Another year, some thoughts

August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

Well, here I am.

Another year.

Finally, another blog post.

Last week, I turned 26, and a birthday seems as good a reason as any to sidle back to this small (and lately, neglected) corner of the Internet to set down a few of the thoughts bouncing around in my head. After all, what’s the point in having a blog if you don’t use it as an excuse to formulate some of those fleeting ideas that strike you on the drive to work, in the shower late at night, over a beer with a friend, during an overpriced yoga class when you should be focussing but, let’s face it, can’t.

So, here I am.

Last year, I wrote about turning 25. This year, instead of writing about turning 26 (really, it was uneventful in a good way), I’ll share some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. These ideas have helped me navigate some unfamiliar territories — a new job, the usual relationship drama, my own inner neurosis that have plagued me forever and probably always will (don’t lie, you know you have them, too!).

Maybe these ideas will help you, too. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re kind of interesting. Or maybe you’d rather read something that’s definitely interesting, like that time a few months ago when I got lost in the Himalayas in the dark. Either way, here’s to another year of trying to make it through this weird, confusing, often difficult, but definitely beautiful, world.

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on choices

A friend once told me that all of life is simply a series of decisions. While I suppose that’s rather reductive, I think he’s onto something. In a given day, we’re required to make a number of decisions, from slightly inconsequential decisions about where to eat lunch to more important decisions about who to date, where to work, and what to believe. Decisions are mandatory, and learning how to make a decision well is a surprisingly useful skill.

But if you’re like me, choices can be paralyzing. Not necessarily whether to eat that second piece of cheesecake (the answer is always, yes, definitely eat it), but whether to live here or there, whether to take this job or that job, whether to befriend this person or that person. What makes these decisions so challenging is not that one choice is the boring but morally correct choice and the other the exciting but morally wrong choice — that’s a different scenario. Rather, both choices offer potentially good outcomes, and choosing one over the other necessarily cuts off a potentially good thing from happening.

In other words, as another friend pointed out, we can expect an element of sorrow in every choice we make, because making a choice by necessity requires losing out on something good.

Why is knowing this helpful? By accepting disappointment and sorrow as a given in every decision we make, we’re empowered to act. We can enjoy the fruit of our decisions while simultaneously realizing that something is lost — and that’s sad. It’s not how it’s meant to be, even if it is that way on this side of heaven.

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on going slow

I spent the summer working in a bookstore, and you wouldn’t believe the number of titles piling up on our shelves that are all about slowing down in an age of distraction, in an age of busyness (or maybe you would believe it; busyness is rather endemic in America, after all). All of these books offer something valuable — tips and tricks for leading a less hectic, more meaningful life. But I would like to take the idea of slowing down a bit further.

Often, we find ourselves in situations we don’t like. Maybe it’s a relational situation. Maybe it’s a difficult job. Maybe it’s being fed up with the same old miserable problems day after day. Often, our response to challenging situations like these is to violently end them by lashing out, quitting, or simply shutting down. Sometimes, of course, this needs to happen. But other times, a more prudent, slower response is better.

Lately, I’ve been reading Jesus’ parables (and an excellent book about them: Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson). Jesus’ parable of the fig tree struck me in particular. The fig tree isn’t growing or producing fruit, and it’s owner wants to cut it down in anger and despondency. Instead, however, he decides to give it one more year, puts a bit of manure on it, and waits. Adding the manure is banal. It’s a bit gross. It requires patience to see what happens. But that little bit of manure may make all the difference in a tree that’s barren and a tree that’s ripe with fat, sweet figs.

In the same way, making small adjustments to disagreeable situations and waiting with patience to see what happens is often wiser than shutting something down. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the same problems will bother you next year. Or maybe, just maybe, that little adjustment was all you needed.

Maybe, you need to go slow.

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other stories

If you got this far, maybe you’re interested in some of the other things I’ve written lately. I frequently write for The Well, a nonprofit in Oak Cliff that helps those who struggle with mental illness. Here are several of my latest pieces, including one on how pets help the mentally ill and another on the importance of community for the mentally ill.

ICYMI

February 7, 2017 § 2 Comments

One of the joys of working as a freelance writer? Meeting interesting people willing to share their stories with me. It’s always an honor to write about the people I meet and the interesting things they do.

Most recently, I wrote a profile of local Dallas author Sanderia Faye, whose passion led her to transition from accountant to writer to literary advocate. She’s the author of the award-winning novel Mourner’s Bench, which is about life in the Arkansas Delta during the civil rights movement. Faye now hosts literary events around Dallas.

Read about her here.

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A New Year, and a few links

January 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post on this small corner of the Internet. I suppose that’s a good thing; it signifies time spent on other writing projects (read: monetized writing projects #win) and time spent on general holiday comings and goings. Happy New Year, by the way.

For those interested in some of my latest writing endeavors, here’s a link to my most recent story in The Dallas Morning News about Liturgical Folk, a Dallas-based, cross-generational music project that centers around religious poems set to folk tunes.

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There’s still time to pre-order their albums, and after researching and writing about them for the last few weeks, I’d recommend it.

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I continue to write for The Well Community. Here’s a link to a profile about one of their inspiring members and a story about their yearly Christmas party.

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And finally, last year I resolved to read one book a week for my New Year’s resolution. At times, it felt like running through a museum. But mostly I loved how it encouraged me to be intentional about reading every day and exposed me to new writers.

For anyone interested, here’s the complete list!

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Meditations from a Movable Chair by Andre Dubus
Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul by Thérèse de Lisieux
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth Mccracken
Ella Enchanged by Gail Carson Levine
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert
Run by Ann Patchett
Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Beneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
Gift from the Sea by Ann Morough Lindbergh
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’donahue
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey through Poems by Caroline Kennedy
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Seders
The Dalemark Quartet Vol. 1 by Diana Wynne Jones
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
Very Good, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse
Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hunard
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Finding My Way Home: Pathways to Life and the Spirit by Henri Nouwen
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
Why Be Catholic?: Understanding Our Experience and Tradition by Richard Rohr
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter by Greg Ponnoyer
Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin
Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times by Henri Nouwen
Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy
First Light by Rebecca Stead
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Selected Stories by Andre Dubus
No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas by selected authors
The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth by Scott Peck

Phew! Don’t worry, I won’t be trying this again (but if you have any book recommendations, I’m always open to them)!

Here’s to a great 2017, y’all!

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Evening, morning, and noonday

September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments

A friend of mine recently introduced me to The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, a trilogy of prayer manuals that are a modern reworking of fixed-hour prayer. With roots in Judaism and early Christianity, fixed-hour prayer is one of the oldest Christian spiritual practices. While it has evolved over the centuries, it is essentially the practice of praying (often by chanting) certain predetermined prayers at certain predetermined times of the day.

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Since learning about The Divine Hours, I’ve realized I’m a bit late to the game. Now, I come across the books everywhere: on friends’ bookshelves, tossed around in various conversations, and even in the occasional artsy Instagram post.

Isn’t that how it often is? Something can be right in front of your face, and you don’t notice it until you need it.

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On a late summer morning, my friend and I settled ourselves beneath a blanket, mugs of steaming coffee in our hands, and chanted together the prayers and passages allotted for the day. It was an unusual thing to do in her modern apartment, our monotone voices joining a legacy of petitioners extending far into the past. While at first, the chanting felt strange on my lips, uncomfortable even, in its sincerity and unconventionality, soon, I settled into the mantra, our low voices soothing to my soul, the simple act of singing words of thanks, of request, of remembrance, of praise good in and of themselves.

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The prayers set me firm in my body for the day, but more than that, I liked what Tickle wrote in her introduction: “The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God…The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.”

In a world in which there is so much pressure for everything from the work we do to the prayers we pray to have immediate material efficacy, it was a relief to simply enter into a practice with no other goal than to see and acknowledge what is good.

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A passage that continuously appears throughout The Divine Hours, and one that draws my eye again and again, is this verse from Psalm 55: In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. My friend pointed it out to me on that first day, and each time it reappears, I think: yes, that passage is for me.

Because isn’t that what I do all day long, complain and lament, both to others and to God? And isn’t that a picture of grace, that these complaints and laments do not fall on deaf ears, that however big or small my daily trials, they are always heard, they are always acknowledged.

This, I think, is why I’m coming to love The Divine Hours. This continuous, all day, everyday, looking for God. This turning every complaint and lament, every hope and exultation, every thought, small and large, up to the sky in habit-forming rhythm. This basic movement of the lips and of the heart.

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The car that saved my life

April 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

A year ago today, I posted an essay about a car accident that I should not have walked away from. I try not to talk about the accident too much because I don’t want to be that girl who’s always talking about her near-death experience. But the truth is, I think about it fairly often.

I think about what one of my wise friends told me afterwards: that I can think of every day since the accident as extended time, time that, really, I should not have.

And so, I’m reposting this essay today as a reminder of the wonderful gift that life is, the wonderful grace of existence. It was also adapted as a Sunday essay in The Dallas Morning News, and you can read it there as well.

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Once, I had a car named John Russell.

An odd name for a car, you might say, and many people did. But if you’re going to name a car, you might as well name him something special, and John Russell deserved a special name.

He was a college graduation gift from my parents, a dusty gold Ford Escape, used, but complete with everything a 20-something-year-old could want: sunroof, CD player, and cargo trunk, ready for road trips, ready for adventures.

And we had some adventures.

We drove halfway across the country and back. We drove up and down the West coast. We drove in the mountains. We drove in the desert. We drove in the snow. And we drove in the rain.

I gave John Russell his name on our inaugural adventure.

I’d just graduated from college and was driving from Texas to California for my first job as a post-graduate. And because it was my first job, and because it was my first time driving halfway across the country, and because they love me, my parents came along.

Which meant: I got to spend a good deal of the trip reading in the backseat (a reason to let the parents tag along, in my opinion).

Before we left, I visited the local used bookstore to find the perfect novel to accompany me on my adventure West. The great Elmore Leonard had died that summer, so I sauntered over to the Westerns in search of his name. A thin yellow paperback caught my eye.

Hombre.

Within seconds, I knew this was the book.

In Hombre, Leonard tells the story of John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches. John Russell is taking a stagecoach ride with a bunch of other white folk who, because of his association with the Apaches, don’t like him much. In fact, they dislike him so much they force him to sit up top with the driver rather than inside with them.

Of course, their attitude changes when outlaws attack.

Suddenly, John Russell, with his wily Apache ways, is the only one who can save them.

And he does.

But in the process (spoiler alert), he dies.

I read Hombre while driving west. While the dry Texas plains and the hot New Mexico desert and the rain-streaked Arizona rocks zipped past, I read how John Russell gave his life for some people he didn’t know, some people who thought he was less than the clotted mud on the bottom of his moccasins.

And because Hombre was the first novel I read in my car, and because I loved the character so much, I named my car after him – a Christ-like figure in a cowboy hat.

Now, as you can imagine, explaining the origin of John Russell’s name was always a bit of an ordeal. In fact, the explanation was so tedious it usually left me wishing I’d chosen something simpler or, better yet, nothing at all.

And so, only a handful of people knew his name, but those who did used it affectionately.

When his transmission broke, they said, “John Russell has a stomach ache.”

When I took him to the car wash, they said, “John Russell’s taking a bath.”

But in the days after the crash, we never once called him John Russell. Instead, we referred to him only as “the car.”

I was driving on the highway from Dallas to Austin, and it was raining. John Russell and I had been in the rain before, and though I doubt he liked it much, I certainly did. I’ve always loved the rain, especially the rain in Texas.

I was listening to the radio. At first, NPR. Then later, Johann Pachelbel’s Magnificat in D, Mary’s song of praise when she finds out she’s pregnant. And still later, some obnoxious new country song.

I hit a patch of water, which caused me to hydroplane and lose control. I slid right and John Russell’s nose went left. The steering wheel jumped away. I was drifting fast, trying to brake, not sure if I should brake, headed toward a semi truck on my right, sure my tires would hit a strip of dry road and the car would flip and the semi would barrel through me.

I thought I was going to die. I cried out to God.

When we hit the concrete median, John Russell crumpled like an empty soda can, the hood buckled, the glass shattered. I bit my tongue hard and my head snapped side to side.

I should have died. I should have cracked my skull or fissured my spine or broken my arm, but I didn’t. All the energy that should have shattered my bones, John Russell absorbed instead.

Afterward, I rode in an ambulance to the emergency room and never saw him again.

The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret our lives: either the things that happen are meaningless, or they’re not. And if they’re not, then we can look at our lives and read them like a story to discover the purpose underneath.

Reading my life like a story sounds nice when it’s day-to-day, but when it’s something as profound as a near-death experience, every interpretation sounds hollow in comparison to the real thing, as though it’s too extraordinary to understand through human eyes.

What’s more, I will forget details of the event and botch the story.

I will forget that earlier that day I was filled with a surge of hope for the future, but that I was frustrated when I left Dallas.

I will forget that in the ambulance I repeated over and over to myself the Jesus prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, because even though I was safe, I was still afraid that my luck would run out and God would let me die right there on the gurney from some unknown internal wound.

I will forget that on the drive home from the hospital, my body wracking with sobs, my father calmed me by telling stories of his own near-death experiences.

I will forget all these details and pull together others to make a story that makes sense to me in the hope that it is the right story, or at least one true story out of many possible ones.

But what else can I do? Meaninglessness isn’t an option.

My interpretation goes like this:

Before the accident, I was scared, mostly about the kinds of things I imagine most 20-something-year-olds are scared about: the scant number of dollars in our bank accounts, the pressure to find a job that both pays extremely well and fulfills our unattainable desire to absolutely love our work, the unfounded belief that with each friend’s wedding we move closer to spinsterhood, and other things as well.

After the accident, I was no longer scared.

Though my whole body ached, though bruises began to appear in black splotches on my arms and legs, though a red mark emerged where the seat belt had dug into my collar, I’d never felt better. I was keenly aware of having survived something I should not have survived, that my very existence was a gift, that I was a living testament of grace.

Survival brought with it a kind of freedom. I was grateful to be alive. What else mattered?

God had been there, a hand of protection when I swerved all over the watery road and slammed into the concrete, so near to me in that moment when my heart was a hand that reached out and grabbed him, when I yelled “Help!”

And yet, where was he, really? I didn’t see him. Not on the road or in the ambulance or in the hot shower that night when I scrubbed the sticky tape leftover from where the medic had stuck an IV in my arm, or when I curled, shaking, under the comforter and tried to sleep.

And why me? I know others have not been as fortunate. Nor am I now untouchable by evil, by pain, by death, though I’m as likely as anyone to naively believe in her own immortality.

To have an encounter with death like that, to know God’s protection in a moment of complete lack of control, and then to find afterward that God is still too huge to comprehend, too different to even find to approach, too vast to experience fully – it is disquieting.

This is what moments of closeness to the other world do to a person. They awaken in us acknowledgement of God, acknowledgement of grace.

What am I saying?

I’m merely saying that this life is grace, that both the accident and surviving the accident were gifts. I’m merely saying that this moment of survival, along with the thousands of breaths we take per day, are given to us and could just as easily be taken away. I’m merely saying that I experienced a holy being who loves me, who undergirds my existence, who in doing so is nearer to me than I am to myself, and in being able to do so is farther from me than the farthest star from the Earth, a being who would crumple and bleed to keep me safe, just like John Russell.

I miss John Russell, of course.

I miss the memories we made with my bare feet sticking out his back window. I miss reading on his sunlit seat. I miss finding sand scattered on his floor after a day at the beach. I even miss checking his oil and filling his tank with gasoline – or, as I used to say, “taking him out for a drink.”

As I write this, my old friend’s in an impound lot in West, Texas, a blip on the map just north of Waco, sides scraped, bumper hanging loose, frame twisted, and windows smashed. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my front porch in Dallas on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, sunlight dappling the grass and a light breeze rustling the leafy branches of an old oak tree.

John Russell saved me.

But in the process, he died.

A tall calling for a used car, but John Russell had a tall name. I’d say he lived up to it.

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Springs and streams

February 25, 2016 § 3 Comments

“It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever flowing rivers. The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.”


For the first time in a long time, I’m participating in Lent. Really participating. Not like that one time in high school when I gave up sweets because one of my friends thought it would be fun to do it together. Or last year, when I attended Maundy Thursday but missed every other Lenten service, including its pinnacle: Easter. Or all the other years when I halfheartedly thought about giving something up but in the end knew I just wasn’t into it. No, this year, I’m really pressing into the images and meanings of Lent, and it has already been sweet beyond imagine.

I borrowed this lovely book from the library, which couples a reading from Scripture with an exegesis, a prayer, and a complementary work of art. I’ve refrained from checking any social media (except for Facebook messages; such is the difficulty of disconnecting in the Reign of the Internet). And I’ve begun to consider the image of life in a desert and the possibility that the god whom I’ve lately felt distant from, whom I’ve recently felt embarrassed to talk about, is there; I’m beginning to look for manna actualizing itself in my small sphere of existence.

This last bit is what I’m loving most about the Lenten season. Lent is a time when we’re allowed to pause and say, you know, sometimes this life feels quite barren. Sometimes, I’m tired or lonely or mournful or anxious or fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever’s-hounding-you-today. It’s a time when we don’t have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, but instead, can recognize that sometimes, this life is kind of hard. Maybe it’s really hard, depending on your situation. And then, we can remember that the springs and the dry beds, the sun and the moon, the summer and the winter, in every season, lush or barren, there is the hand of God.

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When I lived in Southern California, it was easy for me to see God everywhere. Not only was the sunset over the Pacific Ocean sublime every evening, literally declaring the glory of God, so was the purple sunlight on the mountains, the palm trees in the breeze, the painted tiles ornately decorating city buildings downtown. One of my dearest friends and I often talk about how the aesthetics of a place affects our mood, and in that lovely place, how could I not feel close to the beautiful one himself, the form of the form, Jesus, son of God?

But I live in Dallas now, and this city is a different beast. It is angry highways cutting through downtown, bill boards ten feet tall, sprawling suburbs, construction zones, a flat horizon for miles. Growing up, I used to want to live in a big city – I even talked about living in Dallas one day. Now, Dallas is my very own desert, a desert I’m always trying to escape by planning trips to the West Coast, the East Coast, the Midwest, and basically anywhere else I can afford. I need God more than anything in this place, and yet everywhere my eyes fall I feel as if he’s forsaken me.

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Which is why I’m loving this Lenten season so much. I didn’t expect to love it, but I do. I love it because in Lent we acknowledge our desert-ness, and then we look for God in the midst of it. We acknowledge the ways we’ve fallen short. We acknowledge the ways our lives our broken. We acknowledge the ways we feel lost, tired, anxious, depressed, angry, unsatisfied, anxious for no reason, anxious for a lot of obvious reasons, bitter, envious, prideful, crushed. We acknowledge that we’re buried by sin and circumstance, and then we reach out of that pit of trash to find God there, ready to grab our hand. He pulls us up, wipes us off, and gives us a cracker of manna.

For me, that manna is the answered prayer for provision. It’s the completion of a writing project I’ve held in my heart for so long. It’s a community of new friends. It’s the continual deepening of old friendships and familial ties. It’s reading in coffee shops and walking the dog. It’s signing up for a library card and devouring short story after short story.

These are mercies from a loving God. This is manna in the desert. This is the Lenten season.

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A friend recently introduced me to the music of Audrey Assad. I’ve been wrapping myself in her words all day, and I think discovering her music may be another Lenten mercy. Perhaps you already know about her; I am often late to discovering musicians. Even so, here is one of her songs I’ve particularly enjoyed:

 

A Poem

January 12, 2016 § 6 Comments

Lately, I’ve been enjoying reading and, on occasion, writing a bit of poetry. Right now, I’m smitten with the poems written by contemporary poets in Image Journal and Ruminate Magazine, two lovely quarterlies that explore the relationship between art and faith. I’m also flipping through Caroline Kennedy’s She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey through Poems, which is a wonderful anthology of poems about the joys and sorrows of being a woman.

Here’s a poem I wrote as a writing exercise several months ago. I discovered it on a crinkled piece of notebook paper while clearing out my closet, and thought I would share:

Something Sensuous

Sour, the taste of lemons,
Sweet, the taste of chocolate white,
Sacramental bread and wine is
something, but nothing you taste like.

Sorrowful, holy voices rising,
Sonorous, organ boom,
Saint-like, I kneel to listen, hearing only
silence from an empty tomb.

Soft, a child’s bare arm in summer,
Squishy, the wet sponge in my sink,
Sheep’s skin, dew-covered, a
sign nowhere near the brink.

Sunset, a golden-hued death.
Sunrise, a purple-streaked birth.
Son of God, haloed and holy-hands
standing, but a photo before the broken curse.

Steaming, bitter coffee in a cracked mug,
Scented, the candle on my porcelain tub,
Smell of blood and water flowing,
salient story, though crass.

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