The Gaze of a Lion | Words of Wednesday

From “Serengeti” by Mary Oliver:

Can anyone doubt that the lion of Serengeti
is part of the idea of God?

. . .

the bone-breaker,
and the agent of transformation?
No doubt, in the beginning,
he rose out of the grass

like a fire–
as now he rises out of the grass,
like a fire,
gleaming and unapproachable,

and notices me,
and fixes me with his large,
almost fatherly eyes,
and flexes his shoulders.

I don’t know
anything so beautiful as the sunlight
in his rough hair.
I don’t know

where I have seen such power before–
except perhaps in the chapel
where Michelangelo’s God,
tawny and muscular,

tears the land from the firmament
and places the sun in the sky
so that we may live
on the earth,

among the amazements,
and the lion
runs softly through the dust,
and his eyes, under the thick, animal lashes,

are almost tender,
and I don’t know where I have been
so frightened,
or so happy.

A Couple of Lions


Today, I miss Africa.

Excerpted from Mary Oliver’s poem “Serengeti” in her collection House of Light (1990).

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A Father’s Day Poem

The Gardener
for my father

I have loved roses
since the earliest days,
when they spilled
like flames over our garden
walls, and you’d bring
them, fresh cut,
into the house,
where they’d dwell like
living embers singly
or together
and fill our mornings
with the perfume
of their song.

I have loved them
as you tended
the slowly growing
vine that twined
itself around the spirals
of our Jordanian
windows — an act
of faith, coaxing flowers
from the desert,
their color proclaiming
God’s faithfulness
as surely as any
burning bush
or shrub.

And I love them still,
seven thousand miles
from where you
spend your evenings
watering jasmine and
daisies, your garden a riot
of color and song,
as I tend my own
small miracle of green —
not quite eight inches
high, she grows
without knowledge
of her diminutive
size (as I gently check
each leaf for mites),
a single, unfurling
bud waving at the sky.

–Karith Amel © 2019

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Why Write | Words of Wednesday

Writing, regardless of the end result — whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed — means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world.

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Anybody struggling to make something — no matter how they succeed or don’t in terms of the marketplace — has entered into conversation with giants. We’re all in the same arena, and our efforts differ “in degree only, and not in kind.”

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To bring one’s self to others makes the whole planet less lonely.

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None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.

–Mary Karr, excerpts from “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision” in The Art of Memoir


Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Reading is a Sacred Act: A Follow-up

A semi-companion to this post about writing and a direct sequel to this one about reading spiritual books by women. 

I promised, a while ago, to follow up my post about women’s writing (and why we should be reading more of it) with a list of some of my personal “must-reads” — the books by women that have most deeply impacted my heart and mind.

At the time, I didn’t quite realize what an impossible task I’d set myself.

How does one curate such a list? Even if the only criteria is “personal impact,” how is one to measure and define such impact? Especially across genres and years? How do I compare Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moccasin Trail, for instance, one of my favorite Newberry Honor books from grade school (which spoke to my heart deeply on the topics of exile and displacement — the losses and gains of straddling worlds) with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or (on an even more different playing field) Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects? For that matter, should Moccasin Trail even be a candidate, given that its protagonist is male? And what about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, loved so dearly for its lyricism and strangeness, which I would claim as one of my all-time favorite classics … but which boils down, in the end, to a masterfully told tale?

I can hear the hecklers already, It’s your list, do what you want. Yet it’s such a knotty business, choosing favorites. Publicly declaring, This matters more to me than all those others I left off the list. And whether one wants to admit it or not, the public aspect also gets messy. By posting this on a public blog, I’m not really saying, simply, Here are some books that moved me, challenged me, changed me. I’m saying, Here are some books I think you, too, should read. Yet, as a teacher, I recognize that my personal favorites are not always the best books for my classroom. Personal impact is not the same as “objective” worth (or general value). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, is an important read, and, dealing with gender and religion as it does, leaving it off the list seems almost irresponsible. It would certainly belong on a list of “books you should read.” Yet, while it was certainly thought-provoking, engaging, and worth my time, its personal impact was limited.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I thought the whole point (as stated in the aforementioned article) was that these were meant to be spiritual books by women … well, that isn’t as simple as it might sound either. You see, there’s a reason I majored in literature in college. A reason I cared enough about what and how students were reading to become an English teacher upon graduating. Literature has been inextricably tied up with my faith journey since I read my first Newberry Honor book when I was eight. Earlier, actually, since I was already listening to stories (read aloud, played on tape, told orally) long before I could read them. I’ve read, and been deeply impacted by, my fair share of nonfiction over the years, but it is in the pages of fiction that I most consistently come face to face with the deep truths, beauty, and goodness that have drawn my heart, over and over, back to God.

If I hadn’t known Aslan as a child,1 or had my heart pierced by Justin’s sacrifice,2 or longed for the glory of Arthur,3 or tasted Hassan’s goodness4 — if I hadn’t had my imagination sanctified, over and over again, with glimpses of meaning, of sacrifice, of hope — if I hadn’t tasted life so often and so young — would I have recognized, in Christ, the fulfillment of my heart’s yearning? Or even known what I was yearning for?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I came to God by way of story. By way of literature. By way of books. And for me there is no clear demarcation between the spiritual and the secular in this realm. Rather, there are books that send me back to the world alive and awake (to wonder, to beauty, to pain, to the search for truth, to the need for healing, to the yearning for joy) — and books that do not.

As a Christ-follower, I also believe that part of our calling, as readers, writers, artists, people, is to search for that goodness, coherence, meaning, and beauty in the world around us5 (to create cosmos out of chaos, as Madeleine L’Engle might put it6). Are some texts drivel that do little more than de-sensitize us to the sorrows and joys of our fragile, beautiful world? Of what it means to live, to love, to die — to be human? Undoubtedly. Pornography’s a real thing (the dangers of which go far beyond the boundaries of trivializing sexual encounter — for treating sex casually is nothing compared to treating people casually, treating life casually, treating meaning casually). Yet I’d rather be on the lookout for the sacred than spend my time decrying the profane. Which is why I’d happily declare Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and James Goldman’s Lion in Winter two of the most moral, spiritual, and powerful texts I know.

So, yes, I’m still working on those lists (which will probably appear as a series of several shorter lists — divided by genre, topic, etc. — to make the act of choosing less traumatic). It’s quite possible that many (most) of the selected books won’t explicitly deal with faith — or be written by those who identify as people of faith. Even so, I see them connected, inextricably, with the purpose laid out in that original blog post: to cast our nets wider and encounter the image of God in places we have long ignored (namely, the words spoken by women).

As you wait for my lists with bated breath, what are some of your favorite texts by women? Or some of the unexpected places where you have encountered God? What stories remind you that there is hope and goodness in the world? Something to fight for, something to gain, something to lose? Something to this business of living that matters and matters mightily? 

Footnotes:

  1. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
  2. Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
  3. Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy
  4. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
  5. Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  6. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

 

Introducing Words of Wednesday

To be a writer, you must be a reader. This is a truth every writer knows. But it’s not just because we learn something of form and the rhythms and music of language from studying the masters. It’s because, as writers, words are our medium. What fill our souls, activate our minds, and grant us something to ponder.

Without the words of others — the works that move me and call me to life — I really would have nothing to say. Writing may be a journey into wakefulness, but I am taught to walk that path by those who came before me — those who startle me from complacency and inspire me into recognition. Those who reflect life, and truth, back to me in a form that I can process, grasp — be grasped by.

In honor of those voices that are feeding me on a daily basis, I’ve decided to start something new. An experiment, if you will. Every Wednesday, I would like to highlight some of the words that have spoken to me that week — some of the words that have called / are calling me into wakefulness. Fragment, paragraph, or poem, I’ll tell you where I found it (so you can retrace my steps if you’d like) and I might, or might not, explain something of the whys and wherefores of my choice — what power, relevance, or meaning it currently holds in my life.

The purpose of this is two-fold: 1. The pure joy of celebrating, and sharing, beautiful words. 2. To act as a sort of monument or artifact — a place to collect, and pay tribute to, some of the beauty I’m finding along the way.

That, after all, is what this blog — In Search of Waking was always meant to be about. An invitation to mindfulness. A reminder to pay attention. To wake up to the details — to the gift — of one’s life. My life. Writing, for me, has become, more and more, about a practice of gratitude. A way to cherish wonder. Nurture awe.1

I want to be alive and awake to the mystery, the miracle, that is my life. This life. The only one I get.

And part of that miracle — that gift — is ink on the page. The power of other writers’ words to call me back to myself and wake me up, remind me what I had forgotten or teach me what I never knew.

Since no one says what I’m trying to express more exquisitely than Annie Dillard (I almost wrote “more clearly,” but my high school students would have passionately disagreed), here is one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life to get us started:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

Footnotes

1. As Anne Lamott alludes — both in her writing book, Bird by Bird, and in her audio-lecture, “Word by Word (which I recently re-listened to) — being a writer is about slowing down, becoming conscious, and asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be? Every writer I’ve ever loved has said the same thing in their own way.

A Simple Tuesday

“But here, on our ordinary Tuesdays, is where we make our homes and learn to be human.” –Emily P. Freeman

I startled a deer today. (Well, to be accurate,
Magnus startled the deer, arms waving in a frantic joy,
calling out, in recognition, one being to another, in wonder,
in celebration, in the ecstasy of living. Do you see me? I’m here,
world, I’m here.) It raised its delicate antlers, eyes serious and calm,
the curve of its nose, its ears, its flank, somehow gentle
in their outline, a peaceable wildness in our midst.

Earlier this morning, I sat on a bench, traced words
onto brown paper, the patterned cloth of my Kenyan notebook
smooth against the inside of my palms. The wooden bridge before me
unfolding beneath a canopy of trees (Magnus sings them songs, these trees,
so tall and straight and heavenbound), as the dappled sunlight
filtered onto my pages, into my hair, between my fingers,
and Magnus studied the outline of a long sleek pen,
and wrote no words at all.

Later, I’ll crawl into my bed and nap,
papers strewn across my room’s brown rug
(Magnus’s fingerprints on each and every one), and
later still, I’ll walk beneath a rose-edged sky, wondering
about these moments, and what it means to live them well.
I’m here world. Do you see me? I’m here. A deer grazes
peacefully as I pass. Overhead, the sky darkens
towards dusk, and the first planets blink
into existence. I blink back.

Magnus and Deer

Thoughts While My Students Write

As September marches on, and I prepare myself for what I hope will be a year of words — while wrestling with the implications of having given up my classroom (and all that was both lost and gained with that choice) — here are some thoughts composed while my students worked.  

14 Jan. 2015

For Global Lit.

What is poetry?
It is the muscle and sinew
of words:
The leaping
and the dancing,
The burning and
the breaking,
The place where
truth and beauty meet
with no veil between —

no place to run and hide
from the blazing
brightening face of God.

17 Sept. 2015

For AP Lang.

The sun on this grass,
these leaves,
a thousand shades of
brightness — of dancing
gold. My students
in the world,
thinking, writing.
And I want to gift
them this — wholeness,
wonder. “Pictures that shimmer.”
The world grown deep
and clear,
mysterious and living.

If we chase this brightness
always, will we find that we
have long pursued
the very face
of God?

Can we drink this cup?
Dare we? And what if I —
if we — find ourselves
too frail a vessel
for this gift?

Then cover me —
cover us all —
in grace.

The Waterfall Pools

Ngare Ndare Forest, 18 Feb. 2018

The specks of color flutter
by us, as each step we take raises
a small cloud from the dry
earth, almost as if the dust
were breathing

and I wonder if it were
on such a day, in such a place,
that the hands of God first
formed us from the ground.

The water, when we reach
it, has gathered into
pools of cloudy blue,
and as I watch the shadows
uncertainly for snakes, I wonder
if the serpent ever swam
with the woman and her
mate.

Dust we may be,
and to dust we may return —
here like grass
today and gone upon the morrow —

but isn’t it a lovely thing
to be alive?

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22 January 2018

Not so much a poem as a prayer. Not so much a prayer as a whispered thanks. Inspired by Reid Carpenter’s “9 October 2017.”

I started today with a strip of sun against a dark sky.

I started with the sound of thudding feet, the tingle-cold of a Kenyan dawn, the huffing breath of a mile run.

I started with a cat in my kitchen, languidly bumping its nose against my leg, submitting to a pat, a scratch, a pet — always hopeful for a tasty snack.

I started with matcha and overnight oats, filled to bursting with chia seeds, toasted coconut flakes, slivers of almonds.

I started with the words of Paul and Nouwen and the misty morning light, snuggled beneath a blue shuka on a large porch.

I started with my nephew cooing from the confines of a small screen, his smile sudden and bright and too beautiful to bear.

I started the day with grace. May I walk forward in that promise.