How the Light Gets In

I have shared a short essay, a drawing, and poem on Red Tent Living. The post is called How the Light Gets In, inspired by the well known Leonard Cohen lyric: There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” You can find it HERE.

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Poetry Around Town

I’m a little late to the game, but April was National Poetry Month, which opened some wonderful opportunities to share my passion for poetry. I was honored to receive awards from The Poetry Society of Virginia and attend a reading in Williamsburg for the prize winners. There were so many inspiring voices there!

If you’d like to watch the reading of my poem “How To Handle a Heart” you can find it here at Virginia Poetry Online.

The event was emceed by my friend and poetry mentor, the brilliant Suzanne Rhodes!

Last month, I was also was invited back to my children’s school to talk about poetry with some fourth graders! I find that they are more intimidating to teach than adults, but they were good sports and natural poets.

I forced them to compose a list of images to use in future poems and they pleasantly surprised me with their attention to all the senses! Children have a natural knack for tuning into the world in fresh and unfiltered ways. I was sweating by the end of my time with them–they kept me on my toes for sure.

April was a full and wild month–any time I’m given an extra reason to share my love of poems, I’m a happy woman. I find it funny that poetry needs a month of its own. It seems that only things at the brink of extinction are given their own day or week or month…to try and force recognition or reawaken the public’s interest. I’m not sure that it works, but it’s a great gesture!

I’ve been reading Christian Wiman’s fantastic book of essays called Becoming A Poet: Ambition and Survival. In his essay “Poetry in a Visual Culture” he writes:

“But the greatest power of poetry for this particular country, at this particular moment in history, may be simply this act of preserving some aspect of truly individual consciousness in a culture bent on obliterating it. That is to say, poetry’s deepest value for our lives may consist precisely in how unlike life it is, at least unlike this welter of images and uniformity and busyness that we are now calling life.”

He ends the essay with the beautiful reflection that “in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”

As May opens its bright doors and vivid colors to us, I find myself seeking more pockets to “live” a poem…inhabiting all aspects of my life authentically and intentionally. It is a work in progress, and I find that the daily practice of poetry continues to call me deeper into this journey.

If you are interested in digging into this journey for yourself…and if you live in the Hampton Roads area…I’m teaching a course this summer called “The Practice of Poetry” at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk. You can register here. There are 5 seats left! The course will be offered on Saturday afternoons starting mid July.

I will leave you with a poem by William Stafford. Poetry is a practice which ushers us deeper into the human condition, a condition which holds the paradoxical truths that “straying feet find the great dance”… and “stumbling always leads home”…

The Significant and the Superficial

As a nurse, so much of my job deals with the physical matter of life—vital signs, lab results, radiology reports—tangible phenomena I can observe with my own senses and measure in quantifiable outcomes. But what of the deeper things that we can’t assess or treat—the deeper emotional and spiritual aspects of human existence?”

Today I’m writing a guest post for The American Journal of Nursing. You can click here to read more.

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Sunday Quotation: Art as Suffering and Peace

“Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine–not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature–and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the horror; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art…can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding…” –Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

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Sunday Quotation: Pay Attention

“Literature, painting, music–the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things…

And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is the love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for Him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”

Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

The Landscape

I wandered out to the beach yesterday after getting groceries. I sat on the sea wall. The day was warm and calm. I could see a massive cargo ship in the distance and schools of dolphins popping up from the smooth surface. A few surfers were out in their wetsuits, along with a few desperate sunbathers. The moment was slow, like the clouds and the air, a bit stagnant, a bit warm, a bit cold.

As I drove home to get my kids off the bus, I felt a bit annoyed, looking at the lawns in our neighborhood. The splotchy grass, the weeds taking over, some trees bloomed, some still looking dead. It’s the dullness of winter mixed with the rapid multiplication of summer. We are in the in-between. Welcome to March.

This is why I have long struggled with spring. It can feel like purgatory. But perhaps my own cracks of annoyance are some sort of invitation?

I recently finished up teaching a poetry workshop. We talked a lot about tone, which is what a poem is saying between the lines. It reveals the attitude of the writer towards the subject and towards the self. Tone is most pronounced when something is at stake, when something is at odds. It’s most noticeable when it’s at an angle. My tone towards spring is one of annoyance. I feel the rest vs. activity, the death vs. birth, the cold vs. warmth, the safety vs. danger. I want to be outside but outside makes me sick (allergies)! Can we please be either/or?

But this isn’t life. Life is the tension, the in-between, whether it’s the weather or marriage or work or something else. Maybe spring is a lesson in making peace with that tension. I’ve been ruminating on Stephen Dunn’s collected poems. His poem “The Landscape” is exactly what I’m talking about. And the ocean: a shark for every pearl.

Coming to peace with the tension in our lives makes us feel more whole. When I find myself wishing something was more of this or more of that, I loose touch with what IS, and what IS–that’s where the power is–that’s where the poetry is. The sharks and the pearls. Give me all of it. Give me the cracks. I will break them open and fill them back in.

We should have known nothing’s safe.
That love is an ocean too.
That locks break if touched

just right. And so we live now
with doors open, the heart
learning about the fullness and ache

that comes from letting in.

–Stephen Dunn

Poetry Just Keeps Opening

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When I started to study poetry about eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking about the implications it would have on my Christian faith. I was clumsily writing along, trying new things with words that felt stupid and frivolous and unproductive, trusting some vague impulse that I was learning a language that was somehow already inside of me.

Over the past year, I’ve started to realize that the socially-disadvantaged genre of poetry is actually everywhere around us. It isn’t wearing knee-high socks, sitting the bench. It’s in our popular song lyrics, our slang, political speeches, and Netflix TV shows. It isn’t usually recognized as poetry, so we often miss it.

In the same vein, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of poetry in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke almost exclusively in poetry, because it was perhaps the only way of writing that allowed them to describe the world according to the way they saw it–a world ridden by judgement and hope–a world that was ending and beginning. In essence, they saw a world full of complexity and tension, a world whose mysteries could not be easily pinned down.

Further, in looking more at the gospels, it recently struck me that Jesus spoke in parables, which are like little poems. He used the power of images to do the work that words alone cannot: a mustard seed planted in a field, yeast permeating the dough, the narrow gate, a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.

I find it fascinating that God, the creator of language and the entire universe, chose for His official book to be highly permeated with poetry. One could potentially conclude that poetry is God’s language, that poetry is the language of the Kingdom. Jesus said, I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world. It’s like He knew that poetic language was the only way to communicate the hidden things, which happen to be the big things in God’s economy.

In light of this, I find it so weird that the churchy-world and the artsy-world seem almost diabolically opposed. Sure, poetry is a wild animal with an affinity for ripping open new realities and new ways of looking at things. The church, the political world, or any other structured institution is perhaps scared of that wildness. But, isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Challenging the current structures, speaking in new ways, seeing the world through new eyes?

What would happen if we were to bring poetry back into the modern evangelical church? It might get real gritty and interesting! It might get as scandalous and inappropriate as Jesus!

I was recently listening to a wonderful podcast with Walter Brueggemann–theologian, professor, and prolific author–about his book The Poetic Imagination and the connection between prophets and poets. He says,

What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, is it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation, and then it’s deathly. So, we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that’s healthier than that, you’re gonna have to take time to sit with these images and relish them, and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, otherwise you’re just gonna be left with these dead formulations, which again, is why the poetry is so important, because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close, until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power. So, more metaphors give more access to God…and it’s amazing how in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, there are just endless metaphors. What a metaphor or an image does, is to invite you to keep walking around it, and looking at it another way, and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

So, what does this mean? Well, maybe the way we experience the transformative power of God on a personal and global level is as basic as reading poems and trying to write them. Geez. It’s so simple and so small, kind of like that mustard seed Jesus was talking about.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it?
I am making a way in the 
wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
-Isaiah 43:19