This is what I do now that I live on an island alone: Buy Sparkly Fun toothpaste

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When I went to the local Big Save to buy toothpaste and a scented candle, I hoped it would be the only tube of toothpaste I’d have to buy while separated from my wife. That by the time I rolled its end to the front we’d be back together. I studied the options in the shelves and chose the flavor: Sparkly Fun.

I wandered through the tourist aisle and browsed wooden sandal keychains, Hawaii license plates with Aloha, miniature surf boards, post cards with sunsets like the one I watch down the street from the small room I rent on the far west-side of the island. I felt the cloth of surf shirts, plastic fins, foam boogie boards.

I flipped through a book of Hawaiian words. Iniki, in Hawaiian, means sharp and piercing, like the wind or the pangs of love. Iwa is the Hawaiian name for the frigatebird, black and pelican-like, known to be unafraid of stealing from others. These are also the names of two devastating hurricanes that changed the island forever.

At the end of the aisle I chose a candle with a “Clean Linen” scent and its accompanying air-spray. My new housemates smoke and its reek is permanently embedded in all facets of my small room, the lamp shades, the mattress, the curtains, the wooden computer desk, the armchair in the corner.

I need the candle and the air-spray to mask the smoke, but also to lay the foundation of familiarity. My home is no longer my wife’s perfume or the scent of her shampooed hair in the pillow. It’s now clean linen with a hint of smoke, like my shirts and socks fluttering in the dry afternoon breeze along the clothesline in the backyard.

When I wake up in a panic, scrambling across the bed, reaching for someone who is not there, it’s that clean linen scent that returns me to reality. The weight of that reality falls upon my chest again and again each morning. I suffer the small suffocation every time I brush my teeth and roll the end near the front. Each day a reminder and a new pattern being formed. A pattern I don’t want. A reminder I’d rather soon forget.

When I don’t work I surf and when I do neither I watch movies. I rub aloe on my sun burns. I say the Lord’s prayer when I drive home after work. I listen to Drake on repeat, “Just hold on, we’re going home.” I drink beer. I pee dark yellow. My neck always itches. At night I hear waves crash. The roosters never stop crowing.

The next time I go to the store I will buy my third tube of toothpaste. I will no longer be married. I will take my time deciding but eventually I will settle on Sparkly Fun because I hope to find myself in repetition.

The next time you see me I will smell of clean linen and cigarette smoke. My breath will be sparkly fun. I will want to hug you and never let go.


The image above is of the waves I hear at night and in the distance is the forbidden island of Ni’ihau. You can only go if you’re invited by the locals.

The Saviors of Literature? Neurohumanities vs. Psychology

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Gregory Currie’s NY Times Opinion piece argues literature is dependent on psychology to prove its merit and use.

He isn’t satisfied by leaning on the adage of faith (or even mystery, although so much of literature is ambiguous and mysterious), but rather wants the facts proving literature’s benefit:

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being.

That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment. I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

While he admits this may take some time, I find the dichotomy between “everything depends” and “casual evidence” shaky. And I doubt psychologies role in the matter.

On the more advanced side we have Neurohumanities. Which are pressing for similar cerebral answers.

Neurohumanities is the ultimate response to—and rejection of—critical theory, a mixture of literary theory, linguistics and anthropology that dominated the American humanities through the 1990s. Critical theory’s current decline was somewhat inevitable, as all intellectual movements erode over time. This was exemplified by the so-called Sokal affair in 1996, in which a physics professor named Alan Sokal submitted a hoax theoretical paper on science to Social Text, only to unmask himself and lambaste the theorists who accepted and published his piece as not understanding the science.

She anticipates that neurohumanities influence will begin to seep into the actual culture of art:

It’s not hard to imagine a future when neurohumanities and neuroaesthetics have become so adulated that they rise up and out of the academy. Soon enough, they may seep into writers’ colonies and artists’ studios, where “culture producers” confronting a sagging economy and a distracted audience will embrace “Neuro Art” as their new selling point. Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000?

Creativity Series: “God, the Artist, and the World” by Judith Hougen

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When I was sixteen, my father retired from the military, initiating the last move of my childhood to a small town in Wisconsin. I was once again the new kid, the outsider seeking a space, a community, to call my own. That summer, I found myself drawn to night skies, the warm swirl of darkness and stars freed of suburban glow. Laying in the front yard of our home, surrounded largely by farmland, there was something about vastness that eased my loneliness, my wretched anonymity.

I remember cool grass under my shoulders, the sawing of crickets, and a growing sense of immensity. In that space I contemplated my life and the God whose existence I couldn’t shake. That scene remains for me a picture of longing, an attempt to grapple with, to reconcile, the random awkwardness of my small existence with an expansive and patterned universe.

In my life as a writer, I find myself back in that yard, metaphorically speaking, my face toward the heavens, earth solid beneath my back—my human form caught up in both realms, negotiating these two wonders. For me, this is a picture of the artist of faith in the world.

Catholic theologian and philosopher Gerald Vann says that, by its very nature, humanity has a “duty” toward both the physical and spiritual worlds. He writes, “Because of his psycho-physical nature, man is a mediator. To his ontological status as the midpoint between the world of matter and of spirit there corresponds a mediating function: to incarnate—to give material expression to—spiritual reality and to spiritualize or humanize material reality.” At her best, the faith-filled artist embodies these two dynamics. Human life is a divine invitation to be fully alive in both our physical and spiritual natures and to experience these two natures as fully alive within each other.

What I experienced on those summer nights is the incarnational nature of reality, a world where “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” where God relentlessly upholds creation as a point of spiritual access and relationship. That this is the case is no small matter for the artist. In my writing, I see the physical and spiritual as inextricably fused. My work, then, as a mediator is a call to recognition, to a wide and penetrating vision, and to live as fully as possible in both spheres, enfolding both within my writing. Great artists rightly recognize and express the spirituality of the material and materiality of the spiritual.

Such a vision invites me to a certain posture toward my writing practice. I traffic in meanings, and incarnational reality signals, if nothing else, that the universe is rife with meaning and significance. I remain open and sensitive to how meaning will impress itself upon my work, not attempting to create or impose it. Meaning is already present because God created both language and the world. It is intuited and received, not conjured.

But there are difficulties in this largely countercultural approach to creating. Writers often are encouraged to adopt a production mentality about their work. Writing is a product obtained by exercising dominance over language and ideas, a doing-unto the text. And, generally, we have been rewarded for the outcomes of this kind of approach. In my younger days, writing was a way to accrue social and academic capital, something to prop up my identity. Even now, I can become overly invested in the results, restless and demanding, too attuned to the winds of social media, and find myself despising the beautiful hiddenness that is a crucial element of the writer’s path. Such a posture is at odds with Vann’s vision of our role as holy mediators. Caught in that place, I sense a deep-down hunger for the solidity of a star-laden summer night.

To immerse myself in this greater vision is part of my calling, and for that I need a more contemplative approach to life and writing. I need to learn how to be quiet and to breathe, to move slowly and pay more attention, remembering that small details matter and learning to truly see them. Flannery O’Connor, an unashamed fan of staring, touches on this more contemplative way of being and working, saying, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you will see in it.” Through such careful seeing, she says, “The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”

We were made for mystery, and that mystery is the expansiveness of the world, the Spirit, the love and meaning that is each moment’s possibility. Writers of faith must trust and lean into other powers to accomplish their art. In such an atmosphere, our work with words becomes a gift, a gratitude.

I’m a long way from that teenager in the Wisconsin countryside, living in St. Paul these days, but looking back I see a beauty in her and her quest to reconcile the worlds around and within. I identify with the goodness she sought, alone on the lawn as the stars pressed close, her implicit recognition of meaning in a spiritually charged world.

As I work and write amid the determined movements of early spring, I know I cannot control the night sky or the first shoots of green that still slumber beneath my feet. Mystery is all. What I can do—and what I believe is my vocation—is to cultivate vision, to be a loving witness as I mediate earth and heaven, holding the tensions of clay and spirit, scatteredness and order, and out of such holding to find words enough to glimpse the glory of what is.


Judith Hougen is an Associate Professor of English at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota where she has taught writing for twenty years. She has written two books: The Second Thing I Remember (poetry) and Transformed Into Fire (spiritual formation). When not endlessly grading, she works on her own writing, currently a collection of essays on faith and the writing life. She blogs at Coracle Journeys and lurks on Twitter at @JudithHougen.

How to replace Google Reader and be better off for it

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It’s perhaps sad that I look for ways to maximize my reading efficiency, but I can’t keep up with everything I want to keep up with. I like making sense of the world through connections and ideas and stories. So I’m constantly reading, usually on my iPhone and MacBook, the news and blogs and articles and books.

Google just announced they’re shutting down Google Reader in 3 months. If you don’t know what that is it’s a magical tool that takes anything I want to read on the internet and puts it in one scrollable place. I don’t have to visit every website because every website comes to me. Magical, yes.

The Google Reader community is understandably pissed. Many bloggers will lose a chunk of their readership. I don’t know if anyone uses GR to read my blog, but if you do just switch over to Feedly on your favorite web browser and you’ll be good to go. I even got the app. I think it will be better than GR and it has a nicer looking design.

Other tools I use everyday and can’t do without in my reading/writing efficiency toolbox: Flipboard app for iPhone, Instapaper, and Evernote. If you want to shop around for RSS readers maybe sift through this reddit discussion with lots of links.

Creativity Series: “I Stand at the Untitled Piece” by Addie Zierman

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The show at the Walker Art Center is called This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, and I am struck.

It’s the work of the first generation of artists to grow up with televisions at home, and it’s angry and beautiful and profound. Mixed media and mixed voices and lots of old, clunky TVs spinning on loops.

A question on the introductory placard pulls me down hard like a magnet: “In a world increasingly filled with mass-media images, what is the role of visual arts?”

I was too young in the 80s to remember much of the political turmoil. I don’t really know the stories that the art here is retelling in broad, unconventional strokes. But I know about mass media. I know about the loud, brightness of it, that heady cocktail of color and content. Ad and information all mixed up together, shaken and poured.

Home-grown in the evangelical world, I am especially aware of the way mass media has permeated Christian culture. The spirituality that I learned to swim in was steeped in how-to books and t-shirts. Bible covers, teen magazines, hit songs, ads.

The deep questions about Jesus and culture and how Christians are to be in the world bounced like pinballs around the media, louder and bigger and more forceful with each telling.

At the Walker, I stand for a long time at Doris Salcedo’s untitled piece – two stiff columns of men’s scuffed work shirts, pierced with long, sharp poles. She created it as a response to the testimonies of 40 Columbian women who saw their husbands murdered for participating in organized labor struggles.

Just shirts. Just a little plaster and some dirt. Just everyday objects, placed one on top of the other, saying something wildly profound about grief and injustice and the emptiness of loss.

In mass media Christianity, you learn this: that your life only matters if it is blown-big with passion, large-text and bold, like a front-page headline. The purpose of your life should be quick and fluorescent, ten words…twelve tops. It should pulse and sparkle like a neon sign, a city-on-a-hill turned up to a hundred thousand watts, bright as Vegas.

In mass media Christianity, the questions we ask are What are you doing for God? and How are you changing the world? We measure success with words like “revival” and “revolution” and “how many souls were saved?”

And in a faith increasingly loud with revivals and mass media and conferences and speakers, you have to wonder how it matters, this sitting quietly by the window, waiting for words.

But I just keep coming back to those shirts at the Walker. They stay with me, sharp and lonely in my mind. They are prophetic and beautiful and more powerful than a thousand newspaper headlines.

I am not a visual artist in the way of Salcedo, but I feel a kinship to her because I write, primarily, within the genre of Creative Nonfiction. Which is, in many ways, a genre of found objects.

When you are a writer of essays, of memoir, of true, rooted-in-facts kinds of things, you have to get down on your hands and knees and dig through the sand of your life. You pull out average, unimpressive moments. Dirty work shirts. Empty folding chairs. That time in kindergarten when you wore a construction paper three-cornered hat and went on an imaginary trip to Holland.

Your work has to do with choosing to believe that these unimpressive things matter. That they have lodged in your heart because there is something wholly beautiful and uniquely true about them. That God speaks less through a bullhorn or billboard than through an ordinary bush, burning wild in the desert.

Your work is largely that of seeing, digging, putting ordinary things side by side to create something simply and strikingly true. It is more than telling it how it happened. More than facts lined up one after another. It is structure. Sound. Fact connected to the current of creativity. The electric shock of meaning.

It’s the work of individual white shirts, folded and stacked, pierced and forever piercing the heart of the one who stands awe-filled next to it.

In a world that is obsessed with creating something NEW! EXTRAORDINARY! BRIGHT!, your role is less about creating the next big thing than about recognizing what no one else sees: symbol, metaphor, beauty, art.  Quiet work. Important work.

It’s like this: there are a hundred thousand images flashing by, and your job is to find the hidden thread of truth. The one that holds us all together. Pull it out, even if it tugs at your soul like stitches on a wound. Arrange it fresh and new.

Put it out there, small and strong, thin and unwavering. It is just waiting to quietly change the world.


Addie Zierman is a writer, mom, and Diet Coke enthusiast. She blogs twice a week at How to Talk Evangelical.addiezierman.com, where she’s working to redefine faith one clichè at a time.

Creativity Series: “What it is to be Us” by Kyle Burton

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From the moment we acquire as toddlers the capacity to interact with our world, the best way to understand it is to imagine. As children we play with toys—blocks, dolls, action figures—or, if without the luxury, turn a stick into a sword, the empty lot into a dessert, a few trees and a bush into the queen’s enchanted forest.

We intuit onto plain bushes, plastic, rocks the properties of grandiosity and wonderment. We project. Because we have no other means by which we can peacefully come to terms with the complexity of human existence.

Instinctively, we understand the futility of that bush, of that rock—of us—because though we may not have yet cohered finding a dead spider, furled up in the corner with the mortality of our loved ones, ourselves, we, instinctively, understand the limit of life. Our play, our imagination is one of the few processes unscathed, as a notion, by time. Of course, we may one day lose it—to disease, to the world—but to lose something is not to see it break.

The role of the creator is the role of the human. Whether one believes that to be a reflection of a Creator-capital-C or an exercise of coping, creation, if it is true, is something only of the most synchronized of us. Synchronized with self, with nature; with order, chaos, complexity, spirituality, reason, ideation; ambiguity; with phenomena, commonality; with beauty, empathy.

Creation is not something we merely stumble upon, nor is it something we can shape. It is Stephen King’s “fossil”. It is Emerson’s Intuition. The ability to capture the human experience, however one sees fit, render it wonderfully, and communicate it to one’s fellow man is a privilege withheld from many. Most, probably.

Unfortunately, not all people can write a captivating story, paint a stunning picture, or, more tragically, bare children. Obviously, such people are no less human. In fact, in large part, once we grow up and refine our sense of imagination near indistinguishable from reality—or a version of it—we tend to reinvent those very people. They allow for communication. They open bridgeways.

We do not exist for the purpose of our medium. Art did not exist before man. We create art so that we could continue to exist—so that, instead of telling another our experience, our feeling we can provoke in them what is to be us.

But let us widen the scope. Art is certainly not the only form of creation. Rather, the venues for imagination are innumerable. Wider still: “imagination” implies a degree of conscious decision making, which isn’t necessary. Instead, any activity in which we aim to make something new—or anew—is creation.

To create is to exert in about the only way absolute control over an element of your life. Unintended incidents (spilling paint on a canvas and being called postmodern, accidental pregnancy, etc.) do not invalidate that control. The acts of painting or sex possess an intrinsic element of control. We do not fault Sex for the baby bump, and we do not fault Painting for the tasteful splotches. We who participate are at fault, thus the term unintended. We failed to properly seize control in our choice.

Creation is how we ensure longevity—lineage or cultural. What does civilization value of a people? Its technology?—long forgotten, abandoned, or improved upon. Its politics? Its history? Its art? Any of the four, plus others, could be argued. Their connection: each has been created as a means of conglomeration, of understanding. Not history?

I once had a brilliant American history professor who told us that historians formulate a narrative around occurred events in order to assert over a historical era a relevance as they see best fit. Politics, then. Well, here in America, these disparate, hostile party lines politicians and news networks would have us believe unconquerable—they don’t much exist. Extremist identifiers—socialist, fascist, bigot, etc.—are tossed around as a way to also create narrative. Perhaps it’s an American thing, but goodness we love an arch with respectively admonished and beloved bad guys and good guys. In that, creation is equally accessible for bad and good.

As a junior in high school I lived in a good home, in a good suburban neighborhood, went to a fine public school, and could claim as my life’s greatest misfortune only moving from Minnesota to Missouri halfway through the ninth grade. Yet, I desired instability. I relished the idea of turmoil introducing itself into my world. I felt it necessary.

In eleventh grade English, when the rupture never came, I invented it. My teacher’d assigned us a personal narrative assignment. Perhaps, given the assignment’s title, cheating it with a lie is impossible.

Because I lied, hard. I fabricated a dramatic and powerful story of being attacked at a friend’s house and then rescuing a girl friend from being raped by one of the attackers. Our lives had been in substantial danger, and I happened upon getting us out of it. It was the type of story scoffed at, if presented as fiction, for absurdity. When presumed to be true, it scored wealths of tears. This was not a singular incident—neither in that class nor among close friends. It was exhilarating.

I envisioned the stories so thoroughly, they blurred with memory.

I confessed, to the close friends, not because I grew troubled by my envy of grim disturbance, nor by the guilt of lying. I confessed because I accepted that I didn’t feel all that bad. I do not at all like deceiving those for whom I care, but that’s not what the lies had been about.

I’d stumbled upon, within myself, a need for outlet. Reconnected, I should say, as childhood friends and I recollect now with profound nostalgia our games—unfilmed movies, really, where I essentially directed, and always played the villain. I feel a lot of power in destroying, and my writing reflects that. Part of it is a bleakness (surprise!), I can admit. But the greatest part is my impermeable belief that all of us are a sum of performances and that the sum is no less true than any offered opponent.

We may not all be conscious creators. But we all are a collection of creations, learned or constructed, and to mimic this formation, as is the role of the creator, is therein utterly of mankind. Cheers, my fellow players.


Kyle Burton lives in Missouri. He lived in Minnesota. He’d go back to live in California if either he could afford to or Oregon didn’t selfishly persuade him otherwise. He watches movies. He writes. He writes about movies (Imperfect Movies). And he watches some more. Perhaps one day we’ll say ‘make’. He graduates from Mizzou in May, and is waiting to hear back from MFA programs. He played football for a long time, his best friend is about to play in the NFL, and he will resort to fist-to-cuffs if anyone belittles Adrian Peterson’s greatness. Even his girlfriend. Who’s a loathsome Bears fan. If he were to try to sum up himself succinctly, he’d say: ‘I can’t. But that’s what the writing’s for.’ (Check out his Best of 2012 Compilation.)

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by clicking here.

Creativity Series: “The Active Creator” by Sam Mahlstadt

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I am more writer than theologian, but neither by trade. However, as the concepts I learned during my education in the written word and my my experiences in the local church mingle, I’ve realized something quite alarming.

In writing, there is a great temptor and persistent foe called the passive voice. When a writer slips into passive voice, the subject of the writing is subjected to certain actions, as opposed to the subject of said writing taking action. The cat was chased by the dog, as opposed to, the dog chased the cat.

In passive voice, our characters are at the will of the world aroung them. In active voice, however, our characters are influencing and creating their own destiny. Unless you’re writing dialogue for Yoda, passive voice is to be avoided. Correct, that advice is.

What’s worse than passive voice, though, is passive living.

I’ve notived a tendency among comfortable Christians to be lulled into passive lives. When you are living a passive life, you cannot view yourself as a co-creator with God. It is impossible to create, actively, when you are reacting to life as it happens.

If we are to break out of our passive lives and join God in the renewal of all things, we must reframe our role. We must reclaim our place as co-creators. In Genesis, we see God create man and woman, and command them to take part in creation. One translation says that God told the man and woman to dress the garden. After the fall, however, we see the man and woman literally dressing themselves with the garden. It’s a shift from active to passive. And the implications of the fall, the transition from active to passive life, are felt in our lives everyday.

But the story doesn’t end with the man and woman standing in the East of the garden. Through the restorative work of Jesus, we can reclaim our place as co-creators. We can join God’s work of renewal. We can point to the Kingdom that is breaking forth into our world, by actively joining God in his work.

I’m not much of a writer or a theologian, but this I know: Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I can be co-creators with Elohim, the creative spirit that spoke our existence into being. You and I can shape eternity.


Sam Mahlstadt is compelled by the written word and the story of the Gospel. He writes at creativetheology.com, and recently released his first book, Creative Theology.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by clicking here.

Creativity Series: “Tiny Glory” by Kolby Kerr

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When we read the Bible—if we read it well—we are never far from paradox. We are introduced to one in the opening act, just as God has set all the characters on the scene. We are informed that Adam and Eve, primordial man and woman, who have been culled from the newborn dust of the earth, have been made in the image of God.

They—and we, if we are brave enough to accept their legacy—were made to look like God. The form pleases God; He calls them very good.

You might recall a certain forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil and perhaps a certain smooth-talking serpent. And his line, so enticing to Eve and the conspicuously mute Adam: “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.”

Yes, you ought to take the tempter’s words with a grain or two of salt but still in this we hear from the outset a pretty clear definition of sin: striving to be like God.

There’s a nuance here that feels too arbitrary, too litigious for this huge story, like gumming up The Lord of the Rings with an Elvish verb declension chart. The story requires specificity and we clearly see the stakes are high, but we’re already off and running again with narrative.

The Bible, pre-Paul, seems almost joyously unconcerned with getting its theology laid out neatly.

But we are talking about writing and the act of creation. And still I’m sitting with my back against the forbidden tree, wondering if it is my God-given right to stretch out for the upper bounds of the human experience, or if this is my serpent-side building Babels again? (We diaspora Baptists have special clearance to mix our biblical metaphors, thank you very much.)

Every time I write, the question creeps in again: Is this hubris or is this human? Am I, as has been quoted so often to me, “adding to the available stock of reality” or am I merely enlarging my own little metaphysical plot of real estate in the universe, increasing the acceleration of my sphere’s gravitational pull, slowly drawing all things unto myself?

But I’m not offered answers—I’m not sure I’m listening anyway. I can’t quit creating, and I don’t have the time or inclination to trace my motivations to their source. There are some strings you just don’t pull.

Let’s go back to the garden and God scraping dust, marshaling dirt clods into livers, spleens and spines. He hovers over the provisional creatures as he hovered over the formless deep. And then he breathes. The breath of God rivering into all that matter, filling it with the nonspace of wind, of spirit. It was the moment of inspiration.

And we putter around our four score or so, filling our days with respiration, the again and again reminder that we are made of stuff and something else, the physicality of flesh and the ethereality of air.

To speak a word, even our most unimportant one, we draw that breath again. We are presented with the humbling truth that we are not the closed systems our staunch corporeal presence suggests, but are at every moment contingent on the negative space of our landscape.

But having hauled in all that foreign gas, we aren’t even halfway home to speech. That breath fills our lungs, excites the infinitesimal alveoli who barter for the oxygen. Those same lungs compress the air metered by our trachea, strumming our manipulated vocal chords and loosing into the mouth, the cathedral arch of our hard palate.

Our tongue thrashes, teeth reverberate and lips press and burst to release the music of our speech. Every word we speak is spirit borne wildly from our flesh.

Poem, from the greek poiema, means simply a thing that is made. From the verb to make or create. It refers most often to a simple thing, say a piece of pottery. Something made with mud, clay, water. Something made with the slap of palms and sweat of brow. Something set to dry in the sun, becoming as solid and final as it is delicate and dependent on the care of everything around it.

What keeps me from resignation is a dogged faith in the material of language.

While we’re at it, let’s call our work what it is—recreation. As we write, we redeem what is around us by articulating undiscovered combinations—metaphors, images, wordplay. The writer’s craft is to see creation precisely as it is, but present it as new to an audience often inoculated to the curious splendor of stuff. We are creating again.

There may be a time when I am able to slice more exactly the moral nature of my impulses toward this recreation, when I can know if I am living as the image of God or if I am nibbling forbidden fruit hoping to take God’s place.

In the here and now, I’m left only with the simple joy of utterance, of finding the creation I’m capable of (language) and uniting it with the creation only God can tackle.

I’m left in childlike delight at the eclipse, the fleeting, perfect alignment of word to thing, when, as B.H. Fairchild puts it in his poem “What He Said”:

the white dove of genius
with its quick, wild wings has entered our souls,
our immaculate ignorance…
…And so is conceived and born
the thing said, finally, well nay perfectly

To write is to trust the stuff of us, even after Eden, and wait for that lucky wind to full our lungs. It’s to take—with our meager ration of gratitude—our given breath and make of it what we might, which is to say a tiny glory.


Kolby Kerr lives with his wife and son in the great state of Texas. He is a poet, Texas Rangers fan, and a high school teacher.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by going here.

Creativity Series: “Three-Part Harmony” by Nancy Nordenson

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I.

In the beginning, you have an image, a question, a word that won’t leave you alone. It keeps coming back. Knock, knock; here it is again. You pull out a notebook and make a note. A day or two later you scribble something on the back of an envelope. On an index card. Scratch, scratch. A thought comes to you in the shower, an idea at the grocery store. You send yourself an Evernote note, an iPhone note, a to-do list reminder (“think more about…”). These memoranda are hydrogen and oxygen, carbon and phosphorus, nitrogen and sulfur, elements of life ready to ignite into something that never before existed. You mix this with that, stir and shake, shape and fill out. You concentrate and daydream. You write and write. You save and delete words at a ratio of 1 to 10. A paragraph, an essay, a short story begins to emerge. One day it will stand on its own. It will be a single united whole that would bleed if you cut something out. You will call it good as you put down your pen and pull back, waving and watching as it goes on to have a life of its own.

II.

But for now, you have further to go than your prowess with words can take you. You may be creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel if you’re lucky, but you are not the creator of the heavens and the earth. You pray a prayer of humility and proceed. Layers of created order draw you deep and high; clues beckon like golden keys waiting to unlock hallways through what calls to be explored. You strap on a light as you walk into the darkness. Now and always you ask, What’s really going on here? On one hand you write “mystery” and on the other hand “the known”; you want handfuls and handfuls of each, gathered together, mingling, heaped and overflowing on your writing desk. But the weight of discovery is not yours alone to carry. The Christ’s ancient promise holds: ask and you will receive. You empty your hands of what you’ve found and now hold them open. You listen for the still small voice that is not yours. You wait. It is not a secret truth that you seek, but a quickening, a veil dropped, even just the first breadcrumb of a path forward and through. When the word—the Word—finally comes you pick up your pen and write some more, stir and shake again, your eyes closed, your head bowed.

III.

The stakes just got higher. You jumped the track, caught a wave, launched skyward on the see-saw’s pivot. You’re not just creating a paragraph, an essay, or a short story, a book or a novel even, but something bigger. The words catapult you into the realm of participating in the ongoing creation, new hearts, new minds, the world as yet to be. Words alive in the eternal now, fruitful and multiplying, where will they go? What will they do? How will the words catalyze, how will the words comfort, how will the words change even you, the one who laid them down on the page? Theological debates rage on whether God’s creation surprises him or not, but indeed the words you’ve written surprise you. “This chokes me up,” a reader says. Me too, you think but don’t say. “After this, I see things differently,” says another. You nod, feeling the shiver. The words, no longer a product, become teacher, guide, and friend. “I don’t feel so alone,” says yet another. You nod again, walk away from the desk, and rest.


Nancy Nordenson lives in Minneapolis and writes about the intersections of thought, beauty, and faith in everyday life and work. She is the author of Just Think: Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul (Baker, 2004), holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is currently finishing a book on the nature and experience of work. Her essays have appeared in Indiana Review, Comment, and Under the Sun, among others, and have received multiple “notable” mentions in Best American Essays and Best Spiritual Writing.

Her essays have also been anthologized in The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields (Cascade Press, 2010), and Becoming: What Makes a Woman, edited by Jill McCabe Johnson (University of Nebraska Gender Studies, 2012). When not scribbling on a creative project, reading, cooking, or daydreaming, she can usually be found earning a living at her medical writing desk. You can contact Nancy at her website, www.nancynordenson.com, or follow her infrequent tweets @NancyNordenson.

Learn more about the “With Flames Upon Their Head” Creativity Series by going here.

We’re just echoing awareness, not creating it.

elvistwitter

Pierce Gleeson wrote a short story titled “Four Million Followers” about an unemployed post-grad who starts writing and managing the Twitter page for a popular beverage company called Quark Cola.

More than a soft critique on corporate communication or Twitter, the story examines how our interaction becomes where, “We’re just echoing awareness, not creating it.” This leaves a lot of sad lonely people in the world. You’d think technology could solve a problem like this (*wink).

He was staring listlessly at the incoming tweets one Tuesday afternoon when a message appeared. Hey @quarkcola, I’m going to commit suicide tonight. Thanks for all the sugary memories. The icon next to the tweet was an ordinary self portrait of a young man. He checked the user’s page and found it had been active, intermittently, for more than two years.

He replied with three tweets in quick succession. The first was a link to suicide prevention hotlines in the man’s apparent country. The second: @gregorpegor You need to tell a real person before you do this. Just in case you are confused and they can help. Thirdly, he recommended the man read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

There was no reply in the following days. The user was a very infrequent poster, and so the lack of follow up could not be considered proof of anything. He informed Samantha about the incident, and she submitted it to the legal team, who advised him to forget it, but to ignore all such entreaties in future. The very act of responding to such a message made you an active participant in what followed. Were a user to later kill themselves, then their family could potentially claim damages against Quark Cola for its interference. A non-reply could reasonably be interpreted as an unseen message, and would as such clear Quark Cola of any potential liability.

Two weeks later, during which he often agonised over his replies to the suicide announcement, he received a direct message from the user…

Facebook is the tool which represent the past (ie. yesterday’s pictures, last month’s vacation, that one crazy night, etc.) while Twitter represent the consciousness of the present. This is one reason why Twitter is utilized to analyze an audience reaction to a television show or a politician’s speech.

After Obama’s State of the Union address Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave his rebuttal and took an awkward pause to drink from a Poland Springs bottle of water. The Poland Springs marketing department must not exist. While Twitterverse blew up with memes and jokes, Poland Springs Twitter lay dormant.

Poland Spring Water hasn’t Tweeted since July, 2010. Right now, their rep is frantically trying to remember the password. #PolandSprings

— Jory John (@joryjohn)

Read the story because I imagine you’ll laugh and relate. But then also think about some of the broader implications of what it means to @reply, hashtag, and direct message. They’re more than ways of living or learning or being. And they have little to do with Twitter.


(story found via kottke, image borrowed/manipulated via ffffound)

Also read: A Series on Creativity.