Once Upon a Howl

First and foremost, you need to know that the third ‘a’ in ‘Appalachian’ sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘lack,’ not the ‘a’ in ‘lake’. Phonetically speaking, it’s pronounced app-uh-latch-uh, not app-uh-lay-shuh.

Okay. Now that we’ve squared that away, we can start. 

*

In the middle of a slow day in the middle of a February in Philadelphia, my friend (who also happened to be my co-worker and housemate) came over to my desk. “Hey, you’ve got to check out this Kickstarter. It’s a pretty great video.” We sat down on a couch and he showed me the video on his laptop. 

The video was made by a singer-songwriter who needed money to finish recording a full-length album. It was one of the more earnest, sentimental videos I’d seen. Normally, I’d be quick to critique any imperfections in the video itself. I was working for a production company at the time and had been working as an editor for several years. 

I knew what a “great video” looked and sounded like. This was, by most aesthetic markers, an “okay video.” But I watched the whole video with my friend. Then, after he returned to his work, I watched the video again on my laptop.

And then I watched it again. And again.

In the middle of that slow day in the middle of February in Philadelphia, I was in the middle of a slow-motion heartbreak. Many things I’d believed in, both personally and professionally, were dissolving before my eyes. And despite my efforts, I couldn’t do anything to stop it. 

In hindsight, it’s not a surprise. After all, I was broken myself. It was akin to Humpty Dumpty attempting to piece back together someone else who’d fallen off the wall, while himself still scattered across the sidewalk.

I watched John Lucas’ video in the middle of a heartbreak. I heard his overly earnest, carpe-diem words talk about the kind of man he wished to be, the kind of songs he wished to write, the kind of world he longed to contribute to. Had I watched this video a year previous, I would’ve criticized his framing, his editing, and his color grading.

But watching it at that exact moment, all I did was watch it again. And cry. 

And watch it again.

“Yes,” I said, rejoicing, from the bottom of the pit in which I found myself. “Someone who believes. Someone who hopes. Someone who yearns and is unashamed in their yearning. Someone who has determined to love at all costs, no matter where that leads.”

I gave what I could, more than I’ve ever give to anything before or since. Included in the funding, I wrote to Lucas — “Much of what you hope to see, much of what you believe exists in the heart of every person — I believe and walk with you. I'm too broken to be cynical, too hurt to be angry. I'm just gonna believe every word you say and do what I can to support the howl in your heart.”

Lucas responded, surprised and grateful for the funding. We kept in casual touch since then — I’d listen to his music, and he’d read the poetry I’d post online. Last year, he interviewed me for his personal blog, which was another lovely experience. Earlier this year, I received an email from Lucas. He and his wife were backpacking in Nepal at the time, but they were looking to return Stateside soon: “It's been wild to say the least,” he wrote, “and has made me think a lot about what life could be like when we get back home. I've been thinking for awhile that I would love to finally get to spend some time with you…I wanted to extend you an invitation to come stay with us and to be one of our first guests at our new place.”

I responded hours later by forwarding my flight itinerary, the trip planned for the Fall.  

*

I arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina late in the day. Lucas picked me up and drove the hour-plus out to Boone, located along the Appalachian Mountain Range. Though we’d only emailed for approximately three-and-a-half years, we leapt into conversation as old friends. 

The next morning, we set out along the Blue Ridge Parkway. While taking on a series of hikes, we talked about — in no particular order — Jesus, the Devil, aliens, siblings, creativity, farts, music, climate change and sushi. 

Over the course of my days in Boone, I learned about Wooly Worms, the Brown Mountain Lights, and the lawn game Kubb. I learned that sriracha mixed with honey tastes delicious, but that sriracha mixed with maple syrup might taste even better.

I learned the beauty of what Rosaria Butterfield calls “radical hospitality”: a generosity of home and all resource. Lucas is a thoughtful, imaginative artist who, from time to time, loves a good game of backgammon. Danielle is a heart-shaped pistol, unafraid to both speak her mind and love without reservation.  They’ve backpacked together across the world and continually explore what it means to be courageous in both word and deed. My time with the both of them reaffirmed my own desire to love people, to know and be known by others. Lucas and Danielle’s constant affections for friends and family alike showed me the potential of what could happen when you intentionally pursue relationships with others.

The last hike they took me on was Snake Mountain. We began our hike at approximately 3,000 feet above sea level, and though the hike to the summit was only three miles, it also included 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The last half mile involved trudging through bits of snow slush, ducking trail overgrowth, and a small bit of rock-climbing. When we arrived at the top, Danielle took Lucas’ and my picture.     

Many times during my trip, I thought back to when my friend first showed me Lucas’ video. And in those times, I smiled. I thanked God — for my friend, for Lucas and Danielle, for the heart God placed in me, and for seeing it through the breaking. 

Sometimes, when a heart breaks, it shatters. Its fractures are gaping and cavernous. The heart splits open and tears apart in seismic fashion. Through its breaking, it births new territories of raw-nerve-grief-despair-confusion. Sometimes it’s hard to tell between a joyful howl, and am embittered wail. But in the midst of that volcanic ache, seeds of healing are planted, sometimes without our knowing.

Sometimes, in the midst of the dying, resurrection is already on the move.  

landing

I have this obsession with “sticking the landing” — so do pilots and gymnasts. TV show-runners to a lesser extent. Children pretending the ground is hot lava and using pillows as rocks to carve out safe passage — they’re most concerned with sticking the landing. 

I don’t write because I fear I’ll be imperfect — because the first draft is, in Anne Lamott’s words, “shitty.” In her writing book Bird by Bird, she says that “very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it.” 

I begin with the inclination to write, though some would use —

(employ/deploy/conjure) 

— stronger words —

(fiercer nomenclature/more pointed jargon/more vibrant images)

— to describe — 

(illuminate/give life to/chart out)

Damnit. 

Doing it again. 

I don’t write — I don’t speak — don’t extend myself in conversation — don’t show my anger — because I’m afraid I’ll be crooked or incomplete with my answer. I want my words to emerge fully formed, shining-shimmering-splendid. I want my words to captivate, like people watching the ball drop in Times Square in New Year’s Eve. 

I want my anger and my conversation to be symphonic.

I don’t want to confess what I don’t know. I don’t want to have to double-back and rephrase my answer, or swallow my answer entirely so that someone else has space to correct me and show me where I was wrong.

I’m afraid to let the words out of the yard and be a good-and-proper free-range linguist because I fear the reaction of others — and that’s a terrible way to live. An essay or a blog or a text message or a letter to a loved one shouldn’t feel like a game of “Operation,” but to me, that’s what it feels like. 

Which is why a text message conversation is, at times, exhausting for me. It has nothing to do with me not wanting to talk to the person, and everything to do with me attempting to end-around the other person’s reactions and words. 

*

Bring what you’ve got, says Padre.

“But I don’t believe that’s enough,” I reply.

Enough for what?

“For the post to go viral. For the essay to win me an award. For people to read this and like me and follow me and never be upset by a thing I say.”

Is that why you write? Is that why I made you to write? Why I made you to live and move and breathe?

“…No.”
Sorry, couldn’t hear that last bit; was hopping across lava rocks. What’d you say?

“I said ‘no.’ That’s not why I write.”
Ah. Got it. So why then?

“Because it’s communion. Because when I write I’m with you.”
Fishes and loaves, poopsie.

“Poopsie? Only my mom still calls me that.”
Your mom still calls you ‘poopsie?’

“Yeah.”
Good for her.



under construction: BONZO

So. Many. Cobwebs. 

The good news is that, in the two hours of cleaning out various webs and dark spaces, there was only one spider that wound up crawling up my sleeve and inciting a freak-out. In my mind, each of its legs were as big as the St. Louis Archway, and its fangs were like claw hammers, and its eyes were jet-black baseballs of death.

I’m too afraid to google for spiders and find out exactly what kind I saw in my garage. Mostly because I had a bunch of weird dreams last night. Also because it’s 6:30 in the morning, and I don’t want eight legged freaks invading my subconscious that early in the day. 

The carport at the back of my house was used, by the former owner, as a motorcycle repair shop. With that in mind, there’s a lot of various apparatus I need to remove — pneumatic tubes, pulleys, chains — before I can do anything resembling a proactive remodel. It’s a bit like Doc Frankenstein punched his ticket for the coast and left the shop with half the gear dangling from the ceiling. 

However, what the carport is almost immediately useful for — is my drum kit.

Because, you know, priorities. 

*

Well there's a light in your eye that keeps shinin'

Like a star that can't wait for night.

I hate to think I been blinded baby.

Why can't I see you tonight?


An' the warmth of your smile starts a burnin'

An' the thrill of your touch give me fright

And I'm shakin' so much, really yearnin'.

Why don't you show up and make it alright

*

Led Zeppelin entered into my life via Kyle Heath, a late-twenties janitor at church with long blond hair and an affinity for both Big Gulps and the Oakland Athletics. My brother and I took a shine to him, and during our junior high/high school years, we attended, on average, 10-15 A’s games a year. I grew up in San Jose, and yes, the Giants have “territorial” rights to San Jose, but the A’s were closer and cheaper, so there.

Our 45-minute drive to the Coliseum was a crash course in music education. We’d always kick off the drive with Ozzy’s “Crazy Train.”

“ALL ABOARD!!!!!!!!”

After that, however, it was fair game as to what we’d hear. Kyle introduced us to Van Halen and Eddie’s brain-melting, finger-tapping, bewildering solos. To my brother — a budding guitarist in his own right — this was like hearing the Sermon on the Mount from Christ himself, buddy. Christ himself. 

Kyle also played rockabilly (Paladins, Stray Cats), early and late-stage Journey, Cheap Trick, and more Butt Rock (80’s hair metal) than I care to recount. 

One sunny day during batting practice (we always arrived early for BP), I asked him about Led Zeppelin. “They were a band back in the seventies. They’re pretty hard rock. Their drummer died though right at the beginning of the eighties.” Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning” played over the Coliseum’s loudspeakers as Jason Giambi stepped into the box. We, in the right field bleachers, readied out gloves. “I can lend you a couple CD’s; see what you think.”
He lent me Led Zeppelin I, II, III and IV/Zoso/Untitled, depending on your denomination.

I was hooked from “Good Times, Bad Times”, the first track off the first album. You can almost see the audience waiting in anticipation, and the lights cut to black at the opening crunch of Jimmy’s guitar. There’s Bonzo, John Bonham, stomping along with Page, slowly ramping up the tension, right up until that Motown-by-way-of-Worcestershire swagger drum fill ushers him, Page, along with bassist John Paul Jones and lead vocalist Robert Plant rollicking into the blasting light. The crowd goes wild.  

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. 

*

And if you promised you'd love so completely

And you said you would always be true

You swore that you never would leave me baby

Whatever happened to you?


And you thought it was only in movies

As you wish all your dreams would come true

It ain't the first time believe me baby

I'm standing here feeling blue!

*

My first drum kit is, so far, my only drum kit: A six-piece used Magenta Tama Rockstar. 22-inch bass drum, and five, count ‘em five, toms (8, 10, 12, 13, 16). I remember the exact number on the Guitar Center receipt — $523.16 It was, at that time, the most expensive thing I’d ever paid for with my own money. That receipt was like Wonka’s golden ticket.

I set up the kit in what was my and my siblings’ play room, where we kept our toys, video game consoles, lightsabers, championship wrestling belts, etc. I played and wailed and sounded like drunken elephants stumbling down a hillside. I promised my parents to not play past 8PM, and I kept my word. To this day, in fact, I still can’t play past that deadline.  

When I moved down to Southern California for college, the kit stayed at my parents’ house. Same for the first apartment after college, same for the house after that. I had six roommates in that house; a drum kit was one thing too many. 

However, a year and a half into my time on the East Coast, it was time. I jammed the kit into my car and brought both the car and the kit out to Philadelphia. I set it up in the basement and renewed my love affair with music. With drums. With Led Zeppelin. 

The kit came with me to Portland, and after a few more basement stopovers, she’s found a wonderful home in the remodel-in-process carport.

*

Now I will stand in the rain on the corner

I watch the people go shuffling downtown

Another ten minutes no longer

And then I'm turning around, ‘round


And the clock on the wall's moving slower

Oh, my heart it sinks to the ground

And the storm that I thought would blow over

Clouds the light of the love that I found, found

*

 

In Through the Out Door, Zeppelin’s last album, was released in 1979. The album garnered so-so reviews upon its initial release, though some people (myself included) defend its quality. The album is personally notable for two reasons: first, it includes one of my favorite Zeppelin tracks, “Fool in the Rain.” It’s the song whose lyrics I’ve been quoting throughout this piece. It’s a rollicking 6/8 track that, for me, gives me an idea of what Zeppelin would have sounded like had they made it to the 80’s.

Second, the album was released with six different cover designs. The concept, created and executed by famed English art design group Hipgnosis, is a single scene shown from multiple perspectives. The scene depicts a man, wearing a cream colored suit, seated in a New Orleans Bar. He holds a “Dear John” letter in one hand as the letter’s corner ignites in flame. The album’s colors are muted, save for a wipe in the center of the picture in full color. There’re several people in the bar —  bartender, piano player, additional patrons — and each cover showcases their point of view of the man at the bar.

Collecting all six would be a difficult task in and of itself, but Zeppelin upped the ante by sealing the album itself in brown paper bags. Therefore, when you bought the album, you’d never know which cover you’d be purchasing. Nowadays, when you walk into a vinyl, most of the Zep albums aren’t plastic-wrapped, so it’s easier to look at which covers the store has in its possession. I’d collected four of the six by the time I graduated college, but I put the search on hold for a while.

And by a while, I mean ten years gone. 

But this past Friday, a friend and I walked by a record store, and I told him about Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door…and my passion was rekindled. That night, I laid out the four covers I had and took a picture of them for reference. The next day, I returned to the shop, hopeful but realistic of what I’d find (it’s one of the smaller vinyl shops in Portland). 

When what to my wondering eyes did appear…

The last two covers. 

Thirty dollars fled my account like it was a prison break. Maybe the guy at the counter thought me weird for buying two of the same album. No matter. I had my six covers — more precious to me than Infinity Stones or Horcruxes — and my quest had been completed.

*

Ooh now my body is starting to quiver

And the palms of my hands getting wet, oh

I got no reason to doubt you baby

It's all a terrible mess


And I'll run in the rain till I'm breathless

When I'm breathless I'll run till I drop, hey!

And the thoughts of a fool's gotta count

I'm just a fool waiting on the wrong block!  

*

Today, September 25, marks the 38th anniversary of John Bonham’s death. In the aftermath, we’re left with drums that cascade into the room and reverberate in your rib cage. It’s Hammer of the Gods, from first to last.

Now that the kit’s up and running, I’m playing drums more regularly. I’m rusty, and my chops aren’t what they used to be. Intermittent playing has done me no favors. 

Good Times, Bad Times, sin pregunta.  

However, as I continue to clean out the carport, continue to dream about what the space could be, continue to find more and more chains, belts and spiders, I continue to stop every so often, put on the headphones, and ramble on with the madman behind the kit.

Ramble on, Bonzo. Ramble on.

*

Light of the love that I found

Light of the love that I found

Light of the love that I found

Light of the love that I found


 

under construction: IN CARE OF

I’d rather write than rake. 

I’d rather brainstorm about post-apocalyptic jazz landscapes and crumbling hotels that turn into arboretums, but my backyard’s overgrown, and needs tending.

My personality avoids the mundane responsibilities of caring for my space — laundry, dishes, lawn maintenance. I’m more inclined to write a sonnet than sweep the living room. “Anyone can do these tasks,” I reason. “Only I can think about time-traveling tweens, talking planets and made-up colors.”

This is why I wind up doing dishes at 6 in the morning, or laundry at 11 at night — because it is always the last thing on my mind, never on purpose, always begrudgingly.

But here I am, mid-way through the backyard, and the mower’s stopped again, and I’m positive it’s not the battery. Once more, I don’t know what I’m doing. 

I remove the starter key and lift up the mower to diagnose the problem. It’s been so long since I’ve cleaned the lawnmower that a skin of yard waste, composed of wet grass and dirt, is plastered to its underside. I use the most available tool — my car keys in my pocket — and scrape away at the grass. It comes off in scabs, and after its cleaning, the mower’s cutting noticeably improves.

* * *

The scraping of the lawnmower’s undercarriage (yuck) reminds me of the wallpaper I scraped off two of the living room walls when I first moved into the house. I went to Home Depot — the first of one-hundred and eighteen trips (so far) — and told the first employee I saw about the wallpaper.

“Oh,” she said, smiling, knowing I was in for a treat.
“Yeah, so I need to know…”
“How?”
“Yeah.”

She nodded, taking me under her wing. “C’mon.” She gave me the PSP solution, and what looked like an older computer mouse with a spiked gyro ball on the bottom.

“Score the wallpaper with this,” referring to the mouse, “then spray the solution on it. That’ll reactivate the adhesive and pull the paper away from the wall. Then,” handing me a scraper, “you scrape.”

The process really is as simple as it sounds — and it’s also a pain. It takes forever, especially if you’re like me, who struggles to do one thing and one thing only for a long period of time. I’d scrape a section, then set it down and move to something else — some lights I was replacing, cabinets that needed cleaning, etc. I’d scrape another section, then work on a video I was editing, or a piece I was writing. 

It took me several days — way longer than was necessary. One of the days, I was sitting on a bucket, and the Comcast guy was in the other corner of the room, setting up Internet. He looked over at what I was doing. “That looks terrible,” he said.

“It’s not that bad,” I said. And I meant it — the wall-paper scraping put me in that front living room for a prolonged amount of time, and during that time, I tried to pray. Sometimes it was prayer against carpal tunnel, other times prayer for friends and family. When I was really on point, it was prayer for the room. Scraping was, in a strange way, a kind of spiritual discipline.

Before I reaped, I had to first learn how to sow. 

Before anything else, I had to clean the place. I had to scrape the walls to prepare them for painting. I prayed for the conversations to come, for the people who’d stay in the house, for the place of imagination and tenderness I hoped it would become.

* * *

Work on the house has been slower than I’d like to admit, but I’m here, and the house is still here, and there’s still work to be done. I hesitate working on the house because I don’t know what I’m doing, but that’s not to say I can’t learn. That’s not to say I won’t make mistakes, but that’s not to say I can’t give to something good.

I can put good work into a good thing.  
I can scrape wallpaper and grass clippings. 
I can care for a place and, by extension, care for myself.

In A Communion of Lions

+ IN A COMMUNION OF LIONS +

The guards kicked open his door, and as soon they entered, they drew swords and spears. They uprooted him from his position of prayer. Daniel saw hands on his arms, felt arms at his back, and was reminded of when he was a boy — when guards that sounded like these guards, when hands that felt like these hands — took him. 

“Daniel!” Shouted his mother. “Daniel!” 

There was no trial, no explanation; much like the time guards came for him as a boy.

“Daniel! Daniel!” His mother continued to shout until Daniel was too far removed from her to hear her. The greater the distance grew, the more fervent her shouts, as if she was trying to dig as deep into the earth of his heart as possible and plant the truth before she ran out of time — before he was taken from her forever.

He was jarred back into the present by the taunts of his accusers. They berated him, calling him a traitor and a blasphemer. Daniel heard more laughter as they neared the pit. He’d heard of this place — from time to time, he heard the screams. As he was thrown in, he noted the insults of his accusers, and the panicked shouts of Darius, the king — his friend whose own decree had ensured this punishment — 

“Daniel!” Shouted his friend. “Daniel!”

The stone sealed the entrance, and Daniel’d run out of time.

And then, he was alone. 

Or, to be more precise, he was with the lions. 

Void of light. Of sound. Daniel crossed his arms, felt his forearms and face. “I am here,” he reminded himself. “I am here in the dark, in a pit whose walls are made of rock. I cannot see my hand in front of my face. I smell rotted corpses. My heart beats, I take in air. And I am not alone.” 

He couldn’t discern their shapes in the dark, but he could feel the presence of the lions. “They are here with me,” thought Daniel. “Lord, your lions are with me.” 

Daniel focused on his breathing. 

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. 

Hearing his breath reminded him of his father, who taught him to pray. 

“How, Father?”
“Here,” he said, kneeling — his father’s eyes now lining up with his. “When you pray, kneel.” 

“Why, Father?”
“Because kneeling helps us remember.”
“Remember what, Father?”

“It helps us remember we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent miraculous signs and wonders — great and terrible — upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.”

His father held Daniel’s hand. “Pray with me, son.”

“Yes, Father.” 

His measures of breath reminded Daniel of the One who gave him breath. “My breaths are traced out like hills to you. My breaths are curved like clay pots to you. My breaths twist in the air as dust to you. My breaths have shape and substance to you.”

Did He who gave him breath also put him here, in the darkness, alone but not alone? Immense, yet intimate. His name, on the edge of his lips — His name, forever unknowable.

He drew a deep intake of breath and remembered stars. 

He exhaled and remembered sunlight.

Daniel knelt. Slow. One knee, then the other. He kept his head bowed, kept his hands on his knees. As he settled, he heard the first lion. To his right. Daniel heard it take one step. 

“Breathe,” he told himself. “Pray.” 

You are near to me as the lion is near to me.

Another, to his left, stepped. Daniel grew even more still.

You are present with me as the lion is present with me.

“Breathe,” he told himself. “Pray.” 

A third lion, from the center, approached. It came closest to Daniel, close enough to hear its breath sing through its nostrils. It stopped a foot or so from him. Daniel could feel its breath on his forehead, and he lifted his head to meet the lion’s gaze.

I know your breath as I know the lion’s breath.

“Breathe,” Daniel told himself. “Pray.”

The lion stood still. Daniel looked into the eyes of the lion. 

And there, Daniel saw God.

+ TWO +

“My name is Daniel; a name given me by my parents. When I was a boy, I was taken — my friends and I. The king’s ancestor enslaved my people and led us from our homeland. When we arrived in this land, the ones who captured me — the ones who captured you — gave me another name.

Belteshazzar. 

This ancestor — Nebuchadnezzar — he believed himself to be mighty and invincible. So mighty, in fact, he demanded that everyone worship him as a God. The people of this land are accustomed to gods they can see — gods of flesh and wood and stone. 

But I know of a God beyond image or substance. 

And it was this God who gave Nebuchadnezzar a dream — a dream whose meaning he couldn’t discern. In his confusion, he grew frightened and angry. Nebuchadnezzar assembled the wise men of his kingdom and commanded them not merely to interpret the dream, but to first discern the dream without it being told to them, and then to interpret it.  

My friends and I had been trained under the eye of the Nebuchadnezzar’s officials. We were counted in that group of “wise men,” though we were not native to the land. I heard the request, and thought it a fearful, mad plea. Perhaps this was the first time he felt small — the first time he felt something beyond himself. 

When none of the native wise men could discern neither the dream nor its meaning, Nebuchadnezzar demanded we all be executed. I spoke to my friends — Hananiah, renamed Shadrach — Mishael, renamed Meshach — Azariah, renamed Abednego — and I told them to pray for God’s mercy.”

Daniel paused. He remembered his friends, and their time in the furnace. He’d wept as they were cast into the furnace, and he’d prayed all throughout the ordeal. Afterward, he saw them — their hair was not singed, nor did their clothes smell like smoke. 

“How?” Daniel asked his friends, “how do you stand amidst fire, but do not burn?”

His three friends smiled. “An angel,” said Hananiah. “An angel appeared and stood with us.”

“What happened next?” Asked Daniel.

Hananiah bowed his head, then lifted his eyes to meet Daniel’s. “The angel spoke our names.” 

+ THREE +

“The night before the execution,” Daniel continued, “the mystery of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was revealed to me. I can’t say I heard a voice, but at once I saw the statue. I saw layers of gold, silver, iron and clay. I saw a stone cut by unknown hands. The stone demolished the statue, and then became a mountain.”

“I praised God for His revelation — He who gives wisdom, over and over again. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.”

Daniel felt the lion on his left inch closer. Daniel smiled. 

“Is that you, Hananiah? Are you here with me?”

Daniel’s eyes shifted left. “When I saw you after your hours in the fire, you spoke of the angel. You said you saw flame reflected in its eyes, but because you knew you were with an angel, you were not afraid. You felt awe, Hananiah. You felt near to God.”

The lion to Daniel’s left purred. He heard its intake of breath and its exhale.

“I remember you, Hananiah — surrounded by fire, but not burning. I remember praying for you that morning. I remember your name on my lips — the name your parents gave you when they held you, when they bathed you and circumcised you. In the morning, I prayed for you.”

“Yes, now you are here with me. You, and the lion — and the God of our Fathers. He is the God of the Parted Sea and the Fire that burns but does not consume.”

+ FOUR +

Daniel turned his gaze toward the lion in the center. “And you, Mishael,” said Daniel. “Mishael, my friend — shall I tell you what I prayed for this afternoon? Before I was taken?”

“I prayed for my neighbor. I prayed for the king’s guard. I prayed for Darius, our king. I prayed for our people because I believe we’re lost. Our Lord detailed the laws we were to keep because we were once slaves to Pharaoh. In His mercy, He took us from Egypt. We were fearful and made a graven image; a calf. Time and time again, manna after quail after water from a rock, the God of our Fathers told us what was necessary for obedience and health. 

In response, we chose to pursue our own power and might. 

We chose the way of Babel.

We waged war and worshiped false idols. We shed blood and ignored the voice of He who seeks to redeem and make us whole. God allowed us to pursue our ignorance to the fullest measure, and now we are exiled. Now we are far from home. 

I prayed for us, Mishael, in the midst of our exile. I prayed God would not turn his gaze from us and make us strangers forever. I prayed He would remember us.”

Daniel sat still, taking in the sight of the lion. 

“There’re dreams I’ve not told anyone about yet — dreams I think he’s given me, but I don’t know how to express them. I knew the dream of the statue was not my dream. But these new dreams — I don’t know how to speak out loud and share them with anyone.”

Daniel tilted his head, still looking at the lion. “I wonder if he does the same to you.”

+ FIVE +

“Once he gave a man a dream where water covered the earth. God was to destroy all life, save the life he spared on a boat the man was to build. Why that man, and why the destruction? Could not have God withered any violent hands? Could he not have crooked any tongues that spoke evil? Could he not have dimmed, instead of destroy?

He gave dreams to yet another man, or a young man. The LORD gave him visions of suns, moons, and grain. Yet when this young man told his brothers of his dreams, his brothers lashed out against him. They fought over the young man’s cherished coat, and sold their brother into slavery. He was carried to Egypt. There, he spent time in prison; hearing dreams, caring for the imprisoned.

His dreams showed life, yet they also showed death. They showed both prosperity and famine, and both, in time, came to pass. I'm sure the dreams frightened him. I hope they frightened him as my dreams frighten me.

There was once a boy, who heard the voice of God when there was no voice, when our priests were evil and sought their own good as opposed to the good of others. The boy served under the care of the spiritually dead priest, yet God spoke to the boy. Time and time again, the boy assumed it was the priest. At last, the priest told the boy to speak to God.

‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.’

What was it like, to be the boy who heard the voice of God, and what was it to be the mentor, the one who knew this boy was hearing the voice of someone he once knew so intimately, yet knew no longer?

I do not want us to lose the sound of God’s voice. I want to hear it constantly in my ears. I want it to fill my body. That’s what I prayed for this afternoon — that we would be remembered and brought close as children of God.”  

+ SIX +

"There was someone who was led through a covenant. He was told to turn his head upward and count the stars. That was to be his offspring." Daniel paused. "You've seen stars, have you not, lion?" The lion blinked, turned its head for a moment, then returned to Daniel. "Yes, you must have seen stars when you lived free."

Daniel continued. "Later, when he had but one son, he was told to slaughter it. He was told to take it up the mountain and kill it, as sacrifice. As affection."

Daniel paused, and thought. “I do not know the mind and currents of God, but I know he is the God who has overseen my friends though they were in the fire. He is the God who is with us now.”

Daniel examined the paw of the lion. There were shards of bone and rock jammed in the paw. Daniel reached toward the paw of the lion, and it growled. Daniel stopped. The lion showed its teeth to Daniel, which were rotted, and the gums were charcoal black. Daniel could smell the infections and sores in the mouth of the animal. The lion’s mouth reminded Daniel of the coals used to bake bread, as a child. 

Daniel remembered his home, and he remembered his family. He recalled the shared meals as a family, where he and his brother laughed together. His father was someone who loved them well, and his mother’s smile would shine.

Daniel leaned back from reaching for the paw. ”My mother sang,” Daniel told the lion. “She sang when my father laughed, and in time, my father sang with her.”

“You and I are surrounded by violence, but in this moment, I remember singing. I pray we might yet know a more peaceful existence. I pray God brings us out of violence and teaches us to sing.”

“I miss the sound of my mother’s song.”

 

+ SEVEN +

Daniel looked at the lion to his right, and noticed a scar across the lion's side. Perhaps suffered in an attack. "You are beautiful, Azariah.” The lion yawned and looked away from Daniel. "I know who made you. He is the one who made me as well.”

The lion bowed its head and pressed in close to Daniel. Daniel could see the rib cage of the lion expand and contract. Daniel could feel the lion tremble as it breathed.

“When was the last time I trembled, father? When was I last trembling?” 

His mind floated back in time. “Yes. There was a prayer, one day. I was young. I’d heard the story of Passover for the first time, and my father spoke about the the blood spread across the top of the doorway, and I thought about the slain lamb, and then I began to shake. 

I think about the lamb, and I tremble.”

Daniel came back to the lion. ”You're made of grace, Azariah, and you’ve been made with grace. But your captors,” said Daniel, “they’ve trained you to become a manifestation of their wrath. They take the worst parts of themselves and pour them into you. Then, they forget the violence was borne from them. They permit themselves to ignore they haven't dealt with the most violent parts of themselves.”

The lion licked its lips. Daniel noticed the crooked teeth of the lion.

“Nebuchadnezzar had a second dream. Of a tree, once blossoming with fruit, stripped of its branches and cut down to the stump. I told him he was the tree — that though he was, for the moment, adorned with riches, very soon he’d be stripped of everything and sent out into the wilderness. 

Soon thereafter, he was stripped of everything, and he became a wild animal, eating the grass of the forest. For seven years, the animal nature in my king — that ravenous, craven part of himself — reigned. My king was wild, but after seven years, God restored him.

Nebuchadnezzar knew the violence in men’s hearts like few others ever do.”

Daniel kept his eyes on Azariah. And Daniel prayed once more.

“Lord, I believe you have me here for a reason. I believe you give me visions and words for a reason, even if they terrify me. I imagine more dreams will rise, and I will love and tremble again. 

When I look close, I see how this lion trembles. What would make such a powerful creation tremble? This lion shakes, and I don't know why, father. 

Creation suffers. We suffer here, both because of us are not supposed to be here. Both of us belong elsewhere. But we are here. Both you and I are here because men are too often afraid to face themselves. We are exiles, together. We are made well, made for a purpose beyond our knowing.

I pray you help us sleep. 
I pray you help us sleep and dream of you. 
We are not where we are supposed to be, but we are where we're meant to be.
If the lion dreams, Father, I pray the lion dreams of you.”

the visitors

 

“Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”

They sat in the front room, silent.
“A star, you said?”
“Yes,” replied one of them, speaking for the group.
“Hmm,” she replied. She nodded and looked over at Joseph, who smiled. She looked at their robes, the stitching and texture of the fabrics. “I’m sorry we don’t have more than the bread to serve.”
The one who spoke for the group shook his head. “Please,” he said, “there’s no need to apologize.”
There was a pause. They searched for questions. “Does he sleep well?” Asked the first.
“For a young child, yes. He has nights, as children do. He is learning to sleep.”
“Of course, yes.” 

A second visitor nodded, then leaned forward toward the mother and father. “And it was…it was a manger? In a stable?”
She nodded. “There was no room elsewhere.”
“Was it cold?”
“Yes — but Joseph brought blankets. We were warm enough.”
“Was it painful?”
“Yes — but all births are painful.”
“Do you remember it? The birth?”

Mary looked at the visitor. She looked again at his ornate clothes, his formality and posture. “I remember the taste of the tears I shed during the birth, and I remember the steam from the blood, and I remember his voice — like laughter, also — the cattle, and he.” She thought back to the moment, and she grinned. “I thought his voice would split me and the ceiling of the stable in two.”

After a moment, the third visitor interjected. “Were you afraid?”
Mary looked over at Joseph. “At times, yes.”
“What changed your minds?”
“An angel appeared to both of us and told us not to be afraid.”
“And that was all?”
Mary again looked over at Joseph, who spoke to the third visitor. “It was an angel; a messenger. It was an issue of whether or not to trust the one who sent the message.”
The visitor nodded and thought about the angel. 
Mary studied his face. “Do you have children?”
“No,” said the third visitor.
“You?” She asked the first.
“No.”
“You?” She asked the second.
“No.”
“Did any of you ever wish to have children?”
The first and second visitors shook their heads. The third, after pausing to reflect, spoke. “Yes.”
Mary turned her eyes toward him, and the third visitor continued. “I feel like I’ve been faithful to a calling — I feel — I feel peace about what I’ve done, and on most evenings, I sleep well because of it.”
“And the other nights?”

The third visitor managed a weak smile. “On those nights, I remember when I was a child, and I remember my own father, my mother — and I feel like there’s an empty room inside my heart — I can’t always see the details of the room — the shape or if anyone’s inside, but it always seems to take the shape of a child. It is a child’s room — a child-shaped room.”

Mary’s eyes welled with tears. She opened her mouth to speak — but then stopped. Her focus turned toward the other room. She heard something.
“Is everything alright?” Asked the third visitor.
Mary smiled. She turned back to him. “I think he’s awake. Would you like to meet him?”

And now it was the visitor’s turn to cry. He smiled.
“Yes,” he said. “I would.”  

 

The Strangest Thing

In Episode 3 of Stranger Things 2, Will Byers finds himself in the Upside-Down. The shadowy, multi-limbed monster, later known as “The Mind Flayer”, rises high above the school. 

Will sprints from the monster, but then he stops. He remembers the story Bob Newby, his mother’s boyfriend, told him about standing up to someone he was scared of as a young boy.

“I said, ‘Go away!’” Bob told Will. 

And the thing Bob was scared of disappeared. 

Will decides to take Bob’s advice. He looks up at the monster and screams. “Go away!”

The Mind Flayer nears.

He screams again. “Go away!” Tears now in his eyes. 

The Flayer’s pace quickens. Even closer. 

“GO AWAY!” He screams with everything inside of him. 

But the Mind Flayer refuses. It surrounds him.

And then, it takes him.  

II

As a child, there’s a moment where you realize there are monsters in the world, and sometimes, the monsters win.

You come to understand that not only is there evil in the world, but that on occasion, it gets its shit together and lands some decent punches.

And when that happens, you wake up in this unknown space — this nothingness — where the once-solid ground gives way, and without warning, you’re in free fall. 

The question, then…is “What next?”

III

When the Mind Flayer takes over Will, it’s akin to the physical/spiritual possession of Regan McNeil in The Exorcist (1973).

In that film, it’s up to Father Merrin to cast out the demon. Here, it’s up to Joyce, Jonathan, Nancy…and a red hot poker. 

However, whereas in The Exorcist we’re not shown the moment of possession, Stranger Things 2 makes it the climax of Episode 3. And it’s horrific.

The Mind Flayer thrusts tentacles into Will’s eyes, ears and mouth. It fully possesses him down to the core of his being. It is, for me, the single-most terrifying scene of Stranger Things yet.

The physical possession of Will Byers is reminiscent of both old sci-fi possession stories such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as the more intense body-horror sub-genre, which includes Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), as well as two David Cronenberg films: Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986). The films are linked by a common idea of foreign/uncategorized entities overtaking a human body and using it as a host. 

Thankfully, Stranger Things avoids some of the more graphic elements (chest-bursting, decomposition, metamorphosis, etc.), but in doing so, it sets its sight on far more fragile, and frightening ground.

Will’s emotions. His memories. If the Mind Flayer can control Will’s emotions and memories, then it’s found the perfect host. 

IV

This is how Will Byers arrives to the knowledge that monsters exist:

He witnesses the monster’s power. 

He stands up to the monster’s power.

And then he loses.

And here, perhaps, a difficult lesson: Just because you’re brave doesn’t mean good things will happen to you. However, just because good things don’t always happen, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be brave. 

It means you’re going to lose something you love. Or someone.

V

It’s precisely because of their bravery — because they’ve chosen to stand for something — that’s why it’s a certainty they’re going to experience trauma.

And the kids of Stranger Things exhibit this bravery, this wounding, and this continued courage. They are all wounded at some point — all challenged to give up the fight.

But just because they’ve lost, it doesn’t mean they stop. If anything, it means they fight harder.

Sci-fi is best when it places ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and the more Stranger Things digs into its characters, the better it’ll be. 

I have no idea what the Duffer Brothers have in store for Season 3, and I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I’ll be watching, that’s for sure. 

Stranger Things 2 delves more into childhood trauma and PTSD far more than I thought it would — and for that, it has my respect, fandom and admiration. 

So much so, I might even forgive it for “The Lost Sister.” 

Almost.

 

Iscariot

“When he fails you,” said his father, “don’t be surprised.”

“He’s different, father.”

“He is one man against Rome. You yourself know what happens to people who talk of such things.”

“He’s speaking tomorrow, outside of town. You should come.”

His father shook his head. “I know what he will say. I know the oaths he’ll swear. He’ll prophesy freedom from Rome, and vengeance against Caesar. He’ll speak of blood, because blood is all he knows.”

“Father, he — ”

His father grabbed Judas by the face with both hands and pulled him close to his. “Son, listen! This Nazarene — he is a liar. Blood is all he knows. He is no Messiah. He is not your Savior.”

Judas, by instinct — from affection — kissed his father.

His father growled and pushed Judas away from him. Judas tumbled back and fell.

That was three years ago,” thought Judas. “Three years,” he thought, as he pulled a coin from his purse and felt its weight in the center of his palm.

+ TWO +

Judas bowed and angled the basket toward a family.

“Here.”

“Where did this come from?”

“The food is for you and your family. If you are hungry, eat.”

The father looked up at Judas. “How do you have enough food for everyone?”

Judas remained silent. He looked out at the hillside, then back to the man. “Are you hungry?” 

“Yes.”

“Is your family hungry?”

The man looked at his wife and children. He looked back at Judas and nodded.

“Everyone will be fed. How they are to be fed is no concern of yours. Now, take and eat.”

The man’s eyes fell to the fish and bread. He glanced over at his wife and child and motioned for them to take from the basket as well. Judas took note of their hands. He took note of their fingers. As they took their first bites, he took note of their eyes and mouths and teeth.

As Judas turned from them, the child, a boy, spoke. “Is he telling the truth?”

Judas turned to the boy. He saw bread crumbs at the corners of the boy’s lips.

Judas paused. “Did you hear anything he said!? What manner of kingdom do you think the poor will inherit?! The meek and the timid lack the will to desire anything. They are poor because they are weak. They will inherit nothing. You are hungry, and I give you fish and bread. But he — he speaks of righteousness, speaks of seeing God — overthrowing Rome through peace!? How does one topple a kingdom without bloodshed?! 

The deaf hear. The lame walk. The blind see. I have seen miracles, boy. Today, we are fed. Today, you say “thank you.” But we sit at the feet of a fool. Tomorrow we die.

“Judas?”

By instinct — from affection — he turned and answered. “Yes, Rabbi.”

The Nazarene smiled. He looked down at Judas’ basket, and tore off a small piece of the bread. “Are you alright, Judas?”

Judas smiled. “Yes, Rabbi.”

“Child,” He said. “You’re trembling.”

Judas laughed in disbelief, but he cut his laughter short. Because, in fact, the Teacher was right. He was trembling. He couldn’t hold the basket still, try as he might. He stared at his shaking hands. “I — I don’t know what’s happening.”

He placed a hand on the basket, and stilled the tremors. “It’s alright. It’s alright.” He looked over at the boy. “Have you been fed?”

The boy looked up at Him, and then back at the bread. “Thank you for the bread.”

He smiled at the boy, then to Judas. “Are you well? Are you with me, Judas?”

Judas looked at the Rabbi. “Yes. Yes, I am with you.”

He smiled, and kissed Judas. “Peace, Judas. There’re more to be fed.” And he left them.

A tear crested and struck the corner of Judas’ lips. He tasted its salt. 

He inhaled, exhaled and thought of the Rabbi. 

Judas looked back at the boy, but said nothing. 

+ THREE +

“Father.” 

Judas looked down and he saw his feet, swinging far above the ground.

“Father.”

Judas looked down and he saw the Rabbi, kneeling, washing his feet.

“Father.”

Judas looked down and saw the young boy, looking back at him.

“Father.”

Judas remembered kissing the Rabbi.

Judas remembered the bread.

Judas remembered the salt of his tear.

“Father,” he said.

This I Know to be True

These are the things I know to be true. 
I am made of music. 
I am a storyteller. 
Sometimes I do not live up to that calling. 
Sometimes I am the best firefighter and the worst flame. 
Sometimes I am the best hunter and the worst prey. 
Sometimes I sing the song I know sounds within me 24/7.

These are the things I know to be true. 
I am a bad detective. 
I have a subjective view point, and that means sometimes I don’t consider elements of an event that other people consider to be vitally important. 
I trespass. 

These are the things I know to be true. 
I am commanded to love people I don’t always love, including myself.
Sometimes I let myself off the hook of loving others.
Sometimes I let myself off the hook of loving myself. 
I am skilled at letting myself on and off the hook, getting on and off the wagon.

These are the things I know to be true. 
I have olive skin. 
In time, the skin will wrinkle. My skin is not impenetrable. My skin, like a flag, like a quilt, is not a shield, is not a mask. 
My skin, like a flag, like a quilt, tells a story.

These are the things I know to be true.
My grandfather had skin made of stories. 
I miss my grandfather.
My grandfather is dead. 

These are the things I know to be true. 
Sometimes I don’t take care of myself as well as I know how to do.
Sometimes I ignore God’s voice within me because I don’t want the responsibility.
Sometimes I don’t want the responsibility of storytelling. 
Sometimes I don’t want the responsibility of friendship. 
Sometimes I don’t want the responsibility of forgiving people I don’t want to forgive, including myself. 

These are the things I know to be true. 
I have a heart made with love. 
I have a heart made of love.
I have a heart made to give love, to receive love. 

These are the things I know to be true. 
I need help. 
I need help. 
I need help. 

Amen. 
Amen. 
Amen. 

 

Yad Ha'Elohim -- The Hand of God

Abinadab had gathered with the rest of the crowd. He stretched and pushed and shoved and shouted, “Uzzah, My son! My son! He carries the ark! He carries the ark as we celebrate its homecoming!”

He saw his son astride the ark. “My son!” Shouted Abinadab. “My son who guides the ark!”         For years, the ark of the covenant had been lost. Philistines had taken it, but the ark had, without the hand of man, destroyed the idols of the Philistines. False gods were, simply by being in the presence of it, beheaded and toppled. For years, the ark had rested in the house of Abinadab, and King David requested the ark return to Jerusalem.

The ark neared Abinadab. “My son!” He shouted. “I must see my son!” There was commotion in the crowd, all eager to press in and see the ark of the covenant up close. He shoved and was shoved sharp from behind. The air shot up out of him; skyward, as doves. His vision blurred. He stumbled.

There was a shout, and then a scream. 

When Abinadab regained footing and focus, the crowd was silent.

And in that silence, Abinadab noticed he felt different than before — something was missing. His hand, on instinct, reached for his chest. He felt it beat once, twice. He traced no wound or gape along his skin — but something had been removed. 

He paused to pray, and in a flash, the words rushed up from his heart and out between his lips —

“My son!” He shouted. “Uzzah, my son! I must see my son!” Trembling and panicked, he pushed through the crowd, now as motionless as reeds on a windless day.

He pushed through to the front. He saw first the oxen, and then the ark of the covenant.

And then his eyes tracked downward, where his son lay; dead in the dust. 

He fell. 

He fell to the feet of his son and gathered Uzzah to himself. 

“My son,” he wept. “My son who carries the ark. Speak to me, my beloved. Speak.”

*    *    *

Abinadab sat and lamented of Uzzah’s death to his friend. “Years have we watched over the ark. We are Kish, descendants of the tribe of Levi, chosen by God to watch and protect the sacred objects of Yahweh. Why would the wrath of His hand extend toward those he commanded to watch over the ark?”

“We do not know the ways of God,” replied his friend. “Uzzah sinned, Abinadab. God is holy, and Uzzah touched the ark.”
“Yes, because it was falling.”
“It is the dwelling place of God.”

Abinadab nodded. “From the days of Moses, adorned with cherubim, yes. I taught my sons to know the ark and love it. Who do you take me for?” Abinadab stood and paced in the room. “Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood— two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. He overlaid it with pure gold, both inside and out, and made a gold molding around it. He cast four gold rings for it and fastened them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then he made poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. And he inserted the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. He made the atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Then he made two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. He made one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; at the two ends he made them of one piece with the cover. The cherubim had their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim faced each other, looking toward the cover.”

Abinadab crouched and held the hands of his friend. “I have seen the space between the cherubim. I taught my sons to listen for the presence — for the song of God. I taught them to love Him and seek Him.”

“I know, Uzzah." His friend said. "I know. But if you have seen the space between the cherubim, if you know the sound and shine of hammered gold, then you also know the power and might of Elohim. You know the Hand that held back the waters, the Hand that washed away Pharaoh, the hand that opened the earth and swallowed the house of Korah.”
“Should my beloved have allowed that which he loves to fall, then? Would you have reached out?”
“I do not ask such questions.”
“Why? Because you fear the answer?”
“I have nothing to fear. I keep the commandments of the Lord, and I know the Lord is good.”
“Yes, yes —" said Abinadab. "I too believe He is good. He brought our people out of Egypt. He freed us from the bonds of slavery and Pharaoh’s horse and rider were hurled into the sea.

He guided us through the wilderness, though we forged a golden calf and forsook his commands. We transgressed, and those who transgressed were not allowed to enter the promised land. 

Even Moses, a beloved, in anger struck the stone, and by his wrath removed himself from the land. Even Moses, whom God used to free our ancestors, could not — because of sin — enter the land.

And then Joshua led us into the land. But upon crossing the Jordan, we had to wait upon the Lord for guidance and for his glory to be known. Joshua took the soldiers and marched around the city for seven days. On the seventh day, they gave a great shout, and Jericho’s strongholds fell away.

The Lord proves faithful. Kings go to war, prophets seek wisdom, the teachers and the priests seek out his presence where he may be found. Blood is shed, and God speaks — in whispers, in full-throated song.

The Lord is good, and He brought the ark back to the city. He has condoned the violence of David, our king — the bloodshed of Joshua, a great warrior, and the violence of the Sea, the hunger and the gaping mouth of the Sea which swallowed Pharaoh and his mighty army.

The Lord is good, and my son is dead because he loved Him and reached out in a time of need.”

Abinadab walked to the window. “When I held Uzzah, I remembered how I would find him at rest, close to the ark. I scolded him, because I knew it was dangerous. ‘I want to hear Him,’ he said. ‘I want to hear God.’ Tears formed in Abinadab’s eyes. “Did not Samuel sleep at the base of the ark? Did he not care for the ark, spurred on by love? And did he not, one night, hear God speak?”   

 “Abinadab, friend — please. You were wrong to keep the ark in your home. You know this.”

“Yes, I was wrong. Yes, I was reckless. But did not even those who cast the calf out of the fire, they were forced to drink their sin, but they too, they were still permit to choke praise from their lungs? How were they preserved and allowed to praise the Father — but my son, spurred by love, was struck down ?” 

At this, Abinadab’s friend fell silent.

*    *    *

Late, when all were asleep. Abinadab could not rest. He left his bed, and stood in the front room. He listened for any animals or footsteps outside. 

Silence. Abinadab prayed. 

I want to speak your name as I would a friend — but you are not my friend. 
You are my God. My creator. 
From dust have I been drawn, and it is dust that draws me now.

I wish to know the reasons behind your ways — which is blasphemy. 
I wish to call you by your name and pull you close — which is blasphemy. 

I wish to question you and doubt you — which is blasphemy. 

So then, God Almighty, my teacher, you know me, and my heart, and my name — 
and now you know what I wish for — what I long for — 
I pray for blasphemy. 

Amen.

The Good Shepherd

    He entered the house, shook his head. “Your son, again.”

    Without looking up, she tsked-tsked with her tongue. “Our son, again.”

    “He loves you more.”

    “He loves you as well.”

    “He never says it.”

    “Because he doesn’t know the words yet.” She turned to face her husband. “You are a good teacher. You care about about his learning, yes?”

    “I do.”

    “Because you want him to be a good shepherd, yes?”
    Adriel sighed and glanced back out the entrance, before returning his focus to his wife. “He lost some sheep. I found all but one. We’ve been searching, but…” He shook his head. 

    She nodded. “Where is he?”

    “Outside, I think. I shouted at him, and told him to wait until I allowed him to enter.”

    Galila put her hands to her husband’s cheek, and with her thumbs, she traced crescents under his eyes — back and forth, back and forth, like tidewaters from the sea. She pulled his head down and kissed his forehead.

    “You, my love, are a good shepherd. You sit. I’ll go talk to him.”

    

    *    *    *

    

    “Nechemya,” she called. “Nechemya, where are you?”

    Silence. Galila took a few steps, noting the sound of the rocks beneath her sandals. “Nechemya, it’s your mother. Come sit with me.” She sat on the edge of the well, and exhaled. “It’s beautiful this evening, no? Why don’t we sit together?”

    Silence. Galila looked down at her hands, flipped them once, twice, then slid off the edge of the well and sat down on the ground. She rested against the well. “I’m going to tell you a story, Nechemya. Is that alright?” She waited, but heard no response.
    “Once, I lived in a town. This is before you were born, before I knew your father. When Roman soldiers rode through the village, they would ask for wine. I would serve them wine.”

    Galila picked up a small pebble, held it in her palm. “They would ask for other things as well…and I would give them those other things. Because they could make life bad for me if I said no.” She closed her fingers over the pebble, turning her hand into a fist. “You understand this, Nechemya? There was no choice.” Her breath, heavier now. “But people in the town, they disapproved. They wanted to teach me I was wrong to do what I did.” She paused. “So, one morning they — ”

    “Teach, mama…like the way papa teaches?”

    Galila turned her eyes right, and she saw Nechemya, her son. He held his shepherd’s staff loose. He didn’t stand still, but instead shifted his weight from side to side. 

    “Why do you do that, Nechemya? You sway like a reed.”

    “I don’t like to stand still, mama.”
    Galila opened her fist, and re-examined the pebble. She dropped it. “Nechemya, my love.”
    Nechemya approached and sat next to his mother.

    She smiled. “Papa teaches out of love. But the people who wanted to teach me — they were angry. They took me from my house. I shouted for help, but no one stopped them. They brought me to the feet of a Teacher in the square. I’d been accused of a crime, but they weren’t sure how I should be punished.”

    “What did the Teacher say?”

    Galila smiled. Her finger traced a winding path in the sand. “He said nothing. He drew.”
    “What’d he draw, mama?”

    “He drew a tree. He asked me what kind it resembled. ‘It looks like an olive tree, Teacher.’ I said. ‘Is it an olive tree?’”

    Nechemya shifted closer to his mother. “What’d he say?”
    Galila shrugged. “He told me about how he knew many people who’d sat under trees. ‘Friends, Teacher?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Yes, child. Friends.’ He told me about one person who sat under a tree, and ravens came to him with food. This man was tired and near death, and he was afraid — but the tree provided shade and shelter from the sun. As he sat, ravens visited him and kept him alive with food, and the nearby river gave him water to drink.

    As he told me this story, he drew the wings of the raven. ‘Do you have a favorite bird?’ He asked. ‘No, Teacher.’ I replied. ‘The birds,’ he said, ‘the birds provide shelter and safety for their offspring with their wings. When a predator comes, the birds spread their wings wide and gather their young to their breast. Here, they are safest.’”

    Galila extended her arm and draped it over her son. Nechemya glanced at his mother’s hand at his side, and smiled. “What happened next, mama?”

    “Next, he wrote his name — the name of God.”

    Nechemya’s eyes opened wide. “But that name must not be said. It is blasphemy.”

    She nodded. “Yes. But what if it’s God who’s doing the writing?” Nechemya said nothing. Galila continued making a path with her finger. “Other people before him claimed to the Messiah, my love. And afterward, people after him have claimed to be the Messiah. They come from dust, they claim to be the Messiah, and then the dust claims them back.”

    “Did he die?”

    “Yes.” Galila thought of the hill. She thought of the storm and the blood and the crown. “Yes, he did.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “But the dust did not claim him.” 

    “What’d he say — when he wrote his name?”

    “He — ” Galila stopped, laughed. “He started humming; singing even.” 

    “What’d he sing?”

    “Do you remember the song I sang while you were falling asleep?”

    “Yes.”

    She kissed her son on the forehead. “That’s His song.”
    Her son smiled. But when he looked back at the house, his smile fell from his face. 

    “Why now are you sad, my son? I thought my story made you glad.”

    “Father hates me.”

    “He’s angry about the lost animals, but he loves you.”

    “Do you believe that?”

    “When he’s out with the animals, keeping them safe, he’s finding the words to tell you how much he loves you. When he’s repairing the walls of our home, with each movement of his hand, he’s building the words, casting the words.”

    Galila leaned close to whisper. “And when he sits alone in the room, as he does now, he prays for words, for help — and like manna, the words fall into his lap. Everything he does, he’s learning how to say ‘I love you.’”

    “I don’t think I’m going to be a good shepherd.”
    Galila paged through the hairs on her son’s head. Specs of dust kicked up in the air. “Do you want to be a shepherd?”

    “I do.”

    “Do you want to care for the animals?”

    “I do.”

    Galila put her hands to her son’s cheeks and, with her thumbs, drew crescents underneath her son’s eyes — back and forth, back and forth, like tidewaters from the sea. She kissed him on the forehead.

    “Go back to where you last remember having all the sheep, and start there. Look in the shaded areas, in the cracks of rocks — in the shadows of the mountains.”

    “Yes, mama.”

    He stood to leave, and headed toward the pasture. 

    “Nechemya,” she said. “If you’re still having trouble finding the sheep…sing.”

ee. nuff.

Enough is a concept. 
Enough is an amount. 
Enough is an ideal.

Enough is attainable if you have the right degree, if you say the right things at the right time to the right people in the right way.

Enough is possible if you were born into specific living conditions. 

Enough is eight glasses of water. Or ten. Or twelve. 
Enough depends on the size of your glass.

Enough is approximately 2,000 calories. 
Enough is four servings of fruit.
Enough is a spoonful of sugar. 
Enough is an apple a day. 
Enough is my two front teeth.
Enough is that doggy in the window, the one with the waggly tail.
Enough is mounting Lazlo’s Hierarchy like it’s a Derby Horse and riding that shit into the sunset.  

(aside: “Lazlo’s Hierarchy” would be an awesome name for a horse)

+ TWO +

Enough is enough when I say it’s enough. 
Enough is enough when I say it’s enough.
Enough is enough when I say it’s enough.
And this is not enough.

+ THREE +

Enough is Scrooge McDuck diving into his pool of gold, swimming ‘round and thinking to himself, “The gold was easier to swim through this time. Are my arms getting stronger, or was there less money than before? How’re the overseas account? I need to check. Where’s my phone? What do the stocks look like? Trending upward? Downward? What needs to be bought or sold? How can I improve my position? 

And my nephews, geez...my nephews keep asking me for cash. They’re a drain on me. Every time it’s ‘Uncle, Uncle, Uncle,’ and they’re asking for bail money, hush money, money for rent, money for bills. And I give it to them every time. I’m enabling them. Time to cut off the spigot. 

My eyes sting. I think the pool guy overdid it on the chemicals. I’ll fire him and find someone else.”

+ FOUR +

Enough is to know the difference between good and evil and choose because I know best.
Enough is two pieces of chocolate cake, three scoops of cookies n’ cream ice cream and as much hot fudge as I can stomach.
Enough is mercy when all you’re expecting is wrath.
Enough is a bullet when all you want is some goddamn peace and quiet.
Enough is remembering to look up and admire the stars.

+ FIVE +

Enough is when I have my finger on the trigger — 
— on the pulse — 
— on the button — 
— on whatever it is that gives me the most power and control in a given situation, and whatever makes the motherfucker on the other side of the table the most fearful and obedient to me. 

Enough is a warm towelette, followed by a glass of fizzy water to cleanse your palette. Then, it’s followed by bruschetta; exacting slices of toasted french bread from the nearest bakery topped with ripened Roma tomatoes, homemade Mozzarella cheese and fresh basil trimmed from the garden. Following the bruschetta is a delightful cup Butternut Squash soup, Beef Medallions with a Marsala wine and mushroom sauce, and to finish, Tres Leches cake for dessert.

That’s Enough.

+ SIX +

Enough is bread and wine. 
Enough is a rod and staff.
Enough is perfume and tears.
Enough is “On Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Enough is manna and quail.
Enough is fishes and loaves. 
Enough is dirt and spit.
Enough is “Do you want to be well?”
Enough is a garden.

“No,” says the serpent. “That’s not enough.”

+ SEVEN +

Enough is an open palm, extended outward, radiant with love and grace. 

Enough is a flurry of punches with brass knuckles, enough punches until I hear the bridge of his nose snap into kindling like detonating the Bridge Over the River Kwai. 

Enough is up to me to decide. I make the scale, and I decide how it looks, and I decide how large the scales need to be, and I decide how much they shine, and I decide what we balance, and I will decide who gets to use them. 

Enough is when we’ve amassed the bricks and building materials necessary to reach the floor of the heavens, so that we might hammer and claw and slash and break through the floorboards of heaven, into the throne room of God, throw up our hands and go, “Ta-Dah!” 

Enough is the divine pursuit of Want — Want being a noble, virtuous and necessary thing — Want being a thing that must, being a thing on which the world turns and lives and moves and finds its being. 

Enough is up to me, always — and up to you, never. 
Enough is up to me, the beholder.

+ EIGHT +

Enough is a gavel.
Enough is a gun.
Enough is a badge.
Enough is a title.
Enough is "oooh, awww."
Enough is initials at the end of your name. 

Enough is that email I want to show up in my inbox showing up and telling me that I’m better than I thought I was, that I’m forgiven, that I’m okay, that everyone loves me after all and they’re never going to stop loving me — in fact they want to build a statue in my honor and they want to praise my works and my wonders forevermore, and they want to slavishly adore me all fucking day and all fucking night and they want to hire people who do nothing but praise my fucking name and polish my fucking golden statue and defend it as if it was their own child. 

Enough is validation.
Enough is two thumbs up, five stars, a Michelin Star, a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Enough is everyone saying in unison, in harmony, with maximum enthusiasm and authenticity, “You’re okay, Dominic. You’re okay! You’re OOOOOOOOOKAY FOREVER!!”

Enough is satisfaction ad aeternum, unfettered consumption, leaning back in your chair and feeling your gross, fat stomach, wiping the residue from the corners of your lips with your index finger, then licking it with relish.

+ NINE +

Enough is one for me, one for you.
Enough is one for me, one for you and one more for me. 
Enough is not having to be accountable to, or responsible for, anyone.
Enough is all for me, none for you. 

+ TEN +

Enough is stuffing my fucking face because I can, because my cravenness is what makes me so good and so glorious. And besides, the heart wants what it wants, right — and I want good things because my heart is a good thing, RIGHT — and so Enough must be when my heart, which is a good thing, wants more good things and when it gets what it wants — RIGHT!?! 

Enough is when all the good things I’ve wanted are before me, doing the fucking high-step like they’re the Radio City Rockettes, and they’re all smiling and keeping their eyes locked on me.

Enough is when I can choose whatever the fuck it is I want to do with my good things, if I want to make a tower of good things, if I want to make cities and towers and gleaming white spires of good things, if I want to build and devote all the power in the world to those good things, when I rip the earth from its orbit and when I shotgun all the rivers and streams in the world, and I drink (glug-glug-glug) and I drink (glug-glug-glug-glug-glug) until I’m sick in the gut and I throw up and I wretch and I throw up again and I’m bent over the toilet throwing up over and over again and I’m crying and I’m blackout drunk on the rivers of the earth…

…but I still smile because the stomach acid leaves a sweet aftertaste on my teeth. 

+ ELEVEN +

Enough is a walk with your grandfather on that perfect spring day — the first of the year — and you get to ask him questions about where he grew up, and you examine the back of his hand with such affection and compassion like it’s a topographical map of the Fertile Crescent — like every single piece of him is the most treasured land since the Garden of Eden.

+ TWELVE +

Enough is a lie, and it’s right that the belief is breaking down, because it was a fucking delusion and loony dream to begin with, and all the people who built their houses on “Enough” need to wakey-fucking-wakey, because one more forkful isn’t going to make your dick harder, and it’s not going to make your dollar stretch a little more like it’s as goddamn limber as a Russian ballerina.

Enough will not tuck you in at night and it will not sing you to sleep. It will not console you and it will not put an extra spring in your step.

Enough is a closet-full of the Emperor’s new clothes.

+ THIRTEEN +

Enough is “Father,” whispered in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day. 
Enough is my dad.
Enough is you, next to me. No words are needed for enough.
Enough is one embrace from you.
Enough is “I’m sorry.”
Enough is a single note, played over and over again; bird by bird, rung by rung.

+ FOURTEEN +

Enough is the Maker, pulling me close and whispering love and joy. 

Enough is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Enough is made Sin for us. 
Enough is the Lion and the Lamb.

+ FIFTEEN +

Enough is beyond my understanding. 
teach me the vastness of enough.
teach me the wonders of enough.
Enough is without hurry, without grabbing and without hoarding.
teach me the simplicity, the complexity of enough.
teach me the patience of enough.

Enough is room at the inn.
teach me the longitude and latitude of enough.
teach me the generosity of enough.

Enough is shelter from the storm.
teach me the love of enough.
teach me the abundance of enough.

Enough is lagniappe with a smile and a “On the house, baby.”
teach me the strangeness of enough.
teach me the song of enough.

Enough is “take up your mat and walk.”
teach me the infinitude of enough.
teach me the mystery and plain-sight of enough.

Enough is “Surely I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

+ SIXTEEN +

Enough is…
Lord, I don’t know what enough is.
But I want to.
Today I am here, and I don’t know what Enough is. 
Teach me. 

 

 

hah. lay. loo. yuh.

Hallelujah is a word that takes too long to say.
Double the syllables of “amen”, “bless you,” and “Jesus.”
Doesn’t slip out on accident, like “like” or “well” or “so.” 

Nah — Hallelujah demands a determined tongue, even if you’re screaming it, bleating out hot-as-fuck-seized-by-the-spirit-summer-swelter style — Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 

Like possession. Like rapture.

Say it like that, and it sounds like you’re trying to climb out of a well, beat Jacob up his own ladder or put out the fire on the burning bush.

Or maybe you’re trying to start a fire yourself.

+ TWO +

Hallelujah won't ever have a case of mistaken identity.

No one’s going to approach Hallelujah from behind and say “‘Scuse me, I was wondering if — Oh, sorry, my bad. I thought you were someone else.”  Hallelujah can’t slip into a Silver Lake coffee shop all incognito, sunglasses and baseball hat. 

Shoulders too distinctive. Voice too familiar. 

It river-winds and drags its heels ‘cross your lips. Say it enough times and it’ll scrape all the enamel off your teeth. Hallelujah is precision heart-pump, methodical lung-breath, o’er and o’er.

Ready, aim, Hallelujah.
Ready, aim, Hallelujah.
Ready, aim, Hallelujah.

+ THREE +

Hallelujah sounds like an out-of-tune piano. 
Sounds like the karaoke version of a popular song on the radio. 

Hallelujah is chasing the time-keeper down the rabbit hole, tumbling ass over teakettle into Ache-N-Wonder-Land.

Hallelujah, when sung, sounds clunky, clumsy. 
Sounds like you’re trying to say a word one size too big or too small for your mouth.

For your Heart. For your Spirit. For your Past. For your Present. 

Hallelujah, when sung, sounds rebellious, like you’re spitting in someone’s face or shoplifting.   

Sounds like it’s the only word you’ve ever known.
Sounds like you’re speaking a foreign tongue. 
Sounds like first words, like “mama” or “dada.”

Sounds like brass knuckles. 
Sounds like a white flag.
Sounds like a frantic shriek. Sounds like a fractured whisper.

+ FOUR +

Hallelujah feels like sub-sonic pulse, like a dog whistle.
Hallelujah feels like trying to pull a symphony from a stone.
Hallelujah feels like a batch of dynamite with a never-ending gunpowder fuse.

Hallelujah feels like seven bulls in seven china shops.

Hallelujah feels like singing an aria in the middle of a tornado.
Hallelujah feels like you’ve loosened a rabid dog, all drools and snarls and arrhythmic growls.
Hallelujah feels like you’re standing in the longest line in the grocery store on purpose.

Hallelujah feels like the person in front of you is paying for their bus fare with twenty-five dimes, one by one, and right around a buck-forty, they start checking all their pockets, muttering o’er and o’er, “I know I have the change somewhere. I know I have it somewhere.”

Hallelujah feels like you’re trying to smuggle in 100,000 other words across the border without anyone noticing — All the affection stuffed underneath your fishing gear — All the anxiety stuffed in the kid’s backpack — All the confusion jammed in the camping bags — All the mercy locked away in the cooler — All the wrath shoved in with your dirty socks.

Hallelujah feels like a Chinese New Year’s Dragon, with all the different words swirling and steering and giving life to its glorious body.

Hallelujah is a feather, suspended. 
Hallelujah is a jackhammer.

Hallelujah feels like a cosmos.

Hallelujah resembles the moment when you’re holding the door open for a couple, and then an old man, and then a family of four, and then some guy doing a delivery, and then someone late for a meeting, and no one’s saying “Thank You” because they’re all so busy on their smart-phones and they’re way into their own words and their own thoughts and their own fucking magnificence — but then a seven-year-old girl with a veil of animated angel hair bounds across the threshold, locks eyes with you and Glee-full, Joy-Full, shouts, “Thank You!”

+ FIVE +

Teach us words that sear our tongues like Isaiah’s coal.
Teach us words more ferocious than cat o’nine tails. 
Teach us words more mysterious and electric. 

Teach us labyrinth words — radiant and luminous words — pitch black, abyss words.
Teach us cavernous words.
Teach us multitude, choral words.

Teach us words with roots, words that spread wide and rise high, words that seize a building like organ pipes that, with each lunge and throb grow as wild ivy. 

Teach us lightning strike and thunder sonic-split words. 
Teach us words that burn but don’t consume. 
Teach us the words woven into us, fearfully and wonderfully. 
Teach us words that rent fabric and cleave rock, that part water and cause the blind to see.

+ SIX +

Teach us Hallelujah o’er and o’er.
Teach us Lost and Teach us Found.
Teach us Hallelujah o’er and o’er.
Teach us Smoke and Teach us Flame.
Teach us Hallelujah o’er and o’er.

 

The Basket Weaver

“I do not believe your stories,” she thought to herself. “All the promises of Father Abraham, the promises of Israel — how we are a mighty nation, more numerous than the stars.”

“And yet,” she thought, “Here we are — enslaved. Here we are, building monuments for kings we’re not supposed to serve, for gods whose names are not supposed to rest on our lips.” 

“Perhaps you grow angry when we choose to worship other gods we know to be grotesque or fickle, other gods we know to be made of stone.”

“Perhaps you would also forgive us our frustration for generations of silence.” 

“My father’s father did not hear you. He sowed love and reaped nothing. He toiled, and prayed, and grew crooked with work, and he did not hear from you. When he died, he told us of the words his father’s father heard from you — those words passed down from his father’s father.”

“See how far we must reach back to speak of when we spoke with you?"
"See how trembling our hands are as we reach back into dark?”

“How more joyful might we be to hear your words fresh on our ears as rain — like hot coals might your presence seem to our unaccustomed skin.” 

“But I can learn, Elohim. We can learn if you speak to us.” 

“I am not proud of these bricks, but these are the things I see. I am not proud of these idols, but these are the things I know.”  

“What is worse, Adonai — to worship a God you know is false, or to love a God you know to be real but who refuses to speak?”

“We are told our ancestors wrestled angels, and saw visions of ladders ascending to heaven. You gave them dreams that saved from jail and protected us from famine. They made covenants with you and built arks for you. They walked with you in gardens.” 

“You turned us to salt and provided a sacrifice to save Isaac.”
“You flooded the earth and painted colors across the sky.”
“And now, we are steeped in mud. We are entombed in lives that are not our own.” 
“Still, we pray. And our masters think us foolish.”
“Still, we pray. And I think us foolish also.” 
“But I believe, still.”

+    +    + 

She thought as she wove, and she prayed, and she wept. 

The child fought against the swaddling. She tucked the cloth back and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Peace, Moses. Peace. Your mother loves you. Your mother loves you so much.”

She paused, and noticed her hands, scratched and coarse due to the weaving of the reeds, held against his soft skin; against his unblemished face. “Though I will not see him grow,” she thought, “at least he will have something in common with me…”

“…He will not know the touch or voice of the one who claims to love him most…”
“…He will have to believe as I believe.”

And then, still weeping, she closed the basket. 

Dear Emma

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (b. 1849, d. 1887)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

+    +    +

Dear Emma, 

You wrote a beautiful poem. You passed away before your words became famous, before your words became so connected to the statue for which they were written. At the urging of a friend, you wrote the poem as part of a fundraiser for the statue’s pedestal. 

A work of faith, so to speak, for an unfinished statue.

Your father’s name was Moses. Moses’ story is found in the book of Exodus. He was born at a time when the Hebrew nation was enslaved under Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In an effort to control the population, Pharaoh demanded that all Hebrew boys be killed upon birth. But Moses survived. His mother hid him for the first three months of his life, and then she placed him in a papyrus basket. She placed the basket in the Nile, and Moses’ sister kept watch. 

Pharaoh’s daughter had come to the Nile to bathe, and when she saw the basket, she opened it and found Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter brought him back with her, and she raised Moses as her son.

Moses, drawn out of the Nile.

Years later, he would lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. 

+    +    +

Your last name is Lazarus. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus, one whom he loved. Lazarus became ill, and when he died, his friends mourned his passing. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 

Jesus was taken to Lazarus’ tomb. 

And here, Jesus wept. 

Then, Christ commanded the stone be rolled from the tomb. 

And then, He brought Lazarus back from the dead.

+    +    +

In the opening line, you reference Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Colossus was a statue of the sun god Helios, built at the harbor of Rhodes. The statue was erected in the 3rd Century B.C. to commemorate a military victory.

Synonyms for brazen include “unabashed,” “shameless,” “insolent.” Antonyms include “humble,” “meek,” “modest.” You reference Colossus because you wish to contrast the ‘brazen’ quality with that of The Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty does not wish to mimic the conquering spirit. Rather than a male sun god, you venerate a woman who’s captured the light, and wields it as grace. 

Instead of proclamation, an invitation. 
Instead of gloating, she guides. 

+    +    +

The “Mother of Exiles” — Adam and Eve, exiled from the Garden. Moses and the Israelites, cast out into the wilderness for 40 years. David, exiled and hiding; once from Saul, and once from Absalom. Elijah, seeking shelter from the wrath of Jezebel. 

Mary, Joseph and Jesus — fleeing to Egypt in order to escape the reach and wrath of King Herod.

You wrote in response to the stories and experiences of your own people, the Jews, fleeing persecution and violence in Russia. Running for their lives, you hoped they could find a place in America. 

With “mild eyes,” a “world-wide welcome” the statue commands. Her light, shining — the only speaking necessary. And the light is bright enough for all who seek the shores of America.

Liberty. A welcoming. A Grace. 

+    +    +

When your poem was etched on a plaque in 1903, someone dropped the comma at the beginning of line 9. Instead of “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” It read, “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” This dropped comma changes the meaning of the poem. With the re-instated comma, the exhortation to the ancient lands becomes far clearer.

The New Colossus needs not the storied “glories” of old wars, the braggadocio of conquest.

For those who boast and flaunt and thrash in the public square, they shall have their reward. 

Colossus of Rhodes is a far cruder, far more grotesque expression. It speaks of opulence and the glorification of humanity. It is one more attempt to build the Tower of Babel.

But the New Colossus, with “silent lips,” prays.

She pleads — for the feeble, for the frail. Those who “breathe to be free.” Those “huddled masses” — infants, children, youth, parents, grandparents — bunched together and turned inward, protecting themselves from the cold. All of them, witnesses to each other’s breath, over and over again. All of them, witness to each other’s desire to live, over and over again. 

She pleads for those considered garbage, the storm-battered and those left for dead.

“Peace, beloved. Come sit by the fire.”    
“Peace, children. Be still.”
“Peace, children. Welcome.”

+    +    +

Dear Emma,    

You knew full well the United States of America’s history reeked of thievery, racism and fear.

But you believed in something, Emma. 

You believed in the capacity of the nation’s soul. You believed we could be a greater nation — you believed we could be large-hearted, larger than the ancient Grecian statue. You believed that amid our strife, amid our tension, that we could choose love and openness. 

It was our heart that was meant to be the New Colossus, not a copper statue in New York Harbor. It was our love that was to be our National Anthem. 

Our slow and steady affection, our defiant embrace of the other, our capacity not to see “other” but instead “another,” our resolve to maintain openness and welcome a stranger into the family — our ability to withstand trespass, forgive violence and hold a posture of penitence, of clemency — that was supposed be the New Colossus.

And I lament, Emma.
 
I lament — for the way we’re not what you hoped we would be.
I lament — for the way we’re not what you believed we should be.
I lament — for the way we’ve sown fear and hatred.
I lament — for our sins of silence and complicity.    
I lament — for the way we’ve demonized the other.
I lament — for our blindness and arrogance.
I lament — for the dual spirits of anger and greed which steer the United States of America.

+    +    +

Dear Emma,

Pray for us and weep with us, as the statue weeps as well.
Pray for a sweet love to shine and break through this acrid, hating pitch.
Pray for us, thieves. Pray for us, sinners.
Pray for us as we sing in defiance. Pray for Grace.
Pray for the tired and poor in spirit.
Pray for a brave home. Pray for a free land.
Pray for who you believed us to be.
Pray for the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. 

Amen.

porcelaing

     Sometimes, the world — specifically, climate change — scares the hell out of me, and I feel like hiding.
     Sometimes, the world — specifically, climate change, Donald Trump’s impending presidency and the threat of nuclear war — scares the hell and the ever-loving shit out of me, and I feel like hiding and burying myself alive.
     Sometimes, the world — specifically, climate change, Donald Trump’s presidency, the threat of nuclear war, plane travel, the web of responsibilities associated with home ownership, my near-crippling negative self-view, my dissatisfaction with the eat-drink-be-happy-but-if-you’re-not-happy-here’s-netflix-and-that-should-do-the-trick-until-tomorrow idea of living, my near-constant Eeyore-cloud-heart-steering belief that we’ve broken the world and that I broke myself along with it, and no one, myself included, is ever going to be fucking okie-dokie, a-okay, right-as-rain regardless of how hard anyone tries— all of that scares the hell and the ever-loving shit and the absolute fucking life out of me, and I feel like hiding and burying myself alive and wishing I could give back every breath I ever-ever-ever took.
     Sometimes I am so scared of everything being so much bigger and faster than I am that I feel like the only logical response is freezing and letting everything else pass me. 
     Sometimes I’m so scared I’m PETRIFIED.
     But you know what helps?
     Cereal.

+ TWO +

     Yeah, I mean, the kid’s stuff — Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, Honey Nut Cheerios, etc. Cereal makes me feel better, because it’s sweet and delicious and it reminds me of a time where none of the things that scared me dominated my thought process. It makes me think of a time where one of my best friends and I split a whole box of cereal over the course of an afternoon. We talked and laughed and ate cereal, and that was as complicated as the day got.
     It’s a defense mechanism, a comfort food, and emotional concealment.
     But sometimes, the wolves are bigger and badder and huffier and puffier than any castle of cereal I could make. Sometimes the wolves cross the moat without any problem and tear a hole in the cereal walls, and Tony the Tiger hurries back with a report, raving to me that “They’re Grrrrrrowling at the door!! They’re going to break in any second! Wwwwwwwwwhat do we do?!”
     And then I’m gone, hiding again. 
     Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. 

+ THREE +

     Writing — storytelling — aches and dreams shared with a community — a campfire. 
     It’s what I always go back to — it’s been my love language for decades now. There’re journals filled with stories, stories I haven’t shared. A library of caged birds. And why?
     Because of the wolves, that’s why. 
     The wolves are the ones who piss on the campfires and swallow the birds. If I let the birds go, the wolves will devour them, and they’ll put out the fire, and I won’t have anywhere to go. I won’t have anything to say.
     I love to write, and I love storytelling, and I know storytelling’s in my marrow — but I’m afraid.
     Why?
     Because it feels like the world needs storytelling like it needs a hole in the head — because it actually HAS a hole in the head, and it needs a medic, and it needs a top-flight surgical team to put it back together. It needs higher walls and more skilled sharpshooters. It needs antidotes to the viruses spread by the enemy, and then it needs viruses that the other side doesn’t have antidotes for yet, and it needs something loud and snarling and foaming at the mouth.
     Because it feels like the only thing the world needs is more wolves.

+ FOUR +

     And then Padre shows up. “Hey,” He says.
     “Oh, hi.”
     “Bad day?”
     “Yeah.”
     “Sorry about that.”
     “Thanks.”
     “Might I suggest something?”
     “Sure.”
     “Read the Psalms.”
     “Excuse me?”
     “Read the Psalms. It’s the one after Job.”
     “Who do I read them to?”
     “Yourself. In time, the Wolves.”
     “Why?”
     “Wolves love Psalms. Didn’t anyone tell you that?”
     “No. Why should I read them to myself?”
     “Because I know.”
     “Know what?”
     “That feeling in the back of your jaw — the feeling like your mouth wants to wire itself shut, lock the door and throw away the key. Because I know every thing you think of saying feels incomplete and off-target and late-to-the-party. Because I know you’re afraid to address the world — your neighbor — your reflection — because you think your words have to be the skeleton key that unlocks all the sorrow and vitriol of this age. All of that’s very admirable.”
     “Thank you." 
     “And it’s also profoundly, utterly foolish.”
     “…Yes.”
     The Almighty crouches low, His eyes meet mine. “Dom. I know it feels like your love is insignificant.”
     “…Yeah.”
     “I know it feels like you need to be a medic, or a sharpshooter, or a wolf.”
    “…Yeah.”
     “But you don’t.” He wipes a fallen tear from my eye. “You’re not a medic, and you’re not a sharpshooter, and you’re not a wolf. You’re Dom. And that’s because I made you like Dom. I made you Dom-shaped, with that Dom-laugh and that Dom-smell. I made you to look like Dominic. To sound like Dominic. To breathe and weep and dance and laugh and love and hope like Dominic.”
     “And,” He adds, “I did it on purpose.”    
     I nod. Another tear. “That’s what scares me the most, Padre — that you knew exactly what you were doing when you made me. I feel it in my chest.”
     “Yeah?”
     “Yeah — that forest fire — that burning bush, that lion’s den — that heart of mine — you put it there. You were sloppy.”
     He smiles. “How so?”
     “If the cops dust my heart they’ll find your fingerprints all over the place.”
     He nods. “Guilty as charged.” 
     “I forgive you.”
     He kisses my forehead. “Ditto.”

+ FIVE +

O Lord, you have searched me
and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O Lord.

infancy

      ”It is cold,” she thinks. “And dark.” 
     Her cloak frays at the edges, the long journey and excessive wearing having taken a toll on the fabric. Her husband cleared several small manure piles in order to provide a clearing, and now she sits, cross-legged, against a beam. Rings of dried blood stain both their fingernails, on account of handling the newborn. Joseph regrets not asking the innkeeper for a wash basin. He glances over at the trough, but hesitates before suggesting they wash their hands in the oxen’s drinking water.      
     Despite the chill, sweat appears on Mary’s forehead. She trembles, and chastises herself for doing so. “Don’t shake,” Mary tells herself. “You’ll wake the baby.”  
     “Don’t shake,” she intones, again and again. “Be still.”
     Bits of hay stick to the cloth. Joseph wrapped it, his hands steadier than hers, but his palms felt coarse on her neck and she brushed him away soon afterward. “Carpenter hands,” thinks Mary. “I don’t need carpenter’s hands. I need soft hands; steady hands prepared for a child.” Mary examines the crimson prints on the cloth, wondering which belong to her, and which belong to her husband.
     Joseph, though young, already bears marks of apprenticeship, having worked under an older carpenter for several years. He stands over Mary, who holds their child close to her breast. His eyes shift from the child’s face, to Mary’s crown, and lastly to the beam supporting both wife and child.
     Joseph notes the knots in the wood and guesses internally at the age of the beam, as well as the stable itself. He steps away, as quiet as he can, and examines the pieces of wood which form the stable wall. “Good choices,” thinks the young carpenter, “though many pieces will need replacing soon, especially if it rains as much as it did last season.” His hand traces the lines in the wood.
     He spies a crack in one of the pieces, just below the ceiling. “Ah,” he thinks, proud of himself for noticing, “there’s a piece that needs fixing right now. Maybe I’ll fix it in return for allowing Mary and the baby to stay the night. It wouldn’t take long at all to repair.” Joseph pauses to take in the night stars, shining through the slits in the stable ceiling.
     He hears the baby coo, and his eyes fall down to wife and child. Joseph remembers the steam rising from his child’s infant skin; a chorus of smoke plumes, as if he was born on fire. “Is everything alright?”
     Mary lifts her head to Joseph and nods. “Fine, Joseph, fine.” Her eyes focus on one rose print in particular; one she knows as hers. “Joseph.”
     “Yes?”
     “Did the…the…” The words lodge in her throat. They feel too sharp, too large to speak. 
     “What is it, Mary?” His hands return to her neck, but this time they feel softer, more tender. Mary inhales, exhales. Her eyes turn from the print and meet his stare. 
     “Did the — angel — when it — when he spoke…did his words make sense to you?”
     Joseph’s eyes don’t break from Mary’s. He smiles, and kisses her forehead. “…No.”
     Mary nods, and smiles. And then her sight returns to the baby, whose palm tumbles down the back of her fingers; tide by tide, learning the hand of his mother. A tear falls, landing square on the baby’s forehead, in the exact location where Joseph kissed her own forehead. She laughs, and the baby stirs.
     Mary, warmed by the child, whispers. “Peace, child. Peace.”

Homeward Sound

For Christmas, all I want are two fixed coordinates; X and Y.  Also known as a point of origin. 

I want to have come from somewhere ancient; to be able to first point to a very old place full of very old buildings, say “There, Then.” And second, point at myself, a heart full of trembling hands, and say, “Here, Now.”

Why do I desire roots, and by extension, Home? “This is where I come from,” I long to say, “This red dirt and these sounds of Blue Herons, these smells of lavender and this amber ray of sunrise — here and here and here.”

More than Los Gatos, California — more than Scotland and Italy — more than dirt and air.

Beneath the desire, a lament — that I wish to possess the virtues of age and place, but without any of the cost or process necessary to acquire them. I want to have roots, but I don’t want to grow them. 

In this way, I’ve forgotten what ‘growth’ even means. Nothing around me grows. Instead, everything around me — from coffee to money transfers to entire seasons of TV to air mattresses to an exact timeline of the French and Indian War to new homes — is Instant, Instantaneous, infinitely swappable for the next model and always — always at my fingertips. 

And not to say that speed is inherently evil — because it isn’t — But it’s not always good. 

Roots require growth. And growth hurts. Roots seep out from within my trunk, and dig deep into the earth. Into a place. Roots demand abiding and endurance, neither an idea with much sway nowadays.

Perhaps I take pride in having left ‘Home’, or having re-arranged the building blocks to the point of not recognizing it as home at all. 

I burn bridges as if it’s a rite of passage. I re-develop mangers into shopping malls. Re-configure cradles into convenience stores into coffee shops into co-working spaces into into into… 

Everything looks familiar, but nothing feels familiar.

Vintage is now virtue. Distressing material is now an assembly line directive. Grain and Dust are incorporated into clean pictures and used to displace, or de-place, ourselves. Wear and tear, brick and wood, Edison bulbs like sand on the seashore. Shiplap and hardwood floors. Rust and frayed edging, amen.

Yes, I am cynical of Time and Age’s mass commodification, but not of the desire. The desires are in me too — the desires to belong to somewhere, to someone — to yearn continually for Home — for a land you know yet cannot describe — a place you’ve never been, but have always known — and that is Good. 

But I cannot build Time, and I cannot manufacture Place. I cannot create Age. Rather, the best humanity can offer is the comfort of dust — from dust drawn out, and to dust destined for. but not of the desire. 

I build my pretty frames and admire the bark on the wood without stopping to acknowledge the deeper truth: I — We — are not made of bark.

We are made of rings. Which are, in turn, made of time. 

+ TWO +

What a beautiful truth — Yes, I come from a very old place.
What a strange truth — Yes, I belong to a current I neither created nor control. 
What a difficult truth — No, it is not a place to be bought, sold, subdivided, redeveloped or repurposed.

What a frightful truth — I am home in the hand of God.
What a loving truth — You are home in the hand of God.
What a painful, graceful, mysterious, burdensome, vibrant, wondrous, transformational-if-we-let-it truth — We are home in the hand and heart of God.

+ THREE +

One of my favorite movies is Hook, for the scene where Peter Banning — now an overweight, overwrought adult — has been rejected and disavowed by the Lost Boys. 

Until the last boy. He approaches, looks Banning up and down, and calls Peter to his level, down near the soil. And the little boy smooshes his hands against his face, pulls back the eyelids, and like magic — “Oh, THERE you are Peter!”

There I will be, in what the world considers my greatest success, me at my best and biggest, and there my beloved will smoosh their fingers against my face, and they will know me as no one else knows me, as only God Himself knows me more — “Oh, THERE you are, Dominic!” 

And there I will be, in what the world considers my greatest failure, me at my worst and weakest, and my beloved will smoosh their fingers against my face, and they will know me as no one else knows me, as only God Himself knows me more — “Oh, THERE you are, Dominic!” 

+ FOUR +

The world, like Saul maladapting David into a soldier, will drape you with ill-fitting armor and demand you fight battles you don’t believe in, for reasons you don’t understand.

"Be a soldier, not a shepherd. Be a warrior, not a lover."

But the Lord, the Shepherd who made me well, sees through all worldly adorning and shaming. It’s Padre, palms open, “There, Then…Here, Now.” 

Here, I’ve always been. Here, I’ll always be. 

Who sings the song I've heard all this time?
What is the still, small voice which has always stirred me -- which has sparked simultaneous dream and terror?


Does Home fill me with dread? With imagination?
Does Home dig deeper and wider than I'll ever know?

What King -- What Shepherd --
Where am I walking? 

What Lion -- What Lamb -- 
Whose steps are these? Whose blood in my veins? 

What Maker -- What Love --
Who are you that calls me Home?

Home might never be a single place, but it is always a Presence; less of an establishing and more of a knowing, where all of you is welcomed, at all times, for all time. 

Home again, home again — in the hand and heart of God — who holds the dust of the earth, who traces canyons in the lines of His palm, and as we bow low, in tenderness, a voice — 

“Son — daughter — child — to the river, to the table. There you are…Home.”

Blue Light Specials

I attended a church in Philadelphia that would, mid-service, include a prayer of confession/repentance. We would read the prayer aloud, and then would bow our heads in a period of silent prayer and reflection. 

After a few moments, the person leading the time would say something to mark the end of the silence; 

“My friends, look up; these words are for you.” 

They would then speak of words of encouragement or glad tidings; a psalm perhaps.

For example:

CONFESSION/REPENTANCE

Lord God, you have shown us such love,
and stretched out your arms
to draw us into your embrace.
Yet we so often fail to show that love
within our lives,
or recognize its source.
Forgive our short-sightedness,
for the times we've failed to see your love
in the generosity of friend
or stranger,
the shoulder to cry on,
willing ear to listen,
a word of encouragement,
holding our hand that extra mile.
Forgive us for failing to notice
how much you care for us.

PRAYER/REFLECTION

“My friends look up, these words are you.”

WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds,
God our Savior,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas,
who formed the mountains by your power,
having armed yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
and the turmoil of the nations.
The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
where morning dawns, where evening fades,
you call forth songs of joy.

(PSALM 65:5-8)

+ TWO +

There’s ache bound up in every person — crack them open and they erupt like volcanoes. They love in furious gushes, like Texas oil wells. More grief and more dream than sand on the seashore. 

Every attempt I make to measure out a heart — yours, mine, a complete stranger’s — will be incomplete. Every attempt I make will be flawed. It will miss the mark. 

Pardon me, Lord, for my incomplete, opaque words.

Keep me loving, Father. Always, keep me seated at the table. Keep me asking questions. Keep me listening to that melodious, drunken ramble. Keep me listening to the trembling, anger-filled screed.

+ THREE +

I’m an introvert, and I don’t do well in crowds. I’m not terrible, but I’m far from a social butterfly. That said, I love a conversation with another person. I love the ebb and flow of a good, unpredictable dialogue with a friend or stranger. 

This is what breaks my heart about digital addiction — when people choose their phones over other people. When we seek communion on online walls and not with other people. 

Other people are full of their own thoughts/ideas you can’t control. They’ll act one way on Monday, and then Tuesday they’ll seem like a completely different person. If you open yourself to someone, you’re liable to be hurt or let down by them. You’re going to be disappointed and it’s going to be difficult. 

But with the devices we use nowadays, with technology and its infrastructure, we can craft relationships that’re wholly reliable, that won’t change from day to day, moment to moment. We can pull whatever we want and however much we want of it. And if we don’t like what we’re hearing, it’s not like we have to sit with it or work through anything. We don’t have to abide or endure. 

We can walk away at any moment. Unfollow, unfriend. Swipe left. 

We’d rather pour ourselves into our devices because we think we make our world bigger, better. We can create our very special echo chamber, full of our very special intimacies, full of very special Everyones who looks like us and sounds like us and loves the things we love and hates the things we hate and loves as we would love and hates as we would hate. 

Higher and higher go our walls. And we think we make our world bigger and better with every click and touch, but yet it feels like we’re nesting our hearts in bigger and better porcelain prisons, as if our hearts — fervent, burning-bush vibrant — existed at the core of all our emotional nestings — but every thing we do, every interaction is one more nesting, one more hiding, one more obscuring.   

There’s so much tenderness and face-to-face engagement we’ve lost, so much grace we’ve willingly forfeited — so much compassion we’ve forked over — so much intimacy we’ve rejected in the name of ‘connection.’ 

I believe there’s so much more to be had from a pure engagement — from time given, which — when two people do it, becomes time shared — honest time. Love-full time.

+ FOUR +

“My friends, look up; these words are for you.” 

Forgive me, Lord, I’m biting the hand that feeds me — anyone who’s reading this, you’re reading this because I posted a link on Instagram, on Twitter. I don’t know what to do.

Forgive me, Lord, I’m broken and busted. I’m aware there’s often a gap between the aspirations of my words and the works of my hands. 

Forgive me, Lord, when I seek to make intimacy and relationship out of parts that were never meant for the spirit and weight. Forgive me when I choose the thing over the person. 

“My friends, look up; these words are for you.”

I hope to see the light glow from within your eyes, not the blue glow of a screen bouncing off your face.

I hope to learn how to endure and abide with you. I hope to ebb and flow with. I hope for fast and slow with you. I hope for hurt and for the strength to lovingly slosh through the muck with you. 

I hope to be revealed with you, to de-nest hearts. Layer by layer. Grace by Grace, open space by open space. Heart given to heart. Hope giving way to hurt giving way to hope. 

“My friends, look up; these words are for you.”

Do I Believe in Love?

Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. 

Hate: It was with this hand that Cane iced his brother. 

Love: These five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. 

The Right Hand: The Hand of Love. 

The Story of Life is this: Static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished… 

But hold on! Stop the presses! The right hand is coming back! Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Yea! Boom! It’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Ooh! Ooh! Left-Hand Hate KO’d by Love. 

If I love you, I love you. But if I hate you…

— Radio Raheem, from “Do The Right Thing” (1989) writ/dir by Spike Lee

II

Do I believe in Love today? 

To believe in Love — to open my doors and say ‘Today I Love and am Loved,’ simultaneously giving the world opportunity to accept or reject me and my handsome heart — is not a singular act, but a daily, action-by-action orientation. Today I believe in Love, and today I choose to Love.  

Because I can believe in Love, but I can also believe in Hate, and added to such belief, is the opinion that Hate is stronger than Love. Hate is more profitable and more accessible than Love, I might say. 

Hate doesn't weigh as much, doesn't cost as much. Hate doesn't charge extra when you travel, and it fits through all doorways. Hate doesn't ask questions, and doesn't require you to listen. 

Hate is more understandable than Love and affords me more armor than Love, more shields and more reasons with which to defend myself. Hate assures me of rightness, and righteousness.  

Love, though — Love be that heart in full bloom, that blessed open door without conditions — the only condition being that the door stay open. 

III

How do I summon Love from barren soil? 
Christ have mercy.
How do I be still in the pupil of the beast and show Love?
Christ have mercy.
How do I take in venom, bitter fruit and waste — and conjure that ribbon — that melody — that blaze — that mysterious and wondrous Love?
Christ have mercy.

We are flame, and we are flesh. 
The spirit is willing, amen and amen, and the spirit is weak, amen and amen. 
Help me Father, to speak like the rock — break me and bring forth water.
Ayúdame, Padre, to burn and yet not be consumed.
Help me, Lord, to die and be born anew.