This Is Scripture

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I have dabbled in New Age spirituality, Buddhism, and Christianity in my life, but my true religion is poetry.

I converted to it when I was seventeen, at the Interlochen Arts Academy, where I was given a book called Contemporary American Poetry, the fifth edition. It is a book that contains multitudes—to me, it is a grimoire, a codex, a key.

In it I discovered Marvin Bell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Marge Piercy, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Theodore Roethke, Gary Snyder, and William Stafford, to name just a few.

Though I was young, I recognized these people as artists of the highest caliber, and though I was already addicted to fiction in a way that all but ensured it would become my vocation, I saw that poetry was perhaps the truest form that human experience could take, the most sublime exchange of consciousness of which we are capable—the most rarified and at the same time, the most practical.

Because a poem is an object that can be held by the mind; it can be memorized. And its truth can survive as a fragment, unlike the truth of narrative.

Over the years, the Holy Bible, Koran, Lotus Sutras, and Tao Te Ching have traveled with me from one corner of the country to the next; I return to these books once in a blue moon. (Though since I’ve moved to the South, I’ve tried to do better by the Bible.)

But I’ve returned to the fifth edition of Contemporary American Poetry so many times over the years that the cover has long since been lost. Its pages are dog-eared and yellowed; the titles of poems I have loved—some enough, at one time, to have memorized—are underlined.

I have turned to these scriptures in good times and in bad. I have found solace and challenge and mystery in them—some of the gravest wisdom, and some of the most irreducible strangeness. And always, I have found what I needed at the time.

Last week, I finished the third draft of a long short story, one that’s set in a version of the community I grew up in (a natural foods co-op). This story is an ambitious piece, to say the least: none of the characters have proper names; it features ten characters and eight scene changes; it works in the slipstream between reality and fantasy; and it has no POV character.

In typical style, I chose to share some very personal material in a very tricky way—which I know from experience meant my chances of failure were high. My critique group and Patreon subscribers were enthusiastic about early drafts, but that, I knew, was mainly due to its novelty; the story had not yet really landed its ambitions and found its form. It was also a virtually unpublishable length: 14,000 words.

But in my last revision, everything seemed to come together, and with the story cooked down to 10,000 words, it should indeed be publishable—as speculative fiction, if not literary.

As a writer, there is something about having communicated a personal truth for which you’ve never before had words—something, moreover, that you’ve never seen reflected in media of any form.

Maybe this experience is what Ursula K. Le Guin would call soulmaking, though I think it is part and parcel of evolution. When you’ve shared a story that only you could have written, you have added to the sum total of perspectives available to the human race. Whether or not it’s a helpful perspective, it’s a true one, and as the fossil record shows, any variation, in time, may prove adaptive.

Really, even if no one will ever read this thing that you’ve written—or even if only a very few will—it feels as if you’ve done part of what you were put here to do.

This story of mine is loosely based on a real event, the death of a young man who was part of my co-op, Jim Gritter. Jim was nearly ten years older than me, so I mainly observed him from distance, but I knew he and Jason (a big-brother figure to all of us kids) played Dungeons and Dragons—as a girl who read a whole lot of fantasy, this fascinated me.

Like me, Jim would become a writer; like me, he would get involved with high-school theater. I saw him as Charly in Flowers for Algernon, a story about an intellectually disabled young man who’s given an operation that turns him into a genius—but then the effect is undone, and eventually proves fatal.

In retrospect, it was a fitting role for a young man of such promise, hit with schizophrenia in his early twenties.

To write about Jim, I had to write about my “unintentional community,” established as a natural foods co-op in the late 70s. I had to write about growing up in and around handmade houses, in northern Michigan, close to the land; I had to write about what it was like to be part of tribe of wild children, subject to its own laws. To do all that in a single story was to court failure, because so many variations from the norm can be hard for a reader to keep track of.

After all, most mutations do not, in fact, prove adaptive. A creature with something halfway in between an arm and a wing isn’t a bird, it’s lunch—and for a long time, I feared that’s what this story would become: a maladaptive variation, unfit for submission, too weak (or just plain weird) to compete for publication.

But as I get older, maybe I’m getting better at landing my ambitions. Maybe I’m getting better at doing the things that only I can do. And maybe someday this story will mean something to someone, the way works of art that reflect my own unusual personal history have meant something to me.

The title of my story is “In Blackwater Woods”—though until yesterday, I really could not have told you why. But yesterday, having completed this bit of soulmaking, I opened the scriptures at random, and realized I’d lifted it, whole cloth, from Mary Oliver.

From a poem, though I’d forgotten it, I once knew by heart.

I was so moved by this poem as a young woman that I memorized it; I recognized the truth in it, though I did not have the life experience to understand those truths the way I do now.

Friends, even if this latest story of mine were to somehow find a wide readership—even if it were to become the sort of thing people who talk about literature talk about—this poem by Mary Oliver would outshine it by the power of a hundred suns, and outlive it by a thousand years.

Which is to say, if a fragment of this poem were discovered on a pottery shard by those capable of decoding it a thousand years from now, it would still be a fragment of great power.

It is one of the truest things I know. If I do nothing else with my life as an artist, I will carry this poem. I will never forget it again.

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver


Look, the trees

are turning

their own bodies

into pillars


of light,

are giving off the rich

fragrance of cinnamon

and fulfillment,


the long tapers

of cattails

are bursting and floating away over

the blue shoulders


of the ponds,

and every pond,

no matter what its

name is, is


nameless now.

Every year


I have ever learned


in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side


is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world


you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it


against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

MLK Day 2018: On Showing Up

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After church yesterday, at Pastor Rutledge’s urging, I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—a justly famous missive, which makes the case for nonviolent direct action and calls out those who condemn it as a tactic.

MLK said he was disappointed most by white moderates, stating, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”

It’s a charge that of course rings true today, as does King’s censure of his fellow clergy members for valuing status quo over conscience when he said, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” (aka, “hopes and prayers”).

My mother-in-law noted over dinner last week that there were many parallels between the present moment and the late 60s, which (as we know) was when both MLK and Bobby Kennedy were shot. Athletes then were raising the Black Power fist at the Olympics; athletes now are taking the knee. Now, as then, there is the sense of a nation divided, on the verge of tearing itself apart; now, as then, we’re experiencing a great reckoning with the historical injustices on which this country was built. Now, once again, feminism (Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Word of the Year) is in the headlines; now, once again, the specter of nuclear war casts its long shadow over us all.

In the last few years, in the face of one tragic killing after another, I have felt an intense, nearly intolerable urge to aid in the struggle for racial justice in this country. I actually posted something online to the effect of: “Where are the freedom marches and bus boycotts of our time? What are people of conscience supposed to do?” I joined an organization called SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and shared their information and signed their petitions but, ultimately, I didn’t do a whole lot more.

Whenever there was a Black Lives Matter protest, I always seemed to find out about it too late. Or I’d mark it on my calendar but wind up chasing down a deadline instead. Or I’d find myself discouraged by the weather. One way or another, I failed to make to these protests, the way I failed to make it to so many others, because when it comes down to it, I don’t like protests. I cannot summon outrage at will, at least not in a public way; I have a low tolerance for poor speakers, or poor sound quality, or boredom in general, and let’s face it: protests can be boring. So, though I signed up to Show(ing) Up for Racial Justice, I have, for the most part, failed to show up anywhere but online.

Showing up online is better than mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities,” but to my mind, not much.

I know full well that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Know too that folks of color must be met by middleclass whites (and those who pass as white) willing to risk their comfort to further the struggle—know too the many disappointments friends of color have faced at the hands of their so-called allies. I don’t want to be one of those people, the well-meaning ones who value their own comfort more than they do their neighbors’ lives.

And yet I have failed to take action, time and again. I have failed to recognize the opportunity before me as one of the only opportunities I will ever have. On my own, I have failed to respond in time, to seize the moment, and to act when it counts. Which is part of why I have sought out a progressive church community—to keep me honest, and to carry me along in the necessary struggle toward justice. A community that will be attending the Women’s March here in Charleston en masse this coming Saturday. (I will be there. Come say hi!)

Yes, I have a conscience. But left to my own devices, I often find excuses to disregard it. I let myself believe that because I’m not doing wrong I’m doing right.

Like any habit, I think, turning good faith into good works—e.g., showing up—gets easier as it becomes more routine. And rather than trying to do everything, it’s a matter of just doing a little more than you already are.

Last year, I joined the ACLU and the Union of Concerned Scientists, and one thing I did show up for was the Science March. I also got comfortable calling my elected representatives.

This year, I’m ready to do more. I’m ready to sacrifice small pleasures, like going out to eat or getting drinks with friends, in order to make small donations—to races across the country with the power to flip congressional seats, to women running for office, and to Black women running for office most of all.

This year, I am ready to attend more protests that address the critical struggles of our time—the struggles for social and economic justice, and for science and the environment. Moreover, I am ready to do so in a spirit of joy. In costume, if need be—whatever it takes to make showing up feel like an act of love. Because being there for each other, physically and personally, may be all there really is in this life that matters.

I am ready to volunteer my time and skills in some way that might make a difference, especially to young people. And I am ready, most of all, to dig deeper into my own heart, my own conscience, and to use my voice in a way that matters—not just at some point down the line, but here and now.

I know that that I’ve done more than some and less than others; rare is the person who has no room to move, morally speaking. What can we do but keep listening to that voice within, recommit ourselves, and try again?

And yet, even as we commit ourselves to doing more, I think it’s important to recognize the victories we have already won—because the victories never seem to capture the headlines the way the outrages do.

Just this last week, Walmart announced that it’s raising its starting wage to $11/hour, expanding parental leave, and giving a whole lot of employees a long-deserved bonus. And not only did New York City divest from fossil fuels, the city is actually suing the fossil fuel industry for climate change-related damages. (Let us not forget that it was the global divestment movement that finally toppled apartheid in South Africa.)

And remember how I said I joined the ACLU last year? Recently I received the latest issue of the organization’s magazine, STAND. Pictured on the cover, which I’ve included above, are Mohammed Meteab, Mashael Aljashaam, and their sons—an Iraqi refugee family living in Massachusetts, whose loved ones have been prevented from entering the US, though they were approved for immigration, by Trump’s suspension of the program they were approved under.

There’s a lot to these folks’ story, and to the suit that the ACLU is bringing against the government on their behalf. But I’d like you to put all that aside for just a moment to gaze upon this adorable little chunk of a baby boy in his daddy’s arms.

This is an Iraqi-American child, whose family is Muslim. There is no doubt that he will face discrimination as he grows up. But right now, he doesn’t know anything about that. His parents haven’t had to explain to him what racial slurs are—they haven’t had to stammer and find their tongues twisted, as MLK put it, in trying to explain why he shouldn’t go certain places or play with certain kids (the way maybe they’ve had with their older sons).

This kid has never had to face shitty insults or prejudice or fear on the part of white people—because he’s brown, or because they think his daddy is a terrorist, or because his mommy wears a headscarf. He’s never, as MLK put it, had his personality demeaned by racial hatred—moreover, this kid has no idea about the environmental crisis, about the plight of the real animals that his stuffed animals represent. (Though he does seem a little worried all the same.)

He’s just a chunk! A beautiful little chunk of a baby, like so many other babies in this country, and in the world at large, who deserve a better future than the one that currently awaits them. We owe it to them to show up.


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I sign a lot of online petitions. Maybe you do too. This last week, I’ve signed petitions demanding clean water for Puerto Rico (because though it has been months since Hurricane Maria, thousands still lack access to electricity and basic services, including clean drinking water) and denouncing Trump’s Interior Department for its plans to open up nearly all US waters to oil and gas drilling.

In doing so, I was reminded of Ted Kooser’s poem “At Nightfall:”

In feathers the color of dusk, a swallow,

up under the shadowy eaves of the barn,

weaves now, with skillful beak and chitter,

one bright white feather into her nest

to guide her flight home in the darkness.

It has taken a hundred thousand years

for a bird to learn this one trick with a feather,

a simple thing. And the world is alive

with such innocent progress. But to what

safe place shall any of us return

in the last smoky nightfall,

when we in our madness have put the torch

to the hope in every nest and feather?

It’s always easiest for me to feel the horror of ecocide, as opposed to every other type of horror, because it is so final. The world may bounce back from other types of suffering, of killing and dying; but when we lose the elephants, the whales, the dolphins and shorebirds and turtles—suffocated by our oil spills, choked by our plastics—these creatures, our kindred, will never exist again.

But of course the truth is that “when we have put the torch to the hope in every nest and feather,” none of us will be safe.

Not long ago, I was awoken at the edge of sleep by that horror—our wholesale destruction of the natural world. One trick with one feather, “a hundred thousand years.” What the hell gives us the right to destroy the world?

What woke me was something you might call guilt, or conscience—I think of it as the soul, which I believe is not just something we’re given but something we must make. Whatever it is, it spoke to me, clearly, and I awoke, gutshot: “Wasn’t it worth it?”

Wasn’t it worth fighting for? Every living thing? All the beauty of this world?

I had a similar experience this weekend, watching a movie called The Giver. In the world of the story, a post-fall humanity living in a denatured world has created a utopian society, in which there are no differences and therefore no injustices—and no one has any memory of the world that came before. Only one person, known as The Giver, holds that history, and he holds it in the form of actual memories, of those who lived before the fall.

The movie has its flaws (I’d like to see how the movie adaptation differs from the novel, by Lois Lowry), but I do recommend it, in part because these memories make for tremendously affecting cinema. The most emotional moment for me arrived when the Giver’s young protégé first sees an elephant, and then sees it shot.

In that moment, watching that elephant get shot in the head, I had the strange sensation of actually feeling what I wasn’t feeling—and then I let it in. And there it was, the same feeling I had when that voice called to me from the edge of sleep: gutshot.

Friends, I could actually feel the protective barrier around my heart dissolve, and it dropped me like a bullet.

This got me thinking about empathy, and about how it is really is something we can turn on and off. Sometimes we turn it off just so we can get through the day–for the sake of our own survival, or what feels like survival. I know I’ve been guilty of this over the past year, and maybe you have too.

Here I’m reminded of a recent article about bullying. According to this article, from Psychology Today, research indicates that most anti-bullying tactics don’t work—what prevents a kid from being bullied at school is not standing up to the bully or adult intervention or even campaigns aimed at convincing kids that bullying is bad. What keeps a kid from getting bullied is having social capital in the form of friends.

The girl who “discovered the secret” of social capital, Natalie Hampton, had been ruthlessly bullied at her old school; nothing she tried made any difference until she went to a new school, where just one person reached out to her and said “you can sit with me” (at lunch). It made all the difference in the world.

When I read this article, I thought back to when I was in elementary school. Though I never quite fit in with my class, I was one or two steps up from the bottom of the social order, distinct from the truly outcast. I often think of those kids now, as an adult, because I realize they were both the poorest of the poor and those most likely to be facing abuse at home. (I understand these things now because of a novel, The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld, which is one of the most important books I have read as an adult.)

As adults, we’d all like to believe that we had the compassion to reach out to these kids in elementary school—because as adults, we understand that these people were living in hell. But as kids, we didn’t (statistically speaking, at least).

We let those kids live in hell, and we turned off our ability to feel the truth of that whenever we walked past them at school. We didn’t talk to them; we didn’t look them in the eye. Because not doing so felt like a matter of personal survival.

This thought returned to me the other day as I was scrolling through Twitter. Someone had pointed out that Trump had video conferenced into a press conference at the White House, though he himself was in the White House at the time. In fact, he was probably no more than 150 away.

I have no love for Trump. I do not make a habit of hate, as I believe it’s a generally toxic substance to keep in your body, but ordinarily, my response would be something like contempt. But in the small opening around my heart that day—after I’d let the bullet that hit the elephant hit me—I felt something else.

I felt pity.

Like, who are you, that you can’t face a press conference, as the President of the United States? Who are you that a half hour’s worth of questions, and the criticisms they imply, are so frightening that you’d allow yourself to lose face in such a public way?

I suppose a case could be made that Trump was just lazy, or imperious, or something along those lines. And normally, maybe I’d buy that. But in this opening around my heart that I had made—this opening I had allowed myself—I didn’t buy it at all. Because I could feel the terror behind that decision.

Trump is a man to whom any criticism is tantamount to disaster. The grown-up version of an unloved child, he has no safe reserves of familial love to call upon when the world gets shitty. Thin-skinned doesn’t even begin to cut it; Trump has no insulation at all. The only things that make him feel good are external (“winning”), so any suggestion that he’s losing lands him in hell.

What a way to live.

I think of Trump as “the man who sold the world”—and when I think of him, I think of that sparrow threading one white feather through her nest to guide her flight home in the dark. Trump has no safe space to return to. He never did.

Personally, I’ve always resisted the suggestion that we made Donald Trump, that every single one of us is somehow responsible for his rise to power. Did I establish a system that allows men like Trump’s dad to amass grotesque amounts of wealth? No. Did you cause Trump’s parents to withhold their love from him as child? Certainly not.

What we did do was walk past someone who was living in hell. What we did was harden our hearts to them, because it felt a lot like survival at the time.

New Year’s Resolution: Let’s Get Real

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It’s a(n arbitrarily) new year, as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out—there is no astronomical significance associated with January 1st. It’s just the point when the Gregorian calendar year starts over, and in many ways, so do we.

Not because there’s one point where it’s possible to start over—that possibility is open to us at any time, though it often seems out of reach. I think that’s one of the most compelling aspects of Christianity: the invitation to start over, at any point whatsoever, and more closely approximate the person you would like to be.

Yes, I’ve mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson and Christianity in the first two paragraphs of this post. Which leads me to what I am about here, which is starting over, as a better version of myself, or at least a more honest version of myself, in 2018.

In the introspection of the winter solstice—an event that does hold astronomical significance—and in the company of family and friends, in the break from daily life, I’ve realized some things about myself in 2017.

In many ways, I’ve been holding my breath against the news cycle. Against the loss of Escalante-Grand Staircase and the Bears Ears National Monuments. Against the knowledge that some of the last wild elephants on earth will die at the hands of trophy hunters due to the reversal of the US ivory import ban.

Against the ecocide of the planet, and the destruction of the sacred, more generally.

Need I go on? About the families being ripped apart by Trump’s immigration policies? About the young people who’ve never known any country but this one being forced to leave it? About the safety net that supports our poor and working class being cut away, every day a little more?

Even as I’ve called my elected representatives and written and posted and agitated as best I can, the truth is, I haven’t been letting myself really think about these things, much less really feel them.

Because the truth—of course!—is horrifying. The president is threatening thermonuclear war with North Korea, the FCC has delivered us unto the hands of Big Telecom, and our coastal cities, home to three-quarters of the world’s population, are sinking into the sea.

Here’s another thing I haven’t really been willing to engage with: the fact that I’m now living in a coastal city (part time, at least).

When my husband received an offer for a three-year fellowship position in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, the week after Trump was elected, the timing was not awesome. Or maybe it was—one major disruption made room for another, and off we went across the country, in our little blue Kia, with our disagreeable cat, to the capital of the old Confederacy, where we moved into what is known as a kitchen house.

This term is both literally true and euphemism for something else. Because this kitchen house was indeed where the kitchen of the fine old house in front of us was located, in the days before climate control, but it was also where the slaves who worked in that house lived.

I am what you might call a stoic person, a quality I inherited from my maternal grandmother, a Norwegian schoolteacher of unflagging optimism, in many ways this move, while necessary and important, has been difficult for me.

No doubt it’s that Scandinavian stoicism that has kept me from losing my shit over this dumpster fire of a year. But stoicism has another face, which is really no more than denial. Simply put, I’ve failed to engage with some difficult truths in the past year, for fear of despair.

I’ve kept my head down and my arse up, as my dad would say—I’ve stopped up my brain with work. I’ve kept myself busy to keep from really thinking about the news, for fear of what the news would do to my heart.

And though I haven’t hidden the circumstances of my life—that I’m splitting my time between the Northwest and the Southeast—from anyone in person, in my life online, I’ve simply pretended that I still live in Portland. Maybe because it seemed simpler that way.

Maybe because in my head that was still true.

In the dark heart of my fortieth year—and the emergence into a new one, however arbitrarily defined—it has occurred to me that I don’t want to go on living this way. Which is not the same thing as saying that I’m ashamed of the way I’ve lived.

My grandmother’s stoicism, or optimism, or denial, or combination thereof, has served me well thus far. It got me through the heartbreak of my late twenties. It got me through cancer, and losing the ability to give birth. It got me through the election of a demagogue, through the war that 45 has waged on people and places I love, and through that video of the starving polar bear that’s been going around.

But it won’t get me farther than this without making me numb, and dumb, in both senses of the word—voiceless and less intelligent. Because in order to be intelligent, you have to engage. In order to speak, you must listen. In order to keep feeling, you have to let yourself feel things you’d rather not.

I’ve always loved the New Year—for anyone addicted to optimism, there is no better time—and like others, I’ve often made resolutions I’ve failed to keep. Resolutions about how many times a month I’m going to blog, or what I’m going to blog about, about how much creative work I’m going to get done, how I’ll do more for the planet and people at this pivotal time in human history.

The idea that we get to start over is a compelling one, both a truth and a lie. A truth because people really do change—in fact, we’re changing all the time. A lie because you can’t just stop being one way and become another, at least not over Christmas break.

In the dark heart of my fortieth year, I’ve decided that the possibility of real change rests upon a reckoning with who, and how, I really am. And so I’m not going to make an announcement about how many times I’m going to post to this blog in 2018. I’m not going to say that I’m going to engage with the news cycle a particular number of times a week, or in a particular way. I’m not going to say that I’m now embarking on a yearlong exploration of the way that splitting my time between the “the most progressive city in America” and the Holy City is changing the way I look at the world.

What I am going to do is say, in a public and thus accountable way, is that I’m going to let my guard down this year. I’m going to level with you, and with myself.

And I’m going to do so not just because I must reject the alternative in order to remain whole (though that’s almost certainly true). I’m doing so because the alternative to despair is not denial. It’s engagement.