Love Nailed to the Doorpost

black and white image of a mezuzah on the door post of a house. The commandment to love is nailed to my doorpost. Ritualistically written on a little piece of parchment, rolled up, tucked inside a beautifully painted ceramic case, and nailed aslant to the doorpost.

I almost never notice it. Not when I’m rushing out of the house in the morning, book bag and gym bag slung over my shoulder, head down, rushing to the car, desperate to get to campus before the last available parking spot is taken in the lot at my building. It’s not love, I’m thinking about at that moment. It’s convenience.

Not when I’ve been working at home—on a weekday or Saturday (I know, Saturday, Shabbat, I shouldn’t be working!)—and want to walk up the driveway to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. It’s not love I’m thinking about then. It’s hope. Hope for some surprise, though few surprises arrive in the mail anymore. Mostly junk mail and pleas to contribute to a cause, many of them causes that, in my heart.

Not when, with Laurie, I’m heading out for a Saturday night movie. I like love stories. Romantic comedies. Not that we limit ourselves to them. Most recent film: Paterson. Loved it. Definitely a love story: a love of poetry, a tender love story of a bus driver poet and his partner, a cupcake artist, a whimsical designer. Love stirs when I’m watching a good love story on the screen. Are movies my mezuzah? [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme”

a woman sits in a room lit by a single lamp, the rest of the room is shrouded in shadows. she has her hand up and is holding a cup, her face is turned away and bathed in shadows. on the wall sits images and postcards, and a desk is full of books and small papers.It’s fairly common for a poem to be inspired by (or be in conversation with) a famous painting. Less often, though, do we find poems engaging with a musical work. Yet that’s just what happens in Carol Davis’s poem “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme.” Fans of the brilliant jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane will immediately recognize in Davis’s title the name of Coltrane’s masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” And a line from the final movement of this work, “Psalm,” is quoted in the second stanza of Davis’s poem. For Coltrane, the “Love Supreme” is God. For Davis’s speaker, it’s less clear. The poem opens with disturbing images of bodily disintegration. Coltrane’s piece then enters the poem, offering the speaker the possibility of “another pulse in me.” Hopeful musical images continue into stanza three, with the church’s organ heard from across the street. But then, in the final stanza, musical images merge with the (apparent) loss of a loved one. “Where you’ve gone,” psalms like Coltrane’s ecstatic praise of God are abundant. Yet on the cello’s neck, “fingers [wait] / above a stalled note”: the poem’s speaker longs to connect with the lost one (“ear of my ear”), but can’t. Something is stalled; loss finally overwhelms the speaker. So the poem gives in to the grief of its title: “Grief Daybook.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Photos, Love, and Karyotypes

I recently found remnants from college and grad school genetics classes: karyotypes—sheets of paper with photos of chromosomes clumsily glued to their forty-six places. My professors would usually hand us an envelope filled with tiny chromosome photos on Friday to be assembled over the weekend. I sat in the sun on Saturday afternoons, poring over their individual structures to find where they matched and fit, trying not to exhale too deeply, lest I lose some genetic code forever.

I’m fascinated by blind spots, by everything I look at over and over again without truly seeing. Science sometimes feels like a lovely game of encountering an idea once invisible combined with a near-constant state of being wrong. Although, the practice of science requires immense faith in the implausible fact that a trajectory of error will one day lead to truth.

Walking home from the bookstore several evenings ago, I was in a good mood. I take photos as I walk, because I like having a record of the felt experience that the world is different in very small, almost unnoticeable, manners each day.

But I almost never look at the photos. It’s too sad somehow to see everything changing, things being lost or replacing what I’d come to love through observation. The act of making the image and capturing time is what’s meaningful for me.

And then I saw the old man’s house. I’ve walked past the bungalow nearly every day for the past five years, watching his son bring him dinner or looking at the lights on the very fat Christmas tree the old man put against the living room window. But that evening, the house inside was lit by fluorescence and gutted down to exposed beams and insulation with a realty sign out front.

I didn’t know the old man’s name, but I knew him by his form walking each morning from Mass at Saint Thomas More with a prayer book in his back pocket. One side of his body was rounded over in a pronounced hunch as if he were always ducking sideways to pass through a low arch, left shoulder nearly meeting his left ear.

And I knew him because he was the only person in the neighborhood who had a “Vote Yes: Keep Marriage Between One Man and One Woman” sign in his yard when the same-sex marriage amendment was on the Minnesota ballot a few years ago.

The amendment caused much pain among people who had to watch their neighbors and friends vote on the legitimacy of their unions. I didn’t like the old man’s ideology, but I loved the view of his shoulder and his little book, the pained softness of him. He used to walk with his wife, who walked more briskly than he and carried a pocketbook similar to my grandmother’s, which was beaded and made in West Germany.

When I no longer saw his wife, it was hard not to make assumptions. I thought—perhaps too imaginatively—that he liked the marriage slogan because he had suddenly become one man without the one woman who could solve for the other side of his equation.

And now he’s missing—or, at least the images of him that made their way into my life as a habit of seeing have disappeared.

I’ve heard arguments that photography is a way of distancing oneself from the world (especially if one is a young woman and the lens is harbored by a phone), and it seems, unlike other visual arts, often the act of photography is viewed as disrupting sacred spaces or as a way of snidely turning down the full experience. A distraction.

Yet photographs and how we view them informed much of the past century’s genetic research. Images, instead of being content to illustrate an idea or appeal to a visual sense, actually made knowledge.

In 1956, karyotypes displayed in the photomicrographs of Joe Hin Tjio and in camera lucida drawings made by Albert Levan revealed that humans have forty-six chromosomes, instead of forty-eight as was previously thought. Mountains of in-progress research had been discarded up to that point as scientists came up two chromosomes short and thought their karyotypes were incomplete. What had been described as missing was there in its entirety all along.

And you might think, how? How can you look without seeing? How can you be wrong over and over, vision muddied by preconception?

Karyotypes rarely make their way into conversations outside genetics labs. It’s the phenotype that’s so interesting, the way that chromosomes are expressed while shaping the body. Phenotype explains why humans are so genetically similar to chimpanzees yet look so different.

Expression never conveys the full meaning. Meaning is hidden behind forty-six doors, and also nowhere near them. It’s simultaneously a savior and the worst kind of horror: the way we walk around with all of our meanings largely hidden behind a physical form.

I heard someone say once that to describe something as missing implies that you are looking for it.

My father taught me that God is love and also something around which you spend an entire life revolving. And as you revolve, you see each human’s face appear. This is why love needs art to continually produce images: beautiful, sacred, ugly, wrong, wonderful, profane, constant images. It is because, if God is a passing glimpse of everybody, then to love is next to impossible.

I’m terrified of anger and ideology, of one day rejecting everything and being unable to live in my world. I feel I am often angry at ideas seen from a distance. When it happens, I shake my head, and say It’s so easy to hate you from here, and then I go outside and take photos and walk and watch people try to solve the equations for lost things, for a God whose many faces seem often to be missing.

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Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.

Above image from the archive of Josef Reischig, edited and used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

Visiting Martin Luther in Minneapolis

Painting of Judith with the head of Holofernes in a tent. Outside, a group of men are gathered arguing. In the background, there is an army standing in a circle and a large castle on a hill against a sky that looks as if it will begin storming.A few weeks ago, I visited the Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Before I left to catch the train, I popped my Swedish great-aunt’s small ceramic squirrel into my bag, knowing that she’d want to come in some way. (She’s likely forcing a plate of pepparkakor and herring on the Almighty right now.)

The museum was only open for exhibit visitors, so the side rooms containing casts of Greek sculpture, Ottoman-era Persian miniatures, and an 1800’s Rwandan sword (one of my favorite pieces) were dark and roped off, though visitors could peer inside.

What is it about turning off the lights that reveals the life flowing through something inanimate? Museums are opportunities for falling deeply into unrequited love; the dark, forbidden rooms could entirely take you over.

But the crowds were largely Lutheran, I guessed; not a crowd given to losing their heads over the Doryphoros’ mighty muscles and fetchingly chipped backside. And truthfully, I was there partly to be around all the elderly people, to watch and learn how they cherish the bits of idea and heritage that lend us all strength.

There is something about elders and art, a stillness so at odds with experiencing the world through a screen, that is monumentally welcome to me. The other day, I passed an old man carrying a huge M&M cookie (also considered great art in my book), and all else but love fell away; that’s the reality I crave.

Someone close to me suffered from opioid addiction for years and often was very cruel. I used to feel hurt or even despised but then learned that opioids detach their users from reality, and I realized that, in a way, this person didn’t think of me as real. What could be more horrific than realizing someone you love knows that you exist but doesn’t think you’re real?

And now, with the opioids gone, I can feel the difference in being loved because I am seen. [Read more…]

Literacy Class: Learning the Language of Love

vintage photo looking down on woman lounging on floor reading. By D.L. Mayfield.

This past week, I taught my last English class for quite some time. Three years ago, I moved to my new city in the Midwest. Almost right away, I started teaching literacy to people (mostly women, mostly older, all East African refugees) who have been denied access to education.

The levels of trauma, displacement, oppression, and prejudice contained in that single educational qualifier “non-literate” are hard to explain.

I taught in the corners of crowded libraries, classrooms, computer labs. I taught inside of makeshift police offices and elder housing complexes. I learned about the housing crisis in Minneapolis, I met large families who lived in homeless shelters, I learned of the cracks in the system, how gaping and wide open they turned out to be.

I helped people fill out forms and connect with resources and each other, I learned Somali songs and went to weddings, I ate delicious food and learned how to put the proper amount of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamom in the tea I made for us all.

I scolded people for driving without a license and visited women in their apartments after they gave birth. I delivered cheese and pineapple pizza to people, baked hundreds of Funfetti cupcakes, which were much too sweet for any of us. And in the end, I saw maybe one person learn to read. [Read more…]