The Wall Is You: Entering Faith Through Poetry

Two years ago at the Festival of Faith and Writing I mustered up all the bravery I could and walked up to Thom Caraway at the Rock & Sling table. I was trying to be proactive and self-promote, but I felt out of my league with all of the brilliant poets and their beautiful literary magazines. Still, when I told Thom about my blog, he opened his laptop right then and typed in the address. He didn’t roll his eyes at the word “blog” or write me off as un-literary. He was kind, and his kindness buoyed me and helped me to continue to be courageous that weekend.

To this day, Thom Caraway continues to be one of my favorite people. His work at Rock & Sling is fantastic, and I love his commitment to exploring the ways faith and art intersect. You’re going to love this piece and the poem that goes with it. Welcome Thom!

wall

As the editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal that publishes work that engages faith issues, the relationship between writing and God is often at the front of my thinking. I look for poems that seek not the easy platitudes of Proverbs or Psalms quoted out of context, not that which avoids to central conflicts of faith and doubt (not that the Psalms are easy, of course, but when you take one sentence and put it on a poster or say “God has a plan,” I tend to become uninterested in a hurry). I want to publish work that is taking faith issues on in beautiful and meaningful ways. Work that isn’t certain or doesn’t have all the answers.

But in my own writing, I rarely wrestle with these issues, explicitly at least. I wasn’t a Christian when I started writing, coming to faith only in the last few years. And while it was partially through poetry that I was able to access and understand the beauty of God’s creation, those issues still stayed out of my writing. I find as much spiritual guidance in the work of Wendell Berry, B.H. Fairchild, Marilynne Robinson, and John Hodgen as I do in the Gospels. But I can’t seem to do it myself.

It’s just too big. I still feel like an infant Christian. I didn’t grow up in a church, so I don’t have decades of King James rhythms, hymns or sermons bumping around in my memories. I am not fluent in the language (I came to Addie’s blog the first time legitimately looking for ways to talk evangelical), and I feel at times a bit like an imposter to Christendom (though I often still feel this way about my poetry, as well).

But a year or so ago, my church asked a few of us writers to compose a series of responses to Psalm 23. Even I knew which one that was. That’s got all the big language. Like, all of it. “The valley of the shadow of death…” That’s heady stuff, and I was already intimidated, so of course I said sure.

The assignment was essentially ekphrastic. My poem would be a response to the tone and feel the Psalm inspired in me. I could handle that. While I see many poems that respond directly to various Scriptural passages as Rock & Sling editor, I knew that I should avoid certain pitfalls. My first draft, of course, fell into all of those pits. Through a drawn out process of revision, I started to mold it into a shape I liked. Here is the result: 

Shine, Imperishable City

When I close my eyes, I’ve seen
the shimmering city—light,
gold as the harvest,
heard the distant wash of music.
But the city was walled, black stone,
and I could not enter.

“The wall is you,” he said, “you
are the wall.” I knew that what was in the city
was not for me. I knew that inside,
my enemies ate at my table, knew
that there were no enemies, not even me.

It is no simple thing to enter the world.
First, we depart these angels
of our common love. We give up
the shadow of a thing for the thing,
the shining city, this meal and cup,
this terrible oil, anointing me beloved.

Surely, this is the kingdom.
Surely, I am black stone.
Surely, the city is for you, for me,
and the wall becomes glass
and the kingdom erupts, surely heaven
surely earth, angels and cup, world without end.

(the poem is forthcoming in The Cresset)

The poem draws in several elements that had been working in me. The first is the vision, a recurring dream I’ve had most of my life. A city I always understood as heaven, with yellow light and symphonic music emanating from inside, but the walls were too tall and thick and I could never find a way in. I’d told a friend that story one day, the day I became a believer, actually. And he said what he said. Sometimes the Spirit speaks poetry into your life, and you receive it. I’ve learned to feel blessed rather than lucky.

From there, I try to get close to some of the psalmic language, to ramp up the rhythm and build a crescendo, which includes the contrasting emotions I have about salvation. This is the “terrible oil” line. Salvation and grace are awesomely freeing but also terrifying. If you aren’t terrified by your salvation, I don’t understand you. The scope of it is beyond comprehension. ‘Humbling’ is too small a word. But it’s there, and we’re in it, and I wanted that heavenly city to erupt. That’s how I often feel about God, that He’s erupting into my world, both destructive and saving.

And while I am still looking for ways to engage my faith more explicitly through my poetry, I have faith that the Spirit will lead me there, in His time, when I’m ready. And I’ll take the fleeting glimpses in the meantime.

 

Blue shirt photoThom Caraway teaches at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he is the editor of Rock & Sling, a journal of witness. He lives with his wife and kids, several chickens, bunnies, and other animals (but not yet a goat), in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. Last fall, he was selected as Spokane’s first Poet Laureate.

Honky-Tonk Bride

Friends. I’m back from a beautiful, exhausting, whirlwind weekend at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I feel wildly grateful to have been in the company of beautiful people and beautiful art for three full days. And I’m so tired that I could cry.

I’ll tell you more about all of it later this week, but for now, I’m so glad to continue my April Faith & Poetry project with the beautiful work of my friend Sarah Wells. I had the chance to spend some time with Sarah at the Festival and she is every bit as lovely and brilliant in real life as she is here. Please welcome her here today!

honky tonk

Poetry is the place I go to wrestle with a question I have—if I’m confused or angry or tired or in love or depressed or delighted or maybe a thought is just constant like a pebble in the bottom of my shoe, I often find myself writing a poem through it. The writing of poetry is my meditation practice; it’s the quiet place I find to be still and listen, to be still and know, or at least to be still and wonder.

It is the music of language in poetry that initially drew me to it. I was captivated by the rhythms of language the same way a keyboardist at my church can lead me into the thin places during worship until I find myself exposed and vulnerable, ready to receive. Poetry has this ability as well – a simple turn of phrase or an aptly placed line break can slice me open, lead me deeper, or slam me against the wall – and that emotional engagement can draw me into a sanctuary of praise.

Poetry’s ability to engage the imagination also serves to enliven my faith. Just as I see poetry as a vessel to carry both the natural and spiritual worlds, I think it’s also something of a defibrillator, a device to send a jolt through whatever rigid ideas I have about God and faith so that I might always be aware of the mysteries.

And that, I think, is what I appreciate most about poetry of faith: there is room for doubt alongside faith. There is room for darkness alongside light. There is room for awe alongside simplicity. There is room for uncertainty alongside facts. These are the places of complexity and reality for me in my faith, and engaging in this place of tension feels real, and good, and true, and beautiful.

Here’s a poem from Pruning Burning Bushes, which originally appeared on the blog of the literary journal Rock and Sling:

Honky-Tonk Bride 

Jesus is dancing like no one is watching
his partner. He smiles and twirls a girl
in a satiny top and high heels. The audience
raises their glasses and pitchers. The dance
floor is packed and they’re playing
his song, the one on seducing a love
gone wrong. All of the ways he’s tried
to romance her,
but she turns her head,
ignores his advances and catches other
cowboys’ stares. She is sure the world
prefers a man in a Stetson hat instead
of this wild-eyed dancer, shameless
for her. How effortlessly
he turns her,
gathers her into himself as if he loves her
wandering, as if he loves her
doubts, would save her from her
handsome predators every Wednesday,
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night
from this honky tonk to eternity.

 

SarahWells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Poems and essays by Wells have appeared in many journals, most recently Ascent, Brevity, Chautauqua, The CommonFull Grown People, The Good Men Project, The Pinch, and River Teeth. Sarah’s work has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essays, “Country Boys, City Boys” and ”Those Summers, These Days” were listed as notable essays in the Best American Essays 2013 and 2012, respectively. Sarah is at work on a memoir/essay collection about the two most important men in her life, her husband and her father, with the tentative title, American Honey. She serves as the Administrative Director for the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University and Managing Editor for the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrativehttp://sarahmwells.blogspot.com

Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life

I’m so honored to have extraordinary writer and Windhover Journal editor, Dr. Nathaniel Hansen, sharing here today. I love the way he writes about pushing toward the confusing and often deeply personal realm of faith through poetry. You guys are going to love this one. As today is the first day of the Festival of Faith and Writing, I’m hopefully hanging out with him in real life as you read this. (The internet is so weird and awesome sometimes.) Please welcome him to this space today!

Your most frequent
requests: a safe drive,
a speedy recovery,
and financial demands.
And then of course
the old standbys
“bless this” and
“bless that.”

You wonder how
those saints master
the discipline,
their communication
traveling like currents
through crackling lines
that almost spark
from sender to
receiver, back again.

You can count
on one hand
the moments prayer
blossomed organically
without wants’ weeds
crowding petals, stealing
sunlight, robbing soil
of water, of life.

Yet, you persist
with petitions
attached to phrases
abundant, overflowing,
with me, my, and I,
forgetting that one
who wants to live
must first lose one’s life.

published in The Cresset, 76.5 (2013)

I write poems about rural spaces, about weather, about the wind, about driving, and about love. Sometimes two of these subjects make it into one poem. A couple of my poems even manage to contain all of my go-to subjects. This poem was/is different.

I wrote the first draft in late August 2012 shortly after the birth of my daughter and after beginning a new job in a new state. Prior to drafting, revising, and subsequently publishing this poem, however, I rarely addressed any aspect of my faith. I can count on one hand the number of my poems that have addressed any aspect of my faith. During my grad-school stints I’d made a few attempts, but they hadn’t worked out very well.

The first draft was only three stanzas, missing the fourth stanza that appears in the published version. And that fourth stanza was a stretch for me. It was moving in the direction of pronouncement, but at the same time, the fourth stanza eventually seemed to me to be essential, an organic expression based upon the previous three stanzas.

My use of second-person was deliberate from the outset. I chose it because I felt the overt presence of the “I” would be too inwardly focused. So, yes, I’m the “you,” but maybe the reader is also the “you.” I was implicating myself. How could I call out my own tepid prayer life, a prayer live marked by solipsism?  As it has so many times before, poetry rescued me.

praying  hands

John Berryman famously stated, “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”

I see “Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life” as the title of my next project, and this Lenten season, I’ve begun drafting more poems related to the subject of prayer. I’m exploring what this poem’s title and its implications might have both for me and for a wider audience.  This exploration is a challenging and uncomfortable.

For me, this poem, and the subsequent poems that it has inspired (and will inspire), is more about courage than anything else. Courage to wrestle with a subject matter littered with the refuse of clichés and easy-believism. Courage to stretch myself beyond my “regular” subject matter. Courage to face the possibility that I might be changed, formed, corrected, etc., etc., etc., by this entire pursuit.

In one new poem, “Prayer Diagnostics,” I write, “Most often, the trouble is simply starting./There are so many other things you’d rather do.” Following this initial stanza, I include a litany of activities I’d rather do than pray. I found this list, sadly, easy to create, the distractions stretching across line after line. None of these activities is inherently bad, but the poem is my attempt to list my conflicting allegiances, my competing loves, my competing objects of worship.

*

This brings me back to the first poem, to the ending with its allusion to Christ’s injunction. The poem revealed to me the fact that I need to be other-focused. I realize that’s nothing “new under the sun,” I’ve heard that idea preached more times than I can count on my fingers and toes.

But it took this poem to shock me, to acknowledge that all of this is bigger than “I.”

*

Hansen picA proud Minnesota native, Nathaniel Lee Hansen is the author of the recently released chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2014). He teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where he also serves as editor of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and directs the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival. He blogs sporadically at plainswriter.wordpress.com and tweets randomly with the handle RunWriteTeach.  He is a proud aficionado of contemporary poetry, NBA basketball, small towns, progressive metal, and Yankee Candles.

 

Photo by Joel Jospeh at CreationSwap.
Used with permission

One Small Change: Leaving My Phone Downstairs

I am so excited to finally meet Cara Meredith this week at the Festival of Faith and Writing! Her blog be, mama. be. is lovely and challenging…and so is this post. Please welcome her here today!

car-keys-and-iphone

It wasn’t in any way purposeful, and the act itself certainly didn’t happen overnight.

At first, boundaries came naturally: I refused to check e-mail on my cell phone altogether, and I trucked the trusty ol’ alarm clock from move to move, gathering extension cords, if necessary, to help the digital reach its ultimate destination on my nightstand or plush against the carpet floor.  I’d be sure to turn shut my laptop by 9 every night, because I knew my restless mind needed time to calm down before settling into sleep; instead, making myself a cup of tea, I’d nestle down with a book before tiredness fully set in.  Closing my eyes would feel right and ready, and I’d sleep uninterrupted throughout the night.  And then, just as it had mere hours before, the sun would rise again, and I’d lazily lie there, cursing the morning before gulping down gallons of coffee, before fully rising to the dawn.

An hour or so later, I’d finally see and remember my phone, left on the kitchen table, settled comfortably in the corner of the couch.

And the days and nights would repeat and repeat, repeat and repeat.

But then marriage came, and with yet another move, the alarm clock lost and never replaced.  Soon it became just as easy to keep my phone just inches from my face, its alarm my new morning salutation.  Eventually pregnancy and motherhood, with accompanying counterpart, sleeplessness, arrived; and my brain so tired from want of sleep, I’d reach not for a book to read, but for my phone.  I’d scroll through Facebook and Pinterest, Twitter and Words With Friends while I lay awake unable to shut my eyes, newborn babe in for the long haul at my breast.

Day and night, my cell phone became an extension of myself, its presence certifiably missed if I couldn’t find it, if I accidentally left it behind at the office or – God forbid – in the other room.  I’d watch the teenagers I worked with, chastising their always-texting, always-connecting fingers, their eyes frantically glued like fluffy feathers to a first grader’s sticky art project.  That’s just their generation, I’d lamentably say to the volunteer leaders around me.

And when I’d meet with one of the 16-year-olds for bubble teas or Frappuchinos, I’d pride myself on my success at helping them keep their third arm at bay: “Show me that I’m more important than your cell phone,” I’d say.  “Put it away, just for an hour.”  They’d nod their heads in horror, shock-filled at mere proposition.  But what if my mom calls?  Um, you’ll be fine.  Your “mom” is not going to call.

In time, I left my job to care for our son and pursue the dream of writing and speaking.   For a few months, it was nothing short of magical to keep the ringer off altogether, to not be burdened by its constant ring – my only need to read The Runaway Bunny for the 12th time that day or change a rancid diaper.

But then loneliness began to creep in, and like the sleepless nights in months’ prior, I searched frantically for my phone.  I needed the comfort another “like” on Facebook provided, the way a retweet boosted my confidence – still in transition, I had a hard time facing the truth that these social relationships, although solidly human somewhere on the other side, were not going to provide me with the long-term sustenance I needed to survive this quieter life and new adventure with my little one.

I still tried, though.

My phone now held a spot at the dinner table, a place on the corner of the couch while we leisurely watched The Mentalist or Orange is the New Black.  I combated the silent hours of the day by constantly listening to books on Audible, ignoring the bigger question my constant companion begged to ask: why do you need me so much?  And at night, phone in one hand, Kindle in the other, I’d lay in bed, my nightly routine now rigidly set – lie down, catch up on Words With Friends, scroll through Facebook and Instagram one last time, repeat.

Repeat.

And since I justified this behavior by telling myself that I wasn’t going to bed with the phone’s information the last thing on my mind, but instead with Kindle’s words of Les Miserables, I felt it all okay.

Until a couple of weeks ago.

“How long are you going to be looking at that thing?” my husband asked me.  It was a question he’d probably posed a thousand times before, but this time it hit me: like the kids I’d harangued, checking my phone just one last time had become more important than the man lying beside me, than the sleep my body so desperately needed, than the book I could have finished months ago.

So I made a small change: I started to leave my phone downstairs again.  I leave it behind when the clock strikes 9, and I practice listening to the needs of that night’s sleep.  I drink that last cup of peppermint tea, and then I try my hardest to be present and responsive to the man I love.

And really, it’s made all the difference in the world.

 

cara meredithFormer high school English teacher turned youth minister, Cara is learning what it means to be as a full-time mama and free-lance writer and speaker.  She holds a Masters of Theology degree (Fuller Seminary), and is currently tweaking away at her first book.

She loves pretending to be a foodie, being outdoors and trying to read seven books at a time (although never very successfully).  She lives near San Francisco with her husband, James, their son, Canon, and a second little one to arrive late this summer.