The Ghosts of Home

natalie-vestin-drive-imageWhen I visit my family in northern Minnesota, I find myself on the same roads I’ve known—back and forth—since I was a child. Often I ride with others because I can’t orient, even in my small town and the outskirts made of barely-there townships and roads that veer only toward themselves. I think of small pathways on Midway Road, and I look for the town hall, for the church, for the dilapidated gray house with scorch marks at the roof. The churning root beer float of the St. Louis River to the south.

I gave up my car last year, though I still love the way the air and light changes on a drive, the way that movement and change of scene feels like prayer. Like close prayer, as if God is in the ditch or the jack pines, a new side of God available when you move a certain way or enter a different terrain. [Read more…]

Interview with a Zombie

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Halloween costumes and decorations. If I’m a vampire, Pinterest is my garlic. Not only do I cut and paste at a first-grade level but tolerate little more than a basic jack-o-lantern or paper bat in my house.

But come September, neighborhood front yards become graveyards. Styrofoam headstones with epitaphs like “I.M. Dead” and “Bone Voyage” litter the leaf-strewn lawns. In the more high-achieving displays, bony hands, and sometimes even bright rubber intestines, work their way out of the soil.

Your more conservative Christian is often exhorted to avoid this kind of thing. Churches replace Halloween parties with “harvest festivals.” Some parents even forbid their kids from wearing costumes or trick-or-treating. I’m far from fundamentalist, but I tire of the two-month long (if you go by Wal-Mart’s shelves) celebration of death and decay. Last year I had to drive by all that tacky gore while my good friend was withering away to cancer. I resented the daily, macabre assault.

But there’s something different about Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America, the amusement park fifteen minutes from my home. Yes, the decorations push the icky limits, but the “scare-actors”–the zombies, clowns, and werewolves who roam the park from 6 p.m. to closing—have lurched their way into my heart. [Read more…]

Getting Close to You, God: A Meditation During the Month of Elul

by-david-bergin-emmett-and-elliott-on-flickr“You are my light and my help / Whom should I fear?” Thus begins Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 27.

Right now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning, the 14th of Elul, 5776; Sept. 17, 2016, these verses don’t resonate with me. Fear: yes, I am afraid, afraid, at the moment, that I won’t finish this essay by the deadline, two days from now, for my next contribution to “Good Letters.”

Whom do I fear? The “Good Letters” editor, a kind woman and talented writer who generously works with a group of writers for the blog? The editor-in-chief of Image, the extraordinary journal that is at the heart of an equally extraordinary community of writers, artists, musicians whose work engages, one way or another, ultimate questions of “art, faith, and mystery”?

What about the Divine, YHVH, whose commandment to observe the Shabbat I am breaking by writing this piece this morning, is that who I fear? Or is it some internal judge who took up residence within me, probably so early in my life that I can’t remember when. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The News”

11793323376_2b9390cd6e_zWhat do I do with the daily news of disasters? Do I mumble a quick prayer for the victims, then turn to my day’s to-do list? Do I ever pause and ponder: this disaster might have struck those I love, or even me? These are the questions that Shara McCallum turns over in “The News.” Her imagination doesn’t flinch from detailing the horrors. Yet she is also self-protective, and she knows this. I admire how she keeps her eyes both shut and open to the dreadful events that life can deal us. And I admire especially the painful closing two stanzas: the piercing image of that mother somewhere whose “hem of life” will be “snagged, /from here forward”: from the instant she learns of her child forever lost.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Adam Zagajewski’s Trench Warfare

15221101821_df7492d443_z“Writing poems is a duel / that no one wins…” As I’m reading the poem that opens with these words, I think: this could be describing my life.

The poem is called “Writing Poems.” It’s by the superb contemporary Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, in his new collection, Unseen Hand. And in fact, nearly all the poems in this collection could be describing my life—because the “duel” that Zagajewski refers to is between opposites that battle each other, or sometimes balance each other, or sometimes swing back and forth between each other.

This is Zagajewski’s vision not only of writing poems but of living life. And it’s my own experience of living.

My husband has ongoing and seemingly interminable heart disease dis-ease, yet he delights in a phone call from our son and laughs heartily (hmmm, interesting pun) during a friend’s visit. His days are like Zagajewski’s poem-writing: [Read more…]