The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]

Black Lives, Black Art

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Sedrick Huckaby. From Glory to Glory, 2016. Oil on canvas on panel. 80 x 30 inches.

I happened to be re-reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin when the current issue of Image (#90) arrived in the mail. So I was especially interested in Joe Milazzo’s essay on the work of African American artist Sedrick Huckaby.

In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 novel, even the kindest and most compassionate white people refer to their slaves as “articles.” The less kind whites simply assume that “n*****s” are “property.” The sale of this property is big business, and “traders” (as they call their profession) separate husbands from wives, children from parents, without any more moral awareness than you’d have in separating perennials in your garden. [Read more…]

Listening to Beautiful Darkness

Waking from the Nightmare

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A little girl awakens in an autumn wood. She stands, looks up through the red-orange fire of the leaves to see a small patch of white sky. Then she brushes the leaves from her cardigan and walks out of the frame.

Someone screams.

The idyll is broken. We’re back in the nightmare forest in the middle of Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness, where a host of tiny creatures struggle for survival.

The scream came from one of the creatures, a feral sort of china doll with an enlarged head, who eats maggots and eventually comes to live in the rotting skull of the very girl from the dream. Feral china doll wakes up grunting, “Nightmare . . . Nightmare!” as if we’re the weirdos for having hoped that the book thus far had been the dream, that the girl was not dead but dreaming the graphic novel’s bizarre horrors.

I’ll admit that the first time I read Beautiful Darkness, I found it morbidly fascinating but too unpleasant to enjoy. I granted, with many online, that the artwork was gorgeous and dramatic, and that the plot was a kind of feminist anti-fairy tale. Still, I felt it demonstrated a kind of casual nihilism I see in lots of contemporary horror.

Then we had a presidential election, and half the country thought they were in a nightmare. The other half said they’d been in a nightmare, themselves, for too long. A host of conservatives screamed, “I told you so” to a liberal consensus. With deep pain and frustration in their voices, they moaned, “You didn’t listen!”

I don’t know how to process the complexities of the divide in this country. I don’t know that I listened well enough, or that, with what light I was given, I used what platforms I had to advocate enough for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Or that it would have made any difference.

But I know I want to listen better, for what it’s worth. And I can start not only with those around me but with this book. How can it change me?

Inside Out

nightmareI have come around to believing Beautiful Darkness works as a disturbing critique and warning about the primitive evil that lingers beneath our trite civilities.

The bizarre premise involves the humanoid citizens of a young girl’s imagination escaping her body after she dies, mysteriously, in the woods. Aurora, the fantasy embodiment of the girl herself, takes charge of feeding and housing the refugees, blithely promoting principles of fairness and generosity.

It soon becomes apparent that everyone is prepared to profit from Aurora’s leadership, but no one really shares her values. Rather, each character proves a creature of whim, appetite, and even violent instinct. Those that show any ability to deliberate use their reasoning powers to manipulate others for their own gain.

In the end, Aurora has to decide how best to deal with this host of dangerously destructive imps that seem to keep following her around.

The book is all about people’s blithe indifference to one another’s suffering. Worse, it’s sometimes about direct violence and society’s willingness to shrug it off if there’s something more entertaining to do. One large character literally eats a smaller one. A bystander says, “What did you just do?” but the large creature says, “Wanna play? Look, it’s like I’m pregnant!” and a person’s death becomes a perverse joke.

Characters steal from one another. They torture insects. They kill animals that had previously helped them, then eat their raw flesh. Betrayal is casual, murder is the stuff of games. It’s Lord of the Flies meets Strawberry Shortcake. Except all the Pastry People keep smiling and playing their baked-goods games.

It’s disturbing to think that the “big” folks in our society might consume the “little” ones, in more subtle ways, and somehow the rest of us would be complicit in laughing at it.

Teach Your Children Well

sohungryThis book does not try to force a message, and there’s no happily ever after in sight. The death and loss are too isolating, and Aurora’s hope seems to lie in a large human male who is associated with many violent images and may have caused the death of the human Aurora.

One way you can read it is as the human Aurora’s imagination living on after her, and her ego, the creature Aurora, doing her best to negotiate growing up in a world made dangerous by nature and cruel by people. If she overcomes, it is not by remaining purely good but by making hard choices maybe we’d rather she didn’t have to make.

Without anyone to teach her better, Aurora learns to “do what it takes” to survive. That’s a phrase used by self-proclaimed realists to justify morally questionable actions, and Aurora, eventually donning the pelt of a former mouse ally, is en route to becoming a tiny dictator of a world of one.

To see justice in the individual, Plato imagined the person as a city and the parts of the self as its citizens. Here, a child dies before maturing, so the parts of herself are arrested in pre-adolescence. If Beautiful Darkness is a parable of human evil, then it takes a rather banal view of original sin as a child’s lack of empathy, distractibility, and reflexive violence without conscience.

The book thus indicts those traits in ourselves as shamefully immature. How, after all, can we hope to train our children in doing good if we continue to act in any way like children? In an age of parents pouting about their children on social media while police shoot black parents’ children, there may be an audience that needs to feel the grotesque but profound disturbance of a book like this.

And may we each take the fanciful Auroras in our lives by the hand and, rejecting vengeance and rage, lead them down paths of righteousness.

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Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.

The above images are from the text reviewed here: Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness.

Microbes, Miracles, and Monstrosities

2765274506_049438a5d5_zI’ve always promised myself I wouldn’t work with anything living, a prohibition I applied first when, in high school, I job-shadowed a pathologist and fainted when watching a lung biopsy, fainted when seeing the wall of stored blood, fainted ad infinitum into the twenty-first century.

I couldn’t deal with watching pain, and I hadn’t considered that pathologists work not only with the dead, but with the suffering living, and with blood that is distinctly never where it ought to be. I’ve studied viruses for the past ten or so years, happy to research things that appear alive, yet are simply energized bits of rogue genetic material.

But for the past several months, I’ve been working on a new project, one that focuses on drug-resistant bacterial and fungal infections, and I can’t ignore the new relationships I have with living microbes that, like all of nature, can’t be characterized as good or bad. On the one hand, resistant strains are responsible for 23,000 deaths each year in the US, per the Center for Disease Control, yet their kin also let us digest our food and, back in the day, led to the emergence of an oxygenated atmosphere and all multicellular life. [Read more…]

My HIV Test

By Paul Luikart

CutHere’s something I never told my parents: some years ago I got an HIV test.

I was working and living at a Catholic Worker house in Phoenix, a place I wound up after college. I had a freshly conferred bachelor’s degree in creative writing (not exactly bait for corporate recruiters) and a swirling head full of idealism.

Imagine: I assumed I could save the world. I thought the world could, in fact, be saved, or even that the world had some notion of its need for salvation in the first place.

Among other things, the Catholic Worker had a soup kitchen, and on Saturday nights I was the staff person in charge of making sure the goulash got cooked and served, the local parish volunteers had jobs to do, and that general peace and order were maintained among the guests.

“Guests” was acceptable terminology for the homeless men, women, and kids who shuffled in for dinner, out of the dusty alleys, wearing their tribulations as ripped up jeans and sunburns so bad they’d sometimes turn black. [Read more…]