Living Sacrifice?

Donating blood is something that’s been on my mind since long before I did it first in the spring. I’ve heard many excuses for why people don’t donate. In high school, before I was heavy enough to donate myself, I helped operate a donation table where I tried to convince people to give. Now that I can donate too, I always beg friends to come along with me. In both cases, most of the people I talk to say no. I’ve heard excuse after excuse after excuse. But for all the many excuses I’ve heard (besides being ineligible for donation, which is a different matter), almost every one boils down to the same words: “I don’t do needles.”

Frankly, this makes me mad.

So yes, I understand that fearing needles is a real thing. I wasn’t too comfortable giving blood the first time either. In fact, I was terrified. And the second and third times, too. And I’ll probably be scared every other time for the rest of my life. But the fact is, if you live in the white middle-class world, you’ve put up with plenty of vaccination needles in your lifetime. You did it, and maybe you were scared, but you probably didn’t even think about it much. It was simply something that had to be done. So you did it.

Why is this different?

You may answer this question, They’re taking my BLOOD. That’s what makes me ALIVE. They’re taking it out of me and putting it in a bag. And yes, I get that it’s weird to know someone’s filling up a bag of your blood. But it’s not really an excuse. I think it’s a weird thought that we put plastic rods in our mouths and rub them all over our teeth every morning and night, or that we have dead cells growing off our heads that we braid elaborately when we want to impress people. We do weird things all the time without even questioning it.

Another excuse is the classic I’m busy. But this is also not an excuse worth making. An hour or two of your time, once every two months, is worth giving someone the rest of their life, period. The thing is, I get annoyed that normal agnostic/atheist people give these excuses. But with Christians I actually get angry, because Jesus literally had NAILS driven through his palms so he could save your life.

Yeah, I just said that. He didn’t do needles, he did nails.

We evangelicals are always telling each other we need to be like Christ. Well, in upper-middle-class-white-suburbia, giving blood is the most physically Christ-like thing we can do. He gave up his life’s blood so we could be healed of our spiritual sickness. You can give up your life’s blood so someone else can be healed of their physical sickness. I’m not even going to rant about all the people out there who are dying because you didn’t give blood; this is not a guilt-trip. This is about living Christ. This is about being who we say we are and offering our bodies as living sacrifices.

Now think about that word, sacrifice. A sacrifice is a giving up. It’s giving up something valuable or doing something painful for someone else. Love is built on sacrifice; it’s not a feeling, it’s a choice, an action, as Jesus chose to follow God’s plan even when he knew it would be painful. Making a sacrifice, like facing a needle to save someone else, is an act of love. And to be honest, giving blood isn’t even a huge sacrifice: when you give blood, you feel a pinch for about a second and lie in a bed for fifteen minutes, and then you go on with your life, maybe a little lightheaded for an hour or so. This is not much when you think about it. When Christ gave blood, he was stuck with nails, hung on a torture device, and killed.

Too many white upper-class evangelicals have lost this kind of love. We forget that we need to live in a way that flows out of what we believe; we forget that God made us with bodies, with the ability to see and taste and dance and have sex and feel pain and work out and hold babies and sing praise. Physical acts of love are what change us. Playing music in praise of God changes us. Digging in a garden and feeling the dirt of his creation changes us. Giving blood can change us, can show us in a crazy tangible way how much Christ loved us when he spilled all that blood at Calvary.

The Protestant tradition is leery of this kind of spiritual discipline, due to the legalism and pride that it associates with Pharisees and convents. It’s right to be wary; I am absolutely not saying that giving blood is holier than not giving blood, and I am perfectly aware that legalism is a real danger when you’re going back to the donation center, year after year after year. But James says very clearly that “faith without works is dead” (in other words, isn’t real faith), and again, the things we do change us. It’s not about how much better you are than someone else because you’re saving lives. It’s about the chance you have to act like Christ, to mimic his suffering to some small extent so you can become like him. He is so wonderful and so loving and so good. Everything he did on earth was painful for him, but he did it anyway.

You can do that, too. You can literally offer your body as a living sacrifice, physically feel some semblance of the overwhelming love of God as you give up your own blood. So please, stop offering excuses about needles. This is not about needles or losing an hour of your time. This is about knowing Christ, who gave you all your blood in the first place.

Low Low Low-Low-Low

The last two weeks has been a series of extreme highs and lows.

Beginning with a low, my computer (on which were all the stories I’ve ever finished, my passwords to every website, thousands of pictures, all the recordings I’ve made of my poems, the many stages of my book cover file, and basically everything digital I’ve created in the last quarter of my life–not to mention its uses for things like college course work and Wednesday poems) died last week. The only upsides were 1) that my campus is well-stocked with computers so I can at least still access the internet–hence the update today–and 2) that I had the prescience to at least put the poems themselves into Dropbox. I only wish I’d done so to the rest of my files…

To follow, a high: I saw two very different sorts of celebrities performing in the last four days. The first was Andy Grammer, who I watched with some of my very best friends, and we had a great time singing and dancing as we watched him on the outdoor stage. The second was Tyehimba Jess, a poet I’ve already written about, who to my great excitement came to Wheaton today and did a reading of his poems. I still cannot recommend these highly enough. They are deeply rooted in the history of black America, of minstrel shows, and of thousands of years of poetry, but are at the same time relevant and moving in the context of today–besides being a pleasure to read for their sheer genius. Stuttering with admiration, I had him sign my copy of his book.

This high was, however, intertwined with a low, as I had expected to talk to him in person in a much smaller group setting with an English professor: and that group was canceled at the last minute. I have never felt like I needed to meet someone as much as I felt like I needed to meet him, and knowing, when it was canceled, that I couldn’t (at least not in the way I’d hoped) was a severe disappointment, to add to the frustrations of the week.

Another low was the admission of a friend on my floor to the hospital last night. She was having abdominal pain and is still in pain now, but she is back on the floor, and we know for sure that she does not have appendicitis, which was the main worry. I visited her in the hospital today, an addition to the plethora of other things I did (class and babysitting and Jess and a sophomore career dinner). It was bizarre how surreal the whole thing seemed. How surreal the whole week has seemed.

Additionally, I’ve felt lately that my poetry has simply dried up. I don’t know why except that some kind of fear of my own self has set in and has prevented me from practicing piano, writing poems at random, and even harmonizing when I’m singing–all things I usually do automatically, things that are a part of me. Without those, and without my computer files, I feel lost. My art defined me. Without it, who am I? I don’t even know.

(To add insult to injury, one of my favorite tops just ripped as I’ve been writing. So I’m sitting in sterile-looking computer lab in the basement of my dorm with a huge tear in my shirt. I almost laughed at the awfulness when it happened.)

So yes, I’ve been pleading that God will give me some kind of mercy and rest from this relentless everything that has been flying at me. It looks like I will not become best friends with Tyehimba Jess and I will not always be able to write poems on a whim and I will not always have energy to do my homework when I need to (such as now–and look what I’m doing instead, venting on the internet). But at least I know one thing, and that is a huge one: I am a child of God. He made me. He loves me. He came to earth, became a human (how could He want to be one of us?), and died for me.

And because of that, I have eternity to figure out who I am. I have eternity to find my art again and to worship Him with it. I will have eternity to rest.

I guess when I look at it that way there’s nothing more I could want.

Hellos to a Home I’d Forgotten

In my last week of working, I wrote a post about how a transition involves leaving parts of yourself behind. I mourned the fact that there are endings, and that every relationship on earth fades too quickly.

But I guess I forgot, as I wrote, that an ending in one place means a beginning in another. Sophomore year has been a beginning. Moving in the new freshmen has been a beginning. Creating a space with my amazing roommate–a space filled with the things we love, with tea and books and comfy furniture–has been a beginning, a time of comfort, a time of joy. Our God is a God of love and beauty, a God who made relationships that last even through and despite the summers that separate us, a God who made a permanent and unending body for Himself: His Church.

It’s good, good, good to be back in Wheaton. It’s a little strange to be a sophomore, but at the same time perfectly natural; seeing the difference between me and the freshmen I realize I am exactly where God meant me to be and have had exactly the right experiences (beginnings and endings, classes and customers, lemons and lemonade) to get me here.

I love being able to help the girls across the hall, to meet those who are living in the room I made so many memories in last year, to speak without stuttering of things I used to barely know. Moving the freshmen into the dorms was a crazy experience because it was so different being on the other side of it. am the one in the orange (salmon?) Thunder Moving Company shirt. am the one who knows where the kitchen, the Beamer Center, Buswell Library, Goldstar Chapel and the Switz are. I’m a sophomore, and in some crazy way, I belong here.

I’m home.

I guess we have to have the right perspective on the endings in life. They remind us of the consequences of sin and the fact that ultimately everything we touch will die. But endings are not the ending. Even on earth we see new life. We see our old, stripped rooms getting their colors again. We see our old, uncomfortable selves suddenly at home. I’ll miss the people I met and even, in a way, the things I did this summer, but I guess whatever God has for me this semester is better.

To end on a cliche but still incredible note, here’s a verse from Jeremiah:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

–Jeremiah 29:11

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Reading: An Exercise in Unsettledness

Over the last few days, two books have pulled me back into asking my perennial question: why am I here and what can I do about it? The books were Olio by Tyehimba Jess and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The question was, as always, unanswerable.

In many ways the two books are very different. Olio is poetry about the pain and bondage of black American artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; The Book Thief is a novel about the near-ordinary life of a girl in Nazi Germany, written from the perspective of Death. However, the themes of sorrow and injustice and pain run heavy through both, and they both feel like epics, tracing a larger history than the life of just one girl or a few artists into the tragedy of human nature that continues today.

Olio represents a conglomeration of what you might call “acts,” mostly ragtime pianists and singers who appear in dialogue with and across each other and their oppressors. A common page format throughout the book has two adjacent columns–two speeches by different people–that can be read either separately or as one paragraph: intertwined sentences that often represent hugely dissimilar thoughts. The contrast between the speakers, and the way the speeches fit together so naturally and almost ludicrously, really drives home the injustices that Jess portrays.

For instance, there is a page where one column is an actual quote from Irving Berlin countering the accusation that he stole Scott Joplin’s work, and the other column is Joplin’s imagined response, a seething and grief-filled reply. Joplin’s work never took off whereas Berlin’s hit it big, yet Berlin’s words were flippant and derogatory. It seemed incredibly unfair to me that Berlin ever got away with what he said and did, and though after a bit of research I’ve discovered the claims of the stolen work are not as clear-cut as the book implies, things like that definitely have happened in America’s history. Things where an unjust system took credit from where it was due and placed it in a white man’s hands. Things where the world was upside-down and totally unfair. And still is.

In The Book Thief, Zusak asks my question even more directly. A character dies; another wonders, why wasn’t it me? Even the narrator, Death, emphasizes the places where if a different choice had been made–if Rudy’s family had let him join the army, if Leisel had knocked on the door instead of stealing through the window, if Hans hadn’t given the starved Jew the piece of bread–things would be different. Rudy would still be alive. Leisel would have a friend and the mayor’s wife would, too. Hans would still be at home, and Max wouldn’t have had to leave. But even with all the choices, there are a thousand things that are still not under the characters’ control. Ultimately, Death comes for all of them, and it is not Leisel’s fault that her family was taken from her or that the Fuhror is an evil man. She is simply where she is. There is no good reason why, or why her.

The question of why has caused me a weight of unsettledness. I’m not sure it can be called guilt, and I’m not sure if it’s right to be guilty for a station in life that I never chose. But here I am. And I know that the unsettledness is right, because I am not a Jew in Nazi Germany, nor am I a slave in early America. I am not, but many people in the world were, and many are slaves and martyrs and mourners right now.

Maybe the unsettledness will drive me to action.

Or at least drive me to look for places where I can act.

Anyway, the only place I have found so far is in my writing. So here I am. Writing to recommend that you read these two not only painful but also extremely powerful books, and that you take my own poetry as an outpouring of unsettledness.  Reading books like this is hard and it hurts sometimes, but that is the point. If we are all unsettled then maybe one of us will begin to know what to do.

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Goodbyes to a Bit of Myself

(In the flurry of the actual publication of my book, I have fallen dreadfully behind on blogging, so I apologize.)

I just wanted to muse briefly on what it means to be in transition. My last day of work is tomorrow and I’m leaving for school on Monday, and it’s hard to know whether to cling to the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had this summer or to long for those ahead. The last few days have been overwhelming and stressful, partly because I’ve had very little alone time and the arduous packing process is still ahead, but mostly because I don’t know how to react to leaving this summer behind me.

All summer I knew that the things I was doing were temporary: I got a temporary job, met many people I do not expect to see ever again, worked on a book that is complete and I will not return to (at least not soon), and spent what might possibly be my last full months at home. At the beginning, I was fine with this. I felt like a stranger at the fast food restaurant where I worked, someone who was dipping in a toe and nothing more and who would pass on like a mist in a few months. But as the summer continued, that changed.

I’ve started to see how difficult it is for humans to be transient.

My sister Lindsey was talking about this in her blog, how her travels for the internship she was doing throughout Peru were too short, too uprooted. But I hadn’t really thought of how the same applies to me, working my summer job here in the town I grew up in. It was only when I started discovering the crazy amazing people I work with–when I began to realize there was depth to this transient place, that it was impossible to drag my toes through for more than a week or two and that I had somehow started swimming without knowing how I got there–that I realized how sad it is to be swimming in a lake you may never see again. Many people think fast food sounds unpleasant. But the people I’ve met, the experience of working with them and being caught in the same temporary lake–even in the mundane things like filling drinks and taking orders and pulping lemons, the things I’ve been doing alongside all the other workers this summer–has changed me, and I know I’ll actually miss it when it’s over.

The thing is, every place we are, every thing we do, every relationship we form on earth goes too quickly. I think of how Ecclesiastes mourns, “he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). We have this need for eternity, for relationships that will last forever, for places we can make a lasting home from. But it’s hard, because we never really get those on this earth. Things change too fast for us to drink it all in.

And here I am, almost reluctant to transition back to the place I hated to leave just three months ago. I thought going in that these few months would be insignificant and easily separable from the rest of my life, but obviously things are never that clean-cut. On earth, we are travelers. We leave bits of ourselves behind everywhere we go, and we will never find the eternal home we were looking for until we follow our eternal Father past the grave.

Humanity and Its Insanity

Sometimes I wonder why humans are the way we are, and how such small, insignificant creatures can do the incredible (albeit often horrendous) things we’ve done. Many of us aren’t even the weight of an average black bear, but how much more have we done to the planet? Black bears don’t build palaces or nuclear weapons, and they don’t have religious services or bake cookies or keep pets or write blogs. I think of all the crazy, amazing things humans do, and it seems insane that we’re capable of doing them, let alone that we do them every single day and barely ever think twice.

This is one reason I believe in a God. I simply find it impossible to believe that humans are yet another animal on a self-created planet. And this is not arrogance about how great the human race is; humans are horrible. We traffic each other and shoot each other and chop down the trees that we depend on for oxygen and melt plastics that destroy the atmosphere and abuse the beautiful, intricate animals that surround us. But we are certainly different from those animals. And it seems to me we must have been created from some different, higher pattern than gorillas were. A pattern, such as the image of God.

Christianity is the only place where I find a compelling explanation for humanity, with both its beauty and complexity and its stupidity and evil. If you think about the way we’ve been able to use the resources in this universe for the things we’ve done–like, I’m pressing down pieces of plastic (my laptop keys) with my fingers, and at the same time I’m translating complete thoughts into a written language that will show up on the light display of another piece of plastic (your own laptop), and you will be able to read it and understand my thoughts in exactly the way I thought them, maybe from some entirely different part of the world–human intelligence is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, we have wreaked an insane amount of havoc on this world and each other. Every human relationship I find is broken in some way; our wasteful manufacturing processes and pesticide use are broken; our treatment of animals is broken; and in many ways it seems like the world would be better off without us.

So, that’s one reason I believe in a God who made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5) and in a man and a woman who, though they were made with everything they needed, rebelled and broke God’s order and beauty. Humans are kind of insane things. No use denying that.

Slightly Overwhelmed. Like a Little.

I’ve been feeling like I’m stuck in a large, swirling, rather nebulous cloud of resources lately; it isn’t really writer’s block, since (I’m told) that’s a place where you hit a wall and there is no way out. It’s more like hitting a wall and having a hundred ways out. I am at the center of a labyrinth, and all the stone-faced tunnels around me are threatening to drive me insane.

This has been the marketing process: a thousand rabbit trails, a thousand potential venues for advertising myself, a thousand things I would rather not do. Frankly, it’s exhausting; my parents told me to just do the next thing, just do the next thing, it’s all in God’s hands, but figuring out what the next thing is seems to be a bigger problem than actually doing it. Should I write an email? A blog post? A Facebook post? Is it more important to get my church involved with a book signing or to recruit my relatives onto my email list? Where does the actual editing of my book fit into all of this?

The last week has consisted of me asking these questions, then reading my emails and finding more options and asking more questions, then doing several hours of research online to try and find some sort of resolution–and then not actually having time to do the things the research is telling me to do. This has happened almost every day. I have a full-time job at a Chick-fil-A in the mornings, but I feel like I am also working a full-time job in the evenings, and my morning work is–how can it even be?–a break. I’m telling you: writing a book is HARD.

However, I stumbled upon some food for thought in 1 Corinthians the other day, and it’s made me wonder if all of this craziness is okay. 1:27-29 says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” My foolishness in regards to the publishing world–the idea that I could possibly ever market a book in less than a month, the effort I’m putting into avoiding the I’m-great-read-me speech that so many use (to maddening effect!)–might have some fruit, even if it goes against everything all the experts say. I don’t mean I’m trying to be stupid or expecting God to cook my dinner for me. I just mean, even if I do things in my arduous, confusing, and overwhelmed way, God can use me. We’ll have to see how He does it, but I’m confident He is able.

Life| maze    that     you  }
| is a  / .rehpiced ot evah

Complications abound.
So does pain.

You’ll never} / want to
{dnif yllaer /  you  / go.
your way  where /

It’s hard that way.
But God’s got your back.
He’ll give you a string like Ariadne’s
(His Word)
To guide you, and even if }
{ ,tsol elttil a teg uoy
He’ll show you the
                 / Right /
               / Way   /
             /Again./

Trust Him.
He’s got your }
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Slake

To Be: In the Place We Are

“‘Things happen to people by accident,’ she used to say. ‘A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them. It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? I don’t know’–looking quite serious–‘how I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one. Perhaps I’m a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials.”

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My sister is in Peru right now. In her blog (here) she talks about the living situations of the people there–their resilience, their humanity, and the things they have to fight against to survive. To me these things are entirely foreign. But for a lot of people in the world, you do just sleep in a tent, avoid the rabid dogs, and boil the water before you drink it. For a lot of people, that’s really the best they can do.

I’m not sure how to react to my life situation, since I was born into a loving middle-class American family, with parents who have a strong Christian faith, plenty of material goods to get through life comfortably, and the passion to give me the best education I can have. Millions of people lack one or all of these things, and the fact that I do not–a fact that has shaped every aspect of my existence, my interests, my beliefs, my character, and my relationships–unsettles me. Who would I have been if God had put me in the untouchable caste in India? Or a Norwegian peasant family in the Medieval Ages? Or the family of some cruel dictator? Why am I here now, in the richest 20% of the world, getting a college education, drinking clean water and buying manufactured clothing at the drop of a hat?

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. All I know is that God has entrusted me with A LOT and expects me to do a lot with it, and that’s why I write like there’s no tomorrow. (Who knows? Maybe there isn’t.) God gave me a gift and a passion–and I don’t know why He gave it to me, but here I am. I guess, if He put me here, He intends to use me here. But I don’t know why He chose me. He could have switched my place with an illiterate Bengali woman, and if she had been born into this home and country she could have been a better writer, a more considerate friend, and a stronger follower of Christ than I am–and I could have been a weaker and less independent (and really, a generally hopeless) sweatshop-laborer. That Bengali woman is probably taking care of five children, alone, and works ten hours seven days a week. And here I am, with a humane forty-hour work-week, nobody depending on me for anything, and barely the energy to handle it. I don’t know why it is that I’ve been given the opportunity to make a mark on the world–I have more of a shot than most, with the amount of resources I have–and she hasn’t. The only thing I can say is that I trust God knows what He’s doing when He puts people where they are.

Anyway, that’s the reason I write. It’s because I can–because I’m here, and not somewhere else, and I have an education, and I’m able to impact the lives of others through my words. I may not make much of an impact on very many people, and my words will probably fade from history at the moment of my death. But I am totally convinced it is worth doing because God gave me the gift. It’s the only reason I can think of that He would put me here, of all places.

This is not a very polished blog post; I have no argument, no main point. But I ask that you think about it. That you have compassion on the deaf community in Moyobamba (a stop in Lindsey’s journey around Peru) and put yourself in their shoes for a few minutes. That you question the way you’ve been spending your money–some people live for a year on the amount you just spent on that dress. That you do your homework because you have been blessed with an education and not because you want a 4.0. I don’t know what to do about any of this, and I don’t know why you’re where you are and I’m where I am. But here we are. I guess we just need to use the things we have to their utmost and trust that God placed us in exactly the right spot.

To Be: As Poetry

Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish have both written poems on the nature of poetry: Moore’s conclusion, in her “Poetry,” is that

…nor till the poets among us can be
    ‘literalists of
    the imagination’–above
        insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
            shall we have
    it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
    the raw material of poetry in
        all its rawness and
        that which is on the other hand
            genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

In other words, the things of poetry are “important not because a//high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are/useful.” Poetry is not about large words and fancy interpretations, but about being useful to us. It is meant to show us “real toads”–true reflections of life–in all their rawness and genuineness, even if the poem itself is only an “imaginary garden.”

MacLeish concludes something similar in “Ars Poetica.” A series of rhyming couplets begins with “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit” and ends with

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.

He, too, rejects the idea of poetry as something to be interpreted. It should sit silent, “Palpable and mute.” It’s something to touch. To taste. Not to explain.

I think these are ideas that should resonate in all art, not only poetry. I mentioned in my last post that art is something we make in order to cry out with others, a vehicle to share our humanness; and I think that’s what Moore and MacLeish are getting at, that if you’re so busy incorporating large words and sophisticated philosophies into a piece of art, nobody else can breathe it in, can taste the juice from the globed fruit. It’s a hard line to walk. For me, a girl who defines herself by intellectualism, it’s difficult to stop asking what things mean and start tasting them. But I think it’s important.

I also think that sometimes a poem actually means more simply by “being.” The more I read the Bible, the more I come to see how meaningful it is through its very nature as a work of art. We evangelicals tend to read poems like Psalm 133 and think, now this shows us we need to be nice to each other and “dwell in unity.” We rarely stop to soak in the image of precious oil and robes, of Aaron the priest in his anointing, of how satisfying and cleansing it is for members of the Church to live in love. We are always moralizing; but the Bible is really not meant to be a book of rules as much as it is a picture of them. There are rules, yes, but there is also a story of a Man who saw a woman drawing water whom He should culturally have ignored and loved her. There is a song by someone who is wounded, mocked, and parched with thirst, who knows in his head God will save him but still cries out for the pain. There is a vision of a dragon who is hurled forever into a lake of fire and sulfur for the deceptions and torment he has wreaked.

To me, these images convey a world more about God’s greatest command–love–than any fancily-worded moralistic rule book can. The Bible does, obviously, have meaning, and it can be interpreted and exegeted and hermeneutically examined, but it can also be mute as a globed fruit. Psalm 44 doesn’t have answers, it’s just some people who need help begging a God who made a promise to follow through. The meaning in that is not something we can explain adequately with scientific interpretations. It is, however, a feeling we’ve felt before, and it means a whole lot simply by being the way it is.

That’s the way true art should convey meaning. It’s the way humans experience our humanness, by biting straight into the globed fruit. Art should show you a real toad. It shouldn’t need to tell you what to do with it.

To Be: And To Make Art

I think it’s sad how great literature deteriorates in reputation as it gains fame. What I mean is, I’ve never heard anyone seriously speak of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The words “To be, or not to be? That is the question,” have become a sort of a joke. We say, duh, that isn’t even a question.  Who asks whether they want to be or not? Then, if the words ever appear in conversation, we apply them to trivialities and slogans: “To ski, or not to ski? That is the question.”

And yet, the question Hamlet asks is a question. Not everyone wants to take his or her own life, but we’ve all wondered why we’re here and if it’s worth it. We wonder what it means to be and what it means to be here and what it means that we age and get tumors and die, that there are tyrants who mistreat others for no reason beyond a love of cruelty, that there are rich white kids who throw disgusting jives at the less-privileged, that there are men who beat the women who love them, that governments are corrupt institutions made of corrupt people and won’t bring justice where justice is deserved. “Who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay…” We ask the same questions Shakespeare was asking five hundred years ago, because the world hasn’t changed, and it goes on and on in the same cycles of horror and misery and death that it has always known.

If you don’t believe in a God, there are no answers to this question. If you do believe in a God, the answers are not easy ones. But I don’t think Hamlet’s words should be taken lightly whether you believe there is life after death or not. It is the same question as we’ve been asking all our lives.

I think one of the primary reasons for art is this exact thing: it reminds us that there are others who have walked where we walk now. It allows us to ask whether being here is worth it, as Shakespeare asked so many years ago. The ancient Sumerians asked it too, showing in the Epic of Gilgamesh that even a glorious, heroic life must end futilely, in death. Art allows us to cry out with the poets of the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My poetry is not going to survive for four thousand years as the Sumerians’ did, or five hundred as Shakespeare’s. Likely it will be long forgotten in the year after my own death. But I hope, for the brief time it lasts, that it will give others a chance to cry out, to ask questions. You are not alone in this world. I, too, am grieving, and asking, and begging God for answers I don’t always have. I can’t explain why the people of Yemen are dealing with famine, war, and a cholera epidemic all at once. I don’t know why a boy in my year in college and another in my brother’s year in high school had freak accidents within two months of each other, and I don’t know why they both died. I don’t know why, even for me who for all intents and purposes is a rich white kid, nothing I do on this earth is quite enough to make it worth it; and I don’t know why it’s so much easier to mourn those two people who were so similar to me than the thousands who have cholera in a country far away. But you’ve felt the same things I have. You, like Shakespeare, like the Sumerians, are human.

That’s why I think it’s sad that we don’t give any weight to the questions Hamlet raises in his soliloquy. Those questions are there to help us, to mourn with us. We feel alone in this world, but there are billions who have gone before us. There are billions walking alongside us even now. So, please,

sip poetry with lemonade,
drink it in and feel it slipping coolly
down your throat
into your chest to calm
your heartbeat and lull it
into the rhythm of the universe.

sip poetry with spiced herbal tea
and stir it with a spoon to
make the sugar dissolve
and slake your thirst with sweetness
and sourness
and spiciness
and everything you needed,
with everythingness.

sip poetry or gulp it
quench your image-hungry thirst
taste the variance of flavors and colors
and let them wash for a moment through your chest:
translucent concoctions of
squeezed lemons or crushed leaves:
for poetry
is extracted from experience
and must be drunk.

–Slake