Disturbing the Silence: Part 2

photo of a blurred human behind a door

Continued from yesterday.

It’s not until my husband and I return from our getaway weekend and arrive home from the cabin to the Internet, to the noise of children, to the chaos of community life creeping in, that I find the space to read Wendell Berry’s poetry. This poem, in particular, resonates with me:

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

i   

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.   

ii   

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii  

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

I read this poem of quiet—of communicating without screens, of living without air conditioning and technology, in order to “make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came”—to my husband in our bed at home and we nod and say, “hmmm, yes,” together.

Berry often writes of loss and the quirkiness of community, but his writing spins visions of a world long past: one that is idyllic, beautiful, and ultimately fulfilling. In those moments of reading his poetry, I find Berry’s words affirming of the life we’ve chosen and pushing us to even more difficult choices.

But after nearly a decade of attempting to eschew some of the attractions and amenities of urban life, I’ve also begun to wonder if Berry’s pure ideals are feasible, if this idyllic long ago that he writes about ever really existed at all. [Read more…]

Endurance Test

a pair of nice shoes in the center of the floor.By Matt Newcomb.

My father held the wall to work his way from the bed to the couch, avoiding the ship’s bell protruding from the wall. He was sick—the kind of sick that meant out of work too. It was his adrenal system, or his pineal gland, or a hormonal imbalance, depending on the doctor. And it was definitely sleep apnea and diabetes on top of whatever else.

During his illness, when I was in high school, he would play a twisted game with me. I might be sitting in our leather recliner, the ugly but fought-over mark of middle-class luxury in our house. He’d slap me lightly on the cheek to try to get a reaction. No reaction. Another slap, building, a bit harder each time.

It was perhaps less a game than the action of a bored younger sibling, a role he frequently played. There was no question of serious violence; I dominated him in strength, height, and health by this point. Every couple of slaps he would ask if he should stop. My goal was to never say yes. I might move slightly with some slaps, but I would win. The question was whether my frustration or discomfort would make me stop him before his worry about hitting me too hard would stop him.

He was testing my endurance, not for how long I could take pain or discomfort, but for how long I could take him. Would I put up with the pestering slaps of his illness and neediness day after day? [Read more…]

Finding My Sister in Young Adult Novels

two people walking on a path in the woods, on the cusp of the open edge of the trees that are purple from the late dusk.Lately all I want to read are young adult novels about sisters.

Young adult (YA) lit has a simplicity that creeps up on you. It’s about falling in love and obligations to the world outside of our daily concerns. And it’s usually disturbing as hell, reflective of how, though we say we lose innocence, as we grow older we really lose darkness. We lose insight into a mysterious world full of wonderful and awful possibilities where so much is at stake.

Seanan McGuire’s Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day follows Jenna, a ghost-girl who works at a suicide hotline in New York, trying to return a debt she feels she owes to the living while looking for the spirit of her sister.

Jenna’s sister Patty left home in West Virginia to live in New York, where she lies to her family about her wonderful life. After Patty ends her life and Jenna drowns in a ravine while mourning her sister, Jenna haunts New York, falling in love with its alleys and diners and rat witches(!), and thinking about the solace and sadness her sister would have experienced on the same streets.

When I was a teen, I made my sister vanish, and she did the same for me. Once, we were ten and eight, acting out a scene from Fiddler on the Roof in the field, and the next thing we knew, we both were in college. I tell her I ran to a boulder in the woods when our mom would harm herself, and she says that she was there too, and how could we have been at the rock at the same time? [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…]

Muddy River

an image of a black and white subway car moving in a soft blur through a subway station.By Jen Pollock Michel.

It was the summer of Leiby Kletzy, the eight-year-old Hasidic boy kidnapped from his Brooklyn neighborhood in broad daylight and brutally murdered. It was also the summer I almost lost my seven-year-old daughter Camille on a Toronto subway platform.

When I turned, from inside the train, to see my daughter—outside, standing alone—my feet became bricks of indecision. The doors chimed and began closing. A stranger jumped to pry them open, and I pulled her inside, smothering her small body to my chest. She didn’t even know our phone number.

Six years later, I am preparing Camille to ride the subway unaccompanied for the first time. Almost thirteen, she is the happy new owner of a cell phone. “You’re going to have to look for the stairs that say “Northbound’ on the way home,” I say, rehearsing the route she will take home alone.

The train rumbles in as we stand several feet behind the thickly painted yellow line that portends the sheer drop onto the tracks. I imagine the accident, the surprise violence that sends us, unprepared, over its edge. [Read more…]