Painted Desert

By Matt Olson

 

There is a small segment on U.S. Highway 6 between Spanish Fork and Price, UT, that always catches my attention. The area is called Castle Gate, a fitting name for the medieval, brick-like rock pattern found on either side of the canyon walls.  As I drive past, my mind wanders through what 18th century geologist, James Hutton, terms deep time–the long and complex narrative of Earth. This involves time scales that seem incomprehensible to the human mind. Numbers like 250 million and 4.5 billion are typical for geologists.

In a way, I feel like some of earth’s grandeur is lost when comprehended by beings with a lifespan typically less than a century long. Of course, one doesn’t need to understand the entire history to recognize its beauty–with natural history, or with art for that matter. Yet, understanding the process of creation must foster a greater sense of meaning; there is an added appreciation that perhaps only practiced violinists, photographers, or geologists can share. I look at the layers of rock at Castle Gate and see art: rust-red and bronze at midday, dull amber and lead gray at night.

            When I was in college, I took a class from Dr. Tom Morris, or “Doc” as we called him. Doc helped me understand the process behind Castle Gate. His class explored the physical laws and processes for creating, transporting, and depositing sediment (how dirt gets around and becomes rock). As dull as it sounds, I was fascinated by the massive concepts and the minute principles that govern the science of sediment.

As we studied model after model for grain transportation and sedimentation, Doc would always remind us that, “models are meant to be made, but not necessarily followed.”  Earth systems are often too complex to be explained by one event or one form of classification, and even with the right model not every system seems to follow all of the rules.  “Mother nature can’t be pigeon-holed” Doc would say—this, apparently, the arrival point after forty plus years of geological experience.

If the earth is a grand orchestra, each element contributes to the symphony as a whole. Occasionally elements work rapidly. An earthquake crumbles hilltops, heaps of soil collapse from a mountain slope, or a volcanic eruption covers thousands of miles with a jet-black blanket. These terrifying movements are the most revealing of Earth’s history; in the madness of disaster there is magnificence to behold.

Yet most of Earth’s history is accomplished at a serene pace. There is no better example of patience than the elements at work. Wind leaves an imprint in the iron-reddened cliffs of the Navajo Sandstone. Arid winds blow dune over dune, accumulating a thousand feet of quartz sand over 200 million years. The evidence is striking–cross-bedded laminae appear like brush strokes throughout the rock. Patterns illuminate the past.

Image1Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

We must have spent weeks discussing rivers, Earth’s most successful sculptors. While rivers can lend a landscape a false sense of completion, they are quietly sculpting new terrain. Water doesn’t waste excess sediment, it simply moves it. The slow destruction of one landscape is merely the birth of another. The Earth is a prolific artist, yet with an audience that only stays around to see the progress of a couple hundred years, we assume the sculpture is complete.

Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” perhaps establishing himself as the first geologist. It is true: no one river is ever the same. However, the reason we study rivers is the same reason we study any geological formation: pattern recognition. River patterns typically begin as braided systems, interwoven layers of sediment full of larger stones, and over distance morphs into a meandering stream, that slowly wanders across the landscape in great arcs and bends. When we look at rocks, we are reconstructing the past, from its pattern seeing where the river once was.

A river is a Taoist painter, freely flowing. The beauty is in the stroke of the brush not in the painting itself. The guiding ethical concept in Taoism is the idea of wu-wei, meaning action without intention. Wei refers to deliberate actions of personal will, and wu is a term that denotes lacking. Wu-wei is an effortless action, a type of action that one does not premeditate. It is not the final product that Tao-seekers keep in mind; instead, it is the process that takes place during the action. The word Tao itself translates to way. A Tao artist moves spontaneously to reach a level of creativity in harmony with the surrounding world, moving and yielding as water with no predetermined goal or finality. Yet, it eternally flows. It is the flow of the universe.

 “Wow, that’s something else, huh?” Steve says to me.  We are standing at the White Crack in Canyonlands, Utah, looking out at the never-ending colors of strata that fill the horizon. Reds, greens, grays, yellows, and purples combine to reveal a piece of art over 200 million years in the making.

We stare out across the landscape in unexpected reverence.

“When I see this,” Steve continues, “I imagine that it must have been some incredible catastrophic event, you know?” I am silent. I look out across the miles of rock that lie before us naked and exposed. There was never any catastrophic event, I think to myself.

There was an ocean.

Eventually all water returns to the ocean. Here, creation is at its apex, building thousands of feet of sediment atop sediment. In the Swiss Alps over 50 million tons of sediment are removed from the mountains by rivers each year. Though some are deposited en route, the majority will continue until finally spilling into the Mediterranean.

painted desert 2 (1024x679)

It is cold the morning Doc has us stand against the brick-like wall of rock at Castle Gate. Cars speed by along the highway, giving no care to a young group of students gathered against the roadside cliffs.

“Okay,” Doc says, “We’ve been through a lot of concepts guys. Now I want you to tell me what we are looking at. You have an hour.”

Throughout history, sea level has risen and fallen repeatedly, in some instances covering entire continents. Deep canyons reveal oceans of the past. After an ocean has drowned a continent, a pattern is left behind. Remnants of the past river systems, shoreline, and ocean basin tell the story of the ocean’s rise and fall. Slowly, we are able to piece together the layers of strata. By the end of the hour, the entire rock face is covered with patterns we recognize. Across the canyon, ancient streams and shorelines are visible in full glory. At times, the process of creation holds more beauty than the actual finished product.

I drive past Castle Gate frequently, when I venture to parts of southern Utah. And always my mind wanders through deep time. I consider my impact, given Earth’s colossal time scale, and struggle to find place. For a moment I think perhaps like a Taoist, not wondering so much about what I am creating, but wanting to better understand the process I am a part of.  I look at patterns in my life that give me clues, but yield no clear revelations. I ask myself if any of this matters, if my short existence is insignificant, if better understanding the earth makes any sort of difference? I can hear Doc’s joke about the millennial attitude toward these heavy matters, “Who cares, we’re all screwed anyways.”

Maybe it’s not important to understand my place in any particular pattern. Just as good art tends to break the molds of definition and classification, the Earth does not always follow predictable patterns. It breaks free of the models we have assigned to it. The universe, along with any portion of it, is too large to be confined by any one model. It transcends the understanding of beings that only live for decades, a short breath in comparison. The process of the universe is greatly misunderstood, so much in fact, that it has been termed as “chaos.”painted desert 3

Watching

By Skyler Smith

 

I remember waiting in the old fifteen-seater van, years ago. The morning was chill, and the sun was only just rising. Logan was playing with the buttons and knobs on the dash in front of me, his curly hair, the color of chestnuts, bouncing as he jumped from one control to the next. I remember he turned to me, wielding a bright red cylinder about the length of my thumb. I asked him what it was, and he explained that it was a cigarette lighter, but that it wasn’t hot right then. He told me to touch it. I looked at him, then at the lighter. It was glowing. I asked him if he was sure it wouldn’t hurt. He said that of course he was sure. He repeated that it wasn’t hot. I glanced at his eyes, then reached towards the lighter, my pointer finger trembling.

*

The morning boy scout hike had begun well, and I enjoyed the warm air under the shade of the pines. It was almost like I had climbed this mountain before, so I raced ahead of the rest of the boys, following the trail. The path rose steeply, tracing the bank of a stony riverbed; no water was flowing there. I marched along like a victorious flag bearer, following the rise of the mountain. The trail narrowed. Then the tall trees creeped closer around me like guerrilla soldiers for an ambush, and the path darkened under their shadows. I tried to keep going, but was confused by the many ways through the trees and rock. Coldness seized me as the danger signs at the start of the trail flashed in my memory: ‘Cougars!’ they warned, ‘Do not hike alone.’

I turned around, trying to calm the fear clutching at my stomach, and scanned the trail behind me. I couldn’t see or hear any hint of the rest of the group. Again, I examined the paths leading forward. The pale stone and the fir trees offered me no direction. In desperation I threw my view up the mountain – and I caught something. There was a person there, distant but clear, standing and watching me. I could tell from his textured hair and dark blue jeans that it was my older brother. He met my eyes for a single second, then moved, disappearing behind the mountain’s many obscurities. I determined how to get to where he had been standing, then followed the path upward. Reaching the place, I realized again that I was lost. Fear took me. Shaking, my eyes scoured the mountain’s faces. There, Logan was standing on a distant ledge like a sentinel. He saw me, then took a few steps along the path, becoming invisible behind the rises of the rock.

*

Logan was gripping me by the feet and spinning, my body whirling so fast I couldn’t pull my arms in. The cream walls of our downstairs hallway rotated past in streaks of white and brown. I would have been laughing by the thrill of it if my larynx wasn’t being compressed against the back of my mouth. Suddenly a wall was flying towards me, but neither of us could react fast enough to keep the back of my head from the impact of the oncoming corner.

*

“My dad drove me to the hospital. I got four stitches in the back of my head, a double-sized popsicle, and a day off school!” I exclaimed into the microphone like a kid boasting to his playmates. Portions of the crowd chuckled, and I glanced at Logan waiting behind one of the scarlet stage curtains, his taupe suit giving him the look of a mole. He grinned, but his features sunk a little. I thought it was compassion. I continued, “So we are pleased to welcome tonight the perpetrator himself. Ladies and gentlemen, our hometown comedian, Logan T. Smith!” His florescent blue sneakers squeaked as he jogged up to claim the microphone. The crowd had already begun roaring by the time I took my seat.

 *

 Logan was looking up at me, his back to the ground, in a relaxed fetal position. I was sitting on his legs like he was my pretend getaway motorcycle, straddling his curled-in shins. He launched me up with his legs, replicating the effect of a steep jump, and I screeched in laughter, imagining that I was clearing an impossibly deep canyon. I clung to his wrists to keep from falling, and tried to right myself on his shins to prepare for the landing that I had failed the last five times I had tried it. A second sooner than I expected, his arms and legs imitated the effect of the impact, expanding and shaking like an unruly buck. I struggled to bring the bike back together, but managed only to stabilize my legs. For the sixth time, my motorcycle wobbled too far to the right, and I was launched off, rolling on the soft carpet floor.

 *

 I couldn’t remember if the night was cold. I was sitting on the highway divider behind the bent and smashed wreckage of our fifteen-seater van. I could see my brothers and sisters being examined by firemen and ambulance workers. I could hear sirens. It was strange to wonder if they were for us. My sister was crying and blathering nonsensically.

Logan asked me how I was. I thought I was okay. I asked what was wrong with Cassandra. “She’s in shock.” His voice was casual, like he was telling me it was four-thirty in the afternoon.

“Do you think we’ll still have vacation?” I wondered.

Logan let the air pass through his lips evenly, with control, “Ah, maybe.” I was infected by his calmness. I didn’t learn until later that night that he had whiplash.

*

I turned a pale blue envelope in my hands and read the sender’s name: Logan T. Smith. I had flown away from home almost a year ago, and hadn’t seen him since I left. It had been hard for me to say ‘goodbye’ in that airport lobby. I tore a slit in the top of his letter, then slid my index finger along it, ripping the paper jaggedly. I pulled at its contents, and three glossy photos fell out. I picked up the first one. It was of a young man wearing a dark suit, walking along a tarmac. Confused, I turned it over, and read the sharply written caption:

Skyler Smith boarding plane at Victoria International Airport

8:41:46 AM, 17 Apr 12

            Just remember Skyler,

                                    someone is always watching.

Taken from the observation tower and through the terminal.

I laughed, recalling those words that he had spoken to me just before I left. I supposed that my brother had thought these photos would be funny. I lifted the next one, which was almost identical.

Skyler Smith boarding plane at Victoria International Airport

8:41:50 AM, 17 Apr 12

            Always watching

I was still smiling, but noticed a small tear forming in the corner of my eye. The last photo was of a distant propeller plane flying away into a bright blue backdrop. He had waited to watch my plane fly away.

Skyler Smiths plane taking off from Victoria International Airport

9:01:51 AM, 17 Apr 12.

            Still watching.

The Unlucky Ones

By Matt Haplin

The smartest gamblers never play. The luckiest lose so bad their first time that they never play again. I am neither smart nor lucky.

The first time I played blackjack, I sat down in a Dakar casino with forty dollars and walked out with over five hundred. The table caught fire. Glenn and I sat all night between these Tunisian men in flowing white boubous. Whenever the dealer busted, the Tunisians sang a chant, hands to the sky. Glenn and I joined them. After a while I stepped away and bought everyone Cuban cigars. We couldn’t lose. And when we finally quit, we did so with grace, far ahead moneywise, a big fuck you to those talibé boys begging for food and change at every intersection—to the men living on the curbside selling flip-flops. I felt bad about that. We left the casino and walked around the city until the sun came up and we had to go to school.

Blackjack led to roulette. In European roulette the house edge is 2.7%. Far worse than blackjack. So why choose a game with fewer odds? Why should you gamble at all? Casinos only exist because on the larger scale they steal more from the mass of fools than they give away. And since we were now gambling two or three nights per week, the law of large numbers was eating into our luck, bringing us somewhere nearer to the inescapable house edge. But we liked the sound of the ivory ball rolling on mahogany. And I liked to watch people’s faces as the ball stopped spinning. I liked watching Glenn detach himself from the material world except to order drinks and to place new bets. We were all gathered in this place of criminal worship, the doormen and the raspy hookers and that little man who lurked around the slot machines with a cup of coins in one hand and a cup of wine in the other. And who among us was really here to win money?

The casino as an institution is pulseless. It is terse and systematic, designed for nothing more than to rob you from under the guise of chance. Leave it to people, though, to flood the room with humanity, with emotions and with strange rituals. I’d watch this Lebanese man run around playing three games at once. He would lose, he always lost, and would start yelling at us. I liked him. Leave it to people to flood the place with grief and sometimes three months’ rent or their whole damn mortgage. And sometimes with a kind of brash smile.

Glenn mailed me one of those ivory balls when I was back in Chicago. I’m not sure how he got it, but he said in its time it had probably given and taken millions. From the scum and the squares. From those French military that would all show up at once and fill the room with big arms. Probably from Glenn and me, and all the friends we’d made, leaning together over green felt. So now when I twirl the ball in my fingers I begin to feel connected to all those unlucky fools.

 

A Place and a Name

By Carson Bennett

“Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” Isaiah 56:5 (Authorized (King James) Version).

 

Bear in mind, God doesn’t regularly ask me to strip naked. It happened on a Sunday as I waited outside the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The majority of the group I was traveling with gathered under the sparse shade and chatted about the late bus or contributed to communal gripes about our latest Old Testament exam. I decided to leave the group and stroll over to a lone bench, wanting to take a moment and collect myself before we entered the museum. I bowed my head and began to pray. I didn’t know exactly what I was praying for at first, but I found myself asking God to arm me mentally and emotionally against what I was about to experience. I could sense that I was on the verge of something, but what exactly I did not know.

As I closed my eyes and prayed, my surroundings faded into the backdrop, the bright, sun-reflecting limestone beneath my feet fell away until I was alone in the dark; the bustle of the crowd went from a brassy buzz to a gentle hum. It wasn’t long before I found myself all alone and, in my mind’s eye, donning armor as if I were a medieval knight preparing for battle. First the leather hide, then the heavy metal plating, then gloves, bucklers, and a visor that would limit my vision to a horizontal sliver but protect my precious eyes. Yes, anything and everything to ready myself for a battle with a hidden foe. If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.

But something changed. As I prayed, my breathing pattern slowed, my shoulders relaxed, and things seemed to go quiet—signs that I needed to pause and listen. In my mind’s eye, the image I had of myself preparing for battle paused too. Slowly, I began to unbuckle the breastplate and remove the helmet, disarming myself of the protective shell I had assembled. I took off my steel gloves, shield, shirt, shoes—everything. All that was left was myself—bare as Adam in Eden—completely exposed. Goosebumps bristled on my exposed skin from the chilly attic of my mind. Completely alone, I was left to make sense of this unsettling vulnerability to whatever else was there in the darkness. Then a voice whispered the one word that would light my long walk through Yad Vashem and the rest of my journey in the Holy Land; it was spoken gently, but in the form of a command that seemed heavier than all of the previous armor: “Feel.”

*

The building felt like an underground railway station, but instead of a single thoroughfare track running straight down the long corridor, the museum was designed in switchbacks that zigzagged back and forth like stiches over a one hundred yard gash in the earth. The walls were slanted, meeting in a triangle overhead, where a small slit of glass allowed the sole source of natural light to illuminate the underground exhibits. The combination of the building’s underground nature, the cold gray concrete, and the leaning walls left me uneasy as we watched the Nazis’ expansion recorded on panels, maps, suspended flags, yellow stars sown into overcoats, and black-and-white newsreels of Hitler under the Arc de Triomphe.

The first stages of the Shoah began as public humiliation then moved to forced relocation into ghettoes. I walked through the ghetto re-creations and stopped at a TV playing a survivor’s testimony. She was probably in her 80s and spoke German or Yiddish, so I read the subtitles as the scene played out in my head. She described getting off the transportation trucks with her family and then going through the selection line. My imagination recreated the winter scene, but replaced her family with my own. I could see my father in his large, black dress coat and a black, fur hat herding my three siblings and me into the line. We were all younger and frightened, and we held hands as my dad did his best to keep us calm. My dad has long been a believer that doing what you are told is the best way of avoiding trouble. He reassured us that we just needed to hold hands and stick together. But when he turned to size-up the line and saw the guards with their dogs, he looked scared, perhaps sensing that today his approach to authority would fail him.

Recalling when it came her family’s time in the line, the woman, through her tears, recounted being forcefully separated from her family. In my mind, I could see my dad, turning his back on the guards to hold us. The image froze like a still photograph: my father looking over his right shoulder expecting a blow from a guard’s raised club. My dad’s arms outstretched, and our little fingers clasped each other’s winter coats. It captured a father’s fear and the confused despair when a child realizes that everything is not all right, as they were told. It was all there—resistance, pleading, doubt, determination, fear and love—in his quick look over the shoulder at the expecting blow before it fell.

Then, our hands released.

The woman faded to black, and before I could brace myself another survivor had appeared onscreen to share his story. He told of when his mother found a hole in the fence, bribed a guard, and rushed him to the gap. As his testimony unfolded, my family returned to my mind, but this time my mother entered the story. Mother walked me away from a dark row of hunched shoulders, waiting in line for something. We were fenced in. All I remember was the urgency expressed by my mother’s face as she slipped out of the crowd and hurried me to the fence. She had bribed a guard, but that was no guarantee. She knelt down by the hole in the fence and ordered me to run.

“And don’t look back.”

“But Mom—”

“Go!” she said and pushed me through.

I ran in stunned obedience, my heart and head pounding. Then I cried.

“I never looked back,” the man said of his actual experience, but in my imagined version I believe I did.

It took more than a moment to recover. I felt stripped of something. I was vulnerable, devoid of any armor-plated apathy or the comfortable distance of a critical eye to soften the blow. After seeing those images in my head and feeling the pain in my heart, I was really experiencing something heavy. Since when did my imagination throw me into unwanted arenas? I had read Elie Wiesel’s Night, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, but in all those works the people involved always had their own identity—their own unique voices and faces. This experience was different. It was no longer sympathy, but substitution. Instead of sympathizing with the protagonist, I was the protagonist. I was reenacting their stories, and retracing their emotional heartache—something I didn’t ask for but shouldered uneasily.

For whatever reason, that day I carried my family with me into those testimonies, and it had a sublime effect on me. The kind of sublime that Edmund Burke described as astonishment rooted in terror. After listening and participating in those stories I caught a glimpse of that terror the Jews of that era must have gone through. I saw and felt what it must have been like to see one’s father beaten to shield the blows from his children, or the confusion to leave one’s family to sprint for safety, and the ever-present fear of separation dangling over me like a guillotine.

My racing thoughts seemed to slow my feet as I walked the remaining exhibits. I was heavy with feelings—catching glimpses of the horrific situation from the perspective of the victims. It also dawned on me, slowly, and not through a substitution into someone’s story, that I was totally capable of inflicting that type of pain on others. The same pain I was experiencing vicariously through these stories I had the power to inflict on others. It was a chilling thought, one I initially balked at, but—as uncomfortable as it is to say—it very well could have been me in the helmet, pointing the gun, and dividing lines between left and right. I didn’t identify myself with the harsh guards, but, then again, what if the guard told his version of the story? And what if I were the guard who took the bribe to look the other way? Would I feel any empathy, any compassion, or perhaps a strange sense of triumph in the escape of a young boy? Would my imagination take me into the boots of the victimizer as easily as the victim, or is empathy only one-sided?

*

The old man wouldn’t stop dancing. It was the third or fourth record we had danced together, and even as college kids in our twenties we were getting tired. The music came from an old vinyl record player with an octagon amplifier. Elias hobbled around in his suspendered pants, shifting his weight from one leg to another while moving his arms like train pistons. The way he moved to that flamenco music you would swear they had samba schools in Poland.

I first met Elias Feinzeilberg when he visited the BYU Jerusalem Center to recount his life story. He was twenty-two years old when World War II broke out. His hometown Lodz, Poland, became a ghetto, and soon after it became a ghetto he volunteered to work on the Nazi roads. Building roads promised money, a way to get out of the ghetto, and maybe the means to save his family from starvation. The money was a hoax. Instead of supporting his family, Elias—through his absence as the eldest son—dealt them a devastating blow. The one promise the Nazis honored was leaving the ghetto. The road out of the ghetto was a long one, one that Elias was building every day in the snow, the summer sun, or the autumn rain. A road that acted as his death sentence, like an asphalt plank which was incessantly stretching longer but always left Elias on the fatal edge.

One road led to another, and then another. Clearing, shoveling, leveling, pouring, two long years building such long roads. Roads that stretched further into the fatherland and farther from his homeland. Where would it end? After spending so much time on road, the thought of a destination might have been relieving, had the destination not been Bilkeno-Auschwitz. When Elias arrived at that hellish factory he thought, “This is the end,” but it wasn’t. The SS guards kept him building and then branded “B-1259” on his left forearm before sending him inland to Stuttgart, then to Dachau. After spending months in both Auschwitz and Dachau (possibly the two most infamous camps of the Shoah) Elias was finally sent to Triol in the Austrian Alps. A place where, purportedly, prisoners would walk up a steep ravine with an empty potato sack. At the top, SS guards would tie the prisoners in the very sacks they carried and throw them into the river below. Elias could very well have met a similar end when the SS guards received word that the Americans had already liberated the camp. The train halted on the tracks and prepared to turn around to Dachau, only to discover that it too was taken by the Allied Army. Stopped on the road, the train full of skeleton prisoners and the fearful SS guards waited on the tracks. No going forward; no going back.They were all stranded, it would seem, on an iron island of their own making before the American troops took control.

In the end Elias lost his father, mother, two younger brothers, and five sisters. His father died of starvation in the ghetto that was once his hometown. The rest were sent to the concentration camp Chelmno and were exterminated.

So why—years after having been deprived of his family and moments after having once again recounted his horrific tale—was he dancing? Song and dance are not the first things that come to mind after revisiting one’s years of deprivation and death of every immediate family member. How could he ever smile again I wondered. I’ve skimmed enough pop-psychology to toss around terms like “PTSD” or “survivor’s guilt.” Wouldn’t those apply to him? Wouldn’t that weigh him down with sorrow, understandable self-pity, bitterness, a mistrust of foreigners, or a well-deserved contempt for those that made him suffer? If ever I met someone with the right to be a misanthrope it was Elias. And yet, even after my brief experience with him, I knew that wasn’t Elias’s nature, or what he chose to be his approach to life. When he said that he harbored no resentment for the German people, I was skeptical. But after watching the way he carried himself, I began to believe him. When he smiled and danced, I smiled too, but my smile was born out of a type of bewilderment while his shone from a deeper place—an inner grace.

Elias invited me to his small apartment in downtown Jerusalem. While I was there, he fed me and five other guests cheese and crackers, fruit, and then ice cream rolled into balls coated in chocolate shells. And then, when we thought we could eat no more, he brought out cake. This added a sense of injustice to my torn feelings. Why were we being treated like royalty after he told us stories of living off potatoes skins and snow water during a death march? It didn’t seem right. We should be serving him, I thought, not the other way around. I was going to refuse this special treatment when I had that feeling that I needed to pause, listen, and feel. In a weird way I perceived that the best way for me to love and serve Elias was to just sit still and let him serve me. He was so happy to welcome us to his home, tell his story, and learn our stories, and by doing so, he transformed himself from victim to host. Someone with power to welcome, serve, and provide for a guest’s needs in one’s own home; in other words, the complete opposite of what he suffered on the road with the Nazis.

When we finally left his apartment, this kind, ninety-seven-year-old man opened his apartment window and waved us farewell all the way down the street. The lasting feeling I had in Elias’s home was not sorrow, but rather joy blended with amazement. The facts of the story were among the harshest and cruelest I had yet heard from any Holocaust survivor, but it was the man himself, Elias, that brought out that warmth. He presented his life in a way that transformed the story and redeemed mankind with it. I felt grateful that such a man, who suffered and lost so much, still had room enough in his heart to sing and dance and treat strangers like family.

*

In Hebrew, the name of the museum, Yad Vashem, means “a place and a name”; it is taken from a verse in Isaiah when the God of Israel promises a reward to those who died without children. In the celestial scales—always promising an even balance—the Lord recompenses the sorrow of not having a son to carry on the family name with “a place and a name” of one’s own. If the entire museum of Yad Vashem is meant to be a symbolic place for the departed, then the Old Testament promise is completed with the Hall of Names.

The Hall of Names is the final room before you reemerge outside and into the light. It’s a place dedicated to the memories of the Shoah victims, captured in the words of the survivors. Catalogued in black binders that line the circular walls of the small room, photographs intermingle with “Pages of Testimony” in a cone above the center of the room. As I paced the circular room, my mind wandered in circular motions too. Is that their “everlasting name, that shall not be cut off”? What is their name now? Victim? Witness? The faithful?

When I met Elias I had met someone who did not need to write down his witness—he was living it. Elias was his own “page of testimony” (though I’m sure he submitted his own for the national record). He experienced deep darkness and yet, though he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, he did not buy a shaded acre and build the rest of his life there. Through his acceptance and forgiveness he was able to be free himself from an underground prison of despair. Elias was proof that a story of lasting despair was not the only story to tell. Elias still wears his kippa and still prays and believes in God. He found and married his wife two months after being liberated and began a happy life in Guatemala with his last surviving kin, an uncle who migrated to South America before the war. He raised a family, two sons and a daughter, and now has seven grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. He was free. He was so free he could dance to Latino music and to God.

When someone mentions Yad Vahsem I think back to the museum, the zigzagging exhibits and the black binders in the Hall of Names, but my mind does not linger there. I learned a lot about human suffering as I strolled through the exhibits—emotionally stripped from my apathetic armor and the padding that comes from seeing things happen to other people’s families and not your own. But I learned more about the aftermath of loss and the resilience of the human spirit while dancing in a simple apartment with a record spinning in the corner, and a new friend asking to play one more song. In order to accept his unearned generosity and appreciate his bitter-free joy, I still had to make myself vulnerable—strip myself naked—with the same glee as a child running out into the sunlit yard after escaping a bath, bubbles still clinging to his unrestrained body. This moment, this feeling, this human being, deserved to be remembered—in a place that felt like home and by his right name—Elias.elias

No Tongue Can Tell

 

By Eliza Campbell

“Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?” 1 Corinthians 12:30 (Authorized (King James) Version).

  1. English

When I was born, my father blessed me to be wise beyond my years and to be abundant in understanding. I know this because I found this scrawled in my mother’s handwriting in a square pink scrapbook she had stopped keeping years before, but whose pages I still loved to pore over; my personal history written by someone else, a bright pink prophecy. Between glossy photos of me and my brown-eyed siblings, I found fragments of my history, written by my mother like instructions to someone who had lost their memory and needed to be re-taught their life’s story: “You loved to sing songs from our Pete Seeger tape.” “You went to Canada with us and made everybody happy.” “The first word you read by yourself was C-A-T.” I learned, too, that I had learned to talk very early, that my mother had taken me with her everywhere and nursed me on a steady diet of milk and words, talking to me like a fully-formed person before I was weaned.

It is reckless self-indulgence to tell these stories, I know. More importantly: their relevance wanes for you, reading, because they are not in your blood, in your language. You have your own version of these stories, ones that are written on your skin and tongue. They mean more to you than mine. My stories are essential to me; they remind me of my introduction to grasping the world, they have formed how I speak. And we must each tell our forming stories, and let them be told, for how can you learn to talk when you’ve never heard the sound of your own voice?

 

  1. Español

One day at church when I was in seventh grade, a Sunday school teacher offered us an assignment during our study of the Book of Mormon.

“Books are so normal for us,” he said, passing out long pieces of white butcher paper, “and we can’t imagine a world without them, can we?” He instructed us to open the book to the first page, 1 Nephi 1, and start copying it down, word for word – the better to give us a sense of Mormon’s long struggle in carving out each precious word into metal, or Joseph Smith’s arduous months translating it slowly onto paper. I started with the flourish of Nephi’s first person article and continued down three columns, my hand already cramping from the unaccustomed act of writing so much so fast. Ten years later I would meet Yulia Kiriakova, the woman who first translated the same book into her native Bulgarian language. Despite the advancements of computers and easily-accessible dictionaries, however, she described a similarly difficult journey in her long, laborious translation.

“I had to pray for help to get through the war chapters,” she told me, her eyes very wide and serious. “I said, ‘God, I cannot keep translating this, please help me.’” Then Yulia smiled and reached her hand across the table to me, the better to help me understand the miracle. “And then I started typing and did not stop until I was finished.”

What is it about this interpretation of tongues, this process that famishes the body and mind? I wonder this now when I read the Book of Mormon, which has become my daily text, my daily bread, the source of so much clarity and understanding. I think about the foundation of this faith, and how it is built on the loving translation of some believing souls, who looked into God’s overwhelming universe of words and wrote down each message, one at a time.

At the same time, in seventh grade, I was learning my first new tongue. Spanish at my middle school was the prevailing language of choice, and I fell in love with the class and the language the way you fall in love as a teenager: achingly, anxiously, writing about it in secret notebooks into the night. I over-ambitiously attended a Spanish language Sunday school class in my ward, and let the words fall around me like a waterfall while I sat with my English Book of Mormon, where the class was reading in the third book of Nephi, chapter 17. The class was discussing Christ’s prayer for the people, and I read along in English: “The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father.” I had always loved this verse, and again let myself ponder the magic: what words could be so un-hearable, so secret, that they could not be spoken? What would they sound like, these words closed to the interpretation of our limited tongues? All around me, the Spanish enveloped me, and I felt the loveliness of something inexpressible, a sound so beautiful that it could not be translated. 

  1. Af-Soomaali

Your language is your home. To carry words inside of you is to carry a small, safe reminder of yourself, and to lose one’s language is to lose one’s home, and vice versa. In 2014, the United Nations estimated that the number of displaced persons globally has exceeded 50 million; this is higher than the post-World War II high, when millions of refugees streamed out of Europe in the wake of the world’s biggest war. In other words: 50 million is an unprecedented number, and means that many nations are being scattered. Displaced persons are defined as people who have been forcibly removed from their homes because of social or political strife, and they can include refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless persons, asylum seekers, and several other categories of people, all somehow made violently homeless. Sometimes civil and international wars are the cause of this homelessness, sometimes ethnic or political persecution, or some sort of humanitarian disaster.

What this actually means is that displaced persons are not distant strangers in foreign lands. Our lives are connected to them, and theirs to us. They are our friends and neighbors, our coworkers and acquaintances, our brothers and sisters knit close to us from across oceans and continents. They are here in Utah, where I am now, and scattered abroad. They are fleeing from Europe, South America, the Middle East, Africa – they are fleeing from home, and they cannot go back. They often leave illegally or unsafely, and arrive to their host country stateless and tongue-less: without health-care, without family, battling ongoing mental health concerns and psychological trauma, and often without the words to even speak of it. For many years, all of this was just technical knowledge to me: abstract concepts on a page that I could try to sound out, but not quite speak. And it was that way until someone helped me understand.

I met Malyuun the summer after my second year of college. I had a summer job as a tutor for special needs students in the Seattle School District, and expected nothing. I wanted to stay trapped in my own undergraduate angst; I didn’t want to think. That first day, I remember, I walked into an empty classroom at Ballard High School that had been assigned to me and my young charge, and I was silent and anxious. It had briefly been explained to me that I would be tutoring a special needs student with an international background, and I was sent to wait in our classroom for her to arrive. I walked into the empty classroom, which was being used for storage and was crowded with boxes and broken chairs, and sat down at a scratched desk, feeling hopeless and unready. And then the door opened and Malyuun came into the room, escorted by a teacher. The first thing I remember is seeing her bright eyes, which were big and dark brown, and how she looked shyly but directly at me. She was about five feet tall, with a sweet, round face, and wearing a floor-length dress with long sleeves, and a dark scarf over her head. She and the teacher paused at the door, and then began walking into the room, and Malyuun walked with a slow, bouncing limp on her right side.

“This is Malyuun, and she’s thirteen,” said the woman escorting her, smiling at both of us. She gave me a quick, penetrating look, and asked, “Are you all set?” I was speechless. Refugee statistics and the history of the hijab flashed through my mind, along with what felt like an immeasurable amount of work about to take place. All of a sudden, I realized how much responsibility I had, and I felt completely unprepared. But I said yes, smiled, and helped Malyuun to her seat. She giggled when I tripped on my way to sit down, and our work began.

During those next three months, Malyuun told me her story, and quickly became my best friend. She had lived in Somalia until the age of about eight, when the war broke out, and escaped with her parents and brother to nearby Kenya. They lived in a refugee camp for a few years, where Malyuun had developed a permanent limp from an untreated case of polio. When they finally got to Seattle under refugee status, she had lost over four years of foundational reading, writing, and math, and was officially designated as a permanently disabled student. My tutoring was part of an effort to redress some of her educational losses, and they were overwhelming to contemplate.

But we started, one piece at a time: an hour of fractions, an hour of reading out loud, vocabulary practice, spelling, or essay writing. She was a quick learner and became an adept teacher, slowly repeating basic Somali phrases to me over and over again until I could say them with her. We listened to her beloved Justin Bieber as a reward after a successful class, and every few days she would bring homemade malaweh for us to share: thin, chewy pancakes that we ate with our hands, licking off the honey and grease. When we needed a break, we would go on long, rambling walks around the school’s hallways, stopping in the girl’s bathroom so she could adjust the tying of the long scarf she wore over her head and shoulders. We learned, and rested, and made a little home in that classroom.

“Leeza,” she asked me one day, pausing in the middle of a pancake bite. She paused and looked down. “Do you know how to get to Michigan?” I looked up at her incredulously. It was a strange question, and I told her so.

“My dad is a driver for his job, but it is hard for him to get a license here. He drives everywhere, all over the states, to find a place that will let him take an easier driving test, but it is hard for him, because it is in English,” she explained. She bit off another piece of malaweh and chewed thoughtfully. “I think in Michigan they have a test in Somali language.” I nodded, smiled, and said I hoped so. It was out of my power to help, but the question and its implications stayed with me for several days. Driving, for her family, meant jobs, transportation, dignity, safety, and it was simply out of reach, and not for any good reason. This, like many other details I learned about Malyuun’s life in America, was a real, basic dilemma of refugee life that I had simply never considered – because I would never have to. But that didn’t mean that it was fair.

I once asked Malyuun to write a simple report about her home country’s political history, hoping that she would be fascinated, as I was, by Somalia’s rich history, culture, and disastrous political circumstances. She reinterpreted my request, however, and brought me a few pages she had written instead about her family’s life and livelihood in Mogadishu, probably patched together from fuzzy childhood memories and what she had asked her parents.

“In Somalia, we lived near to our school building, and my mother teaches English there. When we learn English and math, my class likes it a lot, and after school, we get to go to the madrassa to learn the Quran…” Malyuun’s report continued on. I thought of my undergraduate ignorance in wanting to focus on Somalia’s problems, as if the country were a car accident I couldn’t tear my eyes from. I thought about Malyuun’s real life in Somalia, and in Seattle, and how it was connected to mine. And I thought of her home. Where did she feel safe now? Where did she feel at home?

On the last day of our time together, Malyuun gave me her contact information, which I smilingly accepted, knowing I could never use it. We reviewed algebra, spelling, and read out loud one last time. She gave me a long, silver bracelet threaded with tiny bells, which I had often seen her wearing around her ankle on our trips to the bathroom, and she hugged me tightly as the last few moments of summer school ticked by. The last bell of school rang, a common language by which we said goodbye. 

  1. Български

Words in one’s own language bring a sense of justice and understanding. When you learn to interpret someone else’s tongue, you are forced to think about who they really are, and break down a tendency to self-defend against new ideas. Martha Nussbaum writes: “One may be told many things about people in one’s own society and yet keep that knowledge at a distance. Literary works that promote identification and emotional reaction cut through those self-protective stratagems, requiring us to see and to respond to many things that may be difficult to confront…”[i] The learning of a new language works in much the same way, and even allows for the penetration of simple truths that would otherwise be lost. Although language learning can certainly be a creative medium, a language is a system of internally consistent patterns or rules, and you either jump in and are understood, or you stay out and are silent. There is less justifying, less manipulation of words to craft a second, less accurate meaning. Learning a new tongue graciously allows me to break down my over-thinking brain, my tendency to map my gut instincts.

This became urgently true to me when I was a missionary in Bulgaria, and found an excitement for saying simple things, language becoming more precious and dearly-cost. I learned simple, basic sentences – “I miss you, “ “I love you,” and felt them in a new way, where my English-speaking brain would never have been capable of allowing such mundane words to affect me. Language can be a powerful instrument for harm as well as good, as I learned one summer day in Bulgaria.

I was in Stara Zagora, a flat and provincial town in the midwest of the country; it felt like the Kansas of Eastern Europe. It was lunch time. I was in the middle of Stara Zagora’s sprawling and smoky bazaar, where peaches, watermelons, bulk candy, crop-tops, white cheese, toys, and leopard-print pants were on constant, rotating sale, where delicious and horrifying aromas drifted across each other with abandon, and skinny children squatted near piles of garbage and chattered loudly. It was hot. It was blisteringly hot, everything was pink and red and sweaty. My companion and I had resorted to dyuners for lunch, Bulgaria’s quickest and cheapest fast food. We settled into this lunch venue only on the most tired and desperate of days, days when you almost welcomed the distraction of a heavy, mid-laden stomach, the better to justify your heavy, sluggish mind. The stand where we bought our food was a grease and dirt-caked square under a red plastic awning; you could buy meat, bread, cheese-filled greasy rolls, and pizza that looked like ketchup spread over paper plates.

On my dyuner, kind of a Turkish version of shwarma, I always asked for lots of vegetables (sus mnogo zelenchutzi), and extra hot sauce (sus mnogo lyuto). The teenager working the stand grabbed a flat pita bread, wrapped it in white paper, and circled it into a cone. I was so hot; I felt my mouth water, I was so tired, I wanted to sleep, I wanted to go home. He filled the bottom with shredded meat from the rotating spit, bulked out the middle with a pile of greasy fries, topped it with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and onions and the dabs of red pepper sauce I asked for. I collapsed onto the bench with my companion and started eating.

An adult woman stood a few yards away, and our eyes locked among the aromas. Her eyes were large and dark, and I immediately knew what they were saying. She walked toward me, speaking with her body. I knew what was coming, and tensed up in anticipation. When she reached our table, she looked at me again with eyes that were somehow at once gentle, starving, calm, and desperate.

Daime da pohapna neshto,” she said. Give me something to eat (the word “please” implied in the command form).

Gladna sum. Mnogo sum gladna,” she said.  I’m hungry, I’m very hungry (you cannot start a sentence with an ‘I am’; the adjective must come first, presenting itself before you).

Molya te, daime da pohapna neshto.” Please, give me something to eat (“Please” literally translating to: “I ask you”).

My companion and I looked down. This was a common occurrence, and my protocol immediately kicked in. Protocol: a series of internally fixed rules that eliminates the discomfort of speaking freely. I stared blankly in front of me, with one small cone of my dyuner left sweating in my hands. This was standard, and we knew what we were doing. We were missionaries and not allowed to give away money or food on the street, we would create problems for ourselves and other people, and I knew this. I knew the right thing to do.

“I ask you,” said the woman. Her hair was shoulder length and very dark, and she wore a light pink tracksuit top with dirty jeans.

Ne razbiram,” I said. I don’t understand. She knew I was not Bulgarian and the trick was an easy one; unwanted attention could sometimes be gradually shrugged off by feigning a language barrier. But she knew I could understand her, and she understood me. The woman pursed the fingers of her right hand and pointed them toward her open mouth, a universal sign for hunger. She signed and asked and signed and asked, and I stared straight ahead and said I didn’t understand. It was true; I did not understand. I didn’t understand why she had to be hungry and not me, I didn’t understand why I felt so strange turning her away with Christ’s name pinned over my very heart, I didn’t understand why it had to be that one sister begged from another sister, and received nothing in return but blank, understanding silence. And yet, I understood perfectly. I knew her language, her eyes, her desperate stance of street living, her sign language. I understood so well and yet I did not, and I don’t know which feeling was stronger.

Understanding is a choice, a precious act of agency. The gift to interpret is given to some, but we must choose to use it wisely. The gift of tongues is very powerful. I learned that day in Stara Zagora, yet again, of how strangely hurtful my language or silence could be. James writes: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity…Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.”[ii] How close a blessing is to a cursing! How close it is to say “I don’t understand,” and to lie, to hurt vengefully, or by omission.

 

  1. Arabic

Nidaa adjusts her glasses and pushes the French fries toward me. “Tfudili,” she says, an Arabic word that will never translate, but that collectively somehow means all of the following: here you are, please come in, help yourself, eat some of this, take my hand, go ahead, you are my honored friend, welcome. I smile and say thank you, and eat one of the fries. It tastes like a specific form of sun-warmed oil, and I am grateful for the substance.

“I also had fries yesterday, and the day before that,” I tell her in Arabic, laughing a little, and she laughs with me. I feel slightly ashamed that I am reduced to making jokes like this that are little more than boring, weathered observations, but Nidaa always laughs. We both lean back a little in our chairs. The covered courtyard we are in serves as a food court for the University of Jordan’s vast array of students, with a cement floor and ceiling and large, red Coca-Cola banners decorating the walls. A fry cook yells out people’s names as their orders of fries and shwarma are done. We’re sitting near the front of the yard of tables, where boys sit in expansive clusters and stare boldly at girls, cracking jokes, and girls sit in knotted little groups of twos and threes and look nervously down, giggling. The tables and chairs are green plastic and remind me of Wal-Mart picnic wear.

We have exhausted many of our preliminary topics for the day. We usually spend the first half of the hour we have together chatting about boys, our families, her schoolwork, my newspaper translations, or whatever one-dimensional topics I can wrangle out of my limited Jordanian Arabic. Nidaa hesitates and pushes her glasses up with her graceful right hand, and slides her homework away from the tray of fries. I take another warm sip of my Pepsi Lite.

“So, Leeza,” she says. “You should tell me why you even want to learn Arabic.”

I look up suddenly. I am not surprised, it is not an unexpected question, or even one that I haven’t answered a thousand times before. Nidaa is friendly and looking at me with warmth and genuine curiosity, but suddenly I am nervous to answer this question, this never-ending question, the question that asks itself in my head throughout my days and nights. I am nervous because where I would normally just say, “To work for the government,” or, “I want to work for the United Nations” (‘United Nations’ being one of the first vocabulary words you ever learn in most Arabic classes, probably so that we can all give vague, promising-sounding answers when we are asked why we study such a thing).

But suddenly, I find myself looking up at Nidaa’s hopeful face, feeling the fear drain out of me. I am tired of being silent. I am tired of lying by default. I don’t know what the future holds, or how to tell Nidaa all of the desires and thoughts of my heart, but I can look at her and let our language build itself through our hands, eyes, and smiles. When I first met her, I felt an immediate gut sensation that we were meant to be friends. She felt like a little sister who I forgot about and accidentally found again, wandering through the cracked and faded campus of the University of Jordan. She told me stories of her family’s Palestinian heritage, their longing for home, even as we sat in her family’s house in Jordan and talked together like we were already there. In other words, we have love for each other, which casts out fear, so of course she will understand.

“I am learning Arabic because I love it,” I finally tell her, laughing a little, and she laughs too, and my heart opens up and we start making room for new words.

 

 

*Name has been changed.

[i] Lundquist, Suzanne. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004: 47.

[ii] James 3:6-10

Wife and Child

By Katie Bowman

For the first time in two years we are all in one room together. All six of us—now eight, due to my marriage. I am the first child, the first son, the first to change the face of our family by adding more faces. My son disappeared a few minutes ago, and the only sign of him is the gradual movement of my mother’s scarf falling backward off the couch. No one moves to retrieve him, taking their cues from the calm woman beside me. My wife and child. My wife and child. I chant it to myself sometimes to make sure I understand the responsibility. Sometimes the mantra is a cry of joy, like when my son puts his hands on my cheeks and says, “Chee.” Sometimes the mantra is the catalyst for self-deprecation, like when I get stuck on Wikipedia and forget to help with the dishes. Tonight it feels odd. The living room of my aunt’s home has a spectacular view of Salt Lake City, and the little glowing lights from behind the window are reflecting off my dad’s glasses. Each of my little sisters is sitting on the couch in the same way with her feet tucked up. Katie is the oldest of the three, and she looks at me for a moment. Sometimes when we look at each other, it’s clear that our thoughts are the same. Mom has very casually brought up a boy Sarah had mentioned. There is no articulate communication between us, but Katie and I smile at each other. Katie is usually a little rude when Mom questions her. Sarah handles it much better than she does.

Sarah has been following the strange new toddler with her eyes all night. He was born while she was gone, and seeing her meet him for the first time yesterday was awkward. He takes time to warm up to people, and I could see the hurt in Sarah’s eyes when he pushed away from her to continue picking up blocks. Sarah didn’t say much. She just stepped back with the rest of the family, all riveted on my wife as she lovingly stopped the baby from eating crumbs he found in the carpet.

This whole day has been very normal, and I wish that didn’t disappoint me. Us talking and planning and bickering over who forgot to make dinner reservations. And Sarah smiling distantly. There has been a lot of build up to this reunion, and her fresh perspective on all of us makes me feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think any of us have changed, but time and distance allows you to forget the bickering. No one should have to see their family in such effective lighting. She’ll get over it. I got over it. Katie got over it. It’s funny to me how you can know a group of people as long as it is possible to know anyone and have so little to say. We should have things to say. We should. We have our whole lives to talk about. Just this year our sister Elizabeth went to India, our dad was fired and found a new job, my wife and I moved to the other side of the country, my son started to walk, and we are stuck talking about the fact that no one owns DVD’s anymore. I guess I can’t be too surprised. I’m not about to bear my new-father soul. Presenting my feelings for open discussion sounds like rolling in birdseed and lying down in a menagerie.

For some reason, Katie and I mostly see eye-to-eye on things, and I think that’s why I tell her about my stuff more often. Somewhere in our youth we formed an understanding. We had braces together, even though I’m two years older. The orthodontist said she was dentally advanced. She definitely let that comment go to her head. Sitting in the waiting room together once a month while our mother ran errands gave us a lot of face time. We complained and compared wax build up. She advised me on my color choices when I picked rubber bands for my braces. Apparently, if I chose to get red rubber bands, it highlighted my acne. When she chose orange and black for Halloween, it looked like every other tooth was missing. I didn’t fight her too much when she wanted to do that. I thought it was important for Katie to live and learn. Our teeth changed at the same rate and became beautiful at the same rate, and it has set the precedent for our whole relationship. That is, until I made some extreme progress without her. She still gets me though. Even if it will be years until she feels what I feel. Even if we only talk on the phone once every few months.

The little shrieks from behind the couch are turning into my son’s bedtime meltdown, and I know the evening is coming to a close. We all leave tomorrow. As I stand up to get my son, Mom calls for me to wait. “We need to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Katie! We’ve got to do it now since we won’t be here tomorrow.” Everyone sits up in their chairs at the same time as they remember the birthday. It was a mess getting time off from work, and I’ve been feeling bad that we are leaving the day before her birthday. I mentioned it when Katie picked me up from the airport. Many of our conversations these days are centered on what major things we are letting slide, but when the conversation was about our relationship she changed the subject pretty quickly. She probably knew my new job was burying me and didn’t want to make me feel bad, our youthful understanding holding strong under the strain of our fear and failure and resolution to become adults. There are simply more people to consider now. I told her about my mantra a few years ago. Wife and child. Wife and child.

Getting the crying baby to stop crying took a few Cheerios. I can’t tell if the glance from my wife is in approval of his silence or in disapproval of me feeding him so late. There is no time to find out because my dad is already setting the pitch like a tenor in a barbershop quartet. The enthusiasm from the group is commendable. The pitch is fine. During the second line, Dad throws in a harmony. Katie looks good. She has smiled most of her life, and I appreciate that about her. Her smile now goes bigger than it usually does, which makes me smile. On the second “to you,” my dad’s harmony misses a note, and I see Katie’s forehead pull together. Her mouth stays in the same place, but the rest of her face fights against it. The expression is so contradictory that I’m sure it is hurting her. Everyone’s attention is focused on her smile, and because of the song, we have to watch as her face folds around it. We’ve reached “happy birthday dear” when a betraying tear shoots down her cheek. We all see it, but out of confusion we finish the song with a flourish.

 

Interlocution

by Lauren Bledsoe

We dream of one desire

and sleep next to another-

just last night you asked me

what I was looking at

outside the window,

I said snow,

didn’t mention the black horse

running through it,

pulling the dark to pieces.

Still Life With Hydrangeas, Hourglass, Duck and Pomegranates

by Karl Zuehlke

Silence stretches a surface tension through my house, and I’m the one that breaks it. People are not altogether themselves. They prefer antagonisms to bread and milk. But you’re you, and me me. It is the lack of evidence we take out on one another. Take these cut hydrangeas. If I call them litmus blue, you’d say no, it was anything but that. If you say we all fall into unwitting syncopation, I say well, my guess is more like ninety records playing at once. It isn’t late but you say you have to go, and I say yes, hours are made of glass, and we keep talking about sand. A duck and some pomegranates fall out of the sky. No, you say, it’s not that at all.

Ghazal of Curses

By Karl Zuehlke

A word rests on my tongue like a stone.
I open my mouth and it is still a stone.

 

I can write it out for you in cursive.

The way a ghost inhabits an outcrop of stone.

 

In a fever dream as a child I reached

toward a shut door and my arm was stone.

 

A field scatters into a flock of starlings—

pewter wings, inset bands of iridescent stone.

 

I was still until I knew I was

all that was still. I heard extruding stone.

 

If you lose your hand, make dice

from your knuckles and bet with stone.

 

When the sky zeros in on me

I rub my eyes now that they aren’t stone.

 

Clear insects and clear lives drink darkness

dripping from dark ceiling stones.

 

You don’t know my name. You don’t know

what I sweep across whetstone.

The War on Yarn Is Hard to Fight in America

by Lauren Bledsoe
She just joined a knitting group
and he’s fighting the war on yarn.
 
She spent all their money on yarn
and it is winter and very cold and they have
no sweaters but he is a man of his principles
and won’t let her touch the yarn.
 
The war on yarn is hard to fight in America.
Police swarm churches and arrest knitters
mid-sock darning and this is a hard thing
but the law must be obeyed, thinks the man.
 
She is naked and freezing and very beautiful this way, also thinks the man.
 
The war on yarn is hard to fight but going very well.
Prisons are bursting with women looking at their hands.
Mass graves for knitting needles are being filled at an unprecedented rate.
 
One dark and snowy night he came home to find his wife
sitting on the floor knitting a sweater with a spool of red wool,
and when he yanked the yarn from her wrists, the air unravelled around them.