state of things above ground.

Go below it, though, in New York City no less, and only a dirge will do: the grit reaches body parts far less exposed than the neck, the people look fully dead, and the hot putrid wind of every passing train fans the flames of an urban inferno that should, but doesn’t, constitute punishment enough for one’s many sins. [Read more...]

Children Before the Ravaging

Even if you only saw the trailers for the 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, you might recall the images of a young girl walking down the sidewalk, haunted by passersby who seem innocent enough until they draw close, when their faces are transmogrified into those of demons.

Those trailers scared the crap out of me.

Maybe they struck some close-held fear of insanity or possession: for years as a child I suffered from nightly dreams of the same thing, along with the occasional daytime vision. Or maybe I’m just a big fraidy cat. Either way, without the reliable promise of a steady bed partner for at least a month following, there was no way I was going to watch that movie in its entirety. (Please don’t tell the talented director, Scott Derrickson, who will be teaching at the Glen West Workshop later this summer.) [Read more...]

Let All Tend Inward to Me

Another presidential campaign season is upon us, with all its ugly divisiveness and demonizing of politicians who don’t share one’s own views. How is a Christian to live out Jesus’ command to love one another (John 13:34) in such times?

In the early 1980s, as a newly baptized Catholic, I plunged into a study of the spirituality of nonviolence. What pushed me was a pastoral letter issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in May, 1983: The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, written in the context of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. As a baby Catholic, I soaked in every word of the first official church document I’d read. What especially struck me, and with revelatory force, was the bishops’ assertion that nonviolence “best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice.”

[Read more...]