Landscapes of Longing: Pilgrimage and Desire in Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land.

“You’ve been longing again for what you have.”  – Carl Dennis, View of Delft

The first time I drive across the desert and into the Rio Grande valley, I swim into blue. The sky is as sharp and vast as I’ve ever seen it—blue so expansive and pure it hurts my eyes. 

In her beloved novel set in Santa Fe, Death Comes for the ArchbishopWilla Cather puts it this way: “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.” 

Perhaps it’s this peculiar sense of openness, how the sky feels like it might at any moment swallow you whole, that makes Santa Fe feel like a natural home to seekers and pilgrims. In my case, I’ve come to Santa Fe in late summer for a ten-day writer’s residency, hoping I’ll find myself, or God, or at least a really good idea for a poem. 

Read the full essay over at Curator Magazine.

“Maybe that is belief.”

“I don’t even know if I believe in God some days. But I miss him.”

I spoke in tongues for the first time in my living room, alone. My bare legs stretched against the cool linen of our hand-me-down couch. I prayed in a language I understood, and then, I didn’t. One phrase flowed from my tongue over and over: Yo venero. Yo venero. Yo venero. It sounded like it meant something, but I didn’t know what. 

I pulled out my phone and looked up the phrase. Yo venero means, “I worship,” or more precisely, “I venerate,” in Spanish. (I should mention: In ordinary circumstances, I don’t speak Spanish.)

The air around my head buzzed. My insides churned like liquefied gold. 

The living-room-praying-in-tongues experience happened in the middle of a near decade-long era of fervor, my faith a fire burning straight through the brush of my life. I was devoted to Scripture, to church, to God. I would wake in the middle of the night sometimes, burdened by a mission I never seemed to live up to in the light of day. I prayed for strangers on the street and at my workplace. I wept. I repented. I believed. 

Then, the wind shifted and the fire burned a new direction. 

Read the rest of this essay over at Fathom.

From the Land of Deep Darkness

I don’t have to look far to find metaphors for longing during Advent. They come as close as my living room, where I sit by the window each morning in the blurred light from our Christmas tree. It’s still pitch black at six in the morning, so the night feels impossibly long, conclusive even.

The tendency, of course, is to flip on every light in the house—to see and read better, to cook breakfast by, to tidy up or make lists for the day. I’m reminded of a book I read for my graduate school program titled The Embers and the Stars by Erazim Kohak. It’s part philosophy, part poetry, and it’s one of the books that has lingered with me longest since reading. In it, Kohak explores the value and necessity of darkness. There’s a natural logic and inherent goodness to the rhythms of day and night, he claims, but most of us in the modern world have insulated ourselves from them. We live out our days and nights under fluorescent lights and in front of screens right up until we go to sleep, and we wake ourselves the same way. Our bodies have forgotten what it’s like to live in darkness, and so we’ve forgotten, among other things, the effect and impact of light. 

This Advent I’m struck, like Kohak, by night’s necessity. I’m also struck by how fitting it is that we observe Advent in the dead of winter. In the middle of what feels like one long night punctuated by a few moments of daylight, I don’t have to reach to understand verses like Isaiah 9:2, which reads, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

To read more of the piece I wrote for SALLT’s Advent magazine, and to read the lovely reflections and prayers of many other OKC writers, click here.

The Way Down: Adam Luck’s Familial Advocacy

It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday when I pull up to the Kate Barnard Correctional Center on the east side of Oklahoma City. My pulse jumps a little at the sight of the barbed wire fences, but I have no reason to feel unsafe—I’m attending a meeting that’s open to the public. I let myself in a chain link gate and walk in holding just a notebook and a pen, though it feels intrusive to take notes at something like this. I’m the only visitor. Everyone else is here to speak on behalf of a family member or client who’s on the other side of a TV screen, in prison holding rooms across the state. It’s the second day of the Pardon and Parole Board’s monthly meetings. Here, board members hear from dozens and dozens of inmates for hours on end, each one asking for a chance at life outside the walls.

I see Adam Luck immediately, though it takes him a while to see me—he’s listening intently to every person’s case and looking family members in the eyes to thank them for being there, regardless of the results of the board’s vote. I’m at the meeting for a little under an hour, and Adam votes yes to grant parole on every case I see.

No one wants to spend their Tuesday lunch hour inside a yellow state building surrounded by barbed wire. It’s uncomfortable to look at the people on the screen, whose days and years unfold under fluorescent lighting and behind locked doors. It’s uncomfortable to hear their pleas for pardon or parole, to hear the tone of their voices while they ask for a second chance. It’s even more uncomfortable, although uncomfortable is too soft a word, when the board votes no. 

The atmosphere in the room is heavy, and Adam tells me as much when we meet for an interview between cases. “It’s like being in a dark hole,” he says. And yet, people keep showing up—family members of all ages, friends from church, a six- or seven-year-old girl who steps shyly up to the camera so her uncle, in prison for selling cocaine, can see her for the first time. The thought crosses my mind that only the love of family could bring people to a place like this.

I fill up a page, front and back, with notes. But I stop writing long enough to see the faces of these family members who have also showed up, in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, in this dark hole of a room, to look into the faces of the people they love.

In almost every case, a mother is present, asking the board to grant parole to her son. “I raised him right,” one mother says. “He has a good heart.” The family members here look weary, and they look hopeful, too.

I’ve never stepped foot inside a prison or a correctional facility until now. But I know intuitively, maybe by the strong and tender way these mothers speak of their sons, that I would go in an instant if it were my son, brother, or husband whose case was up for parole. Like the family members here, I wouldn’t hesitate to offer my time, resources, or simply my presence, because that’s what we do for family.

And, though the people pleading parole today are not his biological family, it’s also what Adam seems willing to do for just about anyone who asks.

Read the rest over at Nations.

Photo by Hunter Lacey.

Poetry’s Deep Work

“Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.”
– Jane Hirshfield, “Tree”

I remember exactly where I was when I encountered poetry for the first time. I was reading for my British literature class and had hunkered down in my dorm’s hallway so I wouldn’t wake my roommate. The poem was one by William Wordsworth. In it, the narrator returns to a place he loves and has dreamt of for five years. As he looks around, he takes in the majesty of the streams and cliffs, and he recognizes in them “a motion and a spirit, that impels / all thinking things, all objects of all thought, / and rolls through all things.”

Wordsworth may not have intended to speak about God here, but his words made me think of my own experience with the divine. As I read these lines, the poem simultaneously accomplished two things: it altered my perspective, and it gave voice to what I already felt to be true. After all, I was accustomed to calling God “Father” or “Lord,” not the spirit that “rolls through all things.” And yet, somehow, this language made sense to me, like I had known God this way all along, I just hadn’t known how to say it.

Read the rest over at Nations Media.

Cleaning Baseboards

I receive a text from my friend on a Monday. It reads, “About your birthday present: I seriously want to help you clean your house. I would love to have it on my schedule once a month.”

She’s referring to a casual conversation we had the week before—she mentioned coming over monthly to help me clean instead of buying me a gift. I had brushed it off, because offers like this can feel superficial. Let’s get coffee! Yeah, we totally should. But when her text pops up, I realize she has considered this offer and the time it would take. I respond with an enthusiastic yes, and we pencil it in.

She knocks on my door at 7:15 on a Tuesday evening, about a month later. We each give little recaps of our day, hitting the high and low points; when she asks what I need help with most, I say the baseboards.

“They’re filthy, and it’s been bugging me for weeks.”

After some digging through a closet, I locate two buckets and two rags, and we trail each other around the house, switching from our hands and knees to sitting criss-cross style, chatting about personality types and her daughter’s schoolwork. Sometimes the conversation lulls, and I become hyper-aware of the globs of dog hair on my rag. For a few brief moments, I wish I hadn’t let her come. But then we slowly work our way into the good stuff, like our dreams, our relationships, what we’re learning about our souls. I confess how short my temper has been, how quick and sharp my words can be. She tells me that she and her daughter have also been quick to argue and slow to listen. And it feels like something inside of me has cracked open to let the fresh air in, like a cut that’s been under a bandage for too long. We dip our rags in the soapy water and keep wiping the boards.

Read the rest over at Nations Media.