Tuesday, December 30, 2008

complicated feelings

Recently a beloved friend of mine read some of my poetry for the first time. She leads a beautiful life as a mother of three (with one more on the way). Her home is always open to neighbors and her collection of bedraggled friends--My son and I are often showing up at her house in part because I simply delight to be around such homeiness and goodness. But of course, all of that homeiness, hospitality and liveliness takes almost everything she has to give and much more than that, I'm sure.

When she read my poetry, she was so sweet and encouraging and positive, just as I could have expected of her. And then she said: "Jenny, I'm glad you don't have four children. If you did, you wouldn't be able to write poems like these."

I said I knew she was right. I know that's true. But it isn't a truth I make peace with very easily. All my feelings about writing and about time and about family life are so complicated. I can barely make any sense of them at all.

I have never been someone with a very clear life aim or plan. I never thought about getting married or having children until I wanted to marry one particular person (who I married ). But I always thought once I was married I would have many children and be busy and happy with them. It was so easy to imagine, (since in my fantasies I never had to factor in how selfish I actually am). It was so easy to imagine and it seemed so clearly (in my fantasies) to solve all my problems with trying to figure out what I should do with myself. I'd be busy. Busy would mean worthwhile. And then I'd be OK.

I know that was unhealthy and faulty reasoning and really amounts to using children to prop up my shaky ego. Not a lovely thing to do to anyone. So, I am glad that I didn't just simply get what I thought I wanted.

But here I am with these unexpected gifts... a beautiful family I adore and some extra time to think and to be creative and to even write.

And as much as I believe in God's soveriegnty and goodnesss and say that I trust him, I really I haven't made peace with these gifts, the gifts of my reality. I spend lots of time spinning my wheels feeling guilty. I spend a lot of time wondering how I can just make myself busy enough to know for sure inside myself that I'm OK. That my life is not just a long looping exercise of futile self-absorption.

I feel guilty I only have one son and am not as busy as other friends. I feel guilty because I have time for the luxury of writing and then I feel so afraid or reluctant to write that I start to spin around looking for other ways to make myself busy --because busy in my emotional life equals feeling OK, like my life has some value. But although service other activities are wonderful things--I find that if they are done to prove something to myself or to my perceived audience (God ? my friends? my family? ) those good acts of service become self-righteous and manic----I'm not giving of myself with generosity and grace--I'm simply desperate to prove I'm OK.

So here I am-- I have a certain things--time, money, freedom, health--in relative abundance. I'm not really a busy or important person, though I pretend (in my fantasy world) that I am. I have time. I have enough time to write poems, sometimes, and that's OK. It's nothing to be ashamed of.


I write that and reread it with the full knowledge that I don't believe it. Oh well.

Here's to another year to continue on in the craziness, thankful always for grace ... and thankful always for my many beloved friends.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Favorite Christmas Carol

What's your favorite Christmas Carol?

Mine is Joy to the World--

He has COME--Sin and sorrow can no longer reign -- far as the curse is found (and sometimes I see it everywhere)

Let us receive our King--even my narrow, tight heart, crammed as it is with unwelcoming, crowded inns, even there I pray he can find a stable.

Verse 1
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Verse 2
Joy to the world!
the Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Verse 3
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Verse 4
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

One of my favorite things about Advent Season is that we get to sing such rich, beautiful songs in church. I delight in the poetry of good lyrics--and I feast on them whenever I can. Today in church we sang "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." I don't ever remember noticing these lyrics before today, but today they struck me as wonderful-- "THE WORLD IN SOLEMN STILLNESS..." Ahh, how sad and wonderful and perfect those words are.

I think I am at a time in my life to be aware of how desperate this world is to really know the gospel the angels sang about...

I loved the promise and hope that even now, above our weary world and all our Babel sounds (what better description could we find for our contemporary life?) the song of "He's come to us. He's come" would ring out. Let the day come quickly when the whole world owns its King.

Merry Christmas...May His Kingdom Come...

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!"
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

O ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.--

Peace on the Earth, Good will toward men,
From heavens all gracious King!
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What do you think he meant?

I read this poem by E. Ethelbert Miller-- and wondered ...what was going on in it. Does anyone have any idea?

Growing Up

the day my mother
threw away my comic books
and encouraged me to read the bible
was the day i gave up being
a superhero and started to think
of miracles

this is how i came to love you
like moses looking over his
shoulder before he left that

I love poems like this--so pure, to me, sparse and true sounding. But who is the 'you'? Is that God? That's how I read it...but then, ...what is the reference to Moses meaning?

I know there is a relationship to his development from a child fantasizing about superheros to one thinking about the spiritual world with a more religious and biblically Christian worldview--...

but what is he saying?

He imagines Moses on Mt. Sinai....

My emotional read of this is that there's this awe, longing for largeness, for amazement, for power and glory--and that is combined with a wistfulness, an open space.....

but maybe I'm all off here.

Any one of you loyal readers got a take on it?


Monday, December 15, 2008

A poem was published

One of my poems got published-- http://www.convergence-journal.com/editors/linville/--

Cynthia Linville is a friend through the Sacramento Poetry Center's Tues. night workshop. First she invited me to be a reader in a poetry reading she coordinates and then she asked me to submit a poem for the online journal Convergence which she edits....

I feel very encouraged and honored by these things! It feels very good to be a little part of this poetry community in Sacramento.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Man On Wire

We watched the movie Man on Wire last night. Jack says he wouldn't recommend it, but I do...with some qualifications--(see below) It was a documentary of Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This perhaps doesn't sound all that interesting, but it was really the chronicle of one man's obsession ... and the story of a unique artistic performance and artist. Despite it's singularity, I believe the story has generalities for many driven, even possessed and extraordinarily talented and singularly-focused artists. I found myself marvelling at what it would be like to have such all-consuming passion. It was also fascinating to see how many people joined his team -- it had a lot of the feel of a great crime caper, bank-heist type of thing, with many of those dare-devil personalities or rebellious personalities involved.

It was also interesting to see how acheiving the event for this man really changed the dynamics of all his relationships. It seemed like the dream held him to others in ways that the realization of the dream did not.

(This is where the qualifications for recommendation come in. There is one racy sex scene. And nudity. And in general, this is probably not a person who we would want to emulate-- fascinating, talented and driven as he was. Great talent and great vision and passion sometimes seem like another excuse people use to orient their living around themselves. That's not a very remarkable part of his story--how many artists, musicians, writers, actors, athletes, politicians, and on and on have the same proclivities. It's actually more remarkable when an extremely gifted person is not completely self-consumed. The recent movie about Beatrix Potter was one refreshing example of the artist who has found a way to live graciously and with love in the midst of the tension of dreams and gifts that are in some opposition to the culture's status quo. I liked that movie a lot. But... it didn't have high wire walking and espionage. I was surprised to find myself very moved by the beauty and wonder of the high-wire performances--especially the one over the Notredame.

Also as I wondered about this man's personality, I kept thinking about how utterly challenging he must have been for his parents and teachers. This was a person who in my reading seemed only to submit to his own intense desire. But as paradoxical as this may seem, that submission required immense discipline and concentration. That's another thing-- I guess I was in awe of that kind of focus and attention--just the kind I, who couldn't walk along a painted line on the ground, could never muster.

Also, I liked all hearing all that beautiful French-- although, the subtitles not so much. I think that to comfortably read those subtitles, we would probably need a bigger TV. (but don't let Jacky know I said that).


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Going Off-line

The Wondering Eye Blog is no longer linked to the Oak Hills Church Website.

I'm relieved, a little sad, but mostly relieved. I've been in some unrest about this blog for the last year and a half, plus, ever since I was given the assignment to do a blog about the arts for the church website.

The purpose of the blog was supposed to be to connect artists and to encourage artists and stir up the arts in the church. And I have always thought this was a marvelous purpose. I had some missgivings about my abilities, but it was kind of like all the elaborate recipes or craft projects I have taken on in my life (and there have been a'plenty)... I figured the details would come together somehow and it would all turn out. But much like the queen-sized blue and yellow star quilt I got far enough to have 90-some blocks of varying dimensions--I always had a profound sense that the Blog representing Oak Hills Artists was not what I was writing and I didn't know how to begin to gather the resources to write the blog that I thought should be on the church website...

That blog, I thought, should be by someone who knew a lot about the arts, who knew how to speak intelligently and eloquently about the philosophy and history and theology behind art. But I haven't read enough or interacted enough with the materials to do that.

That blog, I thought, should make connections with the other artists in the community. Musicians and visual artists, actors and playwrites, novelists, photographers, dancers and composers, as well as quilters, cooks and wood-carvers should all find something that helped them in their pursuit of art as incarnational work and worship. But I didn't know how to make those connections. The truth is that although our church is filled with many wonderful artists who are passionate followers of Christ and extraordinary people-- I don't really know them well--we simply run in different circles.

That blog, I thought, could be a venue for the arts community--we could publish poetry, fiction and essays or photographs and other visual art on the blog as a sort of online 'zine. It would be a lot of fun. But again, the thought was overwhelming to me. I didn't know how to begin. And I always thought, no one will want to do this with me. I was very intimidated by the thought of asking people to take me seriously.

So, the blog became simply a place where I felt inadequate. I didn't know how to begin to do what I really wanted with this, and I fell into trying to do something that came close. But it turned out most often to be some kind of TRYING and TRYING that never seemed to measure up in my mind--and I always felt rather lame and impotent.

I thought, what I really have time and ability for right now is a simplistic blog of my own thoughts and musings about things. A blog like the blogging a lot of folks do out there on the blogosphere, but not a blog that belongs on the church website. And so, finally, after months and months of trying to figure out if I could somehow get around quitting...like if my blog might just grow a virus and disintergrate... or if I was going to quit, how I could do it without looking too silly... I finally mustered up the courage to be a goofy quitter, and I quit.

I think I'll still keep blogging--but now instead of the horrible angst about how this is not what it really should be--I'll shamelessly write what's going on in my own head. Not because it's profound or of use to anyone, but because right now, at this moment in my life, that's all I've got.

I have no idea where this will lead... but I have this tiny glimmer of a hope that perhaps this could become a small training for becoming the kind of person, artist and writer who can more fully and honestly and vibrantly serve the church, and especially my beloved church, and her artists with more than "all I've got."

My prayer for all of you readers (if there are any) is that you could find places and people to explore the person that you are, with freedom to use and enjoy the skills and gifts you have right now... with the trust that with prayer and hope God will enter into these small gifts, the "not-trying gifts," and make of them something beyond what we can now ask or imagine.

Godspeed to all of us,

Jenny Jiang

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Getting Back Our Vocal Chords

I recently heard a fascinating quote by the band director and composter, John Phillip Sousa. He was testifying before Congress in 1906 about the new recording industry. Apparently he wasn't much of a fan. This is what he said:

"These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

What Sousa predicted is exactly what happened. We have learned to be entertained, but for the most part we have stopped making music, we have stopped singing. We have stopped telling stories. We have stopped making art. We have stopped making much of anything.

I love to listen to recorded music by the best musicians and to watch movies with the most accomplished actors and directors and to read books by the greatest writers I can find. But the truth is, I have learned how to consume and I haven't forced myself to learn how to create.

And even the creating I do, I spend a lot of time comparing, unfavorably, to the professionals.

Did you know there's a wonderfully vibrant and rich and varied poetry community in the Sacramento area? There are regular poetry readings, poetry workshops, several print and online publications all full of poetry by local area poets.

I am, in fits and starts, and in a very limited degree, a new member of that community.

Sometimes, though, I can get a little jaded attitude about these endeavours. Because the truth is, none of us are Billy Collins or Emily Dickinson. Actually, most of us are amateurs. I certainly am. And most of the writing that comes out of this community is not something that is going to amaze or entertain or impress the rest of the world.

When I'm in my rather pride-filled, ego obsessed state of mind, I think this way. I can feel a sort of cynical contempt about what we are doing.

I'm afraid this elitist or consumeristic point of view is not that uncommon. I wonder if it's another symptom of the destructive edge to our entertainment culture. We have become used to the professionals entertaining us--through their poetry, their movies, their music, their art. Our art doesn't measure up, and it's easier just to be a consumer anyway.

If you read a local poetry journal, or go to a local poetry reading, or a local concert, play, or art show, you will have endure a few more sour notes than if you went to a professional gig. I personally don't like sour notes as much as sweet ones. I like making sour notes, (or mediocre poetry) even less.

But if you go to a local poetry reading or a local concert or play, you will have a chance to know something beautiful and mostly secret about your neighbors and the way they see this world. If you make art and then share it, you will have a chance to know something sacred about yourself. The artist and the audience have a little chance together to think about what is beautiful and what is true.

My deep hope and prayer is that our community could move away from the couch potato mentality. We could turn off the cd player and the dvd and sing to our children. We could make our friends a book of our stories. We could hang a picture we made on the wall.

We are the people that actually exist in our community, after all. With the skill level we actually have. And I think it makes our community far more interesting and healthier when we are making art together.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Do you know about Poetry Daily

Some how, my husband-- who is among many more important things both a marvelous combination of someone who knows everything there possibly is to know about computers and someone who wonderously enough seems to like me quite a lot-- anyway, to get back to my point, this aforementioned gentleman friend of mine has managed to put on my web browser "home page" a link to Poetry Daily, and it's really wonderful... I don't know how you do the link thingy, but you can find the site here...


Check out this marvelous poem by a Spanish poet --http://www.poems.com/poem.php?date=14187

And may you enjoy your day and the friends that find you in it.


I just keep saying the same thing

But here's another poem that helps me say it...


Friday, October 31, 2008

News From God

I love this children's poem by Robert Louis Stevenson--

The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

I don't believe I'm some naive ingenue--I know the world is also full of a number of things that could and perhaps should make us all despair. But still I love this poem. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was often tormented by his depression, still he could often see and know that every day had "news from God," even in the clouds, or a little leaf, or in the way the frozen tops of the mud puddles sparkled with intricate beauty.

Today I hope I can give my son and myself a chance to notice and see how wonderfully full this world is of news from God.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

All us turkeys

Self portrait: Wild Turkey

In your lumpy brown suit, red necktie dragging,
shuffling, bowing out of sight.
Behind dusty weeds you find a low hill,
under an oak’s broad tent. Stiffly unfold,
slowly turn your full, dark fan—heavy bronzes
fringed with white. Stretch the blue-creped
skeleton of skull and neck to scream out
all you got—one high note gargle—as if to keep
from drowning in that sack of self.
To those that soar, or flit from branch to branch,
I think you’re crying:
Don’t look. See me. Don’t look. Please see.
My something beautiful.

I wrote this poem a few years ago, when I was just beginning to explore writing again. I still feel in captures some of the internal struggle many artists, including myself, go through.

At the time I was leading the creative writers' group at church, and people would approach me with very sincere questions and concerns about the spiritual formation risks of writing done for others to read. I remember one individual sharing with me that the very fact she had a natural talent made her reluctant to begin writing, because, as she explained, it would be so easy to become prideful. Another person questioned the motives, his included, behind writers wanting
their poems or stories to be read by others.

I personally understand all too well their concerns, as the turkey poem tried to express. I can't casually dismiss them. All of us know that love of acceptance, praise or money have snared artists and caused them to lose the core of what made their work unique and beautiful and true. And as Christians, we want to learn to honor God, to live with humility and to pursue his glory and not our own.

A couple years ago I felt compelled to start writing again, and to bit by bit face a bit of the risk of being known in that writing. And so, I've had a chance to explore some of these issues first hand--and I have found that in fact, though my pride and self-absorption and vainglorious heart are raging monsters--they seem to have almost no relationship to my writing. I have found that my writing, usually, is just something small, really, something like a little beautiful leaf or rock I've found or a sunset that I've seen and want to show others. Usually, it feels very disconnected to this broken hearted, greedy dragon I carry around, the one demanding approval and attention.

I recently read something in Dallas Willard's MARVELOUS book The Divine Conspiracy that seemed to explain this, a bit. He makes a distinction between a God-given drive for significance expressed in our creative impulses and an egotistical, pathological self-obsession born of our broken, lost state. I'll quote it at length below. C.S. Lewis' Weight of Glory also speaks of these things with amazing insight.

I have to confess that I actually deeply dislike writing and speaking about spiritual formation issues. I really understand almost nothing about this stuff. But still, I want to encourage those would-be artists afraid of their own pride to take this risk. In my experience, it could, at the very least teach you a lot about yourself, and even better, give the rest of us some beautiful writing, or art, or music to enrich our lives.

Here's the Willard quote.

"The drive to signficance that first appears as a vital need in the tiny child,a nd later as its clamorous desire for attention, is not egotism. Egotistical individuals see everything through themselves. They are always the dominant figures in their own field of vision.

Egotism is pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count. It is a form of acute self-consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved. It is indeed, a desperate response to the frustration of the need we all have to count for something and be held to be irreplaceable, without price.

Unlike egotism, the drive to significance is a simple extension of the creative impulse of God that gave us being. It is not filtered through self-consciousness any more than is our lunge to catch a package falling from someone's hand. It is outwardly directed to the good to be done. .....

In the last couple years, I have met my self-obsession and even egotism. I have behaved more foolishly than any turkey. But I have also discovered that this is not the final word on my life, or on anyone's life.

And I have also come to feel that my writing is, like I said, just not a big deal. I hope I do get published and read by others, because I think it's fun. I enjoy letting others know this part of me that brings me such joy.

I don't feel like a turkey singing anymore... (at least, not right now).

But I think it was ok, even very good, to go through that time when I did feel so much like a turkey, hoping people saw me and also fearing them seeing me. Though the experience was horribly painful, I had the chance to know myself and my dragons a little more, and even better, I have learned to believe that God can defeat even this oldest and most tenacious monster in me. (I also suspect there will be plenty of chances for me to feel like a turkey again...but I hope I will trust a little faster and easier next time I feel that way!)

I would so love to hear from any artists--to know if you have struggled with these issues at all, and how you have met God in the struggle.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Some Like Poetry

I recently checked out a book of poetry by the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. I'm quite smitten.

Here's a lovely one that speaks deeply to me about what poetry --to say it more broadly-- art-- to say it more broadly again--beauty serves for so many of us.

I also have to say, I just love the simplicity and almost humility inherent in her language. This is the kind of writing my soul wants to clutch on again.

Some like poetry

that means not all.
Not even the majority of all but the minority.
Not counting the schools, where one must,
and the poets themselves, there will be perhaps two in a thousand.

but one also likes chicken noodle soup,
one likes compliments and the color blue, one likes an old scarf,
one likes to prove one's point,
one likes to pet a dog.

but what sort of thing is poetry?
More than one shaky answer
has been given to this question.
But I do not know and do not know and clutch on to it,
as to a saving bannister.

Friday, August 15, 2008

More about "THE DANCING"

I didn't want to just leave that poem, "The Dancing," by Gerald Stern without any more comments. So I thought I'd say a bit of what I find so powerful in that poem...

It starts us out in some kind of nostagalic reminscing--the way people get in flea markets and antique shops--"look at this old pickle fork just like the one Grandpa sent flying at that picnic in '59" -- but then the nostalgia turns so precise--"Ravel's Bolero," and every word has so much precise, powerful intent. We are suddenly in a "tiny living room," we are cramped in there and now a family is dancing, which is unusual and evocative as it is, but then, this kind of dancing: with "knives all flashing, my hair all streaming." It's a passion we rarely witness, maybe can never speak about except with distance and by sneaking up on it. The mother is red with her laughter and the father is making that farting noise in his delight, and then these lines:

"the world at last a meadow//the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us//screaming and falling, as if were were dying."

There's this incredible tension in the rhythym of the lines, they have a momentum to them when you say them.

We're here in Pittsburgh and it's 1945, and we're a little immigrant family in a tiny living room. It's nothing too beautiful, by any standards, except these. That it's 1945, and 5,000 miles away our people have been rescued. So we've been rescued. This world has become a meadow again.

Then this last line-- it just makes me tremble.

Think about this history. About the utter unexplainable horror of the Holocaust, and then to know it's over. Somehow this last line perfectly, to me, captures what it is to live in a world where the evil is desperate and yet, finally the evil is conquered. This kind of evil can't be defeated simply by the military power. The God who has seemed so distant and hidden while evil occurred has now said it will end.

So they dance. I love this dancing. I think Miriam and the other Israelites danced like this when they found they were at last free of Egypt... and the people of the Exile danced like this when they were at last home--This wild dancing that is a prayer and a cry:

"oh God of mercy, oh wild God."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Modern Song of Triumph

As we've started reading and preaching through the Old Testament this summer, I've enjoyed very much the poetry of the Triumph songs sung by Miriam and by Deborah. On the one hand, like almost all ancient poetry, they are hard to access. On the other hand, it helps me so much to understand the joy of deliverance when I realize people had to sing. They had to dance. And this is what they sang.

Recently I encountered another poem, by the poet Gerald Stern, that seemed to me a powerful contemporary Song of Triumph. When I enter into the moment sung in this poem, I realize a little bit more what it means to be desperate for deliverance...and then delivered.

Here's the poem--http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15437 Enjoy. And I'd LOVE to hear any responses.

Maybe you have your own Song of Triumph to write.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Writing From Empathy

Perhaps the best known writing advice is to "write what you know." And it's wonderful advice. Often beginning writers produce flat, lifeless writing because they haven't found the courage or felt permission to write out of their own feelings and life experience and point of view.

But like most good advice and almost all truisms, this one also has its limits. The poet Nikki Giovanni challenges this dictum:

"I resent people who say writers write from experience. Writers don't write from experience, though many are hesitant to admit that they don't. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

I loved this statement. Write from empathy. You don't have to have lived everything you write about. But you do have to care. You have to have your emotions and spirit and person involved. And that's absolutely necessary for all good art and all good work.

As writers, we aren't limited by our life experience, but only by our willingness to enter into life--and the fullness, the messiness and pain and joy that encapsulate almost every experience.

I would like to learn how to write more stories and poems "from empathy." I want to learn how to enter into the lives of other people enough to tell a bit of their story in a way that helps me make sense of this world and bring out a bit of the beauty I see in their lives.

But, like all art, this is a tall order. In the following poem, I tried it, and (like all my poems) I'm not entirely satisfied with what I made.

After They Found His Brother’s Body

He said that every time he heard an airplane, he’d look up.
For sixty years one boy hung in an island tree,
wrapped in a crumple of steel and rust—
the other watched the Iowa sky.

He filled his gas tank, mowed the lawn, pulled weeds, shoveled snow,
learned daily how light rushes
to each row of corn and bank of willows.
Waiting for that waving arm, the shout—
and how his name would sound.

--Jenny Jiang 11/07

This was a poem about a man I grew up knowing as a thin, balding grocer in his apron at our tiny town's one grocery store. A few years ago, the local news reported that this man's brother's body had been found in an airplane, on an island in the Pacific. He'd been a fighter pilot in World War II and MIA since then. And when they interviewed this unassuming grocer, he said he'd spent the last 60 years half-expecting to see his brother land in a field near him every time he heard an air plane.

This story, naturally, moved me. I wanted to write abou t it... in part to honor his story, but also, because there was something beyond empathy in my feelings. I felt like I could almost identify with this deep longing that was a mixture of hope and grief. It felt so universal--the raw hunger we all have that keeps us each, in our own ways, with an ear half-cocked, our eye on the horizon--the long wait for that unsettled grief and loneliness to finally be comforted.

I wonder if you have any stories or poems waiting to be written "from empathy." Is there something in another's experience or story that tugs at you in a way that can't be easily summed up and explained? Is there another's grief or joy or adventure that you can enter into enough to write about it as well?

Take ten minutes and free write (write without stopping or editing yourself in any way). Write from empathy.

And then, shoot me a line if any poems or stories or essays emerge.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Raining Against My Much-Thick and Marsh Air

This weekend at Oak Hills, Pastor Kent preached about becoming awake to the sacredness of others. It was a great sermon, which you can listen to online soon. He referenced the sermon "The Weight of Glory," by C.S. Lewis, which you can also find online. The sermon also reminded me of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is probably my favorite poet. The poem, "The Lantern out of Doors," compares the beautiful, wavering light of a lantern to the radiance of another person. I especially love the hope at the end. Tell me what you think.


The Lantern out of Doors

SOMETIMES a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Christian-Enough Artist?

Recently (actually, this afternoon) I found myself in a rather quick mental panic about how to be a Christian writer. Mostly I was panicking about whether I was up to the job, if I was performing well-enough on the job.

I was having a formal lunch with a group of poets, and as an orthodox believer in anything, I was in the distinct minority. None of my friends I sat with, nor any of the other poets I knew there, professed allegiance to any form of Christianity. Actually, at different times they have spoken quite candidly in opposition to what they perceive as a Christian influence in politics, science, and education. They almost all profess a form of new age or eastern religion or label themselves as simply secular and agnostic.

During the dinner, a guest speaker, who is both a scientist and a poet, spoke about the usefullness of poetry in the cause of science. She made some interesting points, but throughout her speech, I kept hearing a subtext ridiculing religious faith.

I was growing uneasy. I didn't feel uncomfortable because I was the oddball in the group. Being around different world views doesn't trouble me. However, I was growing aware of how vocal and easy it was for my friends and colleagues to express and live out their beliefs. And as I looked at myself, I was aware of my tendency to hide myself, including my faith, when I am around others. At the same time, I was also aware of my own internal struggles with my Christianity. I don't mean that I struggle so much with doubts about the tenets of Orthodoxy, but I do struggle with the flimsiness of my own confidence in those tenets. By which I mean, how much evidence is there that I really truly believe what I say I believe.

My mind started to swarm with worries. Is my poetry Christian? How do I make it Christian, if it isn't? Do I need to start mentioning Jesus or God or at least prayer or something spiritual every time I write a poem? And what about right now? What should I do? Is there something I should be doing or saying to be "Christian enough" in this situation? And really, finally, am I Christian enough?

And then in the midst of my little mental tizzy, I had a breath of peace. I believe it was from God. I realized I didn't have to do or be anything to make this all come out right. I didn't have to strive to be a Christian-enough poet or a convincing enough Christian.

As the poet speaker enjoyed the crowd's responsive tittering to the statistics about all the people who believe in a personal god, I believed. I didn't have to make God exist, in my poetry or otherwise... Rather, I remembered that God actually does exist and that Jesus actually was present, right there, powerful and alive, and I could and did invite him into that moment. I listened and loved and prayed with him. (For at least a few minutes, anyway. Then I got self-absorbed again. That's something we're working on... just wanted to stay honest!)

I believe my best (and I mean my artistically best as well as my "spiritually best") poetry comes out of that same relaxed and joyous freedom and faith. God exists. I don't have to make that true. So I don't have anything to prove in my poetry. Certainly, I don't know God as well as I want to, not as well as I am going to, not as well as I am learning to, but that doesn't change the facts. God exists. And he loves me. And I am his. All my life is a process of opening my hands and mind and heart to this reality. It's not something I have to do well enough or get right--not in my writing nor in my witnessing. It's something God is doing in me, and I am joyfully (if fitfully) cooperating with him.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prayer the Church's Banquet

Here is an amazing poem by the English clergyman George Herbert (1593-1633).

Prayer the Church's Banquet

Prayer the Church's banquet; Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet, sounding heaven and earth ;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six days' world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear ;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

This poem, in sonnet form, is essentially a list. I find it provocative and daring, I don't understand it all, but it makes me almost "hungry," in my soul.

What does it mean that prayer is "reversed thunder" or an "engine against the Almighty"? I don't really know, but I like it. I believe it.

And how wonderously helpful to think of prayer as the "soul in paraphrase." How beautiful to be able to say: "God's breath in man returning to its birth."

This poem very much recalls for me a poem by contemporary poet Carol Ann Duffy. http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=236 She also uses the sonnet form to write about prayer. It's very modern in its ability to believe (by which I mean filled with angst and self), but still, I find it beautiful and full of hope. It's worth comparing these two poems.

Let these poems get into you... their cadences and images, their music and meaning. Maybe comment on your favorite phrases. And for an assignment, write your own list-poem exploring all sorts of facets of something that captivates you.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Art as Spiritual Formation" or "What Mary Oliver Said"

I was going to title this blog "more great stuff about how the making of art parallels our journeys in spiritual formation." But that was a little long. The truth is, more and more I see that the making of art is a way becoming aware and alive to one central part of me that is being spiritually formed. (not the only part, but a very crucial one...perhaps this is our soul?)

I just read something Mary Oliver wrote along those lines. For those of you who aren't acquainted with Oliver--check her out! Oliver is a contemporary poet who is an Anglican (or Episcopalian) who writes beautifully and accessibly both about nature and about Christ. The Christian element is most especially obvious in her recent book, Thirst.

I have been reading one of her books about how to write poetry, A Poetry Handbook. And at the very end she mentions two "cherished" quotes about art making. The first by the French novelist, Flaubert. He says, "Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation."

Oliver then comments: "What a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them.... What Flaubert is talking about are skills, after all..."

My response to what she says and to Flaubert's quote is to say, Yes. Talent is a small thing. And not worth my attention, since it is completely outside of my control. The parallel to our spiritual journeys, that I see, is that for any good change to occur in any part of my life, I am completely dependent on the grace of God coming to me. And I can do nothing to control this. But, I can do something. I can learn skills of "Patience" and "intense observation".

As Oliver says, "When people ask me if I do not take pleasere in poems I have written, I am astonished. What I think of all the time is how to have more patience, and a wilder will--how to see better, and write better."

A Wilder Will.
What a remarkable thing to say... to dwell on... to pray for.

Oliver's second cherished quote is from the poet Emerson, who said: The poem is a confession of faith.

Oliver then says,

"Which is to say, the poem is not an exercise. It is not "wordplay." Whatever skill or beauty it has, it contains something beyond language devices, and has a purpose other than itself. And it is a part of the sensibility of the writer. ....."

In the quote below Oliver talks about the importance of nourishing that "sensibility..." which I would call the "soul." Obviously this nuturing is crucial for every soul, not only those who would be poets. Her counsel is good and beautiful. I give it to you as a blessing:

"Althetes take care of their bodies. Writers must similarily take care of the sensibility that houses the possiblity of poems. There is nourishment in books, other art, history, philosophies-- in holiness and in mirth. It is in honest hands-on labor also... And it is in the green world--among people, and animals, and trees for that matter, if one genuinely cares about trees. A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry. Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision--a faith, to use an old-fashioned term.

"Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry."